Sensationalism (from 17th-century Latin sensatio, der. from ancient Latin sensus, “sense”) is the tendency to give exaggerated emphasis to certain news in order to arouse the interest of readers and public opinion. See also: Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism.

It is a type of editorial tactic in the mass media and a style of news reporting that promotes biased impressions of events rather than neutrality, and can lead to manipulation of the truth of a story. Sensationalism may be based on reporting generally insignificant matters and presenting them as having a major impact on society, or biased presentations of newsworthy topics in a trivial or tabloid manner, contrary to general assumptions of professional journalistic standards.

In philosophy, it is the doctrine, part of empiricism, according to which the original elements of reality are sensations: colors, sounds, heat, pressure, space, time, etc.; there are no innate ideas, and knowledge is derived solely from the sensory data of experience. It thus differs from sensism, the gnostic doctrine that regards sensation as the sole source of knowledge, and from rationalism, the theory that reason, not experience, is the basis of certainty in knowledge.

The system of ideas, sensations, and experiences has been widely discussed throughout history by Greek and scholastic authors in antiquity and in modern times by John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Francis Bacon, Descartes, and John Stuart Mill, whose references can be found under the heading “Empiricism. Here we will focus on the vision of √Čtienne Bonnot de Condillac, as well as Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, also the leaders of empiricism, a term that denotes a current of philosophical thought that intends to found philosophy as a science or based on sensitive experience, thus excluding any reference to metaphysics.

In particular, all these authors ask the question of how man is able to acquire knowledge of the world and of the reality around him, arriving at different philosophical, psychological and physical interpretations, but all of them conclude that the gnoseological source of knowledge lies in the senses and not in other factors such as the senses or experience alone.

√Čtienne Bonnot de Condillac

Condillac devoted an entire treatise to the study of the origin of knowledge: the “Treatise on Sensations” of 1754. Condillac’s point of departure is the liberal English philosopher John Locke. While he accepts the distinction between the ideas of sensation, which come directly from the external world through the senses, and the ideas of reflection, which are generated by the mind’s reflection on its own operations, he denies that reflection is a source of knowledge distinct from sensation.

Locke’s recognition of knowledge independent of sensation appears to Condillac as a residue of Cartesian innatism, barely veiled by the definition of reflection in terms of internal experience. The inevitable consequence of this reduction is absolute gnoseological sensationalism: not only reflected ideas, but all mental operations (memory, judgment, the most abstract forms of thought as well as the most complex forms of emotional life) are nothing but transformed sensations.

The mechanism of this transformation is explained by the feeling of pleasure or pain that accompanies sensations, and therefore by the fact that they appear favorable or contrary to the satisfaction of man’s physiological needs. The association of sensations with pleasure or pain, or with other sensations that lead to pleasure or pain, is the cause of comparisons, evaluations, reactions and, finally, habits, in which all our intellectual and passionate activity consists.

In order to illustrate the absolute continuity of the process of development from sensation to the most complex operations of the mind, Condillac uses the famous example of the statue. He imagines the existence of a marble statue which, although closed to any sensitive penetration from the outside (because it is marble), is internally organized in our own way: it is thus endowed with a mind, a res cogitans (to quote Descartes), clearly opposed to the extended matter (res extensa), practically capable of performing the same operations of the human mind, even if it is initially completely devoid of ideas (a true tabula rasa).

Condillac then imagines opening up the five senses one by one, in the order in which he considers them most appropriate for explaining the origin of ideas and operations on ideas. Condillac begins with the sense of smell, which, being the least determinate, contributes the least to the definition of the content of knowledge, and then proceeds to the other senses. In this way, the statue, which at first did not think and did not want anything, gradually develops all the psychic operations that are characteristic of man. The condition for the statue to think and want is, therefore, that the sensations which awaken mental operations in it penetrate it: outside the metaphor, man himself would not be able to perform any psychic function if his mind were not progressively informed and educated by external sensations. In Condillac’s gnoseological doctrine, touch has a privileged position in relation to the other senses. As long as the sensitive information coming from the statue is limited to the latter, there is in fact no direct contact between the subject he knows and the object he knows.

The ideas that come from the mind of the statue thus have a representational content, that is, they allow us to describe the image of things, but they do not yet demonstrate the reality of the external world. Only through touch, which allows us to perceive extension and movement, can the statue distinguish itself from what is different from itself. It is through touch, in fact, that the statue first perceives the parts of itself and their interaction, and thus achieves that fundamental feeling, the awareness of one’s own self, to which Descartes arrived with the famous doubt. Then, by touching the other objects and feeling their solidity and resistance, the statue will be able to arrive at the idea of the exteriority of these objects in relation to itself.

Ernst Mach

In contrast to his positivist contemporaries, the advocates of the “magic power of science” – a belief that is magical (i.e., not rational and not verifiable) in that it manifests itself as a claim to “reach the depths of the boundless abyss of nature, in which our senses are not given” – Mach discusses his philosophical model of a sensitive understanding of the world in his treatise “The Analysis of Sensations” (1886).

Starting from the assumption that, strictly speaking, empirical bodies do not exist as such, that they have no substantial consistency, what exists is only a series of simple, irreducible sensations, closely connected in a kind of continuous flow. Mach too often prefers to call these sensations “elements” in order to avoid giving a subjective-psychological connotation to his thought. His main thesis, however, is that “it is not the bodies that produce the sensations, but the complexes of sensations that form the bodies”. Sensations, Mach adds, are not the symbols of things. Rather, it is a mental symbol for a complex of relatively stable sensations”. And again: “Not things, but colors, sounds, pressures, spaces, times (what we usually call sensations) are the true elements of the universe.

These theses, however, should not be interpreted as a pure and simple return to an old phenomenalism of the Berkeleyan type. In the analysis of sensations, Mach himself, while not silencing his sympathy for Berkeley (and for Hume), explicitly rejects any approximation of his positions to those of the Irish philosopher. Indeed, he regards reality as something more complex than the mere result of a series of sensations: “I must observe that the world is not for me either the simple sum of sensations. Rather, I speak expressly of the functional relations of the elements”. On the one hand, as mentioned above, Mach’s concern is to emphasize the not merely psycho-subjective content of the phenomena that make up the world.

On the other hand, sensation in and of itself in Mach tends to dissociate itself from too direct a reference to the ego to the subject. Its objectivity is guaranteed by the objectivity of its physiological matrices and the scientific elaboration to which it is subjected. In fact, one of the most significant aspects of Mach’s thought is precisely the attempt to make phenomena and reflection on them autonomous from subjectivity. He cannot, as he writes, correctly interpret the world, which “is incapable of abandoning the idea of the self, considered as a reality that is the basis of everything”. The modernity of Machian thought lies, among other things, precisely in its conception of a world without a “base”, without a foundation; that is, a world in which certain phenomena, which it is necessary to explain in the most direct and sober way possible, are explained by means of those empirical-sensory observations and physical-mathematical measurements that will soon be privileged by the neo-positivists of the Vienna Circle.

Richard Avenarius

Taking up some of the basic assumptions of positivism (epistemic primacy of sensations, gnoseological relativism, critique of metaphysics), Avenarius aimed to build a philosophy intended as a critique of “pure experience,” preceding the distinction between physical and psychic, and not open to either materialistic or idealistic interpretation. Avenarius gave this philosophy the name “empiricism”. Its basic thesis is that the empirical world has its own original unity, which derives from an “indissoluble coordination” between man and the environment. This is the “original conception of the world” that man had before the unnatural distinctions introduced by philosophical systems, the result of an introjection process that establishes an artificial distinction between the external and the internal world, between subject and object, between being and thinking, between the image of things in the ego and the things themselves.

Departing from classical empiricism, Avenarius’ analysis of experience does not start from the individual conscience and what it perceives, but postulates the need to start from a plurality of individuals interacting with each other and with the environment. Man has an experience of the environment as well as of himself; both experiences consist of the same elements: sensations, which describe aspects of the environment (sounds, colors, etc.), and characters (expressed by qualifications such as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” “known,” “unknown”), which refer to reactions of the individual to components of the environment. Physical and psychic are only different forms of the position of the same sets of elements, in the sense that their difference depends only on a diversity of “characters”, which in turn depends on the biological relationship with the surrounding environment.

Psychic processes themselves are physiological changes mediated by the central nervous system, through which adaptation between organism and environment takes place. This adaptation, in turn, includes cognitive processes through which a multiplicity of experiences is summarized in formulas (concepts, theories, laws) on the basis of the principle of economy, or “of the least effort,” which is the regulating principle of all phenomena. Contrary to the Spencerian idea that evolutionary processes move in the direction of increasing complexity, Avenarius maintains that the universal trend is toward simplicity and homogeneity. Avenarius’ theories anticipated those developed independently by Mach and influenced the gnoseological discussions of the early 20th century.

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