Perception

In addition to my own work in Thomism, semiotics, and phenomenology, over the summer I became a Fellow with the Center for the Study of Digital Life (CSDL), where I have been helping in an on-going discussion with many others on the topic of perception.  This discussion, carried on via Slack, has covered a wide range of topics in various “channels”: cognitive science and psychology, Daoist thought, the question of mimesis and mimetic desire, semiotics, speculative grammar, Thomism–soon, possibly, phenomenology–and in a central position, the work of Marshall McLuhan.  What follows are some slightly-scattered thoughts on what has emerged from the conversation.

McLuhan, himself a Thomist of sorts (every Thomist being one “of sorts”), argued that our technologies alter our ability to perceive by shifting the focus and usage of our exterior senses (1962: The Gutenberg Galaxy).  We see or hear differently, we operate visually or aurally or with tactility according to the technologies we embrace and adopt and eventually which become part of the fabric of our living.  This is true not only of advanced technology, but even and in a sense especially of “primitive” technologies such as the invention of writing (which, one might say, marks the transition from primitive to civilized).  Recent years have seen some quarters noticing the influence that “smart” devices are having on our perceptual abilities (including recall); but drastic and largely unremarked-upon influences have come to bear upon our perception, McLuhan argues, from the printing press for one, but more recently in the age of electricity from radio, movies, and television (1962: The Gutenberg Galaxy, 35):

we must learn today that our electric technology has consequences for our most ordinary perceptions and habits of action which are quickly recreating in us the mental processes of the most primitive men. These consequences occur, not in our thoughts or opinions, where we are trained to be critical, but in our most ordinary sense life, which creates the vortices and the matrices of thought and action.

Among the tasks for the CSDL is the study of how digital technology–which comprises not only smart devices, the “internet of things”, but all that is built upon the general architecture of modern computing, including automation, among others–of how digital technology is changing and will continue to change the perceptual faculties of human beings.

Personally, I believe that the alterations our technologies have on our capacities extends beyond the merely perceptual and into the intellectual; that is, that technology affects our entire cognitive ability, such that perception affects intellection and vice versa.  On the one hand, this might seem obvious–since we do not intellect unless we perceive, and our intellection is dependent upon our perception, obviously an effect on the latter will effect the former; if you change the material upon which an agent operates, this will inevitably change the product the agent produces.  On the other hand, there is more to the technological alteration of intellectual cognition than one of mere material causality.

The Aristotelian-Thomist Framework of Perception

Aristotle_bust
Aristotle (384-322BC), hipster beard pioneer

Aristotle’s περὶ ψυχῆς (On the Soul) introduces an important taxonomic principle, one which is adopted by all good Aristotelians, including Thomas Aquinas: that we identify and distinguish the powers of a creature by identifying and distinguishing the objects upon which it operates.  The word “object” must be correctly understood here–that is, not as a synonym for “thing”, but referring to a thing specifically as it is in relation to a power.  The tree in my back yard is therefore an object of my recollection right now, but not an object of my sight–since I’m facing away from it.  The tree is not affecting my sight in any way.  Were a woodpecker to begin its titular task, the tree would in some way become an object of my hearing; under my nose, an object of my olfactory sense; were it to get in my mouth somehow (I don’t usually bite trees), an object of my taste and, incidentally, of my sense of tactility–though one could reasonably argue that taste is a kind of touch through a specialized organ.  What makes the tree relate to these senses distinctly is not just the manner of sensation, but the object sensed: color, vibrations of a certain wavelength, a dissolution of some particles into the nose and others onto the tongue, and one or more of a myriad of pressures, temperatures, or textures, respectively.

In passing, beyond the five exterior senses, Aristotle mentions both some unnamed faculty of dealing with the whole of sensible objects, later named the sensus communis (a designation possibly misleading in a number of ways), as well as a generic faculty named “imagination”, which Arabic and Latin thinkers distinguished into the power of particular reason (vis cogitativa), the memory (vis memorativa), and a “storehouse” of uninterpreted images (vis imaginativa).  Together, these interior senses–what might today be considered as a broad categorization of various functions occurring within the brain and the nervous system–are what actually allows for perception: that is, sensation, the reception of sensible objects alone, does not amount to perceiving those objects, for perception is of sensible things as certain objects.  When we perceive things, we perceive them as attractive and desirable, or ugly and repulsive, or with indifference.

When we sense things without perceiving them, we do not even notice them.  Who has not had the experience of “spacing out” and staring right at something, or even someone, without recognition of the sensed object’s identity?  Or of looking at something seen a thousand times but never really noticed–something considered neutral and thus indifferent–when suddenly it dawns on you that it is hideous, or beautiful?

At the same time, not only are we constantly perceiving, we are also constantly perceiving under the auspices of intellectual consideration.  Perception is a thoroughly subjective activity.  The interpretative “as” which belongs to every act of perception is an “as it is to me.”  The attractiveness or repulsiveness of the objects, while dependent upon the presentation they are giving of themselves, is dependent primarily upon the cognitive framework of the individual who perceives.  Thus two individuals can have radically different perceptions of one and the same object.  And yet we are not constrained to the subjectivity of perception, and, indeed, one’s perception can be more accurate, more true than the other’s.  This fact is due to the insight achieved through intellection, which considers what things are, independently of their status as objects.  In other words, the goal of intellectual cognition is to make things into objects, where the interpretative objectivization is concerned with what the thing is itself, and not merely as it is in its relations to ourselves.  The default position of assuming our perceptions are true to the things perceived is due to the pervasive nature of intellectual activity throughout not only our individual lives, but also throughout our culture.

Just as we experience, from time to time, sensation without perception, so too we can experience perception without intellection–and it is a strange experience, indeed; one which can be induced with various drugs, or perhaps at time with a nap, in the right time at the right place: the feeling of floating within a sea of sensations, pleasant, irritating, fluid motion and activity and a swarm of time-ridden, structure-vacant, thoughtless unfolding moments.  It is an alien experience and one in which the species-specifically human burden of responsibility recedes; hence why many find it desirable and seek out the chemical alterations of brain chemistry which sever our perceptual, sensorial functions from our intellectual, metasemiosic processes.

Thus, in our average, everyday experience, intellect and perceptual activity are intertwined: to what extent each affects the other–and to what extent each is affected by media–is a question which receives a different answer from individual to individual.  At the cultural level, however, it seems difficult to deny that today, subjective perception has taken the driver’s seat–and in the process, the tasks reserved for intellection have been dramatically narrowed.

McLuhan and Media

What is media?  The obvious answer is that the term “media” comprises all the possible ways of one thing being transmitted to another; all the various means or “mediums” through which one thing can be channeled across from A to B.  McLuhan, without denying this, adds that media are extensions of our capacities: our senses, or our central nervous system itself.  Being a novice to McLuhan, I am not quite sure what to make of this; but it seems true, in at least some sense.  After all, an experienced artisan uses tools as an extension of the body; wheels are extensions of our power of locomotion, as are combustion engines, loudspeakers extensions of our voices.  Can the same not be true of radio and television, smart phones, tablets, the internet, etc.?

In other words, the more we make use of media, the more they alter our sense faculties, both exterior and interior.  In effecting one sense, a technological advancement of media results in a shift of all the senses  (1962: The Gutenberg Galaxy, 47):

It is simpler to say that if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture.  It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.

For instance, print media makes reading and therefore a great deal of thinking a “private” enterprise, one which is done in solitude, without need of hearing or auditory sensation; it becomes a task for the eyes alone, and our auditory participation in thinking diminishes.  With the advent of digital readers, which often tend towards homogenization of textual presentation, the sensory richness of our experience is reduced even further (a physical book, that is, has more unique factors than just the visible shape of the conventional, symbolic words: a book has its own heft, page texture, binding texture; perhaps a smell, a coloration.  By comparison, in antiquity, reading was commonly performed aloud, not only for audiences (literate and illiterate alike), but even by oneself.

But beyond the ratios between the senses, I think it is arguable that new technological media alters also the ratio between the senses and the intellect.  It seems little coincidence to me that we live in an age bereft of thought and inundated of sense stimulation–and not just any stimulation, but a constantly changingupdated stimulation; the ad men, so to speak, are always trying to make us tingle in new and exciting ways, to keep our curiosity on their products and services.

Perception, Intellection, and die Welt

Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1940), a theoretical biologist, coined the term Umwelt to describe the species-specific worlds that depend upon the subjective perception of animals.  Adopted happily by biosemioticians and cyberneticians, the term comprises the root, Welt, meaning world, and the prefix, um-, meaning what surrounds or encircles; thus, we might translate Umwelt as “the environing world”.  This is distinguished from the Umgebung, the mere surroundings or physical environment.  The former is the totality of objects engaged by a living subject, whereas the latter can surround any object, animate or not.  What transforms an Umgebung into an Umwelt is the Innenwelt, i.e., the structures of the subject itself which enable it to grasp the constituents of its surroundings as objects.  That is, though the eagle and I see the same field across the way, the eagle sees much more because not only are its eyes more finely tuned, but its brain is structured to perceive things through those superior eyes.  Thus, the same Umgebung, but different Umwelten.

Human beings, even though our sense-perceptual frameworks are roughly all the same inasmuch as we possess the same physical capacities, nevertheless form different Umwelten–in some cases, radically different.  While all animals have unique perceptual frameworks.  This is due both to the various ways in which our sophisticated perceptual histories–both in our vis imaginativa and our memories of interpretative experiences–are shaped, as well as the ways in which we have exercised our intellects.  In other words, our Innenwelten are capable of dramatic change, not only through, say, damage to our sense faculties, but also through neuroplasticity and the realization or obfuscation of truth at the intellectual level.  As the perceptual takes hold and the intellectual is marginalized, truth is obfuscated; we are left with a world that is dominated by the subjective.  If we cognitively live within our own Umwelten, agreement with one another, as a society, about what is or is not the case becomes increasingly difficult.

Yet, as creatures possessing and engaged in linguistic communication, we continue to exist in a world which transcends the subjective boundaries of the Umwelt.  Deely tried to convey this species-specifically human world by labelling it–in sharp contradistinction to its original use by Husserl–the Lebenswelt, the “life world”.  In my Peirce and Heidegger (forthcoming, Mouton de Gruyter), I’ve coined the term Bildendwelt, the “culturing world” which is:

taken from the German text of Heidegger’s Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, as he elaborates the thesis that “Humans are world-forming,” i.e., “der Mensch ist weltbindend” (1929-30: 401/287), the “-bindend” sharing for its etymological root Bildung, one of the meanings of which is “culture”.  I think this term adequately captures, as German seems so capable against the poverty of English, the species-specifically different “world” belonging to human beings, permeated as it is not only by entia naturae, but also by intersubjectively constituted entia rationis, recognized as such; not only beings which are presenced on the basis of some subjectively-constituted and cognition-independent reality, but also those beings which are presenced inter- and suprasubjectively through the cognitive and linguistically-communicative acts of human beings.  What this term fails to capture is that the world of the human beings is not strictly cultural, but rather it incorporates natural beings into its own cultural development.  The culturing world of the Bildendwelt subsumes and in many cases elevates the environmental world of the Umwelt.

The term Lebenswelt, in contrast, is used in the same sense as by Deely, the “modeling system rendering physical surroundings ‘meaningful’ as objective world”; the “subjective correlate of Umwelt as objective world” (2010a: Semiotic Animal, 155, index entry), i.e., the ability in perceiving the objects present in one’s environment, the objects of consciousness, not merely in the objective dimension whereby they are considered in light of their relation to the self, but the penetrative insight which considers them as subjects in their own right.

While the Lebenswelt indicates the idiosyncratically-structured and intellectually perfused world of experience, the Bildendwelt indicates the inherently public, communicable, intersubjective and cultural nature of our access to the universe’s intelligibility.  It is this entire structure, I believe, which needs to be understood in order to understand perception: that is, we need to understand the exterior senses, the interior sense, the plasticity of synaptic patterning, the processes of intellectual insight and judgment; of, in short, every activity of human semiosis, in the context of a cultural world which is constantly undergoing change.

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