The Doors of Perception
This Lifes dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with not thro the Eye
That was born in a night to perish in a night
When the Soul slept in the beams of Light.
William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
I have a few books on my library shelf that address the act of perception. Most of them, (with the exceptions of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Rudolf Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom) are great disappointments into which I ventured no further than the first few pages. To a certain extent, they are nevertheless instructive. For they all, uniformly, commit the same fundamental error in confusing perception with sensation; the very thing, in fact, which William Blake denounced in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and, particularly, as the “single vision” of Locke, Bacon, and Newton.
It’s such an elementary error — it is the root source of all our Modern delusions and false consciousness — that one even doubts, at first, whether one has even read the authors’ text rightly. But even the original and retained meaning of the word “perception” (per-cipere — to grasp through) should alert one to the fact that sensation and perception are not identical acts.
And, as Northrop Frye points out in his study of William Blake entitled Fearful Symmetry, Blake remains completely inaccessible and wholly (and holy) mysterious to those who do not understand the difference between sensation and perception; for Blake is all about the primacy of perception. The physicist Amit Goswami put much the same question to his contemporaries when, in The Self-Aware Universe, he asked, “what is more real. The book in my hands? Or my perception of the book in my hands?”. That is a question of the mediate and the immediate.
All that is unholy about Late Modernity can be traced back to this basic error and delusion that perception and sensation are one and the same — reductionism, fundamentalism, quantification — and much of that has its incipience in the famous but misguided formula of the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Cogito, ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am” — is astonishingly naive in so many ways. Quite obviously, before I can conclude that I am thinking, I must perceive myself as being in the act of cogitating or mentating. I perceive myself thinking before I baptise this activity by the name “thinking”. The “mind”, as such, is just as much an object of perception — a percept — as Goswami’s book, and just as much, too, is the mentating or cogitating “I” of the cogito — the res cogitans or “thinking thing”. Therefore, it is clear that the cogito — the mind — is not, and cannot be, primary. There is something to us that is more fundamental still. To be self-conscious in the way that the cogito is, is to exist as a percept — a “thinking thing” — of a more primary act of consciousness and perception.
The cogito, ergo sum has had the unfortunate effect of preventing and pre-empting the realisation of our full powers of consciousness and awareness, and therefore of achieving that very ‘universality’ that was the ostensible, implicit project of the European Enlightenment and the ideal of “Universal Reason”, which is but another name for the mental-rational structure of consciousness and its mode of perception. The “thinking thing” introduced a dichotomisation of reality instead, pitting Being against itself, not only in terms of the delusive subject-object divide, but also in making thinking or mentation the touchstone of our existence — the human essence — it pre-empted our capacity to empathise with life-as-a-whole.
“We are perceiving beings”, Castaneda’s don Juan explained. That statement contains more of the sense of authentic universality and a shared, common life than did the limiting and distorting assumptions of the Age of Reason. Yet, many of the most cogent critics of Modernity — Rene Guenon in The Reign of Quantity or Gabriel Marcel in Man Against Mass Society amongst others — tend to overlook the root source of the decadence they otherwise powerfully critique about “modern ideas” — the overlooking of the act of perception or, when it became impossible to ignore, to reduce it to sensation and therefore to quantification, standardisation, uniformity, homogeneity. By that route, the way to understanding “quality” became blocked (or, equally, what Nietzsche means by ‘noble’). The Unconscious Civilisation, as Ralston Saul describes it, is a direct consequence — an induced “Single Vision & Newton’s sleep” — from having ignored the primacy of perception. If anything, we need a Critique of Pure Perception more than a Critique of Pure Reason. “The Unconscious Civilisation” is simply the consequence of having been led “to Believe a Lie/When you see with not thro the Eye”.
The reduction of perception to sensation has been the fundamental source of all our contemporary errors and delusions; has prevented us from achieving insight into our real predicament at “the end of history”; and has made the realisation of an authentic “universality” valid for the global era impossible to attain on the basis of the “cogito” alone. It is indistinguishable, in fact, from the narcissism and nihilism of Late Modernity.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern
Once you accept the primacy of perception over cogitation (the cogito) or mentation, the world looks quite different, but with the added drawback that the human world with its “values” appears equally totally insane — terrifyingly mad — which is, of course, the exact opposite of how people conceive of themselves — the issue of self-image. That also is a pernicious consequence of the false doctrines of the rationalists.