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.

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10 responses to “The Doors of Perception”

  1. Matthew says :

    I’ve been following your line of thinking for quite some time now, and it has opened me up to some wonderful areas of thought which I have been pursuing further.

    I have a question about the shift in appearances that occurs when one accepts the primacy of perception over cognition. You write “that the human world with its “values” appears equally totally insane” once such a shift has occurred in consciousness. But my understanding of “insane” is that it is itself a value-laden term – the implication is that there is some idea of “normalcy” which has to be valued by the perceiver.

    So what I do not understand is the skepticism here of the importance of valuation in the human experience. If I have accepted that first and foremost I am a perceiving being who happens to think, then I would notice a quality in humans called “drive to evaluate” which would seem to be a common (though not universal) trait of the species. Wouldn’t I have to develop a hierarchy of values in order to consider whether or not this was insane? In other words, wouldn’t I have to “value” qualification over quantification?

    Thank you for these thought-provoking posts, by the way.

    -Matthew

    • Scott Preston says :

      Wonderful comment, Matthew. Keeps me vigilant and from sliding into indolence and mental sloth.

      But my understanding of “insane” is that it is itself a value-laden term – the implication is that there is some idea of “normalcy” which has to be valued by the perceiver

      To a certain extent that is correct, depending upon how you interpret the term “value” (or “virtue”) and consequently “insane”, for these terms are connected, and also connected with the meaning of “integrity” or “integral”. These terms constellate a “gestalt” the nucleus of which is the notion of “health” or well-being. The latin terms were all firmly rooted in the feeling of health — in biology — not the abstract generalities they were massaged into later. They weren’t ideas, they were “feelings”, as it were. Sanus means “sound” and insanus, “unsound” (unhealthy or unwell); value is related to Latin “vale!” — Be Well!, the traditional greeting; virtue originally meant strength or power, related to the word for “man” — vir (and when Jesus mentions that he felt “virtue leave him” when the ill woman touched the hem of his skirt, that was the implied meaning — an actual transfer of energy or vitality). Integrare — the root of our words for integral, integrity — signifies to heal, to mend, to repair, or to make whole. In general, this was also the way Nietzsche approached the whole issue of “values” — he returned to the pre-rationalist sensibility in which these terms were rooted in physiology or biology — power was health, health a superabundance of vitality/energy.

      And it is as such that I use these terms, and in that connection understand why Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, following from his massive study of modern revolutions in Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man, foresaw that yet another “fifth” revolution would be required to complete the historical series he surveyed — the Lutheran, the English Glorious Revolution, the French and the Russian — and that it would be organised around the value of “health” (integration). We are seeing this now, I believe, in the emerging discourse around holism, integrality, ecology, “integral consciousness”, and so on. Implicit in this discourse, however subtle it might be, is a concern with the conditions required for health, wholeness, or wellness in its broadest interpretation.

      In effect, it amounts to the very thing that Nietzsche understood as “the transvaluation of values”, of which I’ll have more to say in subsequent posts to this one, particularly how the value of “universality” is being discredited as part of the “deconstruction” of “liberal modernity” (nihilism, in effect), but can be redeemed from its decadence, as it were, if it is re-interpreted in terms of “integrality”, for it has become a bit too abstract to be meaningful to most people.

      But, I’ll have more to say on that later, as it does involve a shift in perception — really, in the mode of perception, for that is what the “transvaluation” (or Umwertung) is — a shift in the mode of perception in which “all that is old is made new again”. That’s the main significance, I find, of Nietzsche’s autobiographical Ecce Homo — the opening pages, particularly, where he writes about his “unique” ability to “switch perspectives” — but that means something else than what we commonly mean by “perspective”.

    • Scott Preston says :

      In relation to my last comment, a remark by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy from his book Speech and Reality again comes to mind about the abstraction of terms like “value”, “virtue”, “integrity” from their original context and connection with lived life (“abstraction” meaning “to draw away” or “draw off”). “…the abstractions of the eighteenth century enlightenment still lingered on sufficiently to veil the struggle for existence that is implied in every word we speak. The body was delegated to the struggle for food and shelter; the ‘mind’, however, with the optimism of the age of reason, was contemplating the truth of the matter” (p. 10).

      That kind of gets to the point of the mind-body dichotomy that, carried into the public realm, manifested as Hegelian idealism on the one hand and Marxian materialism on the other, resulting in reactionary nationalism on the one hand, or communist world revolution on the other, and ultimately as Hitler and Stalin, correspondingly, as the inevitable caricatures of that dichotomisation. No one really thinks of them in those terms — as caricatures of the mind-body dichotomy and the subject-object divide — but they are that. They represent the two extreme possibilities that lay implicit and latent in Cartesian metaphysical dualism.

      • Matthew says :

        I see. So the abstraction that results from decaying liberal values is insane not in the sense that it is abnormal, but in the sense that, like insane people, those who ascribe to them are “seeing things” that aren’t really there or not seeing things that are otherwise plain as day – to the very detriment of their biological well-being.

        I find your interpretation of how dualism manifested historically quite attractive. Thank you for sharing it.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I think you’ve hit the mark there. Nietzsche earlier noted that the triumph of liberal institutions would be simultaneously their own self-negation. That is implied in his succinct formula for nihiilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”. Now, what that signifies is the breakdown of dialectical reason in which thesis and anti-thesis, the diction and contradiction, become one and the same thing. This is what has been called “the absurd”, and it is equally being grappled wth in the paradoxes of quantum physics today, where, for example, the breakdown of the conventional distinctions between subject and object (thesis and anti-thesis, in effect) have become very problematic. As Heisenberg once commented “can Nature be really as absurd as these experimental results suggest?” The meaning of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is the recognition of “paradox” or coincidentia oppositorum as being truly the way reality is organised.

          But for the mental-rational structure of consciousness, based as it is in syllogism and in “train of thought” and “chain of reasoning” (ie,linear, cause-effect) such things are impossible. This is, however, the controversy today that exists between climate change science and climate change deniers (where the latter is actually sincere and not just propaganda). The conflict between non-linear and linear logics is a clash of consciousness structures, and therefore between future and past. The addition of a fourth dimension to our “reality” has the same effect as the addition of the third dimension of space (in perspectivism) in the Renaissance to the two-dimensional consciousness of “Christendom” — the mytho-moral consciousness. It was devastating, even in terms of the name change from “Christendom” to “Europe” (the Greek name for the continent). It signified the triumph of the Greek Mind over the Christian.

          The Muslim “Ummah” is now going through much the same devastation. Few people realise that the original “Ummah” (community of the faithful) included Jews, Christians and Muslims as comprising “the people of the book”. Mohammed’s innovative “Constitution of Medina” included Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The historical antipathy of Mohammed towards the Jews was the result of the Jewish community’s refusal to observe the constitution in not coming to the aid of the Muslim community when the oasis of Medina was attacked by the forces from Mekkah — the Qu’resh tribe from which Mohammed had been exiled and declared outlaw. Even though the Medina forces won the battle, Mohammed bore a great grudge against the Jews for what he considered their betrayal and perfidy in failing to come to the defence of the oasis and violating the constitution. He had all the Jewish men slaughtered and the women and children driven into exile. The Jews, though, had a good argument in their defence, I think. They argued that the Muslims had brought the attack upon the oasis because of their continous raiding and piracy of the Mekkah-bound caravans in order to support their new community.

          Why am I mentioning this? I don’t know. Matters of perception, I suppose, but also of the odd parallels between the breakdown of the Ummah and the end of “Christendom”.

  2. Matthew says :

    I suspect many in the English-speaking world remain trapped in dialectic thought due to organization of our language system. As opposed to Chinese or German, it is customary to always place a subject verbing an object, with the verb as a line of causation and the subject being the identifier of “self”. I wonder how non-linear speech would be structured.

    One thing I have stopped saying is “I have changed my mind” in favor of “My self has changed with the context.” It is still very much subject-verbing-object, but I like how it short-circuits the traditional dualist paradigm, incorporates passive voice in reference to individual being, and makes reference to the connection between state of being and stage of being. It is not, however, very efficient, so I don’t think William of Ockam would approve.

    Incidentally, the breakdown of the “liberal end of history” has striking parallels to the breakdown of Christendom and the breakdown of the Ummah. The dominant religion (American Capitalism) has damaged (some would say ruptured) its ties with its fellow “people of the book” (European Social Democracy) over its failure to come to the aid of liberalism and modernity in its struggle against Islamic Fundamentalism, but Europeans are keen enough to point out that this wouldn’t be an issue if we were not building military bases and setting up petit-dictatorships in the middle east to begin with (Blowback thesis). Do you think Crisis has an archetypal pattern when manifesting in social structures?

    • Scott Preston says :

      One thing I might add to the foregoing comment about Rosenstock-Huessy and his “cross of reality” is that, remarkably, it manages to overcome logic by grammar in this sense. The “law of contradiction” (A cannot be not-A) is violated by ERH’s cross of reality, for although his method acknowledges impermanence and transience (just as Buddhism does) as a fact of life, the cross of reality recognises constancy in the inconstancy — ie, the paradox of impermanence. That constancy is the archetypal element. No small feat, as far as I’m concerned. And with that, ERH has also laid the basis for a possible “universal history” of human experience, appropriate for the planetary era in which “the clash of civilisations” must be avoided at all costs (well… almost all costs).

      Not many days ago, I read a man who declared confidently that no “universal grammar” was possible. I’m sure he is quite mistaken. A few years ago I read an article by the linguist Greenberg about universal grammar. At the time he wrote, a little over 200 languages had been inventoried to identify “universals”. One of those universals was the persistence of a minimal 4 person system in each language studied. The simplest was Korean, with “I”, “You”, “We”, and “He”. Many languages have variants upon this pattern which allows for 16 persons, perhaps (He, She, It, They in English, for example, as variants on “third person”). But it appears so far that no language can get by without a way of representing past and future time or inner and outer space, however this might be obscure to us in terms of our own grammar of possibilities.

      So, I’m quite certain tha the man who said that there is no “universal grammar” was just completely mistaken and being, perhaps, a bit logocentric or ethnocentric himself. The very purpose of grammar is to arrange and distribute the spaces and times of our experience in order to represent and establish a “cosmos” (order). That ordering of time and space may be “eccentric”, by the yardstick of Average Standard European (as it’s called), but I would bet my life that the grammar of any human language engineers a balanced arrangement of the two times and two spaces in whatever way it has organised times and spaces. In the very minimalist 4 person system of Korean, time and space is still represented in terms of “I” (subject) and “He” (object), leaving “You” and “We” to represent the times as imperative form (Thou!) and narrative form (We). The tenses may actually depend on the person form, not the person form on the tenses.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    I suspect many in the English-speaking world remain trapped in dialectic thought due to organization of our language system.

    Grammar does, indeed, overrule logic in the sense that the rules of logic are subsumed in the rules of grammar. Logicians often merely assume that the rules of grammar are subsumed in logic. It’s quite the reverse. Logic is constrained by grammar.

    I wonder how non-linear speech would be structured

    That would be what is called “telepathy”. To a certain extent, it is already involved in speech at a subtle level. Circumstances, presently, seem to be straining towards a more emphatic role for telepathy — the immediate communication of “wholes” that both McLuhan and Gebser recognised as a future necessity. Jung’s “collective unconscious” would appear to presage it, in some ways. Hard to imagine “the empathic civilization” without it.

    It is not, however, very efficient, so I don’t think William of Ockam would approve. LOL!

    Do you think Crisis has an archetypal pattern when manifesting in social structures?

    Does indeed have an archetypal pattern, which is implied in the very meaning of the word “crisis” — cross, crux, crucifix, cruciform, crucial, crucible, crossroads. That pattern was articulated by Rosenstock-Huessy in his “cross of reality” and “grammatical method” which articulates, in some ways, Jean Gebser’s notion of civilisations as structures of consciousness and Blake’s “four zoas”, too. Our “crucial situation” always, as he puts it, is to be forever facing backwards and forwards into the times, and inwards and outwards in the spaces of existence from a situation called “the present”, and attempting to balance the demands of what he calls the subjective and objective of spaces, and the trajective and prejective of times.

    In that respect, we require a fourfold logic that is only represented in grammar. His own “cross of reality” is an attempt to become conscious of grammar — of human speech generally — as the embodiment of this archetypal pattern, and being more inclusive of reality and experience than logic per se.

    And it does do that, actually. I’ve found that it includes far more of human experience within the “real” than traditional logic permits as “real” owing to what traditional logic excludes as being “impermissible” in its terms — the so-called “law of contradiction” and “the excluded middle” (both of which I’ve always considered tyrranical infringement on the freedom of thought). Rosenstock’s “grammatical method” is a breath of fresh air. Also, a welcome contribution towards the realisation of Gebser’s “integral” civilisation and consciousness. To a certain extent, E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed also is an attempt at a new more inclusive “fourfold” logic as well.

    Presently, the word “inclusive” seems to be a surrogate for “integral”, as something that is still not entirely conscious of itself or of what it is intending.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Illuminating insights all over. Thank you for the great references, as well. The “health” being a wellspring to the era of integrality is wonderfully put. I was always struck how much of don Juan’s time was spent working a medicine or concoction of some sort.

  4. amothman33 says :

    Pharoh called Moses insane. so all prophets are called insane. Do we need to distinguish between patholigal insanity and cultural insanity. In this context who is the sane. It is up to us to take the either path.

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