A Short Philosophy of Perception

A good definition of perception, in my opinion, is ‘to be aware of something’. We usually think of sight when we think of perception – that’s the knee-jerk definition, but obviously we can perceive through the other senses. I can perceive through smell, touch, hearing, taste, etc. There’s more to perception than biological processes, however.

Sense perception is both active and passive – passive in that my sense organs receive the sensory data of which I’m aware (they don’t manufacture the data) and active in that my sense organs are active things. My ears and eyes, though they are passive in the reception of data, aren’t simply sitting there, they are actively a part of the sense process.

Perception is more than just raw sensory perception, though – the mind plays an active role in the organization of sensory data into a meaningful and unified conscious experience. The mind can also perceive, though in a different way than sense perception – one can perceive a contradiction, for example. Again, there is an active and passive element to mental perception (and mental processes in general).

The interesting thing about perception, however, is that it’s not an act, or a deliberate thing, or something that we do – I can’t simply turn off or turn my sensory perception, or cease to be aware of things. There may be times when I’m not consciously aware of any given thing (someone may be in the room that I’m not aware of), of course, but that’s not something I can change by a kind of sensory act.

Beyond the active, conscious, sensory and mental aspects of perception, there’s the unconscious side of perception – and this unconscious perception shapes our conscious perception by shaping the way in which we perceive things. The sensory and mental aspects of perception are one part of the picture – the unconscious aspect can be thought of as a kind of formal cause to the conscious aspect. James K. A. Smith expounds the emotional aspect of perception in ‘Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works’:

‘Most often, and most fundamentally, there is an unarticulated (and inarticulable) set of dispositions and inclinations that are activated immediately upon perceiving a situation (my note: Smith refuses to think of perception in an abstract, subject-object way. Perception for Smith involves the whole person, and perception is always of a whole situation in all its grit and messiness) – because that perception is already an evaluation, a “take” a construal that is “seen” emotionally. The scene is colored with a certain affective hue that then inclines me to respond in certain ways. That emotional perception of a situation is not merely a hardwired, biological reflex…’ (p. 39)

The key thing to take away here is that perception is not a clean-cut process of noticing an object – perception isn’t static because the world isn’t static. To perceive is to perceive in a way that has been unconsciously shaped by our habits, which, by shaping our perception, shapes our actions in the world. The thing to note is that this means our perception is shaped by our action, which is shaped by our perception. Perception occurs at different levels, as I’ve already hinted at – there is conscious, active perception and deeper, unconscious levels of perception – these deeper levels are emotional levels, which were referred to in the quote above:

‘We have perceived and understood our situation in a certain light, although with little or no conscious reflection. This is a way of saying that our world (our situation) stands forth meaningfully to us at every waking instant, due primarily to processes of emotion and feeling over which we have little [conscious] control. And yet the situation is meaningful to us the most important, primordial and basic way that it can be meanginful – it shapes the basic contours of our experience. The situation specifies what will be significant to us, and what objects, events and persons mean to us at a pre-reflective level.’ (Mark Johnson, ‘The Meaning of the Body’, p. 59′, quoted in Smith, ‘Imagining the Kingdom’, p. 37)

Perception, as I’ve shown in this post, is a complex, multi-leveled phenomenon – far from being a mere static awareness, it’s an awareness that is shaped by what we do, which in turn shapes our awareness. There’s a lot of fertile ground here for further work – hopefully in the future I’ll do a bit more work on this subject. I’d like to tie in Polyani’s thought as well as Aristotelean.

6 thoughts on “A Short Philosophy of Perception

  1. C. Quinn-Jones (@Quinnjones2C) June 8, 2014 / 8:58 am

    Hi Joshua,
    I have read your post and found it very interesting – it is just up my street!
    You described perception as a ‘complex multi-faceted phenomenon.’ It is, indeed.
    You mentioned the five senses (sight, hearing taste, touch and smell). You also mentioned emotions.I would add other ‘feelings’ such as feeling cold, hot, tired, energetic – also feeling hungry & thirsty & feeling physical, emotional mental and spiritual pain.My perceptions of just about everything are a bit clouded when I am cold, tired, hungry and in pain!
    God created us and the capacity for feeling all of these feelings was given to us by Him.
    These feelings prompt us to do what we need to do to keep alive and as well as possible. Jesus asked us to take up our cross daily but most of us are not called to martydom and Jesus also wants us to live abundant lives.Jesus mentioned a number of emotions including sorrow and joy- feeling these feelings in no way separates us from him.Jesus gives us spiritual ‘bread’ but is also concerned about our physical nourishment (the feeding of the 5,000) As Jesus hung on the cross, he said ‘I thirst.’
    You mentioned conscious awareness and also ‘the unconscious side of perception.’Sometimes we respond to things with an intensity of joy, sorrow or anger that makes no sense to our conscious minds. I am a great Carl Jung enthusiast and I believe feelings belonging to our infancy are often trapped inside us because they were too overwhelming to bear at the time. These feelings are ‘triggered’ in all sorts of situations. One of my favourite Jungian psychotherapists is also a priest- John Monbourquette.
    it is so easy to rationalise these feelings and also to ‘Christianise’ them (my word!). It is easy to think we are feeling righteous anger, when actually it is the screaming rage of the infant locked inside us.
    The Holy Spirit opens doors and heals. It can be a long, arduous and painful journey – but also a fruitful one and one I embarked on willingly just over 20 years ago.
    I’m not suggesting you have a screaming infant locked inside you – but I believe many of us do have!
    I do not have time now to find all the Biblical quotes re: what I said about Jesus above, but I’m sure you are very familiar with the passages I have referred to.
    This is a vast subject and it would take me several lifetimes to explore it as fully and deeply as I would like!


    • whitefrozen June 8, 2014 / 5:44 pm

      I’m not well read in Jung so I’ll refrain from commenting – but your noticing of things like hunger, thirst, etc are quite perceptive – those would be aspects of perception that would fall under the heading of ‘appetites’ – but it certainly shows that perception is more than a conscious act.


  2. SamL June 9, 2014 / 8:26 am

    Really enjoyed this one – good stuff. (I was catching some Jung vibes as well, weirdly)



    • whitefrozen June 9, 2014 / 8:35 am

      Hm, interesting. I’m not familiar with Jung other than I know he was big into archetypes, perhaps I should look into his stuff a bit more.


      • SamL June 9, 2014 / 8:59 am

        Yes, I think there’s some parallels between Jung’s archetypes and your ‘unconscious formal causes’ here (though I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far). Jung’s great imo, though some of his populariser’s have done a great job of making him look like a new age quack. Well worth reading first-hand.



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