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.