Perception in 4 Dimensions

This will be a bit of a throw-away post as I really should be working on other things right now, but I had to jot down some notes while these ideas are still fresh. I’ve been thinking of ways to integrate the different accounts of perception I’ve been studying as of late, and the phrase “perception in 4 dimensions” dropped into my head.

I think a good term for a perspective is as important as the content of the perspective itself, and perceiving in 4D has been wringing in my head since last night. On the face of it, there’s nothing exciting about perceiving in 4D. It’s what you’d expect from a creature such as ourselves, orienteering around the world along three spatial axes and an additional temporal one.

But I’ve been thinking about the phrase in a different way.

I think proper 4D orienteering must include something like Bergson’s intuition about duration. The idea in this context would be that living beings don’t just move through time and space but in some sense accumulate or become organized through their successive actions and endeavors. Time is a cumulative repetition captured in the ongoing transformations of the organism through its lifespan and across the contexts it finds itself in. It’s not an abstract ideal or an empty space.

I haven’t thought this through too deeply, but duration in this sense is an integrative fact that unites cognition, perception, and embodiment. Duration also connects the organism’s engagement with its environment, both in the sense of the ongoing work required to get a world to show up (through the energetic resources required to keep it going), and in the sense that the lifeform outsources its cognitive and perceptual needs to artifacts (built and natural) in that ecology.

Consider also the case of perceptual learning, a view that suggests an intimate link between practices, behaviors, and the organization of the sensory modalities of the perceptual system. If something like genuine perceptual learning is true—i.e., that learning constitutes changes that are actually perceptual, rather than changes merely indicative of shifting after-the-fact inferences about the sensory system’s deliverences—then a concept like duration can again provide a helpful integrating function.

So, the quick and dirty rub is that perception in 4 dimensions isn’t simply the observation that lifeforms operate along four axes of possible action (a Newtonian view of organisms if ever there was one), but that any real account of perception acknowledges that duration is an integrative function wherein enaction, extended cognition, feeling, and perceptual learning all come together in and as the transformation of the lifeform.

Folding the Manifold

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 2.43.25 PMI think often about these passages in Kant and how they describe the details of something like phenomenological intentionality. Along these lines, I think of skilled intentionality as a practice of conformation, of training the manifold of perception and intuition to bend in certain ways on purpose.

The Side View’s thesis is based on something like this idea: Practices of conformation, in Kant’s sense of “objects conforming to cognition,” are ways of bending and folding the manifold in certain ways.

I also noted recently that we might define a concept as a fold in perception. Taking up a concept as a part of experience is to shape the manifold of intuition in such a way so as to realize new details, emphasizes, and meanings for action.

But the concept is just one way of reorganizing the manifold. Practices of all kinds are nondiscursive (nonlinguistic) means of shaping perception. They also “fold” experience in different ways and allow new subtleties to show up.

If you can see the links between Kant’s manifold of intuition, and its potential of being shaped through practice, you can start to look at spiritual, religious, and contemplative exercises in a new light, one that might interest even the ardent atheists among you.

This shaping of the manifold is what unites the different disciplines The Side View draws from. The emphasis on practice also lets us view a variety of disciplines from a different angle. This includes the sciences, the humanities, the arts, as well as the contemplative, spiritual, and religious traditions, and their various philosophical commitments.

When we link these disciplines through the idea of practice—rather than in an effort to forcibly compare, contrast, conjoin, or reduce one tradition to another—a number of unhelpful divisions can be resolved, such as those between the religious and the secular the scientific and the philosophical, and the theoretical and the practical, especially in terms of their existential value for transforming perception and action.

In this sense, the practices, habits, and rituals explored through TSV are treated as ways of conjuring up novel syntheses of perception in experience that yield new meanings, details, and possibilities for action in the practitioner. I explore these ideas in more detail in my introduction to the first issue of The Side View Journal, which you can find here.

Consider downloading a copy for $5. All proceeds are put towards supporting TSV!


Float Tanks and Epoché

Dzjro-zVsAAJ0jUI’ve been writing recently about epoché as an exercise (or askēsis) of perception. I take epoché in this context to mean something like bracketing or suspending one’s immersion in perception so that one can evaluate the construction of experience from a different angle.

Pierre Hadot describes something like an epoché when he writes about interrupting or intervening in the automatic functioning of what he calls our “inner logos.” Our perception of things, Hadot says, is conditioned by our regular habits and acquaintances with the world around us.

This conditioning has a way of sedimenting itself into our experience. The inner logos is an interface between our habituated knowledge of the world, on the one hand, and the way this knowledge grows implicit within our perception, on the other.

The ever-present reality is that the inner logos is always becoming automatic. And this in many cases is as it should be—the inner logos is a system of embodied knowledge-habits that guide our navigation through the world.

It lets us abstract expectations and qualities across events so that we don’t have to discover everything anew every time we walk out the door. However, at the same time, and for the same reason, the inner logos periodically requires intervention, interruption, and surprise.

Epoché is something like this kind of interruption. It’s a skill of perception that takes many forms. In other words, there isn’t one kind of epoché but a variety of modes of practice that suspend, interrupt, and defamiliarize sensation. The act creates a space for novelty.

Novelty in turn allows for a reconfiguration of the inner logos, of the internal system of associations and expectations that render available our understanding of the world, and even of the very way in which a world shows up for us in experience at all.

In the works of people like Edmund Husserl, epoché is a phenomenological move that takes place within the purview of some person. But as Peter Sloterdijk observes, there are also material forms of epoché, architectural affordances that provide something like an extended epoché.

This is the thought I had while in a float tank yesterday: It’s something like a material epoché, a way of bracketing out, to the extent possible, the inflowing rush of external sensory stimulation. It makes space for a reorientation of the inner logos.

The float tank is based around the idea of limiting sensory stimuli, including by reducing the sense of an inside / outside boundary (the floater rests in a tank of salt water maintained at body temperature, reducing the difference between the outside atmosphere and the body).

This is, strictly speaking, a kind of environmental scaffolding for practicing epoché. In such an environment, it grows easier to achieve, at least temporarily, the kind of reordering of the inner logos that Hadot describes as essential to the spiritual exercises of philosophy.

I don’t think a float tank is a replacement for regular contemplative practice, which must realize itself in the real world of everyday interactions, but it is for me a healthy antidote to the overstimulated world I find myself in most days. I recommend giving it a try sometime.

Aesthetics and Athletics

IMG_8968I write sometimes about philosophy as a way of life, as an exercise (askēsis) of conversion or transformation. But one could also write a parallel story of art as a way of life, as an aesthetic askēsis likewise oriented around a re-constellation of sensing, feeling, and thinking.

Gabriel Trop writes this way about art as a way of life, and of poetry in particular. Trop’s idea is that art begins as a kind of mimesis, an imitation of the world, but ultimately drives at askēsis, a reconfiguration of the artist and the viewer of the work of art.

The art work is a material presence in the world, an attractor that interacts with and transforms the ordering of perceptual experience—art is a means of transforming the physiognomy of seeing; it is a way of re-patterning habitual modes of experience.

Aesthetic askēsis, the work of making art, is thus different from other modes of askēsis, like the critical self-examinations of philosophy or the practice routines of athletics and physical development, which are aimed at maintenance, improvement, and optimization.

The figure of the athlete shares in common many characteristics with the figure of the artist—they are both engaged in acts of askēsis—but they also exhibit important differences. The athlete has a special relationship to the program—to the set and predictable ordering of a routine, executed again and again with a ritual intensity that favors the mad person capable of unending repetition.

The artist, on the other hand, certainly partakes of the athletic sensibility in their upswing and development—as the artist builds strength in a craft—but the end result and aim is something quite different from that of general athletics.

The athlete operates within the structure of a pre-existing game. The artist creates new ones. Art is in this way a kind of anti-program; it is not a planned routine in the same way that athletic preparation is. Art delivers the unseen or the unforeseeable; it creates novelty.

Aesthetic askēsis aims at states of absorption without purpose, though as with every kind of askēsis, the work of art—both the artwork and the work required to produce it—links exercise and perception. Aesthetic work is an act of transforming perception and being.

These figures, the artist and the athlete, may cohere in the same person. The artist may be an athlete of preparation and the athlete may derive creativity through artistic inspiration—the great ones always do—but they are nevertheless distinct, if mutually enhancing, activities.

On Contemplative Philosophy

D3fzM13UIAAWpjvThe phrase “contemplative philosophy” denotes a specific understanding of theory and practice that transforms the meaning of both terms. One could say that this transformation implies a recursive relationship between theory and practice, but this move doesn’t go far enough.

A real contemplative philosophy marks a crossing over of theory into practice and practice into theory. In other words, on this view, theory is itself a kind of practice, and practice delivers what we normally think of as theoretical insight.

Theory involves marshaling a significant degree of attentional resources in the mode of discursive expression. It’s a training in a certain kind of directed thought, often afforded by the tools of writing and symbol use. Theory’s purpose is to feed back into action and perception.

Nondiscursive practices, such as meditation, craftwork, and athletics, also deliver insight and transform perception, action, and understanding. Practices create affordances for iterative and adaptive modes of sensing into the depth and complexity of the world.

In this sense, both theory and practice proceed via what phenomenologists call an intentional arc, a recursive interlocking of world, action, and understanding. Contemplative philosophy for this reason is grounded in the metaphor of tactility, of learning how to grasp the world.

Another meaning of contemplation is to “mark out a space for observation.” It’s not about observation itself, but about creating the grounds for seeing. It’s also about holding steady attention on an idea in the mind, perhaps to let it unfold by itself in new and unexpected ways.

In both cases—creating a space for observing & cultivating a sustained awareness—the contemplative act is itself something like an athletic skill, it’s a trainable exercise, a practice. The contemplative philosopher is an existential athlete, a trainer of new modes of awareness.