Skills of Perception

I’ve been suggesting that the basic constituents of experience are neither ideas nor representations but activities of thought capable of generating ideas and representations. On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person; it is a skill of combining the manifold of sensibility into the semantically hued diorama of meaningful experience that all people experience as they navigate the world. As a skill of perception, experience can be said to consist in various levels of detail and nuance; it is shot through with skillful means at the ground level, means trainable and plastic in nature. Indeed, if one takes the position that philosophy is an activity that intervenes upon the initial order of skilled perception, then it becomes clear that philosophy is a means for acting upon action. Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity, one that makes contemplation—in the sense of marking out a space for observation—its own kind of skilled action, executed in an environment. In other words, the philosophical standpoint affords a re-evaluation of the conceptual architecture and makes available a space for the re-fashioning of the synthetic processes of perception. (As I noted in my earlier post on Kant and Fichte, the key here really is the non-determined spontaneity of one’s understanding of a situation, the ability to act upon the sense made of phenomena.) Without this standpoint the shift enacted by acts of conceptual re-constitution can appear as an occult practice of making meaningful details and truths appear and disappear, and to the extent that a concept can yield new possibilities for action unavailable to the uninitiated, the description is apt without being literal. Certainly, the kind of action I’m pointing to here works mostly in limited and gradual ways, is always at risk of being derailed, and is always grounded in the ecology of the person. These are practices, after all.

In this context, I’m gaining a newfound appreciation for folks like Jay Garfield, Mark Siderits, and Evan Thompson. I’m also a little frustrated that there is such an obvious and interesting connection between the West’s transcendental tradition (not to mention its earlier traditions of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and so on) and that of the Indian traditions that Garfield, Siderits, and Thompson engage, but there’s so little emphasis on the practice side of the Western tradition that I’m having to outsource my empirical curiosity about the strengths and limits of so-called transcendental abilities to the research happening on, for example, mindfulness meditation. Despite the outsourcing, the parallels with the Western tradition should be clear enough for folks with even a cursory understanding of the two streams. To be sure, it’s a new space I’m working to develop in future writing.

12 Comments

  1. do you mean so little emphasis by philos themselves cuz there is tons of research being done into skillful practices and expertise, just went to such a piano lecture the other day? maybe you could give a quick and dirty working definition of what makes an ability transcendental?
    I actually appreciate that ET has come around to see the general divide between Indo/Buddhist theoreticians and meditators something my old prof Agehananda Bharati was pretty clear on, have you read any of his work?

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  2. No, not familiar with his work. But I was thinking more directly about mindfulness-style practices—I’m so out of my lane here that I won’t try to break them down by names or traditions—in the sense that you don’t see, at least I don’t, practicing phenomenologists or stoic philosophers or what have you being hooked up to fMRI machines and studied empirically the way Buddhist meditators are right now. Am I just wrong about that? I know there’s lots of literature on expertise in general, but I was thinking more specifically of what an empirical research program for transcendental philosophers, as opposed to mindfulness practitioners, would look like. Just as one example.

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  3. ah, Agehananda….the Ochre Robe and many other works….’On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person’. Presumably one person and not another…..?

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