Perceptual Learning as Intuition-Making

I’ll be speaking at the ( æthos ) Salon Series: Intuition as Sensemaking event on November 4. The description of my talk is below. Check out the invite link if you’re in the Bay Area and are interested in attending.

Scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives have long sought to understand the connection between rationality and intuition. In many cases, this relation has been expressed through a bifurcation of discursive, conceptual, and propositional faculties and emotional, sensory, and impressionistic ones. The former have often been associated with cognition, intelligence, and creativity, while the latter have historically taken a back seat, forced into the world of illusions, errors, and bodies. Recently, however, new fields of research have challenged this binary, suggesting that the bright line between these capacities should be rethought. Cognitive scientists and psychologists working on perceptual learning represent a leading edge of this discussion. In this talk, I will explore the basic premise of perceptual learning—namely, that embodied sensory systems are flexible, trainable, and intelligent—to reexamine the relationship between rationality and intuition. While people readily accept that humans can acquire new knowledge, concepts, and languages to influence how they generate interpretations and make inferences about their environments, I will suggest that the body’s physiology is likewise capable of learning, and that intuition has its own form of intelligence that can be developed in the direction of increasingly subtle, spontaneous, and creative engagements with the world. To this end, I will use examples from contemplative practice, art and aesthetics, and athletics to express the premise of perceptual learning. On this view, perceptual learning is a mode of intuition-making, an integral component of larger sense-making efforts that include rationality and intuition alike.

Folding the Manifold: Philosophy as the Practice of Perception

I’m heading down to the Esalen Institute next week to give this talk . . .

The philosopher Pierre Hadot famously advocated for an image of philosophy as a way of life. For Hadot, philosophical insight emerges in the context of spiritual exercises he collected under the term askēsis. Examples of askēsis include contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience. It was Hadot’s emphasis on spiritual exercise that led him to affirm Henri Bergson’s definition of philosophy as a transformation of perception. But in what does this transformation consist? More specifically, what is the relation between askēsis and perception? Using resources from phenomenology and transcendental philosophy, I will show that askēsis acts upon what phenomenologists call the intentional structure of perception, and that what is shaped through such practice is the manifold of sensibility described in transcendental philosophy. What emerges from this discussion is a view of perception as itself a type of practice, where attention is an act of shaping the arrangement of consciousness. Philosophy, then, is the art of folding the manifold.

Reason and Spiritual Exercises

I’m back to reading John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom to shore up some claims I make in the dissertation, following Pierre Hadot, about the role of practice in philosophy. Cooper’s book is a great secondary resource for ancient philosophy—thorough, readable, organized—but I think he’s just wrong about a claim he makes about philosophy. Namely, that the “essential core” of philosophy is a style of logical, reasoned argument by which one lives life (17).

Conversely, Hadot sees the “core” of philosophy as rooted in an “existential choice” that involves commitment to a set of spiritual exercises that serve as the preconditions (or even the deliverers of) the arguments and reasons Cooper sees as essential to philosophy. Hadot’s view isn’t anti-intellectual, far from it. Reason has an important role to play in his account of philosophy, but philosophy is not limited to reason alone; it also involves askēsis, exercises or practices we could call religious, contemplative, aesthetic, or somatic.

Cooper is pessimistic about religious and spiritual practices, drawing a strong division between them and the reasoned advance of philosophy. Here’s Cooper, “A philosophical way of life is . . . in fundamental ways quite a different thing from any religious way of life” (17). If one assumes that “religious” life is circumscribed by a doctrinal submission to texts, then Cooper is right. But if philosophy and religion are viewed as practices, or as experimental and evolving modes of relating to and bringing forth the world, then his criticism faces problems, especially when we consider that doctrinal submission isn’t a problem unique to religious texts.

Cooper says, “You must understand everything for yourself” (18). Fair enough, but the idea that personal understanding is impossible within the spiritual or religious encounter enabled by practice is unwarranted by the evidence of experience itself. Cooper’s account also raises important questions about the structure of reason. One example he gives is the Stoic instruction to live in accordance with Nature, which in turn will lead to virtue and happiness. The question is this, Is Nature understandable in reason’s terms alone?

Or is reason not a particular structure, a shape of thought, that conditions the objects of its inquiry into its own image? This is the point Kant desperately wants us to understand—reason constructs an image of the world that it can process by means of its resources. There is here an implicit circularity in the belief of reason as the only arbiter of knowledge, of this knowledge as a way to the truth, and of truth as delimited by what reason can count as knowledge. Reason does not process or apprehend the whole of Nature as it is in itself.

The way out of the circle, I’m suggesting, is to see that there are many more ways of getting in touch with the real than this image of reason implies, and that those ways are paved by modes of relating structured by and related to the world we see seek to know. We should think of philosophy as including all these modes (aesthetic, somatic, spiritual, religious, visionary, discursive, conceptual, moral, etc.), as each an important part of the “core” of what philosophy as a way of life really means.

Modes of Askēsis

I’m posting a literature review I just finished called “Modes of Askēsis.” As you can guess from the title, the essay is a survey of what I took to be some of the most illuminating examples of askēsis (exercise) I’ve been able to track down over the past year or so. I’ve shared many of these examples on Twitter and elsewhere in bits and pieces, but I’ve finally had a chance to string them all together in one place.

The essay really is mostly a survey—it’s table setting for my dissertation—but I thought it might be helpful to post here as a resource for other folks who are interested in these ideas. At 11,000 words, the essay is too long to drop in as a blogpost, but if you’re interested in reading about askēsis in philosophy, contemplative practice, religion (Christian monastic practice, mainly), art, and poetry, then I think you’ll get something out of the piece. I’m also happy to receive comments and feedback. You can write me at adam(at) with any thoughts or ideas you have.

The download link is below. Feel free to share far and wide.

After the Clouds Pass By

“Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.”

A few thoughts on this Aeon article:

I don’t agree with everything the article says, or, at least I don’t buy that the examples listed are *necessary* consequences of meditation (e.g., “After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings”—this is circumstantial).

At the same time, there’s something to think about here. The author mentions, as I quoted above, that mindfulness led her to feel “estranged from myself and my life.” I can relate to this sense, but not because of meditation per se, but because I grew up dealing with depression.

Depression, funnily enough, offers for free some insights that are fairly close to the “observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind” capacities described as the goal of mindfulness practice—though you get this ability through the lowered affect that comes with depression.

My point is, depression can give you a kind of metacognitive distance from your own thoughts and feelings, but of course not in the way one would *like* to gain such distance. This to me means that there are, shall we say, metacognitive affects, feelings, and aesthetics.

And this has me thinking about the article—we don’t want from mindfulness simply the ability to be distant from our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is just mild depersonalization and dissociation. We want also to *cultivate* a certain mode of being, not mere distance.

And I think this starts to happen by itself following the initial instructions to, for example, follow the breath, visualize your thoughts as clouds passing in an open sky, etc. I’ve noted many times that after following these instructions things start to happen, things emerge.

Sometimes what emerges is something like joy or peace or sublimity, but just as often what emerges is a range of moods I can’t quite put my finger on—subtle hues of temperament that are probably always there, I’m just to busy being myself to notice them.

In any case, it’s these moods—and certainly they’re not always positive ones, but leave that aside for a moment—which seem to engender a different attitude, one that I’d call something like moral virtue, or at least the awareness that moral virtue is an important thing to pursue.

So, it’s not just about “observing thoughts and feelings” it’s about what happens after following these instructions for a while, there’s a kind of fullness that emerges in that space which is quite different from the observational capacities I found (accidentally) in depression.

The feeling of fullness is I think linked to the idea that meditation is in an important sense about aiming at something like virtue. Now, the article also takes a swipe at meditation apps like @Headspace, and I get it: commodification, appropriation, marketization, etc. Not cool.

At the same time, these perspectives don’t do all that much for me. The @Headspace app, for example, is constantly encouraging me to think about meditation as something I do *for other people* not just myself, and I think this again links to something like morality and virtue.

My point is that there are risks and uncritical, inflated claims associated with meditation, but treating it as just this distanced, observational practice doesn’t go far enough. Meditation is linked for me indissolubly with a moral vector and with community. And this changes everything.