Sensory Objects Defined by Focused Perception
Constructing the Enduring Three-Dimensional World
The Five Senses
Erroneously Seeing, Hearing What I Expect
Good and Bad Experience
The Total Good Experience
Much environmental action is motivated by threats of destruction to natural beauty. I have been active in several preservation campaigns, notably for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Images of it are magnificent, inspiring love and wonder. Still, my desire to save ANWR was nothing compared to the passion I felt in my battle to prevent a beautiful tree-covered bluff directly behind my home from being replaced by a massive three story-high condo development. The view of the bluff was beautiful, and I loved it, even had a sense of possession of it. I felt it belonged to me, was part of me, which, if it were destroyed, would constitute a violation of me. This sense was fascinating and mysterious, so I undertook to understand it. What follows is the product of that effort which is a phenomenological psychology of perception that reveals a fundamental human desire for an ecologically sound world.
The way in which I have just expressed my conception of the view initially seems unusual, but it actually captures the common attitude. Of course our visual images belong to us, are part of us. We just don’t normally think of them as possessions which might disappear in, say a natural catastrophe, or be taken away from us. But put yourself in the place of people whose surroundings have been suddenly destroyed. Spirit Lake in Washington state had been an extremely attractive site for vacation homes and camping. However it was virtually destroyed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens which replaced the beautiful view with the scene of a nuclear explosion. Around me emerald ash borers are causing the woods to become defiled with innumerable dead trees. Japanese beetles strip my grape vines and fruit trees. Lovely scenes are now unsightly – the source of my pleasant experience, indeed the experience itself, has been taken away from me. This is a loss from which I suffer and feel pain.
This way of thinking about cherished views reifies them, that is, gives them a reality distinct from the material things of which they are views and the things we commonly regard views as, which is neurological events in our brains. We’re told that our visual images are inside our heads, not out in the space beyond our heads. Odd as it sounds to say that visual images have an existence outside of our bodies and are possessed, so to speak, by us, this is exactly how I regarded my view in the neighborhood affair. It is, however, ultimately the very position of strict empiricist and phenomenological philosophies which interpret everything in the universe in terms of outer and inner perceptions. I follow these traditions to build an account of all experience starting from its basic elements.
The experience that I describe is my own. I cannot share anyone else’s sense perception or thoughts. In fact I can never know if your experience is similar to mine or even if you are a conscious being at all.
Sensory Objects Defined by Focused Perception
So to begin, I open my eyes and I see a panorama of colors and shapes. The image of my room and the things in it is about a 160-degree view with the image of parts of my body being at the center of the base of the arc. I do not see the images of things around me in my body; rather I see my body as an image occupying a particular location in the total picture. That is to say, my experience is not in my body, but my body is in my experience.
My sense experience is an immediately given fact which consists of so many sensory images that include the image of my body. I have no experience of a “self” apart from these images, nor does my experience present a “self” which has the experiences or performs actions. Looking strictly at my experiences, I conclude that my self is my experience and nothing else. As my experience reveals no self apart from the experience, neither does it reveal a material world existing apart from it. From the strict standpoint of my experience, nothing else beside it exists.
While my description of experience that follows is written largely in the first person and active voice, it could equally have been written in the passive voice, omitting myself as the subject. I have made this choice for the sake of stylistic ease but advise the reader that my doing so in no way alters the basic truth of the empirical method. That it is what I have stated is the standard view in the tradition of Western philosophy: outer and inner sense perception present neither a subject which has such perceptions nor actual external things.
My visual picture is not fixed like a photograph. While the whole panorama of my visual field is always in view, my attention and gaze are focused on certain parts of it. Such selection makes a given part the center of my attention, and it appears distinct and in focus, while the rest is seen somewhat indistinctly and out of focus. I see the window across the room and I focus my gaze on the latch. My image of it is a dark metal-colored, sharply outlined shape surrounded by less distinct images of the window frame, reflection on the glass and objects outside the window. Beyond these objects the rest of the room appears very indistinctly in my peripheral vision. This particular visual experience is temporally extended, being a continuous part of my conscious experience since I woke up this morning. If I shift my focus to the top of the frame of the lower pane to which the latch is attached, that horizontal white shape is in sharp focus and the latch is less so. Looking again particularly at the latch, I see as the background in my image a rather indistinct mass in shades of green. When I shift my focus, it becomes a more distinct image of the tree outside the window, as the latch becomes an indistinct dark shape in the middle of the tree image. Regarding all of these strictly as visual images, I find that they are two-dimensional.
Vision is not passive reception of an immutable tableau of colors and fixed distinct shapes, much less external material objects. I look at a potted geranium, focusing on the whole plant which consists of the leaves, stems and flowers. The most salient features of this image are the shape of the plant and the colors. Then I focus on one leaf, and I see its veins. These veins were not present in my image of the whole plant. In the image focused on the single leaf, the rest of the plant appears as a somewhat out-of-focus background for it. Moreover this image of a part is taken to be a perception of the part, with the whole object appearing indistinctly in the background of that image.
Seeing as an active process that literally defines its objects with specific acts of focused attention explains camouflage. I first see my defoliating columbine, then, looking closely at a particular leaf, I see the cabbage butterfly larvae whose color exactly matches the leaf. My view of the forest is by no means the collected views of each individual tree. A graphic illustration of the phenomenon I am discussing is the “duck-rabbit.” Looking squarely at it, I see an odd figure. Shifting my gaze more to the right, I see a rabbit facing right. Shifting it more to the left, I see a duck facing left.
An important aspect of all these examples is that seeing is always focused on some particular whole or part of an object which it defines and outlines, so to speak. I look at the table, focusing on the whole thing, or as much of it as is visible to me. I may look specifically at one of its parts such as the surface or a leg, but I am uncomfortable trying to focus on some random portion of it.
The way in which I have described how visual objects are distinguished as wholes or parts applies to the other senses as well. I focus my attention on some sound that I hear, for example, the music of a symphony. Or, I can focus specifically on the sound of particular instruments. In a noisy place I focus on the sound of someone’s speech and “tune out” in some degree background noise. With tastes I can focus alternately on the flavor of the apples, the cinnamon, the crust or the ice cream as I eat a pie á la mode. Wine-tasting is the art of discerning the various perceptible components of wine which include its smell. We also distinguish different smells when they occur in combination, most commonly when we seek the source of some particular smell. As I move my fingers around some object I can focus my attention specifically on different qualities such as heat, cold, smoothness, texture and shape.
The examples I have given so far involve images that are experienced simultaneously. All experience however has a temporal aspect, so my images are perceived in continuous whole acts of perception and in temporal segments. The walls of my room are perceived as remaining continually the same in my ongoing perception of them. A process such as beating eggs is perceived as a succession of parts of the process – cracking the eggs, seeing the whole eggs in the bowl, then the beaten eggs. All temporal experiences involve expectations. I expect the walls of my room to continue to appear the same but would be startled if there were an earthquake tremor and a crack suddenly appeared. Similarly, when I break an egg I expect to next see a normal egg not a green one, which would cause me to feel shock. The expectation of consistency in my experience reflects desire for it.
I have stated that where the objects of attention are perceived as simultaneously existing parts of wholes, the whole object is present in the perception of the part, but in the background and rather indistinctly. The present of experience is not an instant but an interval which recedes into the past and advances into the future. These fringes constitute the background of both whole continuous perceptions and parts of processes experienced as parts. Each focused perception, meanwhile, is also experienced as part of my total experience which includes my visual field plus the sounds, smells, feelings and tastes which I might be concurrently experiencing. Compared to the sensory object in focus, all the others are relatively indistinct.
Past experience plays a role in how I see things. After I first moved to a certain town, I walked down the main street, looking especially at each building individually. Having lived there for a while, I walked down it looking primarily at the streetscape rather than the individual buildings. Looking at a thing properly requires knowing what the thing is. Thus, when I initially saw a metal plate on the outside brick wall of my neighbor’s house, I struggled to get a good look at it, even though it was about a foot square and no more than ten feet away. It looked like a patch on the wall, but such a thing didn’t make sense. One day it lifted out and I saw that it was the cover for an exhaust fan. At that point I saw that it was not flat, but a shallow box with ridges and the manufacturer’s name embossed on it.
Visual objects therefore appear not only in spatial, but in temporal contexts. What I see is not brand new every time I open my eyes. I recognize kinds of things and individual objects, and my recognition consists in comfortably looking at them. Familiarity in fact breeds oblivion. When I see someone for the first time I notice their clothes. Who can say what they saw their spouse last wearing? I have described my expectation for consistency in present experience, but it also exists in non-sequential experience. I go to bed and wake up expecting to still find my body in bed, the room the same as it was last night and the rest of the world generally the same as in the past.
Constructing the Enduring Three-Dimensional World
In addition to seeing, I have tactile sensations associated with images of things in contact with my body. I also have sensations under the skin that I see. So my body is a three-dimensional extended space within and on the surface of which I have sensations.
While sight presents me with two-dimensional visual images, my combined visual and tactile images present a three-dimensional world. The sensations I feel in my hands as I move them around a ball, for instance, constitute the experience of a three-dimensional sphere. I have the sensations of my feet alternately pressing against a horizontal surface as I hold my body in a vertical position. This is the experience of my body walking about, and it is accompanied by changes in the images I see. So, for example, as I walk, I continuously see first one end of a table, a side, the other end, the other side then the first end. This is the visual experience of a solid, three-dimensional table. As I look at any ordinary scene, what I literally see are things like “the end of the table,” which is part of the total visual experience I would have of the table if my body moved all around it. That this is how visual experience works is demonstrated by trompe l’oeil.
The consistent recognition of visual images and their associated tactile sensations is the empirical ground for the belief in enduring solid objects existing outside my body and apart from my experience. I see the door, and I also feel its hardness as I see my hand pushing it open. The “material world” is a construct of ongoing sense experience. This experience is not static or a series of discrete instants, but rather a becoming making my experience of an enduring object a continuous whole. Starting from the time I walk into my room I have a continuous experience of the walls which ends when I leave the room. While I perceive the walls I expect the perception to continue. However if it is night and a light is on, I am jolted if the power suddenly goes off, bringing that experience to an unexpected abrupt end. The case is analogous with certain processes. Looking at a car passing by I see it as a continuous segment of a whole process – the car moving down the street.
The Five Senses
In the course of normal experience my attention is on visual images, so I don’t feel the contact of my body with the chair in which I sit. Nor do I feel the contact of the ground or floor on which I walk. I can watch as my feet move across a surface, but what I mostly see is change in my visual images. While sitting, I look down and see my upper legs in a horizontal position. Then I have certain sensations I correlate with the images of my legs as my body assumes a standing position. As I sat, I had seen the window across the room. Now the image of the window literally grows; I have an image of my arm reaching out, coming into visual contact with the window and I have a sensation of smooth hardness in my fingers.
My visual and tactile perceptions are coordinated, with the position of my body in visual space determining its perspectival quality. I see a mountain on the horizon. Holding up my hand, the image of it and the mountain appear about the same size. When I see my body at the base of the mountain, the image of latter is relatively much larger. The apparent navigation of my body around in my visual space is also such that my visual hand reaches out and grasps the pen, and my body avoids painful collisions with hard vertical surfaces.
I have auditory perceptions in an indefinitely extended auditory space outside my tactile body. I identify sources of sounds with visual images of, say, my alarm clock. Many sounds seem to fill my auditory space which I associate with my visual and tactile spaces. Birds singing, for example, seem to fill the sensory space of my yard.
While tastes are perceived inside my body, smells are also perceived in an indefinite olfactory space outside my body. I may hold a rose to my nose or smell the baking apple pie throughout the house. The apple pie seems to smell and taste about the same, and as I eat the pie, I feel it in my mouth.
My external perceptions have a consistency which makes them representative of an enduring and orderly world. However some of my perceptions are separate from the apparently external material world. I perceive my body lying down on my bed in my dark bedroom. Next my body seems to be back in my high school, where I am feeling anxiety because my homework isn’t done. Then I perceive my body in my bed and the room is filled with daylight. Dreams are a quasi-visual experience that are distinctive for being discontinuous with waking experience, always occurring in between experiences of lying in bed or some other sleeping position.
I can have the experience of memory images, in which I seem to project a different image into the visual space and its contents that I am presently and vividly seeing. I can also have images of imagination, which seem to be novel compositions of memory images. The principal difference between memory images and images of imagination is the ease with which the former appear and are held in the mind. Images of imagination are constructed, requiring effort to create and retain. Both memory images and images of imagination display a broad range of vividness and detail, with the two kinds actually merging into each other. So we can form images of generic objects, and recollection notoriously drifts into imagination. Unlike photographs with dates stamped on them, related memories can get mixed up.
Experience has a consistent pattern. Certain images persist and regularly reappear, so I consider them images of enduring material objects. Experience is also a continuous temporal process, always becoming new, and it entails the expectation that past patterns will persist. So I am comfortable that my room will remain the same over time. On the other hand, when I see the clock reading 5:59, I brace myself to hear the alarm at 6 am. Very unexpected experiences tend to barely register – a car crash, for example. I might be riding along, expecting to continue doing so, when the scenery suddenly stops moving, there is a big jolt and a crashing sound. It would take a few moments to readjust my senses to the new situation.
The images I refer to as “things” in the world display a variety of relations. Many of these are spatial relations. So I see the broken egg, focusing first on the whole egg, then on the yolk. I say that the yolk is inside the egg. I look at two people first together, then separately and say that one is beside the other. I see one person come into a room followed by another and I say that the second one entered later than the other. Again with the broken egg, I look first at the whole egg, then particularly at the yolk, finally particularly at the white and I say the white and the yolk are parts of the whole egg. If I put a pot of water on the stove and let it boil away, I see the cold, then boiling water and finally steam as stages in its vaporization.
Focused perception presents either invariability or change in their objects. As I focus on an image of a person the position of their legs and background may be seen as changing. This is the perception of the person walking. Or, I just see my surroundings changing, look down and see my legs moving. This is the experience of my own body walking. Observation of motion therefore is relative.
The moving thing I focus on continually is the subject, within which I distinguish attributes. I first see the person standing still, then they begin to walk. I can focus on the relative change in the position of their legs, that is, their act of walking, and this is an attribute of the person. I can also focus particularly on their color or their relative size. These are qualities of the image of the person, whom I take to be identical as I focus first on their whole body, then the motion of their legs, their color and size. As with my example of the distinct images of the whole geranium and its parts, images of attributes are taken to be such with the focus on a particular attribute and the rest of the object appearing indistinctly in the background in the image. All the attributes of objects of perception are distinguished in this way. Thus, I visually focus first on the color, then the shape, then the sheen of an apple. These several images of the attributes are separate from the image of the whole apple and present those attributes as literally somewhat different from how they appear in the image of the whole. In the images focused on a single attribute, the rest of the apple and the other attributes appear out of focus, in the background of the attribute in focus.
An important relation among perceptions is that of causality. I drop the egg on the floor and it breaks. I see this sequence every time I drop an egg, so I come to expect to see the egg break whenever I see one dropped. This is the basic model of the experience of cause and effect – repetition of the same sequence.
Erroneously Seeing, Hearing What I Expect
Experience accumulates and compounds, so images become instances of kinds. I come into a town for the first time. I’ve never seen it before, but I recognize it as a town, the houses and trees as these kinds of things. Very unusual objects evoke the same kind of puzzlement as the plate on the wall. For example, I once saw a strange thing under construction on a roadside in South Carolina. It looked rather like a water tower, but the tank was the wrong shape. The object being constructed was the Gaffney Peachoid – a water tower whose tank is shaped as and painted like a peach.
When I expect to see a certain image, I sometimes seem to see it, and then afterwards see the image of the thing I say is really there. Driving about on country roads in the dark, I’m looking for a sign directing me to Kutztown. I see a sign and read “Kutztown” and drive off in the wrong direction. Seeing the sign later in daylight I see “Mertztown” on it. Misreading is a very common form of seeing what I expect and not what is actually on the page. I can also similarly mis-hear spoken words.
The context of an image, that is, images in the visual or auditory space around the one in question and temporally preceding it, set up expectations that produce the misreading or mishearing. Context can also cause me to fail to recognize something familiar. For example, I always saw a certain woman in her office. Then, when I saw her at a ball game, I took her for a stranger, as in my experience her face was always associated with the surrounding images of her office.
An extremely important category of sense perceptions is that of language – the visual experience of written language and the auditory experience of language that is heard. One of the primary functions of language is to name objects and processes. Names are initially learned when I have the auditory experience of someone saying the name and, simultaneously having a visual image of someone pointing to an object. The name and the object become linked in my experience. Not only do I hear other people’s voices saying the name, I have the sensation of my own mouth moving and hear my own voice saying the it. In experience names and objects quickly become universalized: countless different voices are heard saying the same name and countless different individual objects are regarded as the same kind of thing with that name. Proper names are also heard as the same as they are spoken by different voices, and their objects are regarded as the same in countless different views, visual angles, lighting conditions and throughout changes over time.
I have spoken of images of imagination and memory, which seem to be nascent visual images that I attempt to project onto the actual visual scene before me. Much of what we call thinking is of this nature, largely consisting of images of imagination and memory as well as silent speech. When I say I talk to myself in my head, I am referring to something that is like the sound of myself speaking, except it is silent. I am not hearing a voice; neither is the experience in my ears or my brain. It’s in my mouth. Such verbal thinking is what Henri Bergson called “nascent speech” – subtle movements of the mouth which would become audible speech if they were augmented by the appropriate and more forceful movements of the mouth, throat and lungs.1
Either aloud or silently, when I have the visual image of something, I often spontaneously say its name. Sometimes I see something and the name doesn’t come spontaneously. For example, I see a person, and I don’t immediately remember their name, so I cast about for it in my mind. Sometimes I go through the alphabet, seeking the first letter of their name. Usually in this effort a name comes to mind, and I have a sense of fit between it and the face I am seeing. So I call the person that name. Sometimes I’m not fully comfortable with the match I have made, and the person tells me their name isn’t Bob but Bill. Or, I may tell someone a woman’s name is Mary, then some time later “Betty” will come to me and I will realize that is her correct name. I say it’s correct, because I have a strong sense of fit between the name and my memory image of the woman.
Just as I usually recognize and feel comfortable with the visual images of things I see but am puzzled or disturbed those that are out of the ordinary, so is the sense of consistency in my experience of language. When I hear speech in a language I know, I distinguish parts that I recognize. Audible speech is continuous like the continuous visual scene that is always before my eyes and from which I pick out individual objects. Speech that includes jargon that I don’t know can puzzle me as I fixate on the strange words. Highly ungrammatical speech also puts me at a loss. Speech in an unknown language is heard as a continuous stream of sounds in which I distinguish neither individual words nor sentences.
The primary units in linguistic communication are in not words but sentences, even incomplete ones. The experience of understanding a sentence consists in hearing or seeing it as a unit. When comprehension fails, I hear or see the sentence as disconnected words or groups of words. Grasping the meaning of larger linguistic objects such as paragraphs, even books, is likewise a matter of experiencing them as wholes which contain sentences or larger other units as parts. Single words are used in imperative sentences such as “Stop!” but otherwise sentences include multiple words, specifically subjects and predicates. Communication attributes something to an object, for example, “The apple is red.”
As there is a link between the visual image of a kind of thing and the name, so there are links between these images and sentences associated with them. Seeing a red apple, I am comfortable with the sentence, “The apple is red,” and uncomfortable with the sentence, “The apple is green.” Once a language is learned, normal correspondence between descriptions and images establishes truth and its absence falsity.
The grammar of language is correlated with how my acts of focusing define subjects and their attributes. I can focus on the image of the apple, say “apple” then focus specifically on its color and say “red.” Saying “the apple is red” establishes that the apple is the subject and red is an attribute. Similarly, I can attach any number of predicates to the subject “apple” such as “round,” “green,” “ripe,” “rotten,” and so forth. Other possible predicates include “is on the tree,” “was baked in a pie,” “was shipped from Washington state.” Meanwhile, the phrase “apples are round” is a generic statement correlated with a series of experiences of apples.
Part of the experience of language is the definition of words. In the case of common nouns definitions state the essential attributes of their objects, and these figure in my identification of images in my experience. Essential attributes may include a temporal element. So, for example, an apple is defined as a fruit that grows on a tree, and this is one of the ways in which it is distinguished from a tomato, which grows on a vine. A car is defined as a certain kind of moving object, thus a model of a car that didn’t move would not be a car. To correctly identify something as a car, I need to see it move. Taxonomy, or the naming of things and the definitions of those names, can be esoteric. Thus, organisms are ultimately defined by features of their DNA, and these are determined by laboratory observations.
In addition to essential ones there are unessential or accidental attributes. An apple with black blotches on it is essentially an apple accidentally afflicted by a fungal disease. I therefore call the thing an “apple with black spots,” and focus alternately on the apple and the spots.
Language can not only relate to actual experiences, but also appear to generate imaginary images. News and history represent present and past events, while fiction represents imaginary ones. Language is based on unambiguous sensory images, but it also represents many subtle, complex and abstract objects of sense and imagination. For example, in a mystery the murderer has a motive such as jealousy, revenge or avarice. There is no single sensory image of these mental states, so the author describes the actions of the perpetrator and the events in their life that collectively represent a person motivated by these emotions. Similarly, in accounts of actual events, writers explain the “aggression” of a country’s leaders by describing, for example, the Cuban missile build-up or “peacemaking” by describing truces, border adjustments and diplomatic discussions. The abstract words I have mentioned are correlated with not just a few veridical images of my own experience, but bodies of past and imaginary experience, much of which is itself linguistic.
Language in fact has a huge life of its own. Natural language involves rules of grammar and logic, the principal one among the latter being the law of non-contradiction. In addition, I have learned history, geography, science, current affairs and fiction. New linguistic experience is read or heard in light of past experience. If the new information fits with my past experience, it seems familiar like my experience of recognizing individual things and kinds of things. The new experience seems to become comfortably integrated with my past experience. If the new experience does not fit, I don’t comprehend it; I puzzle over it or reject it. So evolution apparently does not fit into the understanding of creationists: it doesn’t make sense to them, and they can’t accept it as true.
Thinking as well as education, consist in inserting new information into the body of one’s total experience. New language and images are admitted, so to speak, if they are not resisted. Children are fed all kinds of information which they readily swallow and digest to the extent that it is repeated to them and they repeat it back. Like the experience I described of moving to a new town – first focusing on individual buildings, then later the whole streetscape – new information tends to be received initially as separate pieces. Over time, these pieces seem to become integrated with each other and the rest of my understanding. I can create new understanding as well. Thinking about some matter, different words and images come to me in a process known as the association of ideas. The thought process is like finding the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and assembling them to form the complete picture. At first the final product is like the completed puzzle with the edges of all the pieces clearly visible. This is subsequently replaced with the experience of imaginary or linguistic contents that represent the picture as a seamless whole and integrated into my total experience.
Mathematics is a distinct part of language as a whole which is ultimately correlated with visual images. I look at a single person, focusing just on them and say, “One.” Then I focus on them and a person beside them together and say, “Two.” I go through the process of counting to ten touching each of my fingers in turn. I extend a tape measure from a person’s feet to the top of their head, look at the top number and say “Five feet eight inches.” This measurement defines the person’s height. Another person stands beside the first one and the tops of their heads are level, so I say “Their heights are equal.” Once the things I see are counted and measured, endless mathematical calculations can be performed with the numbers.
Measurement of things involves a whole realm of quantitative definitions. I hold an apple in my hand and feel a certain pressure. A scale gives the apple’s weight. Placing the apple on a triple-beam balance gives the value of its mass, which is defined as the quantity of matter in the apple. I can throw an apple and measure its velocity, defined as distance divided by time. Falling from a tree, its acceleration is defined by the time of the fall multiplied by 9.81 m/s². Science redefines everything in the world in terms of technical definitions based primarily on specialized measurements.
Science also asserts that the universe is governed by natural laws, which are the observed patterns reported by scientists and technicians. Ordinary people observe pressure in their hands and the weight of objects on scales, while scientists deal with qualities specially defined and observed. What is “force”? It is the quantity of mass times acceleration, which is conserved in the collisions of bodies. If I drop a brick on my toe I don’t perceive force, but rather a certain tactile sensation and pain. I watch a wrecking ball strike a building, and I say that the force of the swinging ball caused the building to collapse. So “force” is the name of the cause of the building’s collapse, a name I attach to my image which is literally only of the swinging ball striking the building. Science translates accounts of experiences in common language into its own scientific language.
I understand the world in terms of scientific explanations, much of which is without direct representation in my experience. While my body is experienced by me as so many internal and superficial sensations as well as visual and auditory images, the science of anatomy presents my body as consisting of so many parts that I do not see or never will see. If I am cut, I see blood running from the wound; otherwise I do not see my own blood, organs, cells and the rest. Anatomy for my experience is a picture of my body provided in books and in spoken language presumably derived from observations of other people.
According to neurophysiology experience itself is an affair of cells, light, chemicals and so forth that takes place inside the physical body depicted by anatomy, and especially inside my head, in my brain. I personally observe none of this. What I see is not my experience in my body, but my body in my experience. Indeed, no scientific investigator has ever gained access to my experience, or anyone else’s, and they certainly have never found it inside someone’s head.
Science therefore trades in phenomena that I never observe, and plenty of entities that it admits that no one ever has or ever will observe. These include other minds. Another such mystery object is the quantum, which is said to be an identical object that presents contradictory properties, depending on the means used to indirectly observe it. While I see plenty of fossils, no one claims to have seen a living dinosaur. In fact, geologic history is a scientific hypothesis, for who is to say that the universe didn’t come into being ten thousand years ago, even ten minutes ago, when all the fossils as well as my memories were suddenly created?
Science has a practical purpose, so the truth of the quantum, other minds, geologic history and so forth really have no impact on its applications. The hypothetical and even prescriptive aspect of science is especially critical when it affects public affairs. Thus, while climate history cannot be conclusively verified, present observations demand that the precautionary principle be applied. On the other hand, social Darwinism and neoliberal economic theory with its mythical God-almighty, supreme information-processing market are scientific models that are currently doing much harm in the world.
While the principal unit of language is the sentence, there are countless other kinds of linguistic units – titles, poems, articles, oral presentations, plays, dialogues, chapters, fiction and non-fiction books. These are experienced as units, just like other sensory objects. Obviously I can read just parts of written works or listen to just parts of spoken presentations, but I am aware of their incompleteness. The question and answer forms a notable pair or group of sentences. I ask someone a question, and I expect to hear them say an answer. “What time is it?” I ask, and they normally say such-and-such o’clock. If they don’t answer, my expectation is unfulfilled. Or, they may give an answer that doesn’t sound right to me. They say, “5 am,” but I say, “It’s broad day.” So I look at the clock, either see a different time on it or find that the clock has stopped.
This is the basic model of understanding verbal experience. I may be comfortable with what I hear, reject it as wrong or find it inadequate. What I expect is a complete answer or explanation. Much of the completeness of such objects is furnished by my past experience – the accumulation of verbal and non-verbal images plus a huge mass of past information. Some of this is consistent, and some is rather compartmentalized. For example, personal life is fairly separate from public affairs. Certain information may be experienced as conflicting with other information, giving me discomfort that is removed when a satisfactory resolution of the conflict is provided. The theory of evolution, for example, gives a completely natural explanation of how humans came to be and what they are. Creationism is a rival explanation which accounts for evil, something that doesn’t exist in the evolutionist’s world. Finally, evolution is all about the survival of the fittest, while the current progressive model makes cooperation the primary natural instinct. Which is right? Post-modernism would have that neither are, insisting that there are no ultimate answers, which leaves me still wondering.
I say that that I believe information that I can verify with my own senses and that provided by authorities that I accept. I don’t believe things because they are true; rather, I say they are true because I believe them. I therefore have a vast conception of the world that has been communicated to me through language. Much of this is supplemented with photographic images, which I believe are images that I would see if I were in the location in which they are or were taken and at the time they are or were taken.
Our understanding of the world is not so many immediate observations or reports of such observations. There is always some underlying narrative that casts bare facts in a certain light. As this narrative or “spin” is consistently applied, it reinforces the total picture of the world according to that narrative.
I have spoken of images that are confusing, which I am unable to comfortably see. There are also experiences of things, events and situations that I deem wrong. My accumulated experience thus imposes standards on present experience. A word is misspelled: “her’s” appears in place of “hers.” One driver cutting off another on the highway is seen as wrong, as I normally expect drivers to observe safe practices. I view the whole Trump political era is as a corruption of the American political tradition, although plenty of people appear delighted with it.
Perceptions are often accompanied by feelings which include immediate sensations and emotions. All of these may be classified as so many varieties of pleasure or pain, and these distinctions are the criteria for judging feelings to be good or bad.
I have the image of accidentally hitting my thumb with a hammer, and I feel pain in the thumb. I feel countless kinds of pain on the surface and inside my body, and they are all bad. There are also repellent tastes, odors and sounds which are bad as well. Meanwhile, there are all the well-known varieties of immediate sensory pleasure which we recognize as good.
In addition to these bodily perceptions, there is the whole host of more diffuse states known as emotions. I call these states various emotional colorings of sense experience, for they tend to saturate all the rest of the experience I am having at a particular time. The qualities of emotions are, like those of sense perception, immediate. That is, as red is the quality of a visual image, so joy or any other emotion is the quality of an emotional state. These things are objects of direct experience and cannot be explained apart from it. In discussing the emotions I take their quality as given and focus on the kinds of inner and outer perceptions ordinarily associated with them.
Thus, perceiving my body sitting in a cushioned chair, surrounded by images of the interior of my house, I feel comfortable. If I had an image of my home destroyed by a tornado, I would feel horrified and distraught. While my experience is private to me, meaning that I have only sensory images of the bodies of other people with no access to their perceptions or feelings, my image of a family by the remains of their home destroyed by a tornado is also accompanied by feelings of distress.
As my body is subject to painful feelings of hunger, cold and injury, so my images of people who are malnourished, without shelter from cold and rain as well as victims of injury are also accompanied by feelings of distress. If I experience someone acting rudely toward me, I feel offended and feel the same when I witness rudeness toward other people. If I perceive another person abusing me, I feel moral indignation and also if I observe abuse of other people.
Especially through media, my experience is loaded with images of death, destruction and injustice, and this does produce a degree of numbness. Still, there is a persistent sense that “the times are out of joint,” that something is radically wrong with the whole picture. While the things I have described are objects of distress for me, I perceive images of certain other people who appear either not distressed or pleased by such things. I observe that there is a breed of people who appear to take pleasure in knowing that police are murdering unarmed African Americans, young children are being seized from their parents at the border and countless civilians are being killed in war. These people are rightly called sadistic and immoral. Still, feelings occur in personal and historical contexts. We understand that some of the injustice and cruelty which are normally abhorrent today has historically been accepted. One need only look at the record of genocide of Native Americans, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and black slavery.
Six emotions that are prevalent today are fear, dread, anxiety, depression, anger, and hate. These are associated with specific other kinds of experiences. I may fear something specific or be in a generalized state of fear. Thus I specifically felt fear in connection with the thought that Trump would fill another Supreme Court seat and I generally felt fear when I thought about the actions of his administration and its support from Congress. Fear is of things that may or may not happen, while dread is felt in regard to certainties. So, I dreaded seeing the morning news reports of Trump’s latest actions. Anxiety is a generalized uncomfortable anticipation of painful experience. For example I felt anxious as I thought of the country moving toward authoritarianism. Depression is a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Anger is an attitude associated with images of a particular target or category of targets as well as the experience of strong speech and aggressive actions aimed at removing the offending actions or actors. Hate is a feeling of hostility correlated with images of particular persons or things and experiences aimed at removing them, at least from my experience. I feel hatred in connection with thoughts about several public figures and feel pain with visual or auditory images of them but not, however with the experience of reading printed information about them. I also hate television, will not have one in my house and feel pain whenever I am in a place where I experience one playing.
Another kind of painful emotion that appears widespread today is that of dashed hope. The feeling of hope is a sense of desire directed at an imaginary image of a future state of affairs while one also experiences the body acting to realize it. Thus I feel hope as I experience my body planting biennial flower seeds in pots in the spring, caring for them all summer and finally putting them in the ground in the fall, all the while imagining the beautiful flowers they will produce the following spring. Then I perceive them gone, with evidence that a groundhog has destroyed the lot. My feeling of hope is replaced by feelings of horror and intense disappointment, while my beautiful image is obliterated. This is a trivial example, but my experience is filled with representations of people suffering serious dashed hopes: college graduates with crushing student debt are underemployed; individuals and segments of entire generations suffer downward mobility.
Related to the emotion of dashed hope is dissatisfaction. This is the feeling that what I experience isn’t right. I have the experience of going to a fundraising dinner, eat a decent amount of the food and leave hungry. I observe the primary in a crucial midterm election being held with the turnout being only 12%. In these cases what appears wrong is not specific, such as the food tasting too salty or noting that a blizzard depressed turnout. I don’t analyze the situation, I just feel that it’s not right.
Another feeling of the times is frustration, which can be defined as repeated disappointment. I experience my body repeatedly cleaning the carpet, yet the appearance of dirt remains. I have the experience of persisting in asking people to do things; I hear them say they will but I then I often do not see them doing it. I have the experience of calling through a list of a hundred voters with only a couple picking up their phones.
Antipathy and alienation are other common contemporary feelings. As an activist, I have had the experience of being in situations where most, if not all, of the people in the room seem to be hostile toward me, and the feeling is mutual. Perceiving my body handing out Bernie flyers at a fair attended by a significant number of Trump supporters, I feel antipathy toward the crowd that I see. When I experience someone I call in a phonebank for a candidate aggressively complaining about me calling them, there is also antipathy. Alienation is the feeling that I don’t fit in, maybe in a social group, maybe in the world at this time. Walter Mosley captures the pervasive feeling of alienation among African Americans in the title of his book Life Out of Context.2
Other emotions that are all too common today are those of feeling disrespected and resentment. When I have the experience of speaking and being ignored, interrupted or dismissed, I also have the feeling of being disrespected. This emotion may be correlated with a projection of my feeling of hostility onto the people I view as causing my pain. In other words, I consider their conduct as intended to hurt me. Inequality of opportunity and wealth in a system of economic privilege appears to have generated widespread resentment by the unprivileged against the privileged. Indeed, in our neoliberal culture, the principal social relation is competition. In Babbitt Paul Riesling exposes the truth about competition: it’s goal is not to achieve something, but to defeat the opponent.3 So social relations tend to be fraught with antagonism, often consisting of subtle or overt bullying. Targets of offensive conduct apparently also feel indignation while defensive conduct is correlated with feelings of persecution and victimization.
Our system that revolves around competition promotes false hopes and rewards unfairness. Vast numbers of people are underemployed relative to their education and experience, and many people get ahead of others in virtue of inherited privilege and bootlicking. Those who lose out are seen to regard this as injustice, consider the system rigged, and consequently feel anger.
There is a large array of unpleasant emotions or attitudes which are reflected in bodily sensations. These include disgust, depression, resignation, powerlessness and despair, which are all correlated with reduced mental and physical activity. Pity is pain that I feel as I perceive someone else’s suffering. Self-pity is the painful condition of dwelling on my own misfortune. In our time confusion and the feeling of being overwhelmed by events and information are common. The response to these feelings can be escapism – blocking on the experiences linked to negative feelings.
Lack of experience related to the world is commonly associated with boredom, while blocking on certain parts of it may be correlated with indifference, apathy and thoughtlessness. Perceiving the evidence of these attitudes in other people involves painful feelings for me. Pervasive hostility and indifference is seen as correlated with loneliness, isolation and balkanization of people. The effort to avoid antagonism, meanwhile, appears to be linked with groupthink and tribalism.
In contrast with this range of bad feelings and emotions, numerous others are recognized as good. Pleasure is generally considered good, but it is also judged in context. Thus while enjoying food and drink is good, the sequence of overindulging, then feeling pain afterwards is considered bad.
The absence of bodily pain is well-being, which is not a feeling. However, positive attitudes such as cheerfulness, hopefulness, joie de vivre and simple comfort may be counted as emotions as they color sense perception. In these states of mind I experience enjoyment of particular things such as ordinary food, the scenery and other people’s company.
There is an array of pleasant feelings or states of mind associated with perceiving my body in the company of other people. These include affection, conviviality, camaraderie and solidarity. Friendliness is a feeling of warmth among people, and neighborliness is the same feeling between neighbors. These last two are accompanied by perception of relevant actions, as are the rest of the positive social emotions which include kindness, graciousness, charity, gratitude and respect.
Love refers to two distinct emotions. A feeling of love for a lover, spouse, parents and children is a certain pleasure associated with the experience of my body coexisting with the beloved. There can be feelings of love for a pet, a place or an inanimate thing as well. Love is also desire, which is a pleasant feeling accompanying the experience of an initial or intermediate part of a kind of continuous process that reaches some kind of satisfying or pleasurable fulfillment. In such cases I say that I “desire” the outcome of the process that I expect. Thus, when I desire some coffee, I perceive my body performing the actions of making it. My expectations are not always fulfilled, and when this happens, I feel some degree of pain in the form of shock, disappointment, grief and so on.
I have mentioned pleasures such as enjoying food and drink that, in excess, lead to pain. Excessive love of food and drink are gluttony and intemperance, which are bad forms of love. Excess in fact renders all forms of love bad. Greed or excessive love of material wealth, indeed all obsessive loves, are accompanied by pain, or at least loss of other kinds of pleasure. Sadism is such a bad form of pleasure that it must be deemed pathological.
Caring is a blend of the two forms of love, and it is consistently correlated with perceptions of my body acting in certain ways. The desire involved in caring is the desire to perceive the object cared for in a state of well-being. Caring for my family means that I desire to experience them as healthy and comfortable and entails perceiving certain actions of my body. These include providing good food for them and making repairs to the house when they are needed. My desire to experience the well-being of my family and house is fulfilled when I perceive my body performing these actions and the positive effects of good nutrition and home maintenance. I can say I care about my family, but seeing my body feeding them junk food and the effects of such a diet can’t properly be called caring. Such “caring” may be a warm feeling, but is otherwise neglect. Weak or strong, the pleasant feeling of caring accompanies the experience of myself performing caring actions.
Feelings may be mixed and caring often is. If I perceive that someone I care for is in danger, I fear that they may be injured. So if I hear or read of some disaster in which they might have been a victim, I feel fear as I perceive my body proceeding to make contact to determine their condition. The experience of going to unusual lengths, even putting the body at risk to protect or save someone or something raises caring to the level of courage. As Eddie Rickenbacker said, “There can be no courage unless you are scared.” Self-sacrifice on a lesser scale for an object of care is nobility.
There are many varieties of caring defined in terms of their objects and duration. These include loyalty and patriotism. Caring to abide by the truth and laws is integrity. Self-care can refer to actions for maintaining the health of the body or one’s life record, which is one’s character. Caring for one’s character involves the experience of the body practicing of the classic virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance and justice and feeling the consequent moral satisfaction which outweighs the negative feelings related to the inevitable consequent bad treatment by other people.
Self-respect is a good emotion that, taken to an extreme is egotism, which is bad. As practicing the virtues is good, so grandiosity is bad. High-mindedness, which resists the bad emotions, maximizes the good. This attitude and pattern of behavior stresses courtesy and includes painful contrition when apology must be made.
My discussion of love and desire has highlighted the forms that are most familiar and vivid. Experience, meanwhile, is filled with more subtle forms. Determination can be described as a keen desire to perceive my body achieving a certain goal. I want to win the game, that is, I want to see my team as the winner, and I experience bodily activity to that end. I experience my body speaking with the intention of subsequently hearing a certain response from my listener. Again, I desire that outcome, and the actions of my body correspond to that intent. As I have stated, expecting to see something is also a desire to see it, and normal experience is filled with expectations of what comes next. If I suddenly fail to see what I expect, I feel stunned or shocked. Such failure may also be more mild. Thus, I expect to see darkness at night, and I would be disturbed if I didn’t, as would be the case if I were in the very far north in summertime.
I give the unease that I feel when my expectation fails the general name of “dissonance,” which I define as a combination of the word’s two standard definitions. The latter are: 1. a lack of agreement and 2. a mingling of sounds that strike the ear harshly. My definition is “a lack of agreement that is experienced as discomfort.”
As I desire certain experiences, so I am averse to their non-occurrence. Losing the game is painful; a “no” answer is disappointing when I sought a “yes,” and I feel uneasy when I do not see the sun go down at night. We are presently witnessing mass disappointment. Millions of people have believed that if they worked hard and played by the rules they would be rewarded with a secure middle-class life. Yet their hopes have been dashed. They appear both full of resentment and, like the Cargo Cult, to cling to faith in a magical deliverance.
It is obviously possible to adjust to failed expectations. I can become accustomed to experiences such as the midnight sun. Indeed, as my experience of moving to a new town shows, the newness of experiences wears away and they become normalized. Unfortunately at present the world is at risk of many initially outrageous things becoming normalized and ceasing to disturb people.
Desire is expectation for which a certain kind of subsequent experience represents fulfillment. Desire and fulfillment therefore form a single continuous experience. If the whole experience is completed, there is some positive feeling, at least of a fulfilled expectation. The whole experience may not achieve the desired completion as it may be interrupted by some unexpected experience or it may simply fail. A game may be interrupted by a rainstorm, or one’s team may just lose. The nonfulfillment of desire is experienced as shock, disappointment or unease. Of course there are pleasant surprises in which the shock is quickly succeeded by some pleasure at an unexpected turn of events. The shock may actually be pleasant. So, in seeing a game which has a last-minute reversal, there is an initial desire to win. However as it is about to end, resignation to loss sets in. Then, when the final points are scored, the feeling of loss is suddenly replaced by an especially intense positive feeling of triumph.
This last illustration involves expectation of some painful experience. Such expectations are accompanied by the emotions of fear, dread or anxiety that I have described above. So they are actually mixed insofar as they involve a desire for a predictable process to reach its usual fulfillment, which happens to be painful. Thus, I dread how I will feel when I go outside in a heavy snow storm, but I also expect this experience to be consistent with my past experience in such conditions.
As the focus of my gaze defines what the enduring objects of my experience are, so my expectations define the processes that I experience. The feeling of desire is pleasant, and hope springs eternal, so life is full of more and less realistic expectations. These are more and less realistic interpretations of events which are often accompanied by imaginary images of the fulfilled hope. I have stated that experience doesn’t present a material world with an unequivocal nature, and the range of such interpretations infused with desires is further confirmation of this. Still, one usually gets “reality checks” on their wishes and expectations. There may, however be delusion of varying degrees, extreme examples being Trump consistently spinning his defeats as wins.
There is obviously order in the world that I experience, and this represents the general fulfillment of my expectations for it, which is my desire for my experience to be orderly, consistent and harmonious. When this desire is fulfilled I feel some degree of pleasure which, at a minimum, is satisfaction. Conversely, the nonfulfillment of this desire is accompanied by some degree of pain, the least forms of which are dissatisfaction and unease. While the fulfillment of an expectation can be painful, and the state of expectation is a state of fear or dread, it still involves a desire for order in experience. In practice, fear is typically mixed with an overriding desire or hope that one’s actions will overcome the threat.
Good and Bad Perceptions
Given that for experience pleasure and pain are the standards for good and bad respectively, these judgments may be extended to the rest of the kinds of experience. I have mentioned the desire to have the perceptions of people and things which are associated with my feelings of love and caring to be perceptions of them in good condition. As such perceptions are accompanied by feelings of pleasure, they are good perceptions. Earlier I spoke about recognizing images as being of specific things and unfamiliar or impaired images. A good experience of something is one in which there is comprehension, by which I mean an immediate and clear grasp of what the thing is. In a blizzard I can’t distinguish different things, so my images of the road, the street sign and so forth are bad. My experience of the blizzard, meanwhile is excellent. I also have a bad experience of some strange object: I don’t know how to look at it, as illustrated by my seeing the exhaust fan cover. I further expect what I see to be consistent. My husband has always worn a beard except for one time when he shaved it off for a photograph. His suddenly appearing without a beard gave me a turn.
The expectations I have for images are reflected in basic language. I have particular expectations for particular things and those named by proper nouns, while I have generic expectations for those things in my experience named by common nouns. My expectations are of experiences with all my senses. So, I see a man I have never met; to me he is just a man. When he opens his mouth to speak, I expect to hear a normal human voice. However, it sounds electronic! This initially shocks me, but I quickly realize that he has an artificial larynx.
So a good experience of something is an experience that fulfills my expectation for the experience. My generic image of a house, for example, conforms to the definition of a house: a structure with four walls, a roof, windows and door used as a human dwelling. Images that meet this definition are good experiences of houses. An image of a house with the roof blown off, or one gutted by fire are bad experiences of houses. If I am invited to a home and expect to find a house, but see instead a castle or a tent, I am taken aback. The images of the castle or the tent are bad experiences of a house, so I replace my expectation of seeing a house with one that matches what I now see.
I am not satisfied with the image of the house with the roof blown off or the one gutted by fire. I have a desire to see them repaired or replaced. Repeated experience, as I have stated, renders things more acceptable to sense. So, if I have repeatedly seen a roofless house, I am surprised when after a considerable time I see it with a new roof. Still, all my experiences of the roofless house were bad experiences of a house. Things have multiple identities and can be seen in different lights. If I were a roofer, the sight of the roofless house would be delightful, as I would see it as an opportunity for a roofing job.
These last examples illustrate the aspect of caring in experience. I want to see proper houses, not ruined ones, and if my business is to repair them, I want to experience myself restoring them. So, when I walk into my garden I expect to see all the plants thriving, or at least as much as they were the last time I looked. If I now see the tall flowers blown down by a wind storm, I am disturbed and perceive my body promptly fetching stakes and setting them upright. At this point I feel satisfaction not only with the appearance of the flowers, but also with that of my body’s successful work to restore them.
It is quite otherwise when I suddenly find my grapevines covered with nymphs of the exotic and invasive spotted lantern fly, against which there is no known safe and immediately lethal defense. I feel despair, but experience my body going out to buy a large supply of neem, which is a safe but slow-acting killer of the flies. Feeling optimism, I perceive my body start to spray, but after several days, I still see plenty of them. My optimism fades, as feelings of fear and despair arise. I perceive my body continuing to spray, feeling hope to still eradicate the pests, which, at a later stage in their life cycle threaten to kill most of the trees in my yard and whose species threatens to kill many kinds of trees and vines in a large area of my state.
My position with the lantern flies is a microcosm of the overall situation with good and bad experience. The sight of damaged grapevines or vines coated with lethal pests are bad perceptions of grapevines. On the other hand, vines and other plants with pollinators on and around them are good perceptions. Perception of a forest that has suffered extensive emerald ash borer damage is a bad experience of a forest, although it is a good perception of such insect damage. My experience of seeing the infested grapevines is additionally painful because seeing my garden is a considerable source of pleasure for me. Now my image is somewhat spoiled. Another important aspect of this matter is my past twenty-five years of experiencing my body working to make my garden the attractive sight that it is. The flies somewhat dash decades of expecting to see reward for my body’s effort in it. Enjoying my garden has become an important part of my life, my experience. Now my life and my experience are under attack and I feel violated.
If the spraying is perceived as successful, I will feel pleasure, indeed somewhat heroic, for seeing my body overcome the attack. However, my enjoyment is threatened and destroyed on an ever-growing scale. I drive into the country, and I see many trees damaged by the flies. I dread taking my usual hike on the Appalachian Trail, where so many trees have already been killed by emerald ash borers and the lantern flies are moving in.
So as I perceive my body try to kill them and defend my yard from being damaged by them, there are many other attacks on my enjoyment that I feel powerless or nearly powerless to resist. Most of these attacks ultimately consist of human activity. For example, at times it is unusually hot and dry; I’m uncomfortable; I see my garden stressed; a drought emergency has been declared and nonessential water use is banned. The tick population is seen as higher than normal because the winter was mild. My body can’t do much outside and it must avoid deer habitats that contain deer ticks. These are the immediate ways in which climate change is affecting me. My body acts to conserve energy and support climate action, but I witness the current government flagrantly escalating the climate crisis.
I have previously discussed perceiving whole objects and their parts. A geranium plant, for example, consists of three visible parts (the roots are buried in the soil and therefore not seen). The parts are the stems, the leaves and the flowers. Looking at the geranium as a whole, I see all the parts and their colors, with the outline of the whole plant being most distinct. If it’s in good condition, I have a good perception of the plant. When I focus on a particular leaf as a part of the whole plant I see its colors (mostly green with dark veins), and what is most distinct is the outline of the leaf. This is also a good perception of a leaf. If I look individually at the parts and find them good, I have good perceptions of both the whole and the parts of the plant. If a few of the leaves are yellow, they are bad, and the whole is no longer entirely good. If most of the leaves are yellow, then the plant is in bad condition, that is, the whole is bad.
Something that I can see as a whole has a perceptual unity. I see a nursery shelf of geraniums as a whole and also a yard with some geraniums in it. A geranium in a vase on a table does not constitute a whole, but dishes, silverware and centerpiece are a whole table setting. A yard that is a masterpiece of landscape architecture is beautiful, and so is an artistic table setting. The different parts of these images harmonize to give the whole a special unity. Looking at the whole yard, I feel aesthetic pleasure, which I don’t feel if I look at a particular geranium in the yard, or any other particular thing in it. The beauty is in the whole composition, as in a work of art each portion is indivisible with the whole. Thus, the beauty of Mona Lisa’s face is conditioned by the appearance of her body and the background in the painting.
I have concentrated on visual experience and beautiful visual images, but what I have said also applies to experiences with the other senses. Music is beautiful sounds, and a composition is an aesthetic temporal unity. I have mentioned the case of the combined qualities of wine, and cuisine aims to create pleasing combinations of food, from the simple sandwich to the gourmet meal. The taste of food and drink lingers and combines with subsequent flavors that are tasted. Some apparently simple smells are considered beautiful, for example, the fragrance of a rose. Aesthetic combinations of smells are more associated with cooking, for example, the smell of the apple pie, and perfumes. Bodily sensations that are judged to be aesthetic include the dancer’s experience of dancing.
Objects arouse aesthetic pleasure not only in virtue of their unity and harmonization of elements. They must also have some degree of complexity. A solid white canvas certainly has unity, but could only be counted as art if it were making a statement such as, “This is anti-art.” In this case its context in space (such as an exhibition) or in the experience of the viewers supplies the complex material to be harmonized in the viewers’ experience of the painting. Otherwise the harmonized substance is principally in the work. This goes for visual and auditory art. Among works of art we distinguish between the simple, complex and baroque. The art of Lascaux and the Sistine Chapel are both beautiful, as are both folk music and symphonies.
Cultural context is part of the experience of art. Much historical and prehistoric art has religious significance. This includes temples, shrines, icons, idols and sacred music. Religious rituals may include singing and dancing by all the participants. Religious art requires the viewer to recognize who and what is represented, and literature contains references to historical events, characters and culture. Much of the appeal of rituals is precisely their ritual nature.
On the other hand, variety and novelty play a role in aesthetic experience. Art is always special, a break from the mundane, whether the experience is regular, like attending service in a magnificent cathedral, or unique, like viewing the King Tut exhibition. Seeing original Mona Lisas everywhere would destroy their magic. Even fantastic houses and gardens are intended more to impress outsiders than the residents, who may continue to enjoy their homes but no longer have the particular aesthetic experience felt by visitors.
Art is the model for aesthetic experience, but there is also immense natural beauty, figuratively attributed to divine artistry. Natural beauty possesses the attributes of the artistic kind, that is, harmony, complexity and rarity. In addition, intense experience of natural beauty includes the sense of wonder. Experiences of living organisms feature remarkable unity, with whole ones always perceived as wholes and their parts as parts. This contrasts with experience of nonliving objects or artifacts. I can look at a pile of rocks or one rock separately, a brick wall or a single brick. This is also true for organic communities formed by schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of mammals and intact ecosystems. Organic parts can only be perceived as separate and distinct insofar as they are viewed in some other respect. Examples are a tree branch viewed as a prong on which to hang a bird feeder or as the support for a bird’s nest. In our world of mostly disturbed nature and man-made objects, the organic unity in experiences of natural objects increasingly provides aesthetic pleasure. Conversely its absence arouses degrees of discomfort, even grief, which may figure in feelings of fear of natural destruction.
Aesthetic experience can engage multiple senses. Dining always involves taste, smell and the feel of the food and drink in the mouth and throat. I also hear my teeth crunching crisp foods. The presentation of the food, the table and the place can be beautiful as well. There can be beautiful music, beautifully dressed guests, dancing and beautiful speech. Wedding parties aim to combine all of these to make for totally beautiful weddings. A play consists of an aesthetic combination of scenery, costumes, acting, dialogue and possibly music.
Literature is aesthetic composition with words which may be read or spoken. In addition to their aesthetic aspect, literary works have meanings. They often present a particular story or sequence of particular images that communicate a certain general sense to the reader. Through the story of Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment conveys the message that conscience compels confession and atonement. The reader enters, so to speak, this message in their file of experience, cast in the character and plot of the novel. That filed experience illuminates subsequent experience of people who are judged to act guilty of some offense. From the novel the reader has learned that guilty people tend to feel uncomfortable about their action and have an urge to be absolved of it. This knowledge is manifested not as memory images of the novel nor recital of the lesson, but as an attitude or belief in the guilt of a particular person before them.
The representations made in literature are not necessary and universal, so I can’t assume that the person in front of me is driven by the same impulses as Raskolnikov. The novel is fiction, not factual history, much less science. I have previously raised the matter of information expressed in language and I shall now distinguish the good and bad forms of it.
If someone speaks to me in a language I don’t know, this is a bad experience of language. Likewise, if I pick up a newspaper, and it is in some language I don’t know, this is also a bad experience. Even overhearing people speak in an unknown language is a bad experience for me because understanding is essential to the experience of language.
Obviously if the volume is too low or background noise is too high, I won’t properly hear and understand speech. Similarly with written language, if the ink has run or it is too faint, my experience is bad. A person can express themselves poorly, so I don’t understand what they are getting at, or they can use unknown jargon, make unfamiliar allusions, and so forth. They can also have a foreign accent which makes their speech hard to understand. In all of these cases, understanding fails because of some issue with my hearing or reading it. As I have previously explained, some speech or writing may be perceived perfectly but not understood. It is experienced as so many disconnected words or phrases rather than a whole sentence, paragraph or larger unit, making it a bad experience of such a unit.
Otherwise, I can sometimes hear or read language perfectly well, but still have a bad experience. If I see a red apple and hear “the apple is green,” this is a bad experience of that statement: it doesn’t match my visual experience. On a more complex level, I may perceive my body as the victim of a car accident and perceive it describing the experience one way, and the guilty driver describing it very differently. My experience of his description is bad because it doesn’t match my recollection. Conflicting interpretations of people’s shared experiences are well known.
The matter moves to another level in the absence of eyewitnesses. So, I read that Trump said that Canadians burned the White House in the War of 1812. This is a bad experience, because for much of my life the information I have held is that it was the British who burned the White House in that war. I count my information as a fact reported in my grade school textbook. As with the message of Crime and Punishment, I don’t recall the image of the text or even recite the fact: it surfaces solely in the dissonance I feel with Trump’s statement.
Language figures enormously in my experience as today, life is dominated by information. The critical experience is understanding, which combines present and past direct sensory experience of things, events and information. The experience of understanding is good if the present direct experience or information is accompanied by a feeling of comfort or pleasure. That is, it is good if it fits with my present and past experience. There is also the “aha” experience, in which a new connection is made. New insight can further come as a revelation that reconfigures past understanding, bringing a profound sense of harmony to one’s experience of some matter.
Conversely, such experiences are bad if I feel dissonance. The opposite of the “aha” experience is cognitive dissonance, in which new information is experienced as so alien, indeed threatening to established understanding, that it strengthens belief in the latter. An extremely bad experience of understanding is shattered illusion in which new experience destroys the fit or harmony within significant portions of past experience. This can leave people feeling themselves shattered, or they can be left simply disillusioned. Alternatively, they can experience conversion with the kind of revelation I described above.
As I have new experiences of understanding, I feel either comfort or dissonance because my whole experience reflects a desire for coherence, indeed produces coherence as it actively organizes its contents. Coherence is fit and minimal harmonization of components, yet there is evidently also desire for coherence of an aesthetic order. All of my past experience bears on new experience at every moment, as my total experience snowballs over time. It is an organic unity in which organic parts may be identified.
Like books and topics, my understanding consists of so many parts that together make the whole of my understanding. A total good understanding is one in which both all the parts and the whole are good. These parts include all of my direct sensory experience and the information related to them.
I have already described the most basic level of good experience. These include proper naming, as in “this is an apple” while I see an apple as opposed to “this is an orange.” It also includes distinct perception such as in broad daylight, not a blizzard. Beyond this is good experience of the attributes and relations of things correlated with statements such as “the apple is red,” and “the apple is growing on the tree.”
There is then information representing things that I don’t directly experience, which is generally the substance of basic education – geography, history and science. I can’t verify any of this information with my own direct experience. Indeed, apart from eyewitness reporting of current events, historians rely on records. For me, therefore, good understanding of such information is understanding based on good records, ideally created by eyewitnesses.
So the material of good understanding counts, as far as possible, as factually true as opposed to false. It is also coherent. Geography doesn’t describe so many places in isolation. Rather, the discipline presents a total picture of the earth. Similarly, history and science strive to present total pictures of human events and nature. The latter disciplines are not themselves totally consistent, and my own experience of them is limited and fragmented. Good understanding for me of historical and scientific matters could certainly not be complete, but it must be, as far as possible, consistent.
Past experience generates the expectation that the present and the future will be like the past, so this is the value of good understanding. The purpose of science is control, so its application directs action with predictable outcomes. Accurate historical understanding has the same value. If tax cuts for the rich have historically failed to lift the 99%, the rational expectation is that repeating the move will have the same effect. Much science is actually ongoing experiments, for example, pharmaceutical science and genetic engineering. Social science cannot experimentally verify its theories, so it remains so many models imposed on its human subjects. These models assert without proof that certain patterns exist now and will remain in the future. Significantly, social scientists are always hatching out new models or at least tweaks to their conventional wisdom. Events sometimes conclusively falsify theories, the most notable example being the demolition of neoliberal economic theory by the 2008 financial crisis. The experts claimed that the God-almighty market could never fail, but it did. Philip Mirowski has called the subsequent exoneration of neoliberalism an instance of “agnotology” – fraudulent science.4 Climate change denial is a prominent example of agnotology. It conflicts with empirical evidence, but it is being disseminated as propaganda. Apart from bare records and eyewitness experience, history is written from a point of view, and even one’s personal experience usually involves some spin. A glaring example of current interest is the history of the settlers and Native Americans. The genocide and expropriation have been buried. This situation illustrates the understanding of past conflicts driving, so to speak, present experience. What should be done? Restore all tribal territories? Honor treaties to keep out pipelines?
The Total Good Experience
My consideration of the experience of understanding reveals its total character, which is part of the totality of experience. As particular experiences are parts of the total experience, so the particular desires that they be good experiences are parts of the total desire for a total good experience. This total good experience includes total good understanding that satisfies the requirements of factual evidence and consistency. It further consists of good perceptions of individual objects as wholes and as parts of wholes. We are alert to propaganda, but overall, understanding of the world displays a decent degree of agreement with facts and consistency. Still, the world we see is increasingly a wreck. Good information isn’t enough, although far too many people limit their involvement in world affairs to being “well-informed.” Good experience of the whole world is essential to the total good experience.
There is inherent in my experience the desire to have good experiences of things, and this largely means things in good condition. I am comfortable, even feel pleasure at the sight of things in good condition and disturbed by the sight of things in bad condition. So the elements of the good perceptions that are parts of the total good experience are individual things in good condition.
Everything is ultimately seen or understood to be a part of multiple wholes in multiple spatial, temporal and logical dimensions. For example, I understand my body to be simultaneously part of the contents of my house, a figure in human history, a citizen of the U.S. and to have a countless number of different identities. The other things in my experience likewise have multiple identities as parts and wholes, and they are all experienced as good in the total good experience.
I now proceed to describe the total good experience which represents the fulfillment of my real inherent desire for it. I am not constructing a fantasy, but the ideal, that is, the goal to experience my body striving toward.
The total good experience obviously includes an abundance of good feelings and excludes or at least minimizes bad feelings. Aesthetic pleasure, especially enjoyment of natural beauty, figures among such good feelings, while its opposite, repugnance, is among the bad. Meanwhile, its principal components are perceptions of things in good condition, starting with my own body. In it I also perceive other people’s bodies in good condition – intact, healthy and functioning. Other people are thus perceived as having good nutrition, living in healthy conditions and leading healthy, productive lives. They are also properly educated. Humans are mortal, so they all eventually die and are subject to injury and disease. In my total good experience, life and death are dignified, while disease, injury and suffering are minimized. War, murder and all other kinds of criminal acts are absent from it.
I have good perceptions of every other kind of positive thing which include natural objects – plants, animals, geologic features. I also have good perceptions of man-made objects – homes, farms, workplaces, instruments, conveyances, leisure objects and all else that makes for healthy and fulfilling human life.
In the total good experience I perceive individuals as parts of whole families. In our time what constitutes a family is more varied than in the past. There are gay spouses, unmarried partners and blended families which are all now counted at least as households. Although its composition is now more diverse, the function of the family is unchanged: it is the primary unit of human affection and care giving. A good family is one which fulfills this function, and good family members are parts of good families. Family life is centered in the home, so another aspect of it caring for the dwelling – keeping it safe and comfortable. I perceive my body as an individual human being, so, in addition to observing other people functioning as good parts of good families, in my total good experience I perceive myself functioning as a good part of my own good family.
Families are parts of the next order of social whole, the community. Villages, small towns and city neighborhoods are no longer social units, and this is a major factor in the general alienation of our time. The current experience of my community is bad. People don’t know each other and don’t even want contact with one another. Consumer needs are met mostly by giant corporate outlets, usually located miles out of town. Then there is internet commerce, in which there is no human contact at all. The primary thing that people share in this bad community is the geographic place in which their homes are located and where they spend some amount of time, mostly in their own houses and on their own properties.
A good community is a whole of which the individual people and families are parts, and, as far as possible, meet their needs as interdependent social beings. Human survival is a collective endeavor, so, again, as far as possible, basic needs are satisfied by and within the community. It further includes division of labor with everyone performing meaningful and satisfying work. The community is like an expanded family in that all the members serve one another in a spirit of goodwill.
An extremely important aspect of the good community is its governance. For the community is also a geographic place with its own resources. It has neighbors on its borders and shares the earth with all other communities. Things come into and pass out of the community, carried by wind, waters and means of transportation. The community generates waste: sewage, garbage and atmospheric emissions. In a good community the people engage in governance to keep it safe and comfortable. As with the family, my total good experience includes good perceptions of all community members functioning as participants in the economic, social and political activities of a good community, which is to say, as citizens of it.
Multiple communities share larger geographic spaces, ultimately the earth, and they are connected. So keeping each community safe and comfortable involves interaction with people inhabiting other communities. Each individual, family and community has a stake in this interaction, and this unites them into larger geographic and political units – states and nations. My total good experience therefore includes experience of my state and nation functioning to keep myself, my family, my community and everyone else safe and comfortable. As with the community, the governance is by and for the people, and I perceive myself participating in these governing activities which I share with all other constituents as citizens of the higher jurisdictions.
The most comprehensive social whole of which my body is a part is humanity or the global human community. Nations perform both internal and external functions, so serving the global community is a part of national governance. My good total experience further includes experience of the well-being and engagement of people everywhere on the earth specifically as citizens of their communities, nations and the world.
The ultimate whole of which my body forms a part is nature, so the total good experience contains good perceptions of the parts and wholes of natural objects. Wholes of which natural objects are parts include populations of species in their habitats. Good perceptions of these are perceptions of intact ecosystems. Nearly every natural setting that I presently see has been disturbed, so it is a collection of natural objects which often includes exotic and invasive species. In any case it is not a unity. Much of my experience of nature as a whole further consists of information, so the total good experience includes information to the effect that all natural objects, parts and wholes alike, are in good condition.
Humans are a part of nature, so this good experience includes awareness that humans are functioning in harmony with the rest of nature. This goes for individual and collective human action. Starting with my own body, I experience it as acting in an environmentally sound manner; I see other people doing the same, and my community governing accordingly. Each successive level of geopolitical organization is understood to operate in a corresponding manner.
I have demonstrated that the desire for good experience is inherent in experience. I want to see, hear, feel, taste, smell and understand good things consistently. The total good experience that I have just described is the object of all my desires together – the total object of my desire. Paramount in this total good experience is harmony between earlier and later experiences, between the parts and wholes of things and between items of understanding. The ancient Pythagoreans identified the harmony between things as justice – the justice between the parts of a healthy body, the justice between the notes of the musical scale, the justice between the citizens of a state.5 Looking at my personal experience, current events and history I can confidently say that, overall, nothing is more offensive to people than injustice and nothing motivates people to act more than desire for justice.
The final piece of the total good experience is total good understanding of experience. As I have stated, the total good experience is the ideal to which desire in experience aspires. Being the ideal, its attainment may be limited, though the desire for perfection persists. So one finds degrees of perfection in actual experience. My account of experience provides a good understanding of it with a high degree of perfection insofar as it develops a complete understanding based on the self-evident truth of immediate experience through a perfectly logical process of reasoning. In this it displays a very high degree of harmony among its parts and the total universe of human understanding. Furthermore, it satisfies the wish for special aesthetic harmony in experience insofar as it provides revelation of an aesthetic and morally satisfying new world view.
At this point I must repeat that spoken language is sounds, and written language is figures on a page or screen. As the meaning of language is more language that explains the first language, sense is nothing other than the coherence of language and non-linguistic experience, in other words, the harmony between them. Beethoven captured this truth in his statement “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
The total good experience is the fulfillment of my total desire, and my actual imperfect experience is aimed at achieving it. My realistic total good experience must be an historical process in which I experience my body and the world moving toward total perfection. In this process I enjoy the pleasure of good total understanding and moral satisfaction with the perception of my body’s activity, especially when my intentions are fulfilled.
My present experience is of my body subject to the human condition at this historical moment. Attainment of my perfect total experience involves a sequence of perceptions of other people joining me to bring about extraordinary change in the world. My wish to see this is radical, as I view other people as mostly in the grip of propaganda, consumer culture and groupthink. They appear to pursue sensory gratification and believe in TINA (there is no alternative). I, however, believe that the current direction of history is disastrous and that it can change. Unless it changes, I expect profound climate disruption, “the end of nature,” major loss of clean fresh water, massive human migration and much more conflict. Prominent progressive thinkers insist that decentralization, environmental stewardship and human cooperation such as that outlined in my total good experience are necessary to avert catastrophe. To block on bold expectations for human action as well as the current widespread destruction and damage is to reduce experience, moral desire – one’s very life – in favor of brute survival which, as it is progressively endangered, must be accompanied by growing anxiety and fear.
Such implosion of history would build over time, extending, I expect, beyond the lifetime of my body. So the question arises, “why should I care what happens after my experience ends with my death?” People commonly admit to not caring about the world after their death and wish only to maximize their sensuous enjoyment while they are alive. From the strict standpoint of experience, this position is in error. First, the death of one’s own body is understood to be not an item of experience but the end of experience. While my body is alive, experience goes on, and it includes normal expectations of future experience. This expectation is so strong that historically there has been very widespread belief in some kind of afterlife. For the most part people believe that experience does continue after death, although they admit that it undergoes great change. In any case, the desire for good experience, indeed total good experience continues until the point of death.
This essay presents a total rational explanation of the world derived from the self-evident truth of immediate sense experience. As such, it compels assent. It answers the questions what am I, what can I know and what should I do by examining this experience solely as experience. Its conclusion agrees with common sense: I want my experience to be pleasant and coherent.
My examination of experience reveals the presence of a fundamental desire for thorough-going harmony among its contents of inner and outer images plus understanding. This amounts to an elemental wish to see justice among all the parts of experience. Insofar as my explanation satisfies this wish it is an object of conviction.
Altogether it is a world view which defines me as an experiencing subject constituted by my experiences. The latter – my visual images, my thoughts and all the rest are me, are what I am. This basic position is not new; it has been seen before in the history of philosophy in the forms of strict empiricism and phenomenology. Like these however, it contains some inconvenient features.
As described, outer and inner sense include no experience of myself as an agent. It renders me a mere spectator of external and internal images plus their emotional coloring. It also leaves me in the dark as to whether external objects or any other experiencing beings even exist.
While I want my world to be pleasing and just, the world that I have just described is quite flat and fails to provide real connection between me, other people and things. Being all about perceptions and feelings, it omits the sense of real unity and action. The principal thing missing from the foregoing picture is precisely life. What life is and how it is known is the subject of my next essay Ecomysticism.
1. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1911).
2. Walter Mosley, Life Out of Context, (New York: Nation Books, 2005).
3. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1922), 55.
4. Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2014), 227.