What Perceptual Character Signifies for Perceiver and World
Joe E. Dees
A Phenomenological Critique of Kant’s A Priori
In 1781, Immanuel Kant published a work he titled the Critique of Pure Reason. It was one of three critiques he published during his lifetime; the other two being the Critique of Practical reason and the Critique of Judgment. His purpose in the first Critique was to show what knowledge the faculty of reason might hold ”independent of all experience” (1). In this work, he stated that both perception and conception are necessary, and that all conceptions arise from perceptions (2). How, then, could any experience-independent knowledge be possible, since all objects of perception are experienced in the very act of being perceived?
Kant’s answer was that we have an a priori intuition of the manner in which we perceive (3). In modern terminology, Kant claimed to have discovered innate structural specificities in our perceptual faculties. His famous Copernican revolution follows: rather than perception conforming to its objects, objects must conform to the constitution of perception (4).
My first criticism of Kant consists in asking whether one, rather than the other, of these two alternatives is given to us a priori. That either of them must be experientially based is as obvious to me as the fact that Kant was not given an a priori language, composed of non-experiential words imbued with pure meanings and connected by necessary logic, with which to pen the first Critique. Upon what a priori grounds could he even speak of objects of sense, much less decide whether perception conforms to them or they conform to perception? In truth, Kant’s Copernican Revolution was an experiential, rather than an a priori, hypothesis. For his time it was brilliant, but in light of Charles Darwin’s contributions, better experiential hypotheses could be made. Of course, Darwin did not publish The Origin of Species until seventy-eight later, in 1859.
In light of the evolutionary paradigm, which states that those most successfully interacting with their environments survive to reproduce, and considering that purposive mobility is useful only when a reliable perceptual representation of one’s surroundings allow one to move about one’s environment in a beneficial manner, one indeed might be able now to do quite a bit better than Kant could. For instance, one might recognize that both the pre-Kantian notion that perception conforms to its objects, and its Kantian antithesis, that objects conform to the structural character of one’s perceptual modalities, contain a grain of truth. The Hegelian question would then be how one might go about phrasing a synthesis statement that contains both grains.
One way one might update Kant’s revolution would be to consider our perceptions as the result of a evolution of sensory systems, prompted by the survival value that more faithful representations of the environment would possess for mobile and purposeful organisms within it. Mobility is useless without apprehensible signs which one might employ to guide it. Even plants are sensitive to light (tropism), moisture, and gravity, and insofar as their growth is not arbitrary, it is in relation to these. Animals, possessing mobility independent of growth, require much more information, and the higher mammals, which exhibit purposeful behavior chains, need accurate and detailed information concerning their environs. One may thus state that although our perceptions do conform to objects, some aspects of objects also conform to perceptions, and that the more purposefully mobile perceivers are, the greater is the amount of information they require from a wider swath of the objects’ aspects.
A perceptual modality without a possible object of sense is a contradiction in terms, and one the modality of which was deceitful in the Cartesian sense would have negative survival value for its host, and hence for itself. Although the thing-in-itself is different than is the thing-for-us, the former must contain the latter as aspects of itself. In other words, it must exist within-itself in such a manner that its apprehension by our sensory modalities produces what we perceive when we apprehend it. Kant’s revolution, modified, thus states that objects of perception – insofar as they are objects of perception, that is, perceivable – must not only be perceivable by means of the perceptual means available to us, but also that our perceptions of them, as aspects of the objects (as well as of ourselves), may not contradict the object’s other aspects which are not perceivable by us. The whole object-in-itself must, without internal contradiction, contain all of its constituent parts, including those that may be called the object-for-us, and where aspects of the object-for-us seem to conflict with each other, the whole object-in-itself must reconcile them. If it does not, it is either (a) not the whole but itself a part, or (b) the perceived aspects are not aspects of a single whole. Only on the basis of these considerations does it make sense for us to act in accordance with the information provided by our senses, and only on the basis of these considerations does it make sense that our senses evolved. This modification does not prejudice Kant’s further points, and preserves his insight, which is that mind and substance interact by means of the sensory systems, and that the “form” of the structure of the senses, abstracted from the “matter” of experience, tells us something about the mind’s “capacities” (5). It tells us something about the “matter” behind appearance as well.
Kant goes on from here to identify “two pure forms of sensible intuition, serving as principles of a priori knowledge, namely, space and time” (6). Space is referred to as “outer sense, a property of our mind” (7), as “essentially one” (
, as “a necessary a priori representation, which underlies all outer intuitions” (9), and as “an infinite given magnitude” (10). Time is referred to as “a determinate form…in which alone the intuition of inner states is possible” (11), as “one single time”, (12), as “given a priori” (13), and as “unlimited” (14). Clearly, the only distinction that can be discerned from these descriptions is that between the inner and the outer. There are, however, others that may be made. For instance, space has three dimensions, and time has one. But while both space and time possess empirical reality, both are transcendentally ideal, that is, neither space nor time exist independent of our experience of them (15). This distinguishes time and space, for Kant, from the objects that are contained in them, in that not only are appearances a posteriori while their circumscribing manifold is a priori, but the manifold only exists insofar as it exists for us, while there is an unknowable reality both underlying and framing the appearances of objects of sense. Paradoxically, for Kant, something can be known about the unknowable thing-in-itself; namely, that it is not in space or in time. The mental a priori map-matrices, space and time, frame a map containing a posteriori representations of a territory which in-itself lies outside the matrices because it lies outside the map. To quote Kant, “…not only are the drops of rain mere appearances, but…even their round shape, nay even the space in which they fall, are nothing in themselves, but merely modifications or fundamental forms of our sensible intuition, and that the transcendental object remains unknown to us” (16).
My second and more substantial criticism of Kant concerns his a priori “principles.” I contend that spacetime is a single perceptual manifold, and that Kant mistakenly bifurcated it in his conception as a result of the uncritical acceptance of ordinary eighteenth century language use and the unwarranted absolutization of the dominance of one or the other aspect of spatiotemporality’s transcendental unity in discrete sensory modalities. Vision, audition and taction, as well as the equilibrial, kinesthetic, and chemical systems (olfaction and gestation), involve “both space and time”; in vision the spatial aspect is dominant, in audition the temporal, and in taction, the most basic sensory mode, the “aspects’ of spacetime are equally represented.
Our first support for this contention comes from thought experiments, which are forms of imaginative exercise popularized by Einstein, but practiced as early as ancient Greece, by Zeno. Our two thought experiments will be (a) to try to imagine a spaceless time, and (b) to attempt to visualize a timeless space.
(a) A spaceless time must be infinitesimal, that is, it must lack width, length, and depth, the three spatial dimensions. But how could one imagine such a thing? For all consciousness, whether of experience or of imagination, is perspectival, that is, it observes its object from a point of view which is not identical with that of its object. However, to perform such an observation, even mentally, is to establish two points, that of observer and that of observed, which define a line, a spatial dimension,
(b) A timeless space must be instantaneous, that is, it must lack duration. But for one’s perception to traverse the distance between observer and observed is to change, via motion, one’s perspective from absent to present. Thus, the simple establishment of a spatial perspective requires the passage of time. If one then moves one’s attention from one point to another, this is more than to create a line, but to inscribe a plane triangle with vertices at the point attended before, the point attended after, and the point from which attention issues. If one next moves one’s attention to a point not in line with the first two, one had inscribed a tetrahedron whose vertices lie at the three successively observed points and the observer’s point of view. The apprehension of the first spatial dimension, the apprehension of the second given the first, and the apprehension of the third given the first two, all require the passage of time.
Thus, both timeless space and spaceless time are conceptual nonsense rather than Kant’s outer and inner sense. We blithely speak about them as if we know them, but in fact we cannot actually perceive or think about them, because, strictly speaking, they are both unperceivable and inconceivable.
The second support for this spacetime contention is obtained from the phenomenological and physiological elucidation of our discrete sensory modes. First vision, then audition, and finally taction shall be examined.
(a) Vision is the sensory modality in which the spatial aspect of the spatiotemporal manifold predominates. Each eye perceives a two-dimensional array. When by means of convergence and retinal disparity the two arrays are synthesized, depth perception results. Although other cues that may serve to facilitate depth perception may be learned (interposition, relative size, relative height, relative clarity, parallax accommodation, chiaroscuro, and texture (17)), three-dimensional spatiality is a primordial attribute of typical, that is, two eyed, vision. The visual cliff demonstrates that, prior to sufficient visual experience necessary to deduce and internalize these cues, infants nevertheless respond to depth. They also respond to a single color or shape rapidly expanding to encompass their visual array. This response to rapid change highlights the temporal character of vision.
Our eyes respond to wavelengths between sixteen one millionths of an inch and thirty-two one millionths of an inch in length (18). Notice that this is the field of one doubling in length. Our visual system has evolved to register one octave of color variation, centered on the color green. The cones that register color in any discrete quadrant of vision summate these wavelengths and represent that area as having one color. Wavelengths at the extreme lower and of the visual register are perceived as colors indistinguishable from those whose wavelengths are at its extreme upper end (19), much like high C and middle C in music would be, if one could hear only in one octave (which is why our visual spectrum may be comfortably diagrammed as a color wheel). If we could perceive more than one color from the selfsame area, line – the demarcation necessary for shape to appear – could not be perceived as efficiently. This, of course, would be a major survival disadvantage, which is why natural selection has evolved our visual systems in this way rather than in another.
Line could also not be perceived as efficiently without the vibrations of the extrinsic muscles (20). They vibrate at approximately twenty-five beats per second (which is why images in film reels must run past our eyes faster to produce in us the illusion of seamlessly smooth movement, rather than a quick series of static pictures). If the stimulus object is moved in synchrony with the eye, by attaching it to the extrinsic muscles, a stabilized retinal image is created which immediately begins to fade and soon grays out. This phenomenon is connected with the fatigue phenomenon that produces afterimages. The rods and cones quickly become accustomed to a static stimulus and reach an equilibrium so that when the stimulus is changed, the color complement of the prior stimulus pattern is superimposed upon the new one (this is why after staring at those weird-colored US flag images, you can look off into space and see the red-white-and-blue floating there). To maintain form perception, that is, to maintain the lines of demarcation between adjacent areas necessary for form perception, our eyes must incessantly move in relation to their targets.
When two light sources are flashed one after the other separated by this one twenty-fifth of a second which is the time taken for one vibration of the extrinsic muscles, the appearance of motion between them occurs. Flashed closer together temporally, the two sources are perceived as discrete and simultaneous; if the flashes are separated by more time, they are perceived as discrete and successive. If the flashes are separated by apparent motion frequency and given different shapes and colors, something rather strange happens. The shapes flow smoothly into one another, but the first color obtains for half the distance between the sources, and then abruptly changes into the second (21). The strangeness disappears (at least cognitively, if not perceptually) when one realizes that as one turns one’s head on the street, the smooth alteration of profiles conceals the discontinuity of the color change that demarks them. This is the basis for our perceptual constriction of objects in motion (22). For Kant, motion is the occasion for the unification or synthesis of space and time (23).
One further question may be asked of this experiment: how does the first shape know the direction and configuration of the second shape so as to smoothly and seamlessly flow and change into it prior to its actual appearance? The answer: it doesn’t; we do not perceive the beginning of the process until after the second flash. Nelson Goodman calls this process “retrospective construction” (24). That it occurs seems to validate a hypothesis submitted by Ulric Neisser; “The parts get their meaning from the whole, even though that whole does not exist at any moment of time. It exists, as one might say, in the subject’s mind, as an intent…a Gestalt…” (25). That there is a “time” that is beneath the senses and must be summated, a “subliminal time”, is like the “subliminal space” in which we find microscopic roughness on a hair’s surface. These considerations point to the transcendental reality, independent of our senses, of spacetime.
Hue and brightness also possess a Gestalt quality, in that the spatiotemporal surroundings define our perception of them to a significant degree. This simply means that frequency and amplitude are given their significance by the observing mind based upon principles of relativistic interaction applied to fluctuating photonic energy patterns bombarding our eyes. The raw data is not encoded like a series of snapshots, but continuously; the optic registers do not rest all at once, nor do they all fire simultaneously. Otherwise, summation would be unnecessary, but the world would look jerky, like an old movie. Our visual system also compensates for our mobility by presenting us with a static world as we move our gaze relative to it. If we poke ourselves in the corners of our eyes, however, thus moving our eyes without using our eye muscles, the world appears to us to tilt.
(b) Audition is the sensory mode in which temporality dominates, for one can only auditorily perceive in a plane rather than in a “three-dimensional” space. Each ear registers an amplitude (loudness, corresponding to brightness in vision) level of a frequency (pitch, corresponding to color in vision). The amplitude ratio between what is received by our two ears indicates whether the source of sound is to the left or to the right of us perceivers. A sound issuing from directly overhead, underneath, in front or in back of us is heard only as an equal ratio – the binaural interaction does not help us here. It is necessary for us to turn our heads in order to unbalance the ratio so we may locate the direction from which the sound emanates.
Rather than photons (light), audition is stimulated by patterns of pressure change in the air that surrounds us (sound); our auditory range is typically between twenty and twenty thousand hertz, or about ten octaves (versus the one octave doubling which circumscribes the visual spectrum). Also, audition is capable of sensing different sounds from the same source simultaneously, as in music. This is because, unlike vision, the auditory mechanism of each ear has a specific area dedicated to the registration of each pitch (26). It is not necessary for audition to summate the various pitches contained within a chord into a single sound; thus a piano emanating F sharp and C flat simultaneously does not confuse us, although a piano which was simultaneously all green and all red, rather than a summated gray, would certainly be a cause for disorientation – especially in a red or green room. In both vision and audition, as amplitude increases tenfold, perceived intensity doubles.
(c) Taction is the sensory mode in which temporality and spatiality are roughly equipresent. One’s skin circumscribes “a space for a time.” The four basic tactile senses are heat, cold, pressure, and pain (27). When one experiences a tactile sensation, it communicates presence or contiguity. This contiguity may be of matter (say, computer keys) or of energy (for instance, sunlight), and indicates spatiality by means of the impingement of a plane stimulus upon a plane configuration of receptors, and temporality by virtue of the perceived duration of the stimulus.
From vision has been abstracted the concept of distinctly delineated areas connected by more lines, and static, as a means of ideal representation. Geometry is a traditional example of the employment of this concept. Schematics and blueprints are others, and the incarnation currently in vogue in academia is termed structure, which to Parmenides was Being.
From audition has been abstracted the concept of events dynamically intertwined and flowing continuously toward a foreshadowed and inevitable conclusion which is the justification for the concatenation of events. Musical and algebraic notation and the calculus are examples of the symbolic employment of this concept. The current term employed to convey this concept is function, which to Heraclitus was Becoming.
From taction we may draw the inner event as a sign symbolizing the presence of an outer impetus, and the consistency of the inner effect as a sign of the coherence of the outer as a cause.
From their fusion in the perceptual manifold we may draw the relativity of the inner-outer distinction to the mode or context to which it applies, and the essentiality of a distinction which nevertheless relates these distinguished elements in both a discrete and a continuous manner, but neither absolutely or to the exclusion of the other.
The “Being and Becoming”, “form and matter”, “space and time”, “structure and function” dichotomy which has fought for so long can only be resolved by marriage. Structure gives function shape, and function fleshes and animates the bones of structure. Only in their union can they fully serve as a means of univocal and concrete representation, since different structures may perform the selfsame function, and different functions may be realized via a single structure.
(a) World (the Perceived)
By means of telescopes and microscopes, which are semiotic devices, scientists have gazed into both the cosmic and the microcosmic. What has been learned is quite interesting. On the cosmic scale, to gaze outward into space is to gaze backward in time. The farthest distance away from us is to the edge of the universe. The wall of light that we encounter there has taken from the Big bang until now to reach us and is the single oldest artifact that we have perceived. “Space” and “time” are equipresent on the cosmic scale. On the microcosmic scale, the smallest “time” we know is the time it takes for a photon of light to traverse the diameter of an electron. That diameter is the shortest distance we know. On the microcosmic scale, as on the cosmic scale, “they” mutually define. In order to view this microworld, we must interact with it. We may interact with an electron by means of low-energy, low-frequency, long-wavelength photons, and receive a vague picture of the electron’s position due to the lack of resolution we receive from our large, clumsy wavelength, but leave the electron’s momentum much as it was before, since the low energy level possessed by our photons disturbs it relatively slightly. Or, alternatively, we may interact with the electron by means of high-energy, high-frequency, short-wavelength photons, and receive a high resolution picture of the electron’s position, due to the precision obtainable from our much shorter wavelength, which nevertheless greatly changes the electron’s momentum, because of the much greater effect upon the electron of the higher energy level photons. We may not know both an electron’s position and its momentum beyond a degree calculable by the multiplied products of their inaccuracies. To know either absolutely would theoretically be to not know the other at all. Such is the price of interaction, and such are the material limitations inherent in using substances (matter and/or energy) to measure each other, that is, in using Substance, that is, matter/energy, which are Einsteinianly convertible to each other, to measure itself. The greatest overall precision is obtained by measuring both aspects equally well.
Elementary quantities, such as protons, neutrons, electrons and photons, are equally well describable as particles and as waves, and equally incompletely described by each means of description. Their true nature must therefore be neither absolutely continuous nor completely discrete, and either be or possess an aspect that may be termed “wavicle”.
Kant argued for the ideality of space and time by claiming that they could not exist except as perception-generated and perception-imposed manifolds by means of which we apprehend phenomena, such as matter and energy. Einstein stated that matter/energy curves spacetime, and that to curve it is to create it. Could gravity constitute the lines of force by means of which matter/energy curves and create spacetime? No one yet knows, but light travels in a straight line except where gravity bends it (of course, this happens everywhere to some degree). Light is also slowed when it passes through a visually transparent medium such as glass or water. The lower its frequency, the less it is slowed by such a passage. As far as we know, there is no such thing as 0Hz light, but if there were, it would have to either be completely stopped or proceed at pace, for nothing could slow it down. Its speed through any traversable medium would theoretically equal its speed through a vacuum. Is light slowed when it is bent? Vacuums are full of spacetime, perhaps curved by gravity. The purpose of this paragraph is to suggest directions for further experimentation in physics.
(b) Mind (the Perceiver)
Many organizational schemes have been suggested for the human brain, but the main ones are three. They are the longitudinal scheme (front-back), the hemispherical scheme (left-right) and the sagital-cortical scheme (inner-outer). The longitudinal partisans point out that conception occurs anterior to the Sylvan Fissure, in the frontal lobes, while perception occurs in the temporal, occipital and parietal lobes posterior to it, and the afferent and efferent, or sensory and motor, neurons face off across the fissure. The hemispherical acolytes claim that unfamiliar perceptions are grasped holistically in the right brain until they are sufficiently coherent to be assigned a definition by means of which they can be transferred via the corpus callosum to the left brain, filed, and analyzed. The inner-outer proponents assert that in the center of the brain is a reptilian R-complex, which controls things like breathing and heartbeat, outside of which is the mammalian limbic system from whence spring our emotions, and overlaying all is the primate cerebral cortex, the cowl of consciousness.
Why can’t they all be right? Does any one of these schemes have to be fundamental? As far as I can see, they can peacefully coexist and mutually reinforce and contribute. The question is, what do these three schemes have in common?
The answer is that they all propose brain systems that neither produce split brains nor allow for unitary brains. Perhaps this is why self-consciousness cannot coincide with itself, but is always related to itself, and conscious of itself as an object or other. It is trapped between doubleness and unity. Also, each of these schemes delineate natural dichotomies which mutually define and complete. Perception without conception is empty, Kant said, and both are necessary for purposeful action. Synthesis requires the parts of analysis with which to synthesize the unfamiliar, and analysis requires the whole of synthesis as a grounding context. Emotions must situate desires in order to ground the intellect in our interchange with the world, and the intellect must inform the values that emotions passionately hold. Does this mean that the brain can be neatly subdivided into eight or eighteen areas? It obviously possesses a structure of some sort, and is this not wholly unitary.
No, for the functioning of the brain is more like interrelation than either an amorphous whole or isolated parts can allow. A digital computer is a poorer model for the brain than is an analogue computer, with unidirectional input and output systems and recursively organizing interaction patterns. It is not continuous, but neither is it discrete, and what the structure of an individual brain is, like its function, can only be approximately ascertained. Unlike hydrogen atoms, brains are generated from individual sets of genes and have individual histories; one must thus deal with probabilities and statistical averages.
As for the mind: its relation to the brain, as far as present instruments can inform us, is no clearer than that of wavicles to electrons.
Goodman, N. Ways of Worldmaking 1978
Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason N.K. Smith, translator 1929
Krech, D., Critchfield, R. S., & Livson, N. (ed.) Elements of Psychology (3rd ed) 1974
Neisser, U. Cognitive Psychology 1987
1. Kant, p.9
2. Ibid. p. 93
3. Ibid. pp. 65-66
4. Ibid. p. 22
5. Ibid. p. 66
6. Ibid. p. 67
7. Ibid. p. 67
8. Ibid. p. 69
9. Ibid. p. 68
10. Ibid. p. 69
11. Ibid. p. 67
12. Ibid. p. 75
13. Ibid. p. 75
14. Ibid. p. 75
15. Ibid. pp. 80-81
16. Ibid. p. 85
17. Krech, Crutchfield & Livson, pp. 235-293
18. Ibid. p. 232
19. Ibid. p. 232
20. Ibid. p. 321
21. Goodman, p. 81
22. Ibid. p. 88
23. Kant, p. 82
24. Goodman, p. 81
25. Neisser, p. 90
26. Krech, Crutchfield & Livson, pp. 335-337
27. Ibid. p. 248