Tag Archives: philosophy

Means of Perception



In her insightful survey of Romantic philosophy’s concept of the imagination and the 20th Century critique of that concept, Mary Warnock arrives at the conclusion that, “Imagination is our means of interpreting the world, and it is also our means of forming images in the mind. The images themselves are not separate from our interpretations of the world; they are our way of thinking of the objects in the world.” (Warnock, 1976, p. 194) The journey with her throughout the study was full of realizations, but what I want to focus in on was a leap I made from her final conclusion to think more about these interpreted images that form in our memories and worldviews and ideas. At this point this is an intuitive jump that may be played out in more recent philosophy and science and it bears further investigation, but one of the processes of discovery is stating an idea and seeing if it remains true under further dialogue and observation.

Philosophers like Hume and Kant would point to the concept of imagination which allows us to realize that objects continue to exist and are indeed the same object when we encounter them at a later point, but this level of imagination is exhibited very early in life and by the time a child surpasses 12-18 months and has a sense of object permanence to use Jean Piaget’s language our imaginations have already become far more intricate than Hume and Kant would suggest. If imagination is involved in the ‘image making’ in our mind it is also responsible for the interpretation of these images, and these images are not like pictures, nor are they merely like ideas-perhaps a better word is they form interrelated constructs. When I encounter a person, for example, I don’t just take a mental picture of that person and store it in my memory, not even a three dimensional portrait, I take in much more information than that. I also am taking in the environment that I meet this person within, I am making value judgments about this individual, I am interpreting who they are within a web of relationships, I am interpreting their communication (not just spoken words, but also body language, tone and many other ways of interpreting the meaning of their communication) and I am placing them within a narrative or story. In even the simplest interaction there is far more data around me than my eyes and mind can possibly interpret so my mind has to know how to filter and pay attention to what is important. In a familiar environment we tend to pay less attention to the objects within that environment unless something changes, we filter out noise to be able to pay attention to a particular conversation and we decide what types of things from an interaction might be worth remembering. Yet with all this data we are not just passively acquiring information, but we are constantly interpreting and seeking meaning within the data. Even our most basic interpersonal interactions require a huge amount of creativity as we try to understand and interpret what another person is thinking and how they might interact with us next. For example, in the context of a job interview the person being interviewed is probably observing how the person conducting the interview is responding to the answer they are given since it will probably impact whether they are offered the job or not. At the same time this same person is attempting to make inferences about what it would be like to work with this person and make a value judgment if this is a job that they want. In interpersonal interactions this is what had been referred to as theory of mind (the realization that the other person has thoughts, feelings, intents and desires and that are distinct from one’s own thoughts, feelings, intents and desires, combined with the ability to interpret and predict those feelings).

Yet, while imagination is certainly involved in interpreting and giving meaning to the communications and the images or constructs within the appropriate environment, time, story, etc. it also must be involved in much more. For our imagination is able to take these communications and constructs which have been stored in our memory and continue to manipulate them. Sometimes this manipulation will be within a normal frame of reality and may be as simple as replaying an interaction either for further interpretation (did they really think this) or for continued learning (if this happens again I would do/say this) and sometimes we place or manipulate objects and transform them into new things in a different reality.

If we want to imagine an unreal creature or an unreal world we, by necessity, start with the world we know. For example if we were to imagine an imaginary creature like a dragon, we would in this case have many other people’s images of dragons in many media, but if we were to create a new dragon we would probably begin with creatures we are familiar with, like a lizard or a bird and continue to modify it in a way that fit that new reality. Or if you were to design a life-form for an imagined world, or the landscape for an imagined world you would start from the world you know and modify it based on some creative leaps. We can also imagine interactions with people that have never happened but are intelligent guesses  based upon previous interactions.

I’ve quickly moved into the realm of speculation, but I wanted to get some of these thoughts down so that as I continue to encounter some more recent work on imagination and experience I can test some of these ideas.


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The Gift of Self Reference and Necessary Imaginative Constructs


As I mentioned at the beginning of the post Metaphors of Reality we try to make sense of ourselves, the world and (at least for those who think in spiritual or religious terms) God. But one of the struggles we have is that we never have a ‘God’s eye’ view of reality and that our view is always provisional. Unlike in the gospel stories which sometimes have an all seeing narrator (who for example sees what is going on in the temptation of Jesus) we are limited to the things we have experienced through our senses, the creative leaps we have made through our imagination and the constructs we have learned from our conversations with others. We take all these pieces of reality as we perceive them and try to decode our world and experiences “by a highly imaginative, creative piece of guesswork. But we finish with something that is only a gigantic metaphor for that part of the universe which we are decoding.” (Bronowski 1978, 70) We attempt to make sense of things and we construct systems that seem to make sense of the world with some things we are fairly certain of, others less so, and some just our best guess at the time. Sometimes there are things we believe that we cannot prove, that doesn’t mean they are not true-just that they cannot be proved. That is the reality of living in which our perception and knowledge are incomplete and bound by constraints and self reference.

One of the vanities of the modern (note I am talking modern as a category, not necessarily in terms of recent) philosophy that emerged in the 18th century in the wake of the Enlightenment was that it believed that it could penetrate reality and get to absolute truth. That for example if you could peel away the encrusted layers of tradition you could actually get back to the real history of what happened-and while there were many useful insights gained from this dedicated effort to get back to the facts as well as the dialogues that came out of different interpretations of the same data, but we never are truly free of self reference. For a lot of people this is looked upon primarily as an issue to be apologized for, but I want to suggest this is one of the things that allow creativity to thrive. In contrast to a computer which understands its inputs in terms of its coding and programming that when it encounters a novel experience that doesn’t fit within the world of its programming either creates an error or the computer ignores the anomaly, humans are able to integrate experiences in creative ways into their worldview. We are not limited by one set of constructs which we make sense of the world; instead humans are constantly experiencing and growing in our interaction with others and the world around us.

We need the imaginative constructs, the language and systems and science we learn from others to make communication possible, so for example within linear mathematics we can feel confident that 1 + 1= 2, or that in speech the letter ‘c’ will make certain sounds, or that in the world of Newtonian physics every action will have an equal and opposite reaction. We need laws, theorems and systems to make sense of the world, but these laws, theorems and systems are not absolute because there are times when we will experience things that do not make sense within the constructs we may have accepted. As Bronowski alludes to when he states, “The fact that we are content, when running into this kind of difficult, to reanalyze the system, to seek a new consistent formulation, is terribly important.” (Bronowski 1978, 87)Without the ability to seek a better system that makes sense of ourselves and our world we would be limited in our understanding to the knowledge and systems that were handed on to us. The experience is always in reference to the self, it is using our senses and our intellect to interpret that experience within the memory of our previous experiences and knowledge, and yet because of this self reference we are able to challenge external references and experiences. We seek consistency, we want things to make sense, but the experience that does not make sense for many is actually an exciting process of discovery. Let’s say, for example, that we had received a way of evaluating others passed down from our parents that, “blondes have more fun.” So long as our experience of people having blonde hair being fun people to be around holds up we might assume this random piece of a world to be true. Yet, once we encounter a person who has blonde hair who is not fun to be around we have several options of how we might proceed: we might challenge the assumption (are blondes really more fun?), we might wonder if this person is an exception to the rule (and the ability for there to be exceptions is also an imaginative leap), we might wonder if blonde is really their natural color (providing we understand that people can change their hair color) but the reality is that we will attempt to make sense of a disparity we have encountered. This is the way for example that prejudices may change when a person has experiences that challenge that prejudice, or new scientific discoveries are made when data doesn’t fit the previously assumed construct, or a new challenge presents itself based on technologies not previously available. Our ability to take in new challenges and experiences and in light of our knowledge and memory to make sense of them in a new way, even if it is only a creative piece of guesswork, and then see if this piece of guesswork seems to hold true is a part of the experimentation that opens new horizons in the imagination.

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Authority: Getting to the Heart of the Issue

Again they came to Jerusalem.  As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to do them? Mark 11.27f NRSV

Authority, it is an important and interesting word, and it is the word at the heart of the changes that have been going on in the world around us.  The good news is this is not a new thing, in fact one of the things that will be coming in future posts is an examination of how this has played out in the lives of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) but before we can get to this we need to understand what is it we are talking about: What is authority and what does it mean?

In Greek thought, as reflected by the language, the word we translate as authority is literally “from one’s being” it is formed from the prefix ek which means from or out of and ousia which means being-for those familiar with the language of the Nicene creed this ousia word plays a central role when it talks about ‘one being with the Father…’ but this is a Greek way of thinking and while I want to value that word as a background, I think it also plays way too much into the emerging crisis.  We have found ourselves increasingly isolated, even in the midst of webs of communication that bombard us continually.  We may receive hundreds of texts, tweets, emails, facebook posts in a day and yet I find that for many people there is an increasing attachment to their smartphone or table to give them meaning…while we have been told to go out and be independent, that our authority really comes from within, that we are our own people we find ourselves at the end of the day wrestling with that famous Alice in Wonderland question, “Who are you?”

In the 2010 Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland we see one answer to the question, Absalom the Caterpillar points to the oracullum, a compendium of what has happened and what will happen as a way to show Alice who she is, in short you are who the book says you are, your actions are a part of a pre-determined narrative of which you and all the other players have a part, and who you are, being the ‘right Alice’ is determined by how closely you adhere to this story.  In the Disney version, which I grew up with and watched countless times with my children, the question of “Who are you?” is much more a question of self-realization, who you are seems to be a question that, in more of a Greek philosophical style, is internal and your ability to know oneself gives one the authority to respond authoritatively to the seeker (although the caterpillar’s known self is in a process of transformation that will lead to a new identity as a butterfly).

Let’s go back to the word authority, it comes from the idea of authorship, authority is the ability to tell the story, to spin the tale or set the frames in which we understand who we are and what it is we do.  As much as we may want to think that we are all the authors of our own story,we find ourselves with our stories as a web of other relationships and stories which sometimes have control of but often we do not. Often we find ourselves looking to someone else saying, “Who am I?”  I think that is at the heart of many people’s addiction to their phones. Now the digital responses of others, their likes and comments and flares help us know who we are, we are seeking approval of others, and even negative attention is better than being ignored. Yet the traditional sources of identity and authority…family, church, government or nation, wealth, education, popularity at some point all of these have failed us, we seek their approval perhaps, and while we rely on them we don’t want to admit that they might have shaped us to be who we are. We may know when we see our father or mother in our actions that they shaped us, but we want to be our own people (just like everyone else). We’ve grown cynical, to use fancy words we operate out of a hermeneutic of suspicion, and we find we are deeply unsatisfied with answers that used to satisfy. How did we get to this point?  Well that is a whole narrative unto itself which is beginning tomorrow.

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