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Perception: How Personal is It?
essay [ ]

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by [ovidiu_and_ana ]

2010-08-30  |     | 

We could say that all of us perceive aspects of this world in a subjective way, but how much of our perception is truly personal? Aren’t we influenced by what we are taught about certain aspects of reality? How do we go about between a subjective and objective view of what we see around?
The education we receive, personal experiences, unconscious drives and even language may be among what influences our view of the world. Moreover, there seems to be a structure which organizes our perception: we tend to form patterns to order and understand our experience. Such a wish seems normal for us to be able to function in this world. We not only need to understand the way the world works but we also need a common understanding of it in order to interact symbolically with each other and to live together in a community.


Three Sphinxes of Bikini, S. Dali

The underlying patterns used for recognition are strikingly made apparent in this painting of Salvador Dali. The pattern used to recognize the figure in the foreground remains active and induces us to misrecognize the tree in the background as the back view of a human head.
To be complete, what we have in this painting is a case of misrecognition followed immediately by misperception because after the misperception is corrected one also starts wondering whether the recognition of the foreground figure as a back of a human head was the best guess to begin with.

The idea of the existence of certain categories that the mind uses in order to make sense of the raw, unstructured experience may have been first put forward by Kant; but, while Kant regarded them as innate and immutable, the modern authors emphasize their cultural and historical dependency. A great deal of the evidence supporting such a culturally relative view on perception was brought up by Linguistic Anthropology. Language and thought are intimately related, one may say, along with Wilhelm von Humboldt, who claims that "language is the very fabric of thought". Language implies more than just expressing oneself or describing what we perceive. Languages help us categorize, distinguish, “create” the world in a certain way, according to a pattern. According to Edward Sapir, “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. The fact of the matter is that their “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up in the language habits of the group... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”
There are patterns we apply to our perception involuntarily. Had we not lived in a certain community speaking and hearing a certain language, our perception of the world would have been different. For instance, as Ralph Strauch writes in The Reality Illusion, “[…] something which we see clearly as a physical object, like a house, the Nootka perceive as a long-lived temporal event. The literal English translation of the Nootka concept might be something like ‘housing occurs;’ or ‘it houses.” It is difficult for us to think, perceive like the Nootka and the same goes for them. Moreover, had we not read about this we wouldn’t have perhaps thought that perceiving the house in this way was even possible.
It is not easy to realize how our perceptions are shaped by the culture we have been born into.
The limitations encoded in our language unescapably require the same language for understanding them and this makes any attempt to transcend those limitations to run into the paradoxes of self-referentiality.
Yet as difficult as it may seem in theory there are opportunities to discover the other faces of the world, to perceive the world in a different way, ignoring the usual patterns. Opening such “doors of perception” often require special conditions as in the case of visionary experiences induced by the use of drugs or psycho-techniques. However, they can be as simple as experiencing, and paying attention to states of heightened awareness which occur spontaneously as are Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” which “grant intensified knowledge about one’s state of being in the world”. We get to see, to understand something we normally miss. We access a deeper level of everyday existence. As Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino point out (Woolf and the essay, 183), “A moment of being causes one’s perceptions, especially visual perceptions, to become acute, subtle, and incisive. While sensations are heightened, the experience is not purely sensual; sight gives way to “insight”. […] a ‘moment of vision’ connotes a widening sense of understanding.” We get to see other patterns of perception in works of fiction, art. Perhaps, for a short while, we get to understand the way somebody else perceives some aspects of reality. Then we return to our everyday patterns of perception. Loss of contact with reality also breaks the patterns of perception we have been taught. Another character in Woolf, Septimus, allows us to see the dissolution of the division between the perceiver and the thing perceived. Septimus does not look at nature as something surrounding him: he feels he is a part of it (Lun 2002) - something we don’t normally perceive.
To render inner perception meant, for the modernists, to describe moments of transcendent understanding, which would “magnify an awareness of the self, a coming into being of the individual, and an opening up of interior states of knowing” (Olson 3). Similar to Woolf’s ‘moment of being’, there are “James Joyce’s ‘epiphany’, Ezra Pound’s ‘magic moment’, Walter Benjamin’s ‘shock’, T.S. Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’, or Marcel Proust’s explosion of memory, triggered by such events as the taste of the madeleine” (Olson 3).
Gabrielle McIntire notices that our consciousness creates our experience, related to Wordsworth’s “spots of time” or to Joyce’s “epiphany”. Wordsworth claims, in relation to his “spots of time”, that “his own mind is central in creating these moods and perceptions”. Joyce’s epiphanies “link epistemology with ontology by making a distinction between a kind of unilluminated, everyday reality, and experience that is infused with heightened perception.” (McIntire 166)
Imagination is not sufficient in all cases to help us form other patterns of perception. Besides, not everybody has a very vivid imagination. The existence of patterns is searched for even in the moments of vision experienced by Woolf’s characters. They wish to find a way to understand the chaotic world. To them, the patterns of perception that already exist are insufficient. They wish to create a unified understanding of the world, one which would include their inner reality.
Eleanor, a character in Woolf’s novel The Years, has a vision at the end of the novel: “There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people [...]. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken” (The Years 343).
Eleanor’s vision may not be actually called a vision, or not yet a vision, but a step toward having one. One may even say that lack of such vision is her very problem. What she does have though is an insight. An insight that this life so broken, so short can't be the real thing. It is similar with rejecting a explanation or a theory because when reading it you have noticed many contradictions. You don't know what the truth is, but whatever the truth on that matter may be it can't be what the author says since what he says is so incoherent, he contradicts himself too often. Eleanor appears as someone who, up to now, has taken the world for granted and has hoped that she would make it if she only tried hard. Now she is at the end of it when she finds herself defeated, broken under the weight of the contradictions which she has always faced in good faith, yet they turned out to be unsolvable. This is only the moment when she realizes that it may be something wrong with the problem not with herself. Maybe it is wrongly defined and absurd to begin with, that's why nobody can solve it.
What Eleanor does is to become aware of the existence of a "cotton wool" (which masks and distorts the true reality but which we don't usually realize, thus we don't remove the wool). She infers that this may be the real state of affairs rather than what she actually sees and experiences, that hidden reality. In her case it is a logical realization "There must be" because what can be seen and experienced is "so broken, so short" that it can't be the truth; probably what happens is that something distorts the vision and that another one, a true vision ruled by a different pattern, not one seen through a "cotton wool", may therefore exist. Her experience is different than that of an artist (Woolf herself) or a mystic who has such moments of perceiving a different reality spontaneously and who concludes that what we see and call "real" in ordinary moments is a distorsion by merely comparing the experiences.
Woolf herself started with having such moments of vision. Perhaps then she wondered what would make other people realize that too. It may have been loneliness which motivated Woolf to build a character such as Eleanor. With whom to share, to communicate, such things if they don't see them? If you try to do it they may say that you are crazy and see things which don't exist.
In the Eleanor character we have someone who progressively comes to realize that the usual patterns of perception are wrong. She works her way through to reach the truth, she isn't given it thorugh a state of heightened awareness as it was the case with Woolf. Eleanor is a regular person but, unlike most here, she is one who doesn't automatically use the psychological defenses to blind herself from the contradictions which she sees and feels only to get "peace of mind". A reader who strongly identified herself with Eleanor during the lecture will end up being directed by Woolf toward the same realization. A realization which is gradual.
First, there must be something else because this indeed is wrong, broken, contains contradictions, thus it can not be fully real, it can not be the truth. „What is real is not contradictory and what is contradictory can not be real" said F.H. Bradley in "Apperance and Reality"-1893; he was a British idealist philosopher who greatly influenced T.S. Eliot and with him perhaps the whole Modernist trend and Woolf too.
Second, if that's not, then what else really is ? This is the moment of perception shift when you "let go" the old pattern, you stop trying hard to fit the things according to the scheme which you have always tried to up to now and you start searching for a different pattern altogether to grasp the reality (Eleanor's moment).
Third, the "vision", the "mystical" experience when you have found a new pattern and now you see something else instead comes up.


Swans Reflecting Elephants, S.Dali

You don't start seeing what is, you start with what you are told that there is there. And then you try in good faith fitting everything -all the rest you see there- along the pattern you started using. But then contradictions start to be felt. Some things are difficult to fit, some don't fit at all. At this moment you can either use the psychological defense mechanisms to stop feeling and thinking about the contradictions and thus keep your pattern (and the image which it leads to you seeing) or you start doubting it because it leads to something which is "so broken" that it can't be true (Eleanor). Finally you discard it completely, look for another, find it, and see differently.
However, with Woolf, there are two worlds: the world of fact and the world of vision. Each of them is real and part of our existence. Woolf does not exclude the ordinary aspects of reality in her novels, which are just as real. She is aware that ‘the modern novel cannot represent only heightened moments of self-consciousness, but must be made up of more mundane moments that make up one’s life.’ ( Liesl M. Olson, Modernism and the Ordinary (Chapter 2, Virginia Woolf's 'cotton wool of daily life'))
In cases where the initial assumptions, the patterns initially used for recognition later lead to contradictions we can indeed speak of only one true world and its many false perceptions due to wrong assumptions, due to misinterpretations. However, there are situations when it is not possible to say which perception is the right one, which is the true one and which one is due to using the wrong pattern for recognition. In this case each perception is as real as the other one with no way to decide which is ‘fantasy’ and which ‘reality’.


Is this a duck or a rabbit?

Or maybe something else for which we don’t have yet a word and an associated pattern through which we should, or could, look at the image. A duckrabbit?
Each perception is as justified as the others and this makes it a matter of choice and preference. A choice which may be influenced by conscious or unconscious motivations.

There are moments when we ourselves structure our world according to desires, wishes, fears, and so on, which may very well be unconscious and of which we may not even be aware of. Whatever may be the case (conscious or unconscious) the resulting perceptive experiences are not necessarily unreal, are not necessarily false (illusory) experiences. They can be indeed said to be illusory only when they contain incongruences which are stubbornly ignored by the perceiver. In such a case we speak of denying reality and self-deception.
If that’s not the case, as in the simple case of seeing a duck or a rabbit where each perception is self-consistent, a wishful choice isn’t invalidated by the mere fact that it is wanted. It can be said to be as real as any other and in this case seeing one thing rather than another is only telling something about the psychological makeup of the perceiver. It is telling something about his interests and values, about the kind of “book of life” he wants to read, what kind of life he wants to pursue.
Perhaps the most familiar situation of this kind is the case of people in love. They do see their beloved one in ways that others don’t which results in conflicts of opinion with the entourage over how she “really” is. But they would need to be in love with her too to start choosing seeing her along other lines than they do now.
People have always had the tendency to structure the world we live in. For this, we have ordered everything into categories, objects, persons, situations. We did this by understanding the way this world works, by naming objects and so on, by describing situations. And naming these, and language as a whole, have ended up by structuring our perception, in their turn. By doing so we should know what to expect from people or various events. Yet wouldn’t we remain somehow “trapped” in this view of the world? Wrapped up inside the symbolic universe built for us by our native culture don’t we miss perceiving and understanding aspects of this world in a different, possibly even more profound, way?
We can imagine a different world. Sometimes drugs may help get rid of the patterns of perception we know. Another possibility to break the perception rules and structures we have grown accustomed to employ may be brought by hallucinations, illusions and other forms of losing touch with the reality as we know it. Sometimes the ordinary course of living offers opportunities for those who are keenly aware and willing to seize them. We tend to perceive what we wish to perceive or what we know that we “should” perceive, what we are told that “there is” and we know that we are expected to confirm. Out of moral cowardice and conformism we refuse to acknowledge that, at some level at least, we see and feel incongruences in the commonly shared views. We deny ourselves our emerging “moments of being”, in other words. In such cases the mismatches should be acknowledged, as Woolf’s character Eleanour does, and such moments valued as opportunities to discard one worldview and start seeing the world along different patterns.
We also create fictional worlds by deliberately mentally manipulating these patterns which underlie perception. Rather than passively learning and then employing those created by known artists and thinkers we go on to create our own. We could say that, when we create a fictional world, our imagination creates our perception, just like when we dream.
Perception is not only subjective. It’s not simply a matter of personal opinion. There are patterns, rules according to which we organize our perception of the world. Some depend on and are required by the culture we live in. Our perception of reality may vary and most of it may be dependent on the patterns established by the structure of language or what has been believed to be innate rules of perception. We form a mental, inner image of the world due to factors previously mentioned.
Even though there are patterns of perception we all share, we may perceive the same reality in a different way to some extent. We may use language more or less skillfully than others, be more knowledgeable in a subject, or just more creative. We may appreciate more a certain work of art due to more knowledge about art and a certain moment in life because our rich imagination. Such knowledge, learned or created by us, structures our perception.
The perception of reality can never be completely the same for all of us. Aside from common patterns, there will always be something personal in shaping one’s perception.


Lun, Greta. 2002. Perception, perspective and moments of being in Virginia Woolfs Mrs Dalloway, Seminararbeit, Archivnummer: V108012 ,
McIntire, Gabrielle. Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Olson, Liesl. Modernism and the Ordinary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Rosenberg, Beth Carole, Dubino, Jeanne. Virginia Woolf and the essay, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 1997.
Strauch, Ralph. The Reality Illusion
Trehorne Thomas, Nigel James. Psychological Theories of Perception, Imagination and Mental Representation, and Twentieth Century Philosophies of Science. Phd thesis, June 1987, University of Leeds, Department of Philosophy.
Woolf, Virginia. The Years. London: Penguin Books, 1968.


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