"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

Friday, July 20, 2007

Some reflections on phenomenology

The following consists of some more or less random thoughts I've had on phenomenology. Originally they were meant to be organized into an introduction to a longer work, but at this point I don't think I'll ever get around to completing it, so I thought I may as well dump them here. Enjoy them, such as they are, as an illustration of the weird things you can think of when you have too much free time on your hands. :-P

As I open my eyes, I am treated to a menagerie of colors and shapes. Far from being randomly strewn about, they appear organized into various objects at various distances from each other and from me. These objects, or at any rate most of them, seem to curve or budge outward in a three dimensional space. I see them arranged in depth with respect to each other, according as they are closer to or farther away from me in the direction of my line of sight. This sense of depth is diminished if I close one eye. The objects look somehow flattened, even though I know intellectually that this is not so. Yet I can still tell that they are closer to or farther away from me because in my experience closer objects occult farther ones: If I situate myself (and/or the objects) so that the closer object is “in front of” the farther one, I can no longer see part of it, even though I believe no less strongly that it is still there. (A priori, there is no reason that this should be true of all possible visual experience. If you put one of your hands in front of the other, the sensation[1] you have in the closer hand in no way occults the sensation you have in the farther hand, yet it is not as though the sensation in the closer hand is “transparent”, both seem entirely “solid”, just as the color of an opaque object seems “solid”. If it is possible to sense one solid sensation as being in front of another without the closer occulting the farther, I see no reason why this should be impossible in principle with color in the case of vision.) Something similar is the case with pictures and paintings: The figures depicted are apprehended by me as being in depth, and, after a fashion, as three dimensional, even though I do not perceive the depth or trideminsionality as I do in normal binocular vision. The sense of depth is even less than in monocular (single-eye) vision. The closer an object is, the more the visual background is occulted by it, and in that sense it appears larger the closer it is, even though I do not judge it to increase in size.

An interesting question confronts me: What do these objects seem to be distant from? “My head” would be one commonsensical answer, but my head is not represented in this space—the only time I normally see my head is in a mirror or a picture, or perhaps on a closed-circuit television screen. And whenever I do see it, as in a mirror, it still appears to be distant from my vantage point. My vantage point, or point of view, seems only to be definable as a focal point of my perceptual space. In my unreflective moments, it seems that my point of view is my inmost here—a place behind my eyes from which I’m looking out.[2] The distance and direction of everything I see seems to be defined relative to this point.

Sounds seem to be organized about this same focal point. Sounds are curious beasts: Although they occupy space, they seem neither to be points nor to have any shape. Who can hear the blare of a trumpet and say whether it is flat, spherical, or triangular? Synesthetes perhaps[3], but not the rest of us. In spite of this, sounds do seem to possess distance and direction. Most of us ask where a sound is coming from, not where it is. On the folk conception, sounds have a focal point where they are “made” or “emitted”, and suffuse the space around this point, growing fainter the farther away they are from it. This is a good approximation when interpreted as regarding sound waves in the air, but not as regarding aural experiences, which are in the mind or brain of the observer.[4] Our minds may make mistakes in attributing sounds, as when one attributes the sounds which come from television speakers to the mouths of the actors one apparently sees through the television screen.

It has been argued by some—such as Kant—that one must always think of space as being infinite, and cannot imagine that it comes to an end. How does this belief come about? I imagine it arises from a thought experiment such as this: Imagine any colored shape, such as a square, or if you're feeling more creative, a tree. Regardless of the shape, you always represent it as being against some background, whether black, or white, or blue, but it is always some color. From this, you may come to the conclusion that for any colored area, there must be a colored border. But this conclusion is problematic. Does your visual field[5] stretch on to infinity? The answer, I think, is no. If you hold your index finger about an inch outward from your face, and move it straightly to the right, after a couple feet you'll find that you can't see it any more. The farther something is from the center of the visual field, the more “blurred” or "indistinct" it appears, until you cannot see anything at all. So if your visual field comes to an end, what lies outside it? Your visual field, as presented in experience, is itself a colored area outside of which there is no colored border. Yet it seemed a short while ago to be impossible to imagine that space of any sort could come to an end. So what’s going on here? The answer, I think, goes something like this: Everything that you see lies in your visual field, and thus within its borders. In order for you to see where the visual field ends, its borders would have to be brought within themselves, which is impossible. Because you cannot “see” its boundary as you could the juncture of two colored areas, you conclude it has no boundary at all.

There are many senses grouped together under the grab-bag label “touch”. One of these is proprioception, which is the feeling of how one’s limbs are situated with respect to each other and one’s torso. Another is the sensation one has “in” the various parts of one’s body. This feeling is difficult to describe; it might be characterized as a sensation of existence or ownership, even a feeling of space being “filled”. What it is is brought to light in contrast with its absence, as when some part of one’s body, such as one’s leg, “falls asleep”. I can note that I never experience this sensation in objects which are not part of my body, though if I did I would probably come to regard the object as a part of me. Touch, of course, also includes the sensations of textures of the objects my skin comes into contact with, from the roughness of sandpaper to the smoothness of silk. Neither can I leave out the feelings of pressure and tension on my skin, nor those of heat and cold. Touch seems to be “coupled” to sight: It does not seem to me that I have two right arms, one felt and one visible, but rather one arm both felt and visible. This can result in some interesting experiences: If you bring your hand closer and closer to your face, its image grows, taking up more and more of the background, and yet your hand doesn’t feel as though it’s getting any bigger. The feeling you have in your right hand and its corresponding visual image still seem to fit together, in spite of the fact that one changes while the other remains constant.

Taste and smell may be regarded with justice as two branches of the same sense. Most of the richness of a given food’s flavor is derived from my sense of smell, as the tongue can discern only sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Taste and smell must be very similar; otherwise we would never confuse them as we do. Something can both smell sweet and taste sweet, but try to imagine a confusion between sight and hearing, or between taste and touch, and I think you’ll come up empty. Nevertheless, taste and smell are still distinguishable. Taste is apprehended as being concentrated on the tongue, whereas smell is presented as suffusing the space in front of one.

The perceptions which I have discussed so far do not exhaust the realm of experience. In addition to ordinary experiences of external objects, there is also the phenomenon of imagination, or mental imagery. One notable feature of mental imagery is something that, following David Hume, I will call “faintness”. The term is being used here in an analogical sense, as is evidenced by the fact that, for example, a normal sound or visual experience can be so faint that I cannot determine what it is I am seeing or hearing. By contrast, if I imagine seeing or hearing something I can determine what it is I am imagining quite well enough, it simply that the imagined sight or sound, though “cognized” in some sense, is neither seen nor heard. By the “faintness” of mental imagery one should understand the fact that though these experiences are determined, they are not apprehended in the same way genuinely perceptual experience is. Perhaps an example can make the nature of this distinction clearer. For my part, if I imagine (form a visual image of) a tree, it looks to be in front of me. That is, I don't see it, from a first person perspective, as being on the side of me or behind my head. Yet in spite of its being in front of me, it doesn't look at all "transparent"; I don't "see through it" to the things in my normal visual field, and neither are they obscured by the image. They both look "solid" in their own way, despite the "faintness" of the image. Neither seems to affect the other. In this sense, then, they seem to be in separate spaces, both of which seem to be "in front" of my point of view.

[1] By the “sensation in” your hand, I mean the feeling that one has simply of its “being there”, of a part of oneself as pervading that space. It is this sort of sensation one loses when a part of one’s body “falls asleep”.
[2] Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, Volume One, p. 149
[3] Synesthetes are people who have something we can call “cross-modal activation”: Certain experiences in one perceptual modality (i.e., sight, touch, hearing, etc.) activate experiences in another. Let us assume for a moment that there is a synesthete who has cross-modal activation between the portions of their brain dealing with shape and sound. One question that I have not heard addressed is whether in such a case the shapes or textures are merely felt at the same time the sounds are, or whether they truly qualify the sounds themselves, the sound being apprehended as being triangular, say, in the same way that a color patch may be apprehended as being triangular.
[5] For clarity, I intend “visual field” to be taken in the sense of one’s subjective visual experience, not that portion of the physical world that visible to one. The question of whether and in what sense there is such a thing as the “visual field”, so conceived, will be addressed later [Or so it would have been, if I had finished the work].