Perception is the great mystery of philosophy and science: how does it come about that we interpret various sensual stimuli into the visible and tangible world? This is known as “the hard problem”—a subject this magazine has previously explored with Steve Robbins. In the following essay, Ashvin Pandurangi tackles a different problem of perception: the deleterious effect repetition and the mechanization of thought have upon perception and consciousness. As the author explains, “Not only have our ideas about the world taken on a mechanical nature, but our method of forming ideas has been mechanized.” This behaviour, which comes from a desire for efficiency and predictability is, in fact, the enemy of consciousness.
Mechanical technology itself is not unique to the modern age. What is unique is how this technology has influenced every dimension of our cultural existence, right down to the way we perceive and think about the world around us. Not only have our ideas about the world taken on a mechanical nature, but our method of forming ideas has been mechanized. That is what Barfield refers to (see below) as “consciousness”; the subconscious way in which we perceive and cognize the World Content before it is made conscious. Our considerations here will focus mostly on the digital age of technology which has only come into widespread use over the last few decades after Barfield’s passing. Since the dawn of the 21st century, this technology has come to govern every sphere of our lives from our mornings to our evenings, our weekdays to our weekends, and our youth to our adulthood. It dictates our decisions in our homes and offices, in our cities and countrysides, and in our social, civic, personal, and professional lives. Based on his writings and the spirit of his thought, it is a safe bet that Barfield would be very concerned with the accelerating pace of this development.
Many psychology books, articles, Youtube channels, and podcasts have taken a stab at exploring the harmful effects of digital technology. Unfortunately, these analyses of the situation paint with very broad strokes and thereby remain hopelessly abstract and mostly unhelpful. They treat the mechanization phenomena as one more item in a long list of bad habits, like smoking or eating fast food, just another activity that people in the modern world should either avoid altogether or use in moderation to whatever extent possible. These approaches cannot possibly be helpful because they fail to diagnose the problem we are dealing with in its living essence. The task of any genuine “phenomenology” is to observe and deeply contemplate how these underlying dynamics of the phenomena manifest in our immanent experience.
We start with the phenomenal appearances—in this case, various aspects of digital technology—but we don’t arbitrarily end with mere appearances if we can go further and deeper through sound, logical reasoning. It is by penetrating the depths of phenomena that we begin to actually hear their tales and tunes, otherwise muted. At first, only by faint whispers, but later through resounding images, tones, and words.
“We must not forget that nine-tenths of the words comprising the vocabulary of a civilised nation are never used by more than at most one tenth of the population; while of the remaining tithe, nine-tenths of those who use them are commonly aware of about one-tenth of their meanings.”Owen Barfield, History in English Words (1953)
Owen Barfield wrote a history of Western culture by focusing exclusively on the origins and transformations of English words, perceiving how a study of their presence, absence, and usage could provide unique insights into Western civilization. Moreover, such an approach could shed light upon an objectively valid, living, and qualitative knowledge of this evolving history. By penetrating into the deeper layers of meaning which gave rise to these word groupings—some portion of the 90% of meanings of the 90% of words which are commonly ignored in a civilized nation—he perceived how the 10% of meanings of the 10% of words we actually use came into being. This insight is both literal and metaphorical at the same time. It is literally true of modern languages, and it metaphorically points to the relation of the visible to the invisible world. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Barfield’s favorite poet, “A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.“
“It has only just begun to dawn on us that in our own language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust. But there is this difference between the record of the rocks and the secrets which are hidden in language: whereas the former can only give us a knowledge of outward, dead things—such as forgotten seas and the bodily shapes of prehistoric animals and primitive men—language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man’s soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.”Owen Barfield, History in English Words (1953)
Language provides an imperishable map of inner experience, and that is even more true of the sensible perceptions from which all language is drawn. Barfield and Emerson often indicated how all language employed to symbolize inner mental states and dispositions began as words reflecting perceptible appearances. Emerson observed, “Right originally means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eye-brow.” This ideal quality of physical images has not disappeared but has only been veiled by our own abstract and limited cognition. One major obstacle to examining the transformations of perceptions, as opposed to words, is that most people cannot access perceptions beyond a very limited range of their recent memory. There is another approach, however, which can still yield fruit. We can start with our current perceptual experiences and see what those disclose to us about the phenomena in question, which, in this case, is the mechanism of modern human culture and daily life. To begin with what presents itself to our experience most immediately is the genuinely phenomenological approach.
“All conscious nature has experiences of pleasure and pain. Man alone can deliberately will the repetition of an experience. And repetition, experienced as such, is at the heart, for good and evil, of his faculty of reasoning, and thus makes possible his language, his art, his morality, and indeed his humanity. Yet it is the enemy of life, for repetition is itself the principle, not of life but of mechanism.”Owen Barfield, Orpheus: A Poetic Drama (1937)
Owen Barfield (1898-1997) was a poet, critic, philosopher and member of the famous Inklings, a literary group at Oxford that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He had a profound influence on both writers, and became a close friend of Lewis. In fact Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Barfield’s daughter, Lucy. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, influenced Barfield, who translated several of his works and wrote The Case for Anthroposophy. Most famously, Barfield is known for pointing out how analogy gets to the root of consciousness.
The willing of repetitive experience is also what we call Thinking and Memory. That is why Barfield places it at the very foundation of so many qualities which make us uniquely human. How can such qualities, which ground our speech, our reasoning intellect, our art, and our morality, then, transform into “the enemy of life“? It has been said, “all evil is unevolved good” (Steiner). Many riddles surrounding the current state of humanity can be understood through the lens of this simple Wisdom. For our purposes here, the enemy of life arrives when this unique human quality of repetitive experiencing, which underlies all technological development in the modern age, is clung to for the conveniences and comforts it provides long past its expiration date. This stubborn refusal to evolve with the currents of cognition—a deeply ingrained desire to swim upstream against them—then compounds itself into something which carries much more tragic consequences for humanity as a whole. The longer it is ignored, the more it festers within us as a cancerous tumor. We will see how those consequences have already unfolded in modern society and are still unfolding around us in due course, but a careful phenomenology first requires we understand why. Barfield takes us back to the Renaissance era, when many of the predecessors to our current English vocabulary were reintroduced into the streams of Western thought.
Owen Barfield, History in English Words (1953)
“The new intercourse with the ancient literatures of Greece and Rome naturally brought into English a positive stream of ‘literary borrowings’. At first these were mostly Latin words. If we try to imagine an English from which such words as accommodate, capable, capacious, compute, corroborate, distinguish, efficacy, estimate, experiment, insinuate, investigate, and a host of others equally common are as yet absent, we may partly realize what an important part was played by the Renaissance in producing the language in which we speak and think.”
At this stage, there was still a feeling for the concrete experiences to which these words referred. At the end of the 17th century, a “computer” was still a human being “who calculates . . . whose occupation is to make arithmetical calculations.” By the end of the 19th century, we first get its usage as a “calculating machine” with its own existence independent of any particular human being. It is only in 1937, through the personality of Alan Turing, that the word is first used in its modern sense of “programmable digital electronic device for performing mathematical or logical operations.” We should try to concretely sense the distancing that is occurring in these word-transformations as we move away from the human body-brain and its living cognitive processes. The philosophical meaning of “abstract” as a verb from the mid-16th century is, “to draw away, withdraw, remove.” We should be clear that it is only this drawing away of human thinking from nature and its processes which made modern technology possible, such as that which I am taking advantage of now. We only fool ourselves if we imagine that we could have done without the Wisdom of this process. Yet our clear thinking should remain equally clear as we explore, in precise and concrete terms, what qualities of living experience we have also forsaken in this abstracting process of the modern mechanical age.
One aspect of the phenomena at issue here is obvious from the outset—digital technology acts as a synthetic substitute for natural perceptual and cognitive processes. These processes should be understood in their deepest sense—ones which allow us to relate to the World Content in every waking and dreaming moment of our lives. They allow us to make sense of the manifold phenomena which confront us. To perceive what happens when these processes are substituted out by digital media technology, we first need a basic understanding of what these processes do for us. We will approach this topic by way of a few illustrations. First, let us examine why it is that we perceive anything in the world around us. What functions are the “perceptions” in the phenomenal world serving in our experience? To stimulate our Imagination here, and to give readers an opportunity to discern some clues to this ‘mystery’ of perception, I am going to quote a few modern thinkers over a range of time who spoke directly to this function of perceptual phenomena that we are searching for. No matter how abstract the language becomes, remember that these thinkers below were speaking of our immanent phenomenal experience.
“Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and figures—in a word the things we see and feel—what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas, or impressions on the sense? and is it possible to separate, even in thought, any of these from perception? . . . my conceiving or imagining power does not extend beyond the possibility of real existence or perception . . . as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so is it impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it.”
– from George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)
“Only within a one is [a perception] a property; and only in relation to other properties is it specific . . . isolated property is basically just a form of sensuous being since it . . . is now reduced to mere meaning, having, in other words, altogether ceased perceiving and involuted into itself . . . But sensuous being and meaning mutate into perception.”
– from Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)
You must, when contemplating nature,
Attend to this, in each and every feature:
There’s nought outside and nought within,
For she is inside out and outside in.
Thus will you grasp, with no delay,
The holy secret, clear as day.
– from Goethe, Epirrhema (1819)
“The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep.”
– from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
“The insufficiency of our faculties of perception—an insufficiency verified by our faculties of conception and reasoning—is what has given birth to philosophy. The history of doctrines attests it . . . No matter how abstract a conception may be it always has its starting point in a perception.”
– from Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind (1956)
For these thinkers, the key to understanding the function of perceptions in our phenomenal experience is not what we find in the properties of the perceptual structure, but what we find missing. Look at the objects in your room right now. What you will not find, under any circumstances, is an isolated perceptual structure which does not present itself in the context of many other perceptual structures. The lamp does not present itself apart from the table or floor it is resting on. The door does not present itself apart from the walls it is situated between, and the computer monitor does not present itself apart from the wires through which electrical currents pass to make the display possible. What is the reason for this fact? As per Hegel’s remark quoted above, a truly isolated property would be “reduced to mere meaning” and “involute into itself.” Put more simply, the perceptual property would disappear, i.e. we would no longer perceive it with any outer quantitative structure. As long as a perceptual structure remains connected to other perceptual structures, and those structures to yet more structures, so on and so forth, the property we can isolate only in our thought is still serving a function in our experience. It is that function which explains its continued perceptual existence.
So what is this function? It is found within the complement of all perceptual structures—their conceptual meanings. Perceptions are like voids of meaning; they are negative images which invite us to fill their voids with our meaningful concepts. This negative image relates to Berkeley’s statement above—if we are thinking about a “sensible thing,” then we are perceiving it with our thought, and, if we are perceiving it with our thought, that means we have not yet exhausted that perception with our conceptual meaning. So there cannot possibly exist a thought about some-thing which we have never perceived. Such thinking would be perfectly united with its object and there would be no perception of the object as a distinct entity. Goethe points to this “holy secret” of Nature as well because “each and every feature” she carries in her perceptions serve as a ‘suction’ on our conceptual cognition—what appears as an outer ‘thing’ in our perception is, in essence, an absence of inner conceptual meaning. She offers her appearances as “inside out and outside in” by presenting what is truly absent (meaning) as a perceptual structure. Nature, by presenting her appearances in this manner, invites (or demands) our thoughts to render her subtle meanings increasingly more transparent than opaque. Consider this imaginative visual analogy of the process provided by a like-minded soul:
Let us imagine ourselves in a ‘God’ state. We think the thought ‘circle’ and our cognition assumes the shape of the meaning of circle. Our whole reality then consists of the meaning of circle: there would be no need for any thought-perception of it because we experience the complete meaning of it—our cognition is one and the same with the idea, i.e. the meaningful quality of circle-ness through and through. There is nothing that a perception could add to the idea that we now experience as the entire meaning of our Divinity. In fact, if we have a perception in our Divine mind, then this means that there is at least one more idea present—the idea of perception. In the first state, our whole Universe was made of the meaning of ‘circle’. Now, in addition to that, we also experience the idea of reflection, something which we have thrust out of ourselves in order to symbolize in perception the meaning of circle which was previously our complete reality.
We then exhale (an outward movement) our own cognitive essence and create a void shaped as circle. If we fill it completely with our perfect cognitive essence, then everything becomes the invisible inner meaning of circle again. But we don’t allow this to happen. We resist the suction and we keep the void open. Now this void exists for our Divine being and we can experience many other ideas in relation to it. The void tries to suck in from our meaningful essence an infinity of possible ideas that can try to approximate its shape (every idea except circle, which would close the void perfectly). For example, we can try to fill the void with a meaningful concept in the shape of a hexagon. It is like we are saying: “this thing looks to me like a hexagon.” The void draws in our cognitive essence into itself and we assume the meaning-shape of a hexagon. Yet, the perception does not completely disappear because the idea that we experience is not a perfect fit. The hexagon fills the circle but there are six sectors of the circle that remain:
Those six sections which remain in the circle image above (light green) correspond to perceptions which persist in the world around us. Take a moment to remember here that the purpose of this phenomenological approach is to indicate how perceptions manifest in our immanent experience. We are not interested in assuming anything about the “fundamental essence” of perceptions or generalizing our immanent experience into any abstract “universal principle” which governs the entire Cosmos. There is no good fruit to be produced from any such purely abstract endeavor, which attempts to “leap in one bound to the eternal” (Bergson). For now, we only need to ask ourselves—when we look at the world around us, assuming we are looking with genuine attention and interest—do the perceptions in our surrounding environment invite us, or even compel us, to fill their voids with our meaningful concepts as illustrated above? I do not think this fact is reasonably doubted by anyone engaging in this exercise with good will. We can remember here Bergson’s observation that insufficient perception, revealed as such by our conceptual reasoning, has given birth to all philosophy (and all thoughtful inquiries in human history). The next step of our phenomenological endeavor is to confirm the reasoning above with specific perceptual phenomena in our experience.
For instance, let’s consider the letters and words we use when speaking and writing, which are those same ever-evolving letters and words which Barfield used to sketch an entire historical account of Western culture. These are the letters and words which I have written previously and which you are reading right this moment. So the perceptions, in this case, are the letters which make up the words, the words which make up sentences, the sentences which make up paragraphs, and so forth. What occurs when these perceptions present themselves to our eyes, in the case of reading? We perceive the outer structure of those words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. – their “syntax” – and that syntax stimulates our thought to go searching for the inner conceptual meaning which makes sense of the syntactical structure – their “semantics“. No words have semantic meaning in isolation, but rather the meaning lives in the empty spaces between the letters, words, and sentences (the latter spaces are indicated by “punctuation“). Consider the following sentence in three formulations to discern carefully how your own cognitive activity responds when perceiving them:
(2) “hereli esthewhitemo usewhowaseate nbytheb rowncat“.
(3) “herelies thewhitemouse, whowas eatenbythe browncat“.
What else have I done in formulations #2 and #3 above apart from creating and enlarging (or modifying with punctuation) empty spaces within the syntax of the letters and words, so that your conceptual activity can fill them with meaning more easily? Nothing else has been done besides that. Note how the empty spaces do not automatically bring meaning to the structure, but only reveal it after our cognitive activity has been invited in to assume its shape and we accept the invitation with meaningful engagement. The same logic used above will apply to all other perceptual phenomena in our experience. Consider music when we are listening, singing, or dancing to it and discerning its underlying rhythm. This rhythm is discerned, usually subconsciously, by the silent spaces (“intervals“) between the beats, notes, and chords. The musical aesthetic also allows us to broaden our phenomenology a bit more to begin considering how our perceptions do not only include spatial structures, but also temporal ones. The temporal structures are easily missed when considering simple shapes, objects in our rooms, or words in an essay, but not so much when considering our auditory perception of music. That is, if we know to look for them.
The term “liminal space” was developed to refer to that duration of transition between one state of being and the next state, and in music these spaces are exemplified by “rhythmic thresholds.”
Psychologists who have studied these rhythmic thresholds have identified the lowest possible limit that the mind can perceive, with normal waking cognition, as 33 beats per minute (“lower perceptual limit”). They have also identified approximately 240 beats per minute as the “upper perceptual limit.” That is not the fastest speed at which music can be played, but the threshold at which our normal cognition will fail to notice any significant difference in the musical structure if it were to become any faster. It is very important to remember that these thresholds are limits of our own normal cognitive perception at any given time, rather than absolute limits on cognitive perception itself. Above we have already reasoned that these spaces between perceptions (musical beats/notes) seem to invite more conceptual activity the larger they become, but are these the only factors at play? In seeking this answer, we are asking what our immanent experience discloses to us when listening to music at various speeds within these perceptual limits. To be clear, the following is not an exact mathematical science; it may not even be a great representation of the perceptual semantics we are exploring. However, with normal waking cognition, and within the narrow boundaries of a written essay, it is likely the best that I can do. We will proceed with the phenomenology of temporal perception by listening to the following musical clips in three stages.
(1) Lower perceptual limit (33 BPM):
(2) Above-Mean Perceptual Limit (180 BPM)
(3) [Almost] Upper Perceptual Limit (240 BPM – Drums)
How did these three clips rate on a spectrum of inviting liminal spaces for your cognition to fill their voids with conceptual meaning? For me, clip #1 was a struggle due to the prolonged temporal gaps. Yet, after about 10-20 seconds, I could feel my cognitive activity picking up and searching for meaning to constellate within the liminal spaces. Clip #3 was the most difficult for my cognitive activity, as the drumbeats came in fast and furious, leaving almost no room for my activity to be welcomed into the spaces. Clip #2 was the most welcoming for me, and, although there was some struggle for the first few bars, it smoothly invited my cognitive activity into its natural progression of liminal spacing and made it feel very welcome there. At this point, some readers may be wondering whether their cognitive preferences were mostly an artifact of the song choices, i.e. a result of the fact that most people will prefer Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to an unknown, slow-motion Moon song or a death-metal drum performance. I don’t deny such factors are relevant, but the real question is, Are these other preferential factors also reflections of the liminal spacing between the temporal perceptions? Reason tells me that our preferences for songs will have a lot to do with how much cognitive suction their liminal spacing stimulates within us.
Much more can be said about the dynamics occurring in these liminal spaces of perceptual phenomena, but now we need to begin returning to the main phenomena at issue in this essay series on mechanism. How many readers would be more willing to apply the adjective mechanistic to Clip #3 than they would for the other clips? With this clear connection between the over-narrowing of liminal spacing and meaning, we begin to see what mechanization really takes away from our cognition and perception of the world phenomena we are always encountering around us. It is not only the overall meaning available to any given population which is sacrificed in the ever-increasingly mechanized world, as Barfield indicated in the opening quotation, but also the capacity for each individual to play a decisive role in co-creating that meaning through an ever-evolving courtship with Nature; the capacity to microcosmically build up our legacy by giving birth to meaning which will serve as the stable foundations of knowledge for our descendants in centuries to come. In the next part of this essay, we will look more closely and precisely at this phenomenon of mechanization in the digital age.
It will be important to remember that a genuine phenomenology does not arbitrarily end once it diagnoses a deep problem in our experience. This cynical approach to phenomenal inquiry in recent decades is itself an expression of mechanism—it is the computer program terminating once it completes a few iterations of its code. The genuine inquiry, instead, evolves with its phenomena as the nerve-senses evolve within a living organism and continually feed back meaningful information to the brain; it seeks to become increasingly united in meaning with the phenomena and therefore anticipate how its future stages will blossom in our experience. To employ a photographic analogy, the genuine phenomenology seeks to focus its lens vertically and deeply on its subject, rather than only widely and horizontally. Our thoughts must be transfigured into seeds planted deeply within the perceptual soil, rather than scattered loosely over the ground, so they blossom in full health. We must remember to go deep into the phenomena, not wide. Going deep with our cognitive activity is the essence of life and novelty, while going wide inevitably becomes repetitive, mechanistic, and, therefore, establishes itself as the enemy of life.
Ashvin Pandurangi is a consumer bankruptcy attorney in the Washington D.C. area who looks for truly imaginative solutions to his clients’ financial problems, especially those born of excessive fragmentation, isolation, and alienation in the modern age. He writes essays on mythology, aesthetics, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality, with the aim of gaining a deep and holistic appreciation of how these cultural traditions have manifested across the world and across the epochs of human history, while also conveying those insights to others whenever possible. Visit theawakeningspirit.org to read more of his work.