Lesson 14  Sensing and Perceiving





       In the natural attitude we agree to think of perception as a mere form of passivity.  There are light, colours and forms, and I see them.  They “fall” under the senses.  There is noise and music, and I hear them.  There is a perfume and my sense of smell is affected.  We believe that there is a reality outside the mind, an external reality that the senses give us.


Yet this is forgetting how active we are in perception.  It is forgetting that perception does a work.  To be honest, most of the time perceiving is only recognising what we are looking for, it is anticipating what we are expecting, it is identifying what is known already.  The primary element of perception is the intention, the activity traversing it and not passivity.


How do you sort out what pertains to passivity and receptivity from what pertains to activity?  To do this one can distinguish on the one hand sensing, which is passive, and on the other hand perceiving, which is a conscious activity in perception.  Yet is this not a convenient simplification?  Are we not always in the waking state on the level of perception?  Is perception yet more of the mind’s chatter, or does its dimension essentially include an opening up to reality? Does perception just mirror thinking or does it something more?


 A.  Perception and Intentionality



            We have seen that the vigilant mind is defined by intentionality.  The expression “all awareness is awareness of something” refers first of all for Husserl to perception as consciousness of something.  There exist several forms of intentionality, but it is clear that the first and foremost is intentionality in perception.  It is in perception that the word “thing” finds its meaning.  The object of which I am conscious is a thing and not an image or a souvenir.  This table upon which I lay my hands is present to me. It has its shape, its brown colour, its scent of polished wood.  When perceiving it I am conscious-of (consciousness - of) this thing I call table.  I think of this thing given in perception, assuming always a primitive idea, that of a substance endowed with constant properties.  This table here, unquestionably real, in wood, made of oak and chiselled with the tools of a woodworker.  A thing is an object, which we lay down as an in-itself[1] , a substance endowed with stable properties which are permanent in time. It is natural for us in our vigilant state to apprehend a phenomenon by considering it a thing. This awareness of things is our awareness of reality, in opposition to the awareness of an image; this one is an awareness of unreality.  It is this awareness of things which we oppose to illusion.  It would be perfectly possible, if we didn’t start out from vigilance, to conceive of a consciousness that would be much more fluid and less static, which would not constitute “things”.  Yet this is not how things present themselves in vigilance. 


How does the thing appear to me?  I see this table; even if I, moving in space, I walk round it, it remains the same table, present here and now.  This is strange because my perception of it is constantly changing.  I look at it from nearby or from afar, from beneath or from above.  In fact what I perceive is a series of perceptions, or better, as Husserl puts it, sketches of the table.  How come I can say “the” table as if it were one single thing? My perception is carried away in an incessant flux of different experiences, from one now of living consciousness to another now.  This diversity must somehow be constituted in such a way as to allow recognition to take place.  When the mind is conscious of several perceptions being identical it refers to a constant core, the noema of the perception, which is the target of each of my different perceptions.   Not only that, but each aspect of the perception also possesses its own permanence. The colour of the table for example is the same colour, even if I turn away to look elsewhere.  I posit the concept of the table to identify this object, in the same way as I posit the concept of colour to identify this brown.  If I am very assured in vigilance of the reality of “this table”, where does this assurance come from?  Can I say that it comes from the mere flux of my sensations?  No.  Sensations are too diverse, too varied, too fragmented and changing. Still, the realism of common sense thinks it finds the reality of the table in sensation.  “I only believe in what I can touch; I can knock the table, it is real, it isn’t smoke!”  In fact the reality we posit in vigilance owes much to language, to concept and identification.


A sensation without language is a fleeting apprehension; what is real is what I take to be constant in all my perceptions.  Through changing sensations I apprehend this “table”, that is an object-identity which is nothing other than the noema of the table.  I see a thing in the table, and it is things that seem real to me.  A thing is not simply an image.  An image has no consistency, it is not the thing in the flesh so to speak.  The image in a dream, for instance, cannot persist.  On the contrary a thing allows one to explore all its aspects, presents one with a variety of sketches of itself, such that one has never finished discovering it. Vigilance is lived in duality and this implies a clear distinction of subject and object, which becomes the opposition between subject and things.  In vigilance I always presuppose that the thing is a certain substance which is independent of me.  The thing is endowed with properties that I can explore:

1) It possesses primary qualities: its shape, its localisation in space, its motion.  These primary qualities are what the objective apprehension of the world, the scientific apprehension of reality, rests on.  The primary qualities are those that give rise to measure.


2) The thing also possesses secondary qualities: its hotness, its colour, its fragrance, its roughness.  At first I may think that these qualities belong to the thing.  I say that this fragrance is puzzling and sensual.  I say that the sky is glowing red, that the apple is sweet and the grapefruit bitter, the water piping hot and the branch heavy.  Yet these words “puzzling, sensual, red, sweet, bitter, hot, heavy” do they really refer to something pertaining to the thing?  Yes, in a way, but these qualities belong above all to my experience of what I call things, the experience given in perception.  Secondary qualities are those through which the life of the senses and all its diversity are given two us; they are said to be subjective.


In any case however, perception is a form of consciousness, exactly like imagination.   If I take away the dimension of consciousness (this by the way is meaningless!), this makes non-sense of perception.  The difference between objective perception and subjective perception is one founded on consensus.  An objective perception is supported by many testimonies, it is inter-subjective, while a subjective perception is individual, it is the experience of one single person. 


On the other hand, perception is never given on its own.  The mere object-identity does not suffice to establish the reality of the perceived thing.  What assures me of the reality of the thing is its presence inside the World.  The thing is never given on its own, it is given with a surrounding.  Each real object is one with other perceived objects and part of the World.  The World in its totality sustains the existence of each thing.   When I turn my attention to this or that object, what it nips off, designating it as one “thing,” is something that only exists as part of the totality of existing things, such as they are given to me in perception.  Each thing possesses an indeterminate horizon, which I can explore; and each thing gives itself to my perception in innumerable sketches.  Yet the horizon of each thing is part of the horizon of the World.  What is extraordinary in perception is that it is a bias on the World; more so it is a stance on an inexhaustible world offering a multiple variety of   sketches. “The totality of these objects simultaneously given to the intuition with greater or lesser clarity, more or less distinctly, and always encompassing the present field of perception, does not even exhaust the world as it is “there” for me, in my consciousness, every time I am vigilant.  On the contrary it spreads, boundless, according to a given order of beings”.  This World is the very one which, immediately upon entering vigilance, I hold up as one and the same as an implicit condition of its reality, as against the world of dreams which is not one and the same.  The thetic[2] consciousness of a World is part of the consciousness of the object’s reality.  Hence it is somewhat hasty a judgement which takes perception to be mind in mere passivity.  We have just seen that it is not so.  The mind is always active in perception, because it structures it.  A perpetual task of identification is at work in perception, and this task consists in gathering together the variety of perception into one and the same unity or object-identity.  Perception implies the construal of World at once coherent, unique and real: the world of the waking state.  Vigilance is lived in the anticipation of a world presenting itself to perception as unique and coherent.


Nevertheless it happens that the object surprises me and that one or the other of its aspects is not what I expected.  The identifying synthesis[3] can make mistakes.  In optical illusions I may be uneasy with an appearance challenging my on-going operation of perceptual synthesis.  For instance I see the facade of a house, I walk round it and find…nothing!  The rest of the house has been taken down; it is a trick of the eye such as we find on the stage.  Yet this does not alter my belief that the world is real!  Right away I pick up the pieces of perception to form a coherent picture of the world.  I need to think of my perception in a coherent world.  There has to be a coherent World as background to the phenomena.  Whatever the phenomenon, it is always the phenomenon of something, it is the phenomenalisation of the World itself.  Of course I don’t k now what the world is, but everything I know in the waking state refers to it.  This means that the appearance is the on-going Manifestation of the World to my waking-state consciousness.  Appearances – for the phenomenologist – do not oppose a reality hidden one doesn’t know where behind the stage; it is its own personal gift of reality, a moment of its essence.  The appearance is a presentification[4] of the thing against the background of a World, a presentation that is of course incomplete, that needs exploring, that requires the confirmation of converging testimonies, since no sketch is ever the whole thing, but all the same it is a manifestation of the thing.  In perception the sketch gives itself, emerging against the horizon of the whole of the thing’s potential. 


We have already dealt with this topic in the lesson on Other People.  Other people further add to the complexity of this issue, since they are also given to me as something that appears in my perception.  The other person is given as an appearance, which cannot be totally distinct from what he is.  Nevertheless, as a subject others have the spiritual potential to change; thus I cannot congeal a person into one or other of his apparitions.  If I do I risk judging him wrongly in the future.  I cannot either get the full measure of him, no more than I can ever get the full measure of anything: perception always reveals new angles.  The object is inexhaustible, and so is the subject but in a different way.



Interpreting perception as passive is contradictory to the nature of consciousness.  Perceiving in vigilance is not simply to “open up the eyes”, it is already construing a world.  Consciousness is essentially activity, because it is an intentional act. Consciousness never ceases to be consciousness, it remains such in each of its acts and perception is no exception.  It is the subject reaching out for the object, and not just some “stimulus” affecting the individual.  Without consciousness “the object” is not, because there is an object only with respect to a subject.  Without consciousness there cannot be things.  A thing can only be what consciousness has succeeded in construing as one and the same inside the experience of a perception.


If we carefully examine our perception, we shall see what we had not previously detected, namely the subjacent thinking at work to structure the object and the World, inside the continuous flux of sense data.  In his Meditations Descartes identifies the work of thought inside perception and calls it judgement.  It is, he says, by an inspection of the mind that I identify as men what I see moving beneath the window.  It could have been “hats and capes moved by springs”, and I would not have noticed any difference.  The appearance would be the same.  In reality I judge that these are men passing by, because my perception is tainted by anticipation, because my present perception cannot be separated from my memory.  Vigilant perception is much more that a mere impression on sensory organs.  It is a representation that a subject construes by means of the impression of an external object understood at a certain place at a certain time.



B. Impressional passivity



Should one therefore conclude that the impressional background has no part to play?  We can’t say that perceiving is the same as thinking or imagining, can we?  That would be stretching it!  Waking state consciousness cannot just create its object.  The waking state is not the dreaming state!  It is only when dreaming that consciousness creates its object through and through.  In vigilance the impression must appear against a background which refers to the very structure of the appearing World, and of the world as present in a manner which is not intentional.


This is a difficult problem for phenomenology.  Husserl thinks of the relation between perception and impression as one between matter and form.  Intentionality is the form of impressions, or it is giving form to them, and impressions are the matter.  In other words, one has on the one hand a non-intentional sensation, and against this obscure background an intentional perception takes shape, construed in vigilance, and this is the perception which the phenomenologist describes.


Yet what can one say of impressions at this level, if one does not want to go outside consciousness?  If we spend our time perceiving, ought we to consider sensation as a sort of abstraction?  If I say that I hear the wind in the trees outside, that I see the mountains far away, I am trapped at once: “wind”, “tree”, “mountain”, “far away” are concepts pertaining to the realm of intentional consciousness.  They are tools that put forward the object-identity.  I therefore speak only of my perception, not of my sensation.  What then is this sensual feeling[5] which is the very nature of the stream of impressions?  What is this strange and dark reality embedded in impressions?  Everything that I perceive is well truly given inside sensation, but what is sensation?  If one sticks to an intellectualist position, it will be easy to say: the idea of sensation is just an obscure notion, it does not refer to anything in our experience, it is an abstraction.  What we know is perception.  This is Sartre’s thesis.


Nevertheless, it there is to be perception, there first has to be sensation.  We sense infinitely more things than we perceive. This because attention limits the field of consciousness and rejects whatever we do not lay our attention upon in the darkness.  Remember Leibniz’ theory of the small perceptions.   Between crude sensations and perceptions there must be differences, at least of clarity and distinction, of precision in conceptual knowledge.  Dreams reveal that from memory details may surge that had not been noticed, and that are yet embedded in memory.  Hypnosis, through lowering the degree of vigilance, allows us to draw from a perceptual memory that the waking-state subject cannot recollect. We are bathing in a pool of sensations from which our perception only extracts what is useful right now.  Sensations well and true exist, but it is drowned in perception.  We have so learned to classify, name, refer all identification to known things that we cannot near the unknown, obscure and troubling aspect of sensation: the sensual feeling in which perception itself is immersed.


However it may happen that the working of our mental operations is weakened, or that we do not have the option to conceptualise sensation.  What happens when we are pulled out of deep sleep?  There is as yet nothing precise and distinct, nothing with a precise meaning.  We are still stuck in sensation.  It is only with the return of the mind that identification can take place.  To begin with one is not yet somebody, as long as one hasn’t “recovered one’s wits”, and the world is but a hazy sensation.  One feels oneself, but without defining and without defining oneself.  Marcel Proust has considered this idea in Remembrance of Things Past.  Identity emerges from a background of sensations, none of which has a specific identity. The ego arises fully only in vigilance.


Similarly when we are surprised, enthralled by some music, a face, the beauty of a landscape, the subtleness of a fragrance, in a moment of astonishment or wonderment, there will be an instant’s suspension of mental activity, a wordless state.  This suspension is a precious moment.  Sensation is there, puzzling, but the mind has as yet named nothing.  However it is at this very moment that sensation hits us.  The trouble we feel comes from sensation. 


It seems that these are rare experiences.  In our daily life, sensation is always wrapped up in perception.  To recover it one would need to strip the perception of everything that memory, habits and concepts add to it.  Even if in our apprehension of the sensible realm sensation comes first, for us it comes last because we pick it at a stage in which it has already been interpreted and intellectualised.  In one word, we do not have enough innocence to directly meet up with sensation.  A presence has to be sensed before the same presence is thought, but what we find is above all the result of our own operations on the sensation.  This result of the intentional act of the mind is perception.


Are we then intellectual to an extent such that the sensible realm does not yield anything other than what we have projected upon it?  After all we cannot just do what we want with our sensations.  A perception is a revelation and a revelation does not have its sole origin in us, but also in what is sensed.  The perception must reveal the sense of what it is carrying with it.  The face of another is something I cannot do what I want with.  It gives itself to me with its eloquence, its sensitivity.  I can only intellectualise it after having been subjected to its presence and undergone its influence.  A presence in the sensible realm is not of the same order of things as a mathematical concept. Not only is this true of our relation to other people, but it also concerns our relation to Nature.  A landscape, like a face, is also a state of mind.


C.  Donation to the Senses and Contemplation


When the mind perceives it enters into a relation with the object of perception.  There can be different degrees of relation, because sensibility admits of different degrees.  The mind can make a grosser or more subtle use of its senses, according to it own level of awakening.  Its ability to experience may be refined or dull.  In this respect perception reflects what we are, in the sense that it depends on our clarity of consciousness and attention.


1) It needs a superior clarity of consciousness for the mind to apprehend the depth and abundance of sensations; furthermore this consciousness must not be restricted by the intentionality of wakefulness.  We must be able for a moment to reduce our conceptual and emotional projections to silence, the time to listen to Being.  It is when the mind becomes motionless and quiet that it can reach a state in which it awakens to the entire field of the sensible. To perceive in a free and disinterested way is to contemplate.


A mind weighed down by its own discourse cannot be sensitive.  It does not have the necessary innocence to listen at what is given to it.  It is unable to feel astonished, it cannot admire.  It is sunk in its own blabber and this distracts it.  It is only when perception is innocent that the mind experiences a presence to itself and a presence to the world.  This theme has been explored in depth by contemporary Indian Philosophy.


The particular quality which gives perception a more elevated sensitivity is very noticeable in this text:


“It had been raining non-stop for a whole week; the earth was muddy and water spread in big puddles on the path.  The water level had risen in the wells and frogs had the time of their life, croaking relentlessly throughout the night.  The river had risen to levels threatening the safety of the bridge, but the rain was welcome despite the damage it caused.  The weather, today, cleared a little; regions of blue appeared in the sky above us and the morning sun dispersed the clouds…”

This text is full of a feeling for what is there.  It is a little as if the first time we were invited to taste, see, observe, but with an attention which would not congeal the object, looking at things aesthetically; this is not an intellectual look but the sensible rendered to itself.  This is not how we normally look at things.  We are far too concerned by our own thoughts to pay interest to what is around us.  We watch without really seeing.  We lack a presence imbued with feeling.  Deep down we are distracted, because we are trapped in the net of our thoughts.  Maybe we would have this look if, coming out of a long illness, we had the feeling that we were once more alive.  This damp earth, this morning fragrance, these misty shades, none of this is really felt.  It does not require much though for the senses to be filled with wonder.  It is enough that we pay attention to what is, but an attention without an object, one that remains discreet, which touches upon what is there without demanding recognition: see for the sake of it, taste for the sake of it, feel a contact, touch it, inhale a perfume for its own sake, with the gratuitous freedom of feeling.


This quality of sensitivity is not an isolated phenomenon.  It is the sensitivity of painters to colours and forms, of musicians to sounds and rhythm.  It is the sculptor’s astonishment at the force inherent in a posture, the dancer’s enthrallment by the grace of a body in motion.  But it is also the sensitivity which helps me feel another’s distress with sympathy, or an affliction at the sight of misery such that I have to look away.  To be sensitive is to be vulnerable.  Whoever is barricaded in his habits and his thinking cannot perceive with this degree of sensitivity.  Nor can he encounter the beauty which surprises thinking, suspending it.


Further down in the same text, the author says about a parrot:  “this parrot appeared to be the point of convergence of all life, beauty and perfection.  There was nothing other than this lively spot of green on the dark branch against the blue sky.  Your mind lost both thought and speech; you didn’t even realise you had stopped thinking…it stayed there, very smooth, very slender, every feather in its place.  Only a few minutes must have gone by, yet they spread over the whole day.  The whole of life appeared contained in these few minutes, with neither an end nor a beginning.”


The now of the sensible realm is timeless.  It is through this now that the mind enters timelessness.  The living-now is the sensible now and nothing else.  One cannot say that when the mind is placed in this state it only discovers itself.  On the contrary it is in this state that it is an open window, one present to Being.


2) Although intentional thinking seems to obstruct this, is there a way to summon this pure sensibility in the midst of perception?  Is there a way round the habits embedded in perception, some way to bracket them, so that we can recover our communion with the World?  This is possible only if we listen to the world in a manner which is poetic rather than practical.  In the words of Stephen Jourdain[6] this question becomes: how can we invite Eden to arise in the midst of perception?


“How can we free the music embedded in the landscape of the earth, how can we fulfil it?

Beethoven is rarely encountered in conjunction with a cigarette butt, a dead leaf or a crack in the pavement.  Were it so we would know it!  Therefore, surely, to achieve this kind of synthesis, to convoke the edenising earthquake, is hard, very hard?”


And Jourdain answers:


“No, on the contrary, it is easy.  The key is to diffuse your attention in all directions at once, to spread it like a fan and this demands no more effort than breathing.”  This means: our perception will not just follow the track laid out by our thinking, but allow attention to diffuse into the presence all around us.  The vigilant attention is focussed on a single object which it detects and identifies.  Diffusing the attention of perception means dissolving the very notion of an object into presence.  It is, poetically, breathing in a world that arrives within us.


Unfortunately our daily business does not allow us to breathe!  Our vision of things is imbued with duality, and this duality generates a perceptive relation to the world founded on separation.  We choke in a representation of separation which makes it impossible to renew the act of perceiving.  This is why our idea of vigilant perception is not that of a contemplating perception.


According to Stephen Jourdain this would give:




in rupture

in continuity

The world as two

The world as one

Broken duality

Original duality

Conflictual or indifferent

Sane, holy

World of objects and things

World of consciousness in the poetic radiance of difference




It is the surreptitious domination of the representation of duality in perception which deprives us of the richness of donation in perception.  The result is that our perception is the dull one we are used to.  To wake up perception would be:

“To free the overwhelming latent music in the earthly décor, and therefore firstly diffuse our conscious attention in all directions.” Is this really so difficult? No, “it is as easy as pushing a pram – but the snag is that consciously we push and unconsciously we pull.  This makes it difficult to move forwards.”  There is in the poetic feeling an introduction to what could have been a life of the senses freed of the mind’s predatory nature.


The sense of poetry, art, liberate us by restoring for a moment a disinterested perception.  This is why Bergson considers that Art’s highest mission is to teach to contemplate Nature, teach us to see in a different way.  To see differently is to see and not to recognise, project, anticipate, conceptualise.  Seeing is a generous act which involves love and lucidity.  At its most intimate lucidity is awakened intelligence and perception freed from the mind’s projections.  We can create the state in which the mind is in suspension as an open perceiving consciousness, without the mind being set in motion.  Right now we can be fully present to what is here.  Yet this supposes a form of consciousness which is not that of intentionality in vigilance.  We are therefore invited to discover another form of perception than the one structuring daily vigilance.


The natural attitude which was our starting point is not wrong: the idea that it is in perception that the mind encounters reality is correct; however real does not mean “things” we knock into, what we see there, what we can feel, like the flowerpot on the table.  We would want to make of perception a meeting point with what is new, with reality, with what has the ability to surprise us.  Contradictions in our mind and our narrow outlook prevent us from doing this.  It is our level of consciousness that has to be modified for perception to become once more a ravishing of the senses.


                                                                                              *          *




Hence perception does not just reflect the reasoning and thinking of a mind, or if it does then this is only from the point of view of a mind sealed up in the routine of its own thoughts, in which case it is just a reflection of our thinking or our culture.  It is in the nature of waking-state consciousness to structure perception in the subject/object relation in such a way that what is perceived is spontaneously viewed as one object.  However, true perception is a higher activity.  Perception in the true sense of this word is a revelation of what is there; this revelation can only take place within the framework of a donation to the here and now of the sensible, which is an open consciousness, a presence without an object, the fire of a mind with neither motion nor motive.  One has used the word sensation to try to express the impressional aspect of perception and the emotion it stirs.


In common awareness sensation evokes a confuse and obscure reality, a sensuality which has not yet awakened to itself.  There is however in sensation a prodigious wealth on display to astonish the senses. It is crucial to acknowledge the importance of sensations, not only of thinking.


Intelligence can find nourishment in contact of what is given in perception.  We call lucidity this pure apprehension of what is.  Lucidity enables one to see.  Seeing is not judging, it is discovering, it is receiving at the level of feeling the gift of what is there.  The kind of seeing which irrigates the intelligence is not a mental projection, but a careful listening.




Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm


[1] A thing existing in-itself is one that has a reality outside our mind, but no self-awareness.  Something can also exist for-itself; then it has self-awareness.  If it exists for us, it has neither self-awareness, nor a reality outside our mind.  Examples of the first are things: stones, chairs; of the second, persons; of the third dreams, illusions, fantasies.

[2] Thetic : a thetic consciousness is one that posits its object as existing.  It means that no perceptual experience can take place without the belief that the object perceived actually exists.  Perceiving is believing!

[3] That is the gathering together by the mind of the diverse elements of perception into a single object-identity (a single thing).  I perceive red and sweet and round and firm, and I gather together all these perceptions to form the object-identity apple

[4] Presentification : a word from the vocabulary of Husserl.  To presentify is to make something  present to mind.  This can be a something absent, something from the past or something which is there but concealed from our attention.

[5] In French in the original text.

[6] Stephen Jourdain is a French writer of spiritual texts.  At the age of 16 he experienced a heightened awareness upon encountering Descartes formula I think, therefore I am.  By Jourdain you can read Radical Awakening in English.