Frames /sing


The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

Some Considerations of Objecf-Object Oriented Philosophy

Recent engagement with Graham Harman’s “Object-Oriented Philosophy” as it stems from Brentano and Husserl, stirs in me a terrible disagreement (I use “terrible” in the Greek sense). It comes from the “picture” that for me lies behind phenomenological preoccupations with the object, and I think also is core to Heidegger’s, at least rhetorical, notion of hiddenness (dear Sophocles, your Aias  meditation on Time!)…this is the intensely visual metaphor for how the mind works, and thus how we are to orient ourselves philosophically towards the imagined “object”, philosophically equated with Being. The entire heritage in my view suffers from this essentialized orientation to the object, the thing that reveals itself only in part.

In a soon to be published text Graham Harman quotes to some effect Husserl’s object orientation in Logical Investigations:

“every intention is either an objectifying act or has its basis in such an act.” 

“whether I look at this book from above or below, from inside or outside, I always see this book. It is always one and the same thing, and that not merely in some purely physical sense [which plays no role in Husserl’s philosophy- g.h.], but in the view of our percepts themselves. If individual properties dominate variably at each step, the thing itself, as a perceived unity, is not in essence set up by some over-reaching act, founded upon these separate percepts.”

As I have argued elsewhere (linked far below), and found in my research into Spinoza’s optical theories and practices, this modern conception of a picture of consciousness as somehow oriented towards the object, in a sense, being composed by its object, is something that has its modern origin in optical metaphors drawn from the rise of dioptics, the science of the lensed refaction of rays. The transition from the Perspectivist tradition which matched linear rays from points on an object to points in the back of the eye, to the philosophical meditation on what it takes to have “clear and distinct” ideas (Descartes), led us to understand consciousness itself as oriented towards a central clarity, a clarity which, however obscure the borders, as the object of the mind composes a kind of “truth”. Under such a view it is the very nature of consciousness to be somehow defined by this centrality, this clear picture, and the obscure boundary spaces do nothing more than “serve” this center (Kepler, Descartes).

The “Clear and Distinct” Center

As just suggested, Descartes is responsible for bringing to the fore this notion of consciousness through a pursuit of the “clear and distinct” idea. It is important to note that this phrasing comes directly from dioptrics where it carried a specific meaning. In an age wherein refraction was barely understood (the law had just been identified), the quality of glass incredibly fogged and bubble-ridden, and methods of glass grinding unsettled and under continual invention, an image in a lens that was “clear” (clare) was one which was bright, and one that was “distinct” was one which, if bright enough and the properties of the glass and curve optimal, all the parts could be made out. A bright idea was one that struck one with obviousness, a distinct one one that struck with detail, that is, as being sufficiently differentiated. When looking through a microscope a “clear and distinct” image was a good image. In keeping with his preoccupations with the future science of the dioptrics of microscopes and telescopes, Descartes felt that mentally the “clear and distinct” idea was the focus of mental perception, just as the clear and distinct image is the focus of visual perception. Emotions and sensations were indistinct quite often. A pain might be very “bright” (obvious) but indistinct as to its cause or nature.  


In my studies I find, following Graham Burnett’s inspiration, that Descartes’ hyperbolic lens, designed as it was to bring a central object into view as clearly and distinctly as possible, was related to his hyperbolic doubt, which was meant to help focus the mind on the most bright and disguishable ideas. In both Descartes hyperbolic lens and imagination, it is the visual center of consciousness which stabilizes truth. It is the object of one’s eye and mind. I argue that Spinoza’s objection to the efficacy of Descartes’ optical hyperbolic lens contains also an objection to the notion of a central clarity, a clarity that works to anchor the mind to truth.

The Dissonance Hole

Now back to the inheritors of a concept of consciousness which finds at is center an (object) clarity. These are the phenomenological sons of Descartes’s preoccupations with the optical metaphor. To this inheritance I would like to raise a deeper question than simply exposing a central metaphor (and its possible contingent relationship of the validity of arguments that depend on it: chose another metaphor, like for instance how Plotinus uses sound, and possibly end up with different conclusions). I want to suggest that if one attends to consciousness itself, and looks to the very center of consciousness, one doesn’t find a stability there at all. In fact, there is hole at the center of vision.

Richard Sennett’s recent, and thought-provoking The Craftsman  includes the importance of this “hole”:

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

Pay attention to the dissonance that lies at the center of one’s attention. As the eye plays over the surface of an object, the gaze is not upon the “object” but at the living line which erupts out of the sense of it.  If we take up Husserl’s book, we don’t even have to look at its inside, outside and bottom. We merely need to look at its cover. The eye flits across it, an electric line that traces out the variations of its color, its choice of title typeface, its wear on a corner, its color that reminds us of a dress we saw. Yes, we are “seeing” the book, but it is an eruptive book. These are not accidents to the essence of the book, but rather are produts of our engagment with it. But more than this, the “book” is not a center of our consciousness, it is is not the “object” of our consciousness, or even intentionality. In fact there is no object at all which is the focus of our altering gaze. But it goes further than even this, for if the living line does erupt from the book, we understand that the book itself is present to us as a ground of sense for which this line depends. It is not that the book is somehow constructed out of these in some “over-reaching act” but rather that the book already serves as a ground, an under-reaching ground. The dissonance of our awareness depends upon an awareness of consonance. And this consonance is not though made up of the object of the book either, for the book is perceived as a book against (or in coherence with)  a vast array of other boundary perceptions and beliefs (I see that it is a book because that is a table, and I am in a room, and “I believe that writing exists, that there are authors” etc.). Not only is the “object” not at the center of our gaze, but neither is it the whole of the sense from which we do derive our center. Our awareness is a breadth. We say that we are “looking at the book” or “thinking of the book” as a kind of short hand for mutitudnal effects which are only understood as layers or degrees. And we also “picture” (retroactively) a stability of what we are looking at, paying less attention to what it is that we are attending to (a living line of dissonance, and a counter-boundary of outer sense) .

Intentional and Other Objects

When “object-orientation” concepts of Being flow from this notion of central apparition (and also for Heideggerians necessary hiddenness), the full sense of what the mind does, what consciousness is, I think gets lost. I have not read Graham Harman extensively (only an unpublished essay, a lecture listened to, and some informative comments), but I cannot help but have the sense that there is something of a central clarity conception of consciousness that he has taken from the sons of Descartes. What is interesting to me though is that tool orientation, a craft understanding of consciousness, actually is what calls our attention to the very hole at the center of vision. A craftsman is the one that focuses on the eruptive amid an organized sense, plan or workability.

So when we consider what Graham Harman takes to be the “object” of philosophy…

1. Intentional objects (such as phenomenal trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their accidents

2. Real objects (such as real trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their qualities

3. Real objects are deeper than the phenomenal qualities that emanate from them in relations

4. Intentional objects are unreal but are made up of real moments

This fourfold of accidents, relations, qualities, and moments can be restated in cosmologically more interesting fashion:

1. The tension between an intentional object and its accidents is precisely what we mean by TIME

2. The withdrawal of a real object from any relation is what we call SPACE

3. The duality between a real thing and its own real qualities can be called ESSENCE

4. A merely intentional thing’s possession of genuine qualities can be called, in a Husserlian sense, EIDOS

I feel that we need to ask how much of this falls back upon the essentialized notion of central clarity, the idea that our minds should be directed (philosophically) towards the focus upon “intentional objects” or “real objects” (or the interplay between them); how much does this direction rely upon a mistaken over-simplified “picture” of consciousness, and the historical inheritance of conceptions derived from Descartes fascination with refraction and the correction/enhancement of vision? It seems that when we realize that it is rather the “accidents” of an object that actually compose our intentionality, the eruptive semiotics of a dissonance that flows out from a ground of sense-making, the game of recapturing the buried “essence” of an object, the “real” object, apart from its intentionality loses its footing. It is the accidents themselves that connect us to the object, the flash of light across a surface that redirects our orientation to the object and causes us to care about it in a new way, to encamp it with a cathexis of our informing affects, and understand the world differently through these connective effects. When the intentionality of consciousness is understood not directed towards a clarity, an object (however present or hidden), but rather towards the breakdown of that object, not through an attention to the regain of an eidos behind it, but through a bodily reconfiguration of ourselves in orientation to the world itself wherein there is no accident for each accident signifies, then we understand the mind much more as an activity rather than a representation device (an important step I feel). It is in this constant re-vectorialization of the self through reporting others and a world that gives knowledge its uumph, its power and freedom. I am unsure how far Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy deviates from my thoughts on this, for we share a distinct interest in the post-human, a sense that flat ontologies should be in some ways deepened, and would work toward a cybernetic understanding. I look forward to a continual and edifying communication with Graham Harman’s writings, in particular the coming book on Latour, Prince of Neworks. These thoughts come out of what for me was a strong sense that he yearns for a solidity behind (or in front of) the orientation of philosophy, a solidity which he reads as “depth”, yet an anchor point which by my brief reading takes its cue from a tradition that pursues a central clarity in what for me are misleading metaphors of vision, a tradition which works to stablize and centralize the human self (soul) which he looks to de-centralize.

In addition to this, as a last remark, there is in modern philosophy a tendency to think in irreducible dyads, that is: How do we get from here (let us say, that intentional object) to there (the real object); or how do we get from here (a true proposition) to there (a state of the world); or how do we get from here (thoughts in my mind) to there (thoughts in your mind); or most generally, how do we get from here (the self) to there (the world). This binary thinking which haunts much of representational analysis is a continuation of the primary problem of much of theology, how to get the soul back to God. All kinds of mediating paths are offered to what is imagined to be a fundamentally binary relationship (we expect the mediations to vanish). Many of these philosophical conundrums disappear when the dyad turns into a triad (and not a Hegelian triangle), that is, when the A/B line becomes a triangle of orientations. This is part of Latour’s philosophy of the “same”, but also central to Donald Davidson’s triangulation. It is not self/world, but self/self/world. I think part of the problem of thinking in terms of mind/object-essence dyads is that the triangle does not become properly emphasized. What happens when we find a fissure at the center of consciousness is that the third term (be it another informing person/object, or a causal state of the world) comes into view to help consolidate the fissure, bringing it into a clarity which then erupts. The fullness of a philosophy should be directed towards the necessity of the third term in any binary preoccupation, the way in which the third completes the sense. Not Object-Oriented Philosophy, but Oriented Object Philosophy, perhaps.

As Plotinus tells us:

If they are two, the knower will be one thing, and the known the other, and contemplation (theõria) has not yet made this pair akin to each other (õieiõsen) (Enn. 3.8.8). 

For thoughts related to these:

1. A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza

2. The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

3. Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters


8 responses to “The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

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  7. johneffay January 18, 2009 at 5:44 am

    If you’re not already aware of it, I thought you might be interested to know that Ryle makes a similar point to your own with regard to optics in _The Concept of Mind_. His claim is that modern philosophy derived it from the Protestant concept of a light of private conscience (as opposed to the Catholic use of confessors). This was then augmented by both Galileo’s and Descartes’ importation of metaphors of light into questions of consciousness owing to their interests in optics. He also claims that Locke does the same thing when he labels what we would call introspection ‘reflection’ as he is plainly making an analogy with mirrors. Ryle sums all this up rather nicely with ‘the myth of consciousness is a piece of para-optics’.

  8. kvond January 18, 2009 at 10:54 am


    Yes, my criticism began probably with an engagement with Rylean and Wittgensteinian critiques of modern philosophy. I have some difficulty with the order of their arguments, the way that at times they toggle between example and categorical conclusions, but yes, informative.

    In the optical studies of Descartes though, I believe I have located the theoretical nexus of this bridge to the freedom of the “I” composed into an essential dyad. I don’t know if I accept a primary Protestant/Catholic Dialectical interpretation though. Descartes was rather Catholic, and Spinoza who did not go this way was rather influenced by radical Protestantism, but I could see something of a trend there, as an overall point. I think that more it was an issue of the concept of God gradually eroding from the picture of self, langauge and world, until the coherence that insured those descrpitions no longer performed its role in argument. The result was a collapse into isolated and essential dyads, a kind of philosophical, existential angst. Much of this comes from “bad” readings of Scholastic and the Cartesian thought (the readings of Descartes are strawman cartoons, for it seems likely that Descartes did not even hold a Cartesian Theory of Mind). So in a sense, I disgree with the history and broad picture of Ryle and Wittgenstein, but think that they were onto something better investigated by other means, supported by other conclusions.

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