Frames /sing


Differences in the World as Organs of Perception

Organs of Perception

In my last post I began reasoning how the usually assumed limits of an organism (a physical boundary to which other boundaries are thought to more or less correspond) might be extended far beyond where skin, bone, nerve ends, each organism expressing itself to an outer-limit of an Exowelt. In this approach I sought to assert that the differences in the world to which an organism attends actually operate as organs of perception for the being. This raises the question, what would it mean for parts, aspects or features of the world to act as organs of perception for the organisms that they affect?

Perhaps we can start at the roughest of sketches so as to disabuse this thought of merely a metaphorical status. What Aristotle told us is that organs have their unique objects, objects that they specialize in, and in which they do not err in reporting:

Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

De Anima Book II Part VI (418)

What would be the “special objects” of differences that organisms attend to? How is it that we see though differences in the world unique other objects? We can suggest that the unique objects that are perceived through the object differences we attend to, are those objects that form part of its Exowelten, those differences that indeed do affect it. In this way the states of the world which are revealed by my attending to the behaviours of my dog, are those that necessarily affect my dog, and those that are shown through my attending to states of a mountain, are those that affect the mountain. Both the dog and the mountain become organs of perception for my organism, inhabited locations in which my awareness, if fleetingly, resides.

[If one wants a fuller sense of how I am picturing this kind of epistemic trianguation, the way in which we combine with other things in order to perceive the world, my essay on Wittgenstein, Davidson and Spinoza might make a few things clear The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV ]

It is as Davidson argued of inter-subjective rational belief in his “Three Varieties of Knowledge” , and then deeper, as Spinoza argues in regards to the affectuum imitatio, frequently cited on this site:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect,

That we regularily read the world through the “sameness” of other aspects of it, such that the organs of truth and of perception must be extended beyond any isolated island of unitary substance. Taken to its literal truth, organisms themselves must extend beyond and combine with aspects of the world itself. What this alternate model of the organism means is that while we might investigate the connections between otherwise assumed to be discrete units by looking at what is inside of them (be they thoughts, concepts, affects, images, beliefs, etc), we would do better by appreciating the connections by the very overlap of Exowelten, and the sharing of nodal points as differences in the world. In short, you and I communicate because we share Exowelt nodes in the world, specific real differences which make differences in our organisms. And the same is for the communications between me and my dog, and even between me and my desk.

Not Balls or Bubbles

Key to this model is the non-intuitional appreciation that boundaries overlap. For very good causal reasons we take the best descriptions of what is real to be the apparent physical boundaries which create specific exclusionary pictures. Like bouncing balls there are imagined to be private interiors, and then external laws of relations which connect them. (Much of this stems from the social private/public cultural developments of the West. Metaphysics of privacy, and its problems, seem to play out in projective fashion social concerns.) Such a world picture is clear in Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt (experiential outer world), as explained by his son Thule, who compares our individual world to “sharply delineated but invisible bubbles”:

Reality, to which all things must yield and from which everything must derive, is not “outside” in infinite space that has neither beginning nor end and that is filled with a cloud of elementary particles. Nor is it “inside,” within ourselves in the indistinct, distorted images of this “outside” that our minds create. It reveals itself in the worlds (Jakob von Uexküll calls them Umwelten) with which sensuous perception surrounds all living beings as if with bubbles that are sharply delineated but invisible to the outside observer. These “bubbles of self-worlds” are like Leibniz’s “monads” the bricks and mortars of reality.

What I suggest is that despite the cultural appeal of imagining hermetically sealed objects, bubbles sealed off from each other, we take such bubbles and extend them out into the world itself, such that the world itself (aspects of it)becomes “organs of perception”. And concordantly, that instead of mutually exclusive bubbles sealed off, these are necessarily overlapped, partially mutual exo-bodies, siamese and conjoined. The “problem” of communication is pre-existingly foreclosed. The “bricks and mortars of reality” are webbed.

Deleuze in this study of Spinoza, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, speaks to just this intimate connection between organism and environment, under an explanation of “ethology”:

Ethology is first of all the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacites for affecting and being affected that characterize each thing. For each thing these relations and capacities have an amplitude, thresholds (maximum and minimum), and variations or transformations that are peculiar to them. And they select, in the world or in Nature, that which corresponds to the thing; that is, they select what affects or is affected by the thing, what is this animal unaffected by in the infinite world? What does it react to positively or negatively? What are its nutriments and its poisons? What does it “take” in its world? Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions, and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world (125)

What Deleuze does not follow up on because he is concerned with the production of kinds of affects qualified by speed and intensity is that because organism and world cannot be separable, defined rather by their relations, organisms themselves must share nodal points in the world (and it is this very mode of sharing that brings together the mutuality of their bodies). My relations to this part of the world are those which place value (epistemic and also ethical value) upon your relations to this same part of the world. Our bodies are in a mutual form of conjunction that may be best imagined as an overlap of Exowelten. The same things in the world make a difference to us (though the difference made may not the similiar), and the same things in the world potentially reveal other aspects of the world. The “same” in Spinoza’s affectuum imitatio is a same of relations.

So when Deleuze asks on the following page,

How do individuals enter into composition with one another in order to form a higher individual, ad infinitum? How can a being take another being into its world, but while preserving or respecting the other’s own relations and world?

The answer must presume the very mutuality of material confluence and overlap between organisms, the richly conjoined nature of epistemic/affective end-points, a sharing of “organs of perception” which cannot err.


5 responses to “Differences in the World as Organs of Perception

  1. John McCreery May 6, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Just wondering if you are aware of the work of the anthropologist (now deceased) Gregory Bateson, who was much concerned with similar issues. I recall, for example, a discussion of the blind man’s stick and the question of whether it, like the sighted man’s eye, should be considered a part of the self in question. The issues raised apply to all tools through which the self is informed about what is going on, to the woodcarver’s chisel as well as the scientist’s microscope. Of particular interest in all these cases are those moments in which the self ceases to be aware of the instrument as it focuses on what it is learning via the instrument.

  2. kvond May 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm


    Yes, very familiar with Bateson and quite influenced. The blind man’s stick actually goes all the way back to Descartes (I write about here: ]. The way that Descartes thought about sight is that the eye is literally connected to the thing that it sees, that it “touches” it, in a sense, just as the blind man “touches” the world (with the cane represented rays of light). Further, the way that he conceived of the telescope was something of a cybernetic, mechanico/physical extension of the eye, bringing the lens of the eye further from the retina. (In his Dioptrics he proposes – and then dismisses as impractical – a hypothetical telescope that is filled with water and pressed right up against the eye, so as to make one long aqueous eye-length.) This idea of actual, material connection is very close to the notion that I have in mind when speaking of the organs of the eye being extended out.

    Also, Richard Sennett’s recent talk of the way that Tools extend consciousness in a way: [ ] was influential. A bit Heideggerian, but I think that when you combine Descartes’ reasoning and Sennett’s pragmatism, you end up with something rather close to Spinoza’s position, one in which where the organism ends and begins is something very much open for redefinition and flux. So yes, Bateson, Descartes, Spinoza, Heidegger (minus the phenomenology), Sennett, and Davidson all working together.

  3. amarilla May 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I came across your blog a while ago while searching for an image of anaclastic glasses, would love to see a real one some day. Anyway, I really enjoy reading your writings although my philosophy chops are undeveloped. I especially appreciate reading about shared nodal points, which called to mind this work by Jacob Boehme. Maybe you’ve seen it. If you try to keep clean of out and out mystics here, my apologies.

  4. kvond May 6, 2009 at 3:07 pm


    Thanks for the good words. I know of Boehme only in a general fashion. I usually steer clear of the mystics, though they can be interesting at times. I’ll certainly look at the link.

    The best.

  5. Pingback: Human Centric Semiosis in the Name of Umwelten « Frames /sing

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