Sensation and Language
March 27, 2020

David Field and I entertained, or frightened, the students at our recent Easter Term course by spending a few minutes debating a passage from Aldous Huxley. Since I have a blog, and David doesn't, I'll take the opportunity to settle scores once and for all.

The offending passage was this innocuous-looking statement: "When we see a rose, we immediately say, rose. We do not say, I see a roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks. We immediately pass from the actual experience to the concept."

I objected to the assumed portrait of sensation in Huxley's description. The "actual experience" of the rose is of an assemblage of disconnected sense impressions. If we described the actual experience we'd say "I see a roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks." But we don't. We "pass" from the immediate sensation to another level, to the concept, "rose."

I don't think this is how "actual experience" actually works. I didn't explain my objection very clearly at the time. On reflection, I object on two grounds - one "metaphysical" and the other "epistemological."

On the metaphysical side: Under normal circumstances, we don't experience fragmentation sensations. We experience things, wholes, and patterns of things in relation to one another. The rose isn't a patchwork of disconnected sense-making elements. It's a unified object, from which we can identify certain features - color, delicacy, aroma, etc.

We experience things as patchworks of sense-making elements when we don't know what they are. I see a shadowly something emerging from the forest fog on a dark night. Until I can bring it under a description - "farmer" or "zombie" - I experience its features discretely. When I bring it under a description, the discrete features snap together into a unity.

Huxley's description makes it sound as if we experience everything in the way I'd experience the zombie in the forest. But we don't. Most thing we encounter snap together without much effort on our part.

Huxley's description of "immediate experience" also assumes a particular view of time and its relation to our experience. If each thing we encounter is brand new, we will be confronted by disconnected sense impressions.

But just as the things we encounter are wholes, so are we. As Henri Bergson argued, our knowledge of a thing in the present is conditioned by memory of past experience of similar things, or of the identical thing in the past. I don't have to mentally assemble a "book" from every book I encounter; unless it's an unusually constructed book, I instantly recognize it as such. Past experience is at play in present perception. (See the discussion in Christopher Watkin's forthcoming volume on Deleuze [P&R].)

All this makes me think that our experience is concept-infused, and concepts are shaped existentially. Not two levels, but two "perichoretically" entwined operations.

I've moved into epistemology. When I brought up objections to the Huxley quotation, David responded with, What about children? They can't use language, and haven't formed concepts. Don't they experience the "rose" just as Huxley says?

One, snarky, response is, If so, so what? Why would the experience of infants be the paradigm of human knowing?

A less snarky response is to grant the point, then qualify. Surely, an infant who has never encountered a rose doesn't have a description to put it under. It doesn't see it "as" anything. But that means that they don't really experience the thing as it is. They experience it as a patchwork of sense-making features, but it's actually a unified whole. Over time, as they experience more flowers and learn language, they can introduce the crucial moment of "seeing-as."

And that moment of "reflection" (Herder's term) depends on entry into language. So argues Charles Taylor in The Language Animal. Language doesn't just allow us to pin labels on ideas or things that are already there. Language "creates, as it were, a new space around us."

In this new space, we are capable of "attention, or distance from the immediate instinctual significance of things, of focused awareness" (12). Language enables us to "see as," and that "intentionality" shapes our perceptions and experience at a fundamental level.

There aren't, then, two levels - first patchy experience, then conceptualization that unifies. Because we're linguistic beings, conceptualization is inseparably entwined with experience.

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