We see in Concepts not Phenomena

Charles Sanders Peirce once noted that it is an achievement of human excellence to see the world as an artist. What he meant is to see the world as it really appears, and specifically not as we conceptualize it. Similarly, Claude Monet once said of his friend and fellow painter Edouard Manet, “He comes to paint the people, I have come to paint the light.” This comment speaks volumes about what we see when we see what we see.  If that sounds confusing it is because what we see remains constant but what we see it as can change. Monet and Manet were in the same place and painting the same scene, but they painted it vastly differently because Manet was painting the concepts as he knew them while Monet was painting the phenomena as he experienced it.

the people and the light.jpg
Manet’s realism (left) captures the vision of our mind’s eye; Monet’s impressionism (right) captures light as our eyes see.

I want to explore what that means. What did Peirce have in mind when he drew his distinction between phenomena and concept. I suspect that to see the world “like an artist” is to see the world precisely devoid of concepts. That is to peel back every single layer of cognition. We often think of this as what “the eye” sees, or what we see without the “mind’s eye”. Phenomena, we take to be primary to human cognition, like Immanuel Kant, from whom I take the word. The phenomena for Kant came from the unknowable noumena or the thing-in-itself. The noumena–if there is such a thing–is the thing outside of our experience of it, an object before we experience it. Kant held noumena to be beyond our ability to know. Human knowledge, he claimed, is limited to what we experience, that is phenomena. We do not see a chair, for example, what we see is patches of color in a familiar shape we “recognize” as a chaise lounge. We do not hear a song, we hear frequencies of airwaves, that we recognize as Bon Jovi.

This stands against many long-held theories of epistemology and human cognition. The traditional view, since John Locke anyway, is simply that we experience the world through our senses, and those senses give us reliable information, which we then conceptualize into the things we know. This picture, I believe, is completely backward.

No doubt our senses present us with reliable phenomena, qua phenomena, but that is not really what we experience. What we experience are concepts; concepts mapped onto the phenomena before or at the same time we experience them. Really, the human phenomenal experience is all about mapping concepts. Concepts are all we’re concerned with. When I look at a table and chairs, I don’t see colors and shapes and tints and shades and other static phenomena, even though all these are what we might say my eyes can “see”. When I look at a table and chairs, I see a “table and chairs”, that is the concepts “table” and “chairs” applied precognitively to the phenomena. I didn’t have to think about it. I didn’t have to ask myself, “what is that?” and answer myself, “that is a table and chairs”. I simply saw a table and chairs. Whatever part of my mind applies the concepts I know to the phenomena I experience, does so without the acknowledgment of my conscious mind. And what is more, I’m satisfied with my knowledge of the table and chairs because I can apply “table” and “chairs” to the phenomena of my eyes.

To really see what I mean, let’s examine this from another angle. Look at children’s drawings the world over and you will see art, not as the artist sees the world, but as the rationalist see it. The child draws the world of concepts. The humans they depict have the right parts to make them visually identifiable as human: one head, round; two eyes, in the center of the head; one nose underneath the eyes and one mouth underneath the nose; a body; two arms; two legs; perhaps hands with five fingers each; feet; perhaps even a heart. There is nothing of “realism” in the child’s work. Every child is a minimalist. What is relevant here is that to “see the world as an artist” is to unlearn what comes so natural to us that even very young children can do it: seeing the world in concepts.


It is important to note that when we see the world in concepts, we are the ones applying the concepts, but we do not create the concepts. We take them from our experience of the unconceptualized world and our culture. When we don’t know what something is, what we mean to say is we have no conceptualization for the pattern of phenomena we are experiencing. Lacking a concept, we don’t even have a name for what we experience and so we are reduced to gesture, verbal or physical, and wonder. The child’s primordial and perennial question, “What’s that?”, is the basis of all human understanding. It is from this question that we build up batteries of concepts into the storehouse of knowledge.

The real point here is that human beings apply the concepts we see and we apply them in such a way that we do not recognize our own hand in their application. We experience them as out there in the world, coming to us through our eyes. But this is both false and dangerous. It is because of this inconspicuous application that we experience our own biases as “natural”. We cannot see ourselves standing before the light and so see our shadow as something manifest in the world. This gap between what we see and how we see it is perhaps the greatest source of epistemological error. The gap is perilous to transverse when dealing with observable phenomena, but it is doubly perilous when the phenomena in question must be inferred from the phenomena that can be observed, for here we must jump the gap twice! 

Alternative Panpsychism

The topos of this article is ontology. The attempt herein is a journey of discovery into the nature of reality while avoiding the limitations of substance dualism, monist reductionism, phenomenological ontology (Heidegger), and the self-satisfying illusion of objectivity. The goal is to take an element or two from all of these and to forge a new theory of being. To understand the nature of being beyond the subjective knowledge as itself.  Rest assured that I don’t intend to suggest answers, but merely to refine the question. I am dissatisfied with Kant’s abandonment of the question entirely. I believe the numena can be known in and of itself and in fact, is known by each and every one of is. And that is as good a place as any to start.

Kant’s view that things in and of themselves can’t be known suffers the fatal flaw that it presumes “things” to be something other than the self. What Kant really means to say is that Other things can’t be known in and of themselves. One might go so far as to suggest that this is the metaphysical root of the Self/Other divide. But for our purposes in this essay, Kant really can’t say that the experiencer is unknowing of its own experience. For proof, I might offer Descartes, whose Cogito argument unquestionably suggests that the experiencer knows they are experiencing. The thinker knows they are thinking, even if they know not what they are thinking. To be able to deduce one’s existence from the fact that one experiences, regardless of whether or not that experience is a delusion, requires a silent premise that one has some experience of experiencing. For if one is not aware that one is aware, the Cogito becomes unconvincing.

So, if we agree with Descartes that we do indeed have a sense of our experiencing, then we must also have an experience of experiencing. There is little radical in this so far, but one implication of this is that we must have an experience of ourselves, that is of our experiences as from a thing, a place of being, an existence. Thus, we know what it is like to exist as ourselves. Assuming then, perhaps contra Kant, that we too are things, then we have the experience of one thing in and of itself, namely ourselves.

That doesn’t seem to get us very far, and if it does anything at all it seems to lock us into a phenomenology of everything that is Other to our subjectivity. But I don’t think that sort of absolutist abandon is quite right. I grant that our direct knowledge of Other things is filtered through our phenomenological experiences in a wholly subjective manner.  However, it is not by direct observation alone that we come to know the world around us, and reasonable deductions of the invisible can nevertheless become knowledge. So, armed with the knowledge of numena as ourselves, and our knowledge of others as we phenomenologically perceive them, what, if anything, can we know?

Let’s make one simple assumption. That there is nothing special or different about an atom that is a constituent of ourselves and those that are not ourselves. To make this more concrete, I’m simply claiming that a sodium atom in table salt is not essentially different from a sodium atom in a neuron of your brain, in fact, the former may be ingested by you for the sole purpose of becoming one of the latter. If you’ll grant me this consistency of the elemental universe, then it is reasonable to assume that my experiences of being a solution of atoms are a trait of atoms. The experience of the sodium atoms in your brain is not wholly different from that of the sodium atom in the table salt and that your experience of the world is then at least similar to the experience of the whole world, all its things, organic or inorganic.

Now, that certainly sounds absurd. Of course, my experiences are different from those of table salt, is what you’re probably thinking. But you’re wrong on a fundamental level.  And yet, you’re right on a level of higher complexity. The danger here is one of equivocation regarding the word “experience”. So, let’s clear that up. When I say your experience of yourself is the same as the experience of the table salt, I do not mean to suggest that the table salt has conscious and phenomenal experiences like you do. What I do mean is that it experiences things that happen in the universe. Salt dropped in water has an experience of dissolution. Much like you dropped in water has an experience of floating.  Perhaps a better example would be a rock dropped from a height toward the Earth experiences gravity in a nearly identical way you would experience gravity in the same situation. The experience I mean here is that of interaction with the other things and forces of the universe.

Before you get all disappointed with the essay and say, well so what? Everyone knows that things can have forces applied to them, but what we really want to know is if they have conscious and phenomenological experiences like us, and if not, then why do we? Good question, let me attempt to answer it by saying that while all matter experiences the things that happen to it, only complex organic matter remembers those experiences for any amount of time longer than the experience takes to occur.  Memory is what makes our experiences stick. Experiences can be recalled, set against one another, compared and synthesized. This is consciousness. This is a phenomenal experience. A phenomenon is more than photons hitting the atoms in the rods and cones of your retina, which is simply an experience. Phenomenal experience requires a secondary process, one that is complex and involves memory, pattern recognition, and ultimately gives rise to the experience of what we call consciousness.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting any kind of reductionist physical explanation for consciousness. It’s not that we have more complex structures that give rise to things like biology and psychology, but it is that these structures can repeat experiences. The sodium atoms in our brain and those in the table salt both experience the world, but the physical and chemical structure of our brains allow us to repeat our experiences again (remembering) and to mimic them without the stimuli reoccurring (recalling). I am not suggesting any sort of determinism. The atoms themselves function with quantum mechanical indeterminacies the likes of which make any reductionist determinism a dubious prospect at best.  I am instead saying that consciousness and phenomenal experience can be understood through a monist material worldview.

In sum, conscious experience is a result of phenomenological experience, which itself is a result of physical experience. The last is shared by all matter, living or not. Thus, consciousness is understandable in a monist materialistic picture of the universe, without the need for substance dualism, and limited by neither phenomenology, subjectivism, naive objectivity, or hampered by a reductionist regress into determinism.  All matter experiences, but only living things re-experience. Thus only living things remember, recall, and know that they have experienced anything other than what they are experiencing now.