The Perceptual Field of Being-in-the-world

AI-generated painting depicting a sunflower field.

In the previous post (Yes or No: Is There an External World?), we are introduced to Heidegger’s notion of Being-in-the-world and have succinctly exhibited the significance of ‘world’ and its constitution. In this post, we shall further clarify the extent of the phenomenality of Being-in-the-world and seek to understand the world of perception as revealed by our senses. (Note to reader: a thorough reading of the previous post may be necessary for a clear comprehension of what is to come.)

Continuing from the previous post, my acquaintance (hereafter ‘our’ acquaintance) asked rhetorically:

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around does it make a sound? Yes, is it heard? No.

If a tree falls in the forest it makes a sound firstly because of physics not because Dasein [i.e. Being-in-the-world] is disclosed and disclosing. To place life as objectively existing because of our mode of being is a greater act of anthropocentrism than the monotheists commit.

– ‘A’

Our acquaintance’s insistence on there being an ‘external world’ that exists apart from subjectivity suggests that his interpretation of Heidegger’s notion of Being-in-the-world i.e. the individual’s experience of entities within the world, is that of an ‘internal’ cognitive or mental representation of this supposed ‘external’ world, staying true to the Cartesian (also Kantian) epistemic tradition which presupposes an isolated Being (i.e. as presence-at-hand) that comes into contact with this supposed meaningless (i.e. ‘without significance’) ‘external world’ that is also present-at-hand—meaningless because ‘care’ is the Being of Dasein (as pointed out by Heidegger and verifiable in reflexion by each individual). This contrasts with my previous critical text analysis of Heidegger’s remark on silence and interpretation, which unveils the equipmental nature (or ‘readiness-to-hand’) of entities within the world in relation to Dasein as always already imbued with significance.

Whilst persisting to actively ignore the a priori condition of knowledge—Being-in-the-world—he accused me of denying the existence of entities within the world when “unperceived”—an unjustified assertion. Most certainly, this shall serve us the occasion to elucidate the full extent of the phenomenality of the world, which also constitutes the perceptual field of Being-in-the-world, more of which shall be elaborated below.

Returning to the question of the (imagined) tree that falls, in what sense can we say ‘it exists’? It is in ‘speaking of’ a tree, or more accurately, in conceiving a tree, can the tree be said to exist. There being a conceived tree indicates a Dasein that is already disclosing, which again refers us to the epistemological a priori. Thus, it is a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation for our acquaintance to conclude for us that what is “unperceived” (as he conceives it) does not exist, for in a world where Dasein ‘is’ and is disclosing, what is in ‘actual’ (i.e. at present) “unperceived” remains a present possibility as perceivable—non-existence is inconceivable. Consequently, in conceiving a tree, we get to ‘see’ it fall (as an image) and ‘hear’ it as it ‘hits the ground’. That tree exists (for this ‘point of view’) and is cognised as a mind-object, in which the imaginary or mental perception is real ‘as such’ insofar as it is experienced, which in this occasion entails visual and auditory perception.

To put the above differently, the mistake we make in the slumber of everydayness is to presume that whatever we do not immediately perceive through the five-senses, though perceived in imagination, are not already objects of our concern and thus removed from perception. In this way, the ‘natural attitude’ (as introduced in the previous post) constitutes an error of thought in postulating a ‘subject’ that can stand apart from objects in general, one that perceives an object A and ‘in time’ perceives a different object B in the facilitation of an “‘instantaneous’ nothingness” between object A and object B—an “‘instantaneous’ nothingness” that is ‘in time’ yet not wasting even a single unit of time, which is a contradiction that is based on a perverted notion of time (but this is beyond the scope of our present discussion). On the contrary, experience reveals that whether it is a perception of object A, object B or object Z, perception is there (i.e. always already ‘is’) and does not spring out of non-existence. (In the stricter sense, to take an example of a blue object/‘thing’ [i.e. phenomenon], the blue thing is cognised while the percept blue is perceived—but to speak of perceiving an object should do for the purpose of our present analysis).

If it’s all perception, what am I perceiving?

– ‘A’

The eye (as a sense organ/visual field) cannot see itself, and what it perceives is visual perception. How is this to be understood? Even when in front of a mirror, what is seen is a visual perception of the “physical eye” as reflected by the mirror. The eye, as a sense organ or visual field, is the ‘negative’ phenomenon to the ‘positive’ phenomenon which is visual perception. And the same goes for the heard, the sensed and the cognised. Thus, what is perceived is ‘perception’, for what else can be perceived?

My body cannot be understood simply as that chunk of the material world that sits in closest contact with my mind. However vague the material boundary between body and environment may be, it cannot collapse entirely, for an environment is an environment only for a body that cannot perceive itself as just one more object among others: “I observe external objects with my body, I handle them, inspect them, and walk around them. But when it comes to my body, I never observe it itself. I would need a second body to be able to do so, which would itself be unobservable.

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

The mistake that our acquaintance makes is in taking the naïve arbitrary subject-object divide at face value and in affirming that our perception of a tree actually refers to a tree ‘out there’, i.e. an entity (within the world) that stands apart from experience—a contradiction in terms. Such an assumption is necessitated by the unequivocal acceptance of the theory of ‘sensation’, which today formally belongs to psychology. The following are the first two definitions of the word ‘sensation’ provided by the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology, the leading scientific and professional organisation representing psychology in the United States (and the world):

1. the process or experience of perceiving through the senses.
2. an irreducible unit of experience produced by stimulation of a sensory receptor and the resultant activation of a specific brain center, producing basic awareness of a sound, odor, color, shape, or taste or of temperature, pressure, pain, muscular tension, position of the body, or change in the internal organs associated with such processes as hunger, thirst, nausea, and sexual excitement. Also called sense datum; sense impression; sensum.

Let us take a moment to review these definitions. The first definition makes use of the terms ‘process’ and ‘experience’ interchangeably as if they mean the same thing—they are not. A process certainly requires there being experience (which is a priori), but the reverse is an assumption that is derived from the experience as such. The process is that which ‘depends upon’ the experience and it is thus inconsistent to say, in effect, that it is at the same time ‘the sum of’ experience as such. The second definition only elaborates on this ‘process’ of sensation being ‘the sum of’ experience and provides a causal account of ‘sensation’ being the mind-representation of the ‘objective’ entity that makes the leap over to subjectivity, through a presumably (physical) electro-chemical impulse that moves through the body. But as we have elucidated previously, Being-in-the-world reveals that our experience of things within the world is always already meaningful (i.e. ready-to-hand), and stands in direct opposition to any theory that affirms the arbitrary subject-object divide in its attempt to (logically) prioritise objectivity over subjectivity (or vice versa).

They lose sight of behavior by focusing on the reflex, that is, the elaboration and the formulation of stimuli; behavior is hidden by a longitudinal theory of nervous functioning that makes each element of the reaction correspond in principle to an element of the situation. … The classical notion of sensation was not itself a concept derived from reflection, but rather a recently developed product of thought turned toward objects; it was the final term in the representation of the world, the furthest removed from the constitutive source, and thereby the least clear. In its general effort toward objectification, science inevitably comes to a conception of the human organism as a physical system in the presence of stimuli themselves defined by their physico-chemical properties, seeks to reconstruct actual perception upon this basis and to close the cycle of scientific knowledge by discovering the laws according to which knowledge itself is produced, that is, by establishing an objective science of subjectivity. … The theory of sensation, which composes all knowledge out of determinate qualities, constructs objects for us that are cleansed of all equivocation, that are pure, absolute, and that are the ideal of knowledge rather than its actual themes.

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

In Sartre’s words, ‘sensation’ is an absurd, ‘bastard’ entity that is a pure psychologist’s daydream, which “must be deliberately rejected by any serious theory concerning the relations between consciousness [i.e. subjectivity] and the world.” (Sartre, Being and Nothingness). Accordingly, the determinate “world” as prescribed by science does not (i.e. fundamentally cannot) correspond to the individual’s lived reality.

Thus it is the upsurge of the for-itself [i.e. consciousness] in the world by which the same stroke causes the world to exist as the totality of things and causes senses to exist as the objective mode in which the qualities of things are presented. … In this sense we defined the senses and the sense organs in general as our being-in-the-world in so far as we have to be it in the form of being in-the-midst-of-the-world.

Sartre, Being and Nothingness

For everything that is said above, you may be justified to ask what purpose they serve in “my conventional (or unconventional), normal, ‘waking’, everyday life”. For one, I can say that what we have discussed thus far and hopefully elucidated makes plain the contradictions of causal determinism, which excuses we call into play in the slumber of everydayness, for example:

  1. Biological determinism: I am anxious because I have a hormonal imbalance (or because I was born that way).
  2. Societal determinism: I have no choice but to do this because of a systemic evil.
  3. Spiritual determinism: Fortune/misfortune shall dawn on me because it is fated/pre-destined.

Therefore, our present discussion is a call for action to practising reflexive reflection and critical thinking and makes way for the discourse on the phenomenon of ‘feeling’ (a phenomenal domain that is equiprimordial to ‘perception’), authenticity and the nature of personal responsibility, and the ontological inauthenticity or ‘bad faith’ (i.e. self-deception) as an active intentional choice (or action) of ‘ignorance’ in the mode of everydayness.


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