The Psychology of Subjectivity — On Perception and Introspection

The intersection of life and subjectivity is a tricky one to navigate. Axiomatic to any discussion of perception is that one experiences nothing but that which is mediated through their own nervous system and brain; rather than seeing the “thing-in-itself,” one instead experiences the best its brain can reproduce of the external object in question. One does not see anything so much as experience whatever their visual cortex may produce.

For instance, there is nothing substantially different between light, radiation, radio waves, or any other form of energy—it is an evolutionary occasion that causes humans to see the colors they see, and to not see other similar waves, such as ultraviolet or infrared. The last century or so has taught humanity that one only experiences a narrow selection of the electromagnetic spectrum, notably the colors which best suited pre-humans in their environments. In The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent, Lynne Isbell describes the evolution of human sight—including color recognition—as ultimately rooted in the discernment between ripe and unripe fruits, and in spotting snakes in the trees in which one is picking those fruits. In an ironically somewhat literal twist on Genesis, Eden, and Adam and Eve, Isbell suggests that much of human consciousness emerged from engaging predators in the trees in one’s search for sustenance—a real Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even if in the abstract.

Furthermore, one may consider optical illusions, such as the checker shadow illusion: the shadow of a cylinder cast over a checkerboard appears to darken a row of squares relative to others; however, this is the illusion, as both the squares which appear darker and those which appear lighter in fact have the same luminescence. Or one may consider the “colorized” monochrome photograph (taken by Chuwa Francis) of several young girls in black-and-white; Øyvind Kolås then adds a monochromatic grid over the photo, blending with the black-and-white in such a way that the photo appears to be “colorized”—each of the girls’ T-shirts appears to be a different color. So much of sight is contextual and somewhat easily duped.

The particularity of what “colors” a human can see and what they cannot is conditioned by natural selection and adaptation; but there are far more “colors” in the electromagnetic rainbow than the ones humans typically experience. People who experience color blindness, for instance, experience a substantially different color palette than most others; the condition arises from an inherited anomaly in the color-sensing cones of the eye, with varying results, such as occasional issues in formal education or advantages in spotting animals typically “hidden” in foliage while hunting. People who experience color blindness experience a unique color arrangement relative to other people, yet one cannot necessarily say the majority view is “reality” while that of color blindness is an “aberration”; the arrangement and development of cones in the eye may be the cause, but both color blindness and a lack thereof are equally “real” to those who experience them. One may have little difficulty in seeing how these various modes of color perception could serve an evolutionary advantage; however, that too is to do with the conditioning of adaptation and natural selection. Were one instead a vampire bat or a mosquito, one would see portions of the infrared spectrum; or if one were a particular type of bird or fish, one would see into the ultraviolet spectrum. However, because the human eye cannot detect these portions of the electromagnetic spectrum as color, they might as well not exist. So which species sees more of reality: the birds, bees, and bats, or human beings? The answer may simply be both and neither; or, more precisely, that color does not exist objectively, but only subjectively, in the brain of the one who perceives it.

On a related note, one may see this axiom at play in the twentieth-century debates between psychoanalysis and behaviorism. The difference between psychodynamic and behaviorist psychologies may be reduced to the difference between intrinsic and extrinisic motivation, or internal processes and environmental pressures, respectively. Behaviorism, considering a person's outward response patterns to the various stimuli of their environment to be paramount, sees no need to consider internal processes such as thought or affect; on the other hand, psychoanalysis focuses on a patient's ability to explore their unconscious mind and its contents. While both fields may be somewhat excessive on their own, each perhaps bettered by the other—such as in humanistic psychology—both psychoanalysis and behaviorism approach psychopathology in substantially different ways.

For example: in Getting Past Your Past, Francine Shapiro, founder of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, recounts a patient who suffered from paralyzing anxiety whenever he was called upon to give a presentation at work. The behaviorist may explore the man's past experiences in his environment, previous times in which he has made a presentation, and to ask where that response pattern of automatic anxiety may have emerged. Perhaps the man was berated by an employer for poor performance, or he was heckled by an audience member, causing him to lose confidence in his abilities. The psychodynamic approach may instead explore the patient's internal experience, or even the contents of their subconscious. In this case, Shapiro recounts how she helped this patient travel back through memories of previous presentations, all of which had triggered tremendous anxiety, all the way back to a long-forgotten memory from early childhood: the patient, as a child, was on a walk with his grandfather, when one of his grandfather's neighbors, another old man, approached and told the child's grandfather, “Well, howdy, if I had a youn-gun’ talked as much as that un, I’d drown him in the creek” (8). This encounter, though ostensibly quite mundane, was experienced by the patient, then only a child, as a minor trauma; this traumatic encounter then caused him to unconsciously and automatically associate intense fear with speaking, which then cascaded into fear of public speaking and presentations in adult life.

In the behaviorist model, the initial encounter with the grumpy neighbor may be read as a stimulus which conditioned the patient's automatic response pattern of anxiety. However, according to Shapiro and the theory underlying EMDR, the initial traumatic experience was not simply a stimulus leading to a conditioned pattern which could then subsequently be altered (perhaps by a change of environment, wherein the same anxiety would reoccur), but a traumatic memory which remained unprocessed and thus not integrated into the patient's wider memory network. Because the memory was not properly integrated, being a traumatic memory, it became the basis for the most immediate response to similar situations (eg, speaking to an audience); public speaking caused the patient to re-experience the same unprocessed emotions he had experienced as a child, afraid that his listener would "drown him in the creek." Though the initial trauma created response patterns which seem to ostensibly conform to behaviorist principles, the patient’s neurosis was nonetheless rooted not so much in a repeated stimulus as much as a recurring element internal to the patient—namely, the unprocessed memory of the trauma. After properly processing and integrating the memory through EMDR, the patient no longer experienced anxiety when delivering presentations at work.

This particular case illustrates what may be the proper balance one must strike when exploring subjectivity in relation to objectivity. Though a somewhat clunky comparison, one may describe behaviorism as objectivity, dealing with external environments and unconditional realities, and psychoanalysis as subjectivity, dealing with internal realities particular to the subject themselves. Though one cannot abandon the objective world—behaviorism has its place—to insist that that which is external to the subject is all there is would be to cut the world itself in half; for as much of a universe as there is outside the subject, there is another one, a warped reflection of sorts, nestled within the brain and nervous system of the subject. To focus on the latter, of course, may be something akin to solipsism; yet to focus primarily upon the former would be to fall into all the old pitfalls of supposed Reason, which may cause the subject to believe they are simply dealing with the world “as it really is” and to reel at the apparently illogical behavior of others—though, of course, never at their own illogical behavior, which is, from their perspective, purely rational. Much like a pair of glasses, the particular subject’s own capacities for perception and response—their particular brain and nervous system—not only influence, but in a very real way are precisely what they experience. And, like a pair of glasses, this subjective “lens” is so fundamental to one’s experience of reality that it is often if not always transparent—so basic and yet so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible itself.

To forget the transparent “lenses” of subjective experience may be to court disaster. Indeed, by way of illustration, one may consider Sophocles’ tragic play, Antigone:

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, recently deceased king of Thebes, whose death sparks an internal dispute between his two sons Eteocles and Polynices. When Oedipus' two sons, Antigone's two brothers, kill one another, Creon (Oedipus’ brother-in-law) is forced to take the throne. However, Creon, upon coronation, insists that of the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles had the right to the throne, burying him with every honor; favoring Eteocles, therefore, makes Polynices a usurper, whom Creon refuses proper burial. Antigone, moved by this refusal, plots to bury her late brother Polynices anyway in a final gesture of what the reader may interpret as familial love. Through this narrative Sophocles illustrates a conflict between personal interests and social convention; to Creon, Polynices is a traitor and can be blamed for the ensuing conflict after the death of King Oedipus; while to Antigone, Polynices is nonetheless her brother, politics notwithstanding.

However, there may be a layer deeper to consider. In psychoanalytic circles, Antigone has become something of an allegory (in conjunction with the Oedipus myth) for the conflicts which frequently arise between a society and its norms on the one hand (signified by Creon, "law"), and an individual's unconscious impulses and drives on the other (signified by Antigone, the ostensibly involuntary desire to bury the dead). Sigmund Freud gravitated toward the Oedipus myth as a similar explanation for the same phenomenon: contrary to much criticism, Freud's Oedipus complex was not centered on a sexual obsession with the mother figure, but something of a particularized metaphor for the unconscious drives underlying a person's life and actions. King Oedipus lives a life of royal luxury and success with a wife he loves dearly, with whom he rules over a stable kingdom; only later does he learn that as an infant he was not only cast out by his parents, but that his parents were the King and Queen of Thebes themselves—the man Oedipus kills to ascend to the throne and the woman he marries in the late-king's place. The meaning of the Oedipus complex is not that one is exclusively obsessed with one's own mother, but that there is an entire narrative behind one's life and actions that one never encounters; moreover, one may be unable to encounter that unconscious narrative, as Oedipus cannot bare the truth and blinds himself. The bottom line is that, to paraphrase the opening chapter of Marx’s Das Kapital, "They do not know it, but they do it." Antigone symbolizes much the same phenomenon: an intense desire to perform an action which Antigone herself does not fully grasp; while Creon symbolizes the society that, in insisting upon a supposedly ideal or objective arrangement ("law"), does not know how to make sense of this subject motivated by her own unconscious.

Sophocles' Antigone may be said to represent the perils of the unconscious mind unexplored, while his Oedipus may represent the dangers of postponing or repressing the need to delve into one's motivations and drives. Søren Kierkegaard, in “Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern” (1843), had his own take on Antigone, suggesting a modern iteration of the character: while Sophocles' Antigone acts without knowing why, the modern Antigone which Kierkegaard envisions would spend her days in a Hamlet-like introspection and thus indecisiveness. Kierkegaard had a somewhat complicated view of self-exploration, as evidenced by his views of Socrates, yet both Kierkegaard and Freud offer a unique insight in reading Sophocles' work: though one must continue to act, one must always ask oneself why one does what one desires to do, why one desires this or that at all, whence that desire as much as whither. Perhaps such self-exploration will inspire not only deeper humility, but patience and care in navigating a society or "law" which may struggle to understand the very people it seeks to stabilize.

More particularly, though law as such is a series of applied and enforced “shoulds” and “should nots” on a social scale, the same phenomenon persists in other aspects of life, as well. The focus on an imagined external, objective world—one which apparently ends up as nothing more than the projection of one’s own inner, subjective world—in lieu of the internal life of the subject can disrupt not only politics and social issues, but aesthetics more generally, such as art. There is a certain oddity in asking if one "should" do anything in any particular art—painting, writing, music, architecture, etc. Because every "should" may ultimately be subjective (even if coming from a motivation deeper than culture; from a biological or epigenetic impulse, for instance), it may be more productive to ask what a person is attempting to achieve, or what feeling they are attempting to trigger within themselves and others through their art.

For instance, in Principles of Symmetry, Vitrivius describes symmetry not only as a principle of architecture, but of the cosmos itself. For him, the cosmos is constituted by balanced interactions with itself, all parts and processes going together in an ultimate harmony; therefore, buildings, which are part of the cosmos, should share in the same principles if they are not to be blights upon human experience. This principle of symmetry-as-harmony is similar to Pythagoras' own notion of the universe as reducible to numbers; for Pythagoras and his followers, all objects and persons, even the elements that compose them, could be expressed in whole numbers and were thus entirely sensible. A folktale tells of Hippasus, an errant disciple of Pythagoras, who was put to death by his peers for the egregious sin of discovering irrational numbers, numbers with no definite end and thus no definite measurement other than a shorthand which ultimately reads as "I don't know, something like this." Some stories attribute the death of Hippasus to the gods themselves. Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant, as it expresses something of how Pythagoras' followers experienced the world; namely, they expected, or even needed order to the point of justifying violence—whether by their own hands or those of the gods—against any anomaly that may call that presupposed order into question.

Vitruvius, seeing the human body as symmetrical (only broadly true), saw this naturally-occurring object as an indication of the overall harmony of nature and the cosmos at large, and thus as an honorable analog to architectural design. Whether he was right or not in his presumptions, his ideology precedes his prescribed architecture, and any architecture, being rooted in a subjective worldview, will be enjoyed by those who share that worldview and detested by those who resist it.

One may see this collision in contemporary debates over modernist and more classically-oriented architecture. Modernist designs are experienced as avant-garde or cutting-edge by those who enjoy them and as a disheveled abomination by those who do not enjoy them; contrariwise, more classically-oriented architecture may be experienced by those who prefer modernist design as quaint, archaic, or even oppressive. However, internal motivations may have much to do with the architecture one prefers. For example, Christopher Alexander (author of A Pattern Language), a proponent of more pre-modern architecture, believes that the secret to good architecture is nesting and interrelation: a harmonious interaction of all components of a building (similar to Vitruvius' symmetry) and an experience of being neatly nested in ever-greater scales, which are themselves nested in scales which are greater still.

“In any part of what we call nature, or any part of a building, we see, at many levels of scale, coherent entities or centers, ­nested in each other, and overlapping each other. These ­coherent entities all have, in varying degree, some quality of ‘life.’

“For any given center, this quality of life comes about as a result of cooperation between the other living centers at several scales, which surround it, contain it, and appear within it. The degree of life any one center has depends directly on the degrees of life that appear in its associated centers at these different scales. In short, the life of any given entity depends on the extent to which that entity had ­unfolded from its own previous wholeness, and from the wholeness of its surroundings.

“When one contemplates this phenomenon soberly, it is hard to imagine how it comes about. But what is happening is, in effect, that life appears, twinkling, in each entity, and the cooperation of these twinkling entities creates further life. You may view this phenomenon as ordinary. Or you may think of it as the Buddhists of the Hua-Yen canon did, when they viewed it as the constantly changing God-like tapestry that is God, and from which life comes.”

--Christopher Alexander, “Making the Garden,” First Things (February 2016)

Alexander also refers to this feeling of nestedness and interrelation in terms of normative theism, going so far as to say the common spirit holding together the various scales and relations of a building are analogous to the "luminous ground" (The Nature of Order, vol. 4) which holds the universe together in a similar fashion—a "fire" Alexander occasionally refers to as "God." While it is unclear whether Alexander means the term "God" in the same ways meant in normative theism (given his above reference to Hua-Yen-canon Buddhists, this seems unlikely), his appeal to traditional religious language may indicate a broader affinity for more classical modes of expression, which may also express itself in his distaste for modernist architecture over classically-oriented design. Once more, to consider the internal world of an architect such as Alexander is not to discount the potential reality or objectivity of his statements (his theories underlying architecture may be right on the mark in many substantial ways); however, to disregard the internal life of Alexander—or any other commentator—would be to miss out on half of the subject altogether.

Therefore, the shortest possible answer to whether Vitruvius is correct in saying all high-quality architecture “should” adhere to principles of symmetry is something akin to: it depends on who you ask. But, as in all the cases enumerated above, one must ask; to not ask would be to run the risk of being lost in one’s own subjective mental landscape, imagining that world to be the objective world of “truth” and “reason.” Embracing and exploring the realities of subjectivity are only the first step: rather than to doom oneself to a hell of “relativism,” wherein all one may ever have is what one can spot from their limited perspective, accepting the axiom of subjectivity is the first step in liberating oneself from the relativistic hell in which one is always already reeling. To realize the limitations of one’s own perspective may inspire one to listen to others, to communicate in ways in which the one may presume the other has something to teach that the one does not already know. And to realize the limitations of human perception in general may inspire an epistemological humility, to recognize that many people cannot drink the sea any more than one person can. That humility, far from dooming people to a bland world of absolute limitation—thus far, but no farther—may in fact inspire the most genuine curiosity, the kind that knows it does not already know, and thus begins to truly explore.


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Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash