Perceptual Storytelling

Our perception does not happen in a moment, but unfolds over time in concert with our actions.

I notice the car pulling out of the parking lot, because, in the context of my cycling down the street, it draws my attention to it by the threat its emergence poses to me.  Its appearance wells up in my perception, and the clear recognition of what is happened is preceded by a more “mobile” experience in which different significances seem to simmer, waiting for the relevant, salient feature of the situation to show itself decisively.  The appearance of the car pulling out “boils over” into my explicit attention, and it also recedes back into oblivion when the sense of threat disappears and I become occupied with something else.  Rather than happening in a moment, as if a sensory impression dominated my awareness, the explicit perception is more like a blossoming, a stage of heightened tension in a process that takes varying forms.

The perception of the emerging car, too, is not just visual.  I perceive its threatening emergence as much by swerving around it on my bike as I do by looking at it and noting its sensory characteristics.  It is my behaviour that defines the context within which the perceptual object becomes significant, and my recognition of that object is itself as much behavioural as it is “cognitive.”

What is presented to our perspective, then, is not so much an object with precise and determinate features that forces itself upon us as it is a kind of invitation, a suitor for our attention.  The perceptual situation impinges upon us ambiguously, and what we end up perceiving will be the result of a dynamic interaction between the perceiver and the perceived, a back and forth process of solicitation and responsiveness.  Perception is basically the establishing of a mutual “fit,” as the perceiver finds herself compelled to acknowledge the specific demands of the object’s features only once that object has itself passed the test of successfully speaking to the perceiver’s concerns.

The emergence of the perceptual object is thus the result of something like a process of communication.  When we do engage with and notice the object, the process of communication continues.

Even when I have noticed a coherent object in front of me—the advancing car, for example—I have not fully perceived what is confronting me.  The car itself offers me various paths for further perceptual exploration.

This is most simply true in that I am only noticing the car from one angle, and the car presents itself to me precisely as something that is not exhausted in that one perspective—I can see the car from the other side, or from the inside, for example.  And the options are not just visual—I could drive the car, and I could feel it, either by rubbing it as I wash and wax it or by being knocked over by its weight when it collides with me.

The object also offers a different kind of exploration, though.  Over time, I can come to understand more clearly what it is that I am dealing with.  I can learn more about what a car is, at every level from the material details of its manufacture through the mechanical features of its functioning, on to the practical range of its uses, and ultimately to the metaphysical grasp of its essential nature.  This depth of explorability is true of a car, and infinitely more true of the core, given elements that structure and populate our reality—colours, trees, emotions, persons, language.

All this depth of realization again occurs in dialogue with the perceiver.  In each case, the greater depth of the thing is revealed in response to a perceiver’s receptivity: these deeper truths take the form of answers to questions, and it is only in the context of the question, only in the context of a responsive openness, that they can appear.

What is striking about this dialogue of question and answer is that we are educated by what we perceive.  The objects of our perception have the amazing capacity to function in relation to us rather as another human interlocutor functions towards us in dialogue.  In each case—the linguistic dialogue with a person and the perceptual dialogue with the thing—the other communicates to us something novel, something truly “other,” and our engagement is an openness to being transformed beyond our own expectations, being open to a realization we could neither predict nor manufacture on our own.

Indeed, the parallel of the everyday process of perception with a human conversation is even stronger.  In a conversation, our interlocutor captures our attention and draws us in.  Similarly, the object of our perception actually entices us, drawing us more deeply into itself.  Typically I feel drawn by the perceptual object to look at it more closely, to examine its contours, to feel its surface, and, indeed, to think about it.

When we read a good story or listen to the tale told by a fine storyteller, we feel that the story attracts us and invites (inexhaustibly) our engaged exploration of its depths, which is to say our exploration of what reality it opens up to us.  But in functioning this way, the story is simply making thematic what is always the nature of things.  The experience of a story is thus simply the thematic experience of what is always implicitly happening in our perception of things, the original story-tellers.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).