The Three Perceptual Contexts That Enfold This Basic Information
We live in a personally experienced universe. The information it
provides is inexhaustible. This information becomes public knowledge
when it becomes available to minds and in print or on the Internet.
But HOW do we experience its mysterious and not so mysterious
realities? We experience the universe subjectively by means of the
perception of and the invention of CONTEXTS--three major contexts that
we become aware of by means of our senses and whose details society
investigates intellectually via the sciences.
I deem these three contexts "perceptual contexts" because
they have perceivable boundaries. In a real sense, as Malcolm Gleiser, a
professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth, put it: "... We
are how the universe thinks about itself."
Within these three perceptual contexts reside enormous cognitive
power. They give to us the meaning and significance of all objects,
processes, ideas, and feelings--the actual contents of human experience.
These three contexts exhibit characteristic properties. They can be
as broad as the expanding universe, as miniscule as what nanotechnology
deals with, or as narrow as a prejudice. These contexts are empirically
psychological and/or social domains providing backgrounds that are
all-encompassing. They encompass all material being and mental contents.
There is no human belief, purpose, or behavior that is not molded by an
interior or exterior contextual influence. They relate subject matters
of learned content that becomes an individual's personal or
The power of these perceptual contexts springs from their
historical reality as time-binding processes (Korzypski, 1994) and from
current cultural influences which anthropologists call enculturation.
These established contexts mold the personality, character, and mental
accomplishments of a developing SELF. Every person becomes embedded in
the traditions and institutions of the locality into which he/she is
The three perceptual contexts from which there is no escape until
death do us part are (1) the Self Context, (2) the Proximity Context,
and (3) the Universal Context.
The Self Context
The first of these perceptual contexts is the domain of the
SELF--whose perceivable boundary is the surface of the human body: the
skin, the body's largest organ. Both a barrier to and an entryway
for information, the skin is the physical and outer limit of the
individual. It encompasses and reveals human shape--the characteristic,
unique human form by which each one of us is identified by sight, by
name, and by finger print.
The skin is the outer boundary of the wholeness of the individual.
It contains all and reveals many aspects of our personhood. This
physical wholeness demonstrates the unique identity of an individual who
is distinct from all others. It outlines a body's position in space
The skin is the container of some 10 trillion separate cells and
100 million or more bacteria that live within and upon us.
The brain, protected by encompassing skin and bone, the skull, is
the controlling and most important organ of the SELF. The seat of the
central nervous system, the brain, is fed by the peripheral nervous
system, our sensory systems, and is a loaded domain filled with
conscious and unconscious information in the form of imageries and
meanings provided by the two other important sources of information, the
PROXIMITY and UNIVERSAL CONTEXTS.
The brain of every developing SELF is both a victim and a commander
of human experience through which all images, feelings, thoughts, and
behaviors are filtered and organized. The brain's cortical
expansion through millions of years became the stage for the development
of modern perceptions, language, practical and imaginative conceptions,
and purposeful behaviors.
All humanity's comprehending takes place within the SELF
Context. What the totality of individual experience exhibits to the
outer world is by means of personality--this subjective totality
consists of an individual's beliefs, attitudes, interests, and
behaviors that persist over long periods of time. The forming of an
individual SELF includes the creation of personal habits that reveal a
self-regulating system reflecting a unique personality. It is based on
temperament and expresses itself in myriad ways. This personality is
judged by other humans as being engaging, pleasant, cool, serious,
flighty, nasty, mean, or dull--positive or negative characteristics that
draw others closer to making friendships or making for indifference or
Within the brain, controlling feelings, thinking, and behavior is a
coordinating process we call mind, or better yet, minding. This minding
process is based on an awareness of being conscious. Consciousness is
awakened initially by the slap of a nurse's or doctor's hand,
introducing the new individual to a cooler outer world of experience.
The content of the newly established minding process of this new self
awareness is the sensory information streaming in from the outer world.
Multiple sensory imageries become the knowledge that begin to satisfy a
natural curiosity that everyone is born with.
Guiding this intake of information and establishing ultimately an
"open" or "closed" minding process is another
natural condition of minding. It is a condition that influences an open
mind to remain curious and a closed mind to limit itself by means of
paranoid, dogmatic, symbolic religious beliefs or rigid political
ideologies. This inborn process is labeled intelligence. And it exists
in degrees. Intelligence is the ability to think and learn, the ability
to think clearly and learn facts and skills with the ability to apply
them sensibly and rationally. Intelligence creates an intellectual base
that deals with the understanding of the information being offered by
experiencing the input from the outer world. It is presumed to organize
salient, interior personal knowledge without the interference of
But the most important cognitive force utilized by the brain that
has been most fruitful culturally is not thinking, with its use of
analytical, isolating, and reductive rational thought processes. Its
logic to seek the truth ends up with verifiable but often unverifiable
abstractions. Accompanying a level of intelligence is the inborn process
influenced by curiosity that deeply affects the character and content of
the SELF context. It is a person's imagination.
The imagination is the source of the creative in humankind. As a
cognetic process--a process that makes unique connections--it is the
ability to visualize and to think originally, the ability to utilize
imagery and ideas especially of things never seen or experienced
directly. The imagination exhibits a resourcefulness to deal with
problems and difficulties and creates semblances of reality by means of
the domains of the arts. The major tendency of the imagination exhibited
through human history has been one of the sources of the civilizing
An agency at the center of this process has been promulgated as an
affor-dance, which has been defined by the psychologist James J. Gibson.
An affor-dance is the perceptual recognition of a special connection
between the SELF and the environment. It is the noticing of a new,
possible environmental condition that can be used constructively to
satisfy a human need. And so it connects an observation with a newly
conceived possibility for a creative act that has a pragmatic result.
The significance of affordances will be dealt with further in discussing
the PROXIMITY CONTEXT.
Knowledge of a culture is contributed to by a community of minds
whose interests, strength of feelings, and intentionalities have created
domains of informal and formal information that the youth of a society
are introduced to by a systematic enculturation process we call
education. In this way, every culture produces a characteristic form of
the SELF having variations created by an individual's local
experience. The tension between a culture's structured symbolic
systems and the pragmatic experience of a newly absorbing intelligence
determines the quality of the modes of judgmental criteria used by this
uniquely conscious developing personality.
By its behavior, the SELF exhibits intentions. Intentions are
concerns about beliefs and actions, beliefs about what is out there,
what there is to know, and what to do about it. Therefore, it becomes
significant that conceptualized facts to be relied upon be accurate and
true. That validated facts correspond to observable realities. These
facts describe the properties of the world and are fed into subjective
experience. Intentionalities lead to wondering and being curious about
them and all the characteristics that promote successful life.
The highest level of achievement in an individual's
self-development is psychosocial comfort. It is the accomplishment of a
sense of positive self-esteem. It is the feeling of self-worth that
builds confidence in one's own merit as an individual. It is the
accrued sense of the ability to control one's purposeful behavior
and to advance authentic personal accomplishment practically and
intellectually--the major positive goal of enculturation.
The achievement of self-esteem creates a unified personality that
frees the use of curiosity and imagination to empower a personal sense
of responsibility. This sense of responsibility encourages the use of
versatile creative efforts not only in the pursuit of self-interest but
also to the advancement of altruistic activities whose purpose is to
improve environmental conditions conducive to sustainable human
And now, how do we perceive the outer world, the physical
environment we all have to contend with? I characterize it has the
PROXIMITY CONTEXT. Do we perceive it directly, or do we merely have to
interpret what we experience? What is it that we learn about when we
The Proximity Context
The perceivable boundaries of the PROXIMITY CONTEXT are everything
we can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste with our naked senses. It is
our total physical environment ranging from a handful of sand, whose
grains can be isolated and counted, to the roughness of bark, to a star,
whose pinpoint of light tells us where it is or was. It is the Proximity
Context that we experience physically, our sensory systems making us
directly aware of it. We perceive directly the substantialities of its
properties claims Gibson. We accommodate its dimensions and qualities,
its objects and events, their shapes, colors, textures, shadows,
movements, and relationships. From the Proximity Context is drawn
directly all the nonverbal information upon which sensory comprehension
is built. This context is the local source from which grow the
possibilities of communication about environmental facts--one of the
major roles accomplished by learning a language. It is the essential
"ground" for the Self, feeding it information (stimuli)
constantly, predominantly by means of the sense of sight. What happens
in its proximity--the local environment--of every Self literally decrees
the scope, scale, and direction of its human potential.
The Proximity Context presents a rich perceivable world offering
the possible awareness of enormous concrete detail. But much of this
detail is and can be ignored or not even sought by the uncurious. Yet
curiosity is a ubiquitous inborn human capacity. As a universal
psychological trait, curiosity fostered the development of a disciplined
description of the outer world by means of the development of the
sciences: whose role John Dewey described is to pursue "ever firmer
specification." What the sciences seek is to establish the validity
of the regularities and invariances among all the forms and processes
that Nature produces. All this incoming information at the ecological
level promotes either thoughtful and/or imaginative responses in the
Among these responses, however, is a uniquely human process
fostering innovation. In a real sense, innovation can be considered to
be the source of all civilized attainments. Accepting innovation's
imaginative role of creating the "new," we have to understand
the epistemological bases of how this happens. The affordance has been
promulgated by the psychologist Gibson as the perceptual core of this
What Gibson proposed by means of his voluminous theoretical and
experimental investigations as reported in his 1987 classic, The
Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, was to link perceptual
information directly to properties of the environment affording new
functions for human devising. Gibson emphasized that the information
conveyed by the senses brought into consciousness existing environmental
values. These values were dawn from an ecological base in which the Self
had to maneuver in safety. Gibson maintained that the senses did not
merely offer "stimuli" to the brain, but information derived
directly from the environment. This information contained affordances
that when acted upon became cultural facts advancing pragmatic human
A form of "functional seeing" the affordance performed a
central role for the picking up of information carried in the ambient
light, for example, reflected from objects in the environment. It was
functional because the affordance connected the observer to the
environment without dualistic implications. This incoming specificity of
information sparked thoughtful and/or imaginative responses of a
functional nature. Thus, for example, the affordance of a heavy stick or
rock for pounding, or the sharpness of a specially shaped stone to be a
scraper or piercer. Any particular object could have many affordances.
An apple can be eaten, thrown, baked, or turned into sauce or juice.
What Gibson achieved was the beginnings of an "ecological
psychology," which emphasized the importance of analyzing the
concrete world, to "take seriously the scientific problem of
defining places, objects, and events that surround human beings"
(Reed, 1988). Gibson created a psychology of environmental values in
which he made a distinction between perceptual cognition, or knowledge
OF the environment, and symbolic knowledge ABOUT the environment (Op
Cit, 306). It is the latter distinction that the UNIVERSAL CONTEXT will
deal with below.
Finally, Gibson wrote, "If the affordances of a thing are
perceived correctly, we say that it looks like what it is. But we must,
of course, learn to see what things really are, for example, the
innocent-looking leaf is really a nettle, or that helpful-sounding
politician is really a demagogue. And this can be very difficult."
(1986, p. 142)
The Universal Context
The third and final perceptual context is the UNIVERSAL CONTEXT.
Its boundaries are defined by what we can see, touch, hear, taste,
smell, and think about with the help of tools--from the subatomic
particles made visible by colliders and mathematics, the microorganisms
and fine structure made visible by means of the microscope, to the sun,
planets, galaxies, and dark matter made visible and brought closer by
The development of mundane yet crucial tools has had a long
evolutionary history. It is a long jump from the digging stick to the
hoe, shovel, steam shovel, and back-hoe, as well as from the stone axe,
spear, bow and arrow, to the cannon, rifle, machine gun, battleship, and
Humanity's most important tool, however, is language created
by the invention of symbol systems. This development of linguistic
symbols called abstracting is expressed as "words." Their main
role is the creation of names with the accompanying syntactical ordering
systems. The invention of names as symbols occurred to connect the
developing minding process to what was observed in the Proximity
Context. It became the main way of recognizing and communicating about
objects and processes to others by verbal forms of social discourse.
The role of the Universal Context is to provide the minding process
with linguistic and intellectual disciplines. They are domains of
knowledge-contexts secured by means of scientific, philosophical, and
intuitive descriptions and explanations including every sort of felt
The invention of names created precise knowledge and contributed
enormously to the semantic level of comprehension. The advent of naming
things that primitive man excelled and engaged in assiduously, as
Levi-Strauss has pointed out, assisted in the perceptual and symbolic
reduction of chaos. This intensive labeling of environmental objects,
events, and inner processes created systems and classes of things and
situations. All names became denoters dependent upon particular
The need for the development of linguistic labels for newly
informative contexts became urgent. So the minding process produced an
increasing capacity to absorb new knowledge. This knowledge of new
domains and realms of human civilization can be dramatized by viewing
I.A. Richard's list of words standing for the primary concept, for
example, of "give up." Each of these words necessitated a
familiarity with the contexts, which would give them meaningfulness,
words such as "abdicate," "desert,"
"resign," and "vacate."
The symbol as a mental construct was created by two natural
processes. The first is that of extraction--the work of our sensorial
systems, considered to be actual perceptual processes by the
psychologist Gibson. Extraction brings into the brain informative
imageries perceived directly as properties of the environment. The
second process is abstraction--dealt with critically by Alfred Korzybski
in his creation of the discipline of General Semantics. The integrating
of both these extensive processes by the brain provided the bases for
the linguistic categorical systems characteristic of the Universal
This process made the Universal Context the largest and most
voluminous context invented by the human experience.
Language as the major tool of the minding process not only enlarged
the capacity of individuals to think about things but also was
instrumental in building the enormity of the knowledge we have of the
universe. This was accomplished with the help of the tools the sciences
have invented and are still inventing to make ever firmer specification
of their domains.
The invention of language created representational knowledge
consisting of identifiable and recognizable descriptions of the material
universe. The words and propositions used to accomplish this are
manifested in the evolution of some 7,000 languages throughout the
world--many of which have become extinct and are today becoming extinct
with the dying off of their native speakers. However, the true power and
extent of language taken as a descriptive process are attested to by the
scope of the English language as registered in the 20 volumes of the
Oxford English Dictionary.
Language is the major tool the minding process uses to express
itself. It solidified meanings provided by the emotional responses and
rational ideas that accrued through the millenia as humans came to
psychological and philosophical conclusions about what reality and life
were all about.
The emotional surround of some ideas and gross ignorance often
turned deeply held ideas into beliefs. These beliefs became incorporated
into domains of dogmatic, institutional knowledge--religions, whose
"poverty of thought" was claimed by Levi-Strauss, "can
never be overestimated." Bui ideas also like the concept of
"symmetry" became tools of the sciences in their role to
investigate and determine the nature and content of the physical
Language--the symbolic tool--helped develop the characteristics of
the many forms of culture that human societies created. CP. Snow
described this achievement as the creation of two cultures, the arts and
the sciences. Today we can add another creative mode, that of
technology. Together with human dispositions, ambition, and skills,
technologies' artifacts of invention have taken humanity to the
heights of esthetic, ethical, and technological accomplishment, as well
as to depths of incredible fears, callousness, the distortion of minds,
and the physical destruction of bodies.
Language has been crucial to nurturing the minding process. Its
words as labels are easy to create, to maneuver, and to manipulate
compared to the processes of actual thinking. Thus we can ask what kind
of performance has language exhibited in terms of it being a symbolic
cutting tool that isolates and labels objects, processes, events, and
ideas. Can its sharpening or dulling capacity be evaluated? How does
this factor in its use at many levels of minding condition the
enculturation process? Is it used merely to calmly inform, to persuade,
or to inflame? Since it can be used to express honest or dishonest
thinking, its use can have a sharpening or dulling effect affecting
In a real sense, language can be characterized as the outer skin of
the minding process. It can be used to keep minding a closed process by
inhibiting curiosity, by insinuating, by unconscious stereotyping, by
supporting half-truths, and by faulty reasoning. It can be a powerful
tool used to construct or corrupt. Language is the universal voice of
civilized and uncivilized life and is used to represent democratic or
undemocratic thinking that either advances or threatens the body
The influence of an ideological context respecting or rather
creating an affront to the democratic process is shown by a recent
critique of the Constitution in which a conservative voice suggested
that the phrase "... to promote the general welfare" might
have been expressed better as "... to promote the private
Language has become an even more powerful worldly influence because
of the Internet. The development of Cyberspace confirms its universality
as a context. It provides internationally bodies of accessible
information of every stripe creating an "age of information
overload." Because of the invention of the Blogosphere, another
world-wide public domain of human expression has been created that knows
no bounds and is filled with an infinity of voices also overloading the
thin atmosphere surrounding the planet earth.
Merlin Donald describes its role distinctly, "Language allows
us to differentiate and decompose the experience of an event"
(2001, p.294). A great part of that is its assistance in the Self's
becoming aware of its inner life. As far as privacy is concerned,
however, the use of Facebook seems to express a surprising aspect of
exposing human egos.
The content of the Universal Context expands at an accelerating
rate as growing sciences increase their discoveries. Yet, though the
world's population remains scientifically illiterate, multitudes
eagerly adopt technological advances by using cellphones, Google, and
other search engines to communicate and gain information. This occurs as
less and less resources are being used to refuel the world's
teaching efforts in spite of the urgent need.
Most other "tools," except language and weapons, are
being used to make life more efficient and satisfying and to fulfill in
some way the need for comfortable personal survival. Yet these needs are
not being fulfilled for many because of the public's "trained
incapacity." This is Veblen's phrase for pointing out how the
general public is manipulated by the propaganda of vested interests
using advertising, political invective, and overheated televised
rhetoric to work against the public's own best interests. Here
rests the failure and inefficiencies of the world's educational
systems. Their inability to engender critical thinking in their
enculturation efforts thus inhibited and undermined myriads of
The greatest human catastrophe facing the use of the enormous
capacity of the Universal Context is the misuse of and lack of being
able to marshal the astounding brain power available in the world's
population by the world's legislators and educators. That the
public's great brain power is not being accessed for constructive
use but cruelly stamped upon and undermined by poverty, ignorance, and
propaganda may be the ultimate source of doom for the human race long
before the sun explodes to burn up the solar system. The dream of
creating "One World," though an admirable concept, in this day
and age of mankind's incapabilities seems to be mere fantasy.
The Singularity Underlying the Three Perceptual Contexts
The major property engaging each of these three contexts has been
misunderstood by the overly analytic and technologized Western mind.
This property is their interpenetrability. This unusual quality of an
integrating synthesis and interdependency generates the intellectual
base on which humanity has moved forward in the civilizing process. An
individual's growing experience from birth utilizes the influence
of this synthesis of contexts in the development of the SELF. This
absorption of concrete information and use of language to register ideas
and to communicate all contribute to make the body of a growing
intellect and the direction of behaviors.
By means of their mutualism, interpenetration, and essentially
cooperative integrative efforts, the details of local environments are
made sensible. The action of these creative and informative agencies
moved humanity forward engendering complexities that were not always
transparent. Unintended negative consequences often accrued, as well as
great advances such as in governance by the political development of
democracy and the processes necessary to its survival.
Each of these contexts influences each other and the
characteristics each displays. This has made them so difficult to
disentangle. These contexts represent another way the unity of the
objective world can be described. The growing unity of the subjective
self attempts to fathom this concretely and symbolically by means of the
integrations, information, and explanations generated by the sciences.
The processes connecting these contexts are not yet empirically
understood. But the recent illumination and understanding of the
plasticity of brain systems are encouraging. Particularly interesting is
the operation of the synapse. Its role is to electrochemically enliven
the work of neurons whose constant organizing and reorganizing of
different cell assemblies activate conscious displays of reportable,
meaningful relationships. This bioelectrochemical activity among myriads
of neurons fosters innumerable patterned connections springing initially
from subjective, sensorial, emotional, and ideational experiences.
Arising consciously in the individual, perception first
differentiates the properties of physical reality and then moves
inwardly to inform the major goals of thinking, comprehending, and
imagining. Thus is achieved insight and Contextual Perceiving (CP). In
this way, consciousness and the unconscious of the developing SELF guide
the neuronal processes to analyze and synthesize human experience and
produce a person who is a unique individual with a personality.
Earlier, I called attention to the anthropological term
"enculturation." This is an important process directly
concerned with creating a bounded human experience. But what is it
exactly? It is a cognetic process. Its role is to make connections. It
is a comprehensive process enshrining the culture of a specific
society--from the anointing of an arrow with poison taken from the skin
of a beautiful tropical frog, to reading and writing, and to booting up
Google on a lap-top.
Enculturation is accomplished by the world-wide superprocess we
call EDUCATION. But humankind takes its diverse educating systems for
granted. They are presumed to be working to preserve and advance the
continuity of all historical and current teaching/learning goals.
Education constructs the content of the Universal Context. It
produces and utilizes subject matters used by the brain to learn why
some of the local contexts are more important than others. Learning the
main facts of the multiple levels of the Proximity Context makes the
SELF a competent comprehending individual whose ultimate potential and
successful future is dependent upon fitting into its local culture.
Mastering the integration and synthesis of the knowledge provided
by the three perceptual contexts is a life's work. The creation of
this knowledge by the absorption of authentic concrete information and
the informed use of ideas to make sense of personal experience becomes
goals of an education. And the complexity of this knowledge is what
makes concern with contexts so important. None of the facts introduced
by today's multidisciplined curricula stand alone. Facts are the
guts of a field of knowledge. But they are not useful to the minding
process until they are giving their force as names to recognize and to
identify what they denote as part of a context. There is more to know
about things and processes than just learning their names. What is
needed also to truly understand the function of these items of knowledge
is to know how they came to be what they demonstrably are--and how they
came to relate to each other to make meaningful their relationship to
their field and to other related fields--in other words, the totality of
their surrounding contexts.
What is meant by "Contextual Perceiving" must be made
clear to supervisors, teachers, and curriculum designers. The major
point being emphasized herein is the need to broaden the focus of the
act of teaching as it affects the content of what is to be learned. John
Dewey claimed that every act of teaching to be considered successful
must display "connection and continuity."
This view seriously condemns the current analytic approach of
curriculum designers. They separate and reduce the knowledge to be
taught about as it appears in standard subject matter textbooks. This
style of curricula development has depended upon the isolation and
highlighting of the so-called "known" facts discovered by the
separate disciplines. There is little if any emphasis given to their
interdependence and connections to each other. This is a great
limitation to the understanding of how Nature has organized its diverse
forms. These characteristic forms exist as parts of the integration of
the levels of natural systems. Their continuities of growth and
development are the heart and soul of Nature.
It is the role of the sciences and our intellect to discover,
isolate, and describe these characteristic forms in their linear
evolutionary development. But it is not the role of the educator to
present this information in this way. Traditional education follows the
analytic model to the detriment of understanding human experience in a
richer way. This knowledge of humankind's ways to understand this
knowledge has to be refashioned by the educator to show connections
among the disciplines they depend upon for their own functioning, for
example, the dependence of biological knowledge on chemistry, and
chemical knowledge on physics, and physics upon mathematics. Only upon
the understanding of the deep but visible interrelationships among
factual subject matters by perceiving contextually, as I am describing
it, can a modernized educational system enhance individual and social
critical decision making and behaviors.
But the basic substance of Contextual Perceiving is not a program.
It is a method, it is a teaching process having a new focus. It offers a
new sense of what the goal of educating is following Dewey's
admonition to create interactions and show continuities.
Its strength lies in the stimulating of curiosity rather than
inhibiting it, as often takes place in traditional classrooms where
keeping order is the rule.
The request to become aware of the contribution of a fact's
context becomes the bedrock for establishing knowledge of its history
and validity, and makes for a deeper comprehension of any fact, concept,
and feeling about it.
CP supports the imagination's endeavor to use natural
curiosity to make relevant connections. These are not only the
connections of linear style but also broader connections drawn from
memory images or new relationships sought by curiosity. This sort of
effort fuels the imagination to establish a new view of a fact by
connecting it to a heretofore unknown relationship. This creates a
background to establish the contextual continuity of new knowledge never
before known by teacher or student.
But it is not the role of the educator to create new, original
knowledge as the sciences do, but to help introduce what is new
knowledge into the minding processes of students. This, traditionally,
is predigested knowledge organized into curricula. This involves a shift
The Methodology to Create Contextual Perceiving
Espousing the methodology of CP is a strategy that calls for the
focusing acts of instruction so that the student develops a new
perceptual set. The student is urged to observe no thing or contemplate
no idea or fact without remaining curious about the conditions that
historically created them--the contexts that currently affect them and
that they affect. This mode of learning to seek connections involves the
search for larger integrative relationships, such as the environmental
contexts the anthropologists call for (Orr, 1994). For example, how the
rising of the level of the Pacific's waters because of global
warming would cause the submergence and disappearance of some of the
lower lying Marshall Islands.
CP is a conscious process to motivate looking for significant
connections that will improve understanding of them, whether it be
spatial, historical, genetic development, or conceptual facts. It is
knowing beforehand that contextual backgrounds exist and can be sought
to make learning more meaningful.
CP is a self-imposed skill for students as a process to engage
their curiosity purposefully. It can be explained to be a process that
enriches learning capacity and expands their perceptual grasp. CP has
nothing to do with being more or less intelligent. It is an interactive
mental process offering teachers new opportunities to use the Socratic
method to provoke and challenge a student's curiosity and
This is a mode of learning that can improve anyone's ability
to acquire new and relevant knowledge. It is a new manner of paying
attention. It becomes a search for relationships that may not be
immediately evident. CP can build a deeper sense of how elements,
systems, and hierarchies relate to each other. It is a perceptual
process with which significant knowledge is increased. CP is a
point-of-view that cherishes an expansive rather than a narrow focus. It
cultivates the holistic skill with which to look for critical
connections not only among the obvious ones but also connections that
could turn out to be surprising ones.
To espouse, the process of CP is to fight the fragmentation of
knowledge. In a real sense, it is a form of "ecological
perception" whose physiological parameters have been explored and
described by Gibson (1966). It offers elevation of rich contexts
provided by the mind's use of new imageries. As the psychologist
Akhter Ahsen (1968) has demonstrated, the emotional impact of strong or
weak imageries can be explored and affected, as well as the significance
of the context to the individual that may have caused positive or
negative behavioral responses.
Ultimately, CP can result in the use of more effective language
because it could give a new depth to intentionality, to thinking more
accurately about things. It can provide a new power to find reasons to
express thoughts logically and coherently particularly when writing
about significant topics. CP would reinforce the use of specifically
relevant information. The use of CP would permit the enhancement of
sensible conclusions as lewly informative facts are uncovered that
answer nagging questions, and even discover appropriate facts that could
put to rest previously unanswerable questions.
This is a new enriching educational goal to be sought by the
teaching profession. It is a methodology that falls into the laps of all
teachers who can use it to reinforce their efforts to improve the
writing skills of students. But it can be particularly useful to
language arts and English teachers whose instructional efforts focus on
influencing the skill of writing explanations. This is important for one
simple reason. In order to write logically and coherently about any
subject, the student is forced to THINK clearly about how to express his
or her viewpoint, and so such exercises also can afford practice in
developing critical thinking skills.
Since all subjects have contexts, interrelationships are important.
Indeed, if one does not become knowledgeable about relevant connections
surrounding a subject, not only can one miss aspects of its nature but
also one miss relationships significant to the subject. One cannot
penetrate below the surface of appearances without further curiosity
about influences; nor can one come to know how they came to be what they
are; nor know the meaningfulness of the specific relations or facts that
support them or that they support. Learning about contextual conditions
provides new information--a new expanded awareness of the significance a
subject can have in the minding process of the individual.
This brings us to another of Dewey's insights; the one that
led me to the methodology I am advocating. In an early short essay
pregnant with meaning, Dewey noted that one cannot understand the nature
of a triangle until one learns how to put three lines together. But more
importantly, he suggested also, almost in an offhand manner, that you
cannot understand the nature of a maple tree, even beyond its nature as
a plant--in other words, how it evolved to be a deciduous tree rather
than an evergreen (Ratner and Dewey, 1963).
Now that is asking for a lot! Yet he is expressing here an
important meaning. I interpret him to mean that there are two kinds of
knowledge to acquire for the comprehensive understanding of a subject.
We can classify them as horizontal information and vertical information.
Horizontal information subsumes the current structure and environment of
a subject; what attaches to it and what it attaches to--what the
systematic environment is that actually establishes it for us as a
recognizable entity that has a name. Vertical information about a fact
deals with its evolution and tells us how it evolved to be what it is
within a hierarchy of biological or ideational development.
So, as we ask students to write a descriptive essay, or an analytic
one, an autobiographical piece, a composition to argue for an opinion or
a deeply held point of view, or to express one's feelings, there is
a lot to consider. What kind of advice or instruction can we give
students? How can we facilitate their thinking? How can we stimulate
their engines of personal curiosity and imagination which we know are
essential to all learning?
We can ask them and show them how to pursue Contextual Perceiving.
To focus on a subject yet to realize and remain aware, not only that it
exists in its current environment with the particular relationships and
connections affecting it, but that it also has a history of its
development through time in which systematic transformations took place.
Perhaps there is another important effect that can be achieved by
this attitude of automatically searching for larger or deeper contexts
surrounding a fact or situation. Could not this mode of awareness foster
a critical desire to understand better why humans have the need to
attach either positive or negative symbolic value to such reasons and
actions, for example, that caused the twin towers to be destroyed the
way they were?
Ahsen, A.E. (1968). A Visual Psychology. Yonkers, NY: Eidetic
Dewey, J. and Bentley, A.F. (1960). Knowing and the Known. Boston,
MA: Beacon Press.
Gibson, J.J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems.
Boston, MA: Houghton Miflin. Gibson, J.J. (1986). The Ecological
Approach to Visual Perception (p. 142). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Korzypski, A. (1994). Science and Sanity, 5th ed. Englewood, NJ:
Institute of General Semantics.
Orr, D.W. (1994). Ecological Literacy. Albany: State University of
Ratner, J., ed., and Dewey, J. (1963). Philosophy, Psychology, and
Social Practice. New York: Capricorn Books.
Reed, E.S. (1988). James J. Gibson and the Psychology of
Perception. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Snow, CP. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.
Cambridge: University Press.
Hillel A. Schiller earned his MA in linguistics at the University
of Chicago. He is a retired teacher and curriculum consultant, a
learning therapist, and an instructional materials designer. He has
taught at the New School for Social Research and was a teacher trainer
at City University of New York's Baruch College. His essays and
reviews have been published in Insight, Process Papers, Process Studies,
and The Journal of Mental Imagery on the subjects of visual literacy,
the nature of perception, and Whitehead's and Dewey's
psychologies of education. Recent publications include the chapter
"Toward a Process Curriculum" in The Adventure of Education
(2009) and contact him at Hillel.Schiller@Gmail.com.
This morning I found s spider resting - or perhaps hunting -
on the leaf of an oakleaf hydrangea, the axis of the spider's
abdomen perfectly aligned with the axis of the leaf. What I
noticed was the symmetry of the placement, the way spider and
leaf resembled each other. What I wanted to notice was the
spider's intent. I would have asked it, "What are you doing?"
Or better yet, "Who are you?" But all I could do was look -
and notice that I was looking - and make the best of the
sight I'd seen. (Verlyn Klinkenborg)