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Nature Morte: Inscape, Perception and Thought

F. David Peat

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A text only version of this essay is available to download.


An approach to perception is explored in which each object is experienced as a boundless inscape. This notion of inscape also calls for a new order to thought and to the integration of experience, one that embraces ambiguity and paradox.

1. Introduction

In this article I want to reflect on the connection between our perception of the world and the way in which we theorize about it. In particular, I am going to suggest that certain received opinions, long been dominant in the West, represent a deceptive collusion about our relationship to the universe. A deception that is not shared by much of the rest of humanity and which, moreover, does not accord with our own inner sense of who we are and where we stand in relationship to the world around us.

The particular misconception that has so mesmerized our thinking is that we are the objective observers of the universe. We are, somehow, hors de la melee, aristocrats of nature who do not chose to dirty our shoes in the mud of reality. Believing that our perception is objective we come to see the world as object, an object that can be circumscribed, controlled and manipulated. It is by distancing ourselves from reality in this way that so much fragmentation and disharmony has entered our world.

It is fashionable today to place the blame for the separation between mind and body, environment and society on the shoulders of the Cartesian-Newtonian world view. So that the ills that befall our modern society are the result of the rise of modern science. But it is important to realize that Newtonian science, in its evolution, was only responding to a prevailing world view. While it is true that science, through its remarkable success in analyzing and describing the physical world and the power of its technology, has come to endorse that world view it can not be held ultimately responsible for its inception. Indeed, as physics continued to press ahead with its amplification of this particular world-view, it eventually came to the point where it subverted its own program.

The first challenge came with the discoveries of quantum theory. By virtue of its very indivisibility, the quantum of action links observed and observed into a unified whole and denies the intrinsic objectivity that had long been assumed to lie at the heart of science. Neils Bohr in his essays and lectures constantly emphasized the wholeness that is essential to our experimental observation of the quantum world. He pointed out that a particular disposition to observe a quantum system in one way, while yielding one result, precludes the possibility of obtaining complementary answers.

Active debate over the significance of Bohr's interpretation has continued for over half a century and still shows no sign of resolution. At one end of the spectrum thinkers like Einstein and, more recently David Bohm, insist upon the objectivity of the world and of a reality that is independent of our wishes and desires. At the other are those who speak of an "observer created reality" and of wave functions that are collapsed by human consciousness. Yet, despite considerable differences in interpretation an important thread runs through this debate, it is the realization that we are participators and not spectators in the universe. Within the act of observation, at the quantum level at least, observer and observed become one and analysis reaches its limit. Of course, this is a view that is central to the philosophies of the East. The idea of the wholeness of all nature also lies at the heart of the science and philosophy of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. But now Western science, through the extension of its own program has come to realize the limits to objectivity and separation.

The impact of quantum theory has been more recently followed by that of chaos theory which speaks, in part, of the extreme sensitivity of certain systems in which to observe them is to alter their dynamics in an unpredictable way. Moreover, because of the infinite complexity of their motion and their openness to boundary conditions, it is no longer a practical possibility to control or manipulate them according to any fixed and predetermined plan. Our efforts at control and planning happen to work with linear systems, where a small correction produces a measured and expected response. But when it comes to non-linear systems a small intervention may result in extreme resistance, gradual change, chaotic response or will push the system across a bifurcation point into some qualitatively new form of behavior.

Both quantum theory and chaos theory speak, within the scientific context, of openness and wholeness. In other words, of our essential engagement within the universe and the impossibility of separating observer from that which is observed. But I want to go beyond this, for these metaphors taken from contemporary physics are only the tip of the iceberg, the first indications of something that is of far more general and deeper significance. I want to suggest that our engagement with the world must be seen in terms of what I call inscape, as an engagement that is potentially inexhaustible and infinitely rich. 1

2. Inscape and Thought

The word inscape is taken from the works of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote of the inner deep down dwelling of thing. To see the world as inscape is to contrast it with that earlier view of the world as landscape in which passive observers regard nature from an elevated, protected and remote view point. As landscape nature becomes a collection of objects and interactions, the product of inexorable laws operating upon fundamental elements of reality. But to see the world as inscape is to take each experience and each perception as unique and authentic. It is to realize that each person, rock and tree is infinite possibility and unbounded richness. To see the world as inscape, in which each element and each experience stands uniquely upon its own authenticity, also offers a profound challenge to the way we think and theorize about the world. Indeed, we must now seek a new logic of perception and a new manner of integrating our observations and experiences into a coherent whole.

But this is no mere exercise in abstraction for all our experience has the potential to participate within inscape. Our authentic relationships with those whom we love and for whom we feel deep compassion can never be reduced to plans, programs, acts of control or objective observations. Rather, our engagement with each person, rock and tree or, for that matter, atom is inexhaustible in its inner nature, boundlessly subtle and irreducible to any single level or set of rules.

Once we are willing to accept each experience of nature as unique and inexhaustible in its richness then were have opened the door to a radically different vision of perception. For we too are inscape, each one of us is an inexhaustible, essential mystery and center of sacredness. To speak of perception is to speak of the merging of horizons, the fusing of the inscape of nature with our own inner richness; it is to enter into something mysterious and direct, an endlessly subtle movement between inner and outer.

Of course it is always possible for thought to analyze and theorize about the world. The history of science shows how enormously powerful has been this combination of analysis and observation. But I want to suggest that we must now acknowledge the essential limitation of this process. Every analysis is incomplete and provisional; every experiment is dependent upon a wider context; any set of laws is conditional; any attempt to reduce nature to a most fundamental level is ultimately subverted by the very act of reduction itself.

Provided that we consider nature only as landscape then thought is still able to analyze the world and engage in a play of forms, a dance in which the objects of thought become the objects of the world. When each object is external to us and, it is assumed, known in its entirety then integrating the world simply becomes a matter of fitting all those independent pieces of experience together and discovering how they interact. Nature is landscape and each natural object can be reduced to some more fundamental level in which the elements of reality follow the basic and inexorable laws of physics. Integration, within such a world of landscape, becomes simply a matter of extending the technical limits of human thought - by no means simple yet a goal that is achievable in principle.

To give an example of how this older approach works think, for example, of an analytical chemist who, before the advent of the days of computerized spectrometers and gas chromatographs, was presented with an unknown substance. According to chemical theory there are a given number of chemical elements which can combined together in a surprisingly complicated number of different ways. These various chemical substances can be gathered together into different categories depending upon their color, solubility and reactivity with various reagents. For example, the nitrate salts of an unknown metal are always soluble in water while the chloride salts of lead, silver and gold produce a white precipitate. The appearance of such a precipitate would therefore indicate to the chemist that the unknown substance must contain one of these metals.

In other words the logical steps in the process of chemical analysis provided the method whereby our chemist could discover the way in which some new and unknown substance fits into a preexisting scheme. Clearly, however, within this context the sort of questions that are asked, the chemical perception as it where, is conditioned by a preexisting scheme of categories and relationships. Such an approach works best when the whole scheme is consistent and its the various steps are logically related.

When it comes to determining the composition of a newly discovered mineral chemical analysis is eminently successful. The problem arises, however, when we carry over this general way of working into more subtle areas of human live and behavior. What works for a chemical is not going to work for a human relationship, for the order of society or for our complex interactions with the natural environment.

Seeking the world as landscape goes hand in hand with the sort of analytical thinking that takes consistency and logical connectivity as being preeminent and seeks to fit each new fact or observation into a preexisting scheme. In that approach, each new observation is conditioned by some pre-existing schema so that we find ourselves asking not so much "what is this new thing?" but "how does it fit into what we already know". Of course the great danger in all this is that each new experience must be stretched and transformed until it takes the form demanded of it by the mind's schema. When logic stands firm and each new experience is required to pass the test of consistency then the world begins to loose its immediacy and vibrancy.

Yet, once we admit the inscape of the world into our lives the carpet of logical consistency is pulled out from under our feet and we discover that we are no longer standing upon its firm foundation. In the place of a world conforming to a single embracing order we discover that we must relate to each thing in its own light so that the former rigid order yields to something more organic, fluid and creative, something that will support metaphor, ambiguity and paradox.

Inscape demands a change in the way we theorize about the world, a radical transformation in the order of our thought. But it is important to note that to discard this rigid form of logical consistency is not to abandon reason. Nature is very clearly a coherent whole and our experiences, relationships, actions and interactions necessarily call for balance and harmony. What is required, therefore, is to drop the old fixed ways of thinking in favour of a new activity of integration, one that is open and organic yet no longer demands intellectual closure of the world. The challenge we now face is to discover that act of integration that will restore the balance between inner and outer, perception and action and create harmony between the individual and society, society and the environment; an integration that combines intellectual rigor and artistic creativity yet is no longer confined by the traditional demands of what could be called "formal logic".

3. Art and Inscape

It is difficult to write about matters like this, matters that have been so little discussed in our culture. Rather than being the topics of science or philosophy these ideas of inscape and integration have been more generally explored by poets, writers and painters. Indeed, if we are to gain clues as to the perception and integration of inscape then one approach would be to look at works of art and at the different questions that painters have made manifest on their canvases.

Throughout the history of art certain painters have constantly returned to their particular themes, subjects or motifs exploring them through different approaches, always questioning, never satisfied. For Monet, as he painted the paint the facade of Rouen cathedral at different times of the day, it was to engage the subtle mystery of how light gives life to the surface of an object. Cezanne returned again and again to Montagne Ste Victoire, that sail of white rock billowing high above the orange and greens of the Provencial landscape. Picasso grappled with portraits of the women who, at different times of his life, served both as his companions and models, the energy of his perception never allowing him to rest. Again and again we see Picasso dissecting, rearranging, reintegrating, endlessly exploring his ambivalent relationship to the subject and object of his art.

Obsessed with this authenticity and inner mystery an artist returns again and again to that act of perception and depiction, each time discovering new levels of truth yet questioning how that truth is to be made manifest in line, form, mass, color, texture and so on. And so the artist moves both inward and outward, questions, engages and experiments. Not only artists but poets and writers have also returned to a particular theme in an attempt to unfold fresh elements of inner truth. Clearly, for the artist and the public alike, there can be no definitive interpretation of a work of art, no perfect reading of a poem.

In a similar sense, for a Native American elder there is no single authorized version of a creation story. Rather the story is ever fresh and, with each new telling, with each audience, season, ceremony and time of day the story is subtly different, revealing fresh insights. But there is always a definite order to the telling, a harmony that extends from night to night over the duration of the ceremony or season, a balance that affirms the life the group and its relationship to the environment. But this order is not dominated by a simple logical connectivity or by an explicit consistency. Rather, it is a profoundly different order that grows out of a dynamical harmony and balance, an order of generation that is open and ever responsive.

The creation stories that are told over the course of a night will generally not be logically consistent, one with the other, when viewed according to the strict rules of Western narration. Nevertheless they have their own order at a deeper and more subtle level. The Indigenous mind may well be able to tolerate paradox and ambiguity because this order is closer to inner structure of reality that a more "mathematical" form of logic. This ambiguity in also expressed the multileveled and multipurposed nature of the telling itself. These are not stories in our modern Western sense of things, anecdotes told for entertainment. They are part and parcel of the sacred, acknowledgements of creation, expressions of the consciousness of the group and its ancient history, celebrations of the land, subtle psychological lessons, education for children and harmonious ways of bringing people together. It is important to note, therefore, that the figure of the clown or joker occupies a privileged position within these stories. Indeed, the clown may also make his or her appearance during some of the sacred ceremonies. Again the Native mind celebrates order and transformation, logic and paradox, the establishment of harmony and its subversion.

If our Western science is to move beyond that sterility that views the world as object then it too must be willing to enter into new logical forms and new orders, orders that will tolerate ambiguity, paradox and metaphor, orders which give each experience a living space in which to move and to be, yet, at the same time, preserve the integrated balance of the whole.

4. Perception and Integration

I think that we can get some insight into how this can be done by looking at a painting, a still life by Cezanne, for example. Think of one of those many paintings in which a group of apples is arranged on a table. Clearly Cezanne does not begin with a fixed grid or schema into which each object must be fitted. Rather, each apple is engaged directly. By observing the marks left by Cezanne's brush we see how he questions the truth of his perception, constantly pushing the paint around, revising, making a tentative movement here, another there. Clearly this apple is no piece of dead fruit, no passive object placed in a landscape external to the artist. One could almost hazard that, during the act of painting, Cezanne had that same sense of the very aliveness of the apple as does the Native American who says that a rock or tree is alive. In both cases there is a direct engagement, a dialogue with nature.

But now Cezanne has moved to a different region of the canvas and is engaged in a new and different manifestation of its essence. As ever he works tentatively, here on the apple, over there developing the pattern of the cloth, another apple, then back to the first. Pushing paint, describing the fragment of an outline, correcting the shade of a color, moving from region to region, never at rest, the painting never fully closed. And suddenly we realise that a totally new logic is at work, a totally new order of structuring. For the order of the canvas is emerging both out of the authenticity of each object in itself and the dynamic position that it occupies upon the canvas.

Contrast, for a moment, Cezanne's method with an Italian painting of the Renaissance in which the newly discovered device of perspective is being used. Perspective is that device whereby space, and the relationship between objects, is ordered according to a consistent mathematical scheme. In perspective the artist stands outside the scene and views landscape from a single, omnipotent position. All rays of light reach the eye of the painter and, in turn, each object must be transformed and distorted until it can fit the perspective grid. An apple close to the viewer must be made larger than one that is further away, the corner of a table is no longer a right angle, its sides can not be portrayed as parallel. Rather than the shape of each object being seen in itself it is now depicted in a way that conforms to the overall demands of perspective.

Perspective, for such a painter, will not tolerate ambiguity or paradox for each object and each location in space must be made to conform to a preexisting whole - even if that means distorting something of the inner truth of that object. The metaphorical connection between the painterly device of perspective and science's attempt to see the world as landscape so as to fit all experience into a single, consistent and logical pattern of thought will be obvious.

Clearly there would be a great deal of anxiety involved in letting go of such an all embracing scheme. As long as the world is logical and consistent there is an unambiguous place for everything and there can be no room for uncertainty, paradox or irrationality. A consistent world appears a secure world, a world in which every relationship is well defined. Yet ultimately such a world is dead and mechanical. It denies the vibrancy and paradox of life, it denies the openness of creativity and the very irrationality of being human. One's own honesty cannot allow one to remain in those peaceful waters of mechanical connectivity for ever. With Cezanne, in particular, one senses that he was driven to question and never to be satisfied with any partial answer. For to let go of the dominance that traditional logic has over our thinking does not mean that we have given way to meaningless disorder. Rather, we are challenged to find new and deeper means of integration, orders that are alive and ever changing.

In Cezanne's case this attempt at integration was made from within the context of painting and its history. Cezanne was not simply concerned with the object as it presents itself in space but also with the problem of its representation on the surface of the canvas and with the different strategies whereby the viewer decodes this representation. Cezanne danced between observation and object, object and representation, representation and potential viewer. By constantly asking questions about the act of perception he forced us to engage his canvas and never find rest in a single all embracing reading.

Unlike the academic painters of an earlier age Cezanne was not going to be bound by the rules of perspective, in which the form of each object is deformed according to the logic of a single consistent rule. Rather, he was seeking for a more organic order, one which would designate the strategies of perspective to their proper role within the act of painting. No longer does the corner of a table conform to the laws of perspective. An apple placed some distance from the painter appears larger than one close by, the plane of the table itself is dislocated and contours around an object no longer complete. Yet by relaxing his hold on earlier strategies Cezanne was able to achieve a much deeper integration within the whole painting, a means whereby the finished work can remain true to the inscape of his original vision.

The order of the work also mirrors the way in which Cezanne engaged in the act of painting, it is organic, unfolding, embracing paradox, ambiguity and complementarity. Here he works in detail on an apple leaving some other portion of the canvas blank or lightly sketched. On the following day he focuses his attention upon some region of an apparently neutral background. And, as the painting progresses he is constantly moving back and forth, to apple, cloth, table, background. He tries to force a definite conclusion here but leaves something open there and poses a question somewhere else. Many days later a single brush stroke of blue in the background may force him to return to the apple and reopen its manifestation in a totally new way.

The art collector Ambroise Vollard has described the ardors of posing for Cezanne and how, after one hundred and fifteen settings the painter declared "The front of the shirt is not bad" but was still faced with the problem of painting in two small spots on the hands. In the end the painting was abandoned - moths had finally eaten through the sitter's cloths!2

If I have spent so much time discussing Cezanne it is because he is a paradigm of someone who struggles to realize a new form of organization and integration, one that remains truthful to the perception of that limitless inscape of subject, painter and viewer.

5. Conclusion

In this article I have called for a new vision of nature, a vision that acknowledges the inscape of the world and within each one of us. In every day life the act of distancing oneself from other human beings by seeing and treating them as objects would be taken as evidence of pathological behavior. Yet, thanks to the continuing dominance of our scientific world view, this is just what we are always in danger of doing. A doctor's patient becomes an interesting disease, a psychic structure, or a subject for cognitive therapy. Even the world becomes object to us in which cell, tree and environment are all seen as landscape to be observed, studied, analyzed, described and manipulated.

By contrast the new vision I am calling for would extends throughout all phases of our lives and transform not only ourselves but our society and its activities. Hand in hand with that transformation comes a new order of thought, a new way of integrating experience, perception and knowledge; one that combines intellectual rigor with creative openness; one that values harmony and balance over formal logic and surface consistency. It is not that human reason is to be thrown out of the window but that reason should be enriched by a new logic of perception, compassion, harmony and love.

As to the form of this new logic, this integration of perception and thought, its unfolding will be left open for debate and other articles. Clearly what is called for is an activity in which the mind is able to move in a dynamic way, freeing its earlier preconceptions and constructs as it enters into the authenticity of each experience and perception. Yet as it moves between perceptions and experiences the mind is also seeking balance and harmony.

This new order is closer to that of growth and creativity, closer to the evolution of a work of art than to that stretching of knowledge to conform with the grid of logical consistency that was discussed earlier in this article. And as to that new movement itself? A few hints have already been given here, about the unfolding structure of a painting, the dynamical order within the series of stories told night after night by a native elder, the order of a poem and the relationship of love between two people. It is also worth noting that most astounding of all creations of the human race, language, is ideally well adapted to deal with paradox, ambiguity, humor and complementarity. Indeed without this language and the deeper meaning of human communications would be lost, the mere traffic of data between two computers. Another indication that the new order of thought and perception I am calling for are entirely natural in their origin, something we were all born with but, in our professional lives, have somehow forgotten how to use.

Clearly the issues I have raised here are not simply scientific question, they have important moral and ethical implications as well. As the world view developed by Western civilization continues to expand and dominate the planet it is clear that a profound change is called for. We can no longer continue to treat nature and human society as objects, we can no longer distance ourselves from our own humanity. If our planet is to survive, if society is to move towards health and if our own being is to be enriched then we must learn how to reach into life and embrace its very richness and paradox. We must strive for a new and fresher perception, a more harmonious form of action, and a different order to our society and its relationship to the environment.


1. The idea of inscape is also touched on in Peat, F. David (1991) 'The Philosopher's Stone', Bantam Books, New York.
2. Vollard, Ambroise (1984) 'Cezanne' translated by Van Doren, Harold L., Dover Pubs Inc., New York.

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Art & Science | David Bohm | Chaos Theory

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