Sensation and Perception: Understanding our World

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

George Santayana, Philosopher, 1863-1952

I recently came across this quotation from George Santayana, the great Spanish-American philosopher. He was actually born and raised in Spain but went to Harvard University where he was educated and taught in the Philosophy Department for several years before moving to Italy, where he lived out his life in a monastary.


There is a long interrelated history between psychology and philosophy. I am old enough to remember a time when the departments of philosophy were subsumed under the departments of psychology at major colleges and universities in the United States. Philosophers have often speculated about the entire human process of consciousness, sensations and perception, asking and giving theories about how we come to know things, process things and give meaning to reality. In fact, these speculations gave rise to the field of psychology in which we try to understand, predict and control behavior.

Santayana was a pragmatist. This means that he looked at life in a realistic and practical way. Basically and in a simplied way, Santayana talked about the fact that we human beings use our ability to reason to organize the world for oursleves. We filter out a lot of information that comes to us in order to know things.

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This is what he means when he says “Sanity is madness put to good uses.” We try to find ways to control our world and our experience of that world. That is also what he means when he says that “Waking life is a dream controlled.” In other words, we respond to things in the world and try to organize and give them meaning. Our dreams may not feel very controlled but waking life is.

The quote is also interesting because it does not separate us into those who are mad and not mad. Rather, the world is mad and we attempt to comprehend the madness. We do not sense everything, or all of the stimuli, that come to us from the world because, if we did, we would be assaulted by chaos. Rather, we have this filtration system that removes or dismisses many things not necessary for us to attend to. Even for those stimuli that do get through to us, such as noise, we don’t pay attention to it unless it is especially loud and alarming. Traffic noise is around us in the cities but we pay no mind to it. What does get through the filtration system and causes us to pay attention, we attempt to understand.

Just think about what is happening to the economy in the United States and around the world. Most people are attempting to gain an understanding of why and how this has happened. How and why did some of the biggest investment firms and banks become bankrupt? How and why are major lending institutions refusing to loan money to businesses and homeowners, thereby shutting down the United States economy?

In the same way, why is there a war in Iraq and why was the United States attacked in September of 2001? Ultimately, we use reasoning to comprehend our environment and the things that impinge upon us.

Santayana does not leave out our biological and emotional selves in this process of knowing and controlling. Our impusles and senses unite with our reasoning abilities to give us a clear view of the world. In fact, our reasoning ability helps us gain control over our biological selves so that we can have a real and concrete view of the world.

This is not so different from what we, in psychology and mental health, refer to as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The concept behind CBT is to use and sharpen our reasoning or thinking abilities to become less fearful and depressed by relying on a realistic view of our environment. For example, if I hear about a large airplane crash, I can let myself become fearful of flying or I can remind myself that there is nothing to fear because the number of plane crashes is extremely low in comparison to the number of flights that take place daily around the globe.

So, if it sometimes feels to you that the world is crazy or that you are crazy, think about Santayana and remind yourself that, perhaps, you are just attempting to understand what is going on around you.

What does Santayana’s quote mean to you?

Your comments are greatly appreciated.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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