Thursday, November 4, 2010

Aldous Huxley on Secondary Qualities

In his Doors of Perception Aldous Huxley makes a most interesting comment about a fundamental shift that seems to occur in visual consciousness under the influence of the "psychedelic" drug, Mescalin:

Mescalin raises all colors to a higher power and makes the percipient aware of innumerable fine shades of difference, to which, at ordinary times, he is completely blind. It would seem that, for Mind at Large, the so-called secondary characters of things are primary. Unlike Locke, it evidently feels that colors are more important, better worth attending to, than masses, positions and dimensions (p. 27).

What intrigues me about his remarks is that by this alteration in color, attention is drawn to color and drawn away from the "primary qualities" of VS. I have already argued that even in ordinary VS, it is literally color that is primary, not the quantitative or quantifiable magnitudes that it contains by virtue of the juxtaposition of different colors, because without the color, there is no VS at all (and by "color" I am including black and white). There are no lines, no surfaces, no shapes--in short, no geometry!


  1. Aldous never saw the 'inner' marvels as his experience was only on the changes in veridical perceptions. Here are some reports that make the case you make even stronger—
    “”My mind was perfectly clear and active;…stretched out upon the bed, with closed eyes, an ever-changing panorama of infinite beauty and grandeur, of infinite variety of colour and form, hurried before me.” (Prentiss and Morgan, 1895).
    The next subject saw masses of transparent fruit,
    “…to give the faintest idea of the perfectly satisfying intensity and purity of these gorgeous colour-fruits is quite beyond my power. All the colours I have ever beheld are dull compared with these.” (Weir Mitchell 1896).
    Havelock Ellis himself (1897) reported “Perpetually some totally new kind of effect would appear in the field of vision: sometimes there was swift movement, sometimes dull, somber richness of colour, sometimes glitter and sparkle,…I was further impressed, not only by the brilliance, delicacy, and variety of the colours, but even more by their lovely and various textures—fibrous, woven, polished, glowing, dull, veined and semitransparent…”.
    A subject of Rouhier (1927) said “…high above me is a dome of the most beautiful mosaics, a vision of all that is most gorgeous and harmonious in colour. The prevailing tint is blue, but the multitude of shades, each with such wonderful individuality, make me feel that hitherto I have been totally ignorant of what the word colour really means. The colour is intensely beautiful. Rich, deep, deep, deep, wonderfully deep blue.”

  2. One could multiply those eloquent examples with countless others, as John well knows, but what they illustrate is a mode of perception that is closer to that of the artist and poet than the hard-nosed scientist. Science can do no better than to explain these profound experiences on the basis of a poisoned malfunctioning brain?

  3. Well, Jung had a shot—he agreed with me that they are archetypal ni origin. But it is nor very clear to me what that means. For Jung 'archetypes' represented a 'primitive' mythic form of thinking linked to his ideas about acausal synchronicity. For Plato they implied a form of deeper reality—but in his case focussed on the beauty of pure geometric forms. I do not know if he ever included psychedelic-type visions. ( I think psychedelic mushrooms were available in the Greece of his time). No one denies that the psychedelic visions are art of a power that no human artist has ever attained. But we would surely be chastised as anthropomorphs if we suggested that transcendental art needs a transcendental artist to produce it. Certainly I agree with Bill that a mere fiddling around with serotonn 2A receptors in the brain is not a satisfactory solution. Perhaps, Bill, with his deep connections to living art could give us an explanation to this mystery?

  4. (Somehow I managed to post this comment on the wrong thread, so I am reposting it here where it belongs!)

    Jung used the word "numinosity" to describe the affective intensity/character associated with the archetypes, but not specifically with the overall visual character of archetypal experience, though in his "Red Book" he certainly rendered in vivid color any number of visionary images he had experienced in dreams and waking visions. He said the "language" of the archetypes was "bombastic" (oracular).

    "Numinosity" was a noun that Jung coined from Rudolf Otto's adjective "numenöse" (English: "numinous"), which is based on the Roman word "numen," meaning local deity. It denoted a peculiar state of consciousness marked by a certain spectrum of "numinous feelings."
    What Otto characterized as the "numinous consciousness" today would be called an "altered state of consciousness," and as probably most of you know, a neurophysiological basis for it has been attributed by Michael Persinger to the malfunctioning of the temporal lobes. The late research psychiatrist, Eugene d'Aquili, developed what he called "neurotheology," which did not attempt to reduce such experience to brain malfunctioning, but was interested in the opposite: how religious experience relates to holistic experience in general, and explored possible neurophysiological correlates of it of a non-pathological nature.

    In psychiatrist Ron Siegel's old edited volume "Hallucinations" he (or someone) argued that some geometrical hallucinations characteristic of "psychedelic" visions may just reflect the structure of the retina!


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