We see and understand things not as they are but as we are. Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.

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ToK Essay, May 2010, Essay no. 7

“We see and understand things not as they are but as we are.” Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.

Mankind has always argued about what is good and what is bad; about what is desirable and what is undesirable and about what is beautiful and what is ugly. But what decides how we see and understand things? What decides how we judge? Does it depend on the individual or is there a general objective perception that is shared by all human beings? Do we see and understand things as they are or as we are? This is an investigation into the nature of perception discussing claims and counterclaims related to three ways of knowing Emotion, Language and Perception. The key to answering this question is to analyse whether human beings see and understand things depending on the individual - which would indicate that understanding is influenced by the person itself - or whether a general objective opinion can be established - indicating that we see things as they are.

Relating the title question to emotion, the knowledge issue arises whether our perception is altered by our emotional state? For example, are individuals beautiful to us if we love them, or do we love individuals if they are beautiful? In other words: does love, which is a personal and subjective emotion, influence our judgement of a person? A famous phrase exists: “To see things through rose-tinted glasses”, meaning to perceive everything positively being “blinded” by love. Hence this phrase indicates that there is influence by emotion on what we see and understand. A person can be perceived differently depending on the influence of love. This is supported by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne who claims that “to understand via the heart is not to understand, which suggests that, if emotion influence what we understand, we do not understand things as they are but as we or our emotions are.                                                                                                                                                 On the other side the scientist Edward O. Wilson defines an emotion as “the modification of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity”. This describes the scientific part of emotion and indicates that they are not as subjective and personal as assumed suggesting that emotion as a physical reaction is objective and that it is evolves as a response to an image we see. A personal example is that a classmate was being arrogant and evoked dislike in me. Furthermore he caused the same emotion in most people, as it very human to dislike arrogance, and therefore what each individual personally sees and understands is not affected by himself but rather by humanity as a whole as it could be argued that humans share the same judgement of certain behaviour. Despite this, emotion still influences what we perceive and certain feelings such as “love” are highly dependent on the individuals and therefore we see things differently according to the emotion we feel.

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Language helps to communicate our ideas and our perceptions and hence it might be argued that it effects the judgement itself. Is language therefore a limitation? Does it change what we see and even how we understand? People come from different cultures and speak different languages; does that mean that their thinking is different as well? Do we think in words? This would mean that language indeed influences the way we see and understand; moreover that words influence the way we think limiting our ideas and understanding depending on the richness of the language. This is the Whorfian hypothesis ...

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