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By Alexander Hackett


The Montréal Review, June 2023


Image by Shutterstock



The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh's concept of "discriminative perception" describes the fundamental way in which we perceive and isolate difference in the natural world - whether it be for colours, the various forms of matter or individuals.

It is, essentially, the way in which we distinguish one thing from another.

But Hanh concludes that discriminative perception is a form of "Vikalpa": an illusion, a misperception or corruption of the truth. How can this be? In order to understand, we have to look at ideas of fragmentation, atomization, and synthesis. 

The constant, mundane functioning of our senses - the steady flow of stimulus that we are always asbsorbing and take for granted every waking moment, in the form of sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations - is a complex process of synthesis. Both at source (in the natural world) and at destination, so to speak - meaning the moment of perception, when any stimulus is received by the senses. Hanh writes: "Scientifically, a color has no self. A color - including white and black - is made only of elements of other colors."

When applied to individuals, this concept of dismantling or reducing into component parts (a similar technique was used by the Roman stoics) allows you to "see a multitude of ethnic and cultural sources within you." Taken further, Thich Nhat Hanh says "you can see the whole cosmos within you. You may manifest as a lotus flower. Or you may manifest as a magnolia." All the soil and sunlight and water of centuries and eons past contributed to this one present moment, which you inhabit in your present body, and which, it can be inferred, is simply a manifestation of something else: time, evolution, a species or race. If you push this further, you can apply the exercise to species themselves, knowing that we all evolved from some other proto-species long ago. And if we go back far enough, towards the primordial mud, so to speak, we regress into simpler and simpler organisms, towards some mysterious cellular beginning.

But to get back to the crux of the notion: discriminative perception, the separation between you and me and every other organism and object, as Vikalpa: as illusory and false. An individual is simply one thing from many parts. A musical note or a colour is made of other notes and colours, only arriving at its specific nature through its specific combination of parts.

Philosophically speaking: No one thing is just one thing. And one thing is also many things. It is a question of an angle or a focus of perception, yes, but it is hard to extract oneself from the labyrinthine nature of the question, the deeper one burrows into it.

So we can ask: What makes one thing that specific thing? Why is an individual that specific individual, and not someone else? This question can sound naive, unnecessary and absurd, even, if one is not given to such forms of pondering. But it remains. I could just as easily have been born as Beethoven, or an unnamed peasant girl in medieval Turkey. Except I wasn't. I was born as me, and you were born as you. And yet we share the same characteristics: a life marked by an iron-clad subjectivity. I will never experience life beyond my own individuality, my own timeline and senses, and neither will you. And in this we are identical.


Hanh's discriminative perception is similar to the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus's (c.1265 - 1308) idea of the Principle of Individuation.

This is a concept by which a thing can be considered itself, and not something else. Scotus elaborates the concept of "Heccaeity", a latin neologism that translates to "thisness", and which refers to a thing or an individual's unique nature.

Heccaeity may be understood to refer to a thing's essence, and here we have parallels with Plato's theory of forms and the ideas of the later Neoplatonists. Scotus goes back to ideas of fragmentation and unity: according to Scotus, a thing's "Heccaeity" can only be found in what is indivisible from that thing. The point beyond which it can no longer be reduced.

The theoretical repercussions of this can be immense, leading back to the Platonic idea of a fundamental essence in all things, all forms. This inevitably leads us to a dead-end, unless one accepts various degrees of synthesis within distinct forms - all fleeting to various degrees - from the outset. It basically means abandoning a search for any kind of essence as a useless line of questioning - because theoretically, everything is synthesis, unless we get back to the one thing which can no longer be divided, which would probably be equated with an idea of God, or the "unmoved mover", as Aristotle termed it. A force, or a concentrated particle or energy, that came from nothing (a thing which the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides deemed impossible, itself illusory).

We must at a certain point accept things only as they are, and as we see them. Further questioning about the essential nature of a stone, a tree, a river or an animal rarely proves fruitful beyond the empirical data we can extract from such an entity or its divisible components. Over time and with advances in technology this becomes greater. But it doesn't lead to any better answer regarding a thing's "thisness" than we would have without such advanced tools of observation - into the microscopic, and finally quantum realms, for example.

The principle of individuation is a strange one in philosophy: absolutely fundamental on one level, and utterly meaningless on another. Variations on the principle have been discussed and debated from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers to the medieval scholars, and onwards through to Schopenhauer, Liebniz, Nietzsche and French post-structuralists such as Gilles Deleuze.

But the reality that we understand through our senses and powers of deduction every nano-second of every day simply has certain parameters that we have to accept and can't escape - that are responsible for the proliferation of forms we see outside us, and all around us, every time we open our eyes. The "incessant shower of innumerable atoms", as Virginia Woolf described it, that makes up even the most mundane and ordinary moments of a life. Looking at a coffee cup as sun pours through the window, for example, or seeing dust motes swirl inside a hayloft.


But what is the takeway? (I was myself in the process of trying to synthesize various fragments of thought into a larger portrait, before getting lost in a maze of conflicting concepts.) 

Let me try to summarize: there is only one human consciousness, and there has only ever been one consciousness. You are you and I am I, and though our stories vary greatly, there has only ever been one way to experience being human - subjectively, inside a body, inside an individual mind.

What's more: if we follow Thich Nhat Hanh and the reductive techniques of the ancient Roman Stoics, if we shift our viewpoint to look at the component parts of every thing on earth, we are led to the concept of nonself.

Meaning: I am not just I, and you are not just you. Nor is a lotus flower just a lotus flower, a storm just a storm, or a grain of sand just a grain of sand. We are an endlessly complex mixture of time and particles of matter, constantly intermingling with ourselves and everything else: sunshine over many years, water and earth and the ingestion of other species, manifest into a specific bodily form.

A thing is itself, but also not itself. The division between a thing and another thing can be considered its distinguishing essence. And yet the limits of this distinguishing essence can be shallow, at the level of basic perception. The divisions of Scotus's Heccaeity can be hard to determine, are not so obvious as they appear at first glance.

And so we have: a concept of negation, of the true nature of things being veiled or only partly knowable. 

More: the paradox of two truths existing simultaneously, side by side. 2 +2 is 4, exclusively. But it is also 5, exclusively. This is illogical, but true.

Repercussions exist into the realm of quantum physics: particles able to exist in two places at the same time: as in the example of Schrödinger's cat. (Although Heisenberg proposes a natural criterion of individuality for every particle in response.)

And this leads us to: the idea of Absolute and Relative realities as discussed by Parmenides.

The writer Philip K. Dick, in the throes of his drug-fuelled paranaoia, decribed these realities as Form 1 (absolute, complete, truthful) and Form 2 (corrupt, limited, illusory) in his novel "Valis."

A thing is itself and also not itself. We are ourselves and not ourselves.

And our time in this world is so very strange.


Alexander Hackett is a writer and translator from Montreal, Quebec. He has been a tree planter in Alberta, an English teacher in Mexico and West Africa, a touring musician, and a composer of documentary soundtracks, among other things. His writing has been published in The Toronto Star, La Presse, Le Devoir, Yolk Literary and the Northwest Review.


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