In ordinary language, we use the word “sense” in three different ways: sense as in sensation; sense as in making sense and finally, sense as in being sensitive. The first use of sense is about perception, the second use of sense is about conceptualization and the third use of sense is related to empathy and emotion. I believe that these three senses of “sense” are closely interrelated; in fact they arise from principles that cut across cognition, emotion and perception. One example of a common principle is figure-ground organization.
The Gestalt psychologists thought about the figure-ground dichotomy as an organizing principle of perception. Roughly speaking, the figure is what you perceive and the ground is the background against which you perceive, though the two entities can switch back and forth on occasion (you can see images here). Cognitive linguists such as Talmy have argued that the figure-ground organization works in language as well, so that spatial relations are usually conveyed with a figural object and a ground object. Consider the pair of sentences

  1. The red car is parked in front of the blue house.
  2. The blue house is situated behind the red car.

While the two sentences convey the same spatial relation, the second seems awkward, even though both of them are grammatically correct. Talmy argues that it is because figure objects are usually smaller and mobile and ground objects are larger and static. Sentence 2 flouts that rule. Talmy goes on to argue that these sentences show that spatial language also has figure-ground organization. I am just extending Talmy’s arguments to include emotion as well, that foreground and background emotions are nothing but the manifestation in affective experience of the general cognitive principle of figure-ground organization. This hypothesis would explain a common form of defensive behaviour. I approach you and ask you why you are in such a bad mood and you reply that you are feeling perfectly fine. Both of us could be correct, in the following sense: I could be perceiving your background emotion using cues such as your general bodily stance, the tension in your facial muscles etc. You on the other hand, from your first person perspective, might be concentrating on the foreground emotion which might well be pleasure. The larger hypothesis is whether figure-ground is a principle of mental organization as such. Now a few words about the polar organization of our experience.

There are poles to our experience — the subject and the object poles being prominent polar opposites. Each pole represents a typical way of acting. For example, the subject pole is active while the object pole is passive. Perception is tied to the subject pole, for perception is about the mind actively going out and meeting the world. The mind, i.e., subject, is active and the world, i.e., the object, is passive. Hence the subject viewing the object. In emotion, on the other hand, the feeler takes on the object role; it is the world that is active and the mind that is passive, relatively speaking. Emotions — fear, anger, happiness, etc — are mostly responses to the world’s actions (think of the fear one might feel when hearing a lion roar in the African Savannah). The object of an emotion — the roaring lion — is the cause of what we end up feeling. Therefore, perception and emotion, while having the same underlying principles (like figure-ground organization) might be dominated by different poles of experience. To conclude, polar organization and figure-ground organization are two principles that structure sensing, sense-making and sensitivity. The relation between the three senses of sense is part of a larger investigation of the self and its relation to all cognition, perception and effect.

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