What is habitual perception?

In his renowned work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot uses the following observations made by Henri Bergson to convey something of the character of habitual perception:

Life requires that we put on blinkers; we must not look to the right, to the left, or behind, but straight ahead, in the direction in which we are supposed to walk. In order to live, we must be selective in our knowledge and our memories, and retain only that which may contribute to our action upon things.

Habitual perception is a very useful type of perception – it allows us to do things in a world that requires action of human beings. In other words, in order to do things, we must act, and habitual perception can be a streamlined type of perception focusing on how to get things done quickly and efficiently.

Furthermore, for obvious reasons, we want drivers, pilots, surgeons, engineers, etc., to be masters of habitual perception. They need to get a job done, and not think too much about thinking while doing the job. Reflection on what they do should come after they have done it. They can then adjust what they will do next time around based on their reflections.

Why transform habitual perception?

Since the industrial revolution, human beings have found themselves in situations where there is less time for reflection. People work long hours to earn the money that is required for survival, sometimes having little or no down time. In other words, a person’s life is often directed by habitual perception entirely.

One can describe the plight of the human species as one driven by habitual perception. Human beings have focused so much on becoming experts on their “actions upon things” and, to speak generally, so little on their reflective capacities, that we have become a global civilisation of consumers. This has come at immense costs to human well-being and ecological sustainability.

Transforming habitual perception

Hadot quotes Bergson again, this time in an exploration of the idea of non-habitual perception. Hadot and Bergson are interested in non-habitual perception as compatible with the idea of philosophical perception, but soon I will branch out beyond the context of philosophical perception:

When [people who have undergone a transformation of habitual perception] look at a thing, they see it for itself, and no longer for them. They no longer perceive merely for the sake of action: they perceive for the sake of perceiving; that is, for no reason, for the pure pleasure of it … That which nature does once in a long while, out of distraction, for a few privileged people; might not philosophy … attempt the same thing, in another sense and in another way, for everybody? Might not the role of philosophy be to bring us to a more complete perception of reality, by means of a kind of displacement of our attention?

As a philosopher, I am interested in philosophical perception, and I have experimented with numerous ways of displacing my attention in a manner that is in tune with the song that Hadot and Bergson are singing. I can say with certainty that in transforming habitual perception, a person will find themselves perceiving the world, and their place in it, in ways that have remarkably therapeutic implications for the individual and for the broader social and ecological problems arising from the historical over-emphasis on ‘action upon things’.

A program for displacing attention, or transforming habitual perception

As a daily practitioner of methods that displace attention from ‘instrumental thinking’ to ‘inherent value thinking’, I know first-hand what Bergson and Hadot are on about. I practice philosophy as a way of life as far as it is possible for me to do so in my own life.

I have done the research that justifies why one should transform habitual perception – see my PhD (LINK).

Realising the importance for myself, as well as for rising to some of the challenges facing humanity, I have put theory into practice and I have constructed a menu of methods that can be employed to displace habitual attention and transform habitual perception.

I am pursuing further research into these methods, and I am working on emphasising the importance of implementing programs for the transformation of habitual perception in various contexts – academic and educational, corporate, political, and in more ‘down-to-earth’ settings where ordinary people come to ‘work on themselves’ for their own well-being and in turn for the improvement of some conditions that are less than ideal in the greater ecological, social, spiritual, and economic scheme of things.


Contact me if you would like to participate in my program, which can be tailored to suit different contexts, e.g. high schools or universities, businesses or corporates, political groups or environmental ones, etc.


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