Sensory Perception

Is Sensory Perception Historically Relative? Walter Benjamin and Phenomenology

Research seminar coordinated by Dr. Christian Ferencz-Flatz (Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest)

Phenomenology was from the onset conceived in a stark opposition to historical relativism. Thus, while claiming to investigate the “essence” of subjective experience, phenomenology has found one of its most significant strongholds in the belief that the most elementary form of experience – i.e. sensory perception – is historically immutable. In Husserl, the “aesthetic synthesis” of perception is regarded as the grounding level in the constitution of objects for consciousness, prior to the constitution of all other types of objects: animated beings, artefacts or ideal objects. As such, it is either tacitly presupposed as invariable or explicitly depicted as an elementary, non-derivative, and unmodifiable form of experience. Although later phenomenologists have challenged the primacy of sensory perception as conceived by Husserl, regarding it as a mere residue of a theoretical attitude (and thus as a derivative phenomenon), they nevertheless tended themselves to replace it with another form of elementary “perception”, similarly regarded as historically invariable. This is for instance the case with Heidegger, who considered that our primary relation to things is not determined by perceptive observation, but rather by our habitual interaction with them, guided by what he terms “circumspection” (Umsicht); for, despite the fact that his descriptions thereof often touch upon obvious historical phenomena (like say modern motor traffic), Heidegger himself claims to use such descriptions in Being and Time to sketch out a formal conception of “being in the world”, that could be useful both for understanding primitive cultures and modern life. But how exactly would the phenomenological project be affected by the claim – actually made by Walter Benjamin in several of his writings in a similar context – that the most elementary form of perception is itself historically variable? This seminar will try to tackle this question by critically confronting four series of texts: a) selected passages from the phenomenological theory of perception (Husserl, Heidegger); b) writings that relativize the phenomenological theory of perception from an anthropological (Blumenberg) or social-historical (Adorno) perspective; c) selected passages from W. Benjamin, arguing his claim that sensory perception is historically mutable; d) sources and variations of this thesis (in the manifestos of the early avant-garde, in the philosophy of culture, in art history and in the psychology of the 1930s).

The seminar is open to young researchers interested in this topic. If you wish to participate, please contact:


Tuesday, 12.05, 17h00: E. Husserl, Experiență și judecată, Humanitas, București, 2013, § 14.

Tuesday, 19.05, 15h30: E. Husserl, Experiență și judecată, Humanitas, București, 2013, §§ 15-19 și 22-23.

Tuesday, 26.05, 15h30: E. Husserl, Ideen II, paragr. 8-10 & 18.

Tuesday, 2.06, 15h30: M. Heidegger, GA 20, paragr. 5c, 23 & 29 b.

Tuesday, 9.06, 17h00: M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, paragr. 15, 31, 34 & 36.

Tuesday, 23.06, 17h00: H. Blumenberg, “Dasein oder Bewußtsein”, in: „Beschreibung des Menschen”

Tuesday, 30.06, 17h00: Th.W. Adorno, „Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie”, cap. III

Tuesday, 08.09, 17h00: W. Benjamin, WuN 16, cap. IV/ v. 3

Tuesday, 15.09, 17h00: W. Benjamin, WuN 16, cap. XV și XVIII/ v. 3

Tuesday, 22.09, 17h00: G. Simmel, „Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben” și „Soziologie der Sinne”

Tuesday, 29.09, 17h00: W. Benjamin, “Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire”, cap. III-IX și WuN 16, cap. XVII/ v. 3

Tuesday, 06.10, 17h00:  W. Benjamin, WuN 16, cap. XVIII/ v. 3