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Publication Date


First Advisor

Jay L. Garfield

Document Type

Honors Project

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Philosophy of perception, Phenomenology, Heidegger, Transcendental idealism, Embodied cognition, Cognitive science, Existentialism, Enactivism, Psychiatry


What do we see when we encounter the world? Do we see only colors, shapes, and other sensory properties—or, do we also see the meanings of objects, that is, the roles those objects serve in our activities, and interactions we can have with them? I argue the latter. Objects manifest complex meaning in a spontaneous, mandatory manner. We cannot choose this meaning, but the world is already meaningful before we can notice or negotiate with it. So, perceived meaning constrains the possible thoughts, feelings, and actions we can have in response to a situation.

I investigate the necessary a priori conditions of such perceived meaning. These conditions are found across our body, sociocultural environment, and evolutionary history. I examine the ontogenetic development of such perceived meaning, tracing its origins to basic affective values that humans share with non-human animals. I apply this theory of perception to the etiology of mental illness, showing what it means for mental illnesses to be socially constructed. This has implications for our understanding of the nature of human suffering and recovery; and it opposes certain assumptions in medical psychiatry. This theory also explains that emotions, aesthetic feelings, and other states that are typically regarded as “merely psychological” are in fact not up to our whims. Rather, they are grounded in the conditions of our sociocultural and biological history, which are enduring and transcendent of any given person’s life.


©2019 Alina S. Wang. Access limited to the Smith College community and other researchers while on campus. Smith College community members also may access from off-campus using a Smith College log-in. Other off-campus researchers may request a copy through Interlibrary Loan for personal use.




264 pages. Includes bibliographical references (pages 230-263)