One of the greatest enigmas of life causes questions like 'what is real and what mere appearance?', 'To what extent does my mind colour or even distort things?' or 'Can the human mind know the truth about life and the cosmos, or only what is subjective and relative?'. Put in the above way, these questions are partly scientific, partly philosophical. Of course, the same issues also arise in many other ways in daily life and in all human communication where it is necessary to distinguish the fact from fantasy, confusion and lies. Our view of perception - that is, how the mind forms impressions and ideas about the world of nature of others and of the self - has far-reaching consequences in almost all spheres of life. It is unavoidable in the understanding of others, society, onseself, the world and the cosmos, and affects us in countless ways, including in healthy development and mental illness, both personal and collective.

The closely-related question of 'projection' includes how and why our inner mental and emotional states tend to colour our perception of what is around us - even perhaps determine what we see, what we perceive it as and how we understand it. A classic poser in psychology is where one may draw the line between subjective imagining and objective reality, or between what the mind 'receives' and what it 'projects'. These questions are not always raised, being overlooked in favour of a common sense viewpoint... which is really only to stick to the beliefs and opinions conformed to in one's society. Anyone who has had a hallucinatory fever or has experienced the effects of powerful hallucinogens knows that common sense is insufficient. Under such influences, our perception of reality can literally change entirely and the senses can lie most thoroughly about appearances. Stage demonstrations of hypnosis show the same. No psychological or other scientific theory today succeeds fully in explaining these awkward facts. The closest science-based psychology comes is in its various ideas of perceptional or emotional 'projection'.

How one approaches the whole subject depends, as in all matters of knowledge, upon the fundamental assumptions one makes. How individual consciousness and the mind partake in the perceptional forming of matter is a basic thesis of any higher psychology.1

The idea of 'projection' - that the mind is not merely a passive receptor but is also active in forming perceived reality, originated in early Greek philosophy and was first adapted to psychology by Freud and later by Wilhelm Wundt and others in the psychological study of perception. Philosophers have often attempted to reach an overall theory of the mind's operations and to make complete general categories of every type of perception and judgement of which the human is capable, yet none have succeeded in giving a rational explanation of the whole subject nor in gaining general acceptance.2 In this chapter, however, I deal broadly with psychological, rather than metaphysical, aspects of perception.


The main mass of ideas circulating in any time and place, especially those of laymen, can be shown to result almost entirely from educated thought in preceding decades and centuries of the particular culture. The general conception of what and how we Westerners perceive reality is rooted mainly in theological debates of the Middle Ages, itself much influenced by earlier Greek philosophy. Throughout these periods ran two main viewpoints on the nature and origin of human thought and ideas (realism and idealism), which conflicted with one another and modified each other in the process. These led to the opposing views of empiricism vs. rationalism. Realism and empiricism, because of the many technological advantages they have produced, became highly predominant in modern Western thought. Consequently, most Westerners have believed - many may still do so - that what we can observe with our senses exists 'objectively' just as it appears. This is a naive kind of realism.

Naive realism further holds the 'common sense' idea that only 'seeing is believing' or, rather, nothing but what we can sense exists. However, this takes no account of the role of the interpreting mind and the facts of atomic physics whereby wah we 'see' is not at all a direct apprehension of the external object. Scientific psychology has been heavily based on 'sense empiricism', which in its strictly consistent form accepts nothing but physical evidence independent of the subjective element. This made the study of mental or psychic phenomena a problem and hence distorted our view of them through trying always to 'reduce' them somehow to physical facts. As philosophy, this approach does not stand up at all; it is a limited kind of naturalistic realism which excludes the whole life of the human mind and spirit for what it is in our actual experience.

Realism further holds that all ideas, come from sense perception of physical events and the most complex and sublime ideas are but constructed from simpler impressions. This naive scientific 'realism' cannot demonstrate this, nor prove it by any consistent arguments... it is all an assumption. Yet science denies that ideas - such as ethical and spiritual intuitions - can in any way be inspired by a higher or transcendental source. Obviously, many or most ideas do arise from sensory impulses, but it cannot be proven or shown empirically that the mind is 'as a blank tablet' at birth (tabula rasa). There is no decisive reason for rejecting the possibility of various kinds of inborn idea or mental structure, latent pre-natal thoughts or reincarnational memories. To do so would be to adopt a fundamentally unscientific approach. In short, the world is more than it seems to be.

What is a viable alternative to naive empiricist naturalism? Firstly, to preserve the advantages of a scientific approach, modern scientific psychology struggles toward room for an expanded approach to include specifically qualitative human experiences just as they appear to us (phenomenologically). Unless one starts from personal experience, endless unsolvable difficulties later arise when trying to distinguish our outward perceptions from inner perceptions and conceptions and to account for how they are related to one another. If we are to deal with intrinsically psychic phenomena in addition to physical phenomena, whatever we experience, outwardly and inwardly, must be included at the starting point. Only thus can we develop a true understanding of reality.

Whatever is experienced, whether it comes via sense organs, is intuited or created in the mind, is called a 'phenomenon'3 or appearance. The philosophical tradition that studies in this direct and immediate internal (i.e. subjective) way is called 'phenomenology'.

Immediate Perception: Our immediate thoughts arise spontaneously and effortlessly, whether they are stimulated from an outward source in the environment or issue from inward conceptions like sudden ideas, abstract thoughts, willed remembering and so on. In a sense we cannot say quite how or from where our thoughts come to us when they arise freely and with immediacy at will.

Some thoughts are composed of direct perceptions of what takes place within our sensory range, others are indirect perceptions and conceptions deriving from previous experience, anticipations or any combinations of these arrived at in a great variety of ways. Some images appear to arise in the mind without basis in any previous experience, such as in dreams and other comparable or unusual states of mind.

The mental process that forms indirect thoughts is, at one point or another, a process of abstraction from experience. This process involves translating something perceived (through one or more sensory organs) into a mental presentation...say a mental picture, a word or some other conceptual symbol. Our mental apparatus draws upon its accumulated (subjective) funds of imagery, symbolism and language in conceiving and expressing our experiences in general terms.


It is well-established, not least in scientific psychology, that the conscious mind invariably both selects and forms or 'structures' whatever is perceived, usually also at a very basic level. A certain kind of bang is 'heard as' a car backfiring, while it may instead have been a gunshot or a firework. Or vice-versa, depending on the person's mind-set. More fundamentally, our senses tend to 'fill in' much of what is not actually seen, such as the backs of cubes seen only from the front and so on. Even the visible dimensions of space and perspective or the duration and passage of time are subjective perceptions. At least since Kant, this has been widely considered important or crucial in most processes of perception, the interpretation of sensory impressions and knowing anything at all.

Perception is very largely 'learned', through coming to interpret the surroundings as those around us do. Even at this level, there are great differences between persons and between societies. One gradually learns the structure corresponding to, on the one hand, any observable entity and on the other, the words that connote it and the explanations surrounding how it is commonly perceived to be. The structures are existent entities (Köhler's name was Gestalt) perceived as 'segregated wholes' having form and properties. For example, a tree is usually seen as one whole entity, not as a mass of separate leaves, twigs, trunk, roots etc and a car is perceived as a single vehicle rather than as a conglomeration of its many parts, a symphony is perceived as one Gestalt, not as a mix of many notes and parts. After an initial period of learning, most social perception occurs 'unconsciously' in at least two of our previously defined senses (as 'subconscious perception' and in 'unreflected learned' perceptual behaviour).

In addition to physical entities as 'wholes', we can also perceive - or more properly said 'conceive' - ideas, emotions and various other mental entities, both simple and composite. Such 'inner objects' and their characteristics, qualities and all the other aspects of mental phenomena are often also identified through language, if not always learned through it. A person learning to paint a nature scene has to learn actually to see what colours are there, rather than what are thought to be there from conventional ideas of what colours things have.

Psychological researches have also shown beyond doubt that even the identification of ordinary physical objects is strongly influenced by a range of 'subjective factors', such as observers' physiological conditions, different previous acquaintance, different ideas of interpretation and so forth. Hunger and thirst influence what a person may see, strong desires and ambitions affect the perceived nature and qualities of what one notices.

Since this 'projective' aspect of perception is unavoidable even at the basic physiological level, it is evident what an important role it plays at the more subtle levels of identification of relative abstractions like feelings and of interpretation of meanings of words. Then again, where more complicated forms of understanding are called for - for example, in understanding the life situation of another person or the deeper nature of a foreign society or culture - it should be clear that the role of 'subjective projection' becomes much more decisive for understanding or deeper comprehension.

Edward de Bono defined his coined term ‘Lateral thinking’: It “is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces. Lateral thinking is concerned with the perceptional and interpretational part of thinking. This is where we organise the external world into the sensory pieces we can then ‘process’ (i.e. interpret, make some sense of).”

Apperception: The process of abstracting meaning from experience, at its most common level, is sometimes called apperception. An apperception is 'interpretative observation'4 . What is perceived by the sense organs 'makes no sense' until it is interpreted so as to be coherent with some relevant experiences. Thus it is apperceived, which is to say that the mind relates the perception to other perceptions and ideas so that it becomes significant. The act of apperception is itself not normally one of which we are directly aware as such, for it becomes so habitual as to be virtually automatic. We apprehend the things of space-time in direct perception, but the more adult we become, the more perceptions tend to be guided and formed through apperception, which is based on the mind's store of earlier perceptions and learned experiences.

Not only direct sensory data are involved, for mentally conceiving, imagining and even dreaming provide materials that can be objects for our conscious scrutiny and apperception. Most of what we know about the world in general is not acquired by personal observation but through indirect perceptions, through the testimony of others, which comes to us in a very wide variety of more or less explicit forms. Many or most of our ideas are based on such vicarious or secondary information, and these are what make apperception possible. Having 'apperceived' on the basis of our own observations, we can go on to abstract ideas or 'generalise' from such apperceptions as well as from secondary sources, such as reports and testimonies, hearsay and even 'imagined facts'. In this way, the mind tends soon to go well beyond personal experience and often to detach itself from its immediate environment.

The mind can sort through, recombine and thus reflect upon its store of mental contents, including emotions. These mental contents are real, in the sense that they somehow are there. The mind does not experience mental 'objects', dream figments and material objects as having the same nature (i.e. degree of corporeality, substantiality etc.), but all appear equally before the mind as the 'objects' of which it is the subject. For example, 'unicorns' are objects to the mind when it is imagining. A feeling of enjoyment likewise. Everything that the mind can take as its objects is called 'phenomena' or 'appearances'.

Selectivity in perception and thought: The virtual infinitude of events that occur, taking place through unimaginable lengths of time - and presently on a globe with over 6 billion individual persons - necessitate that we select some for our attention and interest - relatively very few - and ignore all others. Firstly, one cannot direct one's attention in every possible direction, even in the course of a lifetime. One cannot pursue every profession, every science and religion etc. The mind must be expected to develop in relation to whatever it is mainly concentrated on.

In the more immediate term, this selectivity also occurs at the most basic perceptual level, as well as at the subsequent mental level. Selectivity can also be conditioned by forgotten perceptions or emotions, having become so habitual as not to be available to memory or reflection (see later when subconscious functions are discussed).

Our senses appear to select some 'data' and reject others. Through early learning and habit we perceive certain impressions as significant, while others are as if not perceived at all. For example, the senses can appear to fail even to register accustomed sounds that require no response, like the noise of a passing underground train or the barking of a dog. At a higher level of mental structuring, we decide to accept or reject a thought, say some perceived information, because it is not of interest to our present concern or not relevant to our mental scheme. For example, when looking for a word in the dictionary, one's eye falls on other miscellaneous words which one notices 'at a glance' are of no relevance.

The main difficulty lies in the extent to which the mind is active or 'contributes' subjectively in perception. This is close to the question as to how far perception is an involuntary fact or a voluntary act.

Unable to direct our attention at everything within our environment, the discursive mind usually either follows habit in its selections or decides consciously and autonomously in that we choose what to perceive, notice and pay further attention to. An important factor in mental motivation is the influence of primary needs and secondary desires on the nature of perception.

The ways in which we mentally structure our experiences and develop our interests are therefore manifold. Some ways are inclusive of more aspects than others, some offer possibilities that are excluded by others. Different starting points or root assumptions can account for varied orders of phenomena. For example, a person for whom emotion is the most important aspect of experience will probably remember differently and associate otherwise than one who is chiefly intellectual and conceptual of habit. Obviously, there are many types of mind structures involved; which emotions are most significant usually vary with personality, age, culture and so on while the starting axioms of intellectuals can differ enormously and even perhaps be in direct contradiction to one another.

Perception is in various respects the primary mental process. The mind is the end-station of sense perceptions, through which medium the mind receives much, yet not all, of its 'working materials'. According to most of the greatest of the world's thinkers, writers, inventors and scientific 'revolutionaries', direct intuition somehow as if from within the mind is a source of perception. Other very little understood kinds of perceptions are extra-sensory, such as telepathic impressions, para-normal communications and spiritual intuitions from unknown sources apparently beyond time and space. The world-wide historical and contemporary evidence that these take place is literally massive, despite rigid scepticism and avoidance of the evidence by hard-line scientists.


There are a considerable variety of standpoints on what I characterise here as the 'reception-projection dilemma', for example:-

1) The mind under normal conditions perceives always only what is 'given' objectively from something other than itself. This simple and naive 'realist' view of the act of perceiving assumes the perceiver is as passive as is a photographic plate, one who does not 'project' anything subjective in the attempt to perceive, interpret and understand. This is 'the mind is but a camera' analogy. (Realism or 'Naive naturalism' as in experimental physio-psychology and simple behaviourism)

2) The mind perceives what it is given objectively, but always and only with the aid of a 'subjective' form or 'projection' The analogy of 'always seeing through coloured glasses' applies here. (Kantian Criticism and Perceptual Constructivism)

3) The (adult) mind very largely selects and rejects data (whether consciously or habitually) according to the mind-set and/or the environmental setting. Perhaps the analogy of 'twiddling the radio knobs to find what one wants' is most relevant.(Perceptual Relativism - also Wertheimer's Gestalt psychology)

4) The mind perceives always and only 'phenomena', i.e. whatever appears to it, which phenomena themselves include data on their origin as subjective, objective or combinations of these. The closest analogy is that of the mirror, where the mind sees both itself and its superimposition on the surrounding background. (Phenomenology, Phenomenalism). This can be tagged the 'mind-observer' approach.

5) The mind not only structures reality but actually creates it both at the conscious conceptual level and at the most basic perceptual level, usually either subconsciously or without any consciousness of the process. The conscious mind thus perceives what mind itself 'projects'. In this view, 'reality' is presumed ultimately to be incorporeal, such as consciousness is experienced to be. (Berkeley's 'idealism', Paul Brunton's 'mentalism', various spiritual ontologies including Vedantic Brahmanism).

6) The mind co-creates reality, which nonetheless transcends its separate, experienced appearances. Operating through the body, the mind transforms (a very limited) sphere of physical reality, especially through collective efforts. But this transformation is of course limited to a re-forming of matter. This may for convenience be name the 'sequential interaction' approach, where matter takes precedence in the forming of mind, but the mind also has limited control over the forming of matter.

The above positions each express some insight having a relevant sphere of application. As with other theories, each approach articulates at different levels - and corresponds to - varied phases of psychic refinement. Diverse modifications and partial permutations of them also occur. Some general theory of projection is unavoidable in accounting for the human act of knowing in one way or another in practically all transcendental (i.e. Neo-Kantian) and critical philosophy, as well as in phenomenological and hermaneutical philosophy. The degree of philosophic generality in each of them also probably corresponds more or less to progressive levels of realisation of the nature of self, world and being.

Having briefly outlined these approaches it remains to say that the present theory of psyche need not reject any of them definitively, for each has further interpretations, so that there can be grounds for preferring the one for some purposes and another elsewhere.


Projection has a mechanical analogy; a film projector which imposes its internal images from within itself onto an outside screen. Sigmund Freud applied such an idea of 'projection' in trying to analyse the origins of mental and/or emotional derangement. Though some of Freud's theories have become irretrievably discredited, the essence of his basic idea of projection has shown itself to be fruitful and has stood the test of time.

A strong emotional drive is the element that makes Freud's emotional-mental projection different from general and normal perceptional 'projection', whereby one perceives and understands others precisely by the aid of self-understanding.

Freud saw projection as an involuntary process motivated by emotions wherein a person imposes a subjective feeling or a thought on another person or situation. Patients were also unaware of 'projecting' or how and why they did it. The quality or feeling projected or transferred onto another, moreover, pertains instead to the psyche of the projecting one. There was always an emotional need or frustrated feelings involved in such 'emotional-mental' projection. Imposing subjective feelings or thoughts onto objective events was therefore regarded as 'unconscious projection'.

Freud was concerned mostly with those projections that proved problematical for his patients. These usually, but not always, involved antipathetic feelings and negative thoughts about others. When unconscious and distorting in nature, projection becomes the tendency irrelevantly to transfer feelings and thoughts towards one person or group to others with some similar trait or characteristic. This is seen in the irrational blanket reactions people all too often have against all members of a group when only a few are blameworthy. The persecution of immigrants, foreigners, national or religious minorities are invariably based on projections which may well be considered as mass mental derangement, even though it is not a debilitating mental disorder for the persecutors themselves.

Wrongly to put the blame for something caused by oneself on another person may be a projection, conveniently overlooking the 'film-strip' to concentrate instead on what appears 'on the screen' of the world, so to speak. The events in the drama that unfolds are looked on rather as if they were a film in whose making one has no part whatever oneself. But a film makes no sense without a watcher. There are many involved and subtle ways in which one can deceive oneself as to one's own part in events, one's own responsibility both for what actually came about and also for how this affects oneself.

Only compulsive and/or distorting projections are problematical; those which contribute to or cause psychological suffering and behavioural disturbances. These are regarded as being a form of 'defence mechanism', being at bottom a means of psychological protection of the conscious ego from unwanted and threatening feelings or thoughts. In 'projecting', the subject subconsciously transfers a felt threat from within himself to some other person, group or entity.

This 'projection' of primary feelings, particularly the transfer of feelings about one's mother and father to other women and men, was first studied and employed in therapy by Freud and his many followers. According to this, females who have some traits in common with the mother are perceived through the medium of a 'mother-figure', which is 'recognised', whether emotionally or also cognitively. The same applies with the father, one's original model or 'archetype' for relating to men, which forms the basis for any projections that arise, usually towards older men.

This may appear somewhat peculiar until one reflects over the fact that most of our understanding of any phenomena whatever, takes its start from notions generated and developed from our own experiences. Understanding of others is continually based on our experiences of ourselves and what we have learned from it. Our self-understanding is usually not at all a conscious model, but is spontaneously present at the core of our identity as we live it out. The mind reaches out beyond itself, using as its base its present ideas and mental dies in the encounter with the world.


Not all projection is a psychological error, disturbance or neurosis. If one accepts the view that perception always necessarily involves a subjective element, then projection is an unavoidable fact of life, a normal process. There can be 'positive projection' in the shape of a judicious (but not uncritical) 'wearing of rose-coloured glasses', the attempt to seek the best interpretation one can, for example to look for as favourable an interpretation of another person's otherwise doubtful or negative doubtful behaviour and the causes or motives behind it, while not forgetting the facts of the matter which may speak otherwise. To adopt other kinds of forward-looking and high-minded outlook one should be consciously aware that it is a projection, not (yet) a reality, for there is also a subconscious kind which arises and can involve naiviety, gullibility or else unfulfilled subconscious desires in the perceiver. This represents lack of touch with reality and obviously often leads to disappointment. Where positive projection is excessive, it can develop into an outright cognitive-emotional disorder.

Since mental projection of various sorts, degrees and extents is therefore a component of all perception and understanding, it becomes very difficult in practice to draw a line between projection that is fully conscious and unconscious, that is between psychologically normal and abnormal projection. This being so, the question of sanity or madness becomes much less cut-and-dried than once believed. It is widely agreed that we form certain basic and individually differing mental-emotional structures early in life in relation to the mother and the father. For example, we have C.G. Jung's idea of the female and male 'archetypes' (anima and animus), which function much as do ideal models, like inner references against which we interpret subsequent experiences having to do with gender. Archetypes underlie much of our feeling and thought and serve as subconscious references against which we interpret and more or less integrate subsequent experiences having to do with many matters. This itself shows that projection is a 'normal' function in that it is actually unavoidable in some shape or form.

Evidently, projection can be 'unconscious' (rather, 'subconscious') in each of the main senses I have distinguished under that heading earlier. The practising psychological therapist can benefit from awareness of these various modes of the psyche's projective proclivities and of their particular expressions throughout a wide range of instances or circumstances. The literature of psychology deals mostly with projection arising from what I term 'repressed self-experience'. A major source for examining the tremendous variety of ways in which projection arises, however, must be the classics of world literature and serious drama, which contain a plethora of studies in other forms of 'unconscious behaviour' of human feelings and ideas of every sort.

One key aim of psychology in therapy is to enable people to become aware of their projections in the interests of their own self-transformation. Only when one gains insight into one's own psyche can one understand others, because we tend, from early in life, to understand, sympathise with and judge others on the basis of our own experience. In the first and last instance we have only ourselves to start from and return to in integrating our understanding of our fellow men and the world. Thus, we tend frequently and quite naturally to 'project' what we know of ourselves onto others in the attempt to widen our appreciation of them. This is also partly why 'Know Thyself' is considered the deepest key to all understanding. Knowing oneself fully requires the successive penetration of one's own projections, whether subconsciously learned, unrecognised or repressed and to whatever these apply (eg. from persons, genders, age-groups, professions, cultures, races, age-groups and so on to objects, events, animals, nature, all kinds of ideas, relationships, beliefs and so forth).

Added to this is the fact that projection plays an important role in various therapies that can be said to reprogramme the mind so as to overcome compulsions, phobias and many other problems rooted in mental attitudes. Projection also underlies various popular ideas about 'positive thinking'.

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1. A generalised 'theory of projection' is unavoidable in accounting for the human act of knowing in one way or another in practically all transcendental (i.e. Neo-Kantian) and critical philosophy, as well as in phenomenological and hermaneutical philosophy. The Goethian conception of Gestalt as developed by the German psychologist Köhler and followed up by Wittgenstein in his later work, helps dissolve various problems of understanding surrounding the nature of perception and interpretation. The theory of 'mentalism' (as forwarded by Dr. Paul Brunton in The Hidden Teachings of Yoga) is perhaps among those most capable of explaining well-know paradoxical perceptional phenomena, it being a Westernised 'mentalism'- a version of Indian Vedantic psychology, which holds that a universal consciousness (or cosmic mind) creates and forms matter, though this is purely rational speculation without any genuine scientific evidence to support it..

2. European transcendental philosophy grappled with the problem (Kant etc.) but was restrained by reason from endorsing mentalism. The more sophisticated analytical psychology, as represented by the French psychological theorist, Lacan, distinguishes between the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The only direct 'objective' influence on the human being is seen by Lacan as 'reality', which impinges on the individual, who registers reality either in terms of the symbolic sphere or the imaginary sphere. This helps explain how, by confusion between these three in thought, 'reality' can be understood in fundamentally different ways. But it is not complete and therefore can be misleading too. Its incompleteness is due to its being dependent on scientific discovery which is far from complete. (It endorses philosophic physicalism as opposed to mentalism).

3. What is perceived as issuing from the 'external world of space-time' around us - and is traditionally regarded as being 'objective', is termed noesis, and what is perceived as being or coming from within (traditionally 'subjective') is noumena. The term 'phenomena' embraces both these poles of experience. All phenomena are regarded as having 'noumenal' reality.

4. 'Apperception' in the psychological meaning (as distinct from the epistemological) is a process where by experience is assimilated to and transformed by the residuum of past experiences of an individual to form a new whole. Eg: A lump of rock is 'seen', on the basis of previous experience and acquired knowledge, as a source of ore whereby a mining industry can be founded. Its new meaning is 'apperceived'. (Herbart in Psychologie als Wissenschaft Part III. 1. Ch. 5). The term 'apperception' in the epistemological sense, however, is the introspective or reflective apprehension by the mind of its own inner states. (Leibnitz). The same is called 'empirical apperception' by Kant. Beyond this is Kant's 'transcendental apperception' which refers to the pure, original, unchangeable consciousness which is the necessary condition of experience as such and the ultimate foundation of the synthetic unity of experience.