Orientation and the Vertical

In practical sense experience, the vertical field appears to be the field of the common world in which we find ourselves thrown together with objects. And the horizontal field, by way of contrast, appears to be the field of our experience in this world. We orient ourselves in our horizontal field by orienting ourselves in respect to objects we find in this field, which is itself centered in us. But we orient ourselves in our vertical field by orienting ourselves in respect to the field itself, which is not centered in us; we find ourselves near the ground, near the bottom of the vertical field, in like manner with the objects around us. As active percipients we are, to be sure, at the center of a low-ceilinged practical field of vertical movement. What we must stoop to reach, appears “down;” and what we must stretch or leap to reach, appears “up.” But the point is that this entire practical field of vertical movement is itself perceived to be at the lower end of a downgraded vertical field directed from the heavens to the earth.

Being oriented in respect to the vertical field itself, we can be properly or improperly so oriented. That is, we can be right-side-up or up-side-down in it. The vertical field is the field in which our body direction is oriented. On the other hand, being oriented in respect to objects in our horizontal field but not to the horizontal field itself, it makes no sense to speak of a generally proper or improper horizontal orientation. That is, it makes no sense to speak of our being left-side right or front-side-back. For our orientation in our horizontal field, whatever it may be, is what first gives this field its order; its order must be consonant with our orientation in it. What is to our left is eo ipso the left-hand region of our horizontal field, and so for the other quadrants. The horizontal field of objects is the field of our body direction.

We may be improperly oriented in respect to objects in our horizontal field, not facing them when we should; but we cannot be improperly oriented in respect to our field itself. We may, more- over, be disoriented in respect to some objects in our horizontal field, lacking all sense where they are while still retaining a sense of an ordered horizontal field about us. A disorientation of this sort is the only failure of orientation possible in respect to our horizon- tal field. Any further disorientation involves a disappearance of the field itself; a loss of the sense of its order, not merely a sense of the loss of our right order in respect to it. I may sense that I am upside- down in the vertically ordered field; and I may try to “right” myself, bring myself into an upright, proper and effective orientation in this field. But I can have no corresponding sense of an ordered horizontal field in respect to which my body direction is out of order.

Objects thus appear to be encounterable and determinable only in virtue of our appearing to be thrown together with them, stuck with them for better or worse, in the vertical field of a common world. Active determination of an object in the horizontal field of our experience is our way of accommodating ourselves to it as in the same vertical world-field with it. The particular determination or significance that is effective is the one that meets the requirements of our living with the object in a common vertically ordered world. It is our contribution to actually bestow this significance on the object. But it is the world’s contribution to set the heaven-earth ordered stage on which, and conformably to which, this bestowal is possible.

There is then a phenomenological priority of the world-field—in which we must orient our off-centered selves—over the horizontal field of our self-centered experience in the world. This priority is reflected by the phenomenological priority of balance over poise; that is, the priority of our capacity for proper vertical orientation, in the world, over our capacity for effective orientation toward objects in our horizontal field of experience in the world. Balance in the vertical dimension may exist without poise in respect to circumstantial objects; but poise in respect to circumstantial ob- jects is impossible without balance. Poise is our capacity to cope effectively with circumstantial objects. We first have this capacity in virtue of our ability to stand erect, to balance ourselves in the vertical world-field. The equi-poise of balancing ourselves makes us capable of the directed-poise for responding effectively to our circumstances. Directed poise flows from equi-poise as from a gyroscopic center of our activity. As soon as we lose the central equi- poise of balance, our directed poise issuing from it flies off into an uncontrollable clumsiness. But our central equi-poise need not be lost by withdrawal back into it of all circumstantially directed poise. Our capacity to stand up21 normally gives us the capacity to act; but not vice versa. An effective poise or stance is an effective balanced poise. But good balance is not a well-balanced poise (in respect to something in our circumstances). (Samuel Todes)


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