In a famous talk some years ago, the philosopher Mortimer Adler delivered a lovely refutation of the modern fallacy that we never perceive anything in itself, but only perceive our idea of the thing. As he explained, the only thing I ever perceive is the thing, but I perceive it by means of the perception in the intellect. The classical thinkers called this the “intelligible species.” I do not actually perceive the idea at all – in Adler's term, it is "invisible" to me, like a perfect window. If I try to perceive the perception, all I am really doing is constructing a theoretical representation of it, which is neither the perception nor the thing itself. So the moderns have matters exactly backwards.
Pondering this the other day I realized that the fallacy Adler discussed is loosely akin to a variety of other errors that crop up every day. To mention but a few --
1. The mistaken notion that when I say that I cherish the beloved, what I mean is that I cherish the feeling that the beloved gives me.
2. The mistaken notion that the only thing I ever actually desire is pleasure -- not truth but the pleasure of grasping truth, not beauty but the pleasure of beholding beauty, not God but the pleasure of feeling I know God.
3. The mistaken notion that in order to find myself, I must seek and pursue myself, and that this is the main project of human life.
1. The only thing I ever really love is the beloved, and to the degree that I cherish my feelings instead, I am not truly loving her at all. The characteristic expression of love is that you are wonderful, not that I have wonderful feelings.
2. The good is indeed what I desire. Pleasure is merely the mode in which I repose in the experience of it. If I focus on my pleasure instead of the good thing, I am no longer experiencing the thing itself, and so most of the pleasure is destroyed. Thus, I am most joyful, not when I am thinking of my joy, but when I am thinking of the thing that causes me joy.
3. In order to find myself I must lose myself. What I catch, when I seem to catch myself, is not my true self, but only my representation of myself, which may be quite distorted. My true self is most fully actual not when I am pursuing myself, but when I am pursuing the things that a being like me is made to pursue. I am most who I am when I forget myself in the light of what transcends me.