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The Noblest of the Senses: Vision from Plato to Descartes
Except among heretics, all Western metaphysics has been peephole metaphysics.... As through the crenels of a parapet, the subject gazes upon a black sky in which the star of the idea, or of Being, is said to rise.
Theodor W. Adorno
The eyes are the organic prototype of philosophy. Their enigma is that they not only can see but are also able to see themselves seeing. This gives them a prominence among the body's cognitive organs. A good part of philosophical thinking is actually only eye reflex, eye dialectic, seeing-oneself-see.
All the management of our lives depends on the senses, and since that of sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest of these, there is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be.
"Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible; and not less clear—wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor—are the feelings and thoughts of the persons involved." So Erich Auerbach described the world of Homeric Greece in the celebrated opening chapter, "Odysseus' Scar," of his classic study of literary realism, Mimesis. In the dominant reading of Greek culture that has so influenced the West, this assumption of the Hellenic affinity for the visible has enjoyed widespread popularity. Hans Blumenberg, for example, expresses a typical judgment when he writes, "The light in which the landscape and things that surrounded the life of the Greeks stood gave to everything a clarity and (in terms of optics alone) unquestionable presence that left room for doubt regarding the accessibility of nature to man only late and only as a result of thought's experience with itself." Although there have been dissenting voices—William Ivins's was the most persistent—it is generally agreed that classical Greece privileged sight over the other senses, a judgment lent special weight by the contrast often posited with its more verbally oriented Hebraic competitor.
There is, in fact, ample warrant for this generalization in Greek art, religion, and philosophy. Even linguistic evidence has been adduced to show that the scattered verbs employed during the Homeric period to designate aspects of visual practice coalesced into only a few during the classical era, suggesting an essentializing of vision itself. The Greek gods were visibly manifest to humankind, which was encouraged to depict them in plastic form. They were also conceived as avid spectators of human actions, as well as willing to provide the occasional spectacle themselves. The perfection of idealized visible form in the Greeks' art accorded well with their love of theatrical performance. The word theater, as has often been remarked, shares the same root as the word theory, theoria, which meant to look at attentively, to behold. So too does theorem, which has allowed some commentators to emphasize the privileging of vision in Greek mathematics, with its geometric emphasis. The importance of optics in Greek science has also been adduced to illustrate its partiality for sight. Even the Greek idealization of the nude body, in contrast with the Hebrew stress on clothing, has seemed consonant with a bias for visual clarity and transparency.
But nowhere has the visual seemed so dominant as in that remarkable Greek invention called philosophy. Here the contemplation of the visible heavens, praised by Anaxagoras as the means to human fulfillment, was extended to become the philosophical wonder at all that was on view. Truth, it was assumed, could be as "naked" as the undraped body. "Knowledge (eidenai) is the state of having seen," Bruno Snell notes of Greek epistemology, "and the Nous is the mind in its capacity as an absorber of images."
In a seminal essay entitled "The Nobility of Sight," Hans Jonas has outlined the implications of this visual bias both for Greek thought and for the subsequent history of Western philosophy. Because of their favoring vision, a number of its apparent inclinations influenced Greek thinking. Sight, he contends, is preeminently the sense of simultaneity, capable of surveying a wide visual field at one moment. Intrinsically less temporal than other senses such as hearing or touch, it thus tends to elevate static Being over dynamic Becoming, fixed essences over ephemeral appearances. Greek philosophy from Parmenides through Plato accordingly emphasized an unchanging and eternal presence. "The very contrast between eternity and temporality," Jonas claims, "rests upon an idealization of 'present' experienced visually as the holder of stable contents as against the fleeting succession of nonvisual sensation." Zeno's paradox, which so perplexed Greek thought, shows how beholden it was to a detemporalized notion of reality (a central target, as we will see, of the French antiocularcentric discourse that began with Bergson's critique of Zeno). Greek science, which was crowned by optics, was also incapable of dealing successfully with motion, in particular with the problem of acceleration. Its understanding of vision was itself basically reduced to the geometry of light rays in Euclidean terms.
Jonas's second contention is that the externality of sight allows the observer to avoid direct engagement with the object of his gaze. Thus, the very distinction between subject and object and the belief in the neutral apprehension of the latter by the former, a distinction so crucial for much later thought, was abetted by the ocularcentrism of Greek thought. "The gain," Jonas writes, "is the concept of objectivity, of the thing as it is in itself as distinct from the thing as it affects me, and from this distinction arises the whole idea of theoria and theoretical truth." Perhaps lost by this "dynamic neutralization," as Jonas calls it, is a clear sense of causality, because the constitutive link between subject and object is suppressed or forgotten.
Finally, the advantage given sight in the apprehension of great distances, Jonas claims, had several consequences. The Greek idea of infinity was encouraged by contemplating the vast reach of our ocular range. So too the pull of the eye into a distant landscape seemed to grant the viewer the all-important "prospective" capacity for foreknowledge, which was the premise of instrumental and adaptive behavior. Because the Greeks often depicted their seers as blind (Tiresias, for example) and had their oracles deliver verbal rather than pictorial predictions, it would be problematic to contend that they always "saw" the future. But if seeing the open landscape in front of one provided a spatial experience of apprehending what was likely to come next, foresight could be and was translated into temporal terms as well.
To these arguments, other commentators like Eric Havelock and Rudolf Arnheim have added that visual primacy helps account for the Greek penchant for abstraction, its awareness of the dialectic of permanence and change, and even the general supplanting of Mythos by Logos in classical thought. Once the battle against Sophism, which defended rhetoric and the ear, was won, Greek philosophy could elevate a visually defined notion of disinterested, monologic, epistemic truth over mere opinion or doxa. Although the Sophist alternative was never entirely forgotten—indeed it lingers in the very form of Plato's dialogues—its reputation remained low until figures like Lorenzo Valla and Giambattista Vico revived it many centuries later.
The importance of sight is evident throughout Plato's writings. In the Timaeus, for example, he distinguished between the creation of the sense of sight, which he grouped with the creation of human intelligence and the soul, and that of the other senses, which he placed with man's material being. For Plato, truth was embodied in the Eidos or Idea, which was like a visible form blanched of its color. The human eye, he contended, is able to perceive light because it shares a like quality with the source of light, the sun. Here a similar analogy holds between the intellect, which he called "the eye of the mind," and the highest form, the Good. Although at times he was uncertain of our ability to look directly at the sun (or the Good), in The Republic, Plato claimed that the just man can indeed face it squarely and "is able to see what is, not by reflections in water or by fantasms of it in some alien abode, but in and by itself in its own place."
A closer examination of Plato's celebration of sight will, however, correct too one-dimensional an assessment of Greek ocularcentrism. For in his philosophy, "vision" seems to have meant only that of the inner eye of the mind; in fact, Plato often expressed severe reservations about the reliability of the two eyes of normal perception. We see through the eyes, he insisted, not with them. The celebrated myth of the cave, in which the fire is substituted for the sun as the source of a light too blinding to be faced directly, suggests his suspicions of the illusions of sense perception. Ultimately, the prisoners in the cave do escape and find their way into the world, where after an initial dazzlement they can face the sun. But their normal sense perception in the cave is of the fleeting and imperfect shadows cast on its wall. Whatever the implications of this founding myth of Western culture—and we will later encounter criticisms of it by antivisual French feminists like Luce Irigaray—it is clear that it demonstrates Plato's uncertainty about the value of actual sense perception, including vision.
From this distrust followed Plato's notorious hostility to the mimetic arts—most notably painting, which he banned from his utopian state in The Republic. Theater was equally suspect for its fictitious simulation of true action. Of all the arts, only music with its mathematical rather than imitative relationship to the higher realm of forms (a relationship grounded for Plato in Pythagoras's discovery of the numerical nature of musical intervals) was not dangerously deceptive. Thus, the Plato who tells us in the Timaeus that vision is humanity's greatest gift also warns us against the illusions of our imperfect eyes. True philosophers, he insists, are not mere "sight-seers," advice taken very much to heart by later thinkers like Democritus, who was said to have blinded himself in order to "see" with his intellect.
Although one can certainly find a more positive attitude toward the actual eyes in Greek philosophy, most notably in Aristotle's defense of induction and the power of sight to discriminate among more pieces of information than any other sense, it is thus apparent that Greek culture was not as univocally inclined toward celebrating vision as may appear at first glance. Indeed, a certain anxiety about vision's malevolent power is expressed in many of the central Greek myths, most notably those of Narcissus, Orpheus, and Medusa. And the all-seeing Argus, nicknamed Panoptes, is ultimately undone by Pan, whose enchanting music lulls him to sleep. The very appearance of the Gods in anthropomorphic images was, in fact, called into question by one critic, the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Xenophanes. The frequent existence of apotropaic amulets and other devices to disarm the evil eye (which the Greeks called the baskanos opthalmos) also suggests how widespread the fear of being seen existed here as elsewhere.
And yet, having thus demonstrated that the Greek celebration of sight was more equivocal than is sometimes claimed, it must still be acknowledged that Hellenic thought did on the whole privilege the visual over any other sense. Even in its negative guises, its power was evident. Indeed, it might be argued that the very ambiguities that we've noted in Plato's thought were instrumental in elevating the status of the visual in Western culture. For if vision could be construed as either the allegedly pure sight of perfect and immobile forms with "the eye of the mind" or as the impure but immediately experienced sight of the actual two eyes, when one of these alternatives was under attack, the other could be raised in its place. In either case, something called vision could still be accounted the noblest of the senses. As we will note in the case of Cartesian philosophy, it was precisely this creative ambiguity that lay at the origins of modern ocularcentrism.
It was an ambiguity that also had a correlate in the way light itself was conceptualized for a long time in Western thought. Light could be understood according to the model of geometric rays that Greek optics had privileged, those straight lines studied by catoptrics (the science of reflection) or dioptrics (the science of refraction). Here perfect linear form was seen as the essence of illumination, and it existed whether perceived by the human eye or not. Light in this sense became known as lumen. An alternative version of light, known as lux, emphasized instead the actual experience of human sight. Here color, shadow, and movement was accounted as important as form and outline, if not more so.
In the history of painting, as well as optics, these two models of light vied for prominence. This dual concept of light nicely complemented the dual concept of vision, even if they weren't perfectly congruent. What might be called the alternating traditions of speculation with the eye of the mind and observation with the two eyes of the body provided fertile ground for the varieties of ocularcentrism that have so deeply penetrated Western culture. In fact, if we divide them further, we can discern still other opportunities for privileging the visual. Speculation can be construed as the rational perception of clear and distinct forms with the unclouded eye of the mind or as the irrational and ecstatic dazzlement by the blinding light of God, the "vision" of the seer. Here a metaphysics of light could turn into a full-fledged mysticism of light. Observation could be understood as the unmediated assimilation of stimuli from without, the collapse of perception into pure sensation. Or it could be construed as a more complicated interaction of sensations and the shaping or judging capacity of the mind, which provided the Gestalt-like structures that made observation more than a purely passive phenomenon. And within these broad categories, many differentiated variants could proliferate. In all of them, however, something called sight was accorded a fundamental place in our knowledge of the world.
If the Greek ambiguities about speculation and observation and the two types of light created opportunities for ocularcentrism to take root, so too did the complicated relationship between the eye and its object implicit in the idea of theoria. As already noted, commentators like Jonas have emphasized the distancing function of sight in creating the subject/object dualism so typical of Greek and later Western metaphysics. A closer examination of what the Greeks meant by theory suggests a second possible inference that might be drawn. If Plato argued that the eye and the sun are composed of like substances, and the Greeks believed that the eye transmitted as well as received light rays (the theory of extramission), then there was a certain participatory dimension in the visual process, a potential intertwining of viewer and viewed.
Mindful of this possibility, Hans-Georg Gadamer has in fact contended that theoria was not as completely disengaged and spectatorial as was more modern scientific epistemology. Instead, it contained a moment of "sacral communion" beyond mere disinterested contemplation. "Theoria," he argues, "is a true sharing, not something active, but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees. It is from this point that people have tried recently to explain the religious background of the Greek idea of reason." Residues of such reciprocity in the notion of theory may well in fact have persisted until the late Middle Ages, when belief in extramission was finally laid to rest.
From this beginning—which led in a different direction from the more spectatorial tradition stressed by Jonas—arose an especially important strain in the tradition of speculation, which was to be a particular target of the antivisual discourse in twentieth-century France. That strain we might call the argument for specular sameness. The Latin speculatio—along with contemplatio, the translation of theoria—contained within it the same root as speculum and specular, which designate mirroring. Rather than implying the distance between subject and object, the specular tradition in this sense tended to collapse them. As Rodolphe Gasché has argued in The Tain of the Mirror, the reflection of the speculum was potentially an absolute one. That is, speculation could mean the pure knowledge of self-reflection, a mirror reflecting only itself with no remainder. Later in medieval Christianity, the materiality of the human mirror, or the mirror of creation, as it was known, could be subordinated to the divine mirror in which only perfect truth was reflected. Dante in the Paradiso was able to describe his journey as a transition from the speculum inferius of man (the glass through which we see only darkly) to the peculum superius of heavenly illumination. And in the great speculative philosophies of the modern era, most notably nineteenth-century German Idealism, speculation as self-reflection was given a secular expression. As Gasché notes, this process was designed to reveal the same amidst all apparent diversity.
Excerpted from Downcast Eyes by Martin Jay. Copyright © 1993 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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