Archive for the ‘Senses’ Category

The Object of Vision

May 4, 2012

The second post in the Frode conversation series.

As visual creatures, we are prone to thinking that sight reveals the world as such. If you are asked to name the attributes of a tiger or a cup, you will most likely name its visual features Рlarge, yellow with stripes, handled etc. Touch and audition come second: you might have a good idea of what a tiger sounds like and what it feels like to hold a cup, but nevertheless, it seems as if touch and hearing reveal properties of objects while sight reveals the object itself.  Even within vision, shape takes precedence over texture and color as the revealer of the essence of the object.

When I was a college student, I would recognize my roommate’s imminent entry through the sound that his slippers used to make, but I never confused the sound for the person himself. It would almost be like confusing the signature of a person on a sheet of paper for the person himself. Vision on the other hand isn’t experienced as a signature. When I see someone, I see her, not a vision of something that looks like her. Touch is like vision in that when we touch something we are touching it, not doing something that feels like touching the object. The difference between a signature and the object distinguishes our experience of vision and touch (and to a lesser extent, taste) from hearing and smell. Touch and vision are also experienced as exterior to the self, while sounds and smells are as much interior as exterior. One can get lost in the interior landscape of a song or a poem, but once you open your eyes, you are bound to see the world out there.

Both our experience of the objective world and our ideas of the objective world are affected by our tacit reliance on vision. There is a danger here though: if our ideas of objectivity and external reality are really projections of our experience of vision, we run the risk of over-generalization. A dog is perhaps (if at all that comparison makes sense) as good at smelling as we are at seeing. Isn’t it possible that vision and smell are inverted in their objectivity as far as dogs and humans are concerned? If so, what would a dog think as objective?

By focusing on a visual experience driven concept of objectivity, we run the risk of being shut out of the sensoriums of other species. It is not that I cannot know what it is like to be a bat per se, but that if we “to-know” means to know something in the way that vision reveals it to us, then of course, we cannot know what it is like to be a bat. However, if we relax our ideas of knowledge into a wider sensorium, we might be able to enter the bats world after all.