5 September 2006

An Eye that Sees a Sun, A Hand that Feels an Earth

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:15 am

“The world is my representation”: this is a truth valid with reference to every living and knowing being, although man alone can bring it into reflective, abstract consciousness.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Volume 1), 1819

We postmoderns raise one eyebrow condescendingly at Schopenhauer’s first sentence. “How quaint.” It’s hardly worth saying that Schopenhauer was wrong, that what’s in our head bears no direct correspondence to what’s in the world. We fail to credit the inversions and reversions of thought as it winds its convoluted path through time.

“We call a book ‘rectangular,’ not ‘trapezoidal,’ though it projects a trapezoid on the retina. We mold our fingers into a rectangular (not trapezoidal) posture as we reach for it. We build rectangular (not trapezoidal) shelves to hold it, and we deduce that it can support a broken couch by fitting into the rectangular space beneath it. Somewhere in the mind there must be a mental symbol for ‘rectangle,’ delivered by vision but available at once to the rest of the verbal and nonverbal mind.” Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997.

The mind creates a “symbol,” transforming the retinal image into a useful “description” of the object. Part of that description is verbal: “book,” “rectangle,” “pick-uppable with hands,” “line-uppable on horizontal shelves.” The words are signifiers. When we speak the words to one another we can act as if the words weren’t even there, and that we’re talking about the physical objects to which they point. Or we can act as if the physical objects weren’t there, and that we’re talking about the symbols within a self-contained linguistic system. Which perspective is the right one?

Mental descriptions of external objects aren’t just verbal; they’re also perceptual. Other animals make the same transformation from trapezoid to rectangle that we do, without recourse to language. A gerbil will without hesitation climb onto a book as if it “understands” that the book is a solid horizontal surface. Performing mental transformations of objects doesn’t require conscious calculation of mathematical symbols: a wren can snatch a moth right out of the air without having verbal or mathematical symbols for “speed,” “acceleration,” and “trajectory.” Pinker continues:

“The visual system… is contrived to deliver a sense of the true forms and materials in the world. The selective advantage is obvious: animals that know where the food, the predators, and the cliffs are can put the food in their stomachs, keep themselves out of the stomachs of others, and stay on the right side of the clifftop.”

When we dismiss representation as a Platonic abstraction we forget that our cognitive-linguistic minds are built on top of animal brains. The two eyes positioned at the front of our heads give us stereoscopic vision, which in turn makes depth perception possible, which in turn lets us construct mental 3-D representations of 2-D retinal images. Wolves can do it too; so can hawks. Why shouldn’t we build our linguistic systems on top of this more primitive, yet extremely effective, perceptual representation system?

So, when elohim said “Let there be light,” we don’t have to assume that he was making a material representation of an eternal form, like Socrates projecting shadows on the cave wall. Conversely, we don’t have to assert that elohim was creating a purely cognitive-linguistic construct in which the term “light” makes sense only in the context of all the other words in the language system. Instead, when elohim points to the light-emitting object and says “light,” we understand: the word is associated with a mental representation is associated with a retinal image is associated with something that exists in the world. The mental image is there; the word makes sense of the image and makes it conceptually “real.” Yes?

…and another thing… Now that we’ve contemplated the first sentence of Schopenhauer’s book – Volume I, First Book, §1 – here’s the first sentence of §2: “That which knows all things and is known by none is the subject.” Bearing that sentence in mind, I encourage you to scroll down to the first installment of these First Lines posts, the one entitled “We Creators.” The similarity of Nietzsche’s sentence to Schopenhauer’s is no coincidence, inasmuch as Nietzsche began reading Schopenhauer as a 21-year-old philology student.

As always, I call your attention to the Genesis 1 Pages over there at the upper right side of the screen.



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