Aristotle says that sight is the most philosophical sense. Of the five senses, it most resembles our capacity to know. We naturally desire both to see and to know. Indeed, knowing is an intellectual seeing. Of course, “I see” can mean “I understand.” Plato calls the highest kind of knowing noesis, typically translated into English as insight. Noesis is the mind’s direct apprehension of changeless truths; through it, the mind sees what is true. It differs from discursive thinking, dianoia, which is analytical and explanatory. There’s nothing wrong with explanation; it can be tremendously valuable to be able to explain something, such as how a car engine works or how a valid argument is constructed. Nonetheless, discursive knowledge isn’t complete knowing; it isn’t the highest form of human thought.
Discursive knowledge is as human as insight. If we were only capable of insight, we would, I presume, be purely spiritual beings rather than the beings we are, namely, humans with bodies and souls. Unmediated insight is not aligned with our nature. By contrast, if we were only capable of discursive thinking, we would be sophisticated robots or animated counting machines. We can and should do both, and should delight in the knowledge we can attain with either dimension of our thinking, but we are more fully ourselves when we see the highest truths.
For Plato, the path to insight passes through more basic kinds of seeing: imagination and eyesight. Before I can know, I need to see images and physical things that will direct me towards the truth. To know what a triangle is, for instance, I need to see one first. The teacher can’t draw a circle, tell me about triangles, and then expect me to understand triangles. He should first give me a visual representation, however imperfect it may be, of a triangle. This drawing allows me to imagine a triangle whenever I think of one, which helps me to know what a triangle really is. A triangle itself isn’t the sketch of one, but the drawing directs my thinking towards the conceptual truth of a triangle. I see with my eyes before I see with my mind’s eye. We are all visual learners of a sort. If we learn thoroughly, we don’t stop with the picture, but we do well to start with it.
Seeing is not entirely passive. To be sure, my eyes receive impressions from the external world. I see by receiving, shall we say, sense data. But sight is not just receptive. My visual experience of the world isn’t reducible to the bits of information my eyes receive: the colors, the shapes, and the textures. If it were so reduced, everyone with properly functioning eyes would see the same way, but we don’t, even though our eyes are pointed at the selfsame world. I rarely see that my wife got her hair cut, but I can see that she’s had a bad day. I have a friend who can see when a single hair is out of place on someone’s head and gladly points it out (without a hint a malice, to be fair), but struggles to see that his pointing this out upsets some people. He and I see the same external world, but we don’t see the same things in the same way. We can see better or worse—not just physiologically—more or less acutely.
Despite these differences in seeing, if we bother to look and bother to compare what we see to what others report seeing, we should come to the correct conclusion that we’re actually looking at the same thing: the same stable world. My perspective is mine; it is in that sense subjective. But it is a perspective of the world—of something that has certain given properties that I can see or not. The world is out there; my looking at it is located in me. My looking is subjective; the thing looked at, objective. Indeed, the diversity of our seeing depends on the world’s objective stability. Our seeing isn’t random; it may be differently focused, but it is always aimed at and measured against the actual world. We can only see differently or disagree about what we see if there’s something to see in the first place. This realization might then help us better orient our seeing, to direct it at the world and get closer to seeing it as it truly is.
When There Is Too Much To See
In “Learning How to See Again,” Josef Pieper writes: “Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” Pieper here isn’t merely referring to intellectual seeing, though ultimately his point turns to it. Rather, he means literal seeing: our visual apprehension of the physical world is getting worse. People don’t see well anymore because they don’t look. He describes his experience sailing back to Germany from Canada: “At table I had mentioned those magnificent fluorescent sea creatures whirled up to the surface by the hundreds in our ship’s bow wake. The next day it was casually mentioned that ‘last night there was nothing to be seen.’ Indeed, for nobody had the patience to let the eyes adapt to the darkness. To repeat, then: man’s ability to see is in decline.” Why didn’t Pieper’s fellow passengers see the fluorescent sea creatures? Pieper’s answer is simple and profound: “there is too much to see!”
There is, indeed, too much to see today, even more than in Pieper’s day—and too much to hear, smell, touch, and taste. Many of us are what Socrates in the Republic calls lovers of sights and sounds. We want to see as much as possible. And to see more requires we find ever new things to look at. The more and the newer, the better. If you’ve already seen something, you don’t need to see it again. Why watch a movie you’ve watched before, if there’s one you haven’t yet seen? And, in case the sights and sounds of the movie aren’t enough to satisfy you, why not buy a few pounds of popcorn and a gallon of soda to wash it down? Why visit a place you’ve seen, when you can visit a new one—preferably one with unusual food, strong drink, and “cultural” events you can’t see anywhere else? You might even tire of seeing your husband or wife; why not look for a new one of those, too, while you’re at it? The world has become a giant spectacle and we are its greedy spectators and consumers.
Socrates contrasts the lovers of sights and sounds with the lovers of the sight of truth—the philosophers. By philosopher, he doesn’t mean the person who has been trained in philosophical analysis and has mastered the use of philosophical terminology. If he were still around, I’m quite sure Socrates wouldn’t consider a university degree in philosophy to be a condition of philosophizing; he might even see it as an impediment. The philosopher is not the clever person with expert analytical or explanatory training; the philosopher is the lover of the sight of truth, the person who strives to see—to gain insight of—the fundamental truths of all existence. In this sense, the Apostles were more philosophical than is the professor of philosophy, no matter how well published the latter might be. They (most of them, at any rate) loved the Truth, and loved to see and hear God. The professional philosopher may or may not love seeing the truth, but if he does love it, it is not as a necessary consequence of his academic pursuits. The genuine philosopher eschews seeing too much. He wants only to see rightly. If he watches a movie, he prefers quality over novelty; if there is a place beautiful enough to see, he will visit it over and over again, even if that place happens to be his backyard; and he continues to gladly see his wife because in her he can see the depth, beauty, and mystery of the human being at least as fully as he would elsewhere.
When We Fail to See What Is True
What happens to our minds, and to our thinking, when our capacity to see declines, when our eyes see the wrong things and do not see the right things, when we adore sights rather than the sight of truth, or when we pursue novel sights rather than worthwhile ones? When we see too much, and thus don’t see well enough, our thinking invariably falters; it declines along with our ability to see in at least two possible ways.
First, we might become enamored of the things we see, caring for nothing but the visible world. Of course, the whole created world is good, and what can be seen is worth apprehending. To be sure, there’s much in it that lacks goodness, but the world is good in itself and as a whole. However, the goodness of the material world is subtended by a higher and more perfect goodness, certainly by the highest good, namely God, but also by his subsidiary truths that cannot be reduced to matter in motion, nor to something we can see with our eyes: justice, beauty, love. The first risk of seeing too much is a kind of materialism that draws us away from God, from the life of the mind, and thus from virtue, happiness, and blessedness.
Second, we might not close ourselves to non-material things, but we might be misdirected by the multitude of things seen and come to value and pursue apparent goods that are actual evils. Of course, pornographic, violent, and otherwise immoral images are not worth seeing, but even worse is that they have a devastating influence on viewers’ lives, including their thinking. It is bad enough to act badly, but it is even worse to believe it to be good. This is the second danger of seeing too much, at least today. If we see evil celebrated over and over again, especially from our youth, we don’t only risk indulging in evil, but we might come to praise it.
Pieper suggests that we should practice art. By producing artworks of our own, we sharpen our ability to see. This sounds roughly right to me, though what passes as art today only adds to the excess of things seen, and much of it to my mind would not serve as a useful model for our artistic pursuits or have any salutary effect on our capacity to see. This is to say, one might not know today where to start to make art that would also sharpen one’s eyesight. Maybe the sounder first step is to stop. Turn off the television; avoid as much as possible all sources of advertising; shut down the computer when you’re done with productive tasks; limit social media—I’d prefer everyone just quit it, but that might be asking too much; stop taking photographs—particularly of yourself (what a tragedy that there’s now a word, which is nowise ironic, to express this new kind of narcissism!)—instead of looking attentively at what’s right in front of you.
Instead, read a book; read the Book; talk to your family, face to face; go for a walk and behold the beauty of the roses you should already be stopping to smell. I know this is trite advice and mostly obvious, but in times of crisis, the obvious might be the best way back to common sense. By limiting, if not eliminating, the frantic images to which we are exposed in the contemporary world, we might sharpen our eyesight enough to not make the error of Pieper’s fellow travelers and shamefully report that there was nothing to see. There’s plenty to see, and plenty worth seeing, if only we will look. As our eyesight sharpens, perhaps our thinking will, too.
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