I've mentioned already that I am a junior at Shimer, however most of the other Shimerians here with me in Oxford are in their last year and are thus working on their Senior theses. The idea behind the thesis is that it affords Shimer students a culminating opportunity to really do substantive work on a project or idea that we are passionate about in a way that draws on everything we've learned while at the college. Among some of the really interesting things my comrades here are doing are theses involving research projects, recording music, or translating poetry. All of this puts me in mind to start pondering what I think I'd like to do for my own thesis next year and just this week I think I've begun to develop an idea that I am really excited about.
I've always been really interested in vision, the visual arts and all the fertile connections there are to be made between them and philosophy. I am especially interested in the way that our ideas about seeing get used as a kind of metaphor for both knowledge and illusion. These kinds of associations can be traced back at least to Plato, who, in his famous “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic used the play of shadows cast on a cave's wall to illustrate the deceptive world of appearances on earth and the symbol of blinding sunlight to represent the eternal truth of the forms.
But I think what I would particularly like to explore in a thesis is the way slightly more modern philosophers use the model of sight to try to understand the problems of human consciousness, or, more specifically what many 19th and 20th century German philosophers would begin to call 'false consciousness' or 'ideology.'
Take, for example, Ludwig Fuerbach's musing on the eye in his book The Essence of Christianity.“The eye looks into the starry heavens [and] gazes at that light [and] sees its own nature and its own origin. Hence Man [sic] elevates himself above the earth only with the eye.” Without going into to too much detail about his philosophy, I can say that Feuerbach uses this model of the human eye, seeing it's own divine nature in the heavens, to propel an argument that challenges Christian doctrines. Not that he wants to get rid of religion, in fact, he actually places a high value on it, because he thinks it expresses, though in an inverted form, humanity's idea of its true essence. Feuerbach argues that though religion represents human creativity as if it depends on God, in reality God is just the projection of an ideal image of humanity's own capacities. Feuerbach goes back to optical metaphors to try to explain this inversion and the projection of human potential into the idea of God saying it is like “the double refraction of the rays of light.” Feuerbach thought that if he could get people to change the way they interpreted their own nature—to stop inverting their own potential through a prism of false consciousness—then many of humanities problems could be solved.
Karl Marx, who came along shortly after Feuerbach, thought all this talk about ideals and essences was flaky. Writing about Feuerbach, Marx famously said “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For Marx, the character of human life doesn't come from contemplation of starry abstractions; it comes from real-world activity. Marx thinks that Feuerbach makes a big mistake in trying to improve human conditions by simply getting people to think differently. In fact, for Marx putting ideas before action (or in the lingo of philosophers, theory before praxis) obscures our consciousness of our relationships to the world and each other. To summarize the disagreement more succinctly: Feuerbach thinks that abstract ideas determine human the nature of human existence; but Marx thinks human actions produce all our ideas. The problem of false consciouness as Marx see it, is that people (and I think he would include Feuerbach here) fail to see the role active production plays in the formation of our ideas. But what is so interesting to me is that Marx picks up, and even elaborates on the optical tropes used by Feuerbach to make this point. In The German Ideology Marx writes that “men [sic] are the produces of their conceptions, ideals, etc. [...] If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera-obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”
Wouldn't it be really interesting to trace these and other strains of thought linking vision to false consciousness in relation to the development of optical technologies such as the lens or the photograph or film?
I think this kind of thesis would raise another question: is there something fundamentally deceptive about seeing? Or on the contrary can vision, or different visual technologies, ever reveal things about our existence that are otherwise hidden? (Walter Benjamin makes a really interesting argument to this effect in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction when he claims that film can reveal an “optical unconscious”... more fodder for the thesis, I guess)
Anyway, just in case this post isn't long enough already, Marx's mention of the camera obscura lets me segue neatly into something really cool here in Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum of Science.
They have a whole collection of neat optical devices ranging from ancient telescopes to early microscopes and primitive photographic projectors. The coolest thing they have, however, is a functioning camera obscura.
The name is Latin for 'dark chamber,' and it's basically
a way to project an image onto a surface. Lots of Renaissance artists
used them as drawing aides and Aristotle used a primitive form of the
principle to watch an eclipse, the old pinhole in a dixie cup from
grade school. This is a more advanced application of the same idea,
using lenses and mirrors (which is why in the image I show below isn't inverted in the way Marx mentions).
This is the aperture:
It looks out the window on to Broad Street.
And to see the image, you poke your head under the sheet.
I really dig the ghostly quality of the camera obscura image. I feel like its a bit of a precursor to the appeal of sitting in a dark theater and watching a movie. If you ever get a chance to get into one, I recommend it.