Understanding as…

There is so much stuff out there that I don’t know -things that I hadn’t even thought of as knowledge. Things that I just accepted as ‘givens’.  You know, take the ability to understand something like, say, an arrangement of numbers as a series rather than a bunch of numbers, or the ability to extract meaning from some sounds -for example words spoken in English- and yet not others in a different language.

And, perhaps equally mysterious is the moment when that epiphany strikes. What suddenly changes those numbers into a series? Is it similar to what makes figure-ground alterations flip back and forth in my head: aspect perception? Is it analogous to the assignation of meaning to things -or, indeed, picking them out of the chaos of background and recognizing them as somehow special in the first place? Is it what Plato meant when he referred to the Forms –‘chairness’ or ‘tableness’ for example- abstractions that allow us to identify either, no matter how varied the shapes or sizes -the true essence of what things really are?

I suppose I’m becoming rather opaque -or is it obtuse?- but the whole idea of aspect perception, of ‘seeing as’, is an exciting, yet labyrinthine terra incognita, don’t you think? I’m afraid that what started it all was an essay in the online Aeon publication: https://aeon.co/ideas/do-you-see-a-duck-or-a-rabbit-just-what-is-aspect-perception

It was the edited version of an essay written by Stephen Law, the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He begins by discussing some of the figure-ground changes found in, say Necker cubes whose sides keep flipping back and forth (a type of aspect perception) and then suggests that ‘A[nother] reason why changes in aspect perception might be thought philosophically significant is that they draw our attention to the fact that we see aspects all the time, though we don’t usually notice we’re doing so… For example, when I see a pair of scissors, I don’t see them as a mere physical thing – I immediately grasp that this is a tool with which I can do various things.’

Another example might be ‘…our ability to suddenly ‘get’ a tune or a rule, so we are then able to carry on ourselves.’ Or, how about religion? ‘The idea of ‘seeing as’ also crops up in religious thinking. Some religious folk suggest that belief in God doesn’t consist in signing up to a certain hypothesis, but rather in a way of seeing things.’ But then the caveat: ‘Seeing something as a so-and-so doesn’t guarantee that it is a so-and-so. I might see a pile of clothes in the shadows at the end of my bed as a monster. But of course, if I believe it’s a monster, then I’m very much mistaken.’

I have always loved wandering around bookstores. Maybe it’s an asylum -a refuge from the noisy street, or a spiritual sanctuary in a chaotic mall -but it’s more likely that the range and choice of books allows me to exercise an epiphanic region of my brain, and to practice ‘seeing as’ to my heart’s content. I’d never thought of bookstores as exercise before, of course, but I suppose the seed of ‘understanding as’ was sown by that article… or maybe it was the little girl.

Shortly after reading the essay, I found myself wandering blissfully through the quiet aisles of a rather large bookstore that seemed otologically removed from the noisy mall in which it hid. Coloured titles greeted me like silent hawkers in a park, the ones that sat dislodged from their otherwise tidy rows, sometimes reaching out to me with greater promise: curiosity, as to why someone might have dislodged them, perhaps. But nonetheless, I also found myself amused at their choices: book shops are catholic in the selection they proffer and I relish the opportunity to switch my perspectives… and expand my Weltanschauung, as the Philosophy section into which I had meandered might have put it when the thought occurred.

Of course, unexpected concepts like that are one of the delights of a bookstore -turn a corner into a different aisle and the world changes. It’s where I met the little girl talking to her mother about something in a book she was holding.

No more than four or five years old, she was wearing what I suppose was a pink Princess costume, and trying to be very… mature. Her mother, on the other hand, was dressed for the mall: black baseball cap, jeans, sneakers, and a grey sweatshirt with a yellow mustard stain on the front. Maybe they’d just come from a party, or, more likely, the Food Court, but the mother was trying to explain something in the book to her little daughter. The aisle wasn’t in the children’s section, but seemed to have a lot of titles about puzzles, and illusions, so maybe they’d wandered into it for something different: for surprises.

As I pretended to examine some books nearby, I noticed a Necker’s cube prominently displayed on the page the girl was holding open.

“Why does it do that, mommy?” Even as she spoke the perspective of the cube was flipping back and forth, with one face, then another seeming to be closer.

The mother smiled at this obvious teaching moment.

“It’s a great idea, anyway,” the daughter continued, before she got an answer.

“Idea…?” the mother said, with a patient look on her face. “What’s the idea, Angie?”

Angie scrunched her forehead and gave her mother a rather condescending look. “It’s an exercise book, remember?”

That apparently caught the mother by surprise. “It’s a book of puzzles and magic, sweetheart. I didn’t see any exercises.”

Angie rolled her eyes at her mother’s obvious obtuseness. “The nexercise cube, mommy…!”

Necker’s cube, sweetie,” she responded, trying to suppress a giggle. “It’s not an exercise cube.”

But Angie was having none of that, and stared at her like a teacher with a slow pupil. “It keeps making my mind move, mommy!” She shook her head in an obviously disappointed rebuke. “That’s exercise.”

I slipped back around the corner, unnoticed by them both I think. I felt I’d intruded on a very intimate moment and I didn’t want to trespass, but I couldn’t help wondering if Angie had come far closer to understanding Plato’s Forms than her mother or I could ever hope to.

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Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

I’m puzzled –it seems to be happening a lot nowadays despite my age. But maybe that’s what retirement is for –to sort through things previously deemed obvious but which, on closer scrutiny, are not. Or, at least, not anymore… Same thing, I suppose.

The latest effort of digging roots seems to have arisen after telling a friend that I hadn’t visited a recent exhibition of a famous painter because I’d thought the admission price was a bit steep for something which I could admire in as much detail online. My friend, of course, was shocked and subjected me to an unwarranted rebuke for thinking the two modalities were in any way comparable.

I have to admit to a certain agnosticism in the matter of Art, but, as art is wont to do, it started me wondering. What qualities, if any, does the original of anything, have that is so special that it has to be experienced in person? But I’m not advocating virtual reality, or proxy visitations, so much as an explanation of what makes the thing-in-itself seem so valuable.

I’m reminded of a podcast discussion I once heard about an exhibition of a Viking long boat. To see the real boat, the host of the program said -even if it was displayed behind a rope fence- was like experiencing the boat pulled up on a beach in Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. when they first raided Britain.

“But some of the boat had to be restored,” the expert explained. “In the original style and using the same type of wood, of course…” he quickly added, lest the magic seem to slip away. “But you’re right, it’s a Viking boat that they used for raids.”

Then someone –another expert, perhaps, spoke up. “So… Just to add a note of caution here… Let me ask how much of it was restored?”

“Pardon me?” The first expert seemed aghast that it would even matter.

“How much…? I mean, if you restored, say six boards on the deck, but the rest was original, could you still call it the original boat…?”

“Of course,” the first man blustered.

“Suppose you replaced the entire deck as well as a few boards of the gunwale? Still the same original boat…?”

“Yes…” he replied, but hesitantly. He could see where these questions were leading.

“Tell me,” the skeptic said quietly. “At what point –at what board, if you will- does it cease to be the original boat?”

I don’t remember the answer now, so many years later, but it was an interesting point. What is it about the ‘real’ thing that fosters the awe? If someone had simply built another boat, even using the same techniques and period tools, it would be admired, I’m sure –but not in the same way. Something would be missing… But what? For all intents and purposes, it would be the ‘same’ thing as the original.

Upon deeper reflection, I am reminded of another concept that intrigued me as a much younger student: Plato’s idea of Forms –a simple example being that of, say, triangleness; all triangles are examples –manifestations- of this, but not the thing-in-itself which is unknowable. Or, perhaps more illustrative: boatness. How is it that we can recognize a thing as a boat, even though boats have many designs, sizes, and shapes? What is it about boatness that permits its attribution to something, even if we have never seen anything like it before?

I think it’s easy to get lost in this, especially for an amateur like me, but I suspect that what I am wondering is whether ‘original’ might capture some of this idealized yet still intangible feeling of Form.

I tried the idea out on a couple of friends one evening at a pub. It was probably not a great place to discuss anything as nuanced as Plato, or Viking boats, but I get excited about things.

“Why is it better to see the actual painting in an exhibition rather than a picture of it?” I had to yell, because there was a lot going on around us that night.

“We were talking about Facebook news… How did art exhibitions get into this?” John, who was a recently retired lawyer, usually wanted to talk about politics, so I’m not surprised he was the first to notice my not so subtle segue.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what triggered the painting thing –maybe it was John’s insistence on going to the original news source and not relying on third hand copies. He had a point I thought, but I wondered if it also applied to paintings. And if so, why?

“But that’s a good example of why you go to the source, eh?” he added, smiling broadly at my perspicacity.

“With news, yes,” I yelled, as someone shrieked with laughter close by. “But why is it the same with a painting? Why isn’t it just as good looking at a high-quality photograph of it? They’re identical, aren’t they?”

Jason, a retired accountant put his empty glass on the table and tried to signal a waitress. “Are they?” he asked, turning to me when the waitress ignored him.

I shrugged. “I don’t know… that’s why I’m asking. Why are they different, Jason?”

He leaned over the table so we could both hear each other in the melee. “A photograph is just a copy.”

“Is what the painting contains –the image, the colour, the composition, and so on- not exactly the same in the photo?”

He thought about it for a moment, but started shaking his head. “I don’t know… somehow, there’s something missing in the photo, don’t you think?”

“What?” I was hoping he could narrow it down for me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe it’s that the painter –the creator– actually touched it…”

I smiled and had a sip of my wine. “Do you remember Plato from university?”

“I remember the allegory of the Cave… Loved that one…” John piped up, but quietly and Jason and I had difficulty hearing him.

I was thinking more of his Forms. Remember?” The blank looks on both their faces told me they didn’t. “Triangleness?” I offered as a hint.

“Oh yeah,” John said, obviously pleased at himself. “The ideal -of which something like any triangle you could draw would only be an example…”

“Didn’t Kant…” Jason was deep in memories. “… Something about noumena… Oh yeah, and the ‘thing-in-itself’ or whatever…”

“Uhmm, what I remember about his Critique of Pure Reason, I could write on a grain of salt,” John yelled to nobody in particular.

Jason mounted a condescending smile and launched his eyes on another search for the waitress.

“But I did love the Cave thing,” John continued, this time turning to me. “I always got it mixed up with the Forms, because I figured they were actually saying the same thing.” He leaned over the table so he wouldn’t have to talk as loud –I think he found the topic an embarrassing one for a pub. “I mean, think about it. All those prisoners in the cave chained so they can’t see the fire behind them, or the people holding up puppets that cast shadows on the only wall the prisoners can see. Naturally the prisoners think the shadows are the authentic world. And then one of the prisoners slips his chains and escapes to the sunlight outside and sees the real thing –not copies of it…”

Jason had given up by now and stared at John. “So, where do the Forms come into it…?”

It was John’s turn to look haughty as he rolled his eyes. “He sees reality, Jason. In a sense, he sees the Forms… the prisoners only saw the facsimiles –the copies, if you like!”

Jason just blinked at him. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he didn’t understand. “You know, this all started with G’s question about why it was better to see a painting in an exhibition than a copy of it somewhere else… How did we get to Plato’s Cave?”

“I think we just answered his question,” John said quietly, as we all leaned over the table to hear him in the noisy room. “It’s like experiencing reality, rather than the shadows it casts.”

“But…” I could see Jason was struggling with the idea. “…But couldn’t the prisoner just go back into the Cave and tell the others what he saw? That they were just looking at copies…?”

John smiled his best lawyerly smile. “Would they believe him if they hadn’t experienced what he had?”

I sat back in my seat with a big smile on my face and finished my wine. Sometimes it’s good to have a drink with people. Sometimes you just have to leave the Cave…