Clerestory

Vision and Abstraction

November 15, 2021

I’m taking a break today from thinking about homogenisation of history and of science. Today I’m thinking about vision, and how it relates to abstraction.

Introducing Feuerbach

This morning a quote from by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) came up in my Readwise. Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) is a classic of humanism, which influenced Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. In it, Feuerbach argues for an anthropological origin of religion. Rather than religion revealing something about God or the Universe, it reveals something about humanity. For Feuerbach, religion is a projection of human nature:

Whatever is God to a man, that is his heart and soul; and conversely, God is the manifested inward nature, the expressed self of a man, — religion the solemn unveiling of a man’s hidden treasures, the revelation of his intimate thoughts, the open confession of his love-secrets.

If the name sounds familiar, you may have come across Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845) which are short and worth reading. The final of Marx’s eleven statements is the most famous: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”1

Philosophy and the stars

Here’s the quote from The Essence of Christianity that came up:

The eye is heavenly in its nature. Hence man elevates himself above the earth only with the eye; hence theory begins with the contemplation of the heavens. The first philosophers were astronomers. It is the heavens that admonish man of his destination, and remind him that he is destined not merely to action, but also to contemplation.

To me it’s a fascinating idea that the first philosophers were astronomers. Is it true? It got me thinking about the connection between vision and “contemplation.”

I think it’s fair to assume that Feuerbach is referring to the Ancient Greeks, since “Western” thinkers always do this.

More specifically, he’s probably thinking of the Milesians and Eleatics:

  • Thales of Miletus (~624–548 BCE), whom Aristotle regards as the first Greek philosopher, is reputed to have predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE.
  • Anaximander (~610–546 BCE), also a Milesian, was a pupil of Thales’. He was called the “Father of Cosmology” for his early attempts to give naturalistic explanations of the movements of bodies in the cosmos (in contrast with, e.g., Hesiod, who assumes they are deities).
  • Anaximenes of Miletus (~586–526 BCE) was a student of Anaximander’s, both a metaphysician and an astronomer.
  • Parmenides (~515 BCE?), from Elea, was also a philosopher and astronomer. I think he represents the road away from Thales’ observation and towards Platonic disengagement, but that’s a topic for another day.
  • Several more antiquarian astronomers are listed here. I may expand this list.

I want to consider the possibility that this act of distinguishing visible stars may be important both for critical faculties and for the development of theory itself.

In other words, the repeated act of “stepping back” and “picking things out” from vision may be an important step on the road to creating increasingly abstract categories, and eventually philosophy.

Theory and vision

Here’s Iain McGilchrist, The Master & His Emissary (2009), examining the contrast between the early and late Greek words for sight. Homer uses many words to denote seeing; Bruno Snell (1896–1986) notes at least nine.

Here’s McGilchrist on the diversity of words for seeing during the pre-Socratic period:

What is clear is that there was originally no single word to convey the simple function of sight tout court. There were originally only words for relations with things, the quality of the experience, how the ‘seer’ stood towards the ‘seen’. In other words sight had not been abstracted yet from its context within the lived world, where it is reverberative, itself alive, an expressive of betweenness – not yet thought of as unidirectional, detached, dead: not yet observation.

He continues, discussing the origin of Greek theorein, “to see” (but also “to spectate” or “to contemplate”).2 This is closer to what we typically mean by “see” today, which has a sense of passive observation.

By contrast theorein, the origin of our word ‘theory’, is a much later word. Here it takes on the meaning we normally associate with seeing, the eye apprehending an object. Interestingly it was not originally a verb, but is a back-formation from the word for a spectator, theoros. What I take from this is that it is derived from what was thought of as a special situation, one of greater than usual detachment from a ‘spectacle’. Words for ‘thinking’, in the sense of abstract cognition, and words for ‘seeing’ come to be closely related. The prominence, after the Homeric era, of theorein and noein, when compared with the earlier terms for seeing, marks a degree of abstraction from what is under consideration. A related distinction, touched on above, arises between aspects of the mind, between thumos and noos: very broadly thumos is instinct, what keeps the body in motion, coupled with emotion, whereas noos is reflection, ideas and images.

Not to go all Heidegger but it seems pretty important that both the words “theory” and “idea” come from words meaning to “watch” or “see.” No doubt this also relates to the abstraction of the gods that is going on around the time of Homer.

Sound and vision

As a bit of a teaser, Julian Jaynes writes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976): “The coming of consciousness can in a certain vague sense be construed as a shift from an auditory mind to a visual mind.”

From gustation and olfaction to vision

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” […] Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

In Genesis (3:4-7), a taste of fruit leads to the creation of abstract categories (“the knowledge of good and evil”) leads to the opening of the eyes. But could it have been the other way around? A change in vision leads to the creation of categories?

Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), thinks that much changed with the human development of upright gait. The sense of smell was attenuated, and vision had to sharpen:1

The diminution of the olfactory stimuli seems itself to be a consequence of man’s raising himself from the ground, of his assumption of an upright gait; this made his genitals, which were previously concealed, visible and in need of protection, and so provoked feelings of shame in him.

Vision seems obvious because it is fast

Here’s Anil Seth, “Being a Beast Machine” (2018):

Consider that in visual experience, perceptual scenes seem organised, to a large extent, into discrete objects and the spaces between them. In some sense, the experience of an object includes the perception of surfaces that are not directly represented in sensory data. When we perceive an object, we perceive it as having an external existence, with a ‘back and sides’, as ‘really existing’ out there in the world.

My question is whether this has always been the case. Some aspects of vision seem to depend, counterintuitively, on environmental factors in upbringing. Here’s David Epstein, in Range (2019):

Luria found that most remote villagers were not subject to the same optical illusions as citizens of the industrialized world, like the Ebbinghaus illusion. […] Since Luria’s voyage [into remote parts of Central Asia], scientists have replicated his work in other cultures.

Could it be that we learn to see at a young age, and it is that which makes it so fast, and provides such a strong illusion of “being out there?”

On the speed and apparent clarity of visual recognition, here’s Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. II (1844), ch. 2, “On the Doctrine of Knowledge of Perception or Knowledge of the Understanding”:

Therefore the sensation of the senses is not separated from the representation that is first formed by the understanding out of that sensation as raw material. […] Thus when we read or listen, we receive mere words, but from these we pass over to the concepts denoted by them so immediately, that it is as if we received the concepts immediately; for we are in no way conscious of the transition to them. Therefore on occasion we do not know what was the language in which we yesterday read something which we remember. […] Moreover, with empirical apprehension, the unconsciousness with which the transition from the sensation to its cause is brought about really occurs only with perception in the narrowest sense, with vision or sight. […] On the other hand, with every other perception or apprehension of the senses the transition occurs with more or less clear consciousness; thus in the case of apprehension through the four coarser senses, the reality of the transition can be directly observed as a fact. In the dark we touch a thing on all sides for a long time, until from its different effects on our hands we are able to construct their cause as a definite shape. Further, if something feels smooth, we sometimes reflect as to whether we have fat or oil on our hands; and also when something feels cold, we wonder whether we have very warm hands. In the case of a sound, we sometimes doubt whether it was a merely inner affection of hearing or one that actually comes from outside; whether it sounded near and weak or far off and strong; from what direction it came; finally, whether it was the voice of a human being, of an animal, or the sound of an instrument.

I realize this has been a bit of a quote dump, but hopefully there’s something interesting in it. Soon I’ll look at Spinoza’s notion of how the idea of perfection came about, which also relates seen examples to the process of abstraction itself. And there are probably a few more sections of McGilchrist that are worth a look.


  1. Later I’ll try to query this, and to connect Marx’s notion of actively changing the world with Rousseau and some of the ideologues whom Napoleon tried to repress.
  2. See this list for uses of theoros (θεατής).

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.