Seeing as Insight. The History of the Sight Metaphor: A Short Review

Vibeke Tellmann

Many of our notions and knowledge metaphors stem from the visual; we are enlightened when we gain knowledge, we say that we 'see' when we understand and 'seeing the light' declares our capture of the truth. What is it about the sight sense that allows it such a privileged position? And what's implied when our notions of knowledge are formed by visibility?

In the illustrated book Frosken er redd1 (The frog is frightened) the frog is frightened because there's a ghost under his bed creaking and knocking on the floorboards. The hare doesn't believe in such things and asks the frog if he saw the ghost. «Ehhh… no» said the frog. He had not seen itbut he had heardit.2 The hare'sscepticism is a normal understanding of the relationship between sight and hearing in western thought. Claiming that there's a ghost under the bed is dubious for as long as the frog didn't actually see the ghost. The evident sounds aren't proof enough in themselves; we have to see the ghost to be convinced that there is a ghost.

The sight metaphor

The history of the visual primate and the sight metaphor stretches back to antiquity. Heraclitus (540-480 BC.) said that "Eyes are more exact witnesses than ears",3 and the central notions eidos (form)andidea in Plato's theory mean precisely «to have seen». «To know» therefore becomessynonymouswith «to have seen». The visual knowledge metaphor4 is largely based in the connection between sightand light, clearlyapparent in Plato's Allegory of the Caveand Allegory of the Sun. Sunlight is the material image of ideas as the light of truth. Ideas allow things to appear as they are, as true and comprehensible, like the sun allows things to appear as visible and recognizable in the material world.

The eye's passivity as an organ leans towards metaphors of objectivity

In both the Allegory of the Sunand the Allegory of the Caveit's also very clear that the visual vocabulary is based on a classic dualism between the material and the metaphysical. This dualism is perhaps the primary characteristic of visual knowledge metaphors. It's the eye interacting with the light that, through analogy, forms the basis of the metaphysical eye and the metaphysical light. Plato declares sight the most important human sense, because sight is the connection between the outside world, the human inner (the soul) and ideas as metaphysical reality.This reciprocal nature of sight is apparent in the anamnesistheory where it's claimed that humans learn from recognition. It's the physical eye that sees and recognizes what the soul has seen in its metaphysical existence. In this way physical sight becomes, paradoxically enough, the basis for liberation from the body to the metaphysically visible and true knowledge.

In Plato's reasoning this dualism appears as an unproblematic paradox. The development of optics as a science during the Renaissance strengthens this paradox in the sight metaphor. Optical science discovered that the eye is a passive lens, which undermines Plato's interpretation of the eye as an active intermediary between inner and outer. The eye's passivity as an organ leans more therefore towards metaphors of objectivity, where the distance, immobility and non-emotionality of the observation become central conditions. The sight metaphor therefore is not primarily a metaphor of knowledgebut a metaphor of knowledge's condition.

Sight phenomenology

This particular type of knowledge metaphor reaches its highpoint in Descartes' philosophy, which can be described as enforcing the strictest division between the sensible and the metaphysical, the body's eye and the Mind's eye.5 Descartes considers the physical sense as an unstable source of knowledge because sight can deceive. Thought, on the other hand, allows what can be known, in the sense of what is true, to emerge as clear, sure and objective. These conditions of knowledge however, correspond to a series of characteristics of what one can call the physical sight sense's phenomenology; the neutral observational glance, perspective and that something is in fact visible, that is to say, clear.

Sight's primary ability is to immediately summarize a whole series of impressions into one

According to phenomenologist Hans Jonas,6 looking neutralizes the dynamism of sensing by not directly touching the thing under observation, or the observer not being touched by the observed. This stands in contrast to the other two central senses; hearing and touch. Touch requires a subject to seek active contact with whatever it will touch, while hearing requires the object to be in motion in order to be heard. This aspect of sensing creates a division between theory and practice, a division between passive neutral observation and active involvement in an event. The neutral, independent observation that constitutes the core of an objective theoretical attitude, such as we find with Descartes, corresponds exactly to the requirement of a degree of distance to an object, in order to see it well. What we see initially appears as separate and independent of ourselves and sight's primary ability is to immediately summarize a whole series of impressions into one. This is the way we picture or represent an object we can see. Meanwhile, the ear depends on memory to sum-up impressions of things, because sound takes time. Touching is in many ways as immediate as seeing, however it lacks the ability to simultaneously unite impressions into a whole.

Sight and hearing

What do we lose if we allow the eye to lead thought? What blind-spots remain in this story? Sight is effortlessly bound to light and space, while hearing depends on sound and time. But if sound is only tied to the time dimension, then one important prerequisite for hearing is overlooked - sound resonates; it's dependent on multidimensional space. So perhaps hearing is open to the same level of concise and comprehensive sense experience as sight because we hear sounds from the whole of surrounding space, while basically we seeonly what's in front of us. Then again, maybe it's the ear's open, non-selective receptivity to the world that falls into conflict with knowledge's demand for precision, which the focused eye of sight largely satisfies.

One can also say that hearing, traditionally fused to movement and activity, does not satisfy the requirement of neutral and objective access to the world. It is with the eye that we characterize and separate one thing from another in the world. Does this mean we cannot characterize the world by how we hear it or feel it but only from how we see it? Does this imply a limitation in how we approach the world?

The visual metaphors linked to truth and knowledge are striking but they meet only one particular type of knowledge; objectified knowledge, and a particular type of truth; clear and luminous. When we understand this, we are perhaps then in a position to «see» the world with our ears.


1 Velthuijs, Max: Frosken er redd (transl. Halldis Moren Vesaas). Oslo: Samlaget, 2006.

2 My italics.

3 Heraclitus: «Eyes are more exact witnesses than ears.» Quote from Blumenberg, Hans: «Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation» in Levin, David Michael: Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision. California: University of California Press, 1993, s. 45. This quote is among the most popular as a description of Antiquity's visual primate. In the fragments of Heraclitus there are also statements displaying understanding of hearing's and sound's particular qualities. Among other things, this was the topic of my thesis Lydhøre tanker. To filosofiske forestillinger om øret. (Two philisophical presentations of the ear.) Derrida and Heidegger Bergen: Filosofisk institutt, UiB, 2002.

4 The description of the history of the visual knowledge metaphor is based on Keller, Evelyn F. and Grontkowski, Christine R.: «The mind's Eye» in Discovering Reality. Feminist Perspectives on epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Ed. Harding, S. and Hintikka, M. B., D., Dordrecht: Reidel Publishing Company, 1983.

5 Ibid., s. 209.

6 Jonas, Hans,"The Nobility of Sight" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 14, no 4 (1954), s. 507-519. This is a classical article about sight's privileged position in philosophy.


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_10/11: The Past Now!