Sunday, 24 March 2013

Appearances: Seeing, Perceiving and Drawing (Part 1 of 4)

To speak of appearances, as many aestheticians, philosophers and art teachers do, is to talk in a very particular way about the things that we see. It is to suggest a vaguely sceptical attitude in which the entire realm of the visual is understood as being somewhat deceptive, faulty, incomplete or illusory. Appearances are conceived in this way as something 'out there' in the world that we passively receive. Things are thought to present themselves to us through appearances, and in so doing they undergo distortions that make them 'seem' not as we know they are. A commonly cited example would be the circular disk that is believed to 'appear' as an ellipse when tilted relative to our position.

To 'appear' is to come into view but it is also to ‘seem’. The latter form must surely be the one most commonly intended in descriptions of appearances. It is certainly unlikely that anyone would seriously suggest that appearances involve any form of active agency or any wilful determination on the part of objects to reveal or obstruct their apprehension: to 'present' themselves. Yet there remains a suggestion that appearances are objective properties of things. To speak of appearances in this way is to pay surprisingly little attention to the role of perception – indeed it is to regard perception as being only indirectly related to appearances. If appearances are indeed attributes of things located out there in the world then they must, of necessity, precede perception - they must come before it and can be in no way dependent upon it.

A tilted disk cannot be both an ellipse and a circular disk at the same time. We all know that a tilted disk is a tilted disk and not an ellipse, no matter how much art teachers might insist that what we are in fact seeing is an ellipse; if only we would look hard enough to see what is in front of our eyes. A significant proportion of the teaching of representational drawing is predicated upon this notion of appearances – as if everything we see were in fact some kind of pre-packaged two-dimensional representation that we simply have to copy onto paper, as if ellipses and foreshortening and negative space etc. were uncomplicated objective properties of the world. If this were the case one wonders why children and the naïve are so unanimous in their conviction that circles are circular. Have they not yet learned to look? And if looking comes before knowing – as it surely does – wouldn’t they be able to draw what they see before they can draw what they know?

Contrary to popular opinion, what children and the naïve draw is not the product of a lack of looking or even a lack of visual discrimination on their part nor is it a lack of dexterity. If you think that children lack dexterity then you should look again. Beyond the mere scribbles of infants, in nearly every child’s drawing I have ever seen, their ability to join the ends of a circle is practically faultless. If this doesn’t prove that children can manipulate pencils with a high degree of accuracy then I don’t know what test would.

It is very true that children draw what they know rather than what they see. We could go further than this and say that what children and the naïve draw is not what they see, they draw what they perceive. Perceiving is not another word for seeing. Perceiving is our response to things seen. Perceiving is the knowledge we form on the basis of what we see and therefore children strive to draw what they perceive – what they know of what they see.

To say that what the naïve artist needs to do if they wish to produce photorealistic drawings is simply to look harder or to see more exactly is presumptuous at best. To believe that the failure of untrained and naïve artists to draw perspectivally correct images is due to a lack of observation skills - of attention to appearances - flies in the face of millennia of representations by innumerable artists, many of whom have devoted their lives to image-making and the disciplined observation of the visible.

What the naïve artist needs to learn is not to see better or to look harder but to acquire the sophisticated strategies of perspectival simulation and pictorial representation. By doing so they will continue to see things just like the rest of us but their perception will have changed in a fundamental way: they will now know how to make pictorial representations of tilted disks, and much else besides.


Brian said...

I don't think that you can separate looking from "learning the strategies of illusion and pictorial representation." Can you?

You say: "To believe that the failure of untrained and naïve artists to draw perspectivally correct images is due to a lack of observation skills - of attention to appearances - flies in the face of millennia of representations by innumerable artists, many of whom have devoted their lives to image making and the disciplined observation of the visible." Does it? This is precisely how they did learn to make more 'accurate' representation. Picasso and others wanted to turn this round, but what they produced was still very much to do with looking - at the result.

Since you are speaking of the "disciplined observation of the visible" you are implying that "looking hard" is involved: So, you seem to be contradicting yourself. "If appearances are indeed things located out there in the world then they must, of necessity, precede perception - they must come before it and can be in no way dependent upon it.": Appearances cannot be "located out there in the world" by themselves. As appearances, they do indeed depend upon perception, through seeing (sense) and mind receiving. What exists "out there" is the 'thing in itself' - whatever that is - not its appearance, which is indisputably 'perceived'. Or are you saying that it is not? According to Russell, the thing is there and its "aspects" are perceived depending upon where the viewer is located. This is what perception is. You can assume that 100 people are looking at the same thing, but what is its definitive aspect? Arguably there isn't one. If you can tell me what the definitive appearance of the thing is - not what it is as a concept, or a scientific theory - then you will have solved a riddle that runs right the way back to Plato.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian.

Unlike Plato I'm working from Darwin, Gilbert Ryle, John Austin and especially Donald Brook who make it clear that perceptions are conditioned by the needs and interests of the organism doing the perceiving. So:

1: Yes you can separate looking from learning pictorial representation because pictorial representation is just one of the needs of the organism : Representation (but not just pictorial representation) being an absolutely major one.

2: Artists learned to use perspective not as the result of a slow incremental improvement over millennia but rather but as the result of entirely unforeseen cultural innovations: the employment of perspective being the most obvious.

3: I’m not implying that looking hard is involved. I’m saying that looking hard will never allow anyone to see an ellipse where there is a tilted disk – we have millennia of unbroken evidence for this claim.

4: Looking for “definitive aspects” is invariably a source of huge confusion as Ryle rightly pointed out about that hopelessly muddled search for the self.

Apologies for answering in such impersonal terms – just trying to be as clear and concise as I can.

Brian said...

Jim, I agree with you that perceptions are conditioned.

(1). Of course you can separate looking from learning pictorial representation. Pictorial representation is only one use to which looking is put. But can you separate learning pictorial representation form looking? I would say not.

(2). It is true that the ‘necessity’ of the development perspective as a tool was in tune with, and parallel to, other cultural developments, but culture cannot be separated from history.

(3). ‘Seeing’ an ellipse where there is a tilted disk is precisely what art students are taught: it’s a matter of getting past one’s ‘natural’, or unseeing / unthinking, view of the world. It is a way of un-conditioning conditioned perception. I’m not sure where is our “millennia of unbroken evidence” to the contrary.

(4). Your concept of “objective” reality, I would suggest, is just such a “definitive aspect”. You say, for instance, that appearances cannot willfully “obstruct their (own) direct apprehension.” This suggests that they are indeed “objects”; and yet their being “objects” is exactly what you deny elsewhere, viz. that they are not “uncomplicated objective properties of the world”.

Further, I would not entirely agree with your claims for children’s art. A child draws, or represents, the sun as a disk because that is what s/he sees: They do not know that it is a sphere. This is the opposite of what you seem to be saying. Their perception of the sun is based upon what they see, and until they can by inference ‘know’ that it is a sphere, that is how it will be represented in their minds. Thus, that is now they will represent it on paper.

Again, you seem to conflate skill with “dexterity”. Any good teacher of art will stress to students that art is not about dexterity. ‘If you can tie your shoe laces, then you can draw’. People generally have a pre-conditioned perception, or representation, of art as having to do with dexterity, but it is not so. But skill - which is something else - is, as in any ‘art’, absolutely necessary to produce the best work.

Drawing may not be essential to, for example, film-making. But in visual fine art, in my opinion, it can be regarded as a core skill. This is partly because it teaches the student how to ‘look’, to pay attention to, what is seen. One could argue that it also involves an important tactile intimacy and immediacy, which may be an important aspect of human creativity: but this is certainly debatable. In my opinion, however, drawing is one of the least mediated forms of creativity, and that may be important for establishing a one-to-one engagement with the artwork, a personal directness, which will also come across in the drawing. Each individual is different, and will draw in a different way. Perhaps this is more obvious in drawing than in more technical media, and could be - and indeed is - seen as being useful in gaining insight into a student’s individual creativity, ideas, way of seeing, and so on.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian,

I’ll try to stick to the main issues but if you think I’m evading anything Please do let me know and I’ll try to address it.

You write:
“‘Seeing’ an ellipse where there is a tilted disk is precisely what art students are taught”

Exactly, and I’m arguing that this teaching is predicated upon a longstanding and profound misconception – a “logical howler” as Ryle would call it.

You write:
“it’s a matter of getting past one’s ‘natural’, or unseeing / unthinking, view of the world.”

It makes no sense to say that seeing is “unseeing”. Let’s set that aside since I doubt you’d stand by it anyway. However, it is also false to describe seeing as “unthinking” even if you qualify the claim by calling it conditioned thinking. Conditioned thinking is not unthinking thinking. Not knowing how to employ perspectival representation is absolutely not the product of a deficit in deduction, inference, logical analysis, critical discrimination or any other of the myriad ways we define thinking. As I have already said, we have a long and extremely well furnished history of images prior to Brunelleschi’s discovery of perspectival representation in which innumerable artists and thinkers of all stripes, cultures and persuasions were unable to ‘see’ these so called appearances. Are you so sure that conditioned thinking would really have been so pervasive and profound as to have cast a veil over these ‘appearances’ that are so readily available? Was Brunelleschi an intellectual or ‘seer’ of such leviathan proportions that only he could see what everyone prior to him had been too conditioned or unthinking to detect? How did he manage to pull himself up by his bootstraps and to slough of the fetters of a conditioning that had proven insurmountable to everyone who had preceded him?

You write:
“It is a way of un-conditioning conditioned perception.”

I know what you are trying to get at Brian - I have said similar myself too but listen in your words to the voice that you cannot hear: whose thinking is conditioned actually? How did you manage to come by this teaching technique of un-conditioning conditioned perception? Did you invent it through the application of arduous thought or did you learn it from art teachers in the drawing class as I and everyone else did?

Donald Brook said...

Hello Jim:

I am pleased to see that you have found my writings about perception and representation illuminating. I'm not sure, however, whether all the participants in this posting will get it exactly right about what is at stake.

My account of the matter starts from the supposition that perceivers are things in the world that interact with other things in the world in various ways. One of the ways in which perceivers interact with a thing that they encounter such as for example a tilted circular coin (that will be correctly described as a tilted circular coin no matter whether it is perceived at all, or by whom it is perceived, or even if it is misperceived) is by perceiving it. Not all of our encounters with things are perceptual encounters. Manifestly, we need a clear account of what perceiving a thing—notably by seeing it—really amounts to.

The answer I give to this question is that to see a tilted circular coin is to become capable of communicably representing this coin in one or more respects, in one or more ways. For example, on seeing this circular coin (whether or not its presentation is frontal) we may become capable of communicably representing what we see by offering a button or some other object that we take to be absolutely sensorily indiscriminable from the coin we are representing, in respect of its peripheral shape.

By 'absolutely sensorily indiscriminable' I mean to say that there are (so we suppose) no circumstances in which any perceiver of any species would be able to sensorily discriminate between the circular coin that we are looking at and the circular button we using to represent it, in respect of their shared circularity.

This way of representing the things that we see may be called the matching way, in order to contrast it with another way of representing the things that we see. This other way, that might as well be called the simulating way, depends on regular fallibilities of perception that are shared by the members of a species, and also upon the peculiarities of the circumstances under which the perceiving process goes forward.

For example: under certain circumstances, for certain perceivers such as those whose eyes are close together, it may be difficult under certain circumstances to discriminate in respect of peripheral shape between a tilted circular coin and a flatly presented ellipse.

The shared perceptual vulnerabilities of a species and the peculiarities of the circumstances under which things may be regularly presented have encouraged the emergence of publicly viable simulating representational strategies (as well as matching strategies) among which drawing has turned out to be one of the most potent.

The point is this. The fact that we are able to communicably represent a tilted circular coin by drawing a flatly presented ellipse does not entail that what we are seeing, and representing, is a flatly presented ellipse. We are as a matter of fact seeing, and representing, a tilted circular coin. We are doing this by using a device of simulation that relies on shared perceptual frailties and an ability to manipulate the circumstances under which these frailties become regularly exploitable.

The tilted circular coin that we are seeing is not surrounded by, or accompanied by, or constituted of, a multitude of 'appearances' that we also—or perhaps alternatively--see. If the thing that is in our line of sight really is a tilted circular coin, then what we are seeing is a tilted circular coin. It is a great felicity that we have found regularly communicable ways of representing a tilted circular coin by frontally presenting an object that is actually elliptical.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Really interesting article and discussion. Are you saying that we don’t see in perspective? When I look down a long street I definitely see things receding towards a vanishing point. You’re surely not saying that we see in isometric projection?



Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Gillian,

Thanks for your questions. When you say that you definitely see in perspective, what you are doing I would describe as privileging something you know over something else you know. You know with certainty that the two sides of the street never touch, no matter how far you travel down the street. Yet you also know that in order to make a perspective representation you would have to make all the lines indicating depth converge to a vanishing point.

It is not a case of seeing in perspective really so much as it is a case of knowing how to make perspectival representations. It’s true that we definitely don’t see in isometric projections but it doesn’t then follow that we see in perspective.



Anonymous said...

But cameras picture things in perspective and our eyes use lenses so why doesn’t it follow that we see in perspective?


Brian said...

First I’d like to answer Jim, and then address Donald. And Gillian’s point about the camera is interesting too.

I can’t help feeling Jim that you take great exception to the way that drawing is traditionally ‘taught’, although you may indeed go so far as to say that it cannot be ‘taught’? How, I wonder, would Gilbert Ryle teach a student how to draw, or faithfully represent in two dimensions, a circular coin that appeared from a point in space (identical with the student) to be an elliptical shape, without asking him or her to see the elliptical shape? The idea of it being a “logical howler” might be considered a howler in itself. You are, I think, assuming that ‘realistic’ representation, is no longer a viable artistic pursuit - and this is patently not true. It is one way of doing art, among many. I’m pretty sure Donald would agree with this? He does say that it’s good we have “regularly communicable ways of representing a tilted circular coin by frontally presenting an object that is actually elliptical”. By this “object”, I take him to mean the drawn, or otherwise made, disk.

Your paragraph about “Brunelleschi” is interesting. I’m wondering whether you approve of him or not? Also, you are implying that in the millennia preceding the Renaissance, artists knew about perspective, but simply did not care to use it. Or, are you saying - in a kind of Rousseau-esque way - that in those ancient times people were far more ‘perceptive’ than they are now, because they did not ‘see’ things with the interference, as it were, of synthetic perspective? I’ve heard this view advanced before, and it’s a matter, I would say, for more careful consideration, but it would be a serious mistake to assume it.

Your third paragraph questions the traditional teaching of drawing. Here, I know too what you are “getting at”. But ask yourself, why you think that this form of teaching is at fault. Is it not because of your own preconceptions that it ought to be superseded by a more ‘modern’ and ‘enlightened’ point of view? Is this the definitive point of view, do you think?

Brian said...

Donald: you say that “one of the ways in which perceivers interact with a thing ... is by perceiving it”. Again “not all of our encounters with things are perceptual encounters”. Can you please elaborate on this, and say what kind of encounters are non-perceptual? Sense encounters have to be perceived eventually, I think you’d agree, so that perhaps leaves only abstract, or theoretical encounters?

When you say that a “clear account of what perceiving a thing is - notably by seeing it -” amounts to “to become capable of communicably representing it”, are you not conflating perception with representation, and is this not the ‘phenomenalist’ view that Jim eschews? Again, I think I know what you mean, Donald, and you’re speaking from the point of view of an artist. However, I would say that the “button” is not a ”coin”, it simply can have the appearance of such from its shape, under certain circumstances: but this is not an absolute sensory discrimination. It is conditional in respect of abstract shape, or appearance. The “match” results in our mistaking one phenomenal appearance for another, and inferring that they are the same thing.

Then I would go along with what you say about “simulating”, which is where artistic representation really comes in. But isn’t “simulating” dependent upon “matching” as I have described it above? It seems to me that they are not two contrasting ways of representing, as you suggest, but that we use one form of appearance to create the other: we reverse the matching illusion to simulate reality.

Your last paragraph, Donald, assumes that there is a ‘real‘ coin, here seen from one “line of sight”. But it also denies that there may be multifarious other angles that it might be seen from. This is a curious concept. It is curious because it takes the ‘given’ of sensory apprehension (the appearance of the coin), accepts the inference that it is, in fact, a coin, but ignores the equal and common sense inference that it might be viewed from a multitude of angles. I agree with you, because this is actually the thing that artists intuitively recognise, but in recognising this you are actually saying that this particular representation is a defiitive perception - a “regularly communicable way of representing” as you defined perception previously. This does not concur with scientific thought, which, following Plato, would say that the ‘reality’ of the coin is that it physically occupies a point in space, and cannot be defined from any one direction. It can be represented, certainly, but this “felicity” (which I agree that it is) of representation is not its reality.

Brian said...

Gillian. Your remarks about the camera and perspective are interesting. The camera, as a lens, indeed sees things in a sort of organic way. This is obvious if you widen the lens: there will be no straight lines in the picture, only curved ones. So, it does not ‘see’ things with mathematical perspective, which is abstractly correct, but not true in the visual world. Imagine you are in a skyscraper, half-way up. Opposite your window is another skyscraper. Look up - the sides of that building would appear to almost converge high above you. Look down, and the same thing applies in reverse. This would imply that opposite you there should - mathematically - be abrupt joins in the perspective lines causing sharp angles in each side. But there are not. The lines actually, but ‘imperceptibly’ curve optically: they are not straight. But when this is seen, the perceived ‘curve’ is not a reality, by any means (rather like the coin). We know that the sides of the building are vertical, and straight (or do we?). So how do we represent them in a drawing?

Jim Hamlyn said...


Yes, there's certainly no way that we can head the issue off somewhere upstream of the retina: seeing. The issue is certainly downstream: perception. There is no question that the "vanishing point" at the end of the street is rendered upon the retina as proportionally much smaller in scale than a nearby lamp post. That's indisputable. What I'm not sure is helping though is the use of the terminology of representation to describe an optical process. We can do it but we may end up paying the price of clarity, and possibly more besides. Are perspective and optical distortion the same thing? I'm tempted to say that perspective is the pictorial strategy we use to create simulating representations (as outlined by Donald above), whereas optical distortion is one of the exploitable frailties of perception (encompassing seeing) that allows us to substitute simulating representations for perceived objects/scenes.

The point of issue in this entire discussion, it seems to me, is whether perception is a form of reception (of appearances) or a form of response (of dispositions to represent). And on that note…


The logical howler is in the insistence that something exists that isn't there. If students - and often children too - are made to feel like they can't see something that actually isn't there, as I was, then yes I think we should question the value of this as a pedagogic technique. Is that mistaken?

If I were to teach perspective I'd concentrate on some of the many excellent strategies that don't rely on the doctrine of appearances and I'd make full use of as many shortcuts as I could just like the very shortcut that allowed Brunelleschi to discover perspectival representation in the first place: tracing on glass. I'd use these well trodden techniques to lead students as far as quietly I possibly could to make that astounding discovery for themselves of how an ellipse can be used as a stunningly effective substitute for a tilted disk. A good many teachers do this already and they have my deepest respect for not being conditioned into thinking that its their job to unshackle students of their mind forg'd manacles'.

Brian said...

Jim. Your point about students, or children, “being made to see something that isn’t there” seems absurd. The ellipse is there, in appearance. Your use of Brunelleschi’s “glass” does not alter the fact that you want “as quietly as possible” (and I’m certainly not suggesting that teachers without the glass should shout) to show your students (or if you prefer let them discover for themselves) that the ellipse actually appears when described by a line on the glass. Thew is no substantial difference, to my mind, between the two methods. It is, after all, Brunelleschi’s technique with glass that led to the development of teaching drawing in the way that you despise. And earlier you wanted to repudiate his alleged position as a “seer”. I’m afraid I still can’t see how anyone who is shown, or discovers for themselves, that the appearance of a tilted disk is an ellipse, can consider that ellipse as being “not there”. It is - as an appearance. It makes no difference whether you use glass, or some other means.

Brian said...

Further, I would suggest that your “strategy” of using the glass, “excellent” as it is, is fine for verisimilitude, or ‘realistic’ representation, but leaves out the possibility - so often afforded when using direct eye to hand drawing - of letting an ‘ellipse’ remain incorrect, or distorted, and “gently” advising the student of this creative possibility.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm getting it a little. You seem to be saying that ellipses are a very common shape in pictures that are almost never found in the three dimensional world. If we never find them in the world they are not properties of the world, just visual "frailties". Blurriness is the same isn't it? It isn't a property of things but it is a frailty of vision. Viewpoint too: the fact that I have to take things in in bits is not because the world is in bits but because I can only see it bit by bit.


Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian, Donald and Gillian for your excellent comments all. You’ve had me swinging this way and that (believe it or not) but I’ve had an epiphany which I hope may clarify things a little.

Question: Do we see an ellipse when we see a tilted disk?

If we can see an ellipse it must of necessity be visible. If it is visible it must be measurable (not just proportional). If it is measurable it must have dimension. How many dimensions must an object possess in order to qualify as an object? Nothing is one dimensional. Can an object be two dimensional? Two dimensionality is a physical impossibility. Only three dimensional objects exist.

If we assert that an ellipse is an object then we will find that to see one is to have it obscure whatever it stands in front of. We conclude therefore that an ellipse is not an object.

Is an ellipse an aspect of objects? Some objects are elliptical yes. Some objects when intersected reveal an elliptical shape as an aspect of their intersected form (cones notably) but ellipses and shapes in general do not exist without form except in one important case: projection of light. Does an object loose any characteristic by being projected? Yes, dimension/depth. Does a shape loose anything by being projected? No.

Can a shape be formed by light alone? No, or only under the most extraordinary circumstances – projection requires a screen just as drawing requires a substrate.

Is a shape a representation? I’m going to stick my neck out here and say yes: it is a representation… of a concept, a way of representing measurable aspects of objects.

Every visible thing in the world has dimension apart from one very special phenomenon: light. It just so happens - crucially in our case - that light is also the medium by which we see. Light renders all seen objects as shapes. Shapes are not things of the world, they are aspects of things or concepts. To say that a shape is visible is to imply that the shape itself (the elliptical shape that we putatively see when we see a tilted disk) can be tilted. If this appearance can be tilted then it would, of necessity, be a tilted shape which could be further tilted, and I think we know where that theory leads.

Anonymous said...

You’ve almost convinced me. Just one last issue needs to be cleared up though: silhouettes. If you backlit a tilted coin sufficiently well and asked people to view it through a peephole they would say they had seen an ellipse. Does this not support the case for appearances?


Jim Hamlyn said...

That’s right Gillian, it seems to support appearances doesn’t it? Similarly you could put a sharply tilted coin over a flat surface and sprinkle dust over it and it would make an elliptical ‘shadow’ on the surface. Or you could hold a coin in sunlight and project its elliptical shadow. These are essentially yet more versions of your earlier question about cameras/photographs. The image I used above shows a coin that if traced would make an ellipse too. But it’s a representation again isn’t it? The silhouette question is a good one and had me hesitating for a moment, just as describing the moon as circular might have. Ultimately though, all of these examples of evidence of appearances are reliant upon representations to prove the perceptibility of shapes in three dimensional space. Indeed they would all be excellent teaching tools for showing students how to ‘see’ shapes (identify representational strategies) where there are objects.

Donald Brook said...


May I try just one more time to elucidate the problem that seems to be so troublesome?

When a tilted circular coin is presented to us, one of the ways in which we may become causally engaged with it is by perceiving it. More specifically: by seeing it (although it’s certainly true as J.J. Gibson pointed out many years ago that the senses work together as a perceptual system). We may also become causally engaged with this coin by virtue of the x-rays it emits if it happens to be radioactive; although this sort of engagement is not (in practice, for us) a perceptual engagement.

What we see when we look at a tilted circular coin is a tilted circular coin. For it to be true to say that we see the coin we are looking at it must be the case that we have become capable, by virtue of our causal engagement with it, of making or choosing representations of it that will be recognisable by other people as representations of it.

There are lots of ways of making or choosing representations of a coin that we see in such a way that other people will recognise them as representations of it. Just one of the ways of doing this is by choosing another circular coin or a button, or a medal and presenting it obliquely to other perceivers. (This is an example of what I would characterise as a matching representation). Note that what we see when we are looking at the original tilted circular coin is the original tilted circular coin. It is only when we switch our attention to the matching representation that we see a representation of the original tilted coin.

Matching is not our only representational strategy. We have also found that we can successfully represent a tilted circular coin by making or choosing an elliptical token and presenting it frontally, instead of tilted. (This is an example of what I would characterise as a simulating representation). Note once again that what we see when we are looking at the original tilted coin is the original tilted coin. We do not see an elliptical representation of this coin when we look at the coin; unless, of course, we switch our attention. And reciprocally, when we are looking at and seeing an elliptical representation of a tilted circular coin we are not looking at and seeing the tilted circular coin that it represents.

In general: to see a thing is not (repeat, not!) to see a representation of this thing. To see a thing is to become capable of making or choosing various sorts of very different things, each of which will serve in one way or another as a representation of it. We can switch our attention to a representation that we have made or chosen, but it would be absurd to suggest that when we see a tilted circular coin we also (simultaneously, or alternatively?) see one or other or many of the innumerable possible representations of this coin that we have become disposed to make, to choose, or to accept as viable if they are offered by somebody else.

We cannot see things that have not yet been made. The fact that an accomplished draughtsperson may be habitually disposed to produce a representation of a tilted circular coin by making a frontally presented ellipse on paper does not mean that she is already seeing this ellipse, even before she has drawn it. She may perhaps be said to be envisaging a frontally presented ellipse as the thing that she has become disposed to draw, but envisaging a frontally presented ellipse is importantly different from seeing a frontally presented ellipse, and it is not the immediately pressing topic.


Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Donald, that clarifies a lot.

To think in terms of shapes then – to envisage them - is already to be thinking in terms of representational strategies: to be capable of making visual representations. If it weren’t for representations we wouldn’t perceive the proportional relationships, that are measurable at arms length with a pencil for example, because there would be no advantage whatsoever in doing so.

It has occurred to me for some time now that this whole debate (with appearances) is a complexity in the relationship between two-dimensionality (shapes) and three-dimensionality (objects). Shapes are not forms. If anything shapes are two-dimensional. This requires clarification. Shapes are what are formed through the intersection of two-dimensional space with a three-dimensional object. This is consistent with the mathematical description of an ellipse for instance, which states that an ellipse is a “result of the intersection of a cone by a plane in a way that produces a closed curve.”

Shapes are concepts more than they are objects and as such they are concepts for the production of representations (or else they are two-dimensional aspects of objects).

So, in conclusion: what we ‘see’ when we are inclined to say that we see an ellipse, when what we are actually seeing is a tilted disk, is a strategy for representing a form in such a way that we as a species find it difficult to discriminate between the shape of the representation, in certain circumstances (lighting, viewpoint etc), and the viewed contour of the object represented.

Tilt is a vitally important respect in which things exist in the world and it is therefore vital that we do not perceive flat shapes where forms exist. So learning to draw is not unlearning or un-conditioning conditioned perception but actually adding to what we rightfully know with one of a variety of strategies for representing.

Jim Hamlyn said...

If you’re still there Brian I’d be very interested to know your views on the more recent points - that are hopefully laying the issues out more clearly. Or have you given up in exasperation? I hope not. You strike me as someone who isn’t averse to the odd paradigm shift, or the liminality that invariably accompanies them. Both you and Gillian have posed some really probing questions (as well as spotting some of my more cringe worthy mistakes). Your contributions are really valuable.

Brian said...

In response to Donald’s last paragraph, I disagree - if only on a personal basis. When I look at an object, say a cup or a plate, I cannot help seeing the elliptical shape made by the tilted rim. It is fascinating. It is only then that I envisage how to draw it: and I do not believe that this is a pre-disposition. In fact, it may not be a perfect ellipse in appearance - which is precisely my point. While drawing, one tries to see the exact shape that is being ‘presented’ to the sight, empty of the pre-conceived image that I may be “habitually disposed to produce” as a concept or construct. This is for the visual artist surely the “immediately pressing topic” (or one of them), unless he or she is only concerned about eating what is on the plate, or picking it up, i.e. the immediate material world where the “frailty” becomes all-important .

Quite coincidentally, this chimes with a phenomenological approach to ‘reality’, where the pre-conceived view is ‘suspended’ in order to try to allow the object (and that could be anything at all) to present itself as it is. I would suggest that artists do this all the time, almost automatically.

This is quite simple, and I see no need to complicate seeing a coin unduly with theories about the correct order of perception in the mind, a la Locke.

I am also aware of the difficulties that Ryle saw with language and philosophy, which are actually apparent in our discussion. In addition, his view that ‘mind’ is merely a concept in itself, may be quite apposite.

Contrary to the predominant paradigm in British (and Australian?) art schools, I do not think that art has to somehow catch up with science, or in this case, Darwinian biology, wonderful as it is. We are now in the 21st century, not the nineteenth. If anything, science needs to catch up with the intuitive aspects of human nature, to which art properly belongs. Reason and intuition are, according to Spinoza, two redeeming tools at the disposal of mankind. The balance has been too much in favour of reason so far in our evolution, especially in the last two centuries. Reason is essential, but now we need a little more of the other to complement it, and make progress.

We are talking, in the main, about perception and representation. But there is another meaning of ‘representation’, and that is how things in the world are ‘represented’ to the individual. This can be easily understood if you consider the word ‘mis-represented’, and how all kinds of mis-representations can clutter what I would call a clear perception of what actually is there, whether the “thing” is a coin, a media item, or a belief, or a 'reality'. So I do not necessarily agree that to “see a thing is not to see a representation of this thing”. We are often completely unaware that we are ‘seeing’ a representation. As I’ve said before, the ‘thing in itself’ is not so readily perceived, or apprehended. That has been one of the main driving motives for Western philosophy, science, and art, for a long time. But we need to approach it now in a slightly different way.

Of course, the above is only my opinion. I’m grateful to you Jim, and Donald, and Gillian for your views which have caused me to think: not a bad thing.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian,

“I cannot help seeing the elliptical shape made by the tilted rim. It is fascinating. It is only then that I envisage how to draw it: and I do not believe that this is a pre-disposition.”

We can’t introspect perception. We need to take another route. Neuroscience may now be the only viable means to some answers, nonetheless neuroscience is predicated on philosophical foundations (as is our theorisation of drawing and representation more generally – as we are finding out) so we need to be sure we do not start out with the wrong premises or else we could end up like Pythagoras inventing all kinds of unnecessarily elaborate explanations for the motions of the cognitive spheres. Donald’s theory may be wrong or it may be inaccurate but unless we take it absolutely seriously and pose all of the right questions and consider all of the implications we might, just might, be taking a massively wrong turn, or rather we might be continuing with a fallacious intuition that will waylay us indefinitely (us being culture in the very widest sense: human understanding if you like).

“…this chimes with a phenomenological approach to ‘reality’, where the pre-conceived view is ‘suspended’ in order to try to allow the object (and that could be anything at all) to present itself as it is. I would suggest that artists do this all the time, almost automatically.”

Actually Brian, this theory puts the phenomenological approach into profound difficulty. As much as phenomenology wishes to bracket off the preconceived it is a lost cause. Let’s examine why. For phenomenology to be viable it would need to strip away metaphor entirely. But language is predicated upon metaphor. It is predicated on embodied – mainly visually weighted - meaning, it is entirely, or so overwhelmingly partial that I fear the project is a hopelessly lost cause (though not without moments of epiphany – too few for my liking, but we’ve been down that route before). Sculpture, I might suggest, would be a much better way to do phenomenology. Your suggestion that artists do this all the time automatically probably has a quantum of truth about it. However, Brook’s theory asks a more fundamental question (and I will probably get it a little wrong but here goes): to what degree can two things be said to be absolutely indiscriminable such that any being, no matter how perceptually well endowed, would find it impossible to distinguish them apart? If we can’t begin to answer this question then we can’t begin to answer what an object is in itself.

“I do not think that art has to somehow catch up with science”

I’ll draw your attention to a much earlier discussion about Art#1 and Art#2. In that discussion Brook contends that Art#1 is not some tradition of human endeavour but rather the unexpected emergence of exploitable memetic innovation. In this sense you are quite right: Art#2 doesn’t need to catch up with science at all. But without taking on the discoveries of science, as art has invariably done, it is unlikely to arrive at much in the way of Art#1. Traditions rarely lead to innovations. Not that there’s anything wrong or unimportant about traditions. They just tend to ossify that’s all and we (arguably) need to counterbalance them, as you yourself suggest:

“Reason is essential, but now we need a little more of the other to complement it, and make progress.”

“But there is another meaning of ‘representation’, and that is how things in the world are ‘represented’ to the individual. […] …the ‘thing in itself’ is not so readily perceived, or apprehended. That has been one of the main driving motives for Western philosophy, science, and art, for a long time.”

Everything hangs on our conceptualisation of perception: as either a response to sensory input or as an acquisition (or mediated acquisition) of sensory input. Could you elaborate on this point (“the main driving motive…”) specifically because I think it is going to turn out to be revealing of our underlying difficulty?

Anonymous said...

Whoa! I feel like I’ve just arrived back at school after a short absence only to find that I’ve got a huge amount of catching up to do. There's still something troubling me though. If I hold my finger close to my eye and focus on the distance, my finger appears to be very blurred even though I know that it isn’t. My finger doesn't turn all fuzzy when I bring it near my eye so how can this be explained other than by appearances?


Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, it’s interesting isn’t it, but it’s explained not by appearances but by blur itself. It’s not ‘apparently’ blurry, it is blurry. The lens of your eye is focussed on the distance which means that the light from very near objects (your finger) is being scattered, causing the blur. More interesting perhaps and curious is the fact that you could easily make a simulating representation of blur (a smudged drawing for instance) but I’d wager that you’d find it impossible to produce a matching representation of it. One of the most helpful ways to think of the difference between simulating and matching representations is to think of the difference between images and sculptures. Images tend to rely heavily - though not exclusively - on simulating attributes (height, width, depth, orientation even colour – though that’s a bit more tricky) whereas representational sculptures (think Ron Mueck) rely heavily on matching attributes (form, scale, texture etc). The reason it would be impossible to produce a matching representation of blur is because blur is not a property of things, it’s a property of light, and whilst things can be transposed onto a flat surfaces whilst retaining surprising coherence, the reverse is not the case, especially for light (most likely because, being pure energy, light is zero-dimensional).

It’s also important to mention that the switch from 3D to 2D effected by representations compromises significantly more than just depth; you also get significant changes in scale, colour (again this is more complex than I fully understand), tone (another quite complex one) orientation, texture, reflectance (related both to tone and colour), and no doubt many other attributes (I don’t have an exhaustive list). All of these attributes either have to be simulated or the circumstances have to be very carefully controlled to make them match (ie: you could draw a ruler that matched a real ruler as regards length).

A further significant piece of Brook’s representational jigsaw that we haven’t got to yet is symbolising. Symbolising is the form of representation in which we can designate anything to represent anything else – so long as we all agree. This is the predominant form of representation used by language. Brook uses these three forms of representation (Matching, Simulating and Symbolising) to propose a theory of the evolution of language beginning with matching through simulating and finally onto symbolising. There’s more but this is plenty for our current needs.

Anonymous said...

How much do you bet I couldn't produce a matching representation of my blurry finger?


Jim Hamlyn said...

It's not yours you'd have to make a matching representation of but mine, and how could we verify the fact even if it did - which it wouldn't?

Anonymous said...

A hologram!


Jim Hamlyn said...

That’s inspired Gillian, but I’m not sure how on earth such a thing could be set up so as to make it indiscriminable from the blur of a finger held up to one’s eye. Nice try though.

Brian said...

Jim, I wouldn’t worry about “cringe-worthy mistakes”. And “epiphany” is a nice word, and shares a root with ‘phenomenon’.

Seriously, you say about Gillian’s (or is it your) finger “It’s not ‘apparently’ blurry, it is blurry.” In saying this you are adopting the position that your seem to be refuting. The finger itself is not, and cannot be, blurry. This is not only rational, and common-sensible, it is scientifically true. If you say the finger is blurry (and this is where language comes in, not in the use of “metaphor” which, according to you “we need to strip away entirely”), then you are falling straight into Ryle’s observation about the way we use language, and it’s a “howler”. Either that or you are more of a phenomenalist than Berkeley.

The idea that you can “strip away metaphors” is unrealistic. Language depends entirely upon simile, metaphor, trope, shibboleth, and so on, untold subtleties: if the logical positivists were not trying to get to the bottom of that, then I don’t know what they were doing. And Derrida observed, there is no everyday common language that we all understand, and can rely upon to be exact. In science, apart from logic, it only exists as highly specialised language - equations, formulae, and so on. The logical positivists tried to reduce it to logic, and eventually came to admit that language was at best ambiguous. I think you agree on this from what you wrote above. I”ll come back to your point about the “lost cause” of Phenomenology later.

This brings us back to Donald Brooke, and the coin. Donald, despite everything, insists that there is a ‘coin’. Now, here I’m expanding, as requested, on my sentence “the main driving motive (...)”. The object in your photograph is not a ‘coin’. Scientifically speaking it is a metal disc, possibly nickel or an alloy of some sort. It will have an atomic structure, a mass, energy, and so on. All of these reductions can be expressed mostly, but not entirely, in the language of science. You still need some verbs, nouns, syntax, etc. to communicate (still ambiguously) what it ‘is’. If no human beings existed, these metals would still be there - although not in the shape of a coin - but there would be nobody around to ‘name’ them. Look at the coin. You know, right away that it is a ‘coin’. It’s circular (although it appears elliptical at an angle), it is shiny and small, it has letters and symbols upon it. It is a coin (this [is] should be bracketed). But a ‘coin’ does not exist in nature. It has been fashioned by humans, and it requires human perception to identify it as a ‘coin’.

But Donald, in his pursuit of how the mind perceives its shape, solidity, and so on - its ‘reality’ - overlooks its ‘coin-ness’, which he assumes to be ‘there’ as part and parcel of the object: e.g. “The tilted coin that we are seeing”; “when a tilted circular coin is presented to us”, and similar references. It [is] a “coin”, but only because of the ‘intentionality’ of human consciousness. There is no coin in nature, just as Heidegger said that “nature has no history”. We supply the ‘history’: there is no fundamental element called ‘history’, without humans to supply its structure and give it meaning. There is no ‘coin’ without humans to supply it with meaning, not to mention value, even if circular pieces of metal had been lying around on the ground since the dawn of time (which they haven’t to my knowledge) and given value by our ancestors.

(cont) ...

Brian said...

(con) ... You might also say that a simple description of it such as its shape, its composition, its function as a unit of monetary value, is a very ‘thin’ description (Ryle), but when you take into consideration its history, its context, its name, its specific size and shape, its actual value, and how that value has origins (the ‘florin’ from trade with Florence), and the psychological and political implications of ‘value’, and so on, you get a more ‘thick’ description.

Now, in order to separate the ‘thing in itself’ from all of this rich intentionality - which is not strictly speaking “offered by somebody else” (Donald’s objection), but also by you - you can look at the coin. Go ahead, look at it. Tell me, where - at what point in space - does your ‘perception’ of the coin, with all its subtlety of language, meaning, value, scientific knowledge, history, at what point does that end and the ‘thing in itself’ begin. Or, to put in in reverse, at what point does the ‘thing in itself’ end, and you begin. Or if you prefer, a slightly different question, where does its purely sensible perception end and its inferential and referential perception begin. And remember, there is no "ghost in the machine".

I think if you can answer all these, you’ll get every Nobel prize going.

Regarding what I said about art and science, I’m not suggesting that art ignores science and carries on regardless in some sort of “tradition”. Art has always incorporated science into its methods, and its subjects. I see no reason for this to change. My point is a broader one, that intuition - or that side of human nature - sees far more than we can know through ratiocination, and that kind of knowledge is not accessible to science right now, not even how it works. You can know (or see) in an instant, intuitively, something that science cannot replicate, and words cannot express. You can try to relate it to neuroscience, which is interesting, and you might reduce every thought, every intuition, to observable data, communication between cells, or whatever, but you still be left with the question of consciousness: am I part of that consciousness, is it part of me, are we all part of the same thing?

I think by the time science catches up with intuition and imagination, we will have moved far beyond the need to do so.

Brian said...

And here's the answer to Donald's conundrum. As long as there are two things, and not one, they are discriminable. Take a VW, for example. Even if they are the same in every respect, and can't be told apart, they are not the same thing. If you know there are two, and mistake one for the other, it does not matter, there are still two. If you don't know, or one is out of sight, there are still two. If you think the only one has passed, and crossing the street you are knocked down by the other, too bad: that's "frailty". There are still two VW's. By virtue of there being two, they are different things, and cannot be the same 'thing'. How's that! (Ask Parmenides).

Jim Hamlyn said...

Brian, You say that I shouldn’t worry about cringe-worthy mistakes and then immediately you point out my most cringe-worthy mistake of all (I do appreciate your doing it though – much as it pains me). What should be obvious (though I hope not too obvious) is that I’m still struggling to put all the pieces together myself and there are times when I inevitably lapse into my old phenomenalistic habits – I don’t deny it.

I hope you’ll forgive me but I’m not going to try to deal with your two earlier posts – they’re far too ramified (too many rams – or is it rabbits!?) for my abilities and I have no designs on a Nobel prize let alone “every one going”. A few quotes will have to do what I’m unable to. First Ryle (fitting homophony: “first trial”):

“And I must also say, in his [Heidegger’s] behalf, that while it is my personal opinion that qua First Philosophy Phenomenology is at present heading for bankruptcy and disaster and will end either in self-ruinous Subjectivism or in a windy mysticism, I hazard this opinion with humility and with reservations since I am well aware how far I have fallen short of understanding this difficult work.”

I have a wee collection of audio clips of contemporary philosopher’s thoughts in Heidegger and Derrida. I’ll stick them on my blog when I get a chance. Next a couple of quotes from Brook:

“To say that two things match in every sensorily discriminable respect is not to say, however, that these things are identical (ie, that they are indistinguishable in every respect, and are therefore one and the same thing). Two peas in a pod, or successive ball-bearings off the same production line, might seem to be sensorily indiscriminable (anyhow to the likes of us) in every respect except for the different spatio-temporal locations they occupy. In a perceptual encounter we are caused by one of them to direct our gaze one way for clear focus, and to direct our gaze in a slightly different direction for clear focus on the other. So even in respect of spatio-temporal location two things that are otherwise sensorily indiscriminable in every respect may nevertheless be sensorily discriminable (as well as distinguishable) in respect of their spatio-temporal location. But not necessarily so. If we were organisms that went round in circles, measuring time as starting all again with each complete revolution (because we forget everything that happened previously), and passing over the same spot at the end of each revolution, a malicious manipulator might put different ball bearings in this spot each time we get there. In that case we would be sensorily unable to discriminate between distinguishably different ball bearings, even in respect of their putatively different spatio-temporal locations.

The basic point is really quite simple. Distinguishing things is a matter of listing respects in which we believe that two things differ in reality, quite irrespective of any sensory-discriminating powers we may or may not possess. Distinguishing things is an intellectual enterprise manifesting knowledge and belief; it is not essentially a sensorily driven enterprise. Being able to distinguish things is one of the felicities bestowed upon us by the possession of a common language. Being able to distinguish things must NOT be confused with actually sensorily discriminating things, despite the fact that there is no way in which we could ever have acquired the capacity to distinguish things if it were not that we are able to sensorily discriminate in some respects by displaying regularly responsive behaviours.”


Jim Hamlyn said...

”The reason why this possibility [that two things that are practically indiscriminable in some respect may be, in reality, indistinguishable in this respect] is A REALLY BIG DEAL is because it puts us on the track of finding out what there is (what there really is) in the universe. It launches the metaphysical enterprise called science. The quest is to nail down those respects in which absolutely nobody and absolutely nothing could possibly discriminate under any circumstances between a thing of sort A and a thing of sort B, if they really matched in this respect.

What sorts of respects are we talking about here. Mass? Spin? charge? Are we into strings? gluons? antimatter? dark energy? The fact that I have only a few rather vague ideas, and need to trust the scientists, is irrelevant. It's still a big deal, and it all turns on the non-verbal representing that provokes discrimination-failure between things of different sorts in certain respects, even for customers who are fitted with those special glasses when they come in at the door.”
[both quotes from personal correspondence]

“We know now that theory is more than a general description of what happens or a statement of probabilities of what might or might not happen – even when it claims to be nothing more than that, as in some of the newer behavioural sciences. It entails, explicitly or implicitly, a model of what it is that one is theorising about, a set of propositions that, taken in ensemble, yield occasional predictions about things. Armed with a theory, one is guided towards what one will treat as data, is predisposed to treat some data as more relevant than others. The theory is also a way of stating tersely what one already knows without the burden of detail. In this sense it is a canny and economical way of keeping in mind a vast amount while thinking about a very little.”

Biran said...

Jim, this is really interesting, and it certainly does help bring into focus the “underlying difficulty” you alluded to earlier.

First of all, I‘m grateful to you for as usual supplying me with catalytic ideas, difficult as they are to work through. I’m glad you brought up Ryle, as it prompted me to revisit what little I know of him. I’m now trying to get access to some of his work online through RGU. The quote about Heidegger and Phenomenology is interesting, because Ryle’s early work was influenced by Husserl. And indeed Heidegger is difficult, very much so. But the thing to understand here about Phenomenology is that it is by no means an established method, nor even a homogeneity of theories. To my mind, Heidegger is important but flawed in some vital ways (you could say the same thing of all philosophies). The strands of what is called Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory have taken many twists and turns since Husserl gave it impetus in the early years of the last century. I would stress, also, again that Phenomenology and Phenomenalism are quite different, although similar in that their emphasis appears, on the surface, to be subjective.

However, the idea of it being “self-ruinous Subjectivism or windy mysticism” is just too easy a response, and I am pretty much aware of the kind of video criticism you are likely to post, which in my opinion leaves a lot to be desired (to put it mildly).

The quote from Donald is especially apposite, as the first paragraph coincides almost exactly with my response to the conundrum (my last paragraph, above), and demonstrates Donald’s correct understanding of the issues surrounding the ‘thing in itself’. But when he gets to the second part of it - “But not necessarily so (...) ”, he leaves orbit, and my analogy of the VW’s fits, because it does not matter if the ball bearings appear to be in a different time and space: they are not, and cannot be. There is no way that something false can ever be true. But I’m afraid I can’t grasp where Donald goes from there. Either:

Biran said...

(a) What, in my opinion, he is missing is the equally simple insight that by separating the sensory from the intellectual (thus envisioning the problem he says is “at stake”) he is ironically making the very mistake identified by Ryle, viz. creating (or re-enforcing) the illusion of the “ghost in the machine”. (His reference to a “malicious manipulator” could even be seen as a kind of negative sublimation of this notion; and apart from the reference to “common language” the whole thing is pure Descartes). But instead of following the Cartesian ‘doubt’, he then reprises in a new form the status-quo, the “simple” idea that it is possible to discriminate between what is real and what is not by way of - what sounds like - common-sense, not reason. And he goes on to conflate this common form or ‘reason’ and the “metaphysical enterprise of science”. (This is, in my opinion, essentially a false notion, as is the notion of a common language. It is simplistic, not “simple”).

And he is in favour of “science” and “theory”: His advocation of theory in the sense he describes could be interpreted as scary.


(b) All of the above, except that he is suspicious of “science” and “theory”: a quite understandable position, in some ways.

This may be because you have quoted him out of context? I’m not sure. But in any case, it does not seem to me to substantially touch upon Phenomenology or Phenomenalism, as I understand them. I get the sense that he is an artist who wants to engage with science, and at the same time does not want to? The answer to this is, as I’ve tried to say so many times, art is not beholden to science, or its methodology. It is different. It already has its own language. A mixture of the two is neither good art, nor good science. Unfortunately this is not understood at all by the present research paradigm in British-style art schools, where this kind of research has been adopted as a means to acquire both credibility and financial support. Art's 'new knowledge' does not fit this type.

I would have to read his book to get a fair understanding, if this is not the correct one.

“Theory” is simply like scaffolding around a building. When work is completed the scaffolding will be taken away to reveal the finished building, and discarded. It is not, and cannot be, an end in itself. Imagination and vision are much more integral to scientific progress, and human progress in general, because they are a dream given by nature which a child could understand.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I’m glad you’re looking further into Ryle – he’s remarkably underrated. Perhaps most relevant to our discussion are his ideas around Knowing How and Knowing That. As you read him I’m sure you’ll begin to see that Brook’s theory is only a modest extension of Ryle’s ideas about what is involved in knowing.

All that is being argued is that to see is to know something about the thing seen. But it is not so simple as to know that the coin is reddish or copper or tilted or circular or conductive or reflective etc or, more controversially, that it is in some apparent state between circular or flat or that it is giving off photons in a certain matrix that can be clearly recognised as partially self-occluded or any other contorted explanation of the physics of what is projected onto our retina.

“Understanding is part of knowing how. The knowledge that is required for understanding intelligent performances of a specific kind is some degree of competence in performances of that kind.” –Ryle

Brook is arguing against naïve conceptions of seeing as merely a process of recognising that something is red; of having the same bundle of neurons triggered as were triggered last time we saw red. He is arguing that to see red is to know how to go about offering a representation of red. Offering ellipses for tilted disks is a very complex form of representation, one that is unlikely to occur to anyone other than those who have learned the strategies of perspectival representation and, as you know, these don’t come easy.

One last try by way of analogy, one that I hope you will recognise. When I was learning German many years ago I had tremendous difficulty perceiving the differences between “Ü” and “U”, and “Ö” and “O”. I distinctly remember asking the sister of my German girlfriend of the time to repeat these different sounds. Over and over again I implored her to repeat them. The whole situation seemed a farce. I thought they were making fun of me. Try as I might, I couldn’t hear the difference. Of course the sounds were entering into my ears, that much is clear, but my perception was of identical sounds. How did I learn to hear them? By making lots of attempts to copy – but to subtly vary – what I heard and to get my listeners to verify what I had produced. When I got it wrong they let me know about it, “No, listen” they’d say and again they’d repeat it. But it wasn’t the listening that helped me, it was the trying and the feedback I got that made the difference. And as I learned to repeat the functions, I slowly but surely began to recognise the difference. I’d learnt the strategies necessary to produce the required sound: I knew how to make it and in doing so I became able to perceive what now seems like a blatantly obvious difference. It would be absurd to say that I just learnt to listen more carefully?

Brian said...

Yes, but isn't drawing the ellipse making it, or performing it, re-creating it, and understanding it other than by mere seeing?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Excellent, now we’re back to examining the theory.
To draw an ellipse as a substitute for a tilted disk is to create a simulating representation. It seems highly probable that the first form of representation to occur to any creature intent on offering a representation would be a matching one. I was playing with my wee son today who is in the process of learning the names of colours. If I ask him what colour something is he automatically says “green” which is probably a wise choice considering the probabilities involved. But does this mean that he doesn’t know green yet? And more to the point, does this mean that he doesn’t see green yet? No, because, as I found out, if I set up a line of coloured bricks and show him various coloured objects he’ll point to the right coloured brick every time. He can clearly discriminate colours very well, he just hasn’t learnt to associate the symbolic representations (names) for the colours yet.

So, back to your question: drawing an ellipse isn’t understanding the ellipse I’m afraid, no. What is there to understand? What one is desiring to understand is the coin, the drawing, or the process of drawing, not some intangible ‘appearance’. Drawing an ellipse is understanding how to use an ellipse as a strategy for representing a tilted circular object. That fact surely stands even if Brook is entirely wrong. Oh, and while I’m at it; it strikes me that your question raises a deeper question in the reverse direction. If drawing is not a strategy for making simulating representations but is instead a means of describing the world through appearances then how can understanding a circular object by way of a ellipse be understanding the circular object? Surely an engineer’s drawing would be a far more revealing representation?

Brian said...

When I draw a tilted coin, I do not intentionally draw an ellipse as a “strategy for representing” the coin. That would be secondary. I draw an ellipse because that is what I see. If I did not know what it was called, if I looked carefully I would still draw an ‘ellipse’, or a roughly oval shape. I would not draw a circle unless I wanted to represent the coin symbolically. We intuitively “understand[...] the tilted circular object” in the world by its whole form, which of course includes an ‘ellipse’.

I feel it is important to remember here why we are compelled to ‘represent’ the coin in the first place: not as scientists, or engineers but as artists. The “intangible appearance” is not a by-product of something else, an adjunct to its usefulness to science, or for survival. As artists, we are not concerned with this 'as such'. We already know about the everyday reality of the coin, and our own. That is precisely what we want to explore, and go beyond. (cont...)

Brian said...


This “intangible appearance” is that which produces the initial interest, for the visual artist. It is also part and parcel of the object as we encounter it. I repeat, we do not draw because we want to know something about the object in the quotidian sense: it is because we are intrigued by, interested in, appreciative of it’s visual reality, and what it might mean to our own sense of reality. As you say so confidently, “what is there to understand”? In my opinion, in art what we are trying to ‘understand’ by way of a different kind of ‘knowing’ - one which allows things to be, not possess them through representation - is not just what something ‘is’ in the material world, but its significance to our inner being. 

Here, everything else associated with the ‘coin’ can also come into play. This is not “solipsism” - far from it: unless you think that all art is “self-ruinous Subjectivism”. What it means to me might also strike a chord with you, and vice-versa.

Taking something out of its original context is one way of ‘paying attention’ to the object, and our response to it - as in your own work. There are other ways of doing this - painting being one, drawing another, and there are many more, as you said. Perhaps this 'attention' is the skill that other disciplines need to nurture in their own way, whatever that may be? Then, there would be no perceived need for drawing as a 'core skill'. This I would concede, but not the rationale for nurturing it.

I’m afraid I will have to withdraw from the discussion now. Thanks for your patience, Jim.

Jim Hamlyn said...

At this point the impatient teacher throws their hands up and exclaims "This student is unteachable!" As one patient teacher speaking to another I'll say that I fully understand your frustration and all the unbidden emotions it brings with it. What recourse do you have really when it comes down to it other than to either agree despite the plain facts of your sight or to squander further intellectual and emotional effort in an enterprise that offers little more than turmoil to your empirically grounded certainty that what you see is what you see? This way lies absurdity and incredulity you tell yourself, you are best off sticking with what you know and rejecting some crackpot idea that nobody else gives a damn about anyway.

I've never taught this theory before so my experience of the strategies for representing it are necessarily limited. I'll make one last attempt and if that makes no difference and leaves you to prefer the comfort of silence (or its other less flattering face) then we can lay the discussion to rest.

What might help, what might be a Brunelleschi mirror in this circumstance is to think of the appearance as an independent thing in the world ie: to think of the appearance as something that could be measured in three dimensional space. You will surely agree that it is not a entity in 3D space. Put that knowledge aside though, bracket it off if you like but as far as possible try to envisage the possibility that the appearance is not an appearance but a genuine property of the 3D universe. Once you've got that settled as a possibility then give it a name to identify its uniqueness. Let's call it an "ellypse". Ask yourself now how the ellypse differs from an ellipse. It's not the same is it? How could it be, it's 3D whereas an ellipse is flat. It has a name in this 3D world because it is a unique property of this 3D world and as such it makes complete sense to use different words to describe them because they are different.

Now, flipping back to reality. You need to ask yourself what properties the appearance of an ellipse has and you have to describe those properties in terms of what we know and can publicly verify about 3D space not 2D. Most of all you have to distinguish between what you see and what you could draw. Furthermore you need to do this without turning the world into one gigantic flat representation, though it might be instructive to ask yourself - even with one eye covered - whether a giant hi resolution backlit photo could ever fool you that you were looking into reality (really?).

One last try via a point already raised but stumbled over. Imagine we were to say that the blur we see when we hold our finger up to our eye were the same as the blur we see in a flat photo. That's plainly nonsense isn't it? But this is effectively the gigantic misapprehension that you and everyone else is under. I can't state it any more forcefully than this Brian other than by saying what any child could testify and any scientist could confirm: the blurry mark on the photo isn't actually blurry. To be truly blurry it would have to be doing what your blurry finger does; it would have to be comprised of scattered light which it is not. Saying that it has the same appearance and giving this appearance the same name is an egregious blunder that anyone with a sensitivity to the sensory and a desire to make sense of the world owes it to them-self to contemplate very carefully indeed. "Look harder!" says the impatient teacher.

Anonymous said...

"Do things we see look to have properties of looking certain ways? If a given way, call it W, is the property of looking a certain way, that way had better be way W; it can hardly be the case that the way something looks is the property of looking some other way! But if way W is the property of looking way W, then the property will be the property of looking to have a certain property, namely itself! And, what might seem worse, the property W will be identical with the property looks W, which will be identical with the property looks to look W, which will be identical with the property looks to look to look W, and so on ad infinitum. (Footnote: An objection along these lines was presented to me by Zoltan Szabò; it took a while for me to feel its force.)"
– Sydney Shoemaker, ‘On the way things appear.’

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