Tuesday, 1 October 2013

In Direct Realism

An indirect portrait
An oil painting of the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid looks down from the wall of the room at Glasgow University that carries his name. Ask any member of the philosophy staff, as I did a couple of weeks ago, whether the painting is the original and you may well get the same answer: “I’m not sure… I think so”.  

Thomas Reid held the title of Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University from 1764 – 81 and is renowned for his disagreement with David Hume over the question of whether we experience reality directly or only as ideas in the mind, as Hume claimed.

By 1940 the British Analytic philosopher J. L. Austin outlined several significant misgivings with the linguistic snake in the grass known to philosophers as "indirect” perception.  He remarks: "The expression can cover too many rather different cases to be just what is wanted in any particular case."

When viewing a painted portrait, nobody would ever seriously argue that we see the sitter directly. But if Reid's stuffed head hung on the wall of Glasgow University, like a trophy stag in a Scottish baronial house, there would be little doubt (excepting the Hume’s of this world) about whether we saw the philosopher directly.

To receive something directly is for it to be available by the shortest possible route. Face to face communication is direct in a way that letters and emails will never be. But what about video phone technologies? Are Skype or FaceTime more direct than a letter? Austin would be quick to warn that individual cases are unlikely to help us in elucidating the broader question.

Perhaps the most important factor in any evaluation of directness is the degree to which something is mediated. The more mediation is involved, the more distrustful we are likely to be, and the more indirect we are likely to judge any particular experience to be. Mediation opens the door to influence and this enables distortion and - most notably where human agency is involved - the possibility of manipulation and deceit.

Perhaps one of the principal reasons anyone might be interested in an original object as opposed its reproduction is because originals are valued for their directness, for their irreducible proximity to their point of origin. All forms of human intervention or technical reproduction are thought to contaminate or dilute this directness and to devalue the result. It should be noted though that this ‘sense’ of directness is in many ways a notional one. Without doubt there are numerous objects in the world that are believed to be originals but which are in fact copies, replicas or fakes. No doubt there are also originals in circulation that are believed to be of uncertain origin. Directness is something we attribute to artefacts and is not always – or even often - something that is borne upon their face, as the portrait hanging in the Reid room of Glasgow University clearly attests.

Sir Henry Raeburn's original
What better place for a portrait of a well known and respected philosopher than a university philosophy department? But then again, if the staff and students are unconcerned about its provenance then perhaps a reproduction is a perfect substitute. When I saw the painting hanging in the Reid room it just didn’t seem likely that it could be the original. The lack of security or attribution, the poor lighting, tatty d├ęcor and my vague suspicion that the original had been painted by one of Scotland’s most venerated painters, Sir Henry Raeburn, all suggested that this must be a copy. A little online detective work confirmed my suspicions. The painting hanging in the Reid room is a skilful copy attributed to the English painter James Cranke Jr. Even more interesting is the fact that the ‘original’, held by the Hunterian Art Gallery (part of Glasgow University), was painted in the year of Reid’s death from a preparatory portrait that is now in the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire.  Some would say, this preparatory study, also created by Raeburn, is the much better - and certainly the more direct - of the three portraits.

Sir Henry Raeburn's "summary" portrait, 1796


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