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A Natural History of VisionReview - A Natural History of Vision
by Nicholas J. Wade
MIT Press, 1998
Review by Paul J. Canis, Ph.D.
May 4th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 18)

According to Plato, we are a perpetually vexed species. The things we are drawn to in the world are pure ideas – forms such as justice, harmony, law, number, shape, and beauty. Without the forms, and our seeking of them, our lives would be meaningless. But the only way we can encounter these forms in the world is through our senses, and therein lies the tragedy. The forms are perfect, simple, and whole, but as we go out into the world of sense we encounter imperfection, complexity, and relative appearance. As we would encounter, for example, a series of beautiful paintings, we risk becoming bewildered by the multiplicity of appearances and aspects of each painting that we see, and losing sight, as it were, of what draws us to these paintings in the first place, the pure idea of the beautiful.

While Plato’s position regarding the senses is, of course, famous for its stubborn distrust of what we simply see, feel, taste, and hear, nevertheless philosophers and scientists have always understood the basic problem to which Plato was drawn. The senses are our avenues for those rarified things we call awareness, experience, and knowledge, but yet the senses are mere organs, fixed by all-too-physical characteristics and processes. And what is always striking is how the more we realize that our senses are so thoroughly rooted in the latter realm, the more astounding becomes our many and everyday accomplishments in the realms of awareness, experience, and knowledge.

Nicholas J. Wade’s A Natural History of Vision is a very nice sourcebook of excerpts, diagrams, and sketches from philosophical and scientific writings on vision, from the time of Plato and Aristotle up through the early 19th century. Wade chooses to cut off his compilation at that point because, as he argues, developments in optics in the early 19th century gradually turned that science into an experimental one. Prior to that transformation, the study of optics and vision was merely "observational," meaning that philosophers and scientists focused on trying to observe and explain the "natural" and everyday phenomena of vision, and the use of scientific apparatus that would modify and/or break apart how we normally see was kept to a minimum.

Wade’s book is broken into chapters that address the major aspects of vision: Light and the Eye; Color; Subjective Visual Phenomena; Motion; Binocularity; Space; Illusions. Each chapter is then broken into smaller sections covering different phenomena within that aspect. For example, in the chapter covering subjective visual phenomena, there are sections on afterimages, dark and light adaption, visual persistence, pressure figures, and other events of vision that depend on subjective or individual conditions. It makes for intriguing reading to see how a trivial visual phenomena such as pressure figures (if you are in a dark room, and press your finger against your closed eye, you will see patterns of light and color that appear to correspond to the amount and location of the pressure) has actually aroused the speculation and curiosity of thinkers ranging from Lucretious, to Descartes, to Newton, and to Goethe. What is valuable about the method of organization Wade has chosen is that it gives the reader a real taste of the way a natural scientist viewed his or her work in the age prior to the extreme specialization of scientific inquiry in the modern age. By seeing all the different kinds and aspects of vision broken up into categories and and lists, and seeing then the observations that thinkers and researchers made for each topic, one gets a feel for what it would have meant to be knowledgeable about vision in the time of Aristotle, Acquinas, Goethe, and others.

The excerpts that Wade presents range from a single sentence to a full paragraph, and are always presented chronologically in each subsection, with the earlier authors coming first. These excerpts are illustrative in two ways. First, one can see the development from one author to the next, and how certain ideas, preconceptions, or approaches to the phenomena in question shift and change. Second, in even the most banal of topics, such as that of the effects and causes of squinting, the excerpts more often than not give the reader a glimpse into the general conception of the nature of perception and sensibility that is at work in the philosopher’s and scientist’s thinking taken as a whole. But it is here that it is important to realize what this volume does not offer. Being simply a sourcebook of excerpts, the reader is left to his or her own imagination or research to truly understand, for example, why the ancients understood the eye to have a fire within it, and how, and for what reasons, this conception would have been abandoned or modified. In other words, one cannot expect to find in a collection of excerpts an exhibition of the underlying history of philosophical, scientific, and even spiritual transformations that in fact anchor why a given thinker or scientist approached their subject as they did. Additionally, it is of the nature of an excerpt that it only gives the barest hint or glimpse of the philosopher’s or scientist’s overall project and worldview. What Descartes said, for example, about the nature of vision and why he said it are two different things.

But as a kind of reader to stimulate the imagination and reflection of either a philosopher or researcher interested in the phenomena of our sight, this book is a valuable tool. The author includes an extensive bibliography (one can imagine), as well as introductory paragraphs for each chapter and section situating and explaining the phenomena at question. A very nice work, and eminently enjoyable for anyone seeking to understand the historical depth of our philosophical and scientific curiosity about what it means for us to be both sensing and knowing beings.

Paul J. Canis recently completed his Ph.D. in philosophy, and is working on a book on the history of the aesthetics of the sublime from Kant to Nietzsche. His interests include the phenomenology of perception, German Idealism and Romanticism, and the aesthetics of industrial artifacts.


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