Tuesday, July 30, 2013
The Socratic philosophers regarded sight as the most perfect of the senses (see Hans Jonas’ superb collection of essays, The Phenomenon of Life). This judgment rested on two observations. One is that sight, more than any of the other senses, gives us the best, immediate grasp of what each thing is. The other is that sight allows us to observe something without necessarily interacting with it.
I have spent most of the last month in the company of mountains, in the Bighorns in north central Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, and finally a short side trip to Devil’s Tower. Viewing mountains as I approached and circled them gave me more reasons to agree with the ancients.
I backpacked in and camped not far from Lost Twin Lakes in the Bighorns. This is a magnificent cirque rising about two thousand feet above the alpine lakes. The upper lake is about 10,300 feet. Our camp was about a thousand feet lower than that.
In the photo above, you are looking across the lower lake at the central and most impressive face in the cirque. This was my third visit to this hallowed ground, but for some reason it was the first time I noticed how deceptive the view is. It appears as if the scree field beginning at the bottom of the central face goes all the way down to the edge of the lake in view. In fact, there is another lake between the camera and the rock wall. It is hidden from view by the rise at the distant shore.
This is the problem of the middle ground, something that you cover if ever you study Renaissance art history. It is fairly easy to draw or paint the foreground and the background. Fitting in the middle ground is so difficult that many medieval painters went to great lengths to hide it or simply ignored it altogether.
It strikes me that this has deep philosophical implications. When someone tries to see the world as it is, it tends to present itself either as what immediately surrounds the observer or as the larger horizon in which the immediate surroundings are set. This leaves a gap between the particular, up close reality and the big picture. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand how the human scale fits into the whole of things.
Moreover, the big picture is always hiding more than it reveals. No matter how clear the larger image (or concept) of the whole is, it is always incomplete. The philosopher Leo Strauss thought that this might be an insurmountable obstacle to wisdom. Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinions about the whole (which is to say, perspectives on it) with knowledge of the whole. To do that, one would have to have not only an accurate view of the big picture but an equally accurate view of all the parts and how they fit together. This is probably not something that we can achieve; hence, philosophy will always be the pursuit and never the accomplishment of wisdom.
It strikes me that this existential fact presents itself in all the questions I am interested in. How can we understand living organisms both as they present themselves to common sense observation and as they fit into the world of inorganic physics? It may be that viewing organisms either way necessarily obscures something essential in the other.
Trying to do what can never be done is a special case of what is uniquely human. The more general case is doing something that can be done but is hard when we have no obvious reason to do it. My son and I walked sixteen miles in two days for the privilege of eating freeze dried food and sleeping in a thin skinned tent in bear country. Yes, Heart Lake was very beautiful and we spent our evening walking around deep thermal pools (about 190 degrees) not far from camp. We were rewarded when a small geyser announced its presence by spewing steam and water thirty feet into the air. Of course, we enjoyed the same kind of sights down lower with board walks for comfort and only a few yards to walk.
Lest I think myself the least bit heroic, today I watched through binoculars as a woman climbed up a furrow high on the side of Devil’s Tower. Why do we do such things? There was this fellow whose name I forget who built a special rowboat and using nothing but muscle crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Oregon. When asked why he did it, he replied that only animals do useful things.