For Belinda

Through a glass darkly, very darkly.

Welcome to the latest edition of serf under _ ground journal – do not be put off by the title for it’s not all doom and gloom in the ensuing … things get brighter as you go along, though the beginning’s sombre.


On the question of human vision, no such thing as the innocent eye, and no such thing as an unproblematic act of seeing via the organ of sight. Direct transmission of what’s out there? Nope. Plato was sort of on to this with his allegory of the cave and human perception. What we ‘see’ are mere flickering shadows of ‘what’s out there,’ reflected on a cavern wall; and that process, why, there’s more to it than even Plato dreamt of in his philosophy.

Nothing simple about seeing. Our fraught vision comes to us via an electrical rendition of those parts of the world outside ourselves on which we focus by way of light hitting the human eye This light, focused and adjusted in the eye’s cornea and in the iris and lens, travels to the retina, imbedded with cone and rod cells that convert light into electronic signals. These signals, as colour and depth of field information, are then transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain.

There’s a TV film you can watch by neuro-scientist David Eagleman, that throws light on how the brain interpret a physical reality of air, compression waves, aromatic modules et al, as colours, shapes, sounds, or as other sensory data. Not a faithful experiencing of reality, human vision, but a process subject to illusions, given the apparatus and need to select what we see quickly.

And more on our flawed senses. When it comes to sensory apparatus, you find animals with better sight and hearing than us. Whales and bats with sonar hearing, eagles, even shrimps, with better vision. The retina of an eagle’s eye is more deeply coated with cones and rods than a human eye and has a deeper structure at the back of the eye, allowing it to see five times further than us and, what’s more, in glorious technicolour, including ultra violet.

Imagine if we had eagle-eyes? From the roof of a ten-story building we would be able to see an ant crawling on the ground. And consider the human art of reading facial expression, why, our new-look, piercing eagle-eyes would give a whole new meaning to a Mona Lisa smile or a Rembrandt self-portrait.

Despite all the above, we have to acknowledge, nevertheless, that our sensory apparatus is sophisticated enough to help us get around our world, most of us surviving long enough to produce and take care of progeny, ensuring survival of the human race, … and, further-more, there’s a lot to be said about the human brain …

Mental as anything.

Oh what a busy ‘b’ the human brain, such a control freak, registering, interpreting, censoring, commanding, nothing goes in or out without its say so, – yes – no – maybe.

There’s nothing passive about the brain, it’s constantly building up inter-connecting neural networks, creating mental sets and expectations that enable us react to the outer world quickly – fight or flight?

These reactions often seem to us to take place seamlessly, but David Eagleman demonstrates, in his TV film, that they are less seamless than we think. There’s necessarily a gap between transmission and response to signals, as he shows at a sport’s event where sprinters respond to a starting signal. In a second demonstration, where some of the sprinters respond to a starting pistol and others to a light flash, the time study shows that complex vision entails a longer processing time than hearing.

How a mental set, i.e. ‘what we know,’ affects ‘what we see,’ is explored by art historian, Ernst Gombrich in ‘Art and Illusion. A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.’ (Phaedon 1995.)

As a demonstration of mental set, Gombrich suggests standing in front of a steamy mirror in the bathroom and examining your own reflection then tracing around your head on the surface of the mirror. It’s a fascinating exercise in illusionary representation to discover how small the image which gives the impression of seeing oneself face to face.

Gombrich presents a cartoon of an Egyptian art class as a comment on mental set and styles in art. The cartoon is a witty juxtaposition of a physical act of ‘seeing’ conflated with a cultural act of ‘knowing.’ It sums up how different ages and nations have represented the visible world in such different ways, a problem that Gombrich studies in ‘Art and Illusion,’.


Like an Egyptian … psychology and the riddle of style.

Those Egyptians, embalmers extraordinaire, of course they knew what the human body looks like, animals and plants likewise. – Thing is, what they’re doing in their funerary art is not trying to capture a particular likeness but what is general; with the human figure, what’s most familiar and clearly legible, profiled face and frontal eye, four human limbs in full view. They’re making pictograph landscapes, not transitory events but scenes of the unchanging, cycle of seasons, ploughing, sowing, harvesting – perhaps weaving a spell to enforce eternity – perhaps a source of joy for the dead.


The Greek Revolution in Art.

What needs explaining is not so much this long tradition of conceptual art from the archaic to the Egyptian, but rather, the revolution from making to matching of Greek and Renaissance art, a long process of trial and error, motivated by a belief that fidelity to nature matters.

No one knows why this change took place, but it had already happened with the epic poems of Homer transforming the ‘what’ of Greek myths to a possible ‘how,’ some particularity concerning events, the thoughts of the heroes before battle, even the reactions of minor characters like Hector’s young son who takes fright when he sees the plumes of his father’s helmet. Gombrich considers that it was this stimulus from Homeric narrative that may have begun that process in the visual arts of schema and correction to represent the natural in place of the typical.


From this to that, long history of schema, and correction involving fore-shortening and shadowing to achieve the illusion of perspective and depth, brush-strokes to suggest the visual effects of light on figures and in landscape, because the conquest of appearances, convincing enough to imaginatively reconstruct an event, was thought important.


The tyranny of the framework.

As in real life, in art the perceptual framework built by the brain imposes the patterns and shapes the artist has learned to handle on to new experiences seen and recorded in terms of the familiar. Here is an example, about 1250, AD, Villard de Honnecourt’s ‘Lion and Porcupine.’ ‘Know well,’ says de Honnicourt, ‘that it is drawn from life.’ (G. P68.)


We are all aware of our tendency to project when we look at clouds or ink blots. Even primitive sticklebacks project, any red-coloured object, no matter how unlike another stickleback, is viewed as a living rival, triggering a fight response.

Projection has its uses. It may even be exploited by an artist to overcome the tyranny of the stereotype. Leonardo de Vinci, in his ‘Treatise on Painting,’ recommended using ‘the power of confused shapes, ‘… clouds. muddy waters or walls stained with damp, ’to rouse the mind to new inventions.’ G. P 159.)

Artists also rely on a capacity and willingness to project by those looking at their work, for example, a beholder’s preparedness to interpret hazy effects of light or to step back and read brush-strokes that only assume a legible form at a distance. We don’t have to have everything complete as in Egyptian art, we’re willing to take hints in reading an artist’s images.

Significations of Mental Set.

Neuro-scientist Eagleman and art historian Gombrich both demonstrate the pervasiveness of mental set on human activity. We can’t be passive. Whenever we receive a visual impression of the natural world or a work of art, as Gombrich says:

‘We react by docketing it, filing it, grouping it in one way or another, even if the impression is only an ink blot … it is the business of the living organism to organize, for where there is life, there is not only hope, as the proverb says, but also fears, guesses, expectations which sort and model the incoming messages, testing and transforming and testing again.’ (Gombrich, P 251.)

Regarding the business of the human organism, there’s a nice study by Henri Bergson on laughter, ‘Laughter; An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.’ (See. 19th Edition of Serf Under – ground for discussion.) We know that laughter is behaviour unique to humans. So why do humans laugh?

Bergson argues that laughter is an, involuntary, human social corrective of rigid and inattentive behaviour such as someone bumping into a door or slipping on a banana skin, not paying attention or acting in a mechanical manner. In literature, comedy pokes fun at fixed behaviour … Moliere’s ‘Miser’ or ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme.’ In cartoon drawings we laugh at an implied inelasticity of character depicted as a grimace rather than the mobile expression expected of a flexible living being. We laugh at absurdities in language, lots of ways something illogical is fitted into a well established phrase to surprises us into laughter…. ‘If that’s the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts, she doesn’t deserve to have any.’

Bergson’s view of the comic focuses on human behaviour, it is human absurdity we laugh at. If we laugh at an animal or lifeless object, it is because of some resemblance to us, or some stamp or some use to which we put it. Seems laughter is a survival mechanism, a reminder to be on the alert, to be flexible.

We can’t be passive. Some connotations and positive consequences.

Nope, no such thing as the innocent eye or passive learning. Neuro-scientists and art historians demonstrate it, human laughter implies it. Whenever we receive a visual impression, we react by classifying it, one way or another. We – just – can’t – help – it.

So it seems there’s no such thing as inductive learning, (Hume’s problem,) the passive reception of sense data, as Karl Popper argues in his book, ‘Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach.’ (Oxford 1979.) Popper calls induction ‘the bucket theory of learning,’ and formulates instead, a deductive ‘search light theory’ of active learning.

Popper questions the ‘bucket theory assumption in theory of knowledge and scientific method, the postulate of an unbiased eye demands the impossible. The problem of what comes first, the conjecture / hypothesis or the observation is somewhat of a chicken and egg scenario. Bucket theory asserts observation first, searchlight theory asserts the disposition to act comes first. An observation, says Popper, is always preceded by a particular interest or question, however basic, or by some problem within the horizon of our expectations, for example, a baby picking up a piece of paper from the floor, and putting it in its mouth, unspoken question, is ‘this’ is part of my food stuff, yes – no?’ Even Pavlov’s dog responding to the dinner bell it’s heard before.

Appreciating some of the positive consequences of the brain’s interaction with sense data, well, it gave us the revolution from making to matching in Greek art from 6th century BC, developments in illustration on black and red pottery ware, to 5th century BC, sculptures by Pheidias and the friezes of the Parthenon, on to the artistic masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo and Michelangelo, and later, by artists in 17th century Holland.

There was another Greek Revolution as well, a development of the descriptive and argumentative functions of critical language beyond subjective functions of expression and signaling. ‘It is to this development of the higher functions of language,’ says Popper, ‘that we owe our humanity, our reason. For our powers of reasoning are nothing but powers of critical argument .’ (P. P120.).

We see the beginnings of the evolution of something like a scientific method in the 6th-and 5th centuries BC, a parallel to what we saw in art, a new attitude towards the myths, departing from the tradition of handing on myths unchanged, to a more critical approach. Doubt and criticism were not something new but what was new was the development of schools of teaching with a practice of criticizing theories. Popper offers the example of Thales of Miletus, who is said to have argued that ‘everything is made of water, his disciple Aniximander developing a theory critical of Thales’ theory, then Aniximander’s follower, Aniximenes, also diverging from his master’s doctrine.

From schools of critical discussion of physical matter to history of human events as an enterprise, the Greek historian Thucydides, 460-395 BC, conducting the first rational historical investigation, studying events of the Peloponnesian Wars with the expressed intention of investigating events with the greatest possible accuracy.

From Thucydides, a journey involving ‘purposes’ of history, problems of rear-vision-window perceptions to explain what ‘really’ happened, the need to look for contextual clues and seek to understand the problem situations of the actor(s). Regarding historical explanation, says John Dunn, ‘substituting the closure of the context provided by the biography of the speaker [or actors] for that provided by the biography of the historian.’ (‘The Identity of The History of Ideas’ 1968.)

The Greek Revolution in expanding the critical function of language led to the evolution of Science. Only with the development of a descriptive function of language that is able to develop outside the subjective self, as statements, arguments, theories, the contents of libraries, what Popper calls a linguistic ‘world 3,’ was the idea of a description that fits the facts able to emerge. Science, the tentative hypotheses we ask nature, and refutation by tests, became possible out there in the public domain, to be examined and take on a life outside their maker.

The important thing about deductive argument, Popper says, is that it cannot be immunized against rational criticism or refutation. It is through falsification that science progresses. So this process of elimination of weaker theories by better, says Popper, is ‘the way we lift ourselves by out bootstraps.’ (P P121.)

‘Thus we reach a point from which we can see science as a magnificent adventure of the human spirit. It is the invention of ever new theories, and the indefatigable examination of their power to throw light upon experience. The principles of scientific progress are very simple. They demand that we give up the ancient idea of certainty, [or even a high degree of ‘probability’ in the sense of probability calculus] with the propositions and theories of science [an idea which derives from the association of science with magic and of the scientist with the magician]: the aim of the scientist is not to discover absolute certainty but to discover better and better theories [or to invent more and more powerful searchlights] capable of being put to more and more severe tests, and thereby leading us to, and illuminating for us , ever new experiences.’ (P. P361.)


  1. A juicy post, bedight with flaming mental brandy by the quartern. (I just re-read your previous post quoting A Christmas Carol, and I am still bedight with Dickens’ language.)

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