Philosophers can alter our vision in at least two ways, emotionally and cognitively, by enabling us not only to see X, which we can generally do well enough on our own, but to see X as Y or as Z.
The emotional modification of seeing that philosophers can facilitate is suggested by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, when he writes, “The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.” The world is experienced differently, as many can attest, even in visual sensation, depending on our emotional outlook.
By interpreting what is seen in philosophical discourse, providing a context, concepts, categories and a specialised terminology for what is seen, philosophers can colour our seeing of the world in subtle ways by playing on our passionate responses to social, political, and aesthetic phenomena, enabling us to see injustice where we might otherwise have seen only bad luck or a morally indifferent sequence of events; or to see romantic genius, the eternal struggle of free will against necessity, where before we might have only seen paint on canvas.
Philosophers, again, like scientists, historians, art and literary critics, but in distinctively philosophical ways, also enable us to see differently by providing useful information and stimulating our imaginations. They can help guide and instruct vision, educating the viewer as to what is interesting and worthwhile to look for, directing us to what is there to be seen but otherwise too easily overlooked.
The American philosopher Fred Dretske draws the required distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic seeing in his book, Seeing and Knowing. Imagine looking into a drawer of jumbled up kitchen gadgets, searching for the garlic press.
The device is there, perhaps right before us, and we non-epistemically see it in the sense that light-rays are reflected from its surface and received by our retinas; yet for a time at least we cannot pick it out from the jangle of other equipment.
Philosophers, by offering theoretical interpretation and nourishing our imaginations through training in the method of thought experiments and the vistas of contrast afforded by familiarity with how different the world might be in non-actual, merely logically possible worlds, can change the way we epistemically, knowingly, understandingly, see things among the things we already non-epistemically see.
Who goes there?
What or who do we see when we watch the central character in a performance of “Hamlet”? A man who has recently starred in a famous television science fiction show? Or a man whose murdered father has recently begun to haunt him, whose mother appalls and fascinates him, whose lover attracts and repels him? But of course that second man, the conflicted murderer, isn’t real, is he? He’s a fictional character. But what exactly does this mean? Hamlet has thoughts and feelings of his own, just as David Tennant does. He is made of flesh-and-blood just as Tennant is (it’s no part of the play’s story that he’s an android). He is as much possessed or dispossessed of freedom as Tennant is (if he were not, he could not be held accountable for his acts and omissions; and although Shakespeare created Hamlet and his world, he does not act with authorial authority within that world). We might say: there is no particular property or attribute that Hamlet lacks which real mean and women possess, or vice versa; existence is not a predicate. But that does not mean that there is no difference between fictional and real existence; it just means that we can’t tell that difference by looking – because we can’t articulate it by means of criteria. The difference lies elsewhere, outside the province of vision; it has to do with the kinds of relationship in which we might stand to Hamlet, as opposed to another real person – matters having to do with time and space. If we allow ourselves to be absorbed in the play, as opposed to detaching ourselves by calling upon our knowledge of its ending, we can inhabit the same time as Hamlet – the time in which he has to make decisions, in which his past affects but does not determine his choice, and in which the future is accordingly in part his to determine. But we can’t inhabit the same space as him – there is no route from our position to his: if we get onto the stage, he disappears, together with his world. Whereas, if we want to touch David Tennant, getting onto the stage might work the trick. (Although, of course, it might not: he might of course simply ignore us, act as if we aren’t there – reduce us to the merely fictional, the utterly unreal).
So, our eyes are not deceiving us: Hamlet really is, or can be, there, on stage right in front of us. It’s just that what we see is something we can’t get – can’t get next to, confront, one embodied being to another.
Dale Jacquette is professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Bern, Switz
Stephen Mulhall is the author of On Film (Routledge)