15: The eyes are outlits


Before the modern idea of “sense data”, it was thought that the eyes themselves illuminated the world they witnessed. Though this notion was lost to natural scientific thinking, poets retained knowledge of sensory “outlits” that reveal the world to us. Let’s see what we can learn from the poets about the nature of our senses.

Stone-sealed caverns

For the ancients, the eyes were like lamps, emitting a cone of vision that apprehended things near and far. In contrast, we now consider our eyes to be receptacles for inscrutable data that operate mechanically according to material principles. There is truth in both notions, though the latter is apt to seal up our experience by rolling stones over the caverns of our senses.

There are ample resources for reading about how the eye and the brain work together, though far fewer for how vision works, article titles notwithstanding. To illustrate the distinction, let’s walk through a visual experience.

Take a look at an object in your environment, briefly noting some of its salient characteristics. For example, you might note its shape, color, or the texture(s) of its surface. Now, with your eyes still open, try not to see any objects, but only raw visual information. Harder than it seems, right?

We can all agree that you were experiencing vision during this exercise, though perhaps not a “vision” in the “high” sense of the word. Did you glimpse the optic nerve or the lateral geniculate nucleus? These are, we are told, key to how vision works. Yet, they do not appear when we exercise our vision. Evidently, vision is not synonymous with the mechanical operation of the ocular apparatus. [1]

The mechanisms of the eye and brain working in tandem are not themselves given in our experience of sight. To consider such mechanisms, we must stop seeing and start analyzing. [2] In abandoning ourselves to analysis we close off our vision to what is, instead coming to grasp a rational model of what is. [3] Thus do we seal our senses up behind stones of reason, turning the body into a walking mausolem.

Sensory scissures

Reason, for all its grand utility, exacts a price for its usefulness. To reap the fruits of reason we must close ourselves off to the fruits of experience, seeing dead forms where we might see living ones. Fortunately, the senses themselves are fundamentally open to the world, scissures in our stone-bound souls.

Each of our senses opens a vast field of possibilities, bounded only by imagination and circumstance. What there is to see in a simple flower or human figure is immense, even if we seek only to see as a camera sees. However, unlike a camera, our vision is such that the more we see, the more we can see. That is, our sensory scissures may be widened and deepened with experience and practice.

Such sensory expansion is the work of artists and craftsman the world over. Through the practice of their craft, draftsmen come to see more, chefs to smell and taste more, musicians to hear more, and dancers to move ever more freely in human space.

In contrast, the life of reason alone consists in the compounding construction of strictures upon life and experience. Ophtamology, for example, holds the eyes to a standard and works to ensure they meet it. There is value in this, but its limits are plain: your eye doctor cannot help you see more, only help you not see less. The action of reason is proscriptive.

Clear your outlits

The senses, as fields of possiblity, are outlits illuminating our world. They are called outlits since they open out onto the world and, in revealing what is, render it lit. Rational explanations of the operation of bodily organs run the risk of closing off what would be open, dimming the world, and prematurely constricting our freedom of movement and vision.

There is far more in life than one mortal can ever experience, but we often leave more on the table than we must by closing off ourselves and our senses. To reap the richness awaiting in each day we’d do well roll away the stones and clear our outlits.


[1] Even mechanical fetishists should be able to appreciate this point in view of such things as “computer vision”. If computers are to have vision, they are to do so without the biological machinery of the human eye. Accordingly, such machinery must itself be accidental to the phenomenon of vision as such. That is, we must be able to recognize vision in lieu of a known mechanical configuration of matter, or else admit that “computer vision” is just a marketing metaphor.

[2] This point holds even if we use our vision in our study of another’s ocular apparatus, for the claim is that my ocular apparatus, not another’s, is key to my vision. In other words, I cannot trace my own vision back to a biological mechanism without leaving the domain of sight altogether. Or, to put it another way, the eye doctor doesn’t evaluate my vision by using it, seeing through my eyes, as it were. Rather the doc utilizes his or her reason, in conjuction with instruments and prior technical training, to formulate and substantiate a hypothesis about how I might see.

[3] That is, a representation of what is. Models are not the things modeled, however appropriately scaled and detailed they may be. The world exceeds any human model of it, for any such model is derivative and secondary to what is modeled. Modeling is an essentially lossy operation.