Notes from Beyond Seeing, Tate Modern , Session One
Aims and Course Outline here.
The orthodoxy is that we have 5 senses:
Some people add proprioception (awareness of one’s own body position).
There was an interesting series of short programmes about senses that aren’t usually though of as senses on Radio 4 recently – still available on listen again: Extra Senses. This focussed on the senses of Pain, Balance,Time, Temperature and Digestion).
In practice the senses rarely operate in isolation from one another.
If we suspect the senses are misleading us in some respect we use other senses to corroborate: e.g. a stick looks bent under water, so we touch it to see if it is bent. If we accept that all our senses can mislead us, then checking by consulting another sense isn't infallible. Another check is by asking other people if they perceive things the same way (though such inter-subjective agreement doesn’t guarantee anything: mass delusions are possible if unlikely).
In the history of Philosophy, Plato stands out as one who argued that reality lies beyond the world of appearances given to us by the senses. In his famous analogy of the cave in The Republic he imagined a kind of proto-cinema with prisoners chained facing a wall/screen: (recommended!) a fun animation of the cave on You Tube). Behind them (though they don't know this) is a road, and behind that a fire. People walk along the road carrying objects which cast their flickering shadows on the wall. The prisoners take these flickering shadows for reality. Then one day one of the prisoners breaks free, turns to face the road, sees the fire, and eventually goes out beyond and looks at the sun.
Most of us are like prisoners in the cave. According to Plato we make the mistake of taking imperfect representations of reality for the real world. This relates to his theory of Forms - we might try and draw a circle, but this will always be imperfect. But the real world is the world of the Forms where there exists the Form of the perfect circle. We don't get to understand a circle by looking at imperfect circles, but by reasoned thought (which for Plato is a kind of recollection). Philosophers aren't seduced by misleading appearances given by the senses - that's why Plato wants them in charge of his ideal republic.
Plato argued that mimetic art should be banned from this ideal republic on the grounds that it is a copy at several removes from reality. The Form of a table exists, the painter however works from the world of appearances (already removed from the Form) and then effectively makes a copy of a poor copy. Plato wanted to ban such representations because they are unreliable sources of knowledge...He explained why in Book X of The Republic.
For more on Plato's Cave, listen to this podcast of an interview with Simon Blackburn on this topic, or this podcast chapter on Plato's Republic from my book Philosophy: The Classics. There is an excellent article by Myles Burnyeat on Plato and censorship of the arts (originally in the London Review of Books) which is reprinted in my book (ed.) Philosophy: Basic Readings, 2nd ed. (Routledge).
René Descartes engaged in a pre-emptive scepticism about the senses in his Meditations (especially Meditation One). He engaged in 3 waves of doubt:
1) Doubted the evidence his senses (because they have on occasion deceived him).
2) Even fundamental beliefs such as that I am sitting writing now might be doubted by someone who recognises that they could be dreaming...
3) Even if in dreams triangle always have 3 sides etc. this could be the work of an Evil Demon (or in a modern version, I could be plugged into a highly misleading virtual reality machine)..
Everything seems open to doubt. But wait! Any time I doubt anything at all I am having a thought. So the very act of doubting (or any other kind of sensing, feeling etc.) proves that I must exist...There must be some thinking thing, even if it has no body and isn't thinking about what it thinks it's thinking about. That's is known as Descartes' Cogito argument, from the Latin Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am (though he formulates it slightly differently in the Meditations. Listen to a podcast on Descartes here. The upshot of all this is that Descartes at this point in Meditations is more certain of his existence as a mind than as an emodied being in a world of material objects...Again, the senses may be misleading, but thought if it goes along the right lines, is reliable...Later in the Meditations Descartes introduces the idea of a non-deceiving benevolent God who makes whatever anyone perceives clearly and distinctly true (but the arguments here are much dodgier).
So at least two major philosphers (Plato and Descartes) for different reasons, downplayed the evidence of the sense as a source of knowledge...
There is, of course, a major empiricist tradition in British philosphy that went in the other direction and recognised that most (some thought all) knowledge comes to us via the senses. John Locke in the 17th Century argued that there were no innate ideas, and that the child's mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) which gets written on by the senses; in the 18th Century David Hume maintained that all our ideas came ultimately from sensory impressions (which got combined in various ways)....A major debate in Philosophy was between the Empiricists and Rationalists...Present day philosophers may be Platonists about geometry or mathematics, but almost all recognise that sensory experience is what places us in the world...
In the Gallery
In the Material Gestures hub of Tate Modern we looked at particular works asking the questions:
What would this sound like?
What would this taste like?
What would this smell like?
What would this feel like?
This was an invitation to focus on different aspects of particular works in a kind of synaesthesia, but also to recognise that visual stimuli often imply the imaginative involvement of other senses...The process of combining different sensory imaginings lead several people to remark on an increase in the precision of their visual memory of a work.
Next week: Oswaldo Macia on sound and smell pieces in the Starr Auditorium, level 2 (the same level as the café).