I write this first because it informs all else here in countless ways it's doubtful I’m even fully aware of yet, and which being in denial for many years I tried to hide, not least and most mistakenly from myself. I apologise if it seems autobiographical, and it inevitably is, but to not write it feels somehow disingenuous [duplicitous? underhand?], a denial of a very personal perspective, an agenda I may not consciously but will [must?] ineluctably adopt; and I have no wish to be accused of selling damaged goods as whole.
Am I damaged? I undoubtedly am, and reading on you will come to agree. And I believe it’s important to acknowledge this, both to know and accept who we are and frame any conversation we might have. We all write from one point or another, and whilst we pretend reason is universal it really isn’t, its patterns may be and are certainly well established, but its foundations shift endlessly with changing knowledge, faith, and experience, floating in an ungrounded bubble untethered from any epistemic truth. This is simply the pragmatic approach to almost all contemporary debate (at least that divorced from the hard sciences) where neither the number nor interaction of variables has been properly categorised or understood; the various systems - social, psychological, moral are simply too complex to be mapped and quantified.1
Essentially this is how we all argue - assume those to whom we speak adopt positions sufficiently similar to our own as to be considered virtually universal - hell this is precisely the mechanism of language that most very base assumption2 - it is mis/translated more or less imprecisely by every one of us, but at least until we develop the technology for direct mind to mind conceptual transfer (which would still be incomplete and variably interpreted) it remains despite this limitation our principle vehicle of communication.
That we so seldom encounter arguments prefaced by much discussion of assumptions, of terms, of epistemic foundation or method demonstrates the ubiquity of this ‘common sense’ pragmatic approach; indeed even those theorists prone to setting themselves up in opposition to this, those weavers of ‘common sense’ straw-men who claim through their intellect some deeper foundation for their thought fall prey to precisely the same logic they are so apt to deride - for there is no reason free of prejudice, we cannot no matter how we try escape the constraints of our own mind, no matter what we may care to think, or care for others to think.
Sometimes though experience stands so far outside this common ground it defies all assumptions of universality. It’s a truism that all experience escapes language, and it does, yet somehow amongst the slipperiness between syllable and signified we conjure oceans of meaning that themselves escape and overflow their lexical cause. Such is the language of poetry and song.
Yet sometimes language isn’t simply surpassed, it is found woefully inadequate, and then no framework exists for understanding or contextualising events, and no words exist for processing; or at least those words that do exist remain so poorly understood as to be rendered almost meaningless.
What is fear but a summation of somatic responses, an unease in our guts, a coldness to our extremities as blood vessels constrict directing oxygen to muscle and mind. We are awake, hyperaware, our brains awash with blood and hormones our thoughts race, so many more calculations per second, such heightened perception, yet this is written off in a single word that in no way equates to this experience, a word that apparently retains meaning even for those who have almost no knowledge these sensations. It then becomes truly an empty signifier, a marker only of difference, a meaningless construct within a wider discourse.
We cannot simply look at fear, or love, or hate, or happiness, as we can a giraffe, index it, cut it out from it's background and state categorically 'this is fear'. No first we must experience it, understand its actions on our own bodies, its limits and vagaries - to those unknowing it comes almost as a revelation 'so THAT was fear'. But there are greater emotions than this, there is horror, and terror, and despair; and in the most part we have no experience of these, no idea of what we speak; or worse we have lived them vicariously, by proxy through word and screen, such that we believe we know, believe we understand them, little knowing that we see but shadows cast upon the wall. In truth when we meet them, we meet them as the blind might meet an image once their vision is restored.
We showed S.B. several kodachrome transparencies of objects and scenes familiar to sighted people but never seen by him. They were shown by projection.
Slide 1. The Interior of a Cathedral (Hereford). He said: “Is it a building with lights in it? What’s all that gold, is it the sun?” (The lighting was in fact rather gold-coloured sunlight). He took a stained glass window to be a door in a church. (This might have been from the common gothic carving to be found in Victorian churches and school doors.) He was rather puzzled by what he thought was a door, and asked: “Why should it have lines down it?”
Slide 2. The Cambridge “Backs” showing River and King’s Bridge. He made nothing of this. He did not realize that the scene was of a river, and did not recognise water or bridge. We named the water and the bridge to him, pointing them out.
Slide 3. Evening Scene of Malvern Hills. “This is a landscape is it? I can only tell fields by the colour. What’s this gold colour?” He liked the green, but could name nothing on the picture.
Slide 4. The Cambridge “Backs” showing Trinity Bridge. This time he immediately, though with a trace of uncertainty, identified the water as water, and pointing to the double arched bridge said: “Are those bridges again?”
So far as we could tell S.B. had no idea which objects lay in front of or behind other objects in any of the colour pictures. He showed pleasure at green foliage, but could make very little of buildings or other objects. We formed the impression that he saw little more than patches of colour.3
- 1. Even the hard sciences ultimately fall into this category - whilst generally logically consistent at a Newtonian level, at a quantum level the models and data remain incomplete, the science theoretical and speculative.
- 2. The naïve might argue mathematics transcends these limitations, but I consider it simply another human tool - a language - less innate to the universe than the human mind.
- 3. Recovery from Early Blindness - A Case Study p.24, Gregory R. & Wallace J. Experimental Psychology Society Monograph No. 2, 1963.