Blind Perspective

Originally published on June 17, 2011 12:03 pm

As promised, I'm returning to the themes in last week's discussion of the blind painter.

Surprise is a dead giveaway of epistemic commitments, as Daniel Dennett has said. I am interested in our surprise, our astonishment, when we are confronted with the blind painter's accomplishments. This surprise reveals our commitment to a false conception of pictures and artificial perspective, on the one hand, and blindness and the experience of space, on the other. I'll discuss the first of these today.

The discussion of blindness and space — and the interesting and important questions raised by commentators on last week's essay — will be addressed in another post.

A blind person might make a model of her room in clay. She might then show it to me. I can examine the model visually and thus come to learn about the room.

Notice, the blind modeler makes no use of sight in putting together her construction, nor can she herself see what she has made. The model, for all that, may be a perfectly good one and, in particular, it is something that you or I can use to learn about the room. The model can serve to show us what the room is like.

This model is a kind of picture. We usually reserve the word "picture" for drawings, paintings or photographs that are assembled on a flat surface. We can reserve the word for these two-dimensional depictions, if we like, but that doesn't alter the fact that a clay model and a model sketched with pen on paper are really the same kind of thing. I call them pictures. A picture, according to this usage, is something we make to show someone something else.

This broader sense of "picture" is the standard one in German, by the way. A sculpture is a kind of Bild (= picture) and sculpture in general is Bildhauerei (= picture cutting or shaping).

One nice consequence of this definition is that it sets pictures squarely where they belong, in a communicative context. We make pictures to show something to others.

Importantly, there is no obstacle, save those of a practical nature, to a blind person's participation in picture-using communicative practices. This is what my imagined blind modeler does with great success.

It may be objected: the remarkable thing about Eşref Armağa, the blind painter from Turkey who is the subject of John Kennedy's research, is that he is able to work in perspective.

Why is this remarkable? We might have this response because we think of perspective as giving (some of) the laws of visual depth perception. But how can a man blind from birth understand how we experience depth visually? How could he discover these principles of experience for himself, as he appears to have done?

But the rules of perspective are not rules of vision. They are, rather, rules of pictorial representation, or depiction. The rules of perspective — we should call them by their proper name: artificial perspective — are not rules governing what is seen or experienced visually. Rather, they determine, or provide techniques for figuring out, what is visible. Artificial perspective is a bit of technology, or rather, a methodology; it is a method for showing.

(For an excellent discussion of perspective, one to which I am indebted, see John Hyman's The Imitation of Nature.)

If you know the layout of a scene, and if you specify a vantage point, then you can work out how things would look from that vantage point. For example, you can figure out what the shape and relative size of the visible profiles would be, or which surfaces would be concealed from view. Artificial perspective is geometry; it is a method of calculation.

Practical difficulties aside, a blind person can perform the relevant calculations as well as a sighted person can. Being able to see is not necessary for using artificial perspective, and it is also not sufficient. Most sighted people, after all, can't draw in perspective.

It is remarkable that a blind person can draw; it is remarkable that she can develop in herself an intuitive feel for the techniques of drawing and the method of representing space known as artificial perspective. This is remarkable the way it is remarkable that some people can see their way out of complicated chess predicaments, or that others can manage easily to grasp the solution to mathematical problems the rest of us find difficult. But it isn't remarkable in any further, deeper sense.

The fact that there are so few blind painters of note is telling. And we should honor Eşref Armağa's achievement. To do that, we need to be clear about what it is that he is doing. He makes pictures.

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