Notes for Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine R. Grontkowski “The Mind's Eye”

(207) The logic of Western thought is too rooted in the visual; its failure, it is implied, derives from an unwholesome division of the senses.
(207) The gist of this sentiment is that the logic of the visual is a male logic. According to one critic, what is absent from the logic which has dominated the West since the Greeks, and has been covered over by that logic, is woman's desire.

Consider vision, hearing, touch hierarchy based on operative frequencies of constituent media: are they rejecting examining why this hierarchy is the default on scientific grounds?

(207) The notion that vision is a peculiarly phallic sense, and touch a woman's sense, is, of course, not new. Indeed, it accords all too well with the belief in vision as a “higher” and touch a “lower” sense. As such, it has a long tradition; although not necessarily one that should be accepted. But the suspicion that the pervasive reliance on a visual metaphor marks Western philosophy as patriarchal is a more general one. As such it needs to be explored.
(207) a thorough reexamination of the role which vision has played in Western thought needs to be undertaken.
(208) In one sense, philosophy, feminist theory – and the natural sciences too – are all engaged in a common endeavor, an endeavor which might be described as archaeological. Each is concerned with revealing those basic assumptions which have been hidden; with making explicit that which has been merely implicit, even often barely conscious. Once unearthed, such assumptions can then, and only then, be challenged.
(208) This paper is written in what might also be called an archaeological spirit; it is devoted to an attempt to make explicit those assumptions which might have inadvertently crept into our conceptions of knowledge as a consequence of our reliance on the visual metaphor.
(209) Beginning with an examination of Plato's treatment of the senses, we will show that, from the start, two different, even paradoxical functions of the visual can be discerned in its metaphoric uses – a connective and a dissociative.

Storage and communication of culture coalesce in visual media, especially with advent of writing (Havelock).

(209) In an elegant analysis of the transition from an oral tradition to a literate culture in ancient Greece, occurring between Homer and Plato, Eric Havelock has argued that not only has “the eye supplanted the ear as the chief organ” but that in the process a host of other changes was induced – changes from identification and engagement to individualization and disengagement, from mimesis to analysis, from the concrete to the abstract, from mythos to logos. With the growing emphasis on the visual eye comes the growing development, even birth, Havelock argues, of the personal “I.”
(210) He [Plato, Timaeus 61d-68e] describes the creation of the sense of sight in the same context as the creation of soul and intelligence in human beings; all of the other senses are described in the context of the creation of man's material nature.

Is there no modern scientific foundation for preeminence of the visual?

(210) The particular preeminence which the visual enjoys is related, for Plato, to the preeminence light enjoys as a medium of perception, as well as to the preeminence which the sun enjoys among the divinities (or heavenly bodies).
(210-211) The mediation of perception (recognition) through likeness becomes a model for intellection as much as the eye itself becomes a model for the intellect. . . . All three components of the visual system – eye, the sun, and light – are used by Plato, both metaphorically and directly, to establish the characteristics of intelligibility.
(211) visual imagery is used for the description of the state of pure knowledge.

The eye was active with internal light in early theories of vision (emission theory), making it akin to the sun, as well as relation of soul to Forms.

(212) The union, or reunion, of the soul with the Forms then constitutes knowing, just as the uniting of the light from the eye with the light from the sun constitutes seeing. Though that which mediates the meeting of the soul and the Forms is not specified, its analogy to light is often implicit. The terms which Plato uses for the Forms are eidos and idea, i.e., things which are seen.
(212) His epistemological assumption is that we, who were originally part of the lawful divine structure, are thereby in principle able to see into (intuit) it fully again.

Separation of subject and object and dematerialization of knowledge (separation from perception) are uncovered.

(212-213) Modern science's confidence that nature, (properly objectified), is indeed knowable is surely derived from these Platonic concepts. . . . Two features of the scientific conception of objectifiability need to be distinguished. The first is the separation of subject from object . . . the second is the . . . dematerialization of knowledge. . . . We must ask whether there are not characteristics of vision, at least as conceived by Plato, which simultaneously invite the retreat from the body sought in Plato's epistemology and the maintenance of the moral-mystical character of his thought, in short, which constitute a paradox which pervades his work.
(213) Vision is that sense which places the world at greatest remove; it is also that sense which is uniquely capable of functioning outside of time. It lends itself to a static conception of “eternal truths.”
(213) As theories of vision underwent change, however, the different functions which the visual metaphor performed, and continued to perform, became considerably more paradoxical. . . . With perception regarded as a passive recording, vision becomes a more suitable model for objectifiability and, at least ostensibly, a less adequate one for knowability.
(214) Descartes speaks of mental vision which is the means by which we know everything from the simplest to the most complex objects of knowledge. . . . The inborn light receives its metaphysical dignity and stability by being totally and in a markedly Augustinian manner derived from divinity.

Copy theory of Descartes replaces emission theory of vision: what are epistemological consequences, can conceptual inertia be overcome?

(215) His work on vision, perhaps even motivated by his commitment to both its literal and metaphoric importance, in fact led to an undermining of the suitability of sight as a metaphor for knowledge. Descartes' inquiries into the nature of vision and optics were of paramount importance in the Western acceptance of the copy theory of perception. He, perhaps more than any other Western thinker, was responsible for laying the emission theory to rest, with the result that the eye was henceforth regarded a a purely passive lens which simply receives the images projected upon it from without.
(215) He enabled us to retain
both the conception of knowledge as active and the use of the visual metaphor by severing the connection between the “seeing” of the intellect and physical seeing – by severing, finally, the mind from the body.
(215) To repeat then, we are arguing that our continuing reliance on the visual metaphor for knowledge inevitably implied that a change in our theories of one would induce changes in our theories of the other.
(217) Indeed, as Heelan and others have noted, for Newton, “The ideal of science was to 'see' what God 'saw',” a belief illustrated so vividly in his many discussions of the Sensorium of God.
(218) Throughout the history of scientific thought, then, the impact of the visual tradition continues to make itself felt, however residually. . . . The dual paradigm behind the promise of the visual – clarity and communion – survives as the root aspiration behind the dual tenets of modern science.

Phenomenological analysis in place media/communication theory reveals same attributes of ultra high frequency systems.

(218-219) In an attempt to understand the characteristics of vision which are responsible for its particular appeal to classical philosophy, Jonas has conducted a phenomenological analysis of the senses. He finds three basic aspects of vision which provide grounds for its philosophical centrality. Under what he calls “simultaneity of presence” he notes the distinctively spatial rather than temporal character of vision – a property uniquely responsible for our capacity to grasp the “extended now.” . . . Under the heading of “dynamic neutrality” he notes the peculiar lack of engagement entailed by seeing, the absence of intercourse. . . . Finally he notes a third dimension of vision which contributes critically to “objectivity” and that is its uniquely advantageous dependence on distance.

Jonas phenomenology of vision yields detachment from desire; no account for communion that was lost with emission theory but important to Newton and other scientists is result of sedimentation of the male bias.

(220) However, this analysis neglects the ways in which vision as a model for knowledge can promote the sense of communion, of meeting of like with like, so central to Plato's understanding, which continues to survive in contemporary scientific belief.
(220) The emphasis on the “objectifying” function of vision, and the corresponding relegation of its communicative – one might even say erotic – function, needs to be separated from the reliance on vision as distinct from other sensory modalities. We suggest that if sexual bias has crept into this system, it is more likely to be found in the former than the latter.
(220) Once again, knowledge is safeguarded from desire. That the desire from which knowledge is so safeguarded is so intimately associated with the female (for social as well as psychological reasons) suggests an important impetus which our patriarchal culture provides for such disembodiment. It is in this sense that Cixous is right.

Imagining theories of knowledge based on hearing or touch suggest different outcomes for the comportment to reality than the default visual; seems apparent that an alternate explanation based on affordances of communications technologies available to different senses, following Havelock and the texts and technology tradition, forces reconsideration of role of sounds.

(221) How might a conception of knowledge based on another metaphor differ? Some implications are immediately evident. Knowledge likened to the sense of hearing, for example, could not have made the same claims to atemporality, and might well lend itself more readily to a process view of reality. It is interesting to note in this regard that Heraclitus, our earliest temporal ontologist, evidently had a different metaphor in mind. In fact the verbal form of “know” used by him, ksuniemi, originally meant “to know by hearing.” Similarly, a theory of knowledge which invokes the experience of touch as its base cannot aspire to either the incorporeality of the Platonic Forms, or the “objectivity” of the modern scientific venture; at the very least it would have necessitated a more mediate ontology. . . . But the crucial question which remains is whether it is possible to reconsider the criteria which lead to that conclusion. In a time when physics has once again altered our conception of vision and light, when we know that neither the apparent atemporality nor the “dynamic neutrality” of vision are features of reality, but only of our relatively coarse daily observations it seems appropriate to reassess our commitment to the ideals which these features imply.


Keller, Evelyn Fox and Christine R. Grontkowski. “The Mind's Eye.” Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and the Philosophy of Science. Eds. Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka. Dordecht, Holland: Reidel Publishing, 1983. 207-221. Print.