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optical illusions and Gadamer’s hermeneutic real

October 30, 2010

If they ever force me to lecture about Gadamer’s hermeneutic ontology, I’m going to use this BBC article on optical illusions as a visual aid. The author is Beau Lotto, “a lecturer in neuroscience at University College London”. That’s why he uses an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ when he writes:

The beautiful thing about illusions is they make us realise things are never what they seem, and that our experiences of the world shape our understanding of it.

Lotto argues that the brain is “instantly processing the information [it] receive[s] to make sense of the world around us.” As such, the information that we (as self-conscious subjects) receive is never raw, but always already processed into a form of knowledge. He illustrates this with the following images (though I encourage you to click through to the article where you can better experience the illusion by flipping them back and forth; there are some other cool illusions to check out, too):

In both images, the two small squares are the same shade of gray. In the second image, however, the context differs, making the smaller box appear lighter on the left and darker on the right. (Seriously, go try it in the original article; the effect is more pronounced.) In other words, “context is everything when it comes to what we see, even when seeing the simplest qualities of the world, namely lightness.”

Context in the above sense is visual and synchronic – it only depends on what we are looking at in any particular moment. But context can also be abstract and diachronic – it can depend on the knowledge we previously created from other information. Lotto uses another set of images to explain:

All four tables have the same dimensions, though the red table has been rotated 90 degrees. The angles at the corners of the tables are different, however, and our brains have trained themselves to automatically assign different three-dimensional geometric properties to different angles of convergence. So based on our past knowledge of how things work in our everyday three dimensional space, we are fooled by these two-dimensional images. As Lotto says:

…your brain takes the image on the retina and creates what it sees according to what the information would have meant in the brain’s past experience of interacting with the world.

Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory treats human understanding in much the same way, but without limiting itself to visual stimuli. The “brain’s past experience of interacting with the world” is manifested in the current moment as the individual’s “horizon”. Individuals observe the world through their current horizon, which limits the stimuli that they encounter. Whatever information they do encounter must be processed within the horizon, meaning that different individuals, with different priorities and sets of past experiences (and thus different horizons), will come to different conclusions.

In other words, different people can encounter the same information but create different meanings. Knowledge is not entirely dependent on the objective aspects of the information at hand; it results from information interacting with a particular horizon.

Members of human communities share important “horizontal” structures (ie. the form of their horizons is similar in places). We recognize individuals as members of the same community because they think alike. We expect them to interpret certain types of information in similar ways. Gadamer would say that their interpretations respect the same traditions. This is not to say that knowledge communities are necessarily conservative. For Gadamer, tradition is the basis of all human understanding.  Tradition is the cultural inheritance that forms individual and community horizons. A community’s tradition might be conservative in nature, but some communities might have a “tradition” of iconoclasm or innovation, for example. Even progressives and radicals formulate knowledge based on tradition of some sort.

Also, tradition in hermeneutic terms is not limited to complex questions of values or morals, like “traditional families” or something.  It can be much more basic than that. The brain’s assigning different interpretations of 3D space to different converging angles in 2D representations, as in the example above, is a tradition. Perspective, after all, was not widely used in western painting until the Renaissance. Until that time, western europeans would not have expected to interpret a drawing in three dimensional space. If they encountered a perspectival drawing, it may not have made immediate sense.

This is not to say, however, that any tradition is as good as another. Some fundamental “traditions” exist across all human communities as a result of our shared cognitive structures. In fact, Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory of understanding identifies one of them: The use of traditions is, itself, a tradition. Human understanding occurs when our current horizon “poses a question” that is resolved by new or reinterpreted information. This is the fundamental process. The current horizon poses a question. The answer to the question may or may not cause the horizon to alter its form to some degree. Whichever form of the horizon then carries over to the next moment is the one that will formulate subsequent questions. And so on and so forth. The horizon is in constant evolution.

Gadamer refers to this continual process of formulating and answering questions as “dialogue”. Human understanding is fundamentally predicated on this dialogic model. Gadamer claims it’s the basis for human ontology. In other words, we have no way of being in the world that is not a product of dialogue. Being is linguistic. Our ability to conceive of the world is always pre-formed by the traditions of language, just as our perception of the illusions above is pre-formed by our brains “traditional” view of converging angles.

This is what prevents hermeneutics from falling into relativism. We can appeal to dialogue as a universal condition of human language and therefore a source of ethics. While hermeneutics deeply respects community traditions, it allows for some prioritization of traditions, so that a universal, cognitive tradition like dialogue takes precedence over a communal, cultural tradition. In this way, hermeneutics might anchor theories of universal human rights, though I’m not sure how far it would extend outside of the communicative sphere. I think, however, that the dialogic model of understanding works great for anchoring normative principles of community media organization, which is where my current interest lies.


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