In the last posting I spoke of the ‘phenomenal space’ of subjective being and how the facts of our embodiment bring with them an intuitive understanding of space. This space has particular characteristics that flow from the nature of our embodiment and from the environment in which that embodiment comes together. What I would like to indicate here is that we also live in other, complementary spaces which also inform how we construct thought and meaning.
In the appendix to his book on relativity theory (2003) the physicist David Bohm addressed some of the issues around perception that come out of some of the idea in that book. Part of this concerns the relationship between perception and space and how the ability to occupy different positions in space changes the nature of perception and the objects that such perception embraces. He gives the example of seeing an ellipse, perhaps the ellipse formed by looking at the top of a coffee cup as it is held in the hand prior to drinking from it. Even though the visual image presented to the organ of sense, the eye, is this ellipse it is not seen as such. Perception seamlessly interprets the top of the cup as circular, even though we at no point see this circle in its most essential form (if we did we would have a lapful of coffee). The process at work here is that the visual sensorimotor system responsible for engaging with the top of the cup is not stationary, fixing its gaze unswervingly on this object. Instead it is an eye in motion (even if that motion is relatively slight) and each motion of eye, head, hand, and arm changes the orientation of the cup to our eye and simultaneously changes the shape of the ellipse in lockstep with this motion. Extrapolating from this constantly changing but systematically related data the perception of the top of the cup is made up not from a single viewpointed image but of this extrapolation, the circle we rarely see. This process points up an understanding of space in which it is not only egocentrically oriented around the axis of the unmoving situated body. The space that Bohm indicates is one in which our ability to move and to quite literally see things from different angles is taken into account. In this space there is no inevitable perspectivalism, and the railway tracks which lead off toward the horizon are seen as the parallel lines that they surely are. This is the scientific method in miniature, in which the evidence of the senses are peer reviewed by those same senses but from other places and at other times.
There is also another space, perhaps an extension of the last, which arises from our being in a world shared by other beings with similar senses. The space that I occupy is also entertained by you and by others, and the number of eyes which look out onto this space multiply accordingly. Experiencing this space involves social processes and the sharing of sense through interpersonal and extrapersonal means. This is the kind of sense which one gains from learning and becoming informed. It is common sense because it is held in common, available not only to one individual through the intuitive sense of their subjective embodiment but to anyone who cares to learn. The common sense alluded to here, whilst it may offer a viewpoint on the universe which seems, to some at least, arbitrary, gyratory, and lacking the privilege of centeredness, is also a sense which places our eyes everywhere and gives us what Thomas Nagel (1986) paradoxically referred to as ‘the view from nowhere’. In the vast incomprehensibility of space there is not a single place anywhere that one cannot conceive oneself as occupying and the totality of one’s image of the universe is a collation of all these possible viewing positions.
It seems likely, therefore, that we are creatures who simultaneously inhabit not one space but several. There is the space of subjectivity and self-centeredness, in which the world radiates out from one’s body, diminishing with distance in both size and importance until it disappears over the horizon, and there is the space of experience which presents the world to us in the different ways available to mobile animals; And then there is the space of objectivity, in which we occupy all the centres of the universe at once and the peripheral horizon disappears. The first space is our birthright; the product of our animal embodiment and our embeddedness in the environment. The second we earn through motion and exploration. The third is our New Found Land; the result of the gradual enlightenment of our species and the vision admitted by that light.
When Primack and Adams (2006) draw attention to the potential for existential anomie afforded by the internalization of Newtons’s impersonal space, they are reminding us that such learning is not only the acquisition of rational, disembodied facts. They recognize that the images we hold of space, on the grandest scale possible, are also constructive of the fabric of our understanding. The intuition that comes with subjective embodiment is joined by other intuitions, which may at times be at odds with the first. Each of these spaces is at work in our cognition, and each is active in our intuitions. Each appears, unbidden and often invisible, in the poetics of our language, and each space is used to contain the ideas and objects of our experience, the stuff of meaning and thought.
BOHM, D. & NICHOL, L. (2003) The essential David Bohm, London, Routledge.
NAGEL, T. (1986) The view from nowhere, New York, OUP.
PRIMACK, J. R. & ABRAMS, N. E. (2006) The view from the centre of the universe, London, Fourth Estate.