On the Proper Object of Sight

On the Proper Object of Sight

Below is an excerpt of a work in progress, a longer dialogue where I want to advance some arguments on sexual morality and the relation of the state to sexual diversity. I am still thinking through these arguments and cannot at the time being entirely consent to where they take me. That’s one of the reasons why I am putting them forth in this fictional format, and not in a prose article.


A: So, it seems we’ve been lead to a rather queer conclusion - that if our city is to enshrine love in true marriage, in the complementary coupling of the masculine as such and the feminine as such, we’re going to have to admit a host of other characters than husbands and wives. And we saw that our argument here is not very new, but rather ancient, and might just be what Plato was riddling at in the myth of Aristophanes.

B: That does seem to be the case. But I can hear an opponent coming forth with the objection: “so much the worse for ‘true marriage’. If it requires the existence of such sexual confusion, we’re better off in a city of pigs, where love goes without celebration, but also, without public perversion.”

A: I take your point. I have long been concerned about how to respond to such people. But furthermore, I think the questions they raise will let us deepen our account of what is lust and what is erotic love. For remember, this is why we undertook in the first place to imagine a city. Since it is difficult to discern in our hearts what is lust and what is love, we thought that if we followed in Plato’s footsteps and try to see love in the city we might have a better grasp of what it was in the individual.

B: How could I forget? I’ve been going along with your loopy argument for no other reason. So let’s turn to the individual and consider what is “natural” and “unnatural” in the use of our faculties, so that if the state does support the existence of sexual and gender diversity it is at least not supporting anything contrary to nature.

A: More than that, we should take care to make sure that it is not only not promoting anything contrary to nature, but that it is promoting the fulfillment and flourishing of its citizens. We should not rest content with a merely negative result. We want to also discern what is the positive good sought after for the individual in erotic love.

B: Quite right. So how shall we begin?

A: I think it’s best that we start with something that our opponents would agree with.

B: Quite right, and our opponents are mainly Thomists, but when they argue about these matters they don’t want to be seen as Thomists, that is, as partisans of religious faction. They want to be seen as natural philosophers in the tradition of Aristotle.

A: Right, so let’s start with Aristotle. Where do you think we could find a solid point on which to move the world there?

B: Well, we are arguing about desire, so maybe something in his practical philosophy?

A: Ah, but desire gives me a much better idea, haven’t you heard the beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics?

B: You mean “That all men by nature desire to know””?

A: “And a sign of this is the delight of the senses”. Precisely!

B: This will do splendidly, and will speak both to the philosopher as well as to the theologian that opposes us, for doesn’t Holy Writ often use “to know” to speak of sex?

A: Indeed it does. So let’s take it for agreed that “All men desire to know, and a sign of this is the delight of the senses”. We thus have senses, powers for perceptual knowledge, and we take delight in them.

B: Right.

A: Now, our discussion is about the proper object of desire, is it not? Don’t they hold against us that the proper object of male sexual desire is woman and the proper object of female sexual desire is man? Isn’t this what they object to when they hear us saying that if we are to know what a man is and what a woman is, we’d better have men who love men and women who love women in our city, publicly speaking about their experiences so that we might have some indication of what “man” in himself is without regard for woman and vice-versa?

B: I guess so, but I think they might want to specify that the proper object of sexual desire is reproduction, and hence it is a desire for reproductive sex, and hence the union of man and woman – and since a man lacks a woman to be with a woman, and a woman lacks a man to be with a man, the proper object of sexual desire for men and women is each other.

A: Thank you for your clarifications. We might need to return to them soon and we shouldn’t caricature our opponents in any way. So, it seems that we are talking about rather different things – our objectors are talking about a desire for reproduction, whereas we are speaking of a desire for erotic union. We’ll have to return to this and ask how the two are connected. But for now, let’s stay with the delight of the senses and ask what are their proper objects.

B: That’s okay, we can come back to this, but could we go over the notion of “proper object” first?

A: By all means! So, I think there are two senses of proper object. The first is that of the object that the sense uniquely can perceive – color for sight say, and sound for hearing, or a surface for touch – do you know what I mean?

B: I think so, but maybe we should go over it just in case.

A: fine, consider this coffee cup. Here. What is the shape of its rim?

B: A circle.

A: Good. So, if you were to draw the two of us sitting across from each other and the coffee cup between us, and you took an angle immediately above us centered on the cup, you would draw it as a circle?

B: yes.

A: good, but if you were to draw the cup from the perspective that you’re sitting now, would you still be drawing a circle?

B: Ah, I see what you are getting at. What I am drawing is still a circle, since the object I am depicting is the rim of the cup, which is circular. But the image in my drawing would be ellipse, as that is what I am seeing now.

A: Exactly. So in one sense what you are seeing is the cup, but on the other hand, what you are seeing are light and colors in certain shapes and intensities. In this sense color is a proper object of sight. It is what is specifically given to sight of the perceptible object. It’s because there is a distinction between the two that anything like say, an illusionistic drawing can be made in the first place. And similar distinctions can be made for all the senses.

B: Yes, I can see. The same way that I see colors, I hear sounds, I feel textures, I taste tastes, and I smell smells. I don’t only do that – I also see coffee cups, and hear people, and feel my way through a corridor and taste coffee and smell something burning. But these are the proper objects insofar as they are the ways these many objects are given to each sense as such.

A: Right. Now, for a different sense of “proper object”, consider the distinction between what is more knowable to us and what is more knowable in itself. Do you know this?

B: Ah right, from Aristotle again. So, the things that are more knowable to us are things that are more familiar to us, that are the objects of more immediate knowledge – but the things more knowable in themselves are things that by their nature admit more easily of being understood.

A: Good! Can you give me an example?

B: Sure. So, perceptible things are more knowable to us because we are immediately acquainted with them through the senses. But they are not particularly knowable in themselves, because of matter, contingency and particularity. We will never know why they have to be the way they are, we will never fully understand them. On the other hand, something like the Pythagorean theorem is more knowable in itself. In a sense, there’s nothing more to it that its proof.

A: Good, so can’t we say that the Pythagorean theorem is a more proper object of understanding than the perceptibles since it is more understandable?

B: Right.

A: Great, so that’s the sense of proper object that I want to focus on. Can you tell me what the most proper object of the understanding is in Aristotle?

B: It is first unmoved mover, pure intellect.

A: That’s right! Now, why?

B: Well, I think it’s how Plato says, that it’s like the Sun, the source of light. Whereas other things aren’t inherently understandable, since they are mixed with matter, the first unmoved mover makes itself understandable the way the Sun makes itself visible, even giving off the intelligible light that makes it possible to understand anything else. So the most proper object of understanding is the thing that makes itself understood, instead of having to be understood by us.

A: Well, I think that’s quite a mixture of Plato and Aristotle you did there, but no matter! That’s not what we’re here for. I just want to remind you of one thing: not only is first unmoved mover the most understandable object, but also, because of that, when we understand it, we take the greatest delight in understanding isn’t that right?

B: Precisely! In those moments, when we grasp it as it gives itself to us, perfectly, without any matter interfering, we share in that divine blessedness that it always has.

A: Good, so now that we understand the abstract model, let’s turn to the senses and see if we can see what is their most proper object in this sense, so that we can see what is it that we most desire to know.

B: Okay, where should we start?

A: Well, you’ve already talked about sight when you mentioned the sun, why not there?

B: Okay, so we already have the answer: the most proper object of sight is the sun, because the sun is what makes itself visible, unlike everything else which is only visible in sunlight.

A: Well, not exactly. First of all, aren’t there other luminous things?

B: Sure, there’s fire, screens, lamps, lighting and the stars.

A: Right, but the stars are a bit far a way, and we have to squint to see them, which gives me a headache. I wouldn’t say they were very visible in themselves?

B: Why not? Every star is another sun.

A: Okay, well how long can you look at the sun for?

B: Not very long.

A: It hurts, right? But shouldn’t the most proper object of sight give us delight in looking at it?

B: Right. And even fire or a computer screen I can’t look too long at.

A: Quite right too. So, what might be the most knowable object of sight?

B: Beats me. What could it be if not the sun?

A: Well think about it this way: when we see, aren’t there always two sides to the experience?

B: You mean, us and what we see?

A: That’s right! And the light from the unbearable luminous source between us. That appears to be the presupposition of our sight, but it causes us pain when we turn our gaze towards it.

B: True. “Don’t go towards the light at the end of the tunnel!”

A: There’s more than a double meaning in that! Anyway, that means that in seeing we always know what we see, and we are always aware of our experience of seeing. Indeed, this distinction between the objects of our experience and the experience itself is what we were drawing on when we talked about the first sense of “proper object”.

B: Right.

A: So, in seeing there is something that we know and that we know better than any of the things we see, which is our sight itself and our desire and delight in seeing.

B: Hm-hm, go on.

A: Indeed, if someone else sees us, they might see the other things we are seeing, but they wouldn’t share in the same sight that we are having: that remains “inside” us, whereas they only see our “outside”, like we see the surfaces of anything.

B: I guess… checks phone

A: … There’s some irony here that you should prefer the shiny screen to the human face addressing you, but let’s continue. So, you agree that in sight we see the surfaces of things, but we also know our interior experience of vision?

B: Yes.

A: Do you think that any of our Aristotelian opponents might dispute this?

B: I can’t see how.

A: Good, so we haven’t lost them yet. Anyway, how about this for a proper object of sight: imagine if you could see something and grasp it not only from the outside, but also from the inside?

B: You mean like x-ray vision?

A: Haha, no. I mean, what good would x-ray vision do? It would let you see through one surface, just to find another deeper surface. And if your vision were so powerful that you saw through everything, you wouldn’t see anything at all! Everything that is transparent is empty.

B: Haha, quite right. It’s like the man who “see through” everyone’s motives and ends up not understanding why anyone does anything. So what did you have in mind?

A: Well, what do you know from the inside then?

B: The act of sight?

A: Correct. So what can you see that has the act of sight?

B: Another person?

A: Right! And not just any person, but a person that isn’t blind, and furthermore, a person who is looking at you as you look at them, like us as we’re having this conversation. You don’t just see me, but you see me seeing. And when you see me seeing, you don’t just see the surface, my face and eyes, but since you are yourself seeing, you can somehow understand me better than you can understand anything else you are looking to right now.

B: Ah, I see. When I look at rocks and tables and beds and plants, all I see are the surfaces and exteriors of them. I don’t know, at least not just by looking, what it’s like to be a rock. But just by looking I know what it’s like to see and to be a person who sees. So in a sense, another person with open eyes is the visible thing I can best understand, since I can understand them inside and out.

A: Right! But what’s more, if you are both looking at each other, then you will both be engaged in the same activity of looking at another person. So you will be able to understand them even better!

B: Aha, I see where this is going. So if I look at myself in the mirror, I will understand myself best, because it will just be me I’m looking at and I’m the one doing the looking!

A: Hold on, I think you’ve jumped off a cliff there. First of all, if you see yourself in the mirror, are you seeing something that’s there?

B: Well, I’m seeing the mirror, and the mirror is there

A: Right, but are you or a doppelganger of yours there on the other side?

B: Well no, it just looks that way.

A: So, it’s an illusion. So, are you seeing something when you look in the mirror?

B: Well I’m seeing how I look.

A: But you’re not seeing another person?

B: No, I’m just seeing my appearance.

A: So, it would seem that in fact, when we see reflections, we see things without any “inside” at all. We see pure surfaces. There is indeed something creepy and lifeless about that specter looking back at you.

B: I guess you could say that.

A: In a way, perhaps, your reflection is more knowable than rocks and tables and trees – as in looking at your reflection you know everything there is to know. But on the other hand, you can’t say that you know what it’s like for your reflection “on the inside”- your reflection doesn’t have an inside, it isn’t a person that’s looking back at you!

B: Right, that why it’s so creepy in movies when reflections move on their own – they shouldn’t be able to do that. It’s almost like a zombie, a dead thing that suddenly shows itself to have a soul.

A: And how often aren’t we like zombies, the undead in the open sun. But anyway, so you agree that your reflection is not actually the most proper object of your sight?

B: You’re right. And this actually reminds me of the distinction of proper and common objects you made before. If the proper object, in the sense of most knowable object of sight were indeed color, and not the visible things we see with color, then indeed, I think my reflection, and in fact, things on surfaces, paintings and other visual art, would be the proper object of sight. But that would ignore the intimate knowledge of sight that we can have in looking at another person.

A: Right, so that shows that we should keep the two meanings of “proper object” apart. We’re only interested in “proper” in the sense of “intrinsically knowable”, and since you can’t “know” an illusion, reflections and illusions aren’t proper objects.

B: Indeed, they’re at the bottom of Plato’s divided line.

A: Quite right! Good catch, hadn’t thought of that. That first stage has always puzzled me. In any case, I don’t think our mirror phase was entirely a useless detour.

B: How do you mean?

A: Well, I think you’re right that the most proper object would be if we could see not only another person who is seeing us, but if that person was us.

B: Like a clone?

A: Like a friend.

B: Ah, “another self.”

A: Precisely, friendship, beautiful and sublime! If I know my partner in gazes so well, that I wish them well as if they were me and I can put myself in their shoes, see through their eyes – wouldn’t that be the most complete experience of sight? Wouldn’t then I truly see not only the exterior, but only the interior?

B: I’m not sure – when we bring in friendship, and sympathy and wellwishing, aren’t we bringing in things exterior to the power of sight? Are we still talking about a visual experience here?


Header image credit: Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1602, detail

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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