Note- This essay was first posted on August 31, 2008 and has had by far the most readers, so I wanted to introduce it again to those who have come to my blog more recently. I hope some of you may have examples of ways that images present ideas that you could share in the comment section.
“A consciousness that proceeds by sight…is a greater power for knowledge than the consciousness of the thinker.” Sri Aurobindo, A Greater Psychology
When I first used the term “visual philosophy” a student in the class said, “Wait a minute, are you talking about aesthetics?” It was natural to think I was referring to philosophy about art and beauty because we don’t generally think of art and images in their capacity to express ideas, to evoke a philosophical stance through a visual depiction. Beyond simply communicating information, an image shows how to see the information. We equate seeing with understanding.
We are drowning in information and need the wisdom to know how to filter it. Insight sees the significance within the whole. Wisdom depends on perception. The metaphors of seeing attest to our underlying trust in what we ”see with our own eyes.” We “believe what we see”. As we enlarge our picture of reality, our understanding grows.
Observation lies beneath the methods of art and science. As science separates the world into smaller and smaller parts, art should be equally important in pulling the whole back together, to see the forest as well as the trees. Ideas expressed visually can include the multiple variables that we live with in actual experience, the influences from every direction that controlled experiments leave out. Artists enlarge the range of what we are able to see. By sensitizing people to significant pattern, capacity for insight is developed. Understanding how feeling represents the meaning of what we see tunes our intuition and our trust in its guidance. Educating the synthesizing power of imaginal (thinking in images) thinking may allow us to evolve a new level of intelligence. Arguing for the superiority of visual communication, Barbara Stafford writes “Perceptually combined information… avoids the intellectual limitations of linearity.” She believes that in the graphic world of the internet, artists will be more important in explaining reality, understanding the display of knowledge, allowing an immediate apprehension of connections.
Art reveals consciousness. It offers multiple windows on the deepest and broadest aspects of being human. This is a physical improvement in the most evolved parts of our brain. Like any other activity, the parts of the brain that are used are strengthened. More benefit comes from the self-understanding arising from what you choose to see. Perception is not passive. It’s always scanning for what will be useful to us. Joseph Campbell said, ”The eyes are the scouts of the heart.” We are drawn to what resonates with our own inner state, often mirroring it, sometimes compensating for it. Given that neuroscience has shown that feelings precede and direct thought, letting the eye make choices from the world of art could likely take us deeper into understanding our feelings than talking about them.
The mission of visual philosophy is to see more, to become aware of the complex web of relationships that visual intelligence deals with best, and to express meaning visually.
Knowledge of all kinds can be communicated with images. Even in regard to invisible realms and deep level patterns, artists can help us understand consciousness more fully by what they reveal of it.