Experience – Personal Perspectives

Precocious teenage Cartesians, of a nerdy philosophical bent, often suppose they can ask:

‘It’s possible, isn’t it, that what I experience as blue, you experience as red. I could never know, because I can’t get into your head and see colours the way you do, but it’s possible, isn’t it, that if I did, the world would look completely different to me than to you?’

It’s a question that makes no sense, at least to precocious teenage Cartesians who have gone on to study philosophy. We can’t get at the idea at all using the language and concepts that we learn in the world, pointing at things together and agreeing on the application of words. Even if you’re in some mysterious sense ‘experiencing’ blue as my red, we’ll point at the same things and use the words ‘red’ and ‘blue’ in complete agreement.

It’s only in abnormal cases such as colour-blindness that we can agree that things look different, and that’s because there are ways to establish that someone sees colours unusually – normal sighted and colour-blind people disagree on the application of colour words, systematically.

Words and thought won’t stretch to the idea that ‘privately’ our experiences might be different. You might as well suggest that a square might ‘privately’ look like a circle to me, What can we usefully do with such an idea? I’ll never be able to say, ‘Oh, he’s one of those people who sees blue as red, or circles as triangles.’ How could I know, and what would we do with this ‘knowledge’?

Not that private experience of all kinds is unreachable. Private experience is reachable if we can agree on it publicly. For example, we can make sense of the idea that we can see a single image ‘as’ one thing and then another, as long as we can point and explain. ‘Private experience’ makes no sense when we can’t point at anything or explain in any way.

I can see this cartoon image either as a rabbit or a duck.

rabbit

‘Look, this is it’s bill,’ you might say, or ‘Look, they could be ears instead.’

And I’ll know when you get the point. Though I’ll never be able to ‘catch’ you seeing it one way or the other. That part is private.

I was thinking these thoughts at the recently reopened Picasso Museum in Paris on Saturday, whilst looking at some of Picasso’s early Cubist works. Through Cubism Picasso and others were trying to convey how an object is ‘really’ perceived and understood by a spectator rather than simply to ‘capture’ how it looks front-on from a particular perspective. It’s obvious, of course, that we don’t perceive objects as a camera does, all at once, with a quick snap of the shutter. Our eyes travel, we shift our point of view, and our mind constructs an understanding of an object as it might be seen from multiple dimensions. Construction going wrong is what happens when you try out LSD, I suppose (though I never have!).

Here’s how Picasso captures the reality of a man with a guitar.

manguitar

Construction is perceptual, emotional, and intellectual, all at the same time. Good painters add attitude, anger, lust or love to the line and colour mix.

woman

So, Cubism supposedly shows us how we really perceive an object, perspectives all mixed up, a consciousness of two eyes, face-on and in profile simultaneously. Perhaps the fragmented, multi-dimensional prose of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake aims to capture the ‘real’ world in the same kind of way, its prose assaulting the reader from multiple angles and levels of consciousness, all at once, as the world does. We get paintings that are hard to look at, some might say, and prose that’s impossible to read. Perhaps they both leave us with too little to do ourselves, or, when they become, impenetrable, too much.

But for those still of a philosophical bent there’s a logical problem with Cubism. The painter supposedly shows us how we really perceive an object, through the medium of a painting. But a painting is an object too, which we also perceive and know in complex ways (perhaps we imagine the blank hessian at the back even while we’re gazing in rapt attention at the front). So, it’s a complicated experience. A painter conveys the experience of an object through the experience of a painting. His, and our, experience isn’t of a flat and neutral object hanging on a wall. It’s more complicated. Ultimately another’s experience is elusive, and perhaps Cubism, the more it strives, takes things too far. It can’t ever really succeed.

But, there’s truth in the idea, too, and success. Look at Picasso’s evocation of the real Cannes, the whole Cannes.

cannes

David Hockney does something similar, conveying everything, all at once, about a regular car journey he made from home to studio, combining knowledge and image into a single complete and personal experience, and finding a way to share it.

drive

We’re condemned, as individuals, to see things from a single point of view, and must use whatever means we find to share our personal perspective. Paint, music, words, and the rest, they work up to a point.

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity on the Beaches of the Cote d’Azur

I was amused by this article about Saudi King Salman’s visit to the Cote d’Azur, and surprised to read that even in the land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, expediency and commercial opportunity trump the rights of the ordinary beachgoer.

Beach Closed for Saudi Visit

King Salman is travelling with an entourage of about 1,000 and a stretch of beach will be closed to enable him to enjoy himself in ‘privacy’. He and his companions will arrive on two Boeing 747s, some to stay in the King’s villa and the rest to be put up in hotel rooms in Cannes. A thousand people for three weeks at the peak of the holiday season must cost the royal family well over three million pounds. Trickle-down theorists will point out, in his defence, that some of the money will trickle down to those locals who are denied a swim at their favourite beach.

King Salman

The balancing of individual rights against a wider commercial advantage isn’t something amenable to an automatic moral algorithm, sadly, but with the French leading the charge against economic inequality this pandering to the wishes of one rich foreign family is rather unexpected.

But what strikes me as most odd about this story is not the closure of the beach, but the idea that you might travel to a foreign country with so many of your own countrymen that the very foreignness of the place you’re visiting is entirely obliterated. If I travel to France I want to be with the French, to eat French food, to be insulted for my language skills, and perturbed by French hauteur, not to be surrounded by my own countrymen.

I’m reminded of a time in Sofia more than fifteen years ago, when one of my visits coincided with a state visit by Bill Clinton, then President of the United States. He, too, arrived with an entourage on two Boeing 747s, and took over most of the city’s hotel rooms. I shared a dining room at one hotel with the Presidential hairdresser. Most of the city was closed for the 36 hours of his stay, not just a single beach. But in practice we can’t demand equality of world leaders, whose security must trump the rights of the rest of us, for a time at least. The wheels of diplomacy and international relations must turn, however expensive that may be. The holiday visit of a Saudi King is another matter.