Blindness, Vision, and the Good Life For All

Blindness, Vision, and the Good Life For All

David E. Leary

Abstract: In response to John Lachs’ December 2007 Presidential Address to the William James Society, this article elaborates upon James’s concern about vision, identifies some of the roots of his interest in the inner experiences of others, expresses appreciation for the positive contributions of the address, questions a few of its assertions, relates its approach to that of others, and notes the continuing relevance of James’s call for clearer and more appreciative insight into the inner lives and aspirations of others. In all, it attempts to underscore the timely nature of Lachs’ address, which serves as a useful reminder of the importance of each and every individual and of the close connection between the quality of life for one and all.
    John Lachs’ Presidential Address on “Human Blindness” takes its topic from one of the “Talks to Students on Life’s Ideals” that William James delivered in various forms between 1892 and 1898.1 James subsequently converted this talk into an essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which he published along with other addenda to his Talks to Teachers on Psychology in 1899.2 This particular essay was, he said, one of his favorite publications:

much more than the mere piece of sentimentalism which it may seem to some readers. It connects itself with a definite view of the world and of our moral relations to the same. . . .I mean the pluralistic or individualistic philosophy. . . .The practical consequence of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality,

which was, he said, “the perception on which my whole individualistic philosophy is based” (Talks, 5 & 244). James expressed the views articulated in this essay in various places, both before and after 1899, but this particular exposition held a central place in his heart.

     It is worth noting at the start that James’s concern about “blindness” was related, obversely, to his preeminent concern about “vision,” about perceiving the realities of one’s world so that one’s emotions, judgments, and actions will be appropriately directed, not just toward what is but toward what is possible. 2
     There is much to say about James’s consideration of knowledge and philosophy as “visions” of the way things are, and can be. In A Pluralistic Universe (1909), he wrote that “no philosophy can ever be anything but. . .a foreshortened bird’s-eye view of the perspective of events” (9). Thus, if you want to understand anyone’s philosophical system, he said, you should “place yourself…at the center of [that person’s] philosophical vision.” When you do, “you understand at once all the different things it makes him write or say. But keep outside [that vision]. . .and of course you fail” (117). For “philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic. . . .Logic only find[s] reasons for the vision afterwards” (81). Given this conviction, it is not surprising that James believed that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him” (14).3 Conversely, a man’s blindness defines the limits of his being. James was not pleased with those limits, either in himself or in others.
     James’s fundamental concern about vision and the lack thereof can be traced both to his own early experiences as an artist’s apprentice (through which he was initiated into his “ocular philosophy”) and to his early and perduring acquaintance with the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson.4 I believe that I can prove this claim, as much as such claims can be proven, but here I want simply to provide some illustrative quotations from Emerson’s 1870 lectures on the “Natural History of Intellect,” which were delivered at Harvard just as James was working his way through that institution, ever so slowly, toward his academic career in psychology and philosophy – a career that Emerson (James’s avowed godfather) helped to solidify as a recently elevated Overseer. Quoting Emerson now:

“In seeing and in no tradition,” the student of philosophy “must find what truth is” (6). “What is life but the angle of vision? A man is measured by the angle at which he looks at objects” (10). “In my thought I seem to stand on the bank of a river and watch the endless flow of the stream, floating objects of all shapes, colors and natures; nor can I much detain them as they pass, except by running beside them a little way along the bank” (16). “A man of talent has only to name any form. . . .and the strong light which he throws on it enhances it to all eyes. People wonder they never saw it before” (39). “My seeing this or that, and that I see it so or so [in this or that way], is as much a fact in the natural history of the world as is the freezing of water at thirty-two degrees of Fahrhenheit” (41). “A perception. . .is impatient to. . .lead to. . .new action” (41). “The true scholar is one who has the power to stand beside his thoughts or to hold off his thoughts at arm’s length and give them perspective” (44). “Affect blends, intellect disjoins subject and object” (44). “A blending of these two – the intellectual perception of truth and the moral sentiment of right – is wisdom. All thought is practical” (45-46).5

    Any knowledgeable reader of James will recognize these statements by Emerson as presciently Jamesian, if I may put it that way. The contemporaneous development of James’s thought explains his assertion, just three years later, that “I am sure that an age will come. . .when emerson’s philosophy will be in our bones.”6 And just three years after that, in his first publication on philosophy, James defined philosophical study as “the habit of always seeing an alternative, of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid again, of imagining foreign states of mind. In a word, it means the possession of mental perspective” akin to the shifting insights that occur to a connoisseur walking around a three-dimensional statue. “What doctrines students take from their teachers are of little consequence provided they catch from them the living, philosophic attitude of mind, the independent, personal look at all the data of life, and the eagerness to harmonize them.”7 It is easy to connect the dots from 1876 to 1899, when James published “On a Certain Blindness of Human Beings,” and from there to 1903, when James acknowledged that he had gotten “ten times as much” from Emerson as from anyone else and called Emerson his “beloved Master” and, tellingly, “a real seer,” whose “vision” was “the head-spring of all his outpourings.”8 5
      With these introductory comments, I now turn to John Lachs’ stimulating address on “Human Blindness.” John opens his address with an implied criticism of James, saying that “William James proves himself less than sharpsighted about the variety of human intellectual-ocular impediments.” In response, I find myself asking, Really? Was James unaware of the “varieties of human blindness,” or did he simply elect to focus on one particular form of human blindness – a “certain” form, as he put it – in this one address? James suggested this latter explanation in “What Makes Life Significant,” the essay that follows his piece on human blindness in Talks to Teachers:

I am speaking broadly, I know, and omitting to consider certain qualifications in which I myself believe. But one can only make one point in one lecture, and I shall be well content if I have brought my point home to you this evening in even a slight degree.9

Noting that James felt it appropriate to focus on one point at a time, we might ask ourselves what form of blindness deserved more attention than the one he chose – namely, our blindness to the inner lives of others – especially as it was impacting upon the realities and possibilities of his own time. 7
     Despite my quibble, John’s thesis is surely true: “Human blindness is far more widespread, far more variegated and far more insidious than James represented it” in this one essay. And John has done us a great favor by elaborating some of the ways in which this is true.
    As I heard and read John’s perceptive and wise comments on “the varieties of human blindness,” I found myself thinking of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s “Thirteen Pragmatisms” and of James’s appreciation for Lovejoy’s “genius for distinguishing.” Although James expressed occasional impatience when this former student seemed to be engaged in mere “logic-chopping,” I don’t find John guilty of this sin.10 In fact, I’m confident that James, too, would have loved the array of distinctions and related elaborations that he has provided. Even though John’s “varieties of human blindness” number but ten, rather than thirteen, I am impressed by the suggestive richness as well as overlap of his types: To me, they are reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s endlessly generative rather than logically exclusive classifications. Which is fitting, since Borges himself acknowledged a debt to James. 9
     Lovejoy’s “Thirteen Pragmatisms” reminded me, in turn, of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917), a poem said to be inspired in part by Lovejoy’s article as well as by Stevens’s love of James’s thought. (Note Stevens’s emphasis on looking in the title of the poem, in which he deftly shifts the focus to “the eye of the blackbird.”). This poem and others by Stevens are relevant in relation to what John has to say about Charles Sanders Pierce – in particular, Peirce’s notion of “firstness” or immediate experience prior to the mediation of images and words. Stevens, a great fan of Emerson as well as James, had much to say, in essence, about “firstness.” For instance, in his poem “On the Road Home” (1942), he wrote:

It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter. . . .
You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue. . . .
It was when I said. . .
“In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye“. . . .
It was at that time, that silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.11

In quoting from this poem by Stevens, I don’t mean to suggest that Peirce didn’t believe in truth; I want simply to indicate that he felt human life was richest and most complete when experience was most specific and particular rather than general and abstract. And James agreed. 11
    We may also agree, yet how many of us have nonetheless felt exasperated at having to work our way (e.g.) through all the quotations in The Varieties of Religious Experience, even though their inclusion was a direct result of James’s wish to listen as closely as possible to what others have seen and felt regarding religious experience. In relying so heavily upon their insights – the insights of those whose experiences differed significantly from his own – James underscored how seriously he took the concerns expressed a few years earlier in “On a Certain Blindness of Human Beings.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, Peirce felt that Varieties was James’s best work, since it penetrated “into the hearts of people” (or as James suggested elsewhere, since it avoided “letting blindness lay down the law to sight”).12 12
   Toward the end of his conference presentation, John raised a key question: “Would human beings be better off if they could shed all their blindnesses and live in total conscious possession of their world?” I am glad to see that in his subsequent printed version, he acknowledges not only what James would have said, but what he actually did say. As I summarized James’s views at the conference: We don’t want and couldn’t sustain full and contemporaneous consciousness of everything about us. Selection is a crucial cognitive function, and the establishment of more or less unconscious habits – hopefully good habits – is essential if we are to keep our consciousness free to attend to what is novel or surprising or problematic within the field of our experience.13 13
    We encounter these themes of selection and habit in some of James’s earliest writings as well as in The Principles of Psychology, and they were picked up and developed, famously and to good effect, by John Dewey.14 And James’s – and Dewey’s – focus on “the problematic” gives us a criterion for deciding which forms of blindness, instead of others, deserve our attention – a decision that John recommends to us. 14
    But, of course, the matter isn’t so simple, much less settled: Habit, as James realized, can get us into trouble, as our routinized forms of thought, feeling, and action blind us to unfortunate or no-longer-useful contingencies, to new opportunities, and to undreamt of possibilities. I agree – and James would have agreed – with John’s suggestion that “opening our eyes a little here and there, selectively resisting sightlessness in certain contexts can help us move in the right direction.” The punchline – “in the right direction” – touches the vital nerve of the matter: the ethical dimension of James’s concern and the ethical challenges that we face in our own times. Certainly, pressing issues bearing upon the-rich-and-poor as well as war-and-peace – important concerns to James as he wrote, delivered, and published his talks to students – are no less pressing today. With a little less blindness to the inner lives, values, and experiences of others we would surely be in a less dangerous and somewhat happier environment in the early twenty-first century. 15
     In the published version of his address, John gives a snippet from James’s companion essay on “What Makes a Life Significant,” in which James referred to our “great cloud-bank of ancestral blindness.” I would like to start moving toward a conclusion by providing a fuller quotation of that passage, since it not only touches on the general limits that James himself acknowledged regarding the alleviation of human blindness to the inner lives of others, but also suggests that we must, nonetheless, push as hard as we can against those limits:

We have unquestionably a great cloud-blank of ancestral blindness weighing down upon us, only transiently riven here and there by fitful revelations of the truth. It is vain to hope for this state of things to alter much. Our inner secrets must remain for the most part impenetrable by others, for beings as essentially practical as we are necessarily fall short of sight. But if we cannot gain much positive insight into one another, cannot we at least use our sense of our own blindness to make us more cautious in going over the dark places? Cannot we escape some of those hideous ancestral intolerances and cruelties, and positive reversals of the truth? (Talks, 151)

John has done an exceptional service by inviting us to consider James’s concerns about “human blindness” and by amplifying what James said about it. And he is no doubt wise to caution against naïve confidence that certain blindnesses can be fully cured, and that their cure, in every case, would be an unmixed blessing. But when he says, in a clause added in the printed version of his opening paragraph, that “overcoming [human blindness], even if it were possible, would create as many problems as it would solve” (italics added), I think – and I believe James would think – that he undercuts some of the potential value of his own important address: For even if we cannot and should not erase every aspect of human blindness, the price of not becoming more conscious, critical, and cautious regarding “ancestral intolerances and cruelties,” and the price of not increasing our vigilance regarding “positive reversals of truth,” would be far greater now than it was when James first shared his vision of human blindness. The good life for any one of us, as John’s address invites us to realize, depends to a significant extent – and perhaps even more than it did in James’s time – on the good life for all.15 17
University Professor
University of Richmond


1 The following comments have been adapted from a more extensive set of comments made in response to papers by James O. Pawelski and Frederick J. Ruf as well as to John Lachs’ Presidential Address at the Annual Meeting of the William James Society, Baltimore, MD, 28 December 2007. They are here focused entirely on the Presidential Address, which is being published in slightly amended form in this issue of William James Studies. I thank Micah Hester for the invitation and John Lachs for the opportunity to provide these comments, and Mark Moller for requesting them for WJS. Rather than indicate it each and every time, I note here that I have added italics in quotations from James, Emerson, and Stevens in order to underscore the prominence of visual metaphors throughout their thinking and writing.

2 William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). Originally published in 1899 and referred to as Talks in textual citations, this volume contains “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (132-149).

3 The immediately preceding quotations are all from William James, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), which was originally published in 1909. What James wanted, of course, was a philosophy that would “lie flat on its belly in the middle of experience” rather than stand above experience, attempting to achieve a single, once-and-for-all, God’s-eye “vision of things” (125). Richard Bernstein remarks in the “Introduction” to A Pluralistic Universe that “we must take the metaphor of vision quite seriously, especially that sense of vision in which we are aware that what we see � what falls within our field of vision � is more than we can articulate or capture in our conceptual schemes” (xiii). It is additionally relevant to note Ignas Skrupskelis’ regret that James’s late-life work on pragmatism served as “the central distraction” that kept him “away from systematic reflection” on “philosophy as vision, a task for which he was better suited by temperament and literary talents.” See Skrupskelis’s “Introduction” to The Correspondence of William James (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 11: xlvi. (This 12-volume collection of correspondence, published between 1992 and 2004, will hereafter be cited as CWJ.) James’s appreciation of the multifarious nature of vision as well as other sensory modalities, and hence the varying experiences of others to which we should be attuned, extended even to animals: “How different,” he noted as early as 1878 and then again in 1890, “must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, cuttle-fish, or crab!” See The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), I: 277. These different worlds, he suggested, were just as empirically valid and reliable � in other words, just as “real” � as our own.

4 On the relations between James’s views on human understanding and his earlier experiences as an artist’s apprentice, see David E. Leary, “William James and the Art of Human Understanding,” American Psychologist 47 (February 1992): 152-160. Emerson, of course, famously described himself as “a transparent eye-ball” in his important essay on “Nature” (1837), which is reprinted in his Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983), 5-49 (see 10). Besides his experiences in the arts and the related ideas that he absorbed from Emerson, there is evidence to suggest that James’s awareness of the variation of inner sensibilities was enhanced by the different responses of friends and acquaintances to the transformative experiences of their time: the Civil War, violent labor strife, racial discord, professional and international imperialism, new forms of insanity and asylum care, and the like. More personal and familial experiences probably also played a role. I will mention only one such instance, involving his sister (not his wife) Alice: In a letter to Alice, as she lay slowly dying in 1891, James wrote:

How many times I have thought, in the past year, when my days were so full of strong and varied impressions and activities, of the long unchanging hours in bed which those days stood for with you, and wondered how you bore the slow-paced monotony at all, as you did! You can’t tell how I’ve pitied you. (CWJ 7: 178)

To which Alice replied:

When I am gone, pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born. Notwithstanding the poverty of my outside experience I have always had a significance for myself . . .and what more can a human soul ask for?

In fact, she concluded, “this year has been one of the happiest I have ever known, surrounded by such affection and devotion.” Alice’s reply is calendared in CWJ 7: 583 but transcribed in Jean Strouse, Alice James: A Biography (New York: Bantam, 1982), 338. This exchange almost certainly had a significant impact on James. He had missed the inner joy in a life that mattered a great deal to him: The strange, as John Lachs reminds us, can be very close at hand, indeed, within our very home.

5 The immediately preceding quotations are all from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Natural History of Intellect” (1870), in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Vol. 12. Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893), 1-110.

6 William James, “[Notes on Art and Pessimism]” (1873), in Manuscript Essays and Notes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 294-296 (see 295).

7 William James, “The Teaching of Philosophy in Our Colleges” (1876), in Essays in Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 3-6 (see 4-5).

8 James’s admission of Emerson’s tenfold greater influence upon him was made in a letter to Henry Lee Higginson on 7 February 1903 (CWJ 10: 199). The other statements were made in his centennial address on “Emerson” (1903), in Essays in Religion and Morality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 109-115 (see 114-115). It may be instructive, especially regarding distinctive aspects of James’s concern about “human blindness,” to note that Friedrich Nietzsche also acknowledged the preeminent influence of Emerson, which led him to emphasize vision and perspective in his work. (As a sign of his appreciation and debt, Nietzsche frequently carried copies of Emerson’s essays with him when he traveled.) First, we should recognize some important parallels: Both Nietzsche and James, as direct intellectual descendants of Emerson, responded on a fundamental level to Emerson’s call for individuality, self-reliance, and seeing things afresh; both were persuaded by Emerson that experience is always perspectival and each accepted the consequences of this position; and both believed, as Emerson did, that understanding had to be created largely through the use of metaphorical thinking. As I have sometimes put it, Nietzsche can be seen as “James with an attitude.” Nonetheless, the differences between them are crucial, and they revolve around the issues raised in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” Emerson was resolutely democratic: He inspired Walt Whitman, the great poet of the common person. Nietzsche, though he would have liked to believe that each person can be a self-reliant thinker and doer, doubted that it was realistic to expect that: so he called for a role model, or “superman,” who would inspire new ways of thinking and acting in the masses, as the remains of Christendom decayed all around them. James, however, was (if I may be allowed some latitude in terminology) a radically pluralistic individualist. Each and every individual has dignity and responsibility in James’s way of thinking, and it is up to each of us to “live and let live”: to see that all humans and even non-humans thrive to the fullest extent that they can. As James well knew, his commitment to this ideal was an act of faith that, so far as it was lived out, helped to actualize a truly democratic, libertarian way of life. And it all depended on having an Emersonian “vision” of individuality. It is appropriate, then, that James wanted the inscription on Harvard’s newly built Emerson Hall (dedicated in 1904) to read: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). A related comparison of Nietzsche and James can be made regarding the relevance of seeing “something strange” as “something familiar,” and vice versa, as Nietzsche espoused, echoing romantic poets like Novalis, Wordsworth, and Coleridge as well as Emerson. James, we might remember in this context, stated that “philosophy. . .is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar.” And this is what it should do, James argued, thus opening up new perspectives or viewpoints: new ways of seeing reality. On this point, confer William James’s Some Problems of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 11. This work was first published posthumously in 1911. Nietzsche made these various points in many places, but perhaps most provocatively in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. & ed. W. Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968), 437-599. He began developing his views around the same time as James, as indicated by his notebook entry “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873), in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, trans. & ed. D. Breazeale (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1979), 77-97.

9 William James, “What Makes Life Significant” (1899), in Talks, 150-167 (see 167).

10 Arthur O. Lovejoy, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms,” Journal of Philosophy 5 (2 January 1908): 5-12; (16 January 1908): 29-39; also in The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963), 1-29. For James’s comments on Lovejoy, see CWJ 11: 499 & 522.

11 Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917) and “On the Road Home” (1942), in The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1982), 92-95 & 203-204 (see 203-204).

12 William James, The Varieties of Religions Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985). This work was originally published in 1902. Peirce’s comment can be found in Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935), II: 286. James’s comment can be found, not in Varieties, but in a work leading up to Varieties, i.e., “Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine” (1898), in Essays in Religion and Morality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 101.

13 This message comes through clearly in James’s first two substantive publications, “Brute and Human Intellect” (1878), in Essays in Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 1-37, and “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence” (1878), in Essays on Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 7-22; and it is widespread throughout his 1890 masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, especially I: 109-131, 380-433, & 457-518 and II: 952-993.

14 See, e.g., John Dewey, How We Think (1910), in The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), VI: 177-356.

15 I conclude with a comment on “the good life for all” because that was the major concern that motivated James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” In this regard, it is relevant to note that only the first five of John Lachs’ ten categories of “human blindness” deal with James’s own central topic: our blindness toward others. And regarding this topic, it is important to note that it wasn’t primarily the consequences of blindness for the person who does not see that exercised James, but the consequences for those who are not seen. This point underscores the deeply social aspect of James’s essay, and of his thought in general, to which scholars are often blind. Not only is everyone’s sense of self fundamentally social in James’s view (see The Principles of Psychology, I: 281-283), but any genuine and thoroughgoing commitment to individualism, he felt, had to extend to every individual, not just oneself: A true individualist will realize that every individual is special and deserves to flourish. That is the nub on which his essay revolves: how to appreciate more fully the inner worth of other lives, even (or especially) those lives that are committed to different values and replete with unknown experiences. Such appreciation, he felt, is a necessary condition for a world in which all may live fulfilling lives. Accordingly, James would not want any elaboration of his essay to distract us from attending to the positive ways in which simple and direct sensitivity to the experiences, concerns, beliefs, aspirations, and possibilities of others can impact upon the dignity and quality of their lives. His own openness to others was such that he has often been described as gullible � as being blind to the foibles, shortcomings, and biases of others � but it is worth noting that his seeming gullibility was typically due to his unique delight in the distinctive viewpoints and potential insights of each and every human being. He truly believed, as he wrote at the end of his essay, that “neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer” and that “each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands” (Talks, 149). He further believed that this relative superiority of insight, no matter who has it at any given moment, should be allowed appropriate expression, and this expression should receive appropriate attention. He presented another version of this same conclusion a few years later at the end of The Varieties of Religious Experience � the work that Peirce considered James’s best. Each of us, James wrote in Varieties, “from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble,” and each of us assumes a distinctive “attitude” toward our own facts and troubles. This unique form of awareness � this very personalized consciousness � constitutes the distinctive “syllable,” as James put it, that we can contribute to “human nature’s total message.” But since no one’s awareness is always superior to that of others, the total message of human existence will take “the whole of us to spell out” (384). So it is, James believed, that whatever truth, goodness, and beauty human beings can create or comprehend depends ultimately upon the shared vision of all. To this significant extent, then, each of us benefits whenever “a certain blindness in human beings” is ameliorated.

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