Human Blindness

Human Blindness

John Lachs

Abstract: Starting from William James’s classic essay, I distinguish ten different sorts of human blindness.� I ask which, if any, of these can be eradicated, and conclude that it is neither desirable nor possible to make more than gradual improvements in our moral vision. 
    In writing about a certain blindness,1 William James proves himself less than sharpsighted about the variety of human intellectual-ocular impediments. He thinks he has identified a single disability when in fact he is focused on a broad range of problems. I do not want to be grudging in my praise of James; it is always cause for joy when philosophers tackle issues of moment for daily life. James is superb at this: his essays, such as “What Makes a Life Significant” and “The Moral Equivalent of War,” illuminate issues of great personal and social importance. But he is notoriously reluctant to draw distinctions, even when they are vital for clear vision or for the outcome of his argument. In the case of the essay on blindness, failing to see the diversity of phenomena he addresses garbles the message he wants to convey. Human blindness is far more widespread, far more variegated and far more insidious than James represents it, yet overcoming it, even if it were possible, would create as many problems as it would solve.1
    The primary form of blindness in James’ line of sight is the failure to see how others view the world. This actually consists of two disabilities, the first that of not being able to see the world the way others see it, and the second that of closing our eyes to the divergent devotions of other people. James conflates the two through his example of coming across a hideous house and clearing in the woods that the mountaineer sees as his beautiful home. James finds the realization that someone can value something so primitive shocking. But he thinks the woodman’s perception of his bit of reality is equally dismaying.2
     Our view of the world is deeply influenced by our values, but perceptions differ not only as a result of embracing different goods. Color-defective people, for example, cannot even imagine what a world of reds and greens might be like. Similarly, individuals lacking a sense modality, such as hearing, operate in an environment not easily understood or replicated by people without that deficit. And I doubt that any human being can experience in the rich olfactory fashion common to dogs. One’s condition or circumstances also serve as perceptual determinants: in a child’s world, even short parents appear as towering giants. Social conditioning influences the look of the world no less: South American Indian parents taught their children to see invading Spaniards as creatures, each of whom, with his horse, constituted a single animal.3
    The influence of values on our view of reality is profound. Love offers a striking example: it can make ugly children and a toothless spouse appear as creatures of magic and light. A similar chemistry renders it difficult to see ourselves as others see us, or others as they see themselves. If we don’t share the values of people, we remain strangers to their worlds. Yet embracing what others prize is a rare achievement. For the most part, even a sympathetic grasp of why they hold their values eludes us. Such incomprehension may lead to overt conflict; at the very least, it fuels a quiet antagonism to much that is not ours.4
    There is also a third form of blindness, that connected with the emotive tone of experience or the way life feels to other people. We encounter this, for example, in the excited activity of the lantern-bearers James describes, hiding their lights under their coats. The problem is that our view of the excitements of others is always external: we see the things they do but not how it feels to be doing them. Yet, James correctly avers, much of the joy of life resides in the rich emotive feel that accompanies our activities. Without it, we are rocks in the meadow or the burnt out hulls of meteors.5
    When a new dog joins the pack, it sniffs with delight and its tail wags happily. In a similar fashion, laughter and smiles spread readily from one person to another; it is difficult to escape the contagion of the group. But existentialists, though dour, are right that each person smiles alone, that the feel of the smile, the smile of the inner face, is open only to one. So it is with suffering, as well, both in the form of pain and of the anxiety that casts a shadow over life. We simply don’t know what exhilaration and depression feel like in our neighbors; we view them and deal with them as though we were behaviorists, attentive to their outward movements but unmindful of their inner life. Distance from others exaggerates this blindness to their pain, yet—paradoxically, perhaps—close presence does not enhance our access to their joys.6
    The inevitable corollary of such ignorance is a fourth sort of blindness, namely that to who others are. This does not mean that we fail to remember the names of people or don’t know them by their social positions or their jobs. What we lack is a clear view of what makes them tick, that is, of what we might appropriately call the constitution of their souls. Ignorant of their motivations, surprised by their purposes and unlettered in their principles, we live near them the way birds and squirrels share a tree as home, each in its own nest, indifferent to all the rest. Thus we see spouses of fifty years realize that they are married to a cipher. A trusted partner is not necessarily a person whose soul is known; loyalty in marriage may give the relation stability, but the routine that reassures also induces sleep, inviting people to go through life blind in their intimacy.7
     Our sightlessness is by no means limited to such subjective elements of the world as persons, their views, their feelings and their values. Sometimes we are victims of a fifth kind of blindness, that of operating in ignorance of objective parts of reality and their meanings. Such undiscerning ways differ from those we have discussed so far in a variety of ways, among them by being relatively easy to remedy. In subjective matters, there is a wall between persons that may be scaled only with much trouble; the facts we overlook, however, tend to stare us in the face. The attitudes of people are reflected in their eyes and in their acts; it is not difficult to discern changes in their moods. Yet many marriage partners feel crushing surprise at infidelity, even though they had ample early signals. Similarly, we may not notice danger on the road, the missing coffee table or that someone cleaned the house. Such inattention is fed by routine, falsely suggesting that our corner of the world is adequately explored and can therefore be disregarded.8
    This problem of what James calls “the jaded eye” naturally leads to a sixth sort of blindness, one that makes us view the world as old and boring. This is a tragic loss: it colors our days gray and fills life with ennui. We miss a great source of happiness when we no longer see the world as ever new. The joyous symmetry and asymmetry that pervade the real, the energy with which each being occupies its slot in the scheme of things and, in the end, the delightful improbability of everything should be enough to amaze us for the few years we are here. Yet we meet people who can summon no ideas out of what I just said and see the world as if through dead men’s eyes.9
    A Mozart can love every note and endlessly caress their sequences. A Picasso may be in love with shape and color, and a Frank Lloyd Wright with how walls articulate space. But we don’t have to be artists to see the marvelous riches of the world; attention to details is enough. The swirl of lines in wood and the way water runs downstream can make children of adults. The construction of insect bodies and the grand complexities of a single molecule are simply astonishing. The explosive growth of bamboo is as fascinating as the slow deterioration of wood on the forest floor. There is hardly a thing or a relationship that fails to offer food for reflection or at least to induce amazement. All we need is eyes for it, that is, a receptive and energetic appreciation of what surrounds us. Blindness to the beauty of the world is at once blindness to what is best in our earthly lives.10
    A seventh sort of unseeing is easily confused with failure to connect with the vibrancy of the world. James refers to this blindness only briefly in his essay, though it is a recurrent theme in his other writings. We detect the beauty of the world by enhancing our sensations, by living—we might say—through the senses. But our “sensorial life” yields much more than beauty, and if we efface it, we lose more than the eye-opening newness of existence. When we downplay it, we become crippled by concepts, people who live in their thoughts or fall prey to ideologies. Like D.H. Lawrence and others, James is a champion of sensory life and an implacable critic of abstraction. This form of blindness is the failure to notice the concrete, the specific and, on the reading of empiricists, the real in the world. Since concepts are so much easier to deal with than recalcitrant facts, people gladly turn away from harsh reality to thin and pliable ideas. Our sensations may be “powerful and ineffaceable,” but they do not command the attention our favorite notions do. They are constantly overruled by being interpreted, so that we end up seeing what we think.11
    Blindness to our sensations suggests an eighth and altogether different sort of inattention. The desire to be considered a member of “the elite” turns us away from our simpler functions toward a celebration of sophisticated but derivative activities. We enjoy going to dinner parties, for example, but overlook the joys that come of chewing and swallowing. We seek to engage in conversations but forget to savor the delight of pronouncing words or of the togetherness of quiet cuddling. Children take pleasure in the simple functions when they first master them; adult attention turns that way only when we have to relearn them on account of illness or accident. Yet life would be immeasurably richer if candidates for president worried less about what they say in interminable debates and took time to show the electorate that they know the value of silently breathing.12
   There is a ninth, special sort of blindness that besets spectators. One might suppose that the spectatorial stance, devoted to observing everything of moment, is particularly well suited to overcoming sightlessness. Yet its very nature sets obstacles in its way, limiting onlookers to the benefits of perception and denying them knowledge of the feel and of the consequences of action. Dogs in the act of love have access to experiences sadly unavailable to their packmates looking on. The same is true of soldiers whose exploits on the battlefield remain their private possessions and cannot be captured by those who stay at home. This blindness is not a matter of choice or the habit of inattention; it is the inevitable outcome of failing to be in a certain position. Its remedy is not enhanced awareness but shouldering the burden of agency by going to war or plunging into love.13
    This leads me to the tenth and last blindness, which is at once the greatest and most lamentable. We can be so taken with the past and the future that we become unmindful of the present. The young see the failures of the past, the old its victories; in either case, what has been casts a long shadow over the only thing real, which is what exists now. Expectations can terrorize life or else charm it; when they do, we live for what is not yet and will perhaps never be. The present always ends up as the victim, seen only as residue or preparation, appreciated only in its passing. What we seem not to understand is that the present never passes, that its riches are inexhaustible and that in spurning it we discard all of life.14
    Objects tend to be of interest to us for their instrumental value. The more we view things, people and relationships as means to ulterior ends, the less we are concerned with their intrinsic properties. We can quickly reach the stage where we hardly notice what is immediately present, reading it only as the sign of things past or yet to come. The firstness, as Peirce would say, of whatever we deal with tends to give way to its secondness and thirdness; the immediacy before us is quickly mediated. The genius of James, Peirce and Dewey is that they did not go down the road of Hegelian mediation, maintaining a keen consciousness of the importance of unmediated presence. Hegel, however, has been more prescient of the common mind than the Americans. Busy people don’t linger over the appearance of things, savoring each marvelous aspect of the world. They turn a blind eye to how things look and feel and thereby lose the most direct contact we can develop with the real. This is the blindness of people who have no trouble finding their way, but haven’t a clue as to where they have been.15
    I have distinguished ten different sorts of blindness, undifferentiated by James, all of which, however, are hinted at in his essay. Some of the blindnesses are connected with each other in a variety of ways, others remain essentially independent. They are different from each other because their objects, causes, organs, processes or remedies differ. But they tend to travel in company so that, for instance, the person who is blind to immediacies is likely also to be nescient of how others see the world. Similarly, persons who take no delight in our simpler functions probably also fail to lead an intense sensory life.16
    Should we be distressed at seeing so much blindness built into the human frame? If blindnesses are deficits of a cognitive, valuational or emotive sort, it would presumably be much better to be without them. James certainly conceives his essay as a call to action: he laments our inattentions and implies, even though he does not state, that we must overcome them and try to see the neglected riches of life. Surprisingly, perhaps, he says nothing about blindness to ourselves in the form of self-deception and the sort of subconscious impulses Freud worked so hard to bring to the light of day, but he clearly considers unseeing a severe human failing. He may not go so far as his colleague, Royce, and say that the willful narrowing of attention is the very definition of sin, but he is convinced that we would be better off if we lived in total conscious possession of our world or at least significantly expanded the range of our sympathies.17
    Can we rid ourselves of what James calls the “great cloud-bank of ancestral blindness”? By the time he writes the next essay in the series, James is ready to declare that we cannot. He avers that it “is vain to hope for this state of things to alter much,”2 for practical-minded beings such as ourselves are “necessarily short of sight.” He is clearly right that in considering the demands of animal and social life in a precarious environment, eliminating all our blindnesses is impossible. I don’t mean, of course, the dry logical impossibility of contradiction, but impossibility measured by who we are and what we have to do to secure our existence. Sensitivity to different perceptions slows up response-time and constant empathetic access to the sufferings of others makes action odious. Could we kill animals if we had a vivid perception of their anxiety in the slaughterhouse? Could we compete for mate or promotion if we felt the disappointment of the loser? Could we prefer our own values if we saw justification for everybody else’s?18
    Admittedly, ridding ourselves of some of our blindnesses, reducing their scope or increasing our voluntary control over what to be blind to could make for a somewhat better life. If we bathed the values of others in the same warm light as we bathe our own, there would likely be less conflict in the world and more understanding. If we appreciated the immediate presence of things, our lives would be richer and significantly more carefree. And if we focused on the simpler functions of life, we would have a surer source of joy than sophistication or competition can provide. This much is clear and it seems sensible to encourage people to open their eyes a little wider so they may improve their condition.19
     Unfortunately, however, every benefit has a seamy underside. If we saw the world as forever new, we could not develop work-reducing and life-saving habits. If we were party to everyone’s grief, we would be tortured and immobilized by the horror. If we attended to the immediacies of life without reference to instrumentalities, we would lose all practical sense and find ourselves gaping at the world. And if we gloried in our simpler functions, we would have little use for the sophisticated activities unique to humans and productive of satisfactions unavailable otherwise.20
    So we should take thought before we recommend the elimination of blindness or, for that matter, any other general measure as a solution to the problems humans face. Opening our eyes a little here and there, selectively resisting sightlessness in certain contexts, can help us move in the right direction, bringing us closer to loved ones or to the vivacity of the real. We should work vigorously to make ourselves more perceptive in our intellectual life and more generous in our responses. But we must not forget our finitude and we must try to remember that much as blindness is, in the abstract, a lamentable condition, in concrete life it protects us from being overwhelmed by reality.21
Department of Philosophy
Vanderbilt University


1William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in John J. McDermott, ed., The Writings of William James, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1977, pp. 629-645.

2William James, “What Makes a Life Significant,” in John J. McDermott, The Writings of William James, p. 646.

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