Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Do Chinese Philosophers Think Tilted Coins Look Elliptical?

by Eric Schwitzgebel (guest blogger)

[Cross posted at The Splintered Mind]

In my 2006 essay “Do Things Look Flat?“, I examine some of the cultural history of the opinion that visual appearances involve what I call “projective distortions” — the opinion, that is, that tilted coins look elliptical, rows of streetlights look like they shrink into the distance, etc. I conjecture that our inclination to say such things is due to overanalogizing visual experience to flat, projective media like paintings and photographs. In support of this conjecture, I contrast the contemporary and early modern periods (in the West) with ancient Greece and introspective psychology circa 1900. In the first two cultures, one finds both a tendency to compare visual experience to pictures and a tendency to describe visual experience as projectively distorted. In the latter two cultures, one finds little of either, despite plenty of talk about visual appearances in general.

I didn’t do a systematic search of classical Chinese philosophy, which I love but which has less epistemology of perception, but I did find one relevant passage:

If you look down on a herd of cows from the top of a hill, they will look no bigger than sheep, and yet no one hoping to find sheep is likely to run down the hill after them. It is simply that the distance obscures their actual size. If you look up at a forest from the foot of a hill, the biggest trees appear no taller than chopsticks, and yet no one hoping to find chopsticks is likely to go picking among them. It is simply that the height obscures their actual dimensions (Xunzi ch. 21; Basic Writings, Watson trans., p. 134)

Though I can recall no ancient Chinese comparisons of visual experience and painting, both Xunzi and Zhuangzi compare the mind to a pan of water which can reflect things accurately or inaccurately, an analogy that seems related (Xunzi ibid. p. 131, ch. 25, Knoblock trans. 1999, p. 799; Zhuangzi, Watson trans., Complete Works, p. 97). In medieval China, which I know much less about, I noticed Wang Yangming saying such a comparison was commonplace (Instructions for Practical Living, Chan trans., p. 45).

So my question is, for those of you who know more Chinese philosophy than I, are there other passages I should be looking at — either on perspectival shape or size distortion or on analogies for visual experience? I’m revising the essay for a book chapter and I’d like to expand my discussion to China if I can find enough material. Any help would be much appreciated!

(I also wouldn’t mind more help on Greek passages, too, if anyone has the inclination. Some of the more obvious passages are Plato’s discussion of painters in the Republic and Sophist, Aristotle’s discussion of sensory experience as like impressions in wax, Sextus’s lists of sensory distortions in experience and his discussions of wax impressions, Epicurus’s discussions of the transmission of images, discussions of the sun as looking “one foot wide”, and Euclid’s and Ptolemy’s optics.)

December 11, 2008 Posted by | Comparative philosophy | 11 comments