Learning to open our eyes to the world: On the art and magic of seeing

A thing is never seen as it really is. (Josef Albers)

A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors. Here it is almost unbelievable that the left small and the right small squares are part of the same paper strip and therefore are the same color. And no normal human eye is able to see both squares — alike.

Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think, but thousands of people can think for one who can see. (John Ruskin)

Josef Albers’ understanding and practice of color perception is a beautiful and powerful model for experiential learning and teaching more generally. It reverses the conventional academic order of moving from theory to practice to moving from practice to theory, what Albers calls the development of observation and articulation. I think this reversal is best understood as shifting the emphasis from theory to the practice of experience, only to discover all the better that theory is always implied in practice and vice-versa. This is the ancient idea of praxis: A constant back-and-forth between theory/knowledge-and-practice/experience, a circle/cycle of mutual information and correction, a feedback loop. This reflection deserves to be enriched by a discussion of related ideas, for which I am unfortunately lacking the time right now: Bruno Latour’s distinction between the work of purification and translation, Heidegger’s forgetfulness of Being, the Taoist notion of complementarity as expressed in the symbol for yin and yang, Dewey’s realtionalist understanding of knowledge and action, and Piaget’s epistemological constructivism:

What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see. (Jean Piaget)

Seeing, just as knowing, is a way of relating to the world. In ‘normal seeing,’ we mostly only see what we expect to see. Seeing always implies Schauen – as in Weltanschauung, German for ‘worldview/philosophy of life’ – i.e. a mostly subliminal and hence all the more powerful understanding of the world and our place and role in it, which shapes what we see and what we expect to see. We are always already there, located not only in time, space, and nature, but also in culture, belief systems, language … animated and motivated by our fantasy and imagination, by our fears and nightmares and by our hopes and dreams.

In order to see the world more fully, we need to learn how to look more deeply and more attentively, just as we need to move from hearing to listening. As we cultivate the art of seeing, we recover its magic and gain a much richer understanding of the world in its complexity and interdependence.

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