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INVISIBILITY / Vol. 83, No. 4 (Winter 2016)

Arien Mack, Editor
Invisibility cover

Both not seeing what is perfectly visible and seeing something other than what is there are surprisingly common occurrences in our normal perceptual lives. One is a case of phenomenal invisibility, while the other is case of misperception. When we do not see what is there or see something other than what is there, it is frequently the result of the same visual processes that are responsible for our seeing what is there. These phenomena are discussed, and the parallel between one of them, inattentional blindness, our failure to see what is there when we are not paying attention to it, is likened to our failure to see those we consider "other," revealing how our prejudices influence what we see and what we don’t.

The myth of the ring of Gyges’ ancestor in Book II of Plato’s Republic is intended as a provocation by Glaucon, who narrates it, and by Plato as the external narrator exploring questions of civic justice. A ring that makes the (un)ethical subject invisible is problematic for any civic community, and to read this myth in the American present is to confront the issue of the visibility and invisibility of citizens and the relationship between citizenship and the visual realm. In the process, strategic invisibility merges as a potent and troubling theme for democratic theory, ancient and modern.

Is invisibility in the eye or in the mind? Is it a force for good or for evil? And does it work equally well for men and for women? These are questions to which we might seek answers in the mythologies of ancient Greece and India, medieval Germany, and 20th and 21st century America. Many of these texts seem to regard invisibility as a subjective mental state, subject to suggestion and the projection of ideas, while others think of it as a more physical, scientific phenomenon, residing in the eye and subject to chemical or electric forces or the projection of rays of light. The two views combine when myths treat invisibility as the projection of a false or absent self from the mind and/or eyes of the magician into the mind and/or eyes of the beholder. In both cases, invisibility often shades off into masquerade and shapeshifting, as shadows, doubles, reflections, or camouflage hide the one true self from the observer or confuse the object of the gaze with the background or with another person.

The article concentrates, first, on cultural forms of invisibility (in myths, films, novels and in marginal groups in the majority culture) followed by an analysis of some claims that the religions make to disclose an invisible spiritual dimension in our lives. A second section is on forms of rational invisibility opened by mathematics, modern science (especially theoretical physics) and by claims to a realm of philosophical invisibility. Third, invoking the third century C.E. philosopher Plotinus, the article links the Infinite invisible realms to that of the Ultimate Invisible: the Infinite (both the quantitative infinite of number, space and time and the Absolute Infinite of Plotinus’ philosophy) is the Ultimate Invisible.

What is the world made of? From antiquity to our day, philosophers and scientists have battled over this question, deploying vivid inventions of the imagination and, more recently, ominous speculations about the darkness of matter, energy, and black holes. Among these various thinkers, one primary debate has been whether the fundamental processes of physical nature are intuitively comprehensible or are inherently unimaginable

This paper gives an extended argument for the conclusion that values are visible properties in the world we inhabit (including nature) and are not entirely derivable from states of mind such as our desires and "moral sentiments." The argument thus repudiates as a superstition of modernity the widespread assumption that the concept of "nature" is to be equated without remainder with "what the natural sciences study." The paper also gives a brief constructive account of what implications all this has for the relation between desires, values, and emotions.

The social world and the private world are most clearly demarcated when it comes to what is most intimately one’s own, namely the things that others cannot, even in principle, possess. Among the things others cannot possess is one’s own field of vision, where the obstacle to another having it, and thereby appreciating it, simply lies in the fact that two human beings cannot occupy the same visual perspectives continuously throughout their lives. Even more intimately one’s own are the things one sees that no other can, even if another managed to occupy one’s visual perspective on the world. This essay is an exploration of those things, so-called “pure visibilia,” focusing on the question of whether those putative items can be discharged in favor of a common visual language of predicates, true or false, of publicly viewable objects. The conclusion is that they cannot be discharged in this way. The important theoretical question is: what does this mean for the theory of vision?

Albert O. Hirschman's Hiding Hand offers an ingenious play on Smith’s Invisible Hand. It suggests that human creativity is often underestimated, leading to unexpected solutions to seemingly intractable problems. In individual lives as in public policy and business, blindness to obstacles sometimes has ironic and desirable consequences. Hirschman's is an infectious account, but it does not fit the data. Far more often, planners are subject to the Malevolent Hiding Hand, which prompts people to proceed, unaware of the obstacles and of their inability to surmount them. The Hiding Hand obscures the planning fallacy, writ very large. Hirschman had a keen understanding of human psychology, but his enthusiasm for happy endings led him to a misleading account of economic development. The Hiding Hand is usually malevolent.

Flyvbjerg and Sunstein offer a critique of Hirschman's Hiding Hand Principle. Using a comprehensive database and employing various statistical tests, they show just how deficient the Principle is. Yet, they seem to operate from a narrow conceptualization of the Hiding Hand by emphasizing primarily its malevolent sibling, and failing to see the broader problem of incomplete information and uncertainty in planning processes. In response, the article proposes a typology of Hands and their patterns and outcomes as a way of relieving Flyvbjerg and Sunstein from a preoccupation with what for Hirschman was little more than a “petite idée.”

Perhaps the most frequent recourse to invisibility by humanity alleviates the certainty of dying. Dead bodies are palpably manifest, but souls or spirits must be invisible. Yet in order to envision an afterlife souls are re-embodied, to imagine what goes on in heaven—or hell. This essay argues that Christian belief in immortality depends far more on Classical mythology than is usually taught or believed. Homer and Vergil's Aeneid serve as the primary classical texts, and the author is indebted to Peter Brown's research and writings for coming to terms with second- to seventh-century Christianity.

Mathematics has been expressed in the language of visual metaphors since the earliest times. Examples are given from Old Babylonian, ancient Greek, and Renaissance traditions to suggest that solving the kinds of problems at the origins of contemporary number theory and algebra has historically been conceived as the process of divesting the solution of its invisibility. Visual metaphors have accompanied mathematics' evolution toward more abstraction over the past two centuries, but their nature has changed. What contemporary number theorists seek to bring to light is less the solution to an equation than the answer to the question: what question should we have been asking all along?


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