I spent nearly half a century learning and teaching philosophy, with a couple of detours into the wilderness of academic administration. The students were wonderful, the courses challenging, the friendships stimulating, and the research rewarding. You can learn a lot about the world—and yourself—by studying philosophy intensively, and I commend it to everyone.
When I retired in 2011, I faced two roads that diverged (not in Frost’s yellow wood, but just as consequential): Should I continue with philosophical research? I do have a few unfinished articles somewhere, and lots of suitable topics to explore. Or should I try something different? Somehow the question resolved itself. I had always been interested in photography since high school, when I worked on a local newspaper and got to use the very nice cameras of a senior journalist. But over the ensuing years I had little time and less money for taking pictures, despite continuing interest. Upon retirement, that interest burgeoned. So I chose photography over philosophy as a way to spend my time, though I readily confess that my philosophical experience continues to infect my thought process. (A fellow photographer, Patrick Hinely, calls me “philosophotog.”)
I am a naïve amateur photographer, continually learning and always open to suggestions for improvement, both technical and creative. Expanding knowledge always shows us how ignorant we remain and how much more there is to know. The images in this post are drawn from my “Covid Ramblings,” a year-long project I undertook in March amidst the pandemic at the suggestion of our daughter Laura, and the results of which I hope to self-publish next spring. It’s the culmination of my efforts thus far, and it displays what I’ve learned—and makes obvious how far I still have to go.
At this point in my project I thought it might be interesting to put my philosophy to use in reflecting a bit upon photography. After all, the website is named for Susan Sontag, who wrote a well-regarded collection of essays, On Photography, and our posts are in effect letters to her (she died in 2004). Her book mostly reflects on the social significance of photography, to which I have nothing to add, and I think she might be a bit dubious of what I have to say—but since when have philosophers ever agreed? No doubt this post is a bit self-indulgent, but perhaps you, gentle reader, will indulge me for a bit as well?
So here are some philosophical ramblings about photography—not a structured set of claims and arguments, but meandering reflections. It’s rather like the kind of photography I described in my second DS post: serendipitous satisficing while looking at something lurking just beneath the surface. Every subject has its depths, of course, and practicing photographers—all of you—ordinarily don’t have time to plumb these depths, but in a pandemic I hope you might have a few moments to reflect on the following.
First off, I readily admit that philosophy and photography haven’t always been friends. It’s not just that you can’t do serious philosophy at the same time as practicing photography, since that’s true of any subject matter philosophy explores. But ever since Plato, philosophy has been suspicious of any art as pursuing mere appearance and not reality. Plato’s Cave analogy, depicted in The Republic Book VII, is a powerful story—or image. In it, we are ordinarily like benighted cave-dwellers perceiving only the shadows of real things, their appearances, and we must be led, perhaps forcibly, up out of the familiar darkness of the cave into the stunning daylight of the sun to behold reality. It’s a beguiling story that raises many deep questions about knowledge and reality: What is really real after all? How can we know it? Does truth about reality lie in images, concrete percepts, or rather in abstract concepts, Platonic Ideas (or in both, somehow)?
The contrast between percept and concept can be over-blown, but it’s potent. Images are indeed perceptual, and there is something sensorily immediate, concrete and present to consciousness in them, whereas concepts are abstract, not present to sense but seen only by the mind’s eye (itself a metaphor derived from perception!). Photography aims at seeing and representing a concrete particular, whereas philosophy aims at recognizing and representing an abstraction. These differences are real and deep, and I don’t wish to deny them. But I do want to soften the dichotomy in various ways.
Photography is a light-drawing, expressing itself in visual percepts (a “percept” is just a datum of perception, what is perceived, and our perception is via sensation, so our basic percepts are sensual data), whereas philosophy is discursive, expressing itself in spoken and written language, the vehicle of concepts. But both activities aim at representation, literally re-presenting what is presented first in sense or thought, and there may be similarities in the respective manners of representation: style, wit, clarity, concision, synthesis, suggestiveness. Further, language is as supple as image in accommodating likeness, perspective, focus and aspect, useful for so much more than stark (factual) representation. And clearly creativity creates quality in each—better images, better arguments—though there is no substitute for hard work.
And of course there’s that old pair of categories: beauty and truth. A central aim of photography is to express/create beauty, whereas philosophy seeks truth (or the wisdom that appreciates its value). Perhaps Keats is somehow right: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (Ode on a Grecian Urn). But offhand it does seem that even if something beautiful—like a photograph—conveys something true about a scene, and perhaps deeply true, it’s not expressing all the truth that lurks in that neighborhood: for the rest of truth we need something more like the disciplined inquiry of science (or even philosophy?) that queries the often-luminous appearance of things and seeks the reasons why things appear the way they do. Contrarily, truth need not be beautiful; in fact it can be the opposite—stark, ugly, dreadful, foul. Understanding the unity of beauty and truth seems beyond our grasp.
Here’s another, important contrast: photography seems intent on “capturing” something transient, a delightful scene perhaps but also one that occurs momentarily and then is gone: the light changes, subjects move, the wind blows, everything passes. That transience is arguably essential to beautiful images: would their subjects be so beautiful if unchanging? (Never mind how the record of that transience is itself transient!) But philosophy has lusted since its origins for something more than transience, something that doesn’t change, something eternal. Plato found eternity in his Ideas, but the conceptual analyses, categorial schemes and knock-down arguments of other philosophers have yearned to be something similar in being more than a “momentary stay against confusion” [Robert Frost, on “The figure a poem makes”]—they seek to be a lasting stay, ideally permanent. But, in the end, these are matters of degree, not of kind. Some photographic images last longer than many philosophical efforts.
Photography and philosophy seem to have divergent ontologies (theories of being), or at least ambitions, one prioritizing the ephemeral, the other the eternal. But perhaps there are also convergences. For one, both works of art and philosophical writings become and then pass on, whether forgotten, ignored, discredited, discounted or simply lost—their transience and eternality subsumed in a greater passing. For another, both elevate the human spirit a bit above the temporal flux, capturing something that endures for a time if not for all times. And here is where beauty and truth may touch one another again: if something is indeed true or beautiful at some time, then it is true for all times that it was true or beautiful at that time, regardless of whether it is accepted by anyone as such.
Here I’m tempted to insert a paragraph on emptiness in Buddhist philosophy, but we needn’t travel to Asia for insight: There is also the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne (about whom I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation), which constructs an ontology not of enduring things and their changing attributes but of events that “process” (or “concresce,” to use Whitehead’s term). Everything—and I do mean everything, from quarks to people and galaxies, even God—is composed ultimately of events, of happenings, of actual occasions. This is a rich vein of thought that I can’t begin to mine here, but it does provide a way of understanding the relatively enduring as founded on actual entities that come to be as creative syntheses of past actualities and present possibilities, and then pass on, unchanging only as part of a causally-effective past. Every present moment is truly unique; it can be preserved (in effects, including memories) but not perpetuated (as continuing subjective experience). Objectivity becomes subjective and then passes into further objectivity. The emptiness of the moment is really temporary receipt of past moments and contribution to future ones.
Is photography a way of knowing? It’s certainly a way of seeing, and seeing is experiencing (bringing things to consciousness). But not all experiencing is knowing; sometimes it’s just just awareness or even pure bliss! Science, from Latin scientia, knowledge, clearly seeks knowledge, and it may be our most reliable form of knowledge (some would claim that it’s the only reliable form, but I won’t debate scientism here). And philosophy, bless its dear heart, is philia sophia, “love of wisdom”—not that philosophers are necessarily wise, but they should at least aim at wisdom if they’re being philosophical. But photography? Does it even seek knowledge or wisdom? It seems more an art form where the goal is anything other than knowledge: making something concrete that brings pleasure, entertainment, satisfaction, joy, perhaps beauty. It’s no doubt absorbing, but where’s the knowledge? Well, in various places, among others: (i) There’s the incredible knowledge involved in the craft of making artifacts such as photographs; this is knowing-how, not knowing-that. (ii) Then there’s knowledge of the subject-matter, in detailed and intimate ways not duplicated by the sciences; this is knowing-of. (iii) Likewise, there’s the knowledge of the light that makes photography possible, not optics but basking in the light; this is knowing-in, existential knowledge.
Both photography and philosophy, like so many other human endeavors, open up and onto infinite realms. They show us how profound even the most apparently simple image or concept can be, ramifying into worlds of associations and connections. They are infinite also in what it takes to get decently good at either, much less masterful, and greatly much less to become an influential creator. Both require long apprenticeship, commitment, discipline and perseverance to become proficient—and of course practice, practice, practice! Immersion in each brings joy along with frustration and exhaustion. But I freely admit that learning how to think photographically isn’t much like learning how to think philosophically, in my experience. Learning how to see and compose images just isn’t the same as learning how to analyze concepts or synthesize structures or construct and criticize arguments.
Both photography and philosophy are subject to the inevitable colorings of humanity. Both kinds of practitioners can be vain, arrogant, self-indulgent, immodest, obscurantist, self-promotional. Both practices are incurably “subjective” in that they are undertaken from a point of view and express aspects of the subject as well as the object of attention. Both have an intrinsic satisfaction that bids to steal time from mundane obligations, and can corrode human relationships if pursued obsessively. Photography and philosophy are frequently selfish activities—and by “selfish” I mean self-interested: the all-consuming delight in being immersed in something intrinsically pleasurable. Other concerns there may be—for professional photogs in particular—but they are quite often secondary.
Photography has often sought to be pure self-expression, pure subjectivity, while philosophy has often sought to gain a “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel’s insightful phrase) that is purely objective, or at least inter-subjective. But again this contrast can be over-drawn: the purest subjectivity seeks to express itself to others and celebrates that expressivity with others, and if it is potent it will enter into others’ subjectivity as well. And the purest objectivity will have traces of time, place and personality stamped on it willy-nilly, no matter how impersonally it seeks to present itself. So be it. Let neither claim the pure high ground! A smidgeon of honest self-awareness and modesty would go a long way.
An allied point: The process of photography (“taking” photographs) and that of philosophy (“doing” philosophy) resemble each other in many ways, though with important differences. There is of course the delight of discovery, the unexpected serendipity of finding an interesting new image amidst familiar scenes or of uncovering conceptual connections hidden beneath surfaces. Both are also intensely creative processes, the realization of new possibilities previously unimagined. (I view creativity as a matter of degree, not all-or-nothing.) Further, there is the inherent satisfaction in making an image and crafting an argument. Then there is the exuberance—and danger—of self-promotion, as we seek to exhibit our images or publish our essays, thereby seeking the approbation of others and inflating our sense of self. And doubtless there is the self-indulgence of forsaking “real world” obligations to pursue the pleasures of our all-consuming passion. Few of us go so far as Gauguin in pursuit of his art or Kierkegaard his thought, but we are all subject to this temptation, if only for a few stolen moments to witness and “capture” a sunset.
I venture, amidst all the contrasts and similarities, to offer this final suggestion: Could it be that rambling is a way to unite, or modestly synthesize, both difference and similarity in photography and philosophy? We often proceed by sharply distinguishing differences and asserting incompatibilities: Either/or! But what if we tried to embrace both/and? I hope I have ventured a few steps along this “road less traveled by.” No doubt we could easily become unserious dilettantes in thinking both/and thoughts: muddled photogs pasting random collages or squishy Hegelians lost in foggy abstractions. But perhaps some rambling can keep us relatively sane and clear-eyed, as well as satisficed if not fully satisfied. And so, I will end with the question implicit in all philosophical pieces, the question that invites a never-ending dialogue: And what do you think?
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