On Dark Realism: Part Three

Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

—H.P. Lovecraft

At once as far as Angels kenn he views the dismal situation waste and wilde, a Dungeon horrible, on all sides round as one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible serv’d only to discover sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace and rest can never dwell, hope never comes that comes to all; but torture without end…

—John Milton, Paradise Lost 

Why do we fear darkness more than light? Why have we locked ourselves away from the unknown and strange, the weird and eerie? What do we fear in the darkest regions of space and time? Our reliance of sight, on our eyes has been central from the beginnings of philosophical reflection? Why? Even our colloquial sayings speak of such warm and kindred beings who are suddenly known by the “light in their eyes”. Why this fascination with light, eyes, knowledge? What if the tyranny and reliance of this one supreme sense has covered over aspects of the Real that could bring us another kind of knowledge, a non-knowledge at the heart of darkness?

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics knowledge and sight are supreme (” intellect is to the soul as sight to the body”):

ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.1

This notion that the desire to know is a universal within all humans; that intellect, knowledge, and the discernment of difference among objects comes by way of this supreme physical sense – “makes us know and brings to light,” has been central to philosophy from the beginning. Even in Saint Augustine there was this acknowledgement that sight above all senses is central:

Since this is in the appetite for knowing, and since the eyes are the chief of our senses for acquiring knowledge, it is called in the divine language the lust of the eyes.

In his Summa theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that reason is comprised of two powers: one cognitive, the other appetitive. The cognitive power is the intellect, which enables us to know and understand. The intellect also enables us to apprehend the goodness a thing has. The appetitive power of reason is called the will. Aquinas describes the will as a native desire for the understood good. That is, it is an appetite that is responsive to the intellect’s estimations of what is good or choiceworthy (ST Ia 82.1; QDV 3.22.12). On this view, all acts of will are dependent on antecedent acts of intellect; the intellect must supply the will with the object to which the latter inclines. In turn, that object moves the will as a final cause “because the good understood is the object of the will, and moves it as an end” (ST Ia 82.4).

For Aquinas the Will is the “Rational Appetite”. Thomas took himself to be following the lead of Aristotle. Yet he used the notion, which actually goes far beyond Aristotle, to develop a concept of how humans should live that at crucial points draws instead on Augustine and Plato. This Thomist conception of will, which has very much influenced our modern notions, is the foil against which Eckhart’s “live without why” is deployed. For Thomas the construct of will was complex and ambiguous: it included aspects of desire, deliberation, intention, choice, etc.

The primacy of intellect and perception over the appetitive will and desire has been central to Western metaphysics since Plato. Our reliance on the eyes as a supreme sense that works in alliance with our intellect in the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and discernment or abstraction has held sway for as long. Plato has been the primal ancestor of the idea of perception as a force that is not merely receptive, but an active power of grasping the world.2 One difficulty stems from the fact that senses, as abstract entities, stand outside of the causal realm. The question then is how we can access these objects. Advocates of the Fregean sense view describe our access to senses by means of the metaphor of “grasping”—we are said to grasp the sense of an expression. In this sense “grasping” the sense of something in Frege’s view is then a matter of being able to understand the context within which it is expressed, etc. In this way grasping  is just a metaphor for a cognitive intellects ability to see, perceive and relate to the sense data observed.

For Plato perception is a kind of intellection. It is a power intermingled with intellectual cognitive capacities, but with its own directionality and purpose. It is a power that ensures our access to the world and its intelligible order, and a power that can be developed and habituated by continuous perceiving and by rationally developing on what is perceived. It is a power through which human beings learn some of the most basic things in the world. In Plato’s Timeous the concept of Aisthêsis (sensations, perceptions) is the first capacity mentioned, belonging to all human beings, in a list of innate capacities, followed by “love mingled with pleasure and pain”, as well as fear and spiritedness. (AP, p. 13) In fact the concept of the telos and primacy of sight-seeing would come from a passage in Plato’s Timeous:

As my account has it, our sight has indeed proved to be a source of supreme benefit to us, in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun or heaven. As it is, however, our ability to see the periods of day-and-night, of months and of years, of equinoxes and solstices, has led to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time, and opened the part to inquiry into the nature of the universe. … … the god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god. (47a1–7; b6–c4) (AP, p. 24)

My point in this post is not to trace the history of sight, seeing, grasping, etc. through each and every philosopher up to our own time (a task that would take a book to clarify), but to show how central this reliance of sensation, sight, intellect as cognitive and active perception have been primary to our pursuit and desire for knowledge and knowing. Most of the battles over the primacy of intellect (cognitive perception) or appetite-will (affective relations) would culminate in Kant’s so called Copernican Revolution and epistemic turn, which like that astronomer who overturned the Aristotelian cosmos, would overturn the ancient conceptual universe.

Since Kant’s time we’ve come to believe that sensation is passive and perception active. Sensation is something that happens when sense-organs are stimulated; perception is the awareness of the external world based on sensation, and usually involves contributions on the part of the subject, whether associational, inferential, neural, or through sensorimotor activity. (AP, p. 275) For Kant, that the faculty of sensibility is affected by objects. A cursory study of the poets of sensibility and romantic period will attest to this Kantian conception of the passivity of sensation. Yet, the intellect was seen to respond to these passive impressions with an active cognitive power. In Kant the faculty of sensibility is a “receptive” faculty. It produces sensations when it is affected by objects. In empirical cognition, these sensations yield an empirical intuition. Kant also speaks of a pure intuition, devoid of sensation. Sensation is called the “matter” of intuition. Intuitions also have “forms” into which sensations are organized: space and time. Kant sometimes says this organization is carried out by laws of sensibility, which seem to be laws for placing sensations in spatial and temporal relation to one another. Kant (at least sometimes) ascribes this synthesis to the activity of imagination. At a general level, then, Kant holds to a view in which sensations arise passively and are ordered by imagination and understanding to yield perception of objects. (AP, p. 282)

During those long centuries when the Aristotelian cosmos gave way to our modern dynamic and chaotic cosmos a division between common sense perception and those revealed by the sciences (after Galileo) would become prominent. Ever since Plato the senses had been castigated as unreliable, confused, and were prone to illusion, whereas the intellect and cognitive powers of the mind were active and shaping powers that could discern truth, knowledge, and difference. More and more over the centuries a skepticism of the senses and sensation would divide philosophers which would lead to some strange and bewildering problems.

In fact the basic problems of our contemporary moment come down to this conflict over perception. The antagonistic relations with Realist and Anti-Realist philosophes are more about this problem of consciousness and our views on epistemology vs. ontology, etc. than over the postmodern notions of historicism. It all comes down to the problem of objects: Do things exist independent of our Mind, or are they always already bound to us, for-us (i.e., Mind-dependent). Instead of digging any deeper into the history of this problem – due to time and space constraints – I want to finish with my own stance in regards to this whole tradition; or, what I’ve been calling dark realism.

Dark Realism

In the seventeenth century we witness the demise of two core doctrines in the theory of perception: naive realism about color, sound, and other sensible qualities and the empirical theory, drawn from Alhacen and Roger Bacon, which underwrote it. This created a problem for seventeenth century philosophers: how is that we use qualities such as color, feel, and sound to locate objects in the world, even though these qualities are not real? This century witnesses the demise of two central elements in philosophical thinking about sensory perception, elements that go back at least to Aristotle. First is the view that the proper objects of each sense—qualities such as color and sound—are real members of the mind-independent world. The common sensibles such as size, shape, and motion are perceived by perceiving the proper sensibles. When color and the rest are ejected from the mind-independent world, philosophers find themselves compelled to offer a totally new account of how it is that the mind comes to the common ones. Is it by inferring size, shape, and motion on the basis of, say, color or felt pressure? Or is it a purely automatic operation, accomplished by divine decree? Our experience of the proper sensibles becomes problematic as well. How is it that a sensible quality like color gets ‘localized,’ that is, experienced as being on the surfaces of the body that causes it?3

The crisis also owes its origin to a second development. Since Galen, philosophers such as Ibn al-Hacen and Roger Bacon contributed to a unified program known as the ‘Baconian synthesis.’ This view posits species that pass into the eye and through the ventricles of the brain, ultimately uniting with species from the other senses in the organ of the common sense. Johannes Kepler in effect demolishes the Baconian synthesis. A new story has to be substituted; and it must be one that respects the new austerity of the world beyond the mind. (Ott, p. 1)

Theories of Perception have been with us from the beginning of philosophical reflection. If Aristotle is right then it is our reliance on the eye, on sight, on vision that has been central to metaphysics from the beginning. It’s the eye that allows us to see differences between things, to abstract out and differentiate the sensual qualities and profiles of objects, things, and entities. Since then the main problems over this reliance on sight is whether we are bound passively to the impression we receive from objects, or whether we actually construct and represent these objects by way of the brain’s pre-processing and structuring of these external things. Before Kant’s time most of this had come to a head in the reflections of empiricists and rationalists, the one relying on experience and sense-datum, the other relying on the intellect and cognitive powers of the Mind to construct the world by conforming it to the structuring processes of the Mind. As even John R. Searle as recently as 2015 in his book Seeing Things as They Are reminds us that,

The relationship between perceptual experiences and the real world—of which vision is the most important type of experience—was a major preoccupation, one may even say the major preoccupation, of Western philosophy for the three centuries after Descartes. Up to the twentieth century, epistemology was the center of philosophy and the mistakes that defined the field continue right up to the present time.4

My question is not to dispute this reliance on sight, eye, vision but rather to ask if this overpowering reliance has left out certain aspects of the Real which can never be seen or known through perception? What if most of reality is hidden, obscure, and outside our perceptual field of relations; along with being beyond the grasp of all the technics and mind-tools and heuristics, our conceptual frameworks and reflections? What if most of the Real is dark and unknown, and yet this very abyss of the Real thrusts itself at us at every moment of day or night, colliding with our body and interacting with our brain in inexplicable, strange, weird, and eerie ways that we’ve yet to understand or think about due to this bias of vision in philosophy?

William McNeill in his The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory explores the phenomenon of the Augenblick, or glance of the eye, in Heidegger s thought, and in particular its relation to the primacy of seeing and of theoretical apprehending (theoria) both in Aristotle and in the philosophical and scientific tradition of Western thought. McNeill argues that Heidegger s early reading of Aristotle, which identifies the experience of the Augenblick at the heart of ethical and practical knowledge (phronesis), proves to be a decisive encounter for Heidegger s subsequent understanding and critique of the history of philosophy, science, and technology. It provides him with a critical resource for addressing the problematic domination of theoretical knowledge in Western civilization.

What if this domination of theoretical knowledge is at the root of many of our problems in the sciences and philosophy, culture and even, – political concerns?  In this sense Dark Realism is about challenging the domination of theory and critique that has been based on this reliance on eye, sight, and vision. What if what we need is non-knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge in the sense of opening up our bodies to the suppressed modes of sense and sensibility – our affective relations to the unknown as unknown. Maybe our body rather than our mind/intellect holds the key to the darker noumenal  realms of the multidimensional Real that more and more is impinging on our lives, deeply influencing and affecting us through our senses and sensibility.

For far too long we’ve built up a cozy little world of human thought, a defense system of visual and perceptive relations, a mapping of the world and mind that helps defend us from the anxiety of the unknown and unknowable. Yet, once in a while chinks appear in the armor of this system of social relations, throwing us into that “cosmic alienage” of which H.P. Lovecraft’s character speaks. This sense of being caught between the wondrous and the uncanny, suddenly wandering in a weird and fantastic world of objects, things, and entities that we cannot reduce to our human relations, concepts, and perceptions. In such moments we feel the horror of things, a fear that an abyss or gap has opened up between us and the Real.

David Roden in Posthuman Life  Dark Phenomenology, will both offer the perspective that ‘absence’ not ‘presence’ is key to our current understanding of how we build up our perceptions of the world. As David reports it “the problem of interpretation arises because there are empirical and theoretical grounds for holding that some phenomenology is “dark”. Dark phenomenology is experienced; but experiencing it offers no standard for its own description or interpretation.” (p. 76) Unlike Roden’s phenomenological approach which is still based in the phenomenological method that relies of one of several types of reduction: epoché, phenomenological, transcendental, and eidetic reductions. Instead following the carnal phenomenologists like Levinas, along with Merleau-Ponty, Alphonso Lingis, and Graham Harman maybe what we need to forget vision and seeing and once again relearn the affective regions of being, where the formless and non-objective materiality out of which all things come and to which they eventually return. This vague layer of existence is without substance and can be described as the ungraspable medium of pure quality from which we derive our sensual enjoyment of the world. Because it is prior to and conditions objectifying acts, it is more primordial than Husserl’s sensual objects. Another name for it is “sensibility.”  And it is sensation that makes contact with it.5

This notion of contact, of touch has been a key to philosophy from its beginnings. Democritus, who explained sensation by the friction of atoms of different shapes and sizes, thought that all the senses were really only variations of the one sense of touch. Aristotle distinguished only four senses, since he was anxious to correlate the senses with the four elements – vision with water, sound with air, smell with fire and touch with earth, with taste being regarded only as a ‘particular form’ or ‘modification’ of touch. But Aristotle also suggested the necessity for a kind of sixth, quasi-sense, the sensus communis, the function of which was to mediate between the other five senses. Michael Serres in his book The Five Sense: The Philosophy of Mingled Bodies will discover this meta-sense even in the scholastics, and he will associate it with the skin, the epidermis; or, what Deleuze would term the ‘plane of immanence’ which pervades the body as the outer limit of sense.

Catherine Malabou in her forward to Tom Sparrow’s Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology reminds us that phenomenology “made possible several claims about the body: that it is not the case that the body is the tomb of the soul, as Plato claimed; that it is not the case that the body is a neutral extension caught in the movement which animates it, as Descartes showed; and that the body is much more than the place of sensibility, as Kant defined it.”6 (PB, p. 15). Sparrow himself offers what he terms a post-phenomenological approach  by which he means “a perspective which is not simply anti-phenomenological, but one which has gone through phenomenology and retained its kernel of truth, even if this kernel proves to be non-phenomenological in nature.” (PB, p. 16) This sense that we shouldn’t abandon such thinkers and Husserl or Heidegger, or even those like Derrida and others who were influenced by them, but rather that one has to push through them and either absolutize or reverse their stance toward a new sense and sensibility.

As Malabou with her concept of plasticity reiterates the materiality of the body must be rethought. “Sparrow argues that the phenomenological flesh in fact lacks matter. We need to reconceptualize matter. How can we avoid lapsing into both the naturalization and neutrality of the body? How can we conceive of matter without reverting to mechanism? In order to properly distinguish matter from mechanism, we will call this post-phenomenological materiality plasticity. Plasticity is thus defined as that which comes after the flesh.” (PB, p. 16)

In this sense the body as well as the mind is undergoing an erasure as concepts, even as our notions of matter and life have in modern physics and biology been undergoing a series of transformations, reversals, and weird relations in which concept of plasticity offers a way forward. Sparrow calls his project a speculative aesthetics, basing it on a new empirical turn toward sensation. For Sparrow sensation is something that happens below the phenomenal level, so at best it is a mediated datum of consciousness. Both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas recognized this. How, then, can we speak of this non-phenomenal sensation? Sparrow’s contention is that we experience it primarily through its effects and can thereby think it on the basis of these effects. Perception, passion, cognition, consciousness, identity, and freedom are some of these effects. These are indeed accessed phenomenally, but as products of sensation. This is not to say that sensation is their efficient cause, however. It is to say that sensation is their necessary condition. Sensation is thus an object as well-suited for speculation as it is for empirical analysis. (PB, p. 17)

Alphonso Lingis in Sensation: Intelligence in Sensibility that to “sense something is to catch on to the sense of something, its direction, or meaning”. 7 He goes on saying,

But to sense something is also to be sensitive to something, to be concerned by it, affected by it. It is to be pleases, gratified, contented, and exhilarated, or to be pained, afflicted, and wounded, by something. A sentient being does not innocently array object-forms about itself; it is not only oriented in free space by their sense, it is subject to them, to their brutality and their sustentation. (S, p. 77)

One may be receptive, passive, and sensitive, and, yet, this does not mean that sensibility is bound to the passive state, rather it moves with the “movement of existence, ex-ists” (S, p. 77). Beings both perceptible and imperceptible make an impression on our sensitive being because the active, self-propelling thrust of our being makes contact with them, with their volcanic forces that erupt into our lives as shocks unbidden. As Lingis says: “Sense-perceptions is in fact an apprehension of the forces of things, the possibilities that things are, an anticipation of the future of the environment, a clairvoyance” (S, p. 78). If as both Andy Clark (Surfing Uncertainty) and Jacob Hohwy (The Predictive Mind) argue that the brain is continuously modeling, simulating, predicting our environmental interactions of which we are for the most part completely unaware then this sense of anticipation and clairvoyance is part of this empirical sense apprehension taking place all the time.

If as R. Scott Bakker argues with his notion of “medial-neglect” of which I spoke of in my first post in this series then we are always in the dark, blinded both to the processes of this empirical registration and modeling simulation behind the gates of consciousness, and, as well, we are blind toward most of the surface tensions surrounding us in the environment due not to some inborn limitation, but to the very internal process of the brain itself which receives the empirical sense-data and then analyses it through neuroanalytical processing that finally delivers it to our conscious minds structured, and transformed through these very ill-defined processes. Looking to Kant to tells us about these processes would be like going back in pre-history to some early cave-dweller to ask them to describe modern atomic theory. Useless. The point is that we’ve moved on from Kant’s time, our sciences have now taken over this task of describing the way we perceive, the way we feel, the sense and sensibility of our bodily and mental registries. And, yet, there is something that exceeds this hard neurosciences, something that they cannot tell us. For all their descriptive power, with all the new technics and technologies of neuroimaging and the testing, interpretive, and analytical knowledge of the data they cannot explain the hard problem of consciousness, tell us why we are affected emotional beings, nor the intricacies of what lures us own, makes us angry of upset, joyous or tearful. They can describe how this works but not why, or what triggers these very real forces. We live in the darkness, act in the darkness, our ignorance surrounds us and drives us to question everything.  As Lingis tells us,

It is because we are first stricken with the void, haunted by the death everywhere lurking in the interstices of the world, affected by its nothingness, that we are touched, affected by, stabilized and steered by things, that the things have sense for us. (S, p. 79)

Yet, Lingis is still caught in the phenomenological circle of correlationism for all his concern, this experience is bound for him to the “sense for us”. This anthropomorphism pervades the phenomenological fervor. We must de-center this need to explain everything under the banner of the human – for us, and instead begin to listen to the other in sense, to the things themselves as they make contact with us, impinge on our lives and existence – listen to the inhuman as it is for-itself not us. Allow things to think within us, speak within us, be as they are within us. Things exist without us, but we have not allowed them a voice as voicing in this contact that is a sensing. 

In another passage Lingis speaks of Levinas whose “extended analysis of sensibility contains the bold and strange thesis that the exposure and subjection to being is itself subtended by an exposedness and subjection to alterity.” (S, p. 82) This sense of being open to the absolute alterity of things, exposing oneself to the Outside, the impersonal forces of the universe beyond our control or dominion, the impossible in its possibility. To enter the dark without imposing the human sovereign sense of our self-importance and superiority, or our human need to reduce everything to our own human proportions, our conceptual framework and enframing, maybe then we might begin to touch the face of existence on its own terms, begin to know and be known by that absolute alterity that both fascinates and horrifies us.

On Dark Realism: Part One |On Dark Realism: Part Two |


  1. Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 2 (Bollingen Series LXXI-2). Princeton University Press; 6th ed. edition (September 1, 1984)
  2. José Filipe Silva, Mikko Yrjönsuuri (eds.) Active Perception in the History of Philosophy: From Plato to Modern Philosophy. Springer International Publishing, 2014 (AP)
  3. Ott, Walter. Descartes, Malebranche, and the Crisis of Perception. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (June 27, 2017)
  4. Searle, John R.. Seeing Things as They Are (Kindle Locations 203-206). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Sparrow, Tom. The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (p. 122). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Sparrow, Tom. Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology. Open Humanities Press (March 15, 2015)
  7. Lingis, Alphonso. Sensation: Intelligence in Sensibility.  Prometheus Books (February 29, 1996)

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