Inquiry into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory

By Arthur F. Bentley; Sidney Ratner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
The Fiction of "Retinal Image"

For three hundred years and more it has been an established belief in optics, physiology, and psychology that images in the form of pictures of outer objects are present upon the retina of the eye during vision. Except for the most recent laboratory work on the physiology of vision, where very little mention is made of them, the presence of such images is regarded as the critical feature of the visual process. Its assumption seems to conform to the unquestionably valid procedures of geometrical optics. It is a sound guide for the designer and manufacturer of optical instruments. For the ophthalmologist the name labels usefully the situations which he has to appraise in the most characteristic portions of his work. In psychology perhaps no text has ever been written without belief in such an image, nor without its use both in interpreting vision and as a model for other sense processes. Likewise many a weary and bored high school student has brightened visibly on being told about the image and its upside-downness; while the "Who-done-it?" writer has profited frequently from the superstition of the image remaining printed on the victim's eye in death to bring the murderer to justice.

Nevertheless the assumption is false, not merely as a survival after death, but as a fact of life. Examination shows it to be a confused mixture of analogies. By no pictorial test can the pictorial characteristics be established. The belief in the image, casually useful or indifferent in some fields, is positively hurtful in others such as the psychological. What was brilliant insight when Kepler transformed the guesswork of earlier dioptrics into a demonstrated system -- what was a sound practical orientation for Descartes and Newton as they continued optical research -- what has been a convenient catchword for many other workers in later years -- is today an antiquated device much in the sense that a Ptolemaic sun or a Newtonian absolute space is antiquated. There is a

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Unpublished Ms. essay dated August 21, 1943. This early draft was never revised or put in final form, but is published by the editor because it opens up new perspectives. It should be read as of its preliminary status as well as date.

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