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This is a response that I wrote to a classmate’s post on my class discussion board, but I thought I’d post it here as well just to get the brain juice-a-flowin’!  We were discussing Descartes’ scientific writings, and were talking about a section he wrote on optics:

 

I appreciate your honesty about your struggle with Descartes.  I am amazed, like many others, at how closely his ideas are to modern ones.  I suppose that in some respects, we think that we’re making such great progress with ideas, but then we find that often the classic thinkers or even the ancients are already there ready to meet us, having gotten there before us long before. 

 

I really appreciate that you pointed out a part of the reading that I marked but did not write about in my own post.  You write, “[Descartes] continues by saying that any invention that enhances sight or increases the power of sight, is among the most useful of inventions.  The example he uses is the telescope as enhancing the ability of man to view the stars.”  This idea of Descartes’ is a good one on which to linger, because it has such significant ramifications in the way Descartes describes it.  He talks about an invention enhancing sight, and uses the telescope as an example.  Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 20th century, describes any medium as an extension of ourselves.  In his book The Medium is the Massage, he says that “The wheel is an extension of the foot…the book is an extension of the eye…clothing an extension of the skin.”  I can’t help but wonder what Descartes would say if he were to see all the things that extend our sight: telescopes, satellite cameras, camera phones, electron microscopes, surveillance cameras, books, blogs, discussion boards, and even computer programs like iPhoto, which now has face recognition tools in it. 

 

I would say that you’re exactly right about the fact that the vision of our world has changed over time.  Our vision has been expanded, not just to see the night sky, but it has been extended in different modalities.  If I could have lunch with Descartes I would ask him, in light of the enormity of the expansion of our sense of sight on multiple levels, what the implications are of his claim that the senses are deceptive, and (perhaps) especially sight.  

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

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