The Phenomenology of Vision Correction: an analytic plea for help

Optometry is supposed to be a science. But it is not. No dear reader it is a primitive branch of phenomenology. And as such I am calling on the help of phenomenologists everywhere to rescue this orphan child of human thought. I’ve suspected there was something wrong for a long time. Visiting the optometrist has always filled me with dread. A deep, soul sucking dread—the kind of angst reserved for archetypal fears and terrors. Why you ask? Why fear these kindly men and women who want nothing more than to improve your eyesight and give you confidence as you navigate through life’s visual hazards and joys? It’s because they strip me of science. They leave me naked on the rack of moribund uncertainty. They steal away my ability to verify, or to falsify in proper Popperian fashion. There are no paradigm shifts, no Programs, not even any social construction, nor even any Fauerabend-like chaos on which to hang my hat.

Let me explain.

The trouble is it begins with an epoche´. My perception is abstracted away from all I know and I am asked to consider the big reversed ‘E’ presented to my consciousness. There is no real background or horizon. All meaning to the world is bracketed and I am forced to consider this ‘E’ as a naked intentional object. And then? And then, dear reader, I am shown another and asked, “Which is better?” “Which is better?” by what criteria? This one seems a little clearer around the edges. This one darker and more bold. “Which is better?” The weight of the question frightens and silences me. I know that upon my choice rests the burden of how well I will see for the next year. Will I have headaches, eyestrain? It is all conditioned on my decision about which ‘E’ is better. But by what tests of significance? In what context of explanation? Or by which basis for justification? Do I use abduction? Strong inference? Do I use counterfactual arguments? Where are my p-values? How would I construct truth tables? By whose beetle in whose box?

I do fine when the letters are so blurry I can’t see them at all, but suddenly the choice seems less straightforward, I hesitate. A bizarre twist on a Shakespearian sonnet starts to play through my head, “I look upon the letters and curse my fate/ Wishing this letter more rich in hope/ Featured like that letter with clarity possessed/ Desiring this figure’s art/ This letter’s scope/ With what I most enjoy contented least. “ ONE or TWO the optometrist asks again with a tinge of impatience. (I am reminded of when four or five glasses ago the optometrist said, “You are not even trying.” But if I tried wouldn’t that be straining? Am I supposed to strain? Shouldn’t this choice flow naturally from me like a breath of air? How do you try? I’ve been a wreck since.) So here I sit, on a chair reminiscent of a 1950’s B-science fiction movie space alien interrogation device, surrounded by strange ocular apparatuses sporting a porcupine of lenses. And I long for some guidance. How do I draw forth choices that will give me some hope for happiness with my new glasses? How can I get this right?

Then it hits me! This is a job for the phenomenologists! They could actually teach the optometrists how to do a proper phenomenological reduction. Train them on giving us some useful adumbrations, constructing a manifold of appearances! Bless their souls they could make themselves useful. They could even offer courses on Merleau-Ponty that would allow the bodily nature of vision to unfold into the sight correction business. (Maybe they could construct vision tests where a boat slowly comes around the corner into perceptual awareness allowing deeper insights into how vision should be corrected in such ways that we can see the boat sooner!) Dare I think that they could add a more full story of perceptual awareness, where I get to walk around a three dimensional backward ‘E’ and combine what is presented to consciousness by vision with the aboutness of the world? What would it mean if phenomenologists decided to assist in the glasses-for-people-to-improve-their-eyesightedness process! It’s time for the Continental Folk to help that ‘Other’ they are always blathering about. Help us see more clearly. Give us a hermeneutics of eye-test choices! Please.

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4 comments to The Phenomenology of Vision Correction: an analytic plea for help

  • Ben Pratt

    Well said, Steve. Being a physicist, I tend to unconsciously assume that complicated and important processes (e.g. eye exams, construction, etc.) will use methods based on empirical evidence and logic (every day I’m startled right out of my assumptions, but I keep making them!).

    Thus I had high expectations when I finally went to get glasses. I assumed the “eye exam” would involve some kind of measurement, like perhaps gazing into my eyeballs and trying different lenses until the image on my retinas was optimally focused.

    Instead I stared dumbly at the E while the optometrist, sounding tired, repeated the question, “1, or 2?”

    “Wait!” I thought, “at some point in the ‘eye exam’ won’t you actually examine my eye?”

  • ellen

    What you clearly are NOT is myopic.
    ;-D

  • Cap

    You have now filled my head with countless fears of going to get my first pair of glasses. I do not need them now, but I know it is inevitable that I will be getting them sooner then I expected due to the fact I stare at this computer screen for eight hours a day.
    Perhaps when they ask ’1′ or ’2′ I will simply say, ‘they both have their good qualities,’ and leave it at that, hoping they will then do some sort of secret scientific analysis that only the super stubborn receive.

  • Wait till you get to the stage where you have found the perfect lens (by whatever imperfect selection of “1, or 2″), and then learn you should ask the nice man in the white coat to deliberately underpower the lens so you can read the computer screen clearly, even if it does leave the horizon a bit misty. How much underpowering? Oh, a little. Some. Just a bit. No, not quite that much. There! that’s perfect!

    /s/ glasses wearer since 2nd grade

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