What is "real"?

the relationship between the "seen" and the "touched" world

Johannes Kühl

View in a basin that is half filled with water
rainbow in the Iguassu falls (Picture: J. Kühl)

The renowned English writer, Owen Barfield, begins his book "Saving the Appearances" by saying "Look at a rainbow" – and goes on to ask the question: is it really there, does it actually exist? We might say that it can be seen but it cannot be touched. In this sense, everything we see is "only" an image. In everyday life we usually do not notice this; more or less everything we see can also be touched. Seeing is often simply an indication of something that can be touched, i.e. an object. It only takes one glance in a mirror, however, to show how easily the realms of sight and touch can diverge; we look into another space where everything appears perfectly normal, but there is no possibility of laying a hand on any of it.

We experience something similar when looking at an angle into a basin of water: the bottom of the basin, which to the eye appears raised, retains its original depth for the sense of touch. We are inclined to say that "in reality" the bottom has not moved – it is still down there where it was, implying that we feel the tactile to be "more real" than the visual.

There are similar situations where we judge what we touch differently from what we see. For instance, no one would maintain that their friend riding off on a bicycle is "really" shrinking in the process – even though the perceived image of their friend diminishes in size. Estimations of length, width or height in the realm of sight cannot be done by direct measurement of what we see, but rather by specifying the proportion of the entire visual field taken up by the image. This form of measurement is called the visual angle.

In the realm of seeing, i.e. the field of optics, the divergence between sight and touch is of secondary importance. Only what is seen counts; only the image is relevant. On the other hand, when it comes to questions about origins of brightness and darkness (i.e. emission and absorption), there are tangible, material factors to consider: thermal, chemical, electrical. [...]

For our purposes it is important to realize that while the visual world can be different from the tactile, the reasons we have for thinking that the tactile is "more real" are primarily psychological. No one would call the rainbow or the foreshortening effect of perspective an "optical illusion".

These examples show us that the perception should be taken seriously, as it is. It should not be determined according to a pre-conceived fixed "reality", but rather in relation to its context. [...]



The text is an excerpt from Johannes Kühl: Höfe, Regenbögen, Dämmerung. Die atmosphärischen Farben und Goethes Farbenlehre (Verlag Freies Geistesleben 2011, pp. 13-14). A translation of the book is in preparation.