:: Article

The Philosophy of Shadows

By Richard Marshall.


Roy Sorensen, Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, OUP, 2008

This is a wonderful book, full of a profound, unsettling cleverness and weirdly satisfying counter-intuitiveness that the subject requires. Sorenson tries to answer puzzles that rear themselves in childhood and won’t be dispelled by the offhand disinterest of grown-ups. What is a shadow made of? (Absence of light.) What’s the difference between a shadow and a silhouette? (Silhouette’s are the far side of an object being shown on the side facing the observer and is therefore part of that object. A shadow is just an absence of light caused by an object blocking off light in a three dimensional space and so is no part of any object.) Is black a colour or just the absence of colour? (A colour.) Can you see darkness? (Yes, unless you’re blind.) Is there a difference between a blind person’s experience of a totally dark cave and a sighted person? (Yes, because dark is something that is seen, blindness is an absence of any seeing at all. Total dark is seen as black, if you can’t see you can’t see colour.) Do shadows spin if the object causing it spins? (Yes.) If you have two shadows and you join them side by side, do you still have two shadows? (Yes, although it may look to you that there is just one.) Can shadows move quicker than the speed of light? (Yes.)

He also asks other brilliant questions that are connected and analogous, such as questions about sound. Can you hear silence? (Yes, because silence is the total absence of sound and you pick that out by hearing. A deaf person can’t pick out anything by hearing.) Is there silence when there’s noise at the same time and in the same place? (No, because silence is the absence of noise. You can’t have absence of noise and noise at the same time and place. But there are interesting issues about where is a sound? Is it where it’s cause is, or everywhere the soundwaves go?) And he asks whether we see holes or just the surrounding things. Are holes things or just the shape of things? Or are they just gaps between things? (Holes are 3-D absent things, which is why we can see them and touch them and why don’t see the gaps between things as holes and can’t touch those gaps.) If there’s an eclipse of the sun caused by a large far planet getting in between us and the sun, and then a nearer smaller planet blocks out the far planet, which planet is blocking the sun from us, the near one or the far one? (This last one is Sorenson’s famous puzzle – he says you see the far one not the near one because it’s the far one that causes the blockage of light.)

Well, you can see from this list – and these are just some of his questions and answers, the guy asks more than this snap sample – that Sorenson is an amazingly fertile thinker. His conclusions are as unsettling as his questions, and the reasons he has for getting to the answers are also fantastic because they are rigorous and draw on up to date science and philosophy plus deft, quick-footed illustrations. He has a fantastic way of giving vivid thought experiments to get the strangeness of the whole subject across and there are loads of really helpful pictures too.

Sorenson has a reason for looking at shadows and such like. Sorenson takes issue with a prejudice against negative reality that he thinks colours much metaphysics and, because of this, science and semantics too. We are prejudiced against what is not there, favouring in our explanations what is present instead. He gives as examples of this prejudice Henri Bergson, Victor Hugo, Lewis Carroll and Jean Paul Sartre as all expressing this prejudice towards what is present over what is absent. He writes in his essay on Nothingness on the Stanford University website that; ‘Henri Bergson maintained that nothingness is precluded by the positive nature of reality. The absence of a female pope is not a brute fact. ‘There is not a female pope’ is made true by a positive fact such as the Catholic Church’s regulation that all priests be men and the practice of drawing popes from the priesthood. Once we have the positive facts and the notion of negation, we can derive all the negative facts. ‘There is nothing’ would be a contingent, negative fact. But then it would have to be grounded on some positive reality. That positive reality would ensure that there is something rather than nothing.’

In Les Misérables, he asserts that Victor Hugo contrasts universal negation with universal affirmation: ‘All roads are blocked to a philosophy which reduces everything to the word ‘no.’ To ‘no’ there is only one answer and that is ‘yes.’ Nihilism has no substance. There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives more by affirmation than by bread. (1862, pt. 2, bk. 7, ch. 6).

He gives a further example of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. “I hope you’ll enjoy the dinner—such as it is; and that you won’t mind the heat—such as it isn’t.”

The sentence sounded well, but somehow I couldn’t quite understand it … (chapter 22)

And finally when Jean Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness arrives late for his appointment with Pierre at the cafe, he claims he sees the absence of Pierre but not the absence of the Duke of Wellington.

Sorenson denies the claims of these four and argues for the metaphysical importance of the absent, arguing against the deeply held prejudice in philosophy and science to make reality solely about things that are there. Hence his interest in shadows. Shadows are real things that are made up of absence of light. They are not subjective things though they are immaterial things. When people aren’t looking they still exist. They are black but they are not black because they absorb all light. Not all black things are black for that reason. Shadows are black because shadows are the absence of light. Blackness is not the same as darkness. Things can be dark but not black. Shadows are black not dark because the absence of light is black not dark. Shadows are a good example for Sorenson of this idea that reality is also about what is absent, about what isn’t there as well as what is there. What isn’t there is not parasitical on what is, in fact if anything, for Sorenson, absence is the first order thing. He looks at optics and suggests that without being able to see absent things we wouldn’t see the things that are there.

So the main thesis of the book is that negative facts exist. In my room at present there are no elephants. This is a negative fact about my room at the moment. (It’s likely to be a fact about my room that is going to be always true and always has been but who knows, it’s a contingent fact about my room at the moment.) It has nothing to do with anything subjective though, like my expectation that there will be a student currently absent in a classroom so I say that she is absent. Her absence is a fact independent of my expectation, as is the negative fact about there being no elephant in my room.

So Sorenson disagrees with a great deal of contemporary science and philosophywhich thinks reality is exhausted by explaining everything that is present. But he doesn’t do that explicitly in the book, although it’s much clearer in the Standford University article about Nothingness that he does. He notes in both the book and the article that Bertrand Russell took this view to Harvard after he couldn’t get ‘The cat was not on the mat’ to be parsed successfully in terms that didn’t use a negative somewhere along the line and caused a riot when he announced that consequently he believed that negative facts existed.

Seeing things that are not there is useful. It is a crucial part of being able to see. Hence his analysis of shadows. Without shadows, which are the absence of light in conditions that make the absence visible, seeing objects that are there wouldn’t have evolved. So seeing absence of light, which is the colour black, and not just dark, which is certainly not the same as the experience of being blind, which is the absence of seeing, is an important piece of evidence to support the thesis that negative facts exist. He argues that a baby born in total darkness can see that darkness, even if they can’t focus their eyes. That baby sees the black if she has normal vision. A baby who was so born and then died before seeing light would have therefore seen everything in their life without ever having seen light. It would be a total life experienced as seeing nothing but absence.

Sorenson argues that a sighted man in a totally dark cave sees the darkness but a blind person doesn’t see anything. Only the sighted can tell just by looking that the cave is totally dark. It isn’t the same kind of experience either. The absent of sight is what is happening at the back of your head right now. It isn’t the same as seeing blackness. A normally sighted person looking at the black and white squares of a chessboard sees more when looking at the board on a colour tv than on a black and white one because he sees the absence of colour in the colour tv but doesn’t in the other one. The experience may seem to be identical, but then this shows that a purely phenomenological approach to seeing and colour and the metaphysics of absent things is inadequate. It can’t explain the difference between seeing blackness in colour and not seeing it in colour.

Silence is a negative fact, being the absence of noise. Like blackness, it can be caused by different things. Two noises can cancel each other out so the effect is silence. But if one of the noises stops the other noise becomes audible. The noise was there all the time. So hearing silence is again not like not hearing. And so too with cold. Cold is for Sorenson just the absence of heat. Apparently some have claimed he makes a mistake of physics when he claims that a vacuum has no temperature. But he rightly says that physicists can only say that a vacuum has a temperature because it isn’t actually empty. To a layman this is a kind of cheat that physicists need to fess up to so Sorenson’s ideas still have force. Cold is not a something but is a nothing, is a lack of heat. It is a fact nevertheless. It is an important fact, because it can kill people. So this absent fact is very important.

He disagrees with Cage when Cage explained that his 4’33’’ of silence was about showing an audience that silence was impossible because throughout the performance there were intruding sounds from people coughing and traffic noise and so on. Sorenson disagrees with anyone who wants to claim that. He sees such claims as part of the prejudice for only having an explanation of reality in terms of facts that are there. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is full of this prejudice, as are the metaphysics of Bataille. Any philosophy that thinks reality is exhausted when it has explained positive fact is wrong because negative facts are part of reality too. Cage’s point is bogus as it makes standards for silence artificially high and for noise artificially low. And it is even by those standards false: most of the universe is empty and so black and silent and cold; eventually, as Sorenson points out, everything will be destroyed and the universe will be totally like that, all over, forever.

Sorenson allows for subtleties that sceptics about absent facts don’t allow. So we can start to understand that it is the silence underneath the music that allows us to hear the music. We make silence so that musicians can fill it with sound. Artists can play with our prejudice for the positive fact over the negative fact in order to gain profound effects. So in Harold Pinter’s radio play A Slight Ache one character is silent throughout so the drama emerges out of the question of that absence. The audience begins to wonder if the third person is real. A hunter sits down to hear silence. A pause has to end or it is no longer a pause. The edge of silence can’t be detected so the centre is where we concentrate on. Which is part of the problem of knowing where a sound is, and so of knowing where silence is too.

It is the absence of light that guides our visual understanding of 3-D space. Shadows contradict Berkeley’s assertion that it is touch that informs us of that 3-D quality of space. We work out the solidity of things by seeing how they make light absent. If shadows are caused by the absence of light then Hume’s sceptical arguments against causation are damaged; if there is no causation as Hume contends but just one damn thing after the next then there could not be shadows. But there are shadows. Night is the shadow of the earth. It is darkest at midnight. We are afraid in this dark. If there are no such things as shadows then what are we afraid of? We are afraid of darkness without anything stimulating the fear. This contradicts the empiricist principle that we learn everything from experience.

The use of shadows by most conscious life, even mosquito larvae, takes away the force of metaphysical paradox and claims of depth that post war existentialists claim for humans’ perception of nothingness. In Nazi philosopher Heidegger’s What is Metaphysics? we get an example of the twisty windiness that treats Nothingness in a spirit of bravery, facing nothingness’s ironies and paradoxes in a manner that lesser thinkers would be too scared to handle when he writes ’What is to be investigated is being only and—nothing else; being alone and further—nothing; solely being, and beyond being-nothing. What about this Nothing? … Does the Nothing exist only because the Not, i.e. the Negation, exists? Or is it the other way around? Does Negation and the Not exist only because the Nothing exists? … We assert: the Nothing is prior to the Not and the Negation…. Where do we seek the Nothing? How do we find the Nothing…. We know the Nothing…. Anxiety reveals the Nothing…. That for which and because of which we were anxious, was ‘really’—nothing. Indeed: the Nothing itself—as such—was present…. What about this Nothing?—The Nothing itself nothings. (Heidegger as quoted by Carnap in “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language”) But as Sorenson is happy to note, if Heidegger’s sentences are crammed with meaningless then they are like shadows of meaning themselves and can be understood as illuminating nonsense by being an absence of meaning, just as shadows are an absence of light.

Absences cause things. Absence causes the blackness of shadows. Blackness is not absence of vision but absence of light, is Milton’s darkness visible. Holes are absent spaces and can be felt. So holes are absent facts that are sensitive to touch as well as sight. A leper with dead fingers can’t feel holes with her fingers. A shadow is absent light, sensitive only to sight but not touch, or smell, taste etc. A blind person can’t see shadows, so pitch black night is not the same for her as for a sighted person. The sky is like a hole and therefore is an immaterial object and like a hole it would disappear if the earth and moon disappeared.

Sorenson is a proponent of epistemic vagueness. That’s the idea that borderline cases are not indeterminate but unknowable due to the absolute limitation of human knowledge to know where the borders of borderline cases are. Whether coffee is food is therefore unknowable because it’s a borderline case of food. It is either a food or isn’t but we can never know. He’s written a great deal about this view. He’s written a history of the paradox as well, another marvel of concise precision. This is what he does, splurge out his tightly argued, focused and brilliant thoughts with wit and engaging enthusiasm all the time to make us think again. But his arguments about seeing dark things and the like is not about epistemology but ontology, about what exists rather than how we know that exist. And he’s really about dispelling the paradoxical nature of the existence of absent things so that he can dispel the prejudice that such claims of paradox have been used to endorse. By looking at dark things he brings enlightenment and lets us play around with the thoughts we had when kids, before we were told to shut up and grow up.

There’s so much to like and admire in this book. I like the examples he brings in from films and books and artists to make his point. For example he shows the error of the visuals in the fight in Star Wars between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker when their light beam swords throw shadows. If the swords are beams of light then they couldn’t cause a shadow, shadows being absence of light. Candle flames can’t cause shadows either.

I read Sorenson’s book just after rereading Mark Z Danielewki’s Book of Leaves which is a novel that plays around with ideas about holes in light and space and sound to create a deranged reality of terror and horror. It’s a haunted house novel of exceptional skill, beauty and depth and one that Sorenson’s ideas enrich. It also got linked up in my head with Lovecraft inevitably where his story The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is linked with the hollow earth reverse fantasy of John Uri Lloyd’s Etidorhpa , the very title of which, by spelling ‘Aphrodite’ backwards, signals the strange disorientations that discussions of negative realities bring about. Sorenson’s description of the possibility of hollowing out a shadow so that it is at times merely a surface of no depth at all is spooky as hell and links up with a whole genre of hollow earth fiction that includes Poe and the last novel of the awesome Pynchon). In Lovecraft’s story The Shadow Out Of Time we are presented with a similarly underground world of horrific and insane shadows crossing enormous spans of time that locates a reference to native Australian mythology used by the unfortunately racist Lovecraft to signal the profound influence darkness had on his whole oevre. In this great story references Buddai, ‘ a gigantic old man…’ according to the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘… lying asleep for ages , with his head resting upon his arm, which is deep in the sand. He is expected one day to awake and eat up the world.’

This links us back again to the way some philosophers, like Heidegger, see negatives as a necessary nihilistic force for creating the world we have. The American philosopher Robert Nozak thought something like this when he thought about the existentialists ideas about the use of nihilism as a force to impede reality. He thought, like Heidegger, that there must be something self destructive in this nihilism in order for there to be something rather than nothing. This idea is found illustrated in the Beatles film The Yellow Submarine where there is a hoover-creature that hoovers everything into itself and then finally, paradoxically, hoovers itself into itself too. At which point a plenitude of non-negative reality sprouts into being. Sorenson points out that Heidegger would have thought that this was far too historical an understanding of what he was going on about. Lovecraft seems to have something like this in mind in his stuff too where the horrific dark is a destructive nihilism the suppression of which enables there to be existence for a while. Sorenson points out that a shadow could travel faster than the speed of light because it is an absence of signal and the Special Theory of Relativity only forbids things that carry a signal from moving faster than the speed of light. Time travel then might be possible for shadows. This strange thought I found disquieting somehow, projecting it onto Lovecraft and Poe somehow.

Sorenson is clear; non-being is real. It’s there even when we’re not. Animals, even the smallest bugs, see non-being, because they see shadows and holes, feel cold and hear silence. Shadows, holes, cold and silence are negative facts in our world. And when we’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs they’ll still be there. We all know about absence. When someone we care about dies they are not here anymore and that is a fact we have to live with and something that causes grief. They have become an absence. It’s a fact about reality that presence doesn’t exhaust. So we should stop being prejudiced about present facts and start thinking about the reality of things not here as well. And another reason for doing this is because ‘there are many more ways for things not to happen than to happen’ so we get to expand our horizons of reality with this approach. I like the way he keeps it all on the ground. As he says in the introduction, ‘Before we run with the likes of Sartre and Heidegger, let us walk with shadows.’ It’s a great book.


Richard Marshall is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 4th, 2009.