I Blink, Therefore I Am


I’m not sure how one would say that in Latin. Given that Descartes’ famous dictum was “Cogito Ergo Sum”, and blink in Latin is conniveo, perhaps it would be “Conniveo Ergo Sum”. What makes me think of blink, you might ask? Actually more like squint, which is the European term for strabismus since patients with the condition were often observed to blink or squint one eye in bright sunlight. It was in that vein that reading over the weekend in Psychology Today about Descartes’ love of cross-eyed women caught my eye. Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D. quotes Descartes as stating:

“As a child I was in love with a girl of my own age, who was slightly cross-eyed. The imprint made on my brain by the wayward eyes became so mingled with whatever else had aroused in me the feeling of love that for years afterwards, when I saw a cross-eyed woman, I was more prone to love her than any other, simply for that flaw—all the while not knowing this was the reason. But then I reflected and realized it was a flaw: I am smitten no longer.”

See the source image

This kind of blunt statement, that strabismus is a “flaw”, no doubt contributes to the psychosocial aspects of the condition, to the extent that strabismus surgeons argue that surgery to align the eyes is better conceived as “reconstructive” than as “cosmetic”. Yet there are patients who undergo strabismus surgery who do not feel reconstructed by it. Among those who adults who do not report post-surgical improvement on questionnaires, diplopia is a leading cause of concern in addition to “Type-D” (distressed) personality.

Jeffrey McDonough, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, wrote a tidy paper on Descartes’ Optics. He opens by stating that: “Descartes’ work on optics spanned his entire career and represents a fascinating area of inquiry. His interest in the study of light is already on display in an intriguing study of refraction from his early notebook, known as the Cogitationes privatae, dating from 1619 to 1621”. He characterizes Descartes as a famously systematic philosopher whose thinking about optics is deeply enmeshed with his more general mechanistic physics and cosmology.

McDonough reproduces one of the drawings from Descartes’ LaDioptrique on which he comments: “Although the physiological side of Descartes’ account of vision might seem to imply that the process of vision is exhausted by a point-by-point transmission of images, he explicitly rejects just such a view, emphasizing that ‘we must not hold that it is by means of this resemblance that the picture causes us to perceive the objects, as if there were yet other eyes in our brain with which we could apprehend it’. Descartes’ positive view is that rays of light mechanically stimulate our eyes, that those stimulations are then mechanically passed to the interiors of our brains, but that once there they ‘act immediately on our mind in as much as it is united to our body, and give rise, under the right circumstances, to our familiar perceptual experiences’.”

Formation of the retinal image, as illustrated by René Descartes in his La Dioptrique (Optics) of 1637.

McDonough concludes by noting that “few in the history of science, it is safe to say, have been so successful, in both success and failure, as Descartes in his work on optics”. It may be safe to say as well that Descartes was among the first to cogitate about some of the psychosocial aspects of strabismus.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Dr. Barry Kran for brining the following video to my attention. While the quote from Decartes above refers to “a girl of my own age, who was slightly cross-eyed”, filmmaker James Robinson’s strabismus is overtly visible to the naked eye. As Sue Barry put it so poignantly in her Perspective piece for VDR, the problems associated with strabismus hounded her as a child. In the comments attached to this video on YouTube, James writes: “I wanted to show what it’s like to live with ‘whale eyes,’ and how using a little imagination can make us more empathetic to people who see things differently.”

4 thoughts on “I Blink, Therefore I Am

  1. Descartes also invented the Cartesian X-Y coordinate system. There’s a story about a horse who was famous for solving math problems. A man didn’t believe it so he went to the horse and he asked, “How much is 2 plus 3” and the horse stomped five times on the ground with his hoof. “How much is 10 minus 7” and the horse stomped three times. Then the man drew X and Y axes with a stick on the ground in front of the horse and he asked, “What quadrant on the graph has positive X and Y coordinates?” The horse reared up, turned around and galloped away. Moral of the story: Never put Descartes before the horse.

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