Why Philosophy Should Abandon the Metaphor of Light

One of the most commonplace images in philosophy and religion: a light in the darkness.

In the beginning, there was Plato’s cave. There, only shadows without recognizable form existed, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. A prisoner freed himself, and escaped into the light. And he saw the light, and that it was good, and he recognized the origin of the shadows. He returned to the cave of his imprisonment, and said: “Let there be light.”

Entrenched in the core of the Western tradition is the metaphorical narrative of light from the darkness. It is central both in religion, as in Genesis 1, and philosophy, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave. I merged these two narratives together to show their fundamental similarity. They describe a myth in which everything is covered in shadow until an enlightened being – God in Genesis and the escaped prisoner in Plato – brings light to the darkness. But where did this metaphor come from? What does it really mean? Is it a valuable metaphor for society, metaphysics, and epistemology? Should we keep it, modify it, or scrap it entirely?

A History of Light

The first metaphors of light occur in religious texts. The origin myth in the Rig Veda, a founding collection of Hindu verses written around 1500 B.C., sounds almost eerily similar to Genesis:

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water. 
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
However, this narrative has one crucial difference from the Bible. In the Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts ever discovered, heat is the first to come into being, not light. This reveals that until the last century, light and heat were virtually synonymous, because almost all light was generated by fire or the sun. Light and heat are the essence of basic physical comfort. The warmth of the fire provided early humans a refuge from the terrors of the cold, menacing night. Most importantly, it protected us from the fear of blindness. 
 In our ancient history, we feared the night not because of the darkness itself, but due to what darkness was associated with: savage beasts, murder, losing one’s way. Over time, this dread became so fundamental that we became afraid of the night in itself. The absence of light, became a primary cause of fear, not a secondary terror associated with more dangerous prospects. It is no surprise, then, that the metaphor of light has become ingrained in the human psyche, a permanent relic of more dangerous times. 
From the golden age of the Indus valley to the founding of Rome, the world’s major religions were hard at work solidifying the metaphorical position of light as good, truth, and piety. The Quran is dotted with the phrase “He bringeth them out of darkness into light.” In the Hebrew Bible, John 8:12 directly connects light to God and righteousness:

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
In religious iconography from nearly every sect, priests, prophets, and saints are distinguished by a halo of light of some kind. 
The Buddha is represented with a halo of light in this ancient Chinese painting.
Muhammad leads the saints in prayer, surrounded by a mantle of light or fire.
Ra, the sun god of ancient Egypt, was almost always depicted with a solar disc on his head.
In Simon Ushakov’s icon of the The Last Supper (1685), Christ and all of the apostles except Judas Iscariot have a halo.

The Lighted Clearing: The Epistemology of the Enlightenment

The metaphor of light is not merely a decorative literary cliché. “Already in Plato,” writes Hans Blumenburg, “the metaphorics of light already has a metaphysics of light implicit in it.” The metaphor is at the core of the idea that the world submits itself to the light of reason. Without the language of light-dark duality, it would be challenging to formulate or understand enlightenment philosophy. 

Light-dark dualism is connected with nearly every major European philosophical movement. In Greece, the birthplace of Western philosophy, the Sun was a god – Helios, “the Father of the piercing beams of light” (Pindar). Plato built upon the established iconography of light to represent his epistemology. In The Republic, light is knowledge, while darkness is ignorance. Daylight exposes the night’s filth, untruth, and vice, and therefore light is enlightenment and truth. 

Centuries later, Descartes constructed the philosophical meaning of “the natural light of reason,” a phrase coined by Cicero. This light alone, said Descartes, can intuit truth beyond doubt, as it is disconnected from the senses and the corporeal world. In Meditations on First Philosophy, page 14, he writes: 

…for I cannot doubt that which the natural light causes me to believe to be true, as, for example, it has shown me that I am from the fact that I doubt, or other facts of the same kind. And I possess no other faculty whereby to distinguish truth. from falsehood, which can teach me that what this light shows me to be true is not really true, and no other faculty that is equally trustworthy. 

This light, the lumen naturale, is the intuition of truth. Descartes recognizes that reason is not always a meticulous logical process. Often, he writes, it is simply a powerful intuition, a “spontaneous inclination.” We feel the logical coherence of certain truths, and we feel dissonance if we reject these truths. He recognizes the flaws of this intuition, but ultimately accepts it as the only method for discovering reality. In the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes that truth cannot escape the light of reason: 

Nothing here can escape us, because what reason brings forth entirely out of itself cannot be hidden, but is brought to light by reason itself as soon as reason’s common principle has been discovered. 

In short, the radiance of reason exposes all knowable things.

Later in the history of light, Heidegger uses the lichtung, or lighted clearing, as the location where being is disclosed. Lichtung, writes Heidegger, 
”designates
 a bringing 
to 
light
 which
 is
 also a
 clearing
 of
 space” (Garbutt). In the lichtung, truths are revealed. It is a site of revelation and exposure, where our inner selves can no longer be hidden.

Therefore, most philosophical figures of the Western tradition, including Kant, Plato, Heidegger and Descartes, use a conception of truth best described by the ancient Greek word for truth, alethia, which means “unconcealment.” This perspective assumes that everything can be illuminated by light or grasped by reason. This epistemology’s foundations are attacked as the postmodernist movement comes into its own. 

The Collapse of the Metaphor of Light

In the 20th century, postmodern philosophers like Levinas and Derrida recognized that the world is not completely intelligible. By contesting the most fundamental imagery of the Platonic legacy, they are counter-philosophical (Sparrow). These deconstructionists are Simba in the Lion King. They are told that philosophy can understand all that the light touches, but this does not satisfy them. Exploring the borders of the epistemology they inherited, the postmodernists reach the edge of the kingdom and realize that there is existence in shadow and darkness. 

The totalizing vision of the Western tradition restricts truth and reality to objects that fit the understandable mold of reason:

“what does not enter into form is banished from this world”

(Levinas 1). This vision fails to see that the light of reason can only reveal objective knowledge. The Enlightenment framework assumes that because reason can only understand objective knowledge, objectivity is the only kind of knowledge. In this way, the Platonic legacy ignores subjectivity.  Ironically, the disciples of Enlightenment epistemology are like the prisoners of Plato’s cave – they assume that what they can see is all that exists. 

On the other hand, Levinas understood that the most basic fact of our relation with other people is that we cannot understand other people. This is alterity: the infinite otherness of everyone we know. To live is to come into contact with other beings that are fundamentally alien to us, to encounter another consciousness that “wells up inside of us to disrupt and menace the smooth operation of the intellect and the cultivation of a solipsistic identity” (Sparrow). Here, Pythagoras is relevant – in his writings, light represents limits, while darkness is infinity – shadow is associated “with the unexplored, indefinite interior” (Notopulos). Our world, then, is better represented by a dark forest than a lighted clearing. I am subjectivity and I live in the midst of subjectivity – all around me are unexplored selves, and I am an unexplored self. 

Derrida made a more political  criticism of light-dark dualism. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston, is told he will meet his fellow resistor in “a place where there is no darkness.” He did not know what this meant, “only that in some way or another it would come true.” In the end,  oppressive and all-powerful Party imprisons Winston in a cell where inescapable artificial light tortures him for all hours of the day. This demonstrates the political meaning of light as what allows beings to be revealed, manipulated, controlled, and used as tools toward an end. As Derrida wrote on page 91 of Violence and Metaphysics:

…the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and techno-political possession. 

Derrida argues that the state cannot possess humans if they do not have the philosophy to justify their act of ownership. This justifying philosophy is the Enlightenment, which views subjectivity as penetrable to reason, and thus open to ownership. Light exposes objects so they can be used, while “A philosophy of the night recognizes that form disintegrates in the darkness, objects lose their graspability” (Sparrow).

In absolute visibility, humans become objects. As Foucalt might say, an anatomy textbook exposes the human body completely, which makes the body seem like an object that can be understood if we simply comprehend all the cells that compose it. If we view others in this way, what is the moral significance of owning a human? The state seems to say, a citizen is merely a beast of labor with a different conformation of cells. In reality, we do not encounter the Other as an object, but as an infinite force outside ourselves, with a subjectivity we cannot fully comprehend. 

The traditional metaphor of light has failed philosophy. It collapses the moment we step away from our solitary philosophizing and into the world of others. The ancient need to expose, objectify, disclose, and grasp subjectivity causes us to ignore any realities which escape our attempt to understand. We should replace this all-exposing worldview with a philosophy of night that recognizes uncertainty and alterity. 

Works Cited

Descartes, René. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Indianapolis: Hacket Press. 2000. Print. 

Garbutt, Robert. "The Clearing: Heidegger's Lichtung and the Big Scrub." Southern Cross University. 2010. Print. 

Levinas, Immanuel. "Phenomenon and Enigma." Collected Philosophical Papers. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987. Page 70. 

Notopoulos, James. "The Symbolism of the Sun and Light in the Republic of         Plato." Classical Philology, Vol. 39, No. 3. Pp. 163-172. University of Chicago Press. 1994. Print. 

Pindar. "The Odes of Pindar." The University of Chicago Press. 1947. Print. 

Sparrow, Tom. "Levinas Unhinged." John Hunt Publishing. 28 Jun 2013. Print. 

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