Saturday, 1 December 2012

Turner & Goethe

In the basement of Tate Britain Gallery one can find the studies of vision by J. M. W. Turner, regarding on how to produce on the eye of the observer a sensation of colour by just printing onto a lithography a set of tiny black lines, one close to another, leaving a white background. The eye, as a perception device, does not register each black fine line, but receives a spectrum of different colours from the decomposed white background, cut by the said black lines. In that exhibition you are learnt that, at the same time, J. W. Goethe was also studying this kind of phenomena. In fact, he wrote two books related to the matter: one essay, “Theory of Colours” (Zur Farbenlehre) and one novel “Elective Affinities” (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) –the latter concerning how chemistry has influence over human passions and institutions.

Similar subjects were analyse in F. A. Hayek’s “The Sensory Order”, where he stated that “There exists, therefore, no one to one correspondence between the kinds (or the physical properties) of the different physical stimuli and the dimensions in which they can vary, on one hand, and the different kinds of sensory qualities which they produce and their various dimensions on the other”. This formulation can be taken as an enunciation of the Hayekian critic to the Cartesian Dualism, which he would later refer to in Law, Legislation and Liberty. That is why “The Sensory Order” cannot be just regarded as a book on theoretical psychology. It is a book concerning how a system of information can adapt to its environment despite it does not carry completely accurate information about it  –just the degree of accuracy it needs to survive and reproduce.
We can recognize continuity –although heterogeneous continuity- along Hayek’s works. In his celebrated paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, he remarks that it does not matter if the rise in the price of a commodity may obey to an increasing demand or a falling supply of it –in any case, an increasing relative scarcity- and that it is relevant that it does not matter at all. The decisions of the economic agents are taken on the base of profits and losses, disregarding the subjacent movements in the supply and demand of commodities that caused the change in the relative scarcities of them. That is how a social system can survive and adapt to the changes of its environment, allocating its resources spontaneously, although none of its members can achieve a complete knowledge of the variables operating on it. The same as we enjoy a work of art by Turner or the time we spend with our friends, ignoring the secret resorts that make them so attractive to us.