Heraclitus, Fragment 15 (D 101A)


“[[Eyes are surer witnesses than ears.]]” Kahn 15; cp. DK 101a, S 101a, W 12, LM D32)

If we get a glimpse of an object while passing by, we can look back, examine it again. The eyes give us a first person and immediate experience of an object in space. If we are far away and our vision is fuzzy, we can approach the object to get a better look.

When we hear something, by contrast, we might not have a chance to hear it again. The sound comes in time and disappears into the past. If it is the sound of thunder, we might not be able to reconstruct it exactly. We can’t go back and listen again. If we hear a loud sound in the distance, we might not know what it is at all.

But much of what we hear aren’t just noises. We hear accounts of things, stories, narratives by individuals. And these accounts in many cases are not able to be verified. A reliable witness is an innocent court defendant’s dream. But people are often quite sure of things that didn’t happen. And even accounts of the same event often differ in details. If the accounts are of operations that run continually, then they can sometimes be checked. If the accounts are of the arrangements of objects in the world, then we might be able to go and corroborate with our eyes. But typically this is difficult: the arrangements of objects in the world are for a particular time. If we go to corroborate, how could we know these arrangements haven’t been changed before we get there to look? And of course, many accounts admit of know further checking at all. A fundamental issues is: We often do not get to see or hear things for ourselves about which we have an account, but we must rely on the memories of others.

In Chinese Whispers, individuals stand or sit in in a circle or a row and each passes an original message on to the person next to her. At the end of the chain the last person tells the message as it has been passed on to her, or as she remembers it. In my experience, the message at the end always varies considerably from the original message. We also all know from discussions with friends or family about shared experiences that our shared experience is often remembered very differently by those who shared it. For all of these things, eyes are surer witnesses than ears.

That said, in fact in many cases the ears and eyes to not give witness to the same things at all. Ears to not give witness to the delicious red color of the pomegranate, to the turquoise of the Caribbean coast, to the smile of a friendly face. And eyes do not give witness to bird calls, to the sound of thunder or to our favorite song. For these latter things, ears are surer witnesses than eyes.

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