Eidetic vision

The term “eidetic” refers, in psychology, to the extraordinary clarity or sharpness of vision retained in the mind, whether referring to images or mental constructs. Thus, eidetic memory is considered photographic in its clarity, and a mental skill in its conceptualization. Alan Watts extends the term to great import in his book Tao The Watercourse Way.

Watts considers the manner of expression in classic texts such as the I Ching, which today is often dismissed as a divination device, much like the tarot. However, the manner of expression in the I Ching is intended not to forecast the future in some gross way but to conjure images appropriate for the reader to take into account when pondering a decision with import on the future. This is a very different interpretation than modern skeptics, and not only richer but closer to the probable understanding of the contemporary compilers of the I Ching (and similar “divination” devices).

Watts presents a hexagram, the textual judgment and the textual image — but the particular hexagram does not even matter, for each is constructed in the same way. What is important is the manner of communication, the intuition evoked by the compiler, and the consciousness of the reader in being attuned to the ways of nature and life, in short, the Tao. Watts notes of the hexagram and accompanying text:

The comment is invariably oracular, vague, and ambivalent, but a person taking it seriously will use it like a Rorschach blot and project into it, from his “unconscious,” whatever there is in him to find in it. This is surely a way of allowing oneself to thinking without keeping a tight guard on one’s thoughts, whether logical or moral. The same sort of process is at work in the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams and in eidetic vision, whereby we descry faces, forms, and pictures in the grain of wood or marble, or in the shapes of clouds.

Here there is no logical barrier to protect an iconic view of reason or logic or tradition or definition of power. Rather, the subjective insight of the viewer or reader is specifically evoked in order to engage the person into participation with surroundings, environment, mental disposition, atunement to self and moods, emotions, and spaces where needs or fears may dwell. It is in this sense that Watts means neither logic nor morals should obstruct self-examination, for logic and morals will emerge from the interpretation of the environment and nature.

This sense of eidetic vision is what links all art and philosophy with self. One looks at a work of art or reads philosophical investigation or deliberation and at first may dismiss them as ink blots, as torpidly designed nonsense. That is logic speaking (initially). Delving further into the work of art or philosophy we can discern patterns that either resonate within us, confirming a direction of thought, or give us an inkling of danger or subterfuge, of being misled.

What is the touchstone for how we interpret the inkblot? The touchstone is whether our interpretation, built of intuition, emotion, and well-being, conjoins with nature and a more powerful and overarching engagement with our immediate environment emerges, and ultimately engages with nature and the universe. Falling short of this, perhaps we appreciate the artist’s or thinker’s efforts, bold but short, interesting but insufficient, sincere but not adequate to the depth of our need for insight. If that is the way with art and creativity, how rich our eidetic vision must be that it can encompass so much and syncretically build a relationship with the universe.

Thus Watts argues that the oracles of the I Ching are the predecessors of the artist’s ink or paints on a canvas in the most primitive sense of offering “forms to be contemplated absentmindedly until the hidden meaning reveals itself, in accordance with one’s own unconscious tendencies.” Eidetic vision means that we apply ourselves, with effort, to discern a meaning or a relevancy, an import, to not only a work of art or thought, but to nature itself. We can gather a great deal of information but we are often left with a hexagram-like fragment bidding us to say “yes” or “no.” This is neither superstition nor science, for neither seems to govern.

Rather, we are left with wu-wei, with non-action, as the wisest course, the watercourse way of the Tao. The course of non-action is not paralysis, indifference, or indolence but wise discernment always attentive to the mutually arising forces before us. This is the course of the solitary, the method of the solitary. It redefines eidetic vision as the application of clarity to the objects, images, and forces around us.