Baroque Optics and the Disappearance of the Observer: From Kepler’s Optics to Descartes’ Doubt

07 November 2011

In the seventeenth century the human observer gradually disappeared from optical treatises. It was a paradoxical process: the naturalization of the eye estranged the mind from its objects. Turned into a material optical instrument, the eye no longer furnished the observer with genuine representations of visible objects. It became a mere screen, on which rested a blurry array of light stains, accidental effects of a purely causal process. It thus befell the intellect to decipher one natural object—a flat image of no inherent epistemic value—as the vague, reversed reflection of another, wholly independent object. In reflecting on and trespassing the boundaries between natural and artificial, orderly and disorderly, this optical paradox was a Baroque intellectual phenomenon; and it was the origin of Descartes’ celebrated doubt— whether we know anything at all.