Clarity and Credulity

I need reading glasses. When this need first emerged – maybe in my late 40s – it was only for extremely small scale close up activity such as marking fine gradations when doing finish carpentry or working with very tiny screws or reading extremely fine print on some labels. But now it’s pretty much for anything printed and so I always have them with me, generally perched atop my head ready to be slid down to the bridge of my nose in an instant. And each time I do that, there’s a thrill of the world (or at least that small part of the world right in front of my face) coming into focus and clarity. In the blink of an eye, consciousness and world re-engage. The visual apparatus with which I do so much of my ascertaining of what is and is not the case goes from blunted and blurry to sharp and in-focus and I go from a state of “I don’t know what to believe” to one of “seeing is believing.”

I frequently transition from a reading task to moving about the room or house or just looking up or out the window. Many times a day I’ll get up, reading glasses still in place and start across the floor of my studio toward the stairs down to the second floor and only after a few moments remember that I have my reading glasses on and that that’s why everything is blurry. I flip them up onto the top of my head and my more-or-less 20-20 distance vision kicks in and all is clear. Again, the thrill of going from thick fog to blue sky clarity, from “whoah, what?” to “it is what it is,” that is, I now am in possession of information about the world that a moment ago I lacked. We might call this lower case “aha” as a sort of mundane version of big discoveries that merit “AHA!”

Both transitions resolve quickly into a state of taken-for-granted “me-here perceiving the world-over-there as it is,” but repeated experience of the transitions themselves leaves a mark.

One can think of these transitions as having a rate – the amount of change divided by the duration of the transition. What I experience as the thing that changes is my capacity to know the ((appearance of the) part of the) world  (that’s in front of me). It’s not merely or only vision1 – it’s me using vision to, as phrased above, ascertain what is the case here – but clarity in the visual field is a prerequisite element and the one that is subject to change. There are elements here of an “aha” experience – We might think of this as what in mathematics we call a derivative:

where we define delta clarity as new clarity minus old clarity so that aha is positive when clarity increases which is more in line with our intuition and everyday usage. Like my bringing the glasses down for reading or pushing them up to walk across the room, most examples that come to mind probably have a positive value for aha – that is, we move from less clarity to more clarity so the numerator is negative.

Daily life is full of very small values of aha wherein we gradually come to understand how something works or a story unfolds slowly as we read or hear it. And occasionally there are really high values of aha, those that elicit an “AHA!” because of the size of delta clarity as when a mystery is finally, and suddenly, solved.

But what about when aha is negative, that is, when we move from situations of more clarity to less clarity?  When I am looking at a text through my reading glasses and I suddenly take them away the text multiplies and slides over itself, the individual letters vibrating and morphing. My eyes reach out to grasp them, but they move before I can reach them.

When we suspect or discover that a friend is a liar or we conclude that a media outlet is peddling fake news or we become persuaded that what we’d taken to be a credible source was actually propaganda or a therapist helps us see we were being gaslit or radicalization brings us to critical consciousness (Lukács 1967; Mannheim 1959) or we realize that the story in the novel we are reading is told by an unreliable narrator (Booth 1983) we experience various sized negative values of aha.

Two other loci of the experience of negative aha will be examined in the next section: the failure of our relational partners to notify us of things we think they should and the diminution of cognitive/sensory tools in old age. Both these highlight another aspect of this phenomenon: the meta-experience of negative aha – the realization that our relationships (Ryan 2006) or our faculties may not be what we thought they were and that things we’ve depended on for information about the world may no longer be dependable.

1 One could experiment with other things – perhaps what comes into focus is an optical illusion or a coded text so that there is another step and another faculty engaged in coming to clarity, but those are questions for another day.

Booth, Wayne C. 1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Revised ed. edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lukács, Georg. 1967. History & Class Consciousness. Merlin Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1959. Ideology and Utopia;: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Harcourt, Brace.

Ryan, Dan. 2006. “Getting the Word Out: Notes on the Social Organization of Notification*.” Sociological Theory 24 (3): 228–54.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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