A Visual Essay: Discovering the phenomenology and philosophy of light.

By Mik Efford

Light. Is there more to it than what meets the eye? Photo: Closeup of a model’s eye, Brunswick, 2012

This essay is an exploration and categorisation of my understanding of the phenomenology and philosophy of light. As a photographer I’ve been obsessed with light for most of my life, as are lots of people in many different ways, but personally I’ve never delved into analysing it from a phenomenological viewpoint (or any other philosophical view) such as those presented by phenomenological philosophers including Husserl and Heidegger.

My previous preoccupation with light has been mostly scientific, if only somewhat superficially. An understanding of light from a physics based perspective gives you all you really need to know about how a camera works. Light enters the lens, getting shaped and focussed by the diffracting glass along the way, and hits a sensor (or film) that reacts according to the wavelength (colour) of this light and records this influx of light energy over a brief or long period of time. How much light gets recorded depends on three basic concepts — how much available and/or artificial light the lens lets pass through it (aperture), how sensitive the sensor is to that light (ISO), and how long you let that sensor look at the light (shutter speed). At the end of this process you get an image, which we can see with our eyeballs (again given the availability of some more light) and our brain processes it and recognises it as a picture of a cat, and the world celebrates globally.

Are these people experiencing the light in the same way as their cameras see it? Photo: Art Gallery, New York, April 2009

The discovery of the world of phenomenology has changed my perspective as a photographer from this physical based view, to something much more philosophical. Of particular interest is the matter of exactly how we see light in the first place. While I’ve got a basic grasp of the understanding of why we evolved eyeballs, I have no clue as to why a bunch of excited particles and waves have the ability to make the rods and cones in them light up our brains in the way it does. This fundamental nature of how light works and how we see it has been bugging philosophers and scientists for quite some time, and while the scientists have come a long way in defining the properties of light in a physicalist reductionist way, the philosophers seem to still be struggling with its ontological irreducibility. But I guess the object of existential questions about the nature of light aren’t looking for answers necessarily, but just posing lots of interesting questions to keep you awake at night.

Developing an understanding of lights extrinsic physical qualities (that can be easily measured instrumentally) versus its intrinsic features (such as luminance) that can apparently only be appropriated from a human’s subjective visual cognition seems to be the critical juncture in these philosophical arguments (and forms the explanatory gap in many), and from what I can gather, is where the phenomenological perspective comes into the fore. Not everyone believes in the value of this viewpoint though, as is evident in Paul Churchland’s “The Rediscovery of Light”, where he takes-down of all seven ontological arguments about the irreducible nature of light presented by John Searle and other ontologists in a deflationary diatribe that’s hard to argue with.

But back to the task of trying to analyse things in a phenomenological way, which is what I want to try to do with a series of photographs that represent different forms of light. All of these photographs I have personally taken over the years, for no other reason than the pleasure of photography, and perhaps to record an event in time and place. Now they get their chance to be discussed in a whole new light (excuse the pun).

There is hundreds of types of light that could be studied both scientifically and phenomenologically, I’ve chosen a few of the more common ones here for brevity and grouped them into two main categories: natural light and artificial light. Let’s begin.

Natural light

Sun light

Photo: Mount Hutt, New Zealand, 2014

These skiers flying down this snow-covered hill in New Zealand are experiencing harsh contrasting reflected light off the snow as well as from the sun itself. Would a phenomenologist argue that they’re all experiencing the same light? As the viewer of these skiers from sitting where you are, looking at this photo, via a screen, do you experience the same light as them?

Star light

Photo: The Milky Way over Mount Bogong, December 2013

Star light, my favourite type of light, is this amazing concoction of all the light the universe has invented. From the blazing suns of far off galaxies to the incandescent burn of a super-nova, it’s all made its way across the infinite universe and into our eyeballs for us to figure out. Staring up at the night sky often promotes vast philosophical thought — how many phenomena could a phenomenologist play with here?

Moon light

Photo: Supermoon!, Brunswick, March 2011

The moon bounces light from our sun and brightens up our night sky. The amount of light changes over the lunar cycle, which is said to affect numerous real (sleeping patterns of mammals) and imaginary (werewolves) things. Can a phenomenologist who waxes poetically about the moon ever describe it in more detail than the factual scientists who’ve reduced it down to reflected electro-magnetic waves from our sun?


Photo: Sunset over the Indian Ocean, Perth, January 2009

The soft receding light of a sunset as a phenomena must be ripe for analysis by a phenomenologist. How could a scientist possibly describe all the shades of colour, the shimmer and warp of the horizon, the glow of the clouds, the affect on the human body?


Photo: Sunrise on top of Mount Bogong, Jan 2013

A sunrise, on the other hand, has a completely different feel to a sunset. Not as many people get to see the sunrise, but when they do, it’s always a special moment. The phenomena of a new day, a warming of the skin, fresh electromagnetic waves hitting the eyeballs after a period of darkness. How can the engagement with our environment here be described phenomenologically?

Fire light

Photo: Bonfire on the Yarra, Abbotsford, June 2008

So all those previous forms of light were really the same weren’t they? They were all sunlight, but just in different times of day, or being bounced off different things. But what about fire? Fire’s made right here on Earth, but is it the same fire that’s going on in our Sun? It gets murky when you think about it too much doesn’t it. Phenomenologist’s probably have a field day with all the subjective phenomena that surrounds fire. You not only get light, but heat, and it’s moving! Sunlight gives us that too, but not in the same quantities or speed. The experience of witnessing a fire like the one pictured can be awe inspiring and the atmosphere cosy. But what if it was an out of control bush fire, is there the same cosiness?

Artificial Light

City lights

Photo: Brighton Beach, November 2007

Reflected city lights are, as a photographer, sometimes very useful, but as an astronomer, very annoying. The phenomena of artificial light spilling out into the environment and “pretending to be moonlight” is an interesting concept. Technically, the wavelengths of this light would be very different to that of pure moonlight. Is there any phenomenological after effects of this difference in light quality?

Laser light

Photo: Laser light show by Robin Fox. Trades Hall, 2012

Laser light represents a very narrow wavelength spectrum of light. It’s exactly one colour. It’s not a combination of a few wavelengths to make up a colour, it’s just one. The science behind lasers is hard to understand. How do they even work? How are they made? As Arthur C Clarke’s 3rd law states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And magic is what most people think when looking at a laser beam. Would the phenomena of not knowing how a light exists be valid phenomenological study?

Electronic Light

Photo: A friend taking a selfie, New York, April 2010

The glow of a screen, whether it be an CRT, LED, OLED or other new fangled technology is a form of light we’re all becoming increasingly dependent on. The makeup of a screen is such that even when you’re looking at a yellow coloured screen, you’re actually seeing red, green and blue in different amounts There’s no actual yellow at all. Is this type of light different from a singular source of the same yellow light? Does our brain perceive it the same way? The phenomena of this “screen addiction” is being studied in great detail at the moment (well it is by me personally anyway), with the affect it is having our lives, our sleeping patterns and our attention spans.

Ultra Violet Light

Photo: Blacklight UVA light globe, Brunswick, Feburary 2008

All the light we almost cannot see. Ultra violet light is just off the end of the visible spectrum. People who suffer from aphakia (a lack of a lens on their eye) can see it however, and regular humans can see it in the form of long wave UVA lights, which block out all other spectrums of light except for just a little bit. It’s interesting from a philosophical phenomenological point of view due to the fact that animals such as birds, reptiles and insects can see UV light and we can’t. So there exists this very different visual reality with which we can only ever conjecture about, but never witness for ourselves (unless we cut out a piece of our eye). The fact that “nothing categorically distinguishes the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation from invisible portions of the broader spectrum, …that color is not a property of electromagnetic radiation, but a feature of visual perception by an observer.” is the basis for subjectivity in color perception, and also it seems, a large basis for ontological and phenomenological discussion.

That ends this illuminating essay on phenomenology and philosophy of light. I hope it’s expanded your thinking about the light sources around you and how they affect you, the people and the creatures of this planet.

References / Bibliography

Gertz, Nolen, On the Possibility of a Phenomenology of Light (2006). PhaenEx, Vol. 5, №1, pp. 41- 58, Spring/Summer 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=953113

Churchland, Paul M. “The Rediscovery of Light.” The Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 5 (1996): 211–28.