Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa


In the Light of Shadow

Nelson Hoedekie

Philosophy Department

University of Stellenbosch

In what follows I would like to portray the story of my first encounters with shadows. The course of this story will consist of looking at and investigating the different shades of meaning of the shadowconcept by metaphorically putting light, from different angles, upon this concept. One of these resulting shadows will be the story of the challenges I came across with by trying to practically approach and capture them. Another one will serve as an attempt allow insight into the paradoxical ways of these proceedings and into the possibility of using a visual metaphor as a way to understand understanding.

Shadow 1: A shadow's history upon the present

On a sunny afternoon, last June, seated under a magnificent oak next to the 'Ou Hoofgebou', when suddenly, something opened up towards a moment ahead.

Maybe this moment is now, which would then explain why I feel that I can only speak of its origin's history, or of the shadow its history upon the present.

It was June and winter when my attention was swallowed by this leafless shadow, a dark shape of ungraspable complexity and although one, never the same.

Maybe I can speak of a certain desire that sprang up in me, a desire to catch the changing shadow in its simultaneous diversity. But how could this be done?

My first idea was to paint the shadows on a large, white surface that I would put at the foot of the oak. For a whole day, from sunrise to sunset, I would overpaint the casted shapes. But what I initially did not take into account was that I would going to have to deal with not only a moving shadow, but also with one which was going to have its fastest transformations precisely when it covered the biggest space (the long shadows in the morning and evening), so that, because of the slow process of painting, it would almost be impossible to actually paint distinctive shapes. Although it could have given us an interesting perspective, I nevertheless decided to let go of this rather unpractical idea.

As a way to bypass these difficulties I thought of making use of photography. The problem with these proceedings would be to find a position from where these pictures are to be taken. From which angle could these partially enormous shadows be photographed without having my own, or the equipment's shadow to interfere with the scene? There was a solution, since there is an angle, above and behind the shadows, from where this can be done. But, because of the dimensions of this tree, a correspondingly enormous construction would have been needed. Again I dropped the idea and thought instead of using a smaller object of which I thought that it could produce the same effect.

Another obstacle which I had to anticipate was to find a way by which to get the different pictures 'together', so that eventually there would evolve a picture showing the 'simultaneous diversity of the shadows of an object throughout the day'. The photographic experts suggested all kinds of techniques, such as 'multiple exposure', or 'sandwich projection', but none of them were able to provide a satisfying solution.

In my first attempt to carry out this photographic challenge, I took slides or dia-positives from a small sculpture in the shape of a person. With the camera perched on the tripod and after regular intervals of half an hour for the length of a day, its shadows were casted on film. My expectation was to eventually overlap these slides so that they would, when projected, display this 'palette' of shadows. Theory proved to be inadequate in practice, because it seemed that the overlapping slides darkened to such an extent that they in the end cancelled each-other out.

The next attempt proved to be more rewarding. In a first step the darkening effect was going to be avoided by using photographs instead of slides, which would then be photocopied on transparencies(1). The second step would be to put the transparencies of the different shadows on top of each-other and to take a slide of it.

Thus, the final outcome, as you would see it, could be summarized as follows: the reflection of a projected slide of a bundle of transparent photocopies of photographs of a variety of shadows of a sculpture throughout a day.

But before looking into some different shades of meaning of the concept of shadow, and as a means to make this transition a little smoother, I feel that I should still mention that when I first got overwhelmed by 'seeing the light' into the shadow of the oak, I was revising for my examination of hermeneutics. It was in the context of this post-modern interpretationtheory that I expected the shadows to serve as an illuminating metaphor.

Shadow 2: A shadow of a doubt

In this shadow, I would like to take you down to the heart of the hermeneutic debate. We start with Wilhelm Dilthey criticizing Hegel for transcending historically situated knowledge and positing instead a suprahistorical knowledge of the absolute spirit. Dilthey, on the other hand, insists that all knowledge remains historical knowledge, grounded in the individual "life".

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, Dilthey started off on the right track with this life-philosophy, but was ultimately led away in his attempt to transfer his conception of self-knowledge from an individual life to the experiences of another person, group or culture. By making the experiences of the individual also the experiences of "an over-arching consciousness or subject"(2), he tried to give to the historical and social scientific understanding of the Geisteswissenschaften in general its validity status. With this attempt, Gadamer argues, Dithey goes beyond the limits of life-philosophy and gives his grounding of the Geisteswissenschaften "an objective twist"(3) or a turn which brought him closer and closer to Hegel's notion of objective spirit.

Gadamer maintains that Dilthey has been misled here "by a fear of the relativistic implications of his own life-philosophy"(4), and that he thereby neglects his own insight into the historicity or temporality of experience and returns to the principles of traditional hermeneutics. This recourse of making understanding equal with "reproduction of an original production" (Schleiermacher's conception of divination and empathetic identification), stems, as Gadamer sees it, from "a failure to distinguish between two different kinds of doubt: on the one hand, the doubt that arises in the course of life and on the other, a methodologically sanctioned doubt"(5). The first one he describes as follows:

In life itself certain experiences can cast doubt upon one's conceptions, prejudices and self-understanding. Such doubts can lead to further reflection, revision in one's interpretation of one's life or one's projects and then to further experiences and revisions. This kind of doubt is thus part of the connection between experience and understanding and part of the retrospective re-evaluation of the meaning of one's life.(6)

In the second kind of doubt, the methodological decision is taken to doubt all of one's experiences in advance. This decision is similar to the strategy of Cartesian doubt. For Gadamer, this kind of doubt has not its roots in life, but is rather directed "against life"(7). Such doubt, Gadamer states, is overly intellectual and,

[doesn't] arise in response to the interpretative conflicts embedded in actual experiences but tries to resolve all conflict in advance. In this case, the goal is to achieve not a better understanding of oneself or the history of one's culture, but rather a definitive understanding, an understanding secured against the need for future revisions. The knowledge attained through this kind of doubt is thus to have nothing situational, contextual or partial left in it.(8)

This kind of doubt aims to leave no 'shadow', to be 'shadow-free' and seems to be inspired, as Gadamer explains Dithey's recourse, by the uncertainty of doubt which is experienced as of 'fear' or 'anxiety'.

Shadow 3: To be afraid of one's shadow

According to Freud "Angst" or anxiety comes forth from the repression or 'Verdrängung' of unconscious impulses that threaten to rise to the surface(9). Also C.G. Jung underlines the role of the unconsciousness, but sees it projected in what he calls the 'shadow'. A closer examination of the "dark characteristics" -that is, the "inferiorities constituting the shadow"- reveals that they have an "emotional nature". These shadows, or "[p]rojections change the world into the replica of one's unknown face [anima and animus]... [and] lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable."(10) The 'emotional shadow', experienced as anxiety will be projected on the environment which is then perceived as malevolent and which in turn intensifies the vicious circle of isolation.

By "recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real", it is according to Jung to some extend nevertheless possible "to assimilate the shadow into the conscious personality"(11). "This act", says Jung, "is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance."(12) This resistance can be described as the anxiety one experiences by facing its own shadow.

Shadow 4: Shadow into the light

Similar phenomena are found back in the work of Eric Voegelin, who, by investigating the classical Greeks, finds the assumption that "[m]an, when he experiences himself as existent, discovers his specific humanity as that of the questioner for the where-from and the where-to , for the ground and the sense of his existence."(13) This specifically human experience of reality is "man's existence in a state of unrest."(14)

Plato and Voegelin believe that "if man were not consubstantial with the reality that he experiences, he could not experience it."(15) Experience takes place in the metaxy (Plato), in 'the in-between', or in the tension between the poles of subjective and objective reality, and in this sense also between the human and divine, the mortal and immortal, death and life, shadow and light. In this way we see the experience of unrest with its accompanying desire to ask question reappearing in Plato's allegory of the Cave where the prisoner finds himself moved, precisely by this experience of unrest, to turn himself around (periagoge) and to move himself away from the 'not-knowing' (agnoia), represented by the appearances of the shadows or opinions (doxa), towards 'knowing' (episteme) or the light of the sun. In this process of 'remembering' (anamnesis), where the unconscious is moved to the conscious, shadow into the light, or where the consciousness gets differentiated and makes his own 'logos' explicit (the noetic exegesis), rationality appears. It is in this sense that Voegelin writes: "[t]he consciousness of questioning unrest in a state of ignorance becomes luminous to itself as a movement in the psyche towards the ground that is present in the psyche as its mover."(16)

Towards the initial state of questioning unrest two alternative attitudes can be taken: the first one, which we have described as the rational attitude where the attraction of the ground of this unrest is followed -the classic periagoge- and the noetic consciousness is differentiated, is characterized by the Stoics as the mentally healthy (sanitas) situation. In this first attitude the initial unrest is "distinctly joyful because the questioning has direction; the unrest is experienced as the beginning of the theophanic event in which the nous reveals itself as the divine ordening force of the psyche of the questioner and the cosmos at large."(17)

In the alternative attitude, the ignorant unrest is experienced as 'anxiety', or, as Crysippus characterizes it, as "an existential state of fluttering uncertainty and overexcitement of passions, a state of being scared or terrified because existence has lost its direction."(18) The according attitude will be one where the person turns himself away from this anxiety -the Stoic epistrophe-. But by doing that, he not only also turns himself away from the attraction of the rationality providing ground, but also from the existential tension, and therefore from reality itself. The Stoics described this attitude as mentally ill (insania) or psychopathological.

This second attitude, which we also saw described by Jung and in which reality is turned away from, has also been characterized by the Stoics as 'alienation' (allotriosis)(19). Voegelin sees this psychopathological alienation from reality as the position on which the modern ideologies base their understanding of reality. But because their consciousness continues to be reality-forming, and because of their need to find direction for their existence and actions, they create, out of their alienated position, replacements of reality which together form what Voegelin calls a "zweite Realität"(20), a 'second reality', or, with Jung, a 'dreamworld'. From this deformed reality it is now possible to believe that reality itself is transformable(21), progressive and subject to all kinds of plans for systematic improvement and even for the revolutionary realisation of 'heaven on earth'. These illusions can, according to Voegelin, when taken up by some socially dominant movements can lead to serious social disorder. On top of it comes that, when it seems that after all reality stays constant, expectations are followed up by disappointments, which in turn will increase the anxiety and malevolence towards the environment and intensify the vicious circle of isolation.

Shadow 5: Dread and nothingness

Thoroughly linked with what we have seen before between anxiety and shadow, can also be said for the concepts of dread and nothingness. Søren Kierkegaard sees "[m]an [as] a synthesis of the soulish and the bodily. But a synthesis is unthinkable if the two are not united in a third factor. This third factor is the spirit."(22)

That in the Finno-Ugric mythology we find that souls, which they call ort, are regarded as shadows follows from the belief that "[...] after his death, man is blended with his ort, or shadow so that both form one and the same being."(23) Here, it seems to me, we can in a similar way think of the body as object, the soul as its shadow and the unifying spirit as the light source or sun.

When we think back of what Voegelin describes as the initial state of ignorant unrest, the starting point of classical philosophical inquiry, then the same similarity can be drawn between this starting point and what Kierkegaard calls the state of innocence. He writes:

Innocence is ignorance. In his innocence man is not determined as spirit but is soulishly determined in immediate unity with his natural condition. Spirit is dreaming in man.[...] In this state there is peace and repose; but at the same time there is something different, which is nothing to strive with. What is it then? Nothing. But what effect does nothing produce? It begets dread. This is the profound secret of innocence, that at the same time it is dread. Dreamingly the spirit projects its own reality, but this reality is nothing, but this nothing constantly sees innocence outside of it.(24)

In this ignorant innocence, where spirit finds itself in a dreaming state, the difference between body and soul, myself and the other(25), "temporal and eternal"(26), or object and shadow, has not been made. It is as if body and soul are part of the night, or part of the same, dreadful shadow, which is nothing more than nothing, or "the reality of freedom as possibility anterior to possibility."(27)

Just like it was the case for the experience of unrest, Kierkegaard also underlines the alternative attitudes or ambiguity toward this dread of nothingness. As the dialectical determinants in dread Kierkegaard distinguishes between "sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy."(28) This ambiguous attitude towards dread which is posited in innocence Kierkegaard observes in children where he finds "[...] this dread more definitely indicated as a seeking after adventure, a thirst for the prodigious, the mysterious.[...] This dread belongs to the child that it cannot do without it; even though it alarms him, it captivates him nevertheless by its sweet feeling of apprehension."(29)

In his investigation, Kierkegaard uses the concept of dread as a forebode for sin. That also here dread maintains its ambiguous character shows the following: "[...] he who through dread becomes guilty is innocent, for it was not he himself but dread, an alien power which lay hold of him, a power which he loved and yet dreaded -and yet he is guilty, he who after all loved it while he feared it." (30)

Shadow 6: Shadowknowledge

As normal vision is always "essentially of things in a certain setting, from a certain point of view, in a certain light"(31), Samuel Todes distinguishes between three corresponding incompletenesses; the objective, subjective and contextual incompleteness. The contextual incompleteness is made evident by shade and shadow, because, even in the best context, the light in which things are best seen, there is no light without shadow. In this way Todes speaks of a "plateau of incompleteness" which no context can excel.

This plateau is marked by the best shadows, as the clearest days are marked by the darkest and most distinct shadows. The slopes of this plateau are marked by vague and diffuse dusk-like shadows. And the plain of the night below this plateau is characterized by the absence of shadows. Trying to reach above this plateau by looking at a good source of light instead of at things in that light, we are blinded. Trying to see some bright luminous unshadowed thing like the sun, we see no more than in unshadowed night.(32)

The quality of what we see is therefore dependent upon the quality of the shadow, and without shadow we normally, this is except for the night sky, see nothing. According to Todes it is even so that "[s]hadows help us to see things better by clearly outlining for us what remains to be better seen than is optimally possible in the given visual context, the given field of illumination."(33) From this we can conclude that shadows not so much supplant things, but rather, that they form a "supplement" to things.

Where Plato ranks shadows as the lowest in the order of perceptual things, Todes, instead, sees them as "primitive abstractions" of the kind of mathematical forms which Plato so much "idol-ized". Todes explains this by pointing at Plato's confusion of taking shadows for thing-like entities, so that for him, the truly real things are the abstractions, or ideas. It is also on this basis that he made on the epistemological level the distinction between the 'right belief' (episteme) and mere opinion (doxa). But what we saw earlier as the supplementary appearance of shadow and thing, Todes similarly states for opinion and sound conviction: "sound conviction forms a nucleus of belief generating intelligent conjectures about related matters comparatively unknown in detail, much as clearly perceived objects cast shadow-projections of their less clearly disclosed aspects."(34) It is Plato's conviction and also Dilthey's recourse, on the other hand, that the ideal knowledge must be 'pure light', or shadow-free. This again is in contrast to Todes' claim that shadows can help us with incomplete knowledge in the sense that it indicates in outline what has been left out.

Shadow 7: Night and day

By making a simplified, or even oversimplified summary of the suggested 'motions toward shadows', it seems that in the case of Gadamer's critique on Dilthey, as for Jung, it was advised to move towards the shadow. Plato and Voegelin, on the other hand, preferred a movement away from the shadows towards the light. And there where Kierkegaard stayed ambiguous, Todes pointed towards the supplementary character of shadow and light.

Nevertheless his position, it is Plato that somewhere to me suggests an attitude towards these different and partially overlapping views. He writes: "[...] a sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways -by a change from light to darkness or from darkness to light; and he will recognize that the same thing happens to the soul."(35) In the first case "vision is obscured by the darkness"; in the other "it is dazzled by excess of light." In both cases there is a process of adaptation which goes together with 'confusion', 'doubt', 'unrest', and even 'dread' or 'anxiety'(36). Also Jung seems to underline this point when he writes that "[a]ffect occur usually where adaptation is weakest, namely a certain degree of inferiority and the existence of a lower level of personality. On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgement."(37)

Can we here conclude that in order to keep adaptation strong enough to resist affects to take over completely, it seems almost necessary to continually adapt to the experiences of 'confusion' to 'anxiety' that are brought along not only when the night follows upon the day, but also when the light of the daytime takes over the shadows of the night?

Shadow 7: Paradoxical shadows

What we in the beginning have indicated as a possible paradox, we would now like to examine a little closer.

According to Todes, shadows are internally blank representations of the outline of an aspect of a thing left 'in the dark'. Only with the aid of a simultaneous perception of the shadowed thing is it possible to make its represented size, shape, etc., definite.

Image, picture and reflection, on the other hand, do the opposite:

They are internally distinct; they represent a certain aspect of a thing as well as it is disclosed in direct perception of the thing; and the represented aspect of the thing is at least as likely to be subjectively and contextually well-disclosed as poorly disclosed. Image, picture, and reflection, thus solicit us to view them instead of the thing from which they originate, or at least do not require us to see the thing simultaneoulsy in order to see them as representing definite properties in their original. For their internal distinctness is sufficient by itself to make these representations definite, that is, fairly determinate. And viewing them we do not make up in part for what is missing in direct perception about the unpictured aspect of the original thing.(38)

In short, image, picture, and reflection "[...]serve to divert us from their original in favour of a simplified substitute, whereas shadow summons us back to an enriched original."(39)

Applied to the shadow-picture-combination we can now see the paradoxical effect that this creates: where the shadow summons us back, the picture of it diverts us from the original.

This effect also comes about when we look at the transparency of the sculpture and compare it with how it looks like after being overlapped by several of its shadow-transparencies. Due to the supplementary character of shadows, the object wins in detail or outline each time that it is overlapped with one of its shadow-transparencies. But after a certain overlappings, instead of becoming more outlined, the details of the sculpture fade into an absorbing darkness.

Shadow 8: Shadows of the mind

In order to sustain the metaphorical use of 'shadows', I would, for a last time in this last shadow, like to turn back to Todes' article where he puts written characters ('black signs on a white paper", or what Todes calls "sensuous characters") as an idealised form of shadows. Because of the idealized settings under which these artificial shadows are casted, they are, unlike natural shadows, distinct and completely representative. It is in this way that "[t]he mind's eye, through an act of sensuous abstraction, literally creates in letters an alphabet of shadows."(40) On the question what shaded aspect of what thing these man-made shadows represent, Todes answers:

Man casts them, but in representation of the world, not just of himself. Man casts his characters not as their source but as their medium, as the shade in which is nothing but the casting of them. The casting of characters, the casting of artificial shadows, is the very cast of mind. The represented "thing" is man's experience as not yet clear to him. The cast of mind is the shadowing forth of universal truths which are of necessity only dimly disclosed by the essentially situational and contextually limited character of natural human perception. Our mind is the shade of the tree of experience; our highest knowledge, producing shadow-characters as the fruits of this tree on a paper-space in the light of universal truths. To know is to learn through confusion to see clearly the general knowledge, one must enter into, not, as Plato taught, escape from, the shade of the tree of experience.(41)


1. For this tip and for all the knowledge and help I received, I whish to thank Joshua.

2. Warnke, G.: Gadamer-Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason. 1987. p. 30.

3. Ibid. p. 31.

4. Idem.

5. Ibid. p. 32.

6. Idem.

7. Ibid. p. 33. From Gadamers: Truth and Method. (English transl.) Seabury Press, New York, 1975. p. 210.

8. Idem.

9. Botha, Cornelia: Die Angsbegrip by Kierkegaard en Heidegger. Pretoria, 1974. p. 122.

10. Jung, Carl Gustav: Aion, Researches into the Phenomenology og the Self. The collected works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 9, Part II. (transl. by R.F.C. Hull), Pantheon Books, New York, 1959. p.8-9.

11. Idem.

12. Idem.

13. Voegelin, Eric: Anamnesis. (transl. from: Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik. Piper&Co. Verlag, München, 1966.) University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1989. p. 92-93.

14. Idem.

15. Voegelin, Eric/Sandoz, Ellis: Autobiographical Reflections. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge/London, 1989. p. 72.

16. Voegelin: Anamnesis. p. 96. Voegelin calls this process "the ordening of the psyche through its tension toward the divine ground, the aiton, of all reality" (p. 94).

17. Ibid. p. 100.

18. Idem.

19. Kierkegaard uses the 'alteration' which in Danish is used "[...]in the sense of changing, distorting, bringing out of the original state (the thing becomes a different one); but one also speaks of becoming altered in the sense of becoming frightened, precisely because at bottom this is the first unavoidable consequence of change." Footnote in: The Concept of Dread. (Transl. by W. Lowrie). Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1944. p. 53.

20. Voegelin refers for this concept to the Austrian writers Albert Paris Gütersloh, Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer. Voegelin, Eric:Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik. Piper&Co. Verlag, München, 1966. p. 311.

21. Voegelin: Anamnesis. p. 306. "So wie über der Konstanz der Realität ihre Veränderlichkeit, die wir Geschichte nennen, so kann über der erfahrenen Veränderlichkeit der Realität ihre Konstanz vergessen werden."

22. Kierkegaard, Søren: The Concept of Dread. (Transl. by W. Lowrie). Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1944. p. 39.

23. Mythology of all Races. Vol. IV. Finno-Ugric Siberian. (ed. Uno Holmberg), Great Britain, 1927. p. 10.

24. Kierkegaard: The Concept of Dread. p. 37-8.

25. "When awake, the difference between myself and my other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming, it is a nothing vaguely hinted at."(38)

26. Kierkegaard: The Concept of Dread. p. 76.

27. Ibid. p. 38.

28. Idem.

29. Idem.

30. Ibid. p. 39.

31. Todes, Samuel: Part II. Shadows in Knowledge: Plato's Misunderstanding of and Shadows, of Knowledge as Shadow-Free. . In: Dialogues in Phenomenology. Eds. Ihde, Don and Zaner, Richard M. Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag, 1975. p. 98.

32. Ibid. p. 100.

33. Ibid. p. 101.

34. Ibid. p. 102.

35. The republic of Plato. (Transl. by F. Macdonald Cornford). Oxford University Press, London, 1941. p.227.

36. Again I would like to refer to note no. 18, where Kierkegaard makes the connection between 'change' and 'fright'.

37. Jung: Aion. p. 9.

38. Todes: Shadows in Knowledge. p. 104.

39. Idem.

40. Ibid. p. 112.

41. Ïbid. p. 113.


Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa
critical methods society - www.criticalmethods.org - info@criticalmethods.org