The Forward Frontier


Published: 31/01/2021 ⋅ By: Mr. Frontier ⋅ Tags: misc

To Paint a White Square

Imagine a white square painted on a white canvas. The square obviously cannot be seen as it blends into its background. People attempt to look at the painting side on, trying to see a ridge of paint. However, a special thin coating of paint was used that wouldn’t add layers to the canvas, so no rise or bumps could be detected. The square cannot be known to the paintings observers.

Even the painter himself struggles to identify where his square is. He is to only have a memory of the rough location as to where he painted on the canvas. His memory does not mean he now knows where the square is. Suppose that someone comes into the gallery at night, steals the painting and replaces it with an entirely blank white canvas. The next morning when the painter comes in to look at his art, would he notice that his painting has been stolen? Of course not. To the naked eye there is no way of distinguishing the painting of a white square from a blank canvas. The square on the painting might as well not exist.

The painter points at the now blank canvas claiming, ‘there’s a white square painted about here’, but of course he is not pointing at the square because there is no square to point to. He is in fact pointing to his memory of where he painted, and not the square itself.


It is only until the square is outlined in black can it be seen. The contrast between the white and the black line is what makes the square detectable. If the robber where to steal the painting now and replace it with a blank canvas, the painter will know immediately. A blank canvas is easily distinguishable from a canvas with a black outlined square.

It is through contrast that we are capable of differentiating things from other things. Contrast being: two things being seen as different through juxtaposition, i.e., identifying how two things are dissimilar from each other.

I would argue that things can only be known through contrast. Imagine the painting once more, one could argue that they could detect the square by looking for chemical difference in the canvas. By using some instrument, they could detect the titanium-zinc white used for pigment in the paint. This indeed would tell them where the square is. However, it is only through this process of comparing/juxtaposing the chemical compositions of the canvas from the paint can the square be known. In fact, all possible methods for attempting to detect the square would involve having to look for differences, identifying how the paint is dissimilar from the canvas. If you don’t believe so, I ask of you to think of a method to identify the square, that does not involve discerning a difference. For I say it cannot be done.

The square is only known through its differences from the canvas. The same as how the cup in front of me is only known by how it is different from my keyboard or from anything else on my desk. The cup is glass whilst the keyboard is plastic, the cup is cylinder shaped while my keyboard is rectangular, the glass is transparent whilst the keyboard is black and opaque, etc. One could try to identify the keyboard and glass through their similarities, but this would be nonsensical. To say that they are both made of matter is to only identify the existence of matter (from I guess non-matter), and does not identify keyboard or cup. Without dissimilar defining qualities, there are no things.

The World a Smudge

It is through contrast that we know the world. The more distinctly different two things are, the more we are to understand there differences and hence have a better understanding of the things themselves. The more closely related things are, the harder it is to distinguish them and hence the less we know about them.

The world, a white canvas with black lines scribbled all upon it, overlapping and diverging. Some hard and distinct, others blurred and smudged, and others still barely visible. It is important to me as to how we make sense of this smudgy painting.