Needless to say, the metaphor of peeping through a window doesn’t go very far because the “peeping” is precisely what we are trying to get clear on. But we are merely using it to emphasize the diaphanous nature of seeing.
For people who naively look around, their own eyes appear to be a kind of window. As soon as the curtains, the eyelids, are opened there “is” a visible world of things and of other beings out there. Nothing could arouse the suspicion that any of its recognizable properties might originate in the observer or could be codetermined by the observer’s nature – except perhaps for the effects of greater or lesser transparency of the “window panes.” (The Laws of Seeing, Introduction.)We were trying to uncover our everyday concept of seeing – trying to discern the “place” of seeing in the natural world of rocks, trees, and human bodies that we know we inhabit. The phenomenon must obviously have a place, since it is an entirely natural phenomenon, and yet we were hard pressed to locate that place – to ascertain the “logical geography” of the concept of seeing.
It is not always clear what such denials amount to, but we certainly cannot deny that we see the world around us. We are therefore entitled to ask what we take this to mean. It is not an option to deny that we ever see things, or to claim that there is no such concept as that of seeing. That would obviously be wrong.Recent work in perceptual psychology [questions] whether we really enjoy the sort of richly detailed, snapshot-like visual experiences we think we do. If we do not enjoy such experiences, then we are not faced with the problem of how the brain gives rise to them. (‘Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion?,’ p. 2.)
Epistemologists have sometimes confessed to finding the supposed cognitive activities of seeing, hearing and inferring oddly elusive. If I descry a hawk, I find the hawk but I do not find my seeing of the hawk. My seeing of the hawk seems to be a queerly transparent sort of process, transparent in that while a hawk is detected, nothing else is detected answering to the verb in ‘see a hawk.’ But the mystery dissolves when we realise that ‘see’, ‘descry’ and ‘find’ are not process words, experience words or activity words. They do not stand for perplexingly undetectable actions or reactions, any more than ‘win’ stands for a perplexingly undetectable bit of running, or ‘unlock’ for an unreported bit of keyturning. (The Concept of Mind, pp. 145–6.)Ryle’s main target here was the Cartesian conception of seeing as a “ghostly process” in a material body, but his remarks have a considerably broader reach. Many philosophers nowadays think of seeing as a “neural process” that occurs in our skulls as the result of retinal stimulation. I have already explained why such a concept cannot reasonably be attributed to the ordinary man and Ryle would have agreed:
People knew how to talk about seeing, hearing and feeling things, before they had mastered any physiological or psychological hypotheses, or heard of any theoretical difficulties about the communications between Minds and their Bodies ...But if our everyday concept of seeing is not that of a “process” of any ordinary sort – ghostly or otherwise – our original question remains: what then does it come down to? What is the plain man’s concept of seeing?We could, and should do well to discuss with Plato the notion of perception; if we did so, we should never have occasion to complain that he had not yet graduated to the use of the concepts of seeing, hearing and feeling, since he had not yet been told latter-day theories about sensory stimuli. (Ibid., pp. 192, 230.)