Notes from the underground
barang dot sg
Updated 2 December 2023
Seeing and being

1. The phenomenon of seeing
2. What on earth is seeing?
3. The diaphanous nature of seeing
4. Seeing as knowing
5. What is knowing?
6. Mind and world
7. The man who sees everything
8. The genesis of the concept of seeing
9. The partiality of perception
10. One-component models of seeing
11. The idealist’s concept of seeing
12. Seeing and being
13. Being as potential seeing
14. Seeing as partial being
15. Loose ends
16. References

4. Seeing as knowing

The neuroscientist David Marr begins his book Vision with the following words:
What does it mean, to see? The plain man’s answer (and Aristotle’s, too) would be, to know what is where by looking.
This is a remarkably concise account of the plain man’s concept of seeing. It says essentially that the phenomenon we call “seeing” is just a case of knowing. To see a tree of a certain shape, size and colour is just to know (by looking) that such a tree stands before you. Could it be as simple as that? —Could “knowing” be all there is to seeing?

Consider these remarks by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid:
An object placed at a proper distance, and in a good light, while the eyes are shut, is not perceived at all; but no sooner do we open our eyes upon it, than we have, as it were by inspiration, a certain knowledge of its existence, of its color, figure, and distance. This is a fact which every one knows. The vulgar are satisfied with knowing the fact, and give themselves no trouble about the cause of it; but a philosopher is impatient to know how this event is produced, to account for it, or assign its cause. (Intellectual Powers, Essay II, Chapter V.)
Reid is clearly talking about seeing here, but notice how naturally he speaks of it simply in terms of knowing. What should we think of the suggestion that seeing is nothing but knowing?

If you pause for a moment and look at what’s around you, it’s easy to feel the force of the idea that seeing is just knowing. As you look around, all that seems to happen is that you come to know how things are around you – nothing more appears to be “going on” than this.
Note. You may already know how things are around you, in which case talk of “coming to know” won’t be accurate. But this issue is minor. We could say that seeing is either knowing or else rehashing what you already know, i.e., to see is to “be told” what the world is like, and nothing more.

In my view, the claim that seeing is knowing is essentially correct and also sensibly attributed to the man on the street. It’s a very reasonable account of the plain man’s concept of seeing, so far as I can see. No doubt, on this view, we’d still need to explain what “knowing” (in turn) is supposed to be – which may prove the more daunting task. But before getting anywhere near this, we should examine the thesis that seeing is just knowing a little more closely. Some philosophers think that this thesis is misguided from the start.

The thesis that seeing is knowing is sometimes more cautiously expressed as the thesis that seeing is believing, or perhaps the “acquiring of belief,” as the Australian philosopher David Armstrong put it:
David Armstrong
It is clear that the biological function of perception is to give the organism information about the current state of its own body and its physical environment, information that will assist the organism in the conduct of life. This is a most important clue to the nature of perception. It leads us to the view that perception is nothing but the acquiring of true or false beliefs concerning the current state of the organism’s body and environment ... Veridical perception is the acquiring of true beliefs, sensory illusion the acquiring of false beliefs. (A Materialist Theory of the Mind, p. 209.)
The point of treating seeing as believing – rather than knowing – is to accommodate cases of visual illusion, where one is deceived by what one “sees.” Thus, an unsuspecting woman who “sees” that a certain dress is black, when in fact the light is unusual and the dress is really blue, will at least believe that the dress is black, even if she cannot be said to know this. Armstrong’s formulation is meant to accommodate a case of this sort.

I mention this more cautious formulation only to set it aside, however, because I propose temporarily to ignore cases of “false vision.” (I explain this decision below.) We can then focus on the main issue before us, which arises even in a paradigm case of seeing, where it is clear that the relevant subject both sees and knows. For instance, looking now to my right, I see (and know) that my cat is curled up on my bed. In a paradigm case like this, the question is whether the seeing is nothing more than the knowing, or whether – as some people think
– it is a separate phenomenon that “underlies” the knowing.

On this latter view, seeing is comparable to (say) reading. One can come to know many things by reading books, newspapers, and so on, but nobody would confuse the act of reading with the attendant consequence of knowing. The reading is not identical with the knowing but is rather the basis for the knowing, or the means by which one comes to know. Some people think that the same is true of seeing – seeing is (often) the basis for our knowing about the world, but it is a distinct phenomenon from the knowing, which is merely attendant upon it.

When I see the cat on the bed, the question is thus whether there are two separable phenomena here – my seeing of the cat on the bed, and my attendant knowing of this fact – or whether the seeing is nothing other than the knowing.

As mentioned, I favour the latter view. Or, at least, I am determined to pursue it in what follows. There are a number of reasons for this, but my initial motivation is just a phenomenological one. When I consider my own experience of seeing, I find myself unable to distinguish the seeing from the knowing. Thus, speaking as a plain man, my seeing a tree before me is just the “appearing” (in full colour) of the tree before me – the tree just “shows itself” to me. But then that is also how I would characterize my knowing
that the tree is before me – the tree just “presents itself” to me; it is “just there.” This judgement of a coincidence is meant to be pre-theoretic but I find it completely striking.

From this point of view, the fact that our language contains the separate words ‘see’ and ‘know’ is slightly misleading. It suggests that there are two separate phenomena here, whereas, from a phenomenological point of view, there is really only one – my “awareness” of the tree before me, or – what is pre-theoretically the same thing – the tree’s “revealing itself” to me. We have yet to uncover the nature of this familiar phenomenon but the present point is that there is just one phenomenon here, and not two. The contrast is marked when I consider my experience of (say) reading – I find no difficulty in distinguishing the act of “reading” from the “knowing” that often accrues in its wake.

Why would we have a separate word ‘see’ in the language if seeing was just knowing? One answer is that ‘see’ indicates that we acquired the knowledge in question by looking, i.e., using our eyes. (As Marr suggests, to see is to know what is where by looking.) A complementary answer is that the kinds of things we tend to know by looking – e.g., the colours of things, or the spatial layout before us to great distances – are very different from the kinds of things we tend to know by touching, listening, or even reading. To report that a man is blind, deaf or illiterate is to report a fair bit about what he is able (or unable) to know and the ease and reliability with which he can know them. So it can be useful to speak of seeing that something is so even if this is just a case of knowing that it is so. (Walking, running and swimming are all forms of locomotion, but it is useful to have these more specific concepts.)

If seeing is just a form of knowing, we should also expect children to acquire the general notion of knowing before they acquire the specific notion of seeing, much as they (presumably) acquire the general notion of locomotion prior to the specific notion of walking. There is some evidence of this, as the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey reports:
Three-year-old children sometimes really do not seem to know by what sensory route they have come by their beliefs about the properties, including the color, of objects in their environment. Put a green squishy ball in a three year-old child’s hand and ask her what color it is, and she will look at it and say green; ask her whether it is hard or soft, and she will squeeze it and say soft. But now put it in a bag and ask her what she would have to do either to find out what its color is or to find out whether it is hard or soft — would she have to put her hand in and feel it or would she have to take a look? — and she will likely say she does not know the answer. (Seeing Red, p. 24.)
These observations make sense if we suppose that a child who sees that a ball is green takes herself essentially to have come to know that it is green, without necessarily realizing that such knowledge was obtained with her eyes, or even thinking of herself as “seeing.” The specific concept of seeing appears to be secondary, in this respect, to the more general concept of knowing.

Overall, I find the view that seeing is just knowing to be pre-theoretically very compelling and I should readily attribute it to the plain man. But let us consider why some people resist the view, or think it misguided from the start.

A major source of resistance is rooted in a certain conception of seeing that – for better or worse – has become very natural for philosophers to endorse. The “bubble of consciousness” and “television screen” models discussed previously were indeed cartoon versions of this conception. Nobody seriously defends these cartoon versions, but many philosophers do conceive of seeing as the occurrence of a “conscious visual experience” in our minds (or brains, or heads), as a result of sensory stimulation of our eyes. As Bertrand Russell explains:
Science holds that, when we “see the sun,” there is a process, starting from the sun, traversing the space between the sun and the eye, changing its character when it reaches the eye, changing its character again in the optic nerve and the brain, and finally producing the event which we call “seeing the sun.” Our knowledge of the sun thus becomes inferential; our direct knowledge is of an event which is, in some sense, “in us.” (The Analysis of Matter, p. 197.)
Jerry Valberg describes it this way:
Imagine I am looking at a man who is looking at a tree. The tree, I assume, is reflecting light to his eyes. It seems natural to conceive of the man’s experience as the result of this process. What do I mean by ‘the man’s experience’? Well, I am not too clear about that, but, whatever it is, it is something occurring in (on the part of) the man. Perhaps I vaguely think of it as occurring in his head. So, over there is the tree, over here is the man, and inside the man’s head, because of what is occurring between the tree and the man, his experience is occurring. (The Puzzle of Experience, p. 139.)
Valberg calls this the “phenomenal conception” of seeing. On this conception, seeing is just the occurrence of this “experience” in the man’s head, where the exact nature of this “experience” is something that proponents of the view are still trying to get clear on. I mentioned previously that a conception of this sort would be quite alien to the plain man – e.g., our ancient Egyptian – but it has been around in skeletal form since at least the early modern period and has even infiltrated popular culture.

One way to understand its appeal is to consider the vexed issue of the “secondary qualities” – colour, in particular, which is uniquely associated with seeing. The early moderns suggested that colour might not exist in the material world as such, but might rather be a product of the mind (or the brain). An early proponent of this view was Galileo:
I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated. (The Assayer, p. 274.)
Similar sentiments may be found in Descartes, Newton, Locke and Hume. This view is held to have strong scientific credentials and may even be found in contemporary psychology texts. The psychologist Stephen Palmer writes:
People universally believe that objects look colored because they are colored, just as we experience them. The sky looks blue because it is blue, grass looks green because it is green, and blood looks red because it is red. As surprising as it may seem, these beliefs are fundamentally mistaken. Neither objects nor lights are actually ‘colored’ in anything like the way we experience them. Rather, color is a psychological property of our visual experiences when we look at objects and lights, not a physical property of those objects or lights. The colors we see are based on physical properties of objects and lights that cause us to see them as colored, to be sure, but these physical properties are different in important ways from the colors we perceive. (Vision Science, p. 95.)
It is not actually clear what it could mean to say that colour “resides only in the consciousness,” or that it is “a psychological property of our visual experiences.” Nevertheless, if you “remove” colours from the material world and consign them to the mind (or brain, or head) in this way, then this gels very naturally with Valberg’s (or Russell’s) phenomenal conception of seeing above. Seeing now becomes something like a “coloured diorama” playing out in our heads as a result of physical stimulation of our retinas by material objects that are not in themselves coloured, except in a derivative way. Anyone who upholds a view of this sort is likely to resist any attempt to assimilate seeing to knowing, and will tend rather – and understandably – to regard seeing as a sui generis mental phenomenon.

So this is one reason why the thesis that seeing is knowing is sometimes resisted. It is felt that there is something more to seeing than just bland knowing, viz., the occurrence of the “visual experience” or the “coloured sensations” in the head. Although this conception of seeing has a rather distinguished pedigree, it has not proved – over the centuries – to be easy to sustain. The main difficulty with it is that nobody really knows how to flesh out the nature of these hypothesized cranial occurrences.
There can’t literally be a coloured diorama playing out in the head, so all talk of “colour sensations” in the head, for example, must be interpreted in some other way – but nobody has offered a persuasive account of this to date. There is nothing relevant in the skull which is coloured red, blue or green, so what are these “colour sensations” in the head supposed to be? It is not often that a serious scientific view runs into a stumbling block like this, but this is one case in which it appears to have happened. (This is the “hard problem of consciousness” rearing its head again.) This has led many others – including myself – to suspect that, scientific credentials notwihtstanding, the phenomenal conception of seeing may simply be barking up the wrong tree.

The case of colour also highlights how far removed the phenomenal conception of seeing is from anything the plain man would recognize as his own. As Palmer rightly notes, ordinary people do not think of colours as “sensations in their heads,” but rather as being “out there” in the world of rocks and trees.
(This accords with the diaphanousness of seeing again.) When an ordinary man sees something red, he does not imagine that “red sensations” are occurring in his head. That is not what he supposes to be going on, whatever else he might think is going on. So the phenomenal conception seriously distorts our everyday concept of seeing. Admittedly, our everyday concept of seeing is not sacrosanct, as Palmer and others would doubtless stress, but ordinary people do have some concept of seeing at their disposal, and I should rather try to figure out what that is, rather than manufacture a different one that bypasses it altogether.

The thesis that seeing is just knowing, on the other hand, accommodates the plain man’s view seamlessly. Where colours are concerned, to see is just to know the colours of the things around us – along with their shapes, sizes and locations, etc. “Colour sensations” in the head need not come into it at all, since the colours involved in seeing are just the colours of the things in our environment.

Photograph 1
Photographs were invented to mimic seeing and it is very natural to compare seeing to looking at a photograph. Unfortunately, this encourages the idea that a two-dimensional “coloured field” is involved in seeing, comparable to the coloured paper of a photograph. One might then be led back to the phenomenal conception of seeing, with its “coloured sensations” in the head.
Photograph 2
But, of course, where a photograph is concerned, the coloured paper is necessary only because we don’t have the actual coloured objects before us. The paper itself is meant to be diaphanous in the obvious way. One “looks through” the photograph and simply gains knowledge of the pictured scene, colours and all. When you look at a photograph, you simply come to know how things are (or were) in a certain slice of reality. The same is all that needs to be true of seeing.

Declining the phenomenal conception of seeing accordingly removes a major source of resistance to the thesis that seeing is just knowing. G. E. Moore himself, while contemplating the diaphanousness of sensing blue, recommended much the same:
A sensation is, in reality, a case of ‘knowing’ or ‘being aware of’ or ‘experiencing’ something. When we know that the sensation of blue exists, the fact we know is that there exists an awareness of blue. And this awareness is not merely, as we have hitherto seen it must be, itself something distinct and unique, utterly different from blue: it also has a perfectly distinct and unique relation to blue, a relation which is not that of thing or substance to content, nor of one part of content to another part of content. This relation is just that which we mean in every case by ‘knowing’. (‘The Refutation of Idealism,’ p. 449.)
To be fair, some philosophers feel that the “coloured field” cannot really be avoided because of cases of visual illusion or hallucination, where things are not as we “see” them to be. For example, if I hallucinate a pink rat when nothing pink is actually present, the pink can only belong to my “coloured visual field,” in the way that a photographic paper may occasionally display false colours. So something like a “coloured visual field” or “coloured sensations in the head” must be present in at least these cases. Likewise, when we “see things” in our dreams, something like a coloured movie must surely be playing out in our heads. Or so it may easily seem. —What should we say about this?

Well, this is the spectre of “false vision” threatening to haunt us again. I proposed above temporarily to set cases of false vision aside and I would like to do the same here. As a matter of philosophical strategy, I think it is best to treat such cases – along with other aberrant ones – only towards the end, having first developed a sound account of paradigm or typical cases of seeing. The aberrant cases are important, but a sound account of the paradigm cases should possess the wherewithal to accommodate them. There is indeed a danger, in contemplating these aberrant cases too early, that one’s account of seeing will be constructed too narrowly “around them.” So I don’t plan to worry about them too much at this stage.

Philosophers have offered other reasons to resist the thesis that seeing is just knowing, but it would take me too far afield to list them here, let alone discuss them. My general feeling about the thesis may be stated quite simply as follows. If we focus on paradigm cases of seeing to start with – as I think we should – then the thesis that seeing is just knowing has a strong phenomenological warrant, as I pointed out above. So it is reasonable to explore the thesis and see where it leads. What light is thrown upon the phenomenon of seeing if we think of it simply as a case of knowing? Here, it obviously depends on what we take the phenomenon of knowing (in turn) to be. This turns out to be the crux of the matter.