Photographers of a thoughtful demeanour probably take a keen interest in what we mean by ‘seeing’. Are there different types of seeing? Does each visual art have a particular mode of seeing? Is there a difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’?
The English philosopher Roger Scruton attempted to answer these questions in one of the foundational texts in philosophical aesthetics – ‘Photography and Representation’ (Critical Inquiry 7:3; Spring 1981). Scruton argued that photographs cannot be artworks because, unlike paintings, they cannot ‘represent’, that is they cannot ‘sensuously embody … idea(s)’ in ways that give rise to aesthetic satisfaction. Put more simply, Scruton argued that a painter could inflect within a painting references to further thoughts, as for example one might see into Hopper’s painting, ‘Nighthawks’, thoughts about loneliness and alienation. Scruton called this type of seeing, ‘Seeing as’.
Figure 1. Nighthawks, 1942 by Edward Hopper; © The Art Institute of Chicago
A photograph however, Scruton continues, is tied to the visual scene it depicts. It cannot depict it in any other way than that state of affairs presented to the lens. The photographer can only ‘capture’ the objects within a frame as they appear but cannot inflect into the photograph references to further thoughts without departing from the photographic process and using non photographic (‘painterly’) techniques, such as burning, dodging, altering contrast and so on. In short, photographs cannot be ‘fictive’.
An obvious way to counter Scruton would be to argue that his conception of the photographic process is too narrow to encapsulate what photographers actually do. Defining the photographic process solely in terms of the photo-chemical or electronic process instigated by a shutter-release leaves out those bits of photography that give expression to a photographer’s visualisation of a scene. Many philosophers have used variants of this type of argument. Some however have argued that it is this very narrow process that makes photography so distinctive from other artistic enterprises. The causal link between photographs and the scenes that they depict gives photography its characteristic charm.
But is there not something more fundamental at stake here than mere quibbling about what we mean by photography? Scruton cleaves a sharp divide between ‘Seeing as’ and merely ‘Seeing’. This sharp distinction puts him in an untenable philosophical position: that ‘seeing’ is inert, incapable of sequestering thoughts by virtue of what is being seen.
But what if ‘Seeing as’ and ‘Seeing’ were but two parts of the same process, say ‘Picturing’, to give it a different name with a wider connotation? In that case, ‘Seeing’ would not be inert; it would simply be the start of a process called Picturing. Its phenomenal (i.e. non-conceptual) aspects would guide the mode of understanding by which we judge things to visually be what they are: objects, say. Picturing would involve a ‘Seeing’ with bare recognition and as we look more closely, the phenomenal content would provide further structures for conceptual shapings by which perceptions come into a process of thought. For Scruton ‘Seeing’ is causal, that is, merely mechanical. But is it so unreasonable to suppose that ‘Seeing is more than this and indeed not exhausted by conceptual understanding but rather invoking a surplus of sense beyond this, as argued Sellars.
Sellars argued that‘Seeing’ has a non-propositional component, which provides the phenomenal content that underpins the process of ‘picturing’. Seeing a pink ice-cube, say, is different to thinking a pink ice-cube. In the words of Sellars:
‘…there is all the difference in the world between seeing something to be a pink ice-cube and merely thinking something to be a pink ice-cube … over and above its propositional character … [perceptual] thinking has an additional character by virtue of which it is a seeing as contrasted with a mere thinking’ (Castaneda Calderon, Héctor Neri, and Wilfrid Sellars. (1975). ‘Action, knowledge and reality: critical studies in honour of Wilfrid Sellars’, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill).
The pinkness of the ice-cube has an immediacy and presence that is different from the way it is in thought. If we subtract from ‘seeing pinkness’ the thought of pinkness, we are left with a remainder that is the phenomenal content of seeing. The conceptual apprehension of ‘pinkness’ underdetermines what it is. This phenomenal content is non-conceptual and therefore not available to scrutiny through thinking (for to do so would be to conceptualise it). We can only intuit it as the result of transcendentally framing an inquiry into the conditions that must pertain for us to have this immediate experience of pinkness that fades when we leave its presence for its half-life is measured in seconds.
The distinction between ‘Seeing as’ and ‘Seeing’ finally comes into focus. The contents present in ‘Seeing as’ and ‘Seeing’ are well accounted for as conceptual content. Seeing the cube as ice is very like seeing it while believing in its iciness. In this regard, seeing is like thinking. Some of the visual content in seeing is present in the mode of being thought. However, there is also an essential difference since not everything in a visual experience is present in this way: ‘We see no only that the cube is pink, and see it as pink, we see the very pinkness of the object…’ (Sellars 1982, p.89).
The mode of understanding that arises from ‘Seeing’ is partly articulated through bodily dispositions that stem from navigating a picture through its perceptual forms. As Kant recognised, what is apprehended when we picture something is not just a perceptual shape, but a purposiveness ‘… (the) transcendental principle which represents a purposiveness in nature … in the form of a thing’.
A photograph therefore can be seen in terms of an expression of a thought. If we make dubious distinctions between types of seeing, one for painting and one for photography, we get into a muddle. If we look more deeply into this muddle, we see that it comes from a curious habit that many philosophers have of limiting our understanding of things to cognitive understanding, that is, an understanding that involves propositional content. It seems to me that to restrict aesthetic pleasure only to cognitive understanding is to miss the essence of what a pleasurable thing is. It is to Sellar’s credit that he recognised that there is more to seeing than meets the eye and that the ensuing surplus is phenomenal. It is a shame that he did not question the whole idea of mental representation, but that’s another story.
If you would like to read a fuller treatment of this idea then you can find it here.