Look, See

February 14, 2023

Henry Thoreau

“Wisdom does not inspect, but behold,” Thoreau wrote. “We must look a long time before we can see.” He was speaking of scientific observation, but he might as well have been writing about what artists and poets do.  We are all looking for things, but how many of us really see?  To begin with, seeing requires us to unlearn all those shortcuts that enable us to swiftly find what we are looking for without really noticing anything else.  There are obvious evolutionary advantages to being able to quickly spot predators or prey without being distracted by the view.  But this is not the same thing as seeing what you are not looking for, which is another name for discovery. 

Two years after his sojourn at Walden Pond, Thoreau embarked on a new daily regime that involved long walks around Concord to observe and record the natural world.  In the evenings, his notes were carefully transferred to his journal, which by the time of his early death from tuberculosis at age 44 already amounted to some two million words.  Thoreau was a younger contemporary of Charles Darwin and avidly read his works.  Like Darwin he was always careful to ground his conclusions in a close observation of nature.  He wrote, “The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience. We do not learn by inference and deduction, and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy.”

One must truly see in order to learn, but one must also learn to see, as Thoreau well knew. “For the newly sighted,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.”  She was speaking of those who had gained their sight following advances in cataract surgery in the 19th century, but the same applies to newborns for whom the world is still a crazy-quilt of raw color and motion.  They must learn the ins and outs of this world, quite literally: its heights and depths, foreground from background, object from surroundings.  Eventually names are put to the things they see.  

For scientific observers, the process undergoes continual refinement as they learn the ins and outs of the world they see in a microscope or cloud chamber. “Direct perception of form requires being experienced in the relevant field of thought,” stated the Polish bacteriologist and philosopher Ludwik Fleck. “The ability directly to perceive meaning, form, and self‐contained unity is acquired only after much experience, perhaps with preliminary training.”

Fleck added, “At the same time, of course, we lose the ability to see something that contradicts the form.”  In effect, the process of learning to see blinds us to things that don’t conform to our habits of seeing.  Thomas Kuhn used the word “paradigm” as a term of art to describe a particular way of seeing the world in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  A paradigm is the conceptual framework around which scientific observations are organized, and observations that fall outside that framework are apt to be ignored.  Scientists are supposed to base their theories on the careful observation of natural phenomena, but Kuhn noted they are as prone to fit facts to theory as anyone else.  They tend to reexamine their theories only when the weight of accumulated anomalies forces them to do so.

Photographers and other visual artists must also go against habits of seeing in order to do their work properly.  To see the world afresh, they must forget everything they think they know about it.  For the artist, learning to see is at once unlearning all they have seen, stripping away all the words and concepts, until nothing remains but pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.  It is the world as a newborn might find it, all color, shape, texture, light and shadow.  Realistically, one can sustain such a vision only momentarily.  For a photographer, that is precisely the moment when you snap the picture.


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