Reply to Ruth Anna Putnam

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    Reply to Ruth Anna PutnamAuthor(s): William T. ScottSource: Mind, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 324 (Oct., 1972), pp. 581-583Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Mind AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 28/06/2014 17:01

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    RUTH PUTNAM'S distinction between seeing and observing' leaves open some questions which can be cleared up by considering that the seeing-observing distinction is transitive and leads to a three-level instead of a two-level classification. The point about observing is that the observer is attending to some matters of relation or other significance which go beyond the object itself; at the same time he relies on the sight of the object without attending to it in its primitive character of being simply an object distinguished from its surround- ings. To borrow a pair of terms from Michael Polanyi,2 the observer sees the object subsidiarily while he focuses on its significance as belonging to a class, or as having certain theoretical properties or powers, or whatever.

    The relation between subsidiary and focal seeing or observing is transitive because our attention can shift from the meaning of a thing to the thing itself or vice versa, as when we first see a thing and later recognize it. Thus seeing without observing is of two kinds, focal or seeing2 whereby we see an object as an invariance in our stimulus field,3 and subsidiary or seeing1 which is the seeing of details, elements, or particulars that are not noticed in themselves but are relied on for seeing the object itself. Seeing1 is what is meant by our " not failing to notice ", which Mrs. Putnam uses as her minimum criterion for " seeing ".

    Of course, many things are seen in a peripheral way without being relied on for seeing2 any particular object. Some of these things are used for our general orientation-getting about, knowing this room to be A's study, and so forth-which involves a generalized kind of seeing2. Other things that might on a physicalist view of perception be thought to be seen because they were there to be seen but have no perceptualfunction, might just as well be said not to be seen, for we can have no way of knowing about them, and we do know of our physical blind spots and low resolution on the retinal periphery that can prevent some visible things from being seen in any sense.

    It is tempting at this point to suggest that observing is seeing3. However, the functional relation of attendingfrom a subsidiary kind of seeing to a focal kind is capable of elaboration so that many sorts of observing are possible. Two kinds are mentioned by Mrs. Putnam: attending to the class to which an object belongs, and attending to the nature of the object, such as its power to affect something else or its character of being in motion or at rest. I shall call them observing, and observing2, a distinction which roughly, but only roughly, corresponds to the distinction between observing in the

    1 MrND, lxxviii (October, 1969), 493-500. 2 Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago and

    London, 1958. 3 J. J. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, George Allen

    and Unwin, London, 1968.


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  • 582 W. T. SCOTT:

    rapid and uncontrollable way in which we recognize an object as belonging to a familiar class as soon as we look to see what it is, and observing in the stepwise reflective way which we often use to call to mind the nature of the object that theory predicts.

    A reason for not saying that observiilg1 is essentially seeing3 is that seeing2 has at least sometimes some of the character of observ- ing, in spite of Mrs. Putnam's sharp distinction. The very act of seeing2 an ordinary object like a block or a table involves seeing the object as invariant with respect to our own moving about. Seeing2 thus involves seeing that something is in the class of distinct objects, a kind of " seeing-that " performed by all sighted human beings from their first few months of life. The seeing2 of a pattern, as of a figure made of mosaic stones, is a step further towards observing, in that we can distinguish between seeing2 the stones without seeing the pattern (as when we are close to the mosaic) and seeing2 the pattern while only seeing, the stones (as when we are far away). In intermediate cases, something like an act of observing is needed to see the pattern, and there is no rule to tell us beforehand just when viewing is near, intermediate, or far. Nevertheless, observing1 is generally distinct enough from seeing2 to make the terminology meaningful.

    Seeing2 a pattern has been studied extensively by Gestalt psycholo- gists, who demonstrated a fact about seeing of considerable importance to the question of what is seen by different observers. That fact is that the particulars or parts of a pattern look different when seeil as belonging to the pattern and when seen as entities themselves. The character of things seen, is governed by what is seen2.

    When a physicist looks at an X-ray tube and recognizes it as such, he sees, certain important particulars that relate to the meaning that " X-ray tube " has for him.-e.g. an arrangement for producing a beam of electrons and allowing them to strike a heavy-metal target-as pointing to the tube as an X-ray tube. These parti- culars are seen differently by him and, for instance, by his son who sees a glass bulb of interesting shape with some uninteresting hardware inside. Different things stand out for each viewer. If the son learns the name " X-ray tube " for this object, he learns to observe1 it to be a narrow class-perhaps even a class of one member only. As the boy grows in knowledge of successively wider classes of objects to which the name " X-ray tube " can correctly be applied, the way in which the details are seen1 by him in enabling him to see2 the tube and to observel its classification will change.

    If Mrs. Putnam or anyone is to assert " he saw the X-ray tube ", the asserter must have in mind a classification whereby the object is an X-ray tube and must also have in mind the kind of classifica- tion which he thinks the viewer has learned. Then and only then can the asserter speak meaningfully of what has been seen2. A similar pair of beliefs is needed for talking about what, for instance, Tycho and Kepler see2, observe1, and observe2 in looking at the sun.

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    Viewing the sUni is a poor example for both Putnam's and Hanson's' theories. The sun is too featureless and too familiar to illustrate the operation of focal and subsidiary seeing in the process of recog- nition. The problem of beliefs about the motion of the sun is further complicated by the fact that a modern astronomer will say that although the sun is stationaryinan (essentially) inertial frame of reference, it may be taken as moving in a number of useful ob- servational frames of reference, such as the approximately geocentric one used in the modern theory of the moon's motion.2

    With respect to the X-ray tube, which is a better example, we can say of Hanson's thesis I, that there can be a difference between the ways two observers seel the parts of the tube and a smaller difference between how they see2 the tube, but a substantial diff- erence between their observations, of whatever type. Hanson's thesis II, that terms have different meaning for different observers, is justified to the extent that the class to which one or another person sees the X-ray tube as belonging governs how the parts look, how the whole appears, and thus what its name means. But Hanson's remarks on what will happen if the tube is operated, like his remarks on the sun's motion, are rightly characterized by Mrs. Putnam as matters of observing, not of seeing.

    University of Nevada WILLIAM T. SCOTT 1 N. R. Hanson, Pattern8 of Discovery, Cambridge, 1958. 2 E. W. Brown, Introductory Treatise on the Lunar Theory, Cambridge, 1896.

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    Article Contentsp. 581p. 582p. 583

    Issue Table of ContentsMind, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 324 (Oct., 1972), pp. 481-640+1-39Front MatterLogical Possibility [pp. 481 - 494]Definitions and `Clusters' [pp. 495 - 503]How to Tell Your Friends From Machines [pp. 504 - 518]Religious Belief and Philosophical Analysis [pp. 519 - 532]Psychology and the Philosophy of Science [pp. 533 - 542]On Thinking [pp. 543 - 552]The Intelligibility of Wants [pp. 553 - 561]DiscussionsThe Connection Argument [pp. 562 - 566]Whether the Theory of Family Resemblances Solves the Problem of Universals [pp. 567 - 570]Urmson on Evaluation from a Point of View [pp. 571 - 575]Vagueness and Colour Predicates [pp. 576 - 577]Austinian Ifs [pp. 578 - 580]Reply to Ruth Anna Putnam [pp. 581 - 583]A Doubt About the Normative Theory of Belief [pp. 584 - 586]A Solution to an Ethical Paradox [pp. 587 - 589]Description and Evaluation [pp. 590 - 594]Hedman on Explanation [pp. 595 - 596]On a New Escape from Logical Determinism [pp. 597 - 599]A Note on Hampshire's Analogy [p. 600]

    Critical Notice [pp. 601 - 617]New Books [pp. 618 - 639]Notes [p. 640]Back Matter [pp. 1 - 39]


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