The Role of Language – Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden
It seems, in seeing an object, I can construe (translate) that object within many seemingly complete ‘languages’ of perception. Another person seeing the same object may construe a similar number of ‘languages’, none of which need necessarily coincide with mine. If, for instance, we both adopt the same physical object as ‘subject-of-consideration’, in what sense can we say we are adopting the same object? … If each sets out to define that object by (e.g.) ‘content’, then are we in a position to say that what we call ‘content’ is physically existing in the object? If not, then such ‘content’ is merely part of that construal, it is subject to interpretation, and there is no position from which it can be described in any objective way. Accepting then that no ‘content’ exists as a fact, what are we implying when we say we recognize content? It seems to suggest that we are dealing with numerous types, perhaps levels or stratifications, of language which in turn are appropriate for numerous types, again perhaps stratifications, of (empirical) data. If each thing we make or do is merely a statement within a particular language, then it is not necessarily related to nor need correspond to any other language – it can only relate if we have the disposition to impose a relationship between those languages. It is at this point that a ‘content’ is imposed in order to evince that relationship, e.g., we formulate that the ‘content’ of A is of the kind V, and that the ‘content’ of B is also of the kind ‘x’, thus we can talk of a relationship between A and B. It’s not possible to construe one language into another or to correlate them in any way without intervening such a ‘content’. To say that one language is more or less complete than another is again to infer that our familiarity with one language is more in one case than the other. We do not directly identify or recognize, we only recognize the language(s) which are appropriate for the material. In many instances our familiarity with a language is so (culturally) inbred that we confuse the language with a kind of ‘reality’ or brute facts. In seeing, we typically substitute an appropriate language for the actual object in order to facilitate our ‘seeing’ of it – our language screens the object, it’s the grid which structures our perceiving.
In terms of intention, if one is dealing with an object then one is more strongly committed to one’s attitude of seeing (language) in this particular case than to any physical attributes. If one can conceptually distinguish that ‘language’ as a ‘thing-in-itself’, one might very well claim certain rights to it, e.g. to ‘put a signature on it’, rather than to any physical manifestation. The object then can be as ordinary or common or accessible as one chooses . . . since that is not what one is directly committed to – one is not committed to a particular object but only to the fact of an object being there in order that one can have an attitude about it, i.e., a particular language of seeing. One’s commitment then can lie in the direction of the language.
It becomes crucial to realize the significance of the ties between the language we use and what (and how) we see.
It’s been pointed out that there is no common noun which is associated with the verb ‘see’ in the way that, for example, the noun ‘sound’ is associated with the verb ‘hear’. Is there then nothing which acts for vision in the way that sound does when I hear footsteps. … ‘I hear the sound of footsteps’, but ‘I see the (what?) of a man’? While it could be merely an accident of vocabulary, it seems more likely that perception has a different relationship to language than do any of our other senses. And it may be also that, for those things we do see (i.e., objects), our language is rich enough that we have no need of any ‘intermediary’ term to describe what we see (- we can describe more readily what we see than what we hear, touch, smell, or taste). If this is so, then there is something in how we describe what we see which needs to be pointed to as problematic – there is more difficulty in grasping the separation between ‘the seeing of something’ and ‘what it is that’s seen’ than there is, for instance, between ‘the sound’ and ‘the footsteps’. Language seems to enter into our ‘seeing’ more directly than with the other senses. This could be taken as implying a stronger (more developed) interdependence between ‘perception’ and ‘language’ and so must raise many questions about the kind of relationship which exists between how we see and how we talk of what we see.
The words which can be used to describe the kinds of ‘seeing’ are many -from which it might be taken that there are many possible ways which we undertake the act of perceiving, that is, again, independent of what is perceived. For example, ‘see’, ‘look at’, ‘examine’, ‘scrutinize’, ‘gaze’, ‘discern’, ‘scan’, ‘look for’, ‘watch’, and so on. (Compare how many words we have to describe ‘hearing’.)
The distinction between ‘task’ and ‘achievement’ verbs is exemplified by ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’. From this it’s concluded that ‘achievement’ verbs (i.e., ‘see’) stand not for activities but for the outcome of activities, an outcome which is a part of a single extended process. But this distinction can be misleading since ‘looking’ can be used typically as either ‘looking for’ or ‘looking at’. And, while ‘looking for’ certainly does imply some kind of resulting outcome (a successful or otherwise achievement), there are many typical uses of ‘looking at’ which do not imply any such outcome of activities and which seemingly are identical with (or at least similar to) ‘seeing’ ( – e.g., *I am looking at this page’ and ‘I am seeing this page’, whereas ‘I am looking for this page’ obviously means something else).
Suppose the distinction is maintained for the ‘looking for’ kind of ‘looking’ and that this process results in the outcome of ‘seeing (something)’ – I look for (something) and then I see (that something). But frequently I see things without looking for them – is this still an achievement verb then even though it is not the outcome of a preceding activity? If something is within my field of vision, then it hardly occasions my ‘looking for’ it before I see it. I may examine or scrutinize it without necessarily having looked for it in the first place (though I must have come to see it in some way or other). If I have two reproductions of a landscape, then I may see a detail in one and look for it in the other; but seeing it in the second case would seem to depend more on the conditions of seeing in the first case than on any interim ‘looking for’. The ‘single continuous activity’ notion doesn’t seem to account for very much in that case.
Then, if we must limit the applicability of the distinction to this degree, we must begin to doubt how useful it can be as an over-all distinction. A problem arises with all such distinctions when one tries to make them generally applicable. Distinctions are applicable (meaningful) in particular contexts and, within that context, they may have significance (meaningfulness) because they are useful in some sense. But usefulness in one context does not imply usefulness in any other; extending a distinction into another context can be simply misleading without at all being useful.
Thus whatever attitude we have to seeing may depend very much on the kinds of distinctions we typically use in language, and in fact on the way in general that we set out to describe our visual experiences. It may mean that, to establish any new modes or nuances of ‘seeing’, the mode (or such conditions as will allow for it) must first be established in an appropriate language.
Written in 1969.