Photographers of a thoughtful demeanor should 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”? To what extent is seeing different than thinking?
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.
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 visualization 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 or art? 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., nonconceptual) 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?
For Wilfrid Sellars, seeing has a nonpropositional component that provides the phenomenal content that underpins the process of picturing. Seeing a pink ice-cube, say, is different than 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.1
The pinkness of the ice-cube has an immediacy and presence that is different than 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 nonconceptual and therefore not available to scrutiny through thinking (for to do so would be to conceptualize 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…”2
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.”3
Contra Scruton, 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 only 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 Sellars’s credit that he recognized that there is more to seeing than meets the eye and that the ensuing surplus is phenomenal. It is a shame, however, that he did not question the whole idea of mental representation, but that’s another story.
 Castaneda Calderon, Héctor Neri, and Wilfrid Sellars. (1975). Action, Knowledge, and Reality: Critical Studies in Honor of Wilfrid Sellars, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
 Sellars, Wilfrid. 1982. “Sensa or Sensings: Reflections on the Ontology of Perception,” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition: 83.
 Kant, Immanuel. 1790. Critique of Judgement: 36.
Tony Cearns is a photographer and tenkara angler based in Liverpool, England, who is researching the notion of affordance and mood in aesthetics and health. He is not affiliated to or employed by any institution.