Seeing Language & Literacy as Patterned and Meaningful

Introduction  I  Connection to Wittgenstein  I  Basics  I  Social  I  Personal  I  Patterns  I  Teaching  I  Attention  I  Active  I  Embodied  I  References  I  Comments


This section bases its discussion on Seeing Red: A study in consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey. Humphrey - like Wittgenstein - asks his audience to take a fresh look at the whole concept of ‘seeing’. In particular, both thinkers want their audiences to question how one comes to see something as something, such as how squiggles on a page can be interpreted as language. They both also urge us to wonder why is it that people can notice quite different things even if they are looking at (seeing) the same exact phenomenon. In relation to language & literacy, we can use these ideas to prompt our readers to marvel at how speakers and readers can find meaning almost effortlessly in stimulus that would appear senseless to someone not familiar with a particular language or who is illiterate in that particular language.

  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein teasingly remarked, “We find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough. (PI, 212) ” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 35)
  • Vygotsky has to say about why it is not at first easy for a child to learn to write. For: 'Even its minimal development requires a high level of abstraction. It is speech in thought and image only, lacking the musical, expressive, intonational qualities of oral speech. In learning to write, the child must disengage himself from the sensory aspect of speech and replace words by images [or forms] of words' (Vygostsky, 1986 p.181, as quoted by Shotter, 1996).
  • “‘Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting ‘More juice’ or commenting ‘Doggie gone’ ... From an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these utterances at all. That is,  whereas the individuals of all non-human species can communicate effectively with all of their conspecifics, human being can communicate effectively only with other persons who have grown up in their same linguistic community.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 1)
  • “All human behaviours are based on multiple cognitive processes, which are based on the rapid integration of information from very specific neurological structures, which rely on billions of neurons capable of trillions of possible connections ... In order to work together to perform our most basic human functions, neurons need instructions ... to form efficient circuits and pathways among the neurological structure.” (Wolf, 2008, p 10)

Back to Top ...

Connection to Wittgenstein:

PG 119: This shape I see is not simple a shape, but is one of the shapes I know. -- But it is not as if I were comparing the object with a picture set beside it, but as if the object coincided with the picture I see only one thing, not two.

Z 209: This shape that I see - I want to say - is not simply a shape; it is one of the shapes I know; it is marked out in advance. It is one of those shapes of which I already had a pattern in me; and only because it corresponds to such a pattern is it this familiar shape. (I as it were carry a catalogue of such shapes around with me, and the objects portrayed in it are the familiar ones.)

PG 127: Can I look at a printed English word and see it as if I hadn’t learnt to read?

PG (pg 39): Does it make sense to point to a clump of trees and ask ‘do you understand what this clump of trees says?’ In normal circumstances, no; but couldn’t one express a sense by an arrangement of trees? Couldn’t it be a code? One would call ‘propositions’ clumps of trees one understood; other, too, that one didn’t understand, provided one supposed the man who planted them had understood them.”

Z 201: For someone who has no knowledge of such things a diagram representing the inside of a radio receiver will be a jumble of meaningless lines. But if he is acquainted with the apparatus and its function, that drawing will be a significant picture for him.

Given some solid figure (say in a picture) that means nothing to me at present - can I at will imagine it as meaningful? That’s as if I were asked: Can I imagine an object of any old shape as an appliance? But to be applied to what? 

One class of corporeal shapes might readily be imagine as dwellings for beasts or mean. Another class as weapons. Another as models of landscapes. Etc. Etc. So here I know how I can ascribe meaning to a meaningless shape.

 Back to Top ...

The basics

(Nicholas Humphrey uses the figure of someone seeing red as a catalyst to discuss how an individual in fact consciously sees and interprets that which is seen)

“Phenomenologists, following Husserl, sometimes use the term epoche, to mean an attitude where the subject tries to cast aside all ordinary knowledge and preconceptions so as to focus only what is.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 9)

“What we all agree to call ‘red light’: light with a wavelength around 760 nm, similar to the light that gets reflected from a red object such as ripe tomato ... This, we can say, is an objective fact ... It is also an impersonal fact.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 10)

“S is doing whatever it amounts to for a person to ‘see red’ -- doing it, presumably, somewhere in the brain ... What is happening in S’s brain is presumably similar to what happens in the brain of any other person who sees red, and its particular signature should be detectable in a high resolution brain scan ... However, this fact about S is a personal fact.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 10 - 11)

“Far more important is that this fact belongs, among all the facts of the world, to a very special class: namely the class of objective facts that are also subjective facts ... S is indeed the subject of the experience of seeing red ... Being the subject of a visual experience is a complex, layered phenomenon, whose components are not easy to sort out.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 12)

“For one thing, a failure to see a likeness ... does not imply that a subject’s sight is defective or that there is anything wrong with his eyes.” (McGinn, 2004, pg. 189)

“There is propositional component to his experience and there is phenomenal component ... Propositional component represents how things are ... about what is the case ... impersonal facts of the world out there ... In this role as the subject of experience, S is an observer and critic of existing facts ... 

But seeing also has a phenomenal component ... S brings into being a state of phenomenal consciousness. In particular, S creates visual sensations with a striking qualitative feel to them ... The active author of something quite new ... these new facts, these sentences ... are him.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 12 - 13)

“[In the phenomenal component], he generates that particular state of consciousness he will call having a red sensation. This sensation is clearly something he creates ... And, to bring this out, let’s give a special active name to what S is doing here: redding. (Humphrey, 2006, pg 14 - 15)

“What Wittgenstein wants us to see is that there is an indefinite number of descriptions of what is seen - think, e.g., of how the movements of someone’s gaze might be represented on film, or the way in which one might represent the fact that a particular object is one’s principal focus of interest, or that an unidentified object has just moved swiftly across one’s visual field.” (McGinn, 2004, pg 202) 

“Here S is, actively interested in seeing. And now the phenomenal components to his experience are kicking in: ideas - beliefs, opinions, feelings - about what’s the case. S is the subject of these ideas. But his role now is more that of a reporter than an author.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 17)

“S gets to experience himself as an experiencer ... The same time as S makes sensation, he may feel that sensation makes him.

  • S gets to have a red sensation;
  • S gets to feel he is having this red sensation,
  • S gets to perceive the screen is red
  • S gets to experience his Self” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 26 - 27)

“What Wittgenstein wants us to see is that we can only begin to understand this second use of the word ‘see’ ... if we stop thinking about the concept of perception in terms of something that is given or that is caused to occur in us by objective features of the material world, and connect it with the subject’s way of responding to what he sees.” (McGinn, 2004, pg. 194)

“It should not be surprising, therefore, that when he explicitly addresses the case of seeing aspects, he starts talking about the imagination. Wittgenstein tells us, for instance, that noticing an aspect is ‘related to forming an image’ (LW, I, 733).” (Krebs, 2010, pg 128)  

 Back to Top ...

Acquired Socially

“S, in the lecture theater, is looking at the screen in the presence of other people. And this social context introduces a whole new set of issues ... S is - he cannot but be - interested in what is going through your mind ... it takes in his experience of your looking at the screen.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 27)

“Using linguistic symbols in utterances is a social act, and when this act is internalised in Vygotskian fashion the product is a unique kind of cognitive representation that is ... intersubjective (involving both self and other). (Tomasello, 2003, pg 28)

From Tomasello (2003) ... Structure of a linguistic symbol. Each person can use it to intend (thick lines) that the partner follow her attention (thin lines) to some external entity, that is, to share attention to it.

“In developing this redescription, which includes attention to the roles of agency and interaction with other persons, Wittgenstein places the idea of a person as an agent among agents - with all the anxieties, wishes, fears, desires, moods, and possibilities of felt satisfaction that come with coming to be an explicit participant in conceptual practice - at the centre of thinking about discursive consciousness.” (Eldridge, 2010, pg 179)

“Wittgenstein notes that there are two kinds of seeing in question here: what one might call seeing as mere visual awareness, and ‘discursive’ seeing or seeing informed by conceptualisation, wherein a noticed aspect can be reported.” (Eldridge, 2010, pg 173) 

 Back to Top ...

With Personal idiosyncrasies

“Given everybody’s lack of propositional access to some of the essential qualities of the experience, there could be differences between people that do not show up in anything at a behavioral level.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 32)

“There has to be wiggle-room, even if not much, for totally private idiosyncrasy.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 32)

“A single face can therefore not only mean (intellectually) different things to different people, but actually be perceived differently by each.” (Krebs, 2010, pg 130)

Children with a rich repertoire of words and their associations will experience any text or any conversation in ways that are substantively different from children who do not have the same stored words and concepts.” (Wolf, 2008, p 9)

Back to Top ... 

Developing Pattern Perception

“Pattern perception ... is sensitive to perceivers’ locations, both as a matter of what can be seen and what is occluded, and as a matter of how what is seen is interpreted.” (Scheman, 1996, pg 395)

“From another view of cognitive development, a child’s first effort at naming letters is not much more than “paired-associate” learning: that is, it has all the conceptual glamour of a pigeon learning to pair some objects with a label to get a pellet. Quickly enough, however, far more cognitively elegant learning of letters emerges, something akin to Susan Carey’s notion of ‘bootstrapping’ in learning of numbers. For example, for many children counting to ten and the “alphabet song” provide a conceptual “placeholder” list. Gradually, each number and letter name in the list will be mapped onto its grapheme (written) form, accompanied by a growing understanding of what the letter or number does.” (Wolf, 2008, p 92)

“A list is one way to represent information, but a principle from which each member of the list can be deduced and from which new members of the list can be generated is more powerful for many purposes. For example, a list of English words ending in “-ness” (e.g., “goodness,” “happiness,” “sadness”) is less efficient, for many purposes, than a general- ization like: “adjective + ness = an abstract noun” coupled with a “blocking principle” in terms of which the generalization does not apply if a non-ness word already exists for the same meaning. Thus, there is no “tallness” because “height” already exists.” (Gee, 2008, pg 78)

The patterns and connections already there in the practice cannot be apprehended prior to one’s beginning to gain a mastery of it.” (Minar, 2010, pg 199)

 Back to Top ...

Acquired through tacit teaching

“But if sensation are a kind of action, then the possibility arises that there may be ‘sensory mirror neurons’, in other words neurons that link the observations of someone else having a sensation to the execution of a similar sensation oneself.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 106)

“We get a grasp of the grammar of our language through such simple things as learning to direct our attention, practising the voicing of sounds so uttering them becomes easy, establishing associations between words and objects, memory training, learning to use our fingers and to coordinate finger and eye movements, etc.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 107)

“In training someone to play a language-game: ‘I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way or hold him back; and so on’ (PI, 208).The training involves gestures, smiles, grunts, frowns, the raising and lowering of the teachers voice and so on (OC, 208). The most general features of the world have conditioned the range of language-games which it is physically possible for people like ourselves to play.” (Phillips, 1979, pg 130)

Teaching across all discipline entail some tacit teaching, because all of these activities involve real-time problem solving adaptation, balancing conflicting demands, flexibility and guesswork.” -- (Burbles, 2010, pg 212)

Vygotsky's (1978). It goes as follows:  'Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people..., and then inside people... All higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals' (p.57)

Back to Top

Processing and attention : extending perception

“The ‘physical present’, strictly speaking, is a mathematical abstraction of infinitely short of duration, and nothing happens in it. By contrast the ‘subjective present’ is arguably the carrier and container of our conscious life, and everything that ever happens to us happens in it. (Humphrey, 2006, pg 113)

“The key to the special quality of consciousness lies with ‘re-entrant circuits’ in the brain, neural activity that loops back on itself, so as to create some kind of self-resonance.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 121)

“The substantiality that goes with existing in thick time ... A Self that has this at its center will be a self to be reckoned with ... so that it can become the organising principle for each individual’s mental life.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 125)

“Psychological research has demonstrated that learning can come from agents attending to phenomena and consciously rehearsing them.” (Broadbent, 1975, cited in Bracewell & Witte, 2008) “... in rehearsal, the agent attends repeatedly to the same encoding thereby creating easier access on subsequent occurrences of the same perceptual stimuli.” (Bracewell & Witte, 2008, pg 303)

“What these patterns of employment reveal is a concept that is internally linked with doing.” (McGinn, 2004, pg 203)

“A useful method for helping novice readers with phoneme awareness and blending involves ‘phonological recording.’ This may seem to be just a pretentious term for reading aloud, but ‘reading aloud’ would be too simple a term for what is really a two-part dynamic process. Reading aloud underscores for children the relationship between their oral language and their written one. It provides novice readers with their own form of self teaching.” (Wolf, pp 118)

“Reading out loud also exposes for the teacher and any listener the strategies and common errors typical for a particular child.” (Wolf, pp 119)

“To accomplish [reading] without forgetting what you already read fifty words back, your semantic and grammatical systems [have] to function closely with your working memory.” (Wolf, 2008, p 9)

Perceiver as active agent

“What sensation does is to track the subject’s personal interaction with the external world - creating the sense each person has of being present and engaged, lending a hereness, a nowness, a me-ness to the experience of the present moment.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 70)

“What Wittgenstein calls the ‘organisation’ that I bring to the seeing of an object as such-and-such is not any framework or pattern ‘inside’ my brain. It is, rather, an organisation or arrangement that I see in or among the things that I see discursively. When I am able to achieve such an organisation or arrangement of the objects of my experience, then I have a power to respond to things that I have previously lacked.” (Eldridge, 2010, pg 175)

  • The subject does know that he can do it.
  • The subject does know how he does it.
  • The subject can imagine doing it.
  • The subject is able to use his own experience as a basis of contributing the condition of seeing to someone else.
  • The subject does care. (Humphrey, 2006, pg 66 - 67)

“In this way, the case of seeing-as works against our inclination to think of perception in terms of the influence of objects on a receptive faculty, and draws our attention to the role of an active, responding subject in determining the nature of visual experience, or in fixing what is seen.” (McGinn, 2004, pg. 195)

“By putting sensation within the sphere of agency, on the production side of the mind rather than the reception side, what we get from our model of sensation is the possibility of the significant degree of central control of what it’s like.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 101)

Agency requires the ability to evaluate actual and possible behavior, deliberate about how to behave, make decisions, and form of intentions.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 118)

Z 673: Attention is dynamic, not static -- one would like to say. I begin by comparing attention to gazing but that is not what I call attention; and now I want to say that I find it is impossible that one should attend statically. 

“All reading begins with attention -- in fact, several kinds of attention. When expert readers look at a word (like ‘bear’), the first three cognitive operations are: (1) to disengage from whatever one else is doing; (2) to move our attention to the new focus (pulling ourselves to the text); and (3) to spotlight the new letter and word.” (Wolf, pp 145) 

Z 674: If in a particular case I say: attention consists in preparedness to follow each smallest movement that may appear -- that is enough to shew you that attention is not a fixed gaze: no, this is a concept of a different kind.

“We grow to become inured to aspects of the world, and so likewise grow to overlook the extent to which our ‘being in the world’ is internally related to our seeing, and desiring aspects.” (Day, 2010, pg 206)

“This remark suggests that the appearance of fancy (invention) within game-playing in the life of a child is akin to seeing aspects.” (Eldridge, 2010, pg 172)

“Then the suggestion is not too far of that it is by exercising fancy (inventiveness, imagination) within the context of game-playing that children come to learn language at all (by catching on to the aspects of things that are ‘embodied’ in words.)” (Eldridge, 2010, pg 172)

“Now, the experience Wittgenstein imagines with the rabbit is also compared to that we have typically with pictures, when (as we say) they suddenly ‘become alive’ to us, the experience he characterises as ‘seeing aspects.’ But what is at stake in these examples - the surprise, the emotion, the seeing of aspects - is a difference in what we may call the degree of bodily engagement behind our utterance of perception, engagement that reaches its highest intensity in the original immediacy of the exclamation and its lowest in the silence of habit or indifference.” (Krebs, 2010, pg 129)

“In these cases too, Wittgenstein believes, we capture the difference in our expectations by reference to a change in how we respond to the object, e.g. in how we would describe or draw it before and after the act of recognition.” (McGinn, 2004, pg. 197)

Back to Top ...

Bringing our entire experience and curiosity to the act

“The learning of language, particularly when we pair that interest with [Wittgenstein’s] interest [in] aspect seeing is, like imagining, subject to the will. (PI, 213)” (Day, 2010, pg 208)

“You know Yeats’ poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree: ‘I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,’ ‘there midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet’s wings,’ ‘I’ll live alone in the bee-loud glade.’ Here is, in this multi-sensory environment. And here is the organist inside him, playing to the ever-changing picture, while the complex many-stranded lines  of music create those vibrations in his soul.” (Humphrey, 2006, pg 97)

“Our concept of what is seen is intimately connected with the concept of a representation of what is seen, in that one criterion of what a subject sees is the representation or description that he gives of what he sees.” (McGinn, 2004, pg 199)

“If the experience of having an aspect dawn is as pervasively joined to the human form of life as talking, then why does the child, in growing into language and so coming to continuously-see the furniture of the world - not only its objects but its human attitudes, expressions, exchanges, occupations, preoccupations, ... - why does the child grow out of the interest or desire to be struck by aspects of the world?” (Day, 2010, pg 215-216)

“After he takes his first steps into language and can say his first dozen words, there may be no encouragement from those around him for what merely strikes him, what then and there may be striking to him alone.” (Day, 2010, 217)

“ ‘Given the two ideas ‘fat’ and ‘lean’, would you rather be inclined to say that Wednesday was fat on Tuesday lean, or vice versa? (I incline decisively with the former.) (PI 216). Here is a glimpse of pre- or extra-grammatical life with words. It is almost as if the maturing human, in departing that life, comes to adopt the philosopher’s static view of the connection between words and their systematic implications, and begins to imagine the field of our words has in every instance and in each utterance long been surveyed. But then, from the standpoint of our loss of interest in our experience, aspect-blindness will seem to us not unimaginable as a human possibility at all, but quite familiar, a kind of fixed literal-mindedness in taking in the world.” (Day, 2010, pg 218-219)

Back to Top ...

References  (back to top)

  • Bracewell, R. and Witte, S. (2008). Implications of practice, activity, and semiotic theory for cognitive constructs of writing. In J. Albright and A. Luke (Eds)., Pierre Bourdieu and literacy education. (pp. 299 - 315). London: Routledge.
  • Broadbent, D. (1975) The magical number seven after fifteen years. In R. Kennedy and A. Wilkes (eds.) Studies in long-term memory. New York: Wiley. pp 3 - 28.
  • Burbles, N. (2010). Tacit Teaching. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 199 - 214). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Day, W. (2010). Wanting to say something: aspect-blindness and language. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 204 - 224). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Eldridge, R. (2010). Wittgenstein and aspect-seeing, the nature of discursive consciousness, and the experience of agency. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 162 - 179). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Humphrey, N. (2006). Seeing red: a study in consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Klagge, J. (2011). Wittgenstein in exile. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Krebs, V. (2010). The bodily root: seeing aspects and inner experience. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 120 - 139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Minar, E. (2010). The philosophical significance of meaning-blindness. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 183 - 203). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • McGinn, M. (2004). Seeing and aspect seeing: Philosophical Investigations, 398-401: Part II, section xi. In M McGinn, Routledge philosophy guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigation. (pp. 177 - 204). London: Routledge.
  • Phillips, D. (1977) Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge.  London: MacMillan Press
  • Scheman, N. (1996). Forms of life: mapping the rough ground. In H. Sluga and D. Stern (Eds.) (1996). The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. Cambridge: (pp. 383 - 410) Cambridge University Press.
  • Shotter, J. (1996). Talking of saying, showing, gesturing and feeling in Wittgenstein and Vygotsky. In Communication Review Vol 1, No. 4. pp 471 - 495.
  • Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell
  • Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Translation newly revised by Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • _____________ (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • _____________  (1974). Philosophical Grammar. Edited by Rush Rhees. Translated by Anthony Kenny. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • _____________  (1982). Last writing on the philosophy of psychology: Vol 1, preliminary studies for Part II of Philosophical Investigations. Edited by G.H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman. Translated by C.G. Luckhardt and Maximilian A.E. Aue. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.