Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seeing and Forgetting

I was just reading a book by the sociologist Howard Becker where, in a passage about the problem of categorisation, I came across the following quote:
Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing we are looking at.
The origin of the saying is not clear. Becker attributes it to Robert Morris, while other sources cite Paul Valéry. Be that as it may, I like it a lot. (This is one of the things I like about being in academics: I seem to encounter at least one brilliant idea every week – or maybe I'm just easily impressed.)

It seems to me that the insight can also apply in reverse. Ten years ago, in Bombay, a friend and I went to Marine Drive, my favourite place in the city. Neither of us had been there before. My friend saw the piles of tetrapods on the waterfront and said, "Wow, what are those?"

"Tetrapods," I said. (I knew about them from Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

"I see." His curiosity seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention elsewhere. He still did not know what they were for or why they were so oddly-shaped. He had received literally no additional information than he had before the conversation, other than what they are called.*

It seemed that knowing the name of the thing we were looking at had stopped him from seeing.

*OK, if you want to be pedantic, now he also knew that I knew what they are called.