Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

What is it like to see something “as if” for the first time?


Namukasa, Immaculate Kizito


Even though most of us would admit that we sometimes are inattentive to little things, in general we may feel that we have a pretty good sense of the things around us. When visiting a friend, we stare at an empty spot in the living room and say, “Did you not have a plant or some furniture standing there? It looks empty.” But it can also happen that we are surprised to notice something that we must have overlooked. For example, we have been walking daily by a commemorative plaque, but only noticed it when someone else pointed it out. Or someone may show us a large bird’s nest in a tree in our back garden. We simply do not recall seeing it before. And yet, we are not really surprised at the oversight. After all, we cannot notice everything.


However, sometimes we see something in total surprise. Why? Because it is so obvious that we should have been aware of it before. We wonder, “How could I not have seen that?”


Seeing for the first time something that has always been there

What is it like to see something for the first time, especially if it has always been there? Bernice tells of the moment she saw an extra door in her suite:


It is late evening; I am back home to my rental basement suite. Another long day but at least I feel more relaxed than yesterday. A few hours earlier I handed in my mid-term paper to my professor. As I walk down to my bedroom, I suddenly stop with a startle. I look around to orient myself in this familiar space. But how is this possible? I see a door I have not seen before!


There is a door! Someone must have put a door in the wall earlier in the day. But as I look at the door I realize that this is impossible. This is not a new door. It looks like it must have been there for many years. But how could I have missed that? I feel uncertain and totally confused.


How is it possible that Bernice could have seen the door as if for the first time? Could it be that she had seen the closet before but was not yet in a position to remember seeing it? Did she suffer from a failing memory? She must have seen this door every day as she walked down the staircase and through the hall. She must have seen it without noticing it. And yet, this explanation sounds implausible to Bernice. If she has seen this door before then she is now seeing it as if for the first time. Bernice was puzzled:


Was another room added? And when could this have been done? I was curious about this new door, which if not a false door should lead to some room or closet. So I go up to the door and turn the knob.   As I open the door I see a closet, a closet with contents. There is no doubt that I am seeing the closet for the first time. I slowly close the door and move on to my bedroom. But the discovery of the new closet still occupies me.


In this paper I explore the experience of seeing as if for the first time. I do this by contrasting this experience with other kinds of seeing such as seeing something for the first time and seeing in a new way. This attempt to examine the experience of seeing something as if for the first time may assist in understanding central aspects of the felt experience of seeing.


Seeing for the first time

Bernice’s experience of seeing the closet door as if for the first time may evoke in us an intuitive affirmation. We may recall suddenly seeing a painting in a hallway, a building on a street that we travel daily or a person in our workplace as if for the first time. Bernice continues to wonder:

This door must have always been there except it might have something new added to it, a face-lift that makes it noticeable. “Could it be a new doorknob?” I wonder. I walk back to inspect the door and I am disappointed. The doorknob doesn’t seem new either; it is similar in style and weariness to the knobs on the other doors in the apartment suite. Nevertheless, there is something inviting about this supposedly new closet. I open the door again, to re-inspect its contents. Five shelves: one has plant pots, another, very old books, the third holds ski boots and the other two assorted tins. Had I seen this closet before, I would have known where to borrow a pot for a plant from, that spring when I considered having one. I try to convince myself amidst the growing evidence to the contrary that I might have seen this closet before after all. The shelves and their contents are beginning to look somewhat familiar.

Seeing something for the first time is a much more common experience than seeing something “as if” for the first time. For example, we may see things for the first time when we move to a new place or when new things are brought into our familiar spaces. A woman recalls her first morning in Canada, as she explored the town of Whitecourt.


Having left behind a large sprawling city of Leeds in Yorkshire, England, my new husband and I emigrated to Canada. By the time we landed and headed toward Whitecourt (about 110 miles North West of Edmonton) it was night and I was exhausted. When we arrived in Whitecourt our hosting family put me to bed right away. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep. I slept well into the next morning. When I woke up I rushed to the window to look out at my new environment. I was totally shocked! It all looked so different. The rooftops were flat, not pointed as they are in England. There wasn’t a single brick or stone building in sight. Everything looked as though it was made of painted wood, everything including the sidewalks. The streets were gravel. The stores were small carrying odd names like “Tom-Boy” grocery store. Everything was totally new and different from the houses and streets as I knew them back home.


This woman was seeing her new home town for the first time, and the flatness of the rooftops shocked her. She had never seen or imagined wooden sidewalks. She was seeing a small northern town for the first time. Could it be the case that, like this woman who had emigrated to a new setting, Bernice actually saw the closet door for the very first time? The lady saw Whitecourt for the first time, yet for Bernice, the situation seems different.


Being seen

Two young mothers are meeting in a shopping mall. Why don’t we let the kids play on the horse while we have a chat one of the mothers says. Horse? What horse? asks the other mom. “Just ahead, by the corner,” her friend replies. “By the corner? When was it brought into the mall?”


The mother is amazed. She has passed by the same corner on many occasions but had never seen the mechanical horse. For sure if she had seen it, she would have stopped to let her daughter have a ride. The mom did not see the mechanical horse even though she had a young child who would have enjoyed playing on it. Perhaps, the mother would have noticed the horse if she would have looked around for a spot where her daughter could play. But she did not really look. A shopping mall is for shopping, not really a space for children to play. At times we have to be shown things, including things that may matter to us, in order to see them.


There is another kind of “seeing as if for the first time” that is somewhat different from the experience of seeing the door. We may see a particular object and yet not really notice it. We see it without really “seeing” it. A man describes how he suddenly saw a tree as if for the first time, even though he had seen it many times before. But this time there is no confusion that this is a new tree.


Every day when I leave home it is there but I am not really aware or conscious of its presence. It just slips the focus of my eyes. But I remember one windy day, while walking out of the house I was assaulted by a stormy shower of bright brown-orange leaves. It was not until the leaves were dancing around me that I connected them to the tree and looked up into its branches and was awed by the tree’s size and majestic presence. I was surprised that I had not noticed the tree although all this while the tree had been towering above me every day as I left home.


Here is an experience of seeing without the help of another person, in the fullness of time. But this is a different seeing. It is as if the tree is now more fully present than ever. If asked about the tree the seer would have confirmed that he had passed it daily in his backyard. He has seen it and yet not “really” seen it. It was just a tree like any other, until that fateful moment when he looked up and saw the tree as if for the first time. Until that moment, he had seen it, let us say, in an inattentive manner–in what a Buddhist might refer to as a attitude of mindlessness. But now the tree had turned into a being looking back at him, presenting itself to him in all its impressive presence.


There is something in common to the stories of the door and the tree. It is as if the door and the tree introduced themselves. They introduced themselves in their doorness and treeness.


Blind to seeing

Physiologically, to see a tree is to become aware of it using our eyes, as to hear a humming fan is to become aware of it using our ears. To have or to use the power of sight, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (6th edition), is the literal meaning of the verb “to see.” However, the verb is also commonly used for relational metaphors and knowledge metaphors: “She is now seeing her friend.” “I see what you mean.” “I see things differently.” Also, “to see” is closely related to the verb “to look.”


In English language (and probably in many other languages) a distinction is made between seeing and looking. When we raise our heads facing in the direction of the tree with our eyes open, our neurons fire as the inverted image of the tree together with its background are reflected onto our retinas. Biologically, we “perceive” the tree. However, the physiological act of “seeing” is just a surface event in the act of seeing. More happens, neurologically and experientially, for this sensation to cohere in a way that allows us to “grasp” what appears to be there (von Foerster, 1981). Moreover, in the event of seeing all the other senses, including hearing and tasting, are called forth in a manner, albeit subtly, akin to experiences of synaesthetics, as Merleau-Ponty (1964) suggests. To see in a phenomenal manner involves more than the sensory act. The old sensation psychology proposed that our sensory organs (eyes, ears, smell, touch, taste) are bombarded with sensory data which we then interpret in the act of perceiving. But Heidegger pointed out that we do not “see” sensations that we interpret. Rather, we immediately see the things of our world as meaningful: we see this tree in our backyard, we hear the cars on the street, we taste the coffee we sip with our lips, we feel the keyboard under our fingers, and we feel the presence of the people who may be familiar or unfamiliar to us.


And yet our visual or aural awareness is not necessarily explicit. As we live through the day, from moment to moment, we do not necessarily notice many of the things we see. That is why Merleau-Ponty says that, in a manner of speaking, all perception is unconscious: we perceive the things of our world before we think them. Much of the day we are involved with the things at our disposal and use the tools with which we are familiar. But we do not consciously “see” or “look at” everything we perceive. We perceive our world before we reflect on it. Even the moments of reflective seeing are pre-reflective from the perspective of subsequent reflection. This does not mean that we perceive sensory data or stimuli which we then translate into meaningful perceptions. Rather, our corporeal being is involved in the world in such a way that much of the time our perceptions do not become part of our reflections. Thus we can see something without “seeing” it.


A student tells about her frustration with trying to find a scanner. When she had almost given up on finding a scanner at her work place, she says she found one in the workroom where she had always worked at the computers. At one point, she could not wait any longer to scan some personal images. In growing frustration she thought, “Surely, the department should have a scanner. But wherever it was, it was not going to be easily accessible. Otherwise they would have put it in the workroom together with the computers.” She decided she would do the scanning at the internet cafe that Friday. But then she happened to see something unexpected:


Wednesday, after xeroxing some handouts, I said “hi” to some ladies who were busily moving stuff in the workroom. Looking toward the desk I noticed a scanner to the left of the computer. I said, “Wow! We now have a scanner!”


I was happy that I would not have to go to the café to do the scanning. Wonderful. I can now do my scanning here. But wait. As I look at the scanner I realize that it has been in this room all along. I recognize its familiar shape. Thinking back, the low-lying, off-white, flat equipment had always been sitting there as I worked at the PC right next to it. How come I never had recognized it as a scanner or as electronic equipment worth pondering about? Sometimes I even placed my books right on its flat top while working at the computer. All the days that I worked away at the keyboard I kind of “saw” it but never really looked at it.


We not only fail to recognize reflectively what we see, but we also do not recognize that we are seeing what we are seeing. The student could not recognize the presence of the scanner without acknowledging that she was seeing it. Van den Berg (1953) tells about an incident where a man from the remote jungles of the tropical world was suddenly brought into the metropolitan setting of Singapore where planes were flying overhead, shops were selling their wares, sky scrapers were towering above him, and trains, cars and bikes were speeding by. When, later in the day, the man was asked what had amazed him most about what he had seen, he replied that he had been astonished that someone could carry so many bananas. He had seen a street vendor with a cart full of bananas.


Van den Berg suggests that we only really and meaningfully “see” what belongs and makes sense in our personal lifeworlds. The paved streets, planes, cars, shops and high-rises did not have much significance in the lifeworld of the man from the tropical jungle. Therefore, says, van den Berg he did not really “see” them (1953, p. 5).


From van den Berg’s perspective, the student could suddenly see the scanner because it became a meaningful object in her lifeworld. Until she needed a scanner, the machine next to the computer was just an indeterminate thing that she used to pile her paper and books on while she was keyboarding on the computer. Perhaps we need to explain not what we do not see, but what we suddenly do “see” even though we had been blind to it until that very moment. Might this seeing that acts “blindly” not be what Merleau-Ponty (1964) referred to when he asserted that, “left to itself, perception forgets itself and is ignorant of its accomplishments” (p.19)?


How is noticing the scanner similar or different from seeing the closet door? Bernice did not have an awareness of the existence of the closet, but she suddenly saw the door when she arrived home in a very different mood. When she walked downstairs to her suite she was relaxed and perhaps more “open” to her lifeworld. This openness allowed her to take note of something that, in an ethnomethodological sense, she had seen but not noticed before. We all live in experiential worlds that are occupied with many objects that are seen-but-unnoticed.


Background to seeing

Some friends and I are having a conversation about gender differences. One of the women says, “Yeah, it’s a man’s world, that’s for sure. Like have you ever noticed how in public washrooms, even toilet seats are built for men?” Everyone laughs. “What do you mean?” I ask.


“Well, have you ever noticed how there is a gap in toilet seats in public washrooms? Just think about it-they are built for men, not for women.” “A gap?” I wonder. “I had never noticed a gap. What is she talking about? What might this gap look like? She couldn’t be right. Toilet seats are shaped like ring donuts, solid all round, with a wide opening in the middle.” I can’t even believe I am thinking about this. But for some strange reason, the comment catches my curiosity.


Sure enough the next time I visit a public toilet I look, and I stare in disbelief–there is the gap! How could I have missed it all these years? I feel oddly disoriented and confused as if I have been living in a dream world without really seeing what is right in front of me all along, even something as mundane as a toilet seat! If I can miss something like that, I wonder, what else am I not seeing? What else will I begin to see?


But, can this lady say with certainty that she had never seen the toilet gap? Or is it that the story of never having seen the gap begins the moment her friends raised it as an issue in an intellectual conversation? In this case, not having seen the gap is only describable as the difference between what she now see when she visits a public washroom and what she used to see until the day of the conversation about it being a man’s world even in women’s washrooms.


The Oxford English Dictionary describes a door as a piece of wood, glass or metal that is opened and closed so that people can get into and out of a room, a cupboard, a building, a car, etcetera. The question of how we see a door and know it to be a door, however, seems to be beyond this literal (non-experiential) description. Do I see doors for sale, false doors, open doors, and doors in strange places in the same way as I see the open door to my home? Does an inmate see a door in the same way as I, who have chosen to stay indoors to finish my writing? The word “door” is an abstraction. Do we ever see “doors” at all?


We might notice a door to a bedroom when it is closed to tell us to keep out; otherwise we see a dressing table, an unmade bed and etcetera. It seems we see doors only to spaces that we do not yet know or to which we are denied access. In this way, Bernice may have seen a door, but not a closet. She had no idea where this door led. The felt experience of seeing a closed door cannot be reduced to perceiving a physical set of sensory stimuli.


Doors feature so much in imagery, metaphors, and similes. Why is it a door but not any other thing that Bernice saw as if for the first time? Are there particular objects that we are more likely to see (as if) for the first time? In addition to doors, buildings, birthmarks, and monuments, people have recounted seeing an extra (at times more convenient) switch to a hallway light, embarrassing dirt, or more efficient computer functions as if for the first time. Do these objects bear a special character? To see the door, Bernice may have been in a particular state, a mood of experiencing and anticipating new possibilities and openings. On that evening Bernice’s world was a world open to the seeing and opening of doors.


“The world has changed” is a statement we tend to hear when something shockingly good or shockingly bad happens. In love stories, the world appears to change for the lovers. The whole world all of a sudden is present for one as for lovers. To stretch Heidegger’s notion of Befindlichkeit (being in a mood), the world gets into a loving mood. On a windy, sunny fall day the mood of the world, a somewhat shareable mood, albeit with nuances, is likely to be different from the mood on a windy but cloudy wet day. Leaves dance on a bright fall day, making it more likely that someone would see a tree as if for the first time. In effect we experience ourselves in this particular mood with newness. Bernice “saw” herself in the mood of having successfully completed an assignment. It happened that in the moment of fully experiencing herself in such a new mood she saw the closet door as if for the first time.


Seeing significance

Every morning when we wake up, the world is there for us in a particular way. On a moment-to-moment basis the world seems static, yet when we compare the world as it is for us now with what it was a decade ago, last year, last month, or even 12 hours ago, we will agree that it is definitely different. The world is constantly changing in many respects. Even though a shocking event may seem to change the world in just a second, the world is really gradually changing. After handing in her paper, as Bernice was walking past the closet door, she sensed that she is in a new world. On one hand everything was the same; just another evening in her suite. On the other hand, it was a different day as well as a different space and a different person.


In a way, moments of seeing differently are moments of recognizing oneself in a new mood, in a new space, in a new world, as a new self. It is in a particular kind of world that leaves dance rather than litter the lawn. A tree presents itself to us in its awesome presence. In such moments, time may seem to slow down as we may be seeing something as if for the first time as much as we are experiencing ourselves as we change, as the world (which we are) changes.


Van Lennep (1987) observes that we always separate the function of looking, of listening, or of feeling (and of paying attention in general) from what, through our attention, is to be seen, heard or felt; as if things themselves would not, to use Heidegger’s term, call us to attend “but would passively and unmoved undergo something like attention” (Van Lennep, 1987, p. 219). The case of seeing as if for the first time helps us examine an aspect of seeing that is more than or less than an action of the seer. It is less in the sense that it is guided by a choice that is not necessarily conscious. And it is more in that what we see and the moment at which we see it are not accidental. And now, the things we see speak to us and incline us toward our essential or transformed being.


Put another way, a tree may invite us to see it by sending down its leaves. No wonder we are awed by its presence, as if the tree–the other–is in conversation with us. Therefore a moment of seeing some-thing with significance is hardly about exercising a deliberate act or will. Rather, it appears to be a moment of deeper and more fundamental attending to the objects. Such seeing supersedes a mistaken sense of agency that would uphold the seer over the seen. The other, even the non-living thing, engages us; it prompts us to attend. The object that we see (despite its perceived significance) addresses us. It is as if in that moment we cannot help but meet the other or, rather, simply be with the other being. We go back to inspect the doorknob, to inspect the contents of the closet, as part of this play of being.


Our ignorance about the phenomenology of seeing may account for the negative appraisal that comes with seeing as if for the first time. When we see a thing that has always been there for the first time, we may question our attentiveness and our memory. We may experience a moment of self-doubt. “What else will I begin to see?” Yet the moment of seeing for the first time is a moment of attentiveness at a more earthly level. It is a moment of, in the logic of Berger (1972), choosing to look and at the same time a moment of being chosen. It is a moment of two-way inclination. Berger (1973) observes that, “soon after we see [the landscape on the other side] we are aware that we can be seen [from that landscape]” (p. 9).


The moment of seeing the extra, new, or significant other is not just a moment of perceiving our spaces differently. The moment of seeing as if for the first time is a magical moment, an original experience. The space feels different, but this is not solely because of an extra closet in our suite. Nor is it, as in the case of pervasive gender inequalities, about a new knowing, a new acquisition. Quite the contrary. Seeing in a significant way that includes seeing unexpected things, seeing in a new way, seeing for the first time, and seeing as if for the first time indicates a moment of experiencing a new self. It is a rare opportunity of mindfully sensing. No wonder we adore the seen when this happens.


So, seeing significance, or more generally, attending, is much more than the sensorial act. It is indeed a relational act as is implied in the metaphorical assertion, “She is now seeing Peter.” At one level it is an act of perception, and yet at another level it is an act of conception (of knowing). Van Lennep observes:

Attention is the manner in which we relate ourselves to the things on the basis of the meaning they have for us: that is, on the basis of the manner in which they are related to us as we perform a task. Attention is a form of pregnant contact. (1987, p. 219)

When we move to a new neighbourhood, we do not really see everything that there is, we tend to “see” what holds significance for us at a prereflective level of perception. True, we may somehow perceive everything, but everything that we perceive we do not see. Since seeing, like anything else humanly possible, is phenomenological, we might begin to see that we are in some sense experientially blind. But in reflecting phenomenologically on the prereflective features of perception, we may now be able to see differently. As von Foerster says, “If I don’t see I am blind, I am blind; but if I see I am blind, I see” (1981, p. 290).




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Van Lennep, D. J. (1987). The psychology of driving a car. In J. J. Kockelmans (Ed.) Phenomenological Psychology: The Dutch School . Dordrecht: Nijhoff. (pp. 209-216)

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