Phenomenology Online

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The Pedagogical Significance of the Look


Paradis, Patricia


Eye Contact

Eye contact? Oh, yes. All the time. They taught us that in our education courses. You’re supposed to look at the students when you teach them. If you can’t do that, you’re supposed to aim your look about an inch above their heads. That way, they think you’re looking at them. It’s very important.

What is striking about this comment is not that the importance of eye contact in classrooms is taught to future teachers, but that an inability to engage in eye contact might exist for some of them. It is this possibility of an inability which makes us question what it is about eye contact that might make it difficult. If eye contact is merely a meeting of eyes between teachers and students, one must ask what could be difficult about that? Pushed a bit further this question leads us inevitably to ask what it is we mean when we speak of eye contact. What is it about eye contact that could make it significant for pedagogy?


In an attempt to answer these questions, let us begin with the words themselves: What is an “eye,” and what is “contact?” The eye is an egg-shaped, fluid-filled membrane equipped with lens, pupil, cornea, and retina which allows us to look. This “looking” capacity of the eye is taken for granted. When I look, I am not often aware in a conscious sense that I am looking. Just as with breathing, I merely do it. I raise my eyelids and the world is there before me. My looking at it is not a conscious act. However, if for some express purpose I wish to look at something in particular, I am able to move my eyes in a particular direction and focus my attention on that thing. I am not conscious of moving my eyes as I do this; only that I wish to look at something and consciously do. “Looking,” then, can be conscious or unconscious, but either way one is seldom conscious of one’s eyes as organs in the process. The “eye” in eye contact refers to a capacity for looking-looking which allows contact.


I Contact

If I decide to look at someone and that person looks back at me, I do not see the person’s eyes. Rather, I am conscious that the person is looking at me. I am conscious of the other person’s looking, of the other person, not of his or her eyes (unless, of course, for some reason I wish to discern their color, or if I find them for some reason particularly ugly or attractive). As Sartre has observed, “The eye is not at first apprehended as a sensible organ of vision, but as a support for the look…. As I apprehend the Look, I cease to perceive the eyes…. The Other’s Look disguises his eyes; he seems to go in front of them” (1956,p. 315).


Thus, this look, [1] made possible by my eyes and fundamentally by me, is in fact me looking. It cannot exist in and of itself without me. My look is me in the process of looking. I cannot separate my look from me just as the other cannot separate his look from himself. His look is his, and it reveals him just as my look reveals me. In this sense, I am manifested in my look. Thus, eye contact, that is, the contacting of looks, implies I contact-the contacting of “I’s,” two subjects. And this contacting of “I’s,” the “I” of you and the “I” of me, manifests itself in the exchanged look between two people.


Our attempt to define the eye in relation to eye contact has led us to an awareness of its support for the look; my look is a manifestation of me, your look a manifestation of you and, hence, in eye contact, our looks allow us to manifest ourselves to each other. Now the word “contact,” originally from the two Latin words cum, which means together and tangere, which means to touch, denotes the “coming together or touching of bodies: it also means the relation of touching or being in touch, actually or figuratively” (Funk &Wagnalls, 1978, p. 291). Hence, when we speak of eye contact, we speak of a coming together of looks and thus of people-a coming together which allows two people to be in touch with each other. Eye contact is not merely a meeting of eyes or an exchange of looks, it is a “touching” of two people which allows them to “be” together. It is a kind of intimate communication, a sharing, an intercourse which makes possible the touching of their I’s. Eye contact opens up the possibilities for our being together. It is a special kind of being in touch with one another.


We have come some way from our initial talk about eye contact in the classroom. By exploring the words themselves we have uncovered understandings not immediately apparent upon utterance of the expression. We can now understand eye contact to mean a shared looking that allows two people to touch each other, to “be” together in an intimate way.


The manner in which we talk about our eyes and our looks is revealing of the degree of intimacy we associate with them. For instance, when someone says, “Open your eyes!” it is not usually meant that one should lift up one’s eyelids, especially as they are usually up when the expression is uttered. Rather, the expression speaks of becoming aware, listening to the truth of something, being open so that it can be understood. Opening one’s eyes means opening one’s sense of understanding. Hence, to say my students had their eyes opened when I showed them the film on multiple sclerosis refers to the fact that they were enlightened in some way by what was presented. Their sense of knowing was opened or expanded.


The word “open” itself literally means “not closed or blocked up; allowing entrance or passage or access” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1978, p. 291). Thus, to have one’s eyes opened is in a sense to allow entrance, passage, or access into one’s inner dwelling place. The common allusion to the eyes as windows is understandable in this sense. The eyes are windows which allow others access to us and us access to them. To look “into” the eyes of another implies depth. It is as though one looks into the person. To look at someone’s face, in contrast, implies that one is looking at part of the other’s physical self. Looking into the eyes implies more. It is as though one looks beyond the person’s mere physicality into the person’s very being. It is in this sense too that the eyes are referred to as “mirrors of the soul.” It is in the eyes, in the look of another, that one’s soul, one’s “self,” is revealed or manifested. The eyes mirror the inner self. To speak of eye contact in light of this is to speak of contact or touching of inner selves. When our eyes are “opened,” we can be together intimately in our shared looks with one another.


Other expressions such as, “Look me in the eye when you say that,” or “Look me in the eye and tell me you love me,” focus on the eyes in much the same manner. To look into someone’s eyes, into the “look,” is to look at the whole person-physical and inner being. To ask someone to “look you in the eye” is to ask someone to reveal one’s self, to “open” one’s self and share one’s self with you. A person’s refusal to look into your eyes seems to indicate a withholding or lack of desire to engage, to “touch” in this manner. It is as though the prospect of revealing oneself to the other is too overwhelming, too exposing. When a close intimate moment is desired, one’s immediate reaction is usually to look into the other’s eyes. It is in this looking contact, it seems, that two people can reveal the most to each other.


Film makers often capitalize on intimate moments by focusing on the eyes of the actors. The audience is expected to “read” the intent, the desire, from the eyes, as there are frequently no words to be heard. The immediacy of the communication and the power of the harmony in a shared look make words seem redundant. Looking during these intimate scenes goes beyond words. There is something expressed in the looks that could not be expressed verbally. Looking someone in the eye also seems to reduce the chance of deceit. “I love you” can be uttered by a computer, but nothing can replace or duplicate the “I love you” conveyed in the looks between two people. There is no doubt that at that moment, they are “in touch.


We have discovered through the vehicle of our speech what our shared looks can make possible for us. The eyes as windows can allow us access to each other’s inner selves so that we can truly be “in touch” with each other. But what of the lived experience of our looks with one another?


Our experience shows us that just as our eyes can be opened, so they can also be closed; that not all looks exchanged between us allow us to touch each other. We often describe “cold looks” or “looks of stone,” looks where the eyes meet but the inner selves do not. I may look up at the store clerk to thank her only to meet a blank stare and a rotely uttered “thank you” in return. It is as though the clerk is absent in her look at me: I cannot see “into” her. Her eyes are not “open” in that they do not reveal her nor do they acknowledge me. There is no desire to engage, to open, to allow me access to her inner self. Sometimes though, in a brief encounter of perhaps five minutes, though we know nothing of each other, a look exchanged between a store clerk and myself can be very intimate. Our words may be of prices, weather, politics, but our looks seem to go beyond these words. Something of what we are, our inner selves, seems to meet. We seem to reach each other in this non-verbal way. In these shared looks is our mutual willingness to be open, to look into and acknowledge the other.


The lived look then, as a touching between two people, seems to unfold from the desire to open oneself and to meet with the other’s inner self. This desire we find is necessarily influenced by the relationships we have with one another. That is, I am often much more willing to be open with my friend than I am with a casual passerby. My understanding of the other and the other of me, by virtue of our relationship determines in large measure the extent to which I allow others access to me or desire access to them. For to open in this sense is to be vulnerable. I will only allow those in whom I trust access to my inner dwelling place.


Thus, my willingness to open in a shared look with another is greatly influenced by my trust in the other and by what we may share as two people. I am leaving my mother after a two-day visit: It will be six months before we see each other again. As the time for me to leave approaches, a kind of dread is felt in the air. We grow tense, our conversation quickens and becomes glib and trite. We avoid each other’s eyes, speak nervously of next time and Christmas and of other family members. We sense each other’s unease, yet could not explain it were we called upon to do so. As I finally walk toward the door to leave, I turn to say goodbye for the last time. This time our eyes meet lock. Suddenly, we cannot speak; there are no words. Only she and I, there, together. We are strangely united at this moment. It is at once pain and comfort: pain in the knowledge of our parting and comfort in the union, the complete togetherness we now feel that seems beyond the intermediary of words or physicality. Our bonding is immediate and complete. It is at once what I am, what she is, and what we are and feel for each other at this moment.


The relationship I have with my mother, the trust, the knowledge we have of each other makes our opening to each other in this manner possible. In the immediacy and the intensity of our looks we are able to be united as one: I cannot hide my guilt in leaving; she cannot hide her sorrow in seeing me go; our looks allow us to understand this fully in each other.


It is this possibility-perhaps should we say necessity-of our being together as one which ultimatelv makes this look between us possible. That is, it is the possibility of our being in touch as two people, the fundamental unitv of our being human, which makes being in touch in our looks possible. In this sense we understand, perhaps ironically, that though the immediacy of the look goes beyond words, it is only made possible because, as human beings, we have language in its deep sense. Without our capacity for language our very being human would not be possible. Looking can be understood as a manifestation of language that is distinct from speech. It makes manifest more than words or the meeting of eyes. In the reciprocity, the communion of two people in their looks is manifested by the primordial experience of language out of which this looking can proceed in the first place. The look as a form of language, in its immediacy, its primordiality, makes manifest what makes possible the looks in the first place-our humanity.


The look as a form of communication seems to go beyond what many others-words, handshakes, smiles-can do. The look seems to make possible a communion, a complete uniting, a oneness between us where our inner selves, that which words cannot describe, can come together in measureless moments. The power of the look is the immediacy in which it allows us to be together, the immediacy which is a primordial manifestation of our very being.


The Look and Pedagogy

It is not surprising that we should speak here of the look and pedagogy. For what our shared looks can make possible between us is the stuff of which pedagogy itself is made. Pedagogical relationships are fundamental to our being human in the first place. [2]


Being in pedagogy is being in a special kind of understanding relationship. The student understands the teacher as someone who wishes to lead toward realization of one’s potential as a human being; the teacher understands the student as someone who needs to be led in this. Their relationship depends on the desire of the student to want to be affected and led by the teacher and by the desire of the teacher to lead. There must be a willingness to acknowledge the teacher as one who can inspire, as someone who can lead or give a sense of direction to one’s life. The teacher must be willing to see the student as someone who must be inspired, led, guided on the way to becoming a whole person.


The nature of this desire and willingness can be manifested in various “levels” of looks in the classroom. There are physical looks where just the eyes meet. There are looks-a great many of them-which are on the level of social interaction: “Get back to work!” or “I don’t understand” or “I’m bored!” or “Do you all get the point?” Then there are looks which seem to transcend this social interaction and which speak directly to the understanding which being in pedagogy is all about. Looks which, as pupils, we recognize are directed at who we ought to be or how we ought to live. Looks that seem to direct us to a larger sense of our own life philosophies. Looks that inspire us or make us feel as though we, as individuals, should have done something else. Looks that make me feel instantly warm and secure or cold and insecure but that are directed to me, to my self. They are looks which have the intention of reaching me, meeting me, and helping me grow.


I know these looks. They are not contrived. There are no recipes for them nor are there better looks than others. For in these looks I do not see eyes nor their physical manifestations, I only know their understanding. I feel in them an openness and a desire which comes from within to reach my within-ness-my me.


These are understanding looks which come from the willingness, the trust and the desire to be in touch with another’s “I.” Looks in which two people, teacher and student, are able to be in touch with each other in ways that make the difference for pedagogy. The pedagogical significance of the look is the significance of pedagogy itself.




The concise Oxford dictionary. (6th ed.) (1976). Great Britain: Oxford Press.

Funk & Wagnalls standard college dictionary. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

Sartre, J. P. (1956). Being and nothingness. NewYork: Philosophical Library.



1. I have chosen to continue this paper using Sartre’s term “the look” rather than the verb “looking” for convenience. This usage is not meant to separate “the look” from “the person looking” but is meant to imply the latter. A person’s “look” in this sense is the looking.

2. By this I mean that without the pedagogical relationships, which we engage in from birth, we would not become human. This is evidenced in the case of the wolf children where lack of human contact left children as animals incapable of language and its manifestations.