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Philosophy & Phenomenological Research. Vol. XXXI, No. 2, December, 1970, 243-264.


John Heron

There are many different aspects to the encounter between two human beings. These include bodily contact, physical proximity, physical position, bodily posture, bodily orientation, gestures, facial expression (changes in disposition of the eyes, brows, mouth, combined with posture of the head), eye movements, paralinguistic emotional tone of the voice, speech. In only two cases does simultaneous reciprocal interaction between qualitatively similar processes occur: in the case when two people touch each other, make bodily contact; and in the case when two people look into each other’s eyes, make eye contact. By virtue of their reciprocal nature these are undoubtedly the two most intimate modes of interpersonal encounter. In the strict sense of the term actual encounter occurs only in mutual touching and mutual gazing, for it is only in these instances that each meets the other meeting him. In mutual touching as in mutual gazing, each person both gives and receives in the same act, and receives moreover what the other person is giving. This can never be the case with the act of speaking or listening, for speaking is exclusively an act of giving and listening is exclusively an act of receiving. Even where two persons give voice simultaneously as in a duet the projecting and receiving functions for each are divided as between the voice and the ears respectively: there is only actual meeting so far as there is mutual looking. And conversation between two persons is necessarily a serial exchange of speech, it cannot be a simultaneous interchange: again, actual encounter occurs only so far as conversation is interspersed with mutual looking or touching. There is thus an important distinction between (a) mutual gazing and mutual touching, and (b) verbal communication and nonverbal communication exclusive of bodily and eye contact (that is, communication by gesturing, posture, facial movements, paralinguistic tone of voice). Both are complementary and interacting aspects of interpersonal behaviour, but the former are more basic and primary since it is here alone that encounter or meeting in the strict sense occurs. In this strict sense, a blind person who has never engaged in mutual touching has never actually encountered another person — of course this is virtually a practical impossibility for the congenially blind. And while we normally include both (a) and (b) as aspects of an encounter or meeting in the wider sense of these terms, it is important not to overlook the primary relational significance of bodily contact and eye contact. Two persons shaking each other’s hand and simultaneously looking each other in the eye is the paradigm case of meeting. Of course, intimacy between two persons is enhanced by certain facial movements and other gestures, by certain topics of speech and by a certain tone of voice, but this intimacy is only fully realized by the concurrent mutual razing or touching. Meeting (in the strict sense) by bodily contact, where mutual touching is involved, has a very restricted application outside familial and erotic relationships, and is largely confined in our culture to handshaking at the beginning and end of meetings (in the wider sense). But meeting (in the strict sense) by eye contact, where reciprocal gazing is involved, plays a basic and primary role throughout all meetings (in the wider sense). And while the complementary role of speech and its concomitants cannot be underestimated, there is an epistemological sense in which it is secondary: to this point I shall return at a later stage. Here it suffices to say that verbal communication just a such (for example, two persons talking in the dark or when both are wearing dark glasses) is not strictly encounter. The most fundamental primary mode of interpersonal encounter is the interaction between two pairs of eyes and what is mediated by this interaction. For it is mainly here, throughout the wide ranges of social encounter, that people actually meet (in the strict sense).

To do justice to the nature of eye contact between two persons, it is necessary to distinguish between the physical and psychological dimensions involved. The situation may be described in purely physical terms, in both physical and psychological, or in purely psychological terms; but however it is done, both categories arc always mutually entailed. Thus I may say that one pair of eyes was focused on another pair which in turn was focused on the former pair (where ‘focused’ refers to purely optical properties of the eyes concerned); or that he looked at her eyes; or that they held each other’s gaze. Words like ‘look’ and ‘gaze’ are purely psychological terms, but of course whenever they are used they always entail implicitly some physical statements about the eyes. Conversely, in any situation of conscious human activity, any purely physical statement about how the open eyes are functioning entails implicitly some psychological statement to do with perceiving, looking, staring. The only exceptions are descriptive accounts of the eye qua physical object (its colour, texture, dimensions, etc.), or of its involuntary movements in some pathological state.

For phenomenological inspection, the most important distinction that arises in the case of eye contact between two persons is that between perceiving the other’s eyes as such (that is, as purely physical objects) and perceiving his gaze, where ‘gaze’ is the psychological term for what his eyes mediate. [A notorious account of this distinction is to be found in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (Pan 3, Chapter 1. Section 4. p. 258); however the use to which he puts it is so bizarre that 1 do not propose to give a detailed discussion of his treatment here.] Anyone can test out this distinction, and it is most effectively done with someone you know well. You seat yourself at close range to the other, and while he gazes at you, you look exclusively at his eyes qua eyes, observing only their properties and deliberately excluding the quality of the gaze that they mediate; then at a certain point return from his eyes as purely physical entities to take up his gaze, and note the sense of reciprocal entry, contact and widening out, the experience, in short, of actual meeting (in the strict sense). This phenomenological test is quite irreducible, and provides the fundamental datum from which any discussion in this area must proceed; otherwise any analysis is going to be shot through with unreality from the start. A somewhat less dramatic but no less distinctive experience may be had with a doctor or ophthalmologist. Notice how, when he looks into your eye without instruments, he deliberately excludes from his gaze any contact with your gaze; he is ignoring your gaze, looking through it, so to speak, at your eyes. Note also how he withdraws to resume contact with your gaze from an appropriate distance in order to convey to you the results of his examination. Reverting to the original experiment, two people can together systematically investigate the transition from perceiving the ga2e to perceiving the eyes, and vice versa: they start with mutual gazing and at a prearranged periodic signal change to mutual eye inspection, at the next signal back to mutual gazing, and so on. Or one person can change from one mode of perception to the other, while the person being perceived can signal when he or she notices that the perceiver has made the transition.

When perception moves from the eyes as such to the gaze, the objects of perception clearly belong to quite different types or categories; and in each case a different mode or dimension of perception is involved. But it is necessary to note first of all that there is a fairly obvious difference in the physical movements in each case. When you look exclusively at someone’s eyes, examining details of color, form and texture, you have inevitably to look for some appreciable period at one eye at a time. When, however, you perceive his gaze, then your own eyes may be directed in one of two ways: either their fixation point is oscillating rapidly to and fro, from one of his eyes to the other and back again; or their fixation point is centred in between his eyes at the root of his nose, while both his eyes are included in the immediate visual field around this point. But the difference between looking at the eyes of another as physical objects and perceiving his gaze cannot simply be reduced to this purely physical distinction between what the observer’s eyes are doing in the two cases. For there is the further crucial distinction between what the observer is attending to in one case and what he is attending to in the other.

In the case of perceiving someone else’s eyes as physical objects, the observer is attending to what his eyes are focused on; that is, the centre of attention is identical with the point of fixation. When perceiving the other’s gaze, the observer is attending to what is conveyed by what his eyes are focused on (in the case of fixation oscillating to and fro) or to what is conveyed by what is in the immediate visual field laterally adjacent to where his eyes are focused (in the case of central fixation). To put it simply, in the former case the observer is attending to the physical features of the other’s eyes, in the latter to their psychical features.

It is worthwhile to take a further look at the relation between the physical and psychological components of perceiving the other’s gaze. I have suggested that the observer’s eyes are cither rapidly shifting their fixation from one to the other of the other’s eyes, or are fixated centrally between the others eyes. Both of these physical phenomena seem to occur, alternating with each other or with shifts of fixation to other parts of the observed person’s face. Self-observation can confirm these facts, although their varying incidence could only be quantified with any degree of precision b> the appropriate extroperceptive technique. Self-observation also suggests that the case in which the observer’s eyes are fixated centrally between die other’s eyes seems to offer the most effective necessary physical condition of perceiving the other’s gaze. In this condition, the observer is not, psychologically, attending to or noticing the point on which his eyes are. physically, focused or fixated. What utterly beguiles his attention is the quality of the gaze that breaks through the other’s eyes, which are in the visual field to either side of the fixation point; and he is so much caught up by the quality of the gaze he is perceiving, that ho may never actually realize that he is not attending to the physical area his eyes are fixating. Automatically, perhaps, when we really wish that our gaze should mutually interact with the gaze of another, we adopt this fixation point with our eyes and spread our attention simultaneously to cither side of this point, so that the one light from the eyes of the other, his gaze, breaks in upon us. It is precisely because, when we spread our attention simultaneously like this, we cannot look at the eyes of the other just qua eyes (to do this we have to look at one eye at a time), that we find ourselves attending to the gaze of the other. It is also true, of course, that we not only take in the eyes adjacent to the fixation point, but also the facial expression as a whole, especially the disposition of the mouth and the brows. And there is an important sense in which the qualitative meanings of the gaze are read not just in the gaze as such but in the whole facial expression including the gaze. To the significance of this obvious but important distinction between the gaze as such and the look of the face as a whole I shall return at a later stage. The point here is that it is only in the gaze as such that one strictly encounters the other, however necessary the ancillary contribution of nonocular facial expression may be.

In perceiving a painting there is a somewhat analogous experience to that of perceiving the gaze and the encompassing facial expression of another through central fixation. For one way fully to register and appreciate the aesthetic significance and impact of a painting is to fixate with the eyes some central or other point (depending on the composition) and simultaneously embrace in one global act of attention the whole of the surrounding canvas. The observer is now attending simultaneously to the impact of the whole of the visual field around the fixation point, endeavouring to register at one go the totality of interrelated forms and colours. To the extent that he achieves this and to the extent that the painting is a good painting, what he actually finds himself attending to is what the painting is “saying” through its visible features; he is certainly not attending to these features just as such.

It is clear that while exclusive attention to the eyes as such will necessarily involve losing sight of the gaze, to perceive the gaze of another necessarily includes or subsumes perception of the eyes to some degree. In the former case, one may say that the physical properties of the eyes become an opaque terminus (ot perception, while in the latter case they become a transparent gateway, they reveal the gaze — and this very transparency tends to reduce the extent to which they make an independent impact on the observer. One does not, in mutual gazing, notice closely such physical details as the dilation and constriction of the pupil, often not even the precise color of the eyes of the other, nor the kind and degree of granulation of the iris, and so on. This is related to the fact, in the case of central fixation, that the observer has a slightly blurred visual image of each of the other’s eyes.

I would like now to reinforce this distinction between the eyes and the gaze by an appeal to ordinary language and to a paradigm case. But first it is necessary to note two different major uses to which the gaze may be put in social interaction. Its use may be largely determined by the content of verbal communication between two persons; that is, one may look at the other in a way that synchronizes with a primary interest in the views being expressed — here the gaze appears largely as an ancillary to the processes of speaking and listening, to a preoccupation with the meanings of verbal interchange. But its use may also reflect not so much the observer’s concern with what the other is talking about but with what he is, with the other as a person. Here we no longer have the shorter glances usually associated with verbal interchange as such, but the somewhat more prolonged gazing which acknowledges much more of the other person than the mere intelligibility of his speech. These two uses represent two extremes: from the case of formal conversation where the exchange of glances is closely related to the structure, logical content and timing of the dialogue, to the case of personal intimacy and encounter where mutual gazing may transcend and perhaps temporarily annul the significance of dialogue. These uses are not necessarily mutually exclusive, for they may alternate with each other or even coincide in certain types of meeting. Nor is reciprocity of use necessarily involved: the gaze of one person in the dialogue may reflect mainly linguistic concern, the gaze of the other mainly paralinguistic concern. But it is in the latter use that the full significance of the gaze comes to the fore, and therefore it is this use which must be exemplified in the paradigm case.

Let us consider, then, one of the more dramatic moments of personal encounter when a father, say, wishes to ensure that his son discusses the issues at stake in the full reality of a face to face meeting. He does not say to the boy “Look at my eyes,” where this imperative would mean that the boy should look at the physical objects in his father’s eye-sockets; rather, what he docs tend to say is “Look into my eyes” or “Look me in the eye.” Now the distinction between “Look at ray eyes” and “Look into my eyes” is crucial. The former is usually an invitation to the spectator to observe some physical property of the eyes of the speaker, whereas the latter is an invitation or a challenge to the other to find something which is not a physical property in and through the eyes of the speaker. Thus in the paradigm case, the father says “Look into my eyes” so that the boy may directly encounter some personal quality of the father in so doing, or so that the father may directly encounter some personal quality of the son. when one gaze is raised to meet the other. To reflect on this paradigm case is, I think, to sec that “Look into my eyes” is equivalent to “Meet me in my gaze,” with the corollary “And let me meet you in yours.” Although “Look into my eyes” and “Look me in the eye” are possibly interchangeable, the former is perhaps more naturally used where the other person is invited to sec the speaker stand revealed in his gaze, while the latter is more typically a challenge to the other to stand revealed in his gaze before the speaker. Perhaps the simplest phrase of all, “Look at me,” does service for both intentions.

Any good novelist who is sensitive to the realities of human encounter will find the distinction between the eyes and the gaze both indispensable and irreducible: to attempt to avoid it would lead to a catastrophic failure in accuracy and descriptive power. And it is particularly in portraying the intimacies of human encounter that the distinction is so invaluable. Let me give an example from the novel, “A Severed Head” by Iris Murdoch. Martin Lynch-Gibbon is describing an afternoon meeting with his mistress, Georgic. “For some lime we held each other’s gaze. This sort of quiet gazing, which was like a feeding of the heart, was something which I had not experienced with any other woman- Antonia and I never looked at each other like that. Antonia would not have sustained such a steady gaze for so long: warm, possessive, and coquettish, she would not so have exposed herself.” Novelists are also sensitive to the dynamic properties of the gaze. Thus in Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter,” when Fellowes is talking to Wilson about Mrs. Rolt, “Scobie was immediately aware of Wilson’s gaze speculatively turned upon him.” Literary examples could be multiplied endlessly. The point of them is that if one enters imaginatively into the situations depicted, their effectiveness in evoking similar kinds of real-life situations suggests that the term ‘gaze* has a unique experiential referent, points to a distinct and irreducible phenomenal element of our experience.

The distinction between the eyes and the gaze is also, I think, relevant to clarifying that nature of the difference between a good photograph and a good portrait of the same subject. The photograph, one may suggest, merely mechanically reproduces the physical form of the subject’s features, and in this process the gaze is subtly filtered out. Even the best photograph is an unreal simulacrum — like a mask whence real presence is fled — however evocative the appearance which it captures: it gives the external fallout of a presence, the sign or signature of what is absent. But the good portrait is the result of the dynamic incarnation of a presence, for the artist has impressed ink) his media a sign of his awareness of the reality of the subject’s gaze and of the whole look in which the gaze is central. Anyone who has painted a portrait may perhaps acknowledge that there is some truth in the idea that the good portrait painter is always looking from the eyes to the gaze of the subject, and from the gaze to the eyes, taking in also the form and look of the face as a whole; and that his success stems in part from the fact that while he is looking at the subject’s eyes as such, and painting them, ho has in his mind his recollection of his immediately past perception of the subject’s gaze and of the meanings of the look it embraces. Speaking of the portrait painter,  Brophy (1963) writes: “Occasionally, looking at eyes and into eyes (the most profound and intense, as well as the most primitive, method of communication available to human beings) he may be drawn into a relationship, brief or lasting, which becomes a major experience in his life. It is not unlikely ‘bat those faces depicted in art which have the strongest effect on us are each the product of some such experience, not necessarily sexual but beyond the range of the conscious, the rational, the explicable, a kind of person to person polarity which releases power in brief but violent discharges.” This is a useful suggestion, but I doubt whether the experience referred to need necessarily be regarded as beyond the range of either the conscious, or the rational or the explicable.

I have so far made out only a tentative prima facie case for the gaze as a unique phenomenal category, but I would repeat again that my appeal is not primarily to argument but to experience and a careful analysis of it. Those who doubt the legitimacy and irreducibility of the concept I would exhort to go and have an open look, that is, try the test I suggested earlier, preferably with someone well-known to the experimenter, such as a wife, lover, long-standing friend or bank manager. The point about choosing a subject well-known to the experimenter — although this is by no means necessary — is that the test will reveal dramatically the impact of acknowledging consciously the previously conceptually unidentified but long-established reality of the interacting gazes. My case for the unique phenomenal reality of the gaze rests on such an appeal to our more intensely lived interpersonal experiences. However, certain objections may well be raised in advance of any such test being carried out, and it may therefore be as well to deal with them before analyzing in more detail the nature of the gaze.

In the first place it may be objected (hat the proposed test itself represents a disreputable backward step in psychological method, akin to introspectionism. and likely to lead to some controversy as fruitless as the imageless thought controversy. This objection is clearly misplaced. For the proposed test has nothing to do with introspection but involves extrospection of another person. Furthermore, there are a variety of attendant psychological and physiological variables the relation of which to the experience in question can be systematically explored. The issue is pre-eminently an empirical issue, since the phenomenal reality to be investigated depends on the public situation of a face to face meeting. The fact that the emotional attitude of each person to the other in the test situation may effect the intensity of the experience in question does not detract from the empirical nature of the case, it merely extends the empirical into the realm of the significant and truly human, and introduces variables which cannot properly be ignored in any attempt to do full justice to the psychology of interpersonal encounter. It is therefore more to the point to suggest that the proposed test should be developed systematically far beyond the informal conditions which 1 have outlined.

Secondly, it may be objected that it is more appropriate for a truly scientific psychology to study objectively how people other than the experimenter use their eyes in interpersonal behaviour. Thus the psychologist will record in a variety of ways how his subjects look at each other under a variety of conditions, and can test out different hypotheses about the point and purpose of eye contact between two persons. Undoubtedly this is an important area of investigation for social psychology, and significant work has already been achieved in this field. But this work really presupposes the distinct phenomenal reality of the gaze without doing anything to substantiate, elucidate or explore its significance — which can only be achieved by the method I have proposed. Thus Argyle (1967)uses intermittently such phrases as ‘eye-contact,’ ‘direction of the gaze,’ ‘their glances meet,’ ‘look each other in the eye,’ ‘impassive gaze,’ and so on, in writing about systematic studies of mutual looking between persons other than the observer; but he does not specify what kind of experiential referent we are to attribute to such phrases. However it seems clear from the context and particularly from the intentional interpretations which he writes into his account of interpersonal looking, that the gaze has the status of an irreducible phenomenal reality. But that it has this status and what kind and degree of significance can be attached to it, can only be properly determined by the observer himself gazing at the gaze of another and categorizing carefully what he finds. My point would be that only phenomenological description by socially sensitive observers can establish the basic phenomenal characteristics of interpersonal experience. Such basic phenomenal categories may be re graded as sufficiently well established to be generally accepted when the conditions under which their experiential referents occur can be specified and passed on in such a way that other persons con consistently identify these characteristics in their own experience. But this is a specific task for a phenomenologically based social psychology. Any attempt to bypass it will only result in the unacknowledged intrusion of categories whose status and significance is uncertain, ambiguous and unclarified.

I now come to the central theme of this paper, which concerns the nature of the gaze, what I actually encounter when I perceive the gaze of another. Basically this involves a phenomenological description which seeks to bring out the unique and distinctive appearance of the other’s gaze. But since I am also an agent in gazing, this description may be supplemented by categories of analysis derived from my own experience of directing the gaze. We thus have two accounts each of which complements the other, but neither of which can be reduced to the other. I will deal with the descriptive account first.

I may perceive the gaze of the other when he is attending to what he is gazing at and when he is not attending to what he is gazing at. When he is not attending to what he is looking at, then he is inwardly preoccupied with some mood, reverie, memory or train of thought. There arc occasions here when the gaze may become an object of particular interest: for example, in the case of a musician or writer seized by an idea — an instance to which I shall refer later. The point is that when the other is not attending to what he is gazing at, then the nature of his ga2e is not in any way significantly determined by its actual external object. This of course is not the case when he is attending to what he is gazing at, and here there are three significant conditions under which I may perceive his gaze: when he is gazing at some nonhuman object, when he is gazing at a person other than myself, and when he is gazing at me. There are some important variants of the second of these conditions, for when the other is gazing at a third person, then that third person is cither returning the gaze or he is. not, and if the third person is not returning the gaze, then either he knows he is being gazed at or he does not know it. The most interesting of these variants is the case of two others engaged in mutual gazing; and we need socially sensitive phenomenal descriptions of this phase of encounter between two other persons — that is, sensitive descriptions of what seems to be the case with respect to the reality of the actual gazing itself. But here I am mainly concerned with perceiving the gaze of the other under the last of the three conditions under which he is attending to what he is gazing at, namely, the condition when he is gazing at me. Again there are variants (which also apply, of course, to either of two others engaged in mutual gazing): he may be gazing at parts of my body other than my eyes, he may be gazing at my eyes qua eyes, or he may be gazing at what my eyes refract, that is, at my gaze. The variant which I particularly wish to consider is that in which in the same moment of time I am gazing at the other’s gaze and he is gazing at my gaze. It is important to stress this, especially the simultaneity, since there may often be moments in mutual gazing with the other when I am gazing at his eyes mainly as aspects of his purely physical appearance, and similarly with respect to his gazing at me. Equally, however, there arc moments when gaze meets gaze. There are then three striking features of the gaze which I thus meet: its luminosity, its streaming quality and its meaning. In conversation and encounter with friends and relatives, with colleagues or acquaintances, these three features may be presented only in brief and fleeting episodes, and their impact and significance may only be subliminally noted. Furthermore, they vary in intensity according to the kind of relationship and to its internal and external conditions. But perhaps there are certain favourable psychological conditions which can be specified: firstly, the emotional openness of each, the attitude of love from each to each, or at least strong mutual respect for each other’s intrinsic worth; secondly, the active intelligent interest of each in matters of mutual concern; thirdly, of course, the gaze-to-gaze contact which will tend to occur us a function of the first two conditions. However, the first two conditions are clearly not necessary conditions for noting the three features of the gaze since these features may also be encountered under conditions of mutual hate, where they occur in a strikingly negative form. Perhaps, more generally, one may say that features of the gaze come noticeably to the fore in interpersonal relations under conditions of emotional arousal, whether sympathetic or antipathetic.

The luminosity of the gaze or the gaze-light of the other is a distinct phenomenal reality which is transphysical, although supervenient upon and mediated by physical phenomena: that is to say, it cannot be reduced to any purely physical luminosity of the eyes, to physical light reflected from the moistened and translucent surface of the cornea — although this may be a necessary physical condition for its optimal occurrence. In a sense, the gaze of the other just is this transphysical luminosity about his eyes, an extra phenomenal dimension refracted by their physical proper-tics. One might object that it is only as if his eyes had this transphysical luminosity, which is really an illusory appearance which I project on to his eyes by virtue of my state of emotional arousal, or by virtue of my inference that he is in some particular mental state. This objection might seem to be crucial. But when faced with the reality of an intensely lived moment of mutual gazing it seems silly. Furthermore, mutual gazing is, as we have seen, the primary mode of actual meeting of the other in the strict sense of meeting. Now if, in the moment of such a meeting when the presence of the other seems to be revealed to me, I am really presented only with a pair of eyes carrying my private illusions, how do I ever come to know that there is another person there to meet? I do not know that he is there unless I meet him, and I do not meet him by meeting his eyes and making inferences about him. It might then be objected that I do not meet him by meeting the transphysical luminosity of his gaze cither. But the phenomenal reality of the gaze-light of the other is such that it is continuous with him: he is revealed in it, it discloses him, he is the presence of it. He may never be fully present in it, he may only be partially disclosed in it, he may seek to posture and counterfeit within it; the point is that this gaze-light unmistakably reveals that he is there, presenting himself to me. The purely physical properties of the eyes of the other are not continuous with him in the way that the luminosity of his gaze is; it is only when we attend to what his eyes refract that we meet him in his gaze-light. Thus the eyes refract a transphysical luminosity in which the other stands revealed as present to me. The intensity of this luminosity may wax and wane as a function of differences in social conditions and states of internal arousal; and the observer’s sensitivity to it may similarly wax and wane. Yet it is always minimally present in the eyes of the other, and subliminally detectable in the most transient and uncommitted instances of exchanged glances. It is the unacknowledged interpersonal reality that tells us all the time that we are meeting other persons. Of course, the blind must rely on mutual touching as the bedrock of actual meeting. And one may note in passing that there is a transphysical sensation involved in touching the other, as in shaking hands: I do not just register the degree of warmth and moisture of the other’s hand, the texture of the skin, the strength of the counter-grip; for these physical properties mediate sensations of something trans-physical which is far more pervasive, and which seems to be somehow continuous with the very person himself. Thus the touch and the eyes of the other can mediate transphysical properties of the other in which he is immediately disclosed, although by no means in his entirety; and for the seeing, it is the eyes which have the primary role in this respect.

If the luminosity of the gaze of the other is a transphysical reality supervenient upon the physical properties of his eyes, then it follows that it is not perceived by me in terms of any purely physical — that is, retinal and cortical — processes: there is a transphysical as well as a physical activity involved in my perception of the gaze-light of the other. In so far as we perceive the gaze of another, we are all minimally clairvoyant: that is to say, we encounter the other in a mode in which physical and transphysical perception closely interact. However embarrassing these sorts of notions may be in a climate of thought committed to purely physicalist accounts of perception, I believe that the categories I have introduced are necessary to do justice to the full nature of the realities of interpersonal meeting. The concept of the transphysical may be regarded as having reference to a dimension of reality which is neither mental nor physical in the old Cartesian sense of these terms, but has some of the properties of both: that is to say that on the one hand it may have spatial location in interpenetration with physical phenomena, yet on the other hand it may be very closely interfused with the most intimate activities of consciousness itself. Thus the eyes of the other refract the transphysical luminosity in which the active presence of his consciousness is disclosed.

That the intensity of this luminosity is coterminous with the activity of consciousness itself, is evidenced not only by the increased intensity of luminosity that accompanies the heightened consciousness induced by powerfully sympathetic personal encounter with another; but also by the increased luminosity that accompanies a purely internally aroused heightened activity of consciousness. Many examples come to mind from the more ordinary reaches of experience, but striking instances are provided by eyewitness accounts of musicians and writers at the height of the creative process. Flashing eyes are frequently referred to; and Schindler writes of Beethoven that in moments of sudden inspiration ‘his whole outward appearance would . .. undergo a startling transformation’ — the full account might be construed as a transfiguration of the physical by the transphysical. Such unusual examples throw into sharp relief the everyday flickering interplay between the transphysical and the physical that occurs in the region of the eyes, and to whose minor nuances we are so accustomed that they have rarely seemed an appropriate subject for analysis. Another distinctive feature of the gaze of the other which I encounter in moments of mutual gazing, and which is closely associated with its luminosity, is its streaming quality. For this term I am indebted to Martin Buber (1937: 97) who refers to “the streaming human glance in the total reality of its power to enter into relation.” Under optimal conditions of interpersonal encounter, the gaze of the other may be experienced as streaming into my whole being — I am filled out and irradiated by it. Furthermore, there is a sense in which the inward streaming of the gaze of the other as received by me constitutes at that time the reality of my being: the gaze received openly and without fear can yield for mc a profound awareness of my body-mind unity. In this situation the gaze of the other may illuminate mc as a unitive being with no awareness of body-mind distinction. Similarly, I apprehend the other as a unitive presence revealed before me. But each of these unitive states is secondary to the unitive reality constituted by the relation of mutual gazing itself. The transphysical streaming of the gaze of the other interfuses my whole being, the transphysical streaming of my gaze interfuses the whole being of the other; but in each case this only occurs by virtue of the thorough interpenetration of the mutual streaming — which constitutes the dramatic elan of true encounter between persons. It is the interaction of the twofold gazing which is a necessary condition of the irradiation of each by each being. This interpenetration, then, is a transphysical unitive reality or field — which is also a unitive field of consciousness — with two poles. the irradiated being of each. Within this unitive field, my awareness of myself is in part constituted by my awareness of his awareness of mc, and my awareness of him is in part constituted by my awareness of his awareness of mc; that is to say, my awareness of his awareness of me both reveals me to myself and reveals him to me, and his simultaneous awareness of my awareness of him both reveals him to himself and reveals me to him. But further, in my awareness of his awareness of my awareness, whether of myself or of him, I reveal myself to him; and in his awareness of my awareness of his awareness, whether of himself or me, he reveals himself to me. Thus in the unitivc field of consciousness established through the interfused transphysical streaming of mutual gazing, each is, revealed to himself, each is revealed to the other, and each reveals himself to the other. Because the gaze of each in part constitutes the being of the other only by virtue of the reciprocal interaction, there is a sense in which each is coprcsent at the opposite pole; that is to say, each has internal perception both of his own unitivc being and of the unitive being of the other to some degree, yet each retains his own sense of identity by virtue of his external perception of the body of the other and of his inaccessibly private kinesthetic sensations of his own body. Thus in mutual gazing, self-awareness and other-awareness arc correlative elements in a dipolar reality. And while it is only under optimal conditions of personal involvement and commitment of each to the other that such a dipolarity is fully evident, yet it operates subliminally and to a degree in all face-to-face encounters.

The third distinctive feature of the gaze of the other is its meaning. The distinction here is between the gaze-light as a baseline disclosing the mere presence of a person, with perhaps only minimal clues as to what sort of person. and the gaze-light as a variable carrier of qualitative meanings of different strengths and kinds. For the gaze can be the bearer of a wide range of meanings – intellectual, emotive and conative, such as lucidity, joy and tenacity, respectively — in simple or complex combinations, with greater or lesser animation, in a changing kaleidoscope of psychical revelations. These meanings arc read, of course, not just in the gaze as such, but in the whole facial expression including the gaze; but whereas nonocular facial changes express or body forth, say, an emotional meaning, the gaze reveals this meaning. It is as though what is revealed through the eyes is also shaping and moulding the face; the gaze ‘takes up’ the rest of the features to bear physical witness to the distinctive emotional meaning which qualifies it. Thus eventually we come to read emotional meaning in the facial expression alone where we have no clear perception of the gaze itself. On the other hand, a false reading of nonocular facial expression may sometimes be corrected by careful attention to the quality of the gaze.

I propose to introduce, for the sake of convenience, the term ‘look’ as synonymous for ‘the whole facial expression including the gaze’. This is in accord with ordinary usage, where we often speak of ‘the look on his face.’ Thus I have been talking of the meaning of the look where this refers to the different psychical qualities of a person as simultaneously revealed through his gaze and expressed through his other facial features. As I have suggested, such meaning in any determinate mode may or may not be disclosed above and beyond the irreducible baseline of the gaze. Thus (here is a purely contingent connection between the meaning of the look and the inalienable presence of the gaze-light. But once we have specified this notion of the meaning of the look, the question immediately arises of the relation between the meaning of the look and the use of speech: of the relation, in short, between language and the look, between linguistic and paralinguistic meanings.

This distinction between the look and language is closely parallel to the distinction which Thomas Reid (1764) makes between natural language and artificial language, and I propose briefly to outline his thesis and then develop it for my own purposes. Reid defines language as “all those signs which mankind use in order to communicate to others their thoughts and intentions, their purposes and desires.” Artificial signs arc those whose meaning is affixed to them by compact among those who use them. Natural signs axe previous to all compact and have a meaning which every man understands by the principles of his nature. Reid argues that a language of artificial signs presupposes a language of natural signs. For artificial language supposes a compact to a/fix meaning to signs, so there must be compacts or agreements before the use of artificial signs; but there cannot be any compact without signs nor without language, so there must be a natural language before any artificial language can be invented. This is a simple and uncomplicated argument, but the force of it has not as yet. I think, been adequately appreciated. By the signs or elements of a natural language Reid means ‘modulations of voice, gestures and features’, which he regards as signs naturally expressive of our thoughts. Such natural language, he says, is improved by the addition of artificial language: the latter makes up for the deficiencies of the former. But we should not lay aside natural language, since it is chiefly by natural signs that we give force and energy to artificial language, which only expresses human thought and sentiments by dull signs (sounds and characters). Artificial signs, Reid argues, signify but do not express: they speak to the understanding, but the passions, affections and the will hear them not: these “continue dormant and inactive, till we speak to them in the language of nature, to which they arc all attention and obedience.” This natural language is still contemporaneous with all artificial language. He refers to it as “this intercourse of human minds, by which their thoughts and sentiments arc exchanged, and their souls mingle together,” and as “common to the whole species from infancy”.

I would agree with Reid that the meaning that is disclosed in the look is also and often simultaneously disclosed in gesture and in ‘modulations of the voice’, that is, in the actual quality of the sound a person produces. Further, that the use of speech or artificial language picks out, points, refines and immeasurably articulates our awareness of what is conveyed by the look as such; that is to say, it confers on our perception of the look much greater acuity and discernment. But I would also agree that the meaning of the look is irreducible, that it is presupposed by the convention of speech for the reason which he gives, and that it is always concurrent with the use of speech — riding speech like a mysterious charioteer whose subtle presence can never be ignored or overlooked, and who enlivens speech the more consciously his actions arc brought into play. Finally, I agree that the sort of knowledge involved in grasping the meaning of the look is immediate; that is to say. it is never in the first instance inferential. And I think that it is in this area of the meaning of the look that we find preeminently that kind of inherently meaningful perception that is prior to all explicit predication. I would, however, develop Reid’s thesis in the following ways. Firstly, I would suggest that, although there is a vital interrelation between the use of language and the look such that each in a different way fructifies the other, any excessive reliance on or recourse to the artifices of speech and the categorial structure built into it is likely to warp and disturb the capacity for attending to the meanings of the look. Hence people can get entangled in what might be called states of linguistic alienation Particularly in our addiction to linguistically formulated theories and views we can cast over perception a categorial screen of too fine and systematic a mesh. Hence the need for many to return to immediacy, to reawaken sensibility to the reality that meets us in extralinguistic vision. to sec what all along has been present to us yet hardly noticed behind the screen of language (Wahl, 1953). Secondly, I would make the gaze the central feature in the range of what he calls natural signs, since as the most important form of true meeting it is the core of that ‘compact’ which is a presupposition of the use of speech. Thirdly, while the meaning of the look is often primarily emotional, in the sense that it speaks both of the kind and degree of affect in the subject, and to the ‘passions, affections and will’ as Rcid says, this is by no means exclusively so.

There are at least four different dimensions to the qualitative meanings of the look: the passional, emotional, intellectual and charismatic. In passional qualities of the look, physical desires speak through or appropriate the gaze. Here the gaze may provide an open window on to an inner sexual latency, frankly show the way in to states of desire, or it may burn with the intense low flames of desire: in either case a person may be deliberately using the gaze to refract the light of desire, Love and hate provide paradigm instances of the emotional qualities of the look. Hate is one of the most disturbing and potent reminders of the direct qualitative impact of the gaze: the gaze of him who hates may become consumed by a discharge of corrosive and destructive light. These shooting arrow-lights of hate arc familiar enough. By contrast, in the case of love, one may speak of the luminous embrace of the gaze, the way it encompasses find surrounds the other with delight. Quite distinct from such enfolding effulgence of love is the intellectual quality of the !ix»k: for example, the clear beam evident in the gaze of the person who is fully informed, articulate and caught up in a range of ideas he is expounding. Finally, there may on rare occasions be a charismatic quality evident in the look, and here the gaze is transfigured by meanings which transcend those met with in the normal range of social interaction.

These different kinds of qualities are not necessarily mutually exclusive: they may combine and interpenetrate, the various dimensions both overlapping and serially alternating. But to a greater or lesser degree depending on the responsive sensitivity of the perceiver, they provide direct non-inferential knowledge of what may be termed the psychic state of the other. Thus the gaze-light as such reveals the mere presence of the other as a distinctive centre of consciousness; the meanings it carries reveal his psychic states. That such knowledge of the psychic state of the other is direct is involved in the notion of a dipolar unitive reality established wherever there is the conscious interaction of twofold gazing: we have seen that the nature of this relation is such that apprehension of the state of either pole is not exclusive to cither. It is, no doubt, pre-eminently in the state of mutual love, allied with wise understanding. that this dipolar reality and mutual apprehension of the psychic state of the other may become most fully established. The fact that in the rush and tumble of everyday life and working relationships such apprehension is for most of us barely noticeable, or obscured, distorted or overlaid by categorial preconceptions, is merely a function of the relatively undeveloped state of human sensibility.

I wish now to turn to the second account of the nature of the gaze. in terms of categories of analysis derived from experience of directing the gaze. The central notion here is that of attending. If there is anything to be construed as the immaterial act of the self, then it seems to me it is likely to be the act of attending, by which I mean the act of directing consciousness to something. There is here essentially a threefold directedness. Firstly, one can direct awareness from one whole area of experience to another, as when one turns from perception, say, to memory, or from phantasy lo reflective thinking, or from prayer to practical activity. Secondly, one can direct awareness to a particular object or content within a distinct area of experience, as when one fastens on this particular recollection within the field of memory, perceives this particular tree within the visual field, or communes with this particular deity within the sphere of worship, or turns to this particular problem within the sphere of reflective thinking. Thirdly, one can direct awareness to a particular object or content within a distinct arc of experience in a particular mode. Thus one may attend to a particular deity reverentially or sceptically, to a particular memory descriptively or evaluatively, and so on.

The first two of these kinds of directedness arc closely related, since to turn to some area of experience such as perception is also at the same time necessarily to direct one’s attention to, in this case to perceive, some particular content within it. And the distinction between the firs* two taken together and the third is equivalent in some respects to the concept of double intentio or twofold directedness introduced by Husserl in Section 37 of his Ideas. He characterizes first what he calls “the directed mental glance,” “a mental glance or glancing ray of the pure Ego, its turning towards and away” which “belongs to the essence of the cogito.” He says further that “this glancing ray of the Ego towards something is in harmony with the act involved, perceptive in perception, fanciful in fancy . – . and so forth.” But we must distinguish between plain consciousness of a subject matter, a bare heeding of it, and “some further ‘attitude towards’ the subject matter.” The mental glance, in acts such as those of appreciation and valuation, is not only directed at some subject matter, but directed at it in a particular way, in the mode of appreciating or evaluating.

When I perceive the gaze of the other, I direct my attention, or, in the more striking language of Husserl, turn my mental glance through my eyes to the perceptual realm and discriminate a particular content – the gaze of the other. What I thus meet is the mental glance or consciousness of the other directed through his eyes. This is the minimal base line of the gaze-light referred to earlier. And what can develop here, as we have seen, is a unified field of consciousness that is perceptually dipolar. But I may direct my attention to the gaze: of the other in a particular mode: with affection or hostility, with scrutiny or an attitude of self-revelation, and so on. Here the gaze becomes the bearer of a meaning that is taken up also by the whole of the look. This kind of directedness controls the option as to whether one will or will not reveal to the other one’s psychical slate.

Hence there is a correspondence between the three categories that represent a descriptive account of the gaze of the other as it presents itself in the experience of mutual gazing, and the three categories that represent the threefold directedness of consciousness. Firstly, to the light of the gaze there corresponds the basic ‘turning towards’ of the self, the directed mental glance always associated with consciousness as such. Secondly, to the streaming quality of the gaze there corresponds that directedness that takes up a particular content of the perceptual field. Thirdly, to the meaning of the took and the gaze there corresponds the directedness of attention in a particular mode. As I have indicated, the first and second of these sets of categories are necessarily closely related, and in a situation of mutual gazing, characterized cither in terms of basic directedness or in terms of the gaze-light stream or ray, a minimal dipolar field of unified consciousness occurs. But such a field moves toward a consummation, that is to say each pole is to some degree unclothed, when each elects to direct his attention to the gaze of the other in the particular mode of good will or love; a situation in which each both reveals himself and in his unique appraisal of the other gives the other to the other.

I must now deal in more detail with the standard objection to the thesis that the gaze represents a distinct and unique phenomenal category. This objection asserts that what is construed as a unique phenomenon, the gaze of the other, is in fact a projection from the observer on to the eyes of the other. The eyes of the other arc never or rarely seen in isolation; rather, they are seen as only one of a whole range of behavioral effects, including speech, gesture, and the various nonocular elements of facial expression. From a rapid appraisal of all these behaviors, including physical eye movements, degree of closure or opening of the eyelids, dilation or constriction of the pupil, we infer the inner attitude of the other, and project this outward on to his eyes, asserting that we perceive the gaze of the other. Further, since we often know about the circumstances of the other and details of the context of his relationship with ourselves, we make certain inferences from this knowledge about his attitude and likewise project this outward upon his eyes. Perceiving the gaze of the other is thus a species of illusion or misperception in perceiving the eyes, precipitated by a transaction between inferential judgment and incoming purely physical stimuli.

There are several answers to this objection. The first is a purely empirical one. Arrange to have a complete stranger with features immobile placed behind a screen with a horizontal aperture in it so that only his eyes can be seen. Now pass from perceiving his eyes as such to perceiving his gaze: the change in dimension of perception is still clearly evident, yet any possible process of inferential judgment and projection based on other behavioural clues has been excluded. Secondly, we have already seen that the gaze-light as such, which bears witness simply to the conscious presence of the other, is to be distinguished from the different kinds of qualitative meaning that it may carry. Hence we can meet and discern the gaze of the other without necessarily concerning ourselves about his precise inner attitude or emotional state. Thirdly, it is false to suppose that particular emotions and attitudes arc read into the eyes after being inferred from facial expression and other gestures and postures. This, 1 have suggested, is to put the matter the wrong way round; a certain type of gesture and facial expression is seen as having a certain emotional meaning because it is associated often with a certain kind of emotional state as revealed by the eyes and their supervenient gaze. Fourthly, we can often correct inferential misconceptions about the emotion and attitude of the other derived from observing his nonocular behaviours or from a knowledge of his situation, by attending carefully to the qualitative meanings that come with his gaze. Fifthly, if it is maintained that perceiving the gaze is really a case of seeing-as-if, that is, seeing the eyes as if they are bearers of some emotional content. where this seeing-as-if is the result of a transaction between inferential judgment and perceived physical cues, then this analysis must equally apply to perceiving the emotional content of nonocular facial expression or gesture or posture or sounds uttered. But if alt perception of emotion in another is a matter of transactionalism, seeing-as-if, then there is no basis for the inference involved, no evidence in the other from which it is drawn, so that the thesis becomes incoherent. Perception of emotion as with perception generally cannot be entirely a matter of inferential transaction, since this would mean that the objects of perception would become things-in-themselves and we could know nothing about them. Seeing-as-if only has meaning in contrast with seeing. Unless there is some sense in which it is appropriate to say that we perceive emotion in the other directly, then it makes no sense to ask how we perceive the emotional attitudes of others. And the very notion that there are expressive movements in others to be interpreted already presupposes some direct knowledge of other minds. Finally, if it is argued that the inferential judgment involved is a matter of analogical inference, that is, the basis of the inference is our own private experience of our own emotional states and of the bodily motions that go with them, then the answer must be that the bodily motions that we observe as the correlates of emotional states in ourselves are quite different from those we observe in others and so provide no proper basis for the inference. For our own bodily motions are almost exclusively perceived proprioceptive!y as a function of kinesthetic feedback. The surprise at hearing one’s own voice played back from a recording for the first time is equalled only by the surprise of catching oneself unawares in a mirror when spontaneous emotional arousal is displayed in face and gesture: for this bizarre reflected image is so far removed from what we experience of our bodily movements from within.

A somewhat similar objection asserts not that we project an inference onto the eyes of the other, but that to look at the eyes of the other arouses in us an emotional reaction which we project onto his eyes and then mistakenly consider to be his gaze. In projecting our own emotional response it seems to us that his eyes are illuminated by some trans-physical property. The answer to this objection depends on a proper analysis of what is involved in an emotional response. An emotion is a function of how one sees the world, that is, it is closely tied to some cognitive appraisal of the environment. If there is a distinctive emotional response to seeing the eyes of another, then since inference has been ruled out this can only be explained on the grounds that there has been perceptual cognition of some distinctive quality that arouses the emotional response. It may be suggested that the physical properties of the eyes alone are sufficient to account for the emotional reaction that is consequent upon their appraisal. But if so, this reaction should be enhanced when one attends exclusively to the physical properties of the other’s eyes; however, it is precisely then, as the crucial test shows, that the special impact of perceiving the other disappears. The emotional reaction is a function of perceiving the gaze; hence this objection has to assume what it purports to deny.

What are the wider philosophical implications of the thesis which I have advanced in this paper? They arc perhaps threefold. Firstly, the intellectual problem of how we know that other minds exist starts from a false starting point, that of reflective alienation from intensely lived experience. And in this state of alienation the problem presupposes a false assumption: that it is always and only our own self and its experiences that arc given us in immediate and direct awareness. Secondly, the point of such a formulation of the problem and of the impossibilities of resolving it in purely theoretical terms, lies in the fact that ultimately by its self-defeating nature it gives rise to that kind of philosophical phenomenology which directs attention back to concreteness and essential experiences to find a set of empirically based categories which preclude the very formation of the falsely posed intellectual problem which began the quest. For it is found that in the phenomenon of mutual gazing there is one field of consciousness with direct though not total access to two poles of experience. Thirdly, such a movement of thought reveals how inevitably limited will be any science of man or of human relations conceived in terms of a narrow logical empiricism, in which the detached analytic intellect is set over against observed public objects ‘out there.’ But there can be a science of man or of human relations conceived in terms of a much more radically constituted empiricism, in which the whole man as both intellectual and sensitive being seeks to find the basic phenomenal categories which do justice to his most intensely lived experiences and seeks also to specify accurately the conditions under which such experiences occur. This still meets, and more profoundly, the objectivity required by science, in terms of the general criterion of the repeatability of obtained relationships between specified experience and specified internal and external conditions.


Argyle, M., The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour, London, 1967.

Brophy, J., The Face in Western Art, London, 1963.

Buber, M., I and Thou, Edinburgh, 1937.

Reid, T.,  Inquiry into the Human Mind, (1764).

Wahl, J., Traite de Metaphysique, Paris, 1953.