Imagine that you meet someone you’re attracted to at a party. At one point, they smile at you, and you notice. You’re pretty sure they like you, but you really want to know whether they like you like you.
You don’t act on this in any particular way, but you do spend the whole next week thinking about it. You think about other people who have been into you, and about people who have not, and the differences between them. You muse about what sort of taste in romantic partners you imagine the person might have. By the end of the week, you’re weighing your virtues and vices, trying to decide whether you’re even worthy of love.
(If this seems alien to you, I hope it is at least true to your experiences of some humans.)
In the moment when you noticed you were attracted to the person, you made an observation. In the moment when you noticed their smile, you made another. In the moment when you noticed your curiosity, you made another.
But as soon as you vanished into your own musings, you were no longer making observations. You were no longer collecting data. Instead, you were interpolating, extrapolating, filling in the gaps with stories and guesses, processing and reprocessing. Everything that followed, in the week after the party, took place inside your map—analysis, interpretation, reasoning, reflection.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sherlock Holmes lectures Watson on the difference between seeing and observing:
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don't know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
I don’t know how many steps there are on the staircase up to my own living room, either. Setting aside the question of prioritization, and whether I should be turning my attention there—what is it, exactly, that Watson and I are doing with the steps?
My guess is that we’ve taken some initial impressions—a few moments of impact from the external world—and used those points to draw a constellation. Every time we walk up the steps, we do almost all of our processing on the constellation, rather than on the points of light in the sky.
Most of our “seeing” the stairs is happening inside of our maps. We observe just enough to recognize that we’re about to encounter the well-understood “stairs” entity, and then we superimpose our “stairs” concept over whatever sensations are happening to us, and stop paying attention. To the extent that our brains record anything, it’s that we “climbed up the stairs,” rather than that we felt some number of impacts under each of our feet, while the muscles in our legs contracted and our heart rate climbed slightly, etc.
Imagine that you do end up asking the cute person from the party to meet you for coffee, but when the day comes, you’re extremely distracted by a disaster at work, one you’ll have to return to as soon as the date is over. Despite a whole hour of conversation, you leave feeling like you’ve learned almost nothing about them.
Crucial data was all around you, but while you saw it, you failed to observe any of it.
It is hardest to make fresh observations about things you have seen many times. The stairs, long-held beliefs, attitudes you were raised with. The more often you superimpose your drawing of a constellation over points of light in the sky, the more opaque your drawing becomes.
It probably doesn’t really matter that I have seen-but-failed-to-observe my stairs. I never miss a step, and I’m not in a murder mystery whose solution might depend on how many steps there are.
It certainly does matter, though, if I have seen-but-failed-to-observe the way I make requests of my child, especially if I haven’t even noticed the distinction. If I believe I’ve observed when I’ve really only seen, I’m much less likely to start paying attention, or to hypothesize that I may have gotten something wrong. If we’re going to be close for a long time, we need to be able to communicate with each other, not just with the cartoon drawings we habitually plaster over each other’s faces.
It also matters if I’ve seen-but-failed-to-observe the factors that cause me to continue on my current career path, what I count as evidence, or my default response when my expectations are violated.
Seeing-but-not-observing is a failure to make contact with a bit of territory that is right in front of you. It is standing at the bank of a river while staring at the part of your map labeled “river”. Often that’s good enough; but sometimes the river is flooded when you need to cross, and then you really have to lower your map and make contact with crucial data. You have to look at the world itself, or else you’ll drown.
In the sentence “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation,” this is what I mean by “observation.” I mean actual contact with the territory. Looking at the stars themselves, instead of letting the constellation fill your mind as your eyes glaze over.
Knowing the territory takes patient and direct contact with the territory.
In the next two essays, I’ll talk about two ways of being in contact with the territory: directly, and patiently.