Seeing and Looking

I had an interesting conversation with my wife while on a walk this evening.

Rachel was asking me if I had seen some pictures online of a friend of our’s new baby and in my answer, I was struck by the semantic difference between to see and to look.

  1. I saw the pictures, but I didn’t look at them.
  2. *I looked at the pictures, but I didn’t see them.

In the context of the question asked, #2 is ungrammatical. That’s because to look seems to semantically require intention.

We could describe the difference in terms of asymmetrical markedness, where to see is unmarked for intention, while to look is marked for intention. Thus, we can use to see with reference to intentionally looking at something, but it isn’t necessarily required in the word itself. But for to look, it is.

Now, I said that #2 is ungrammatical in that particular context, but it is possible to use in normal speech. The situation would be one where I was telling someone that I had been looking at a picture, but at the time, I completely missed the point of what I was looking at.

  1. I looked at the pictures, but I didn’t see them (implied: I didn’t recognize the significance or value of them or something to that effect).

11 thoughts on “Seeing and Looking

  1. Curious, isn’t it, that βλέπω in Classical Attic means “look at” but is the standard NT Koine word for “see.” ὁράω is the standard Classical Attic for “see” and retains that usage in NT Koine (454x), but is less frequent. βλέπω in GNT: 132x.
    Then there’s the celebrated text from Isaiah 6:9 καὶ εἶπεν πορεύθητι καὶ εἰπὸν τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ ἀκοῇ ἀκούσετε καὶ οὐ μὴ συνῆτε καὶ βλέποντες βλέψετε καὶ οὐ μὴ ἴδητε, which becomes crucial in Mark 4:12 ἵνα βλέποντες βλέπωσιν καὶ μὴ ἴδωσιν with its significant variants in Matthew and Luke: here βλέπω is clearly “look at without comprehension.”

  2. Interesting. My first impression after thinking about these two words for a moment is that “see” presents its subject as the passive recipient of what is seen, whereas “look at” presents its subject as an active searcher. I have nothing to say about markedness, but I have read that human cultures throughout history have conceived of vision differently, with some cultures (including the ancient Greeks) emphasizing the active dimension much more than we do today. Vision was thought to involve some kind of ray that was sent out of the human eye. Perhaps it is the case that, regardless of how we understand vision biologically, both the active and passive interpretations resonate with us? So, “I saw something” suggests that my eye received an impression of something; “I looked at something” suggests that my eye searched for something. This would explain both your pairs, Mike. “I saw them without looking at them” means something like ‘I received an impression of them without searching for one’ and “I looked at them without seeing them” means something like ‘I sought an impression of them but didn’t receive a good one (perhaps because I wasn’t seeking in the right way)’.

  3. “Rachel was asking me if I had seen some pictures online of a friend of our’s new baby and in my answer, I was struck by the semantic difference between to see and to look.”

    Oh, you romantic devil; you sure know how to talk to a girl…

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