The Strange Feeling of Being Watched

Have you ever had the feeling that someone was watching you? It’s a feeling that many people talk about and it is seen as as a somewhat strange feeling, since it seems a bit uncanny that somehow we can sense that someone is looking at us. I would imagine that researchers have done experiments to explore this feeling and it would be interesting to know what they have concluded about the correlation between the feeling of being looked at and the fact that the subject was actually being observed. One is tempted to assume (if there is a correlation) that sub-consciously the subject detects the observer, e.g there is a movement on the edge of their visual field or some barely audible noise that suggests to them that someone is near them. And one could test this hypothesis by ensuring that the observer was never in the subject’s visual field and that the two were completely isolated from each in terms of noise etc. So there are all sort of things that one might explore empirically and I imagine somewhere (or probably in several places) this sort of research has been done.

So what’s philosophically interesting about this? Well, lets suppose that the empirical research shows that there is no real correlation (in fact, philosophically it does not matter what the research shows, but let’s just make this assumption for argument’s sake). So exactly what feeling are we talking about? Well, we have already been talking about it for a little while – it’s the feeling of being watched! The point, however, is that we do not notice a feeling that recurs and eventually realise that the feeling occurs whenever we are being watched. Rather the criterion for having the feeling is being inclined to say: “I don’t know why but somehow I feel as if I am being watched”. And if I say, “I am having that feeling again”, it is because I am again inclined to say: “I feel as if I am being watched”. This point is also crucial when I share my feelings with others – the criterion for others having the same feeling as me is that, for no apparent reason, they too suddenly feel inclined to say: “somehow I have a sense that I am being watched”. This may not seem that earth-shattering, but for me it is a good example of part of what Wittgenstein was getting at in the private language argument. As this example illustrates, inner experience seen as a private object knowable only to the subject cannot be the basis of a language game and certainly is not the basis of our language game of experiences and feelings. We do not have an experience and attach to it the verbal label “a feeling of being watched”. Relatedly, we do not have to worry that you and me may be using the same word to capture radically different private experiences. Rather our basis for saying that a feeling is recurring and for saying that you and I had the same feeling is that we use the same (or similar) words to express what we felt.

There are two other points that I think are worth highlighting from this example. First, it underlines the way people find each other in such uses of language. Of course, we don’t always find each other – sometimes when you express what you feel, I may be perplexed and say “I don’t know what you mean” or “No, I have never felt anything like that”. Or I may say: “Yes, I know just what you mean”, but then when I describe what I have experienced, you may correct me and say: “No. That is not the same as what I am feeling”. Take the trivial example we have been discussing. I have no idea how common the feeling of being watched is – my impression is that it is pretty common, so I assume that most people reading this will have had this experience, but I can well imagine that at least some will not. Their response might be that if people do say this kind of thing, it just shows that people say all sorts of rubbish!¬†Well, I deliberately chose an odd and not very important feeling, but even in this kind of case, it is often quite pleasant when someone else says: “yes, I know exactly what you mean”. Of course, no one is going to make this feeling the basis of their life or rule out being friends with someone because they have never had this feeling. But this example does (I hope) call into question our temptation to take describing what goes on outside you as a good model for what happens when we describe what goes on “inside” us.

The second important point is what it shows about our relation to language. We do not learn the concept of watching in relation to feelings; rather it is learnt in relation to a certain sort of physical activity and then we suddenly use it in a completely new way as part of the expression of an experience. Could we imagine beings who did not have this sort of relation to language? I am not sure. I suppose one could imagine beings who talked only of a very limited set of experiences and feelings and where the words they used to express their feelings were taught in a direct relation to different pieces of behaviour, so their crying is replaced by “I am in pain” and their smiling by “I feel happy”, but it doesn’t get more complicated than that. They don’t say things like: “I feel happy but the happiness felt somehow unreal as if it belonged to someone else and not to me”. So the words they used to express their feelings and experiences would be signals and perhaps they could be quite complicated signals (“today my happiness reading is: 8.73″), but their language of self-expression would be rather different from ours. I don’t imagine, for example, that they would have any great love of poetry :-)


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