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February 21, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

Seeing vs. Judging: A Lesson from The Great Gatsby

“What’s the difference between seeing and judging?” one of my students asked me yesterday.  Our class had just finished reading  The Great Gatsby, a classic novel whose narrator, Nick Carraway, claims to be an honest and nonjudgmental person.  The student is now writing an essay in which he’s trying to determine whether Carraway actually lives up to this claim.

“That’s an excellent question,” I replied.  We agreed that Carraway spends a good deal of time observing the characters and circumstances around him.  We also had no difficulty determining that he makes judgments, doing so with increasing speed as the novel progresses.  Still, that didn’t answer the question.

A dictionary wasn’t much help.  It defined seeing (for these purposes) as “coming to know” and judging as “forming an opinion through careful weighing of evidence.”  Using these definitions, one could say that “seeing” equates to awareness, while “judging” means having an opinion about that awareness.

Still, neither of us was completely satisfied about where seeing ends and judging begins.  Therefore, I’m asking you: at what point does seeing (or describing) something move from perception to judgement?

Both the student and I are looking forward to your insights… or judgments!

Edit (3/5/2013):  I’ve noticed that quite a few people looking for information about The Great Gatsby have clicked on this post.  Therefore, let me direct you to my publicly available curricular materials on the unit that I just taught.   Feel free to post questions you might have for me about the book or the materials in the comments section at the bottom of this post.


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  1. armenfirman / Feb 21 2013 11:33 am

    I think it is impossible to differentiate between the two. When one observes something, a judgement is formed to some degree. How you perceive something encompasses both it’s sight and its meaning.

    The narrator of Gatsby serves as a way to view Gatsby from the outside, a way to judge him from the outside. This might imply that the only way to not judge something when seeing it is to see yourself, as you have nothing for contrast, and why the story is told from an outsider’s perspective, rather than Gatsby’s own.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 21 2013 11:46 am

      Thank you for your fascinating comment armenfirman! “When one observes something, a judgement is formed to some degree. How you perceive something encompasses both it’s sight and its meaning.” I think that incorporates the dilemma perfectly.

      One thing that has always intrigued me is that The Great Gatsby is a book whose narrator is an outsider to the protagonist. (Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is another good example of this and another favorite of mine.)

      Good luck with your meditation practice (I like the way you speak of sharing it) and blog:!

      • armenfirman / Feb 21 2013 1:31 pm

        Thank you. I have yet to read Roth, but a narrative that came to mind also was A Separate Peace by John Knowles (or the short story, Phineas). It seems all of the action is outside of the narrator, and the focus then comes to the narrator’s perception of the action. I like that analytical sort of literature.

        Best to you in your teaching! Sounds like you have some great students!

      • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 21 2013 1:33 pm

        Thank you for your kind words. Excellent point – now that I think of it, all three of those novels have a male narrator who platonically (some would say more than than in the case of Gatsby) worships the main character whom he describes.

  2. humblepie / Feb 21 2013 12:12 pm

    I’d have to take a bit of a solipsist view on this subject. We cannot be sure that anything other than our own mind exists, so while we may form judgement the moment be observe something, it’s only when we choose to share our description of something that we perceive that the judgement actually exists. When we merely see something, it’s immaterial as to how we color it: its ours alone.

  3. sonofmountmalang / Feb 21 2013 1:28 pm

    I just wanna say, i cant wait the movie:p

  4. Ink Pastries / Feb 21 2013 3:20 pm

    If we admit and subscribe to the belief that only God is omniscient, then we can never make a judgment concerning another via “our seeing.” We can only pray for understanding and ask God to help us understand how to help another, if they indeed need our help. To judge is to assume the opposite and to be guilty of what Satan was deemed guilty of: believing he could be God. “Opinions” are for Satan’s minions, but by humility comes Truth to believers. Like someone above said, we are sinners and therefore, by nature of the flesh, we judge. So we must submit all that to God’s grace by being reborn of Spirit. Then we are freed from our limiting opinions, and only then!

    • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 21 2013 8:07 pm

      Thank you for your comment Ink Pastries! I really appreciate the way you juxtapose judging and understanding. That’s a really beautiful way of putting it. 🙂

  5. octobertearoom / Feb 23 2013 1:09 pm

    Your question is still not answered. We mere human may be unable to see without judging, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between the two. I haven’t read The Great Gatsby in a long time, but the problem with Nick is not that he judgemental so much as he is an unreliable narrator.

    He always struck me as one of those young people with high ideals about what sort of man he SHOULD be, declares himself such, then can’t live up to it.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 23 2013 3:18 pm

      Thank you for your comment octobertearoom! (Great name by the way 🙂 I think you’ve beautifully illustrated the issue inherent in seeing (or any of the sense doors), that hopefully with practice we can recognize and therefore minimize.

      I completely agree with your characterization of Nick. The fact that he’s a potentially unreliable narrator, who is our only source for information about himself, is something I pointed out to my students. In keeping with you previous comment about how seeing inevitably involves at least some amount of judging, I also urged them to keep in mind that any narrator is at least to some degree both biased and unreliable.

      To take your thoughts a step further, the challenge, in reading literature and the world around us, might be to try to minimize this bias. I hope I’m not overstretching your point. What do you think?

  6. leazengage / Feb 24 2013 2:45 pm

    An important question indeed! Yes, that’s my opinion. 🙂 It’s a question I’ve wrestled with often. Yes, as we see we develop a response. That response, or opinion, could be called a judgment. But, since I value a nonjudgmental approach to life, it helps me to define judging just a little differently. We see, and then we evaluate. To evaluate is normal and even valuable. It’s what we need to do to learn and to direct our own lives according to our values (e-valu-ate). But when a person goes the NEXT STEP, which is to claim their superiority over someone or something else, that’s when I consider it judging and that’s completely different to me. So, it’s the intention behind the complete response.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 25 2013 1:09 am

      Thank you for your comment leazengage! Your approach is very similar to the one the student and I agreed that Nick Carraway initially applies to certain characters in The Great Gatsby. He sees them, then he evaluates. Unfortunately, he then diverges by criticizing them and then asserting his own perceived superiority both implicitly and explicitly.

      I can’t help but notice your wonderful username “leazengage.” The “zen” sticks out, in both the name and your perspective, but it’s the way you “engage” that I find even more appealing. Something I’ve recently realized, in large part due to conversations on this blog and others, is that what matters to me in travel and life generally is engagement.

      I’d be honored if you’d share your thoughts about what I’ve written recently about travel and engagement:

      • leazengage / Feb 25 2013 1:24 am

        Isn’t blogging wonderful? Yes, i also learn and get clarity through these digital conversations. And, isn’t it a gift that we get to connect with people across the globe just by logging in? 🙂 How fun to hear of your response to my name. My actual name is Lea Zengage and I admit that I see and love the zen and engage spin also. And, I would be delighted to share my thoughts on your travel and engagement post. It’s funny that you ask because in the past I’ve done quite a bit of traveling. I met some Russian people when I was a ham radio operator and ended up setting up an export / import business with them while it was still the Soviet Union. I ended up traveling there 11 different times. So, although I’m a bit of a home-body now, I have had some wonderful travel experiences over my lifetime. Thanks for asking and I’ll leave my thoughts with that post. Ok?

      • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 25 2013 1:42 am

        That’s wonderful, your name is very fitting then 🙂 I look forward to reading your thoughts on that post!

  7. Mary Cowley / Feb 25 2013 12:34 am

    My understanding is that “seeing” is perceiving something as it is. We experience that thing without the mental activity of naming it and forming an opinion about it, or “judging”. As we practice seeing, our perception becomes clearer and we move closer towards experiencing reality as it is. We move towards greater truth. Mental activity can be very useful, indeed necessary, as a focusing tool in human existence, but balancing it with the practice of “seeing” brings us to greater wholeness, fulfillment, and human mastery. Thanks for the question; I appreciate the opportunity to come to a clearer understanding for myself. Glad you like my RadicalBliss blog!

  8. A Mindful Traveler / Feb 25 2013 1:18 am

    Thank you for your comment Mary Cowley! (And for your wonderful blog What you say is beautiful and eloquent, and reminds me of a crucial section of the Bahiya Sutta which I’ve heard described as the most concentrated version of the Buddha’s teaching:

    “When, Bahiya, for you in the seen is merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘with that, ‘ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that, ‘ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.”

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