Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” -Justice Potter Stewart, 1964

I think interpreting Stewart’s words as mere ‘gut feeling’ is a discredit to how we see what we see. If gut feelings are merely personal characteristics then in this case it is entirely out of place.

For example, we know the color blue when we see it, and no one would call that a ‘gut feeling’. Knowing ‘blue’ depends on what we have learned, and yet it is difficult to explain what blue is. “It’s that”, we can say, pointing to something blue, we can name blue things, but not necessarily say how we make that determination. We can compare it with other colors, give it a place in a system of concepts and practices, but it may go no farther than that. In the end we may be left with only “This is what we call ‘blue'”, nothing more. (Compare with ‘pornography’)

As Wittgenstein says, we learn to play the game, often without having been explicitly instructed what the rules are (On Certainty, 95). An important consideration.

We do not use concepts only at the point where things are fully explained.

Have you ever heard of the illusion of explanatory depth? Examples are things like knowing how to use a zipper and yet not being able to explain how zippers work. Another one is that most folks have ridden bicycles at one time or another, or at least seen them ridden by others, and yet when asked to draw what one looks like many people invariable get the relation of parts wrong.

Our ability to effectively navigate the world does not depend on our ability to have it explained, much less the condition of it already being explained for us. And it is not our ‘gut’ alone that makes up the difference in the unexplained. This is why understanding Wittgenstein is so crucial.

“I want you to remember that words have those meanings which we have given them; and we give them meanings by explanations. I may have given a definition of a word and used the word accordingly, or those who taught me the use of the word may have given me the explanation. Or else we might, by the explanation of a word, mean the explanation which, on being asked, we are ready to give. That is, if we ARE ready to give any explanation; in most cases we aren’t. Many words in this sense then don’t have a strict meaning. But this is not a defect. To think it is would be like saying that the light of my reading lamp is no real light at all because it has no sharp boundary.” The Blue and Brown Books, p. 27

We simply don’t always explicitly understand the ‘why’ or ‘what’ of things we are familiar with. Or need to. As Wittgenstein also notes, at the end of the day it often comes down to simply “This is what we do.” And “I know it when I see it” is precisely another expression of that. The need for necessary explanations has been eliminated, postponed, or at least cordoned off.

And if knowing it when we see it is mere gut feeling, then so too is using zippers, knowing what a bike is, recognizing the taste of coffee, knowing which colors are what, and in fact much (if not most) of what we are familiar with in our lives. And that is of course nonsense. We just don’t operate against a background where everything either IS fully explained or even necessarily CAN be explained. We need to learn to see this as not always being a defect and not always a reliance on personal gut feelings or instinct. It is simply how human life gets on. Understand that.

The conclusion, then, is that it is NOT ‘gut feeling’ which alone stands familiar on the other side of a fully explained world. This too needs to be fully recognized and accepted.