There is a photo of my wife on the writing desk, next to my computer. She smiles happily. Nothing is more familiar to me in life than the image of her that I look at every day as I write. Here she is again. And the familiarity of her expression, its features and contours, has quite impressed itself upon me. Let us ask quite innocently: When I perceive my wife smiling in the desk photo, do I recognize her facial expression? The philosophers insist that facial recognition is an inner process, and so they offer a special series of events that is the recognizing. It is quite simple then: If I have perceived the facial expression in the photo before, then there is a stored copy of it in my mind. Any subsequent perception of her smile will coincide with the stored copy. Recognition follows! Perception breeds recognition. Or is that contempt? For it seems that, on this view, all objects – including familiar faces – lose to the philosophers of mind by too familiar a view.

Wittgenstein reminds us how we use the word ‘recognition’: ‘No one will say that every time I enter a room, my long familiar surroundings, there is enacted a recognition of all that I see and have seen hundreds of times before’ (Wittgenstein, Investigations, §603). Is it plausible to suggest that whenever I look at the long familiar photo of my smiling wife, I recognize her afresh? No, it is not plausible to think this. I do not recognize her afresh on each occasion I look at her face. Then, it means that I do not recognize her smile in the picture when I look at it every time? No, this is also not plausible. To claim that I did not recognize her would imply that I did not know her, which is absurd. Assuredly, if asked whether I recognized my wife’s smile in the photo when I sat at my desk this morning, I should certainly say ‘Certainly!’. Do I say this because I have an experience of familiarity or recognition? No. An unfamiliar face may confer on us a feeling of unfamiliarity, but it does not follow that a familiar face confers on us a feeling of familiarity. In normal contexts, there is simply no reason to doubt that I could fail to recognize my wife. We do not budget for recognitional failure when encountering familiar faces in normal circumstances. It is misconceived to think that whenever one perceives a familiar face, one recognizes it. Since there is no passing from not knowing to knowing in such a case, we make no provision for failure. In familiar faces, we neither recognize nor fail to recognize the face one encounters.

Let us clarify this important point. According to the philosophers, it seems that the only option to recognizing is that one fails to recognize – which is clearly not the case when I encounter the wholly familiar smile of my wife. If I fail to recognize her, do I therefore experience a feeling of unfamiliarity? Is facial recognition normally a process? Recognition of my smiling wife may be prefaced by a process of trying to recognize her facial expression if I have enough reason to do it – though it would be quite strange of me to do this normally – but recognizing itself is not a process. I can decide to try to recognize, but not to recognize. Trying to recognize my wife’s smile takes time, but the recognizing that is the result of this effort does not. Whatever mental images, feelings or sensations go on while trying to recognize her face they are not part of the recognizing, since recognizing is not a process and does not take time. I may be interrupted in trying to recognize your facial expression, but not in recognizing your facial expression. My trying to recognize you may be incomplete, but not my recognizing you. What is told by the micro-expressions on a face may be conveyed by trying to recognize something there, but in this task one is not engaged in recognizing. Again, just as the mental image experienced during recognition of your face doesn’t imply that I recognize your face, it doesn’t follow that I recognize your face merely from the fact that I am trying to do so. The verb ‘to recognize’ is an achievement-verb, not a process-verb or an activity-verb (Hacker, 1996). Facial recognition, being an achievement, takes no time. Therefore, it is not a process or activity per se.