In mutual gaze, we experience another person intimately

There is the experience between people that is described as ‘lost in conversation’. What is this like? Well, it occurs in normal social interactions, when people have conversations. There is an interchange of information and feeling, if you like, and a degree of cooperative effort (‘give and take’) between the conversationalists. When it works, ‘lost in conversation’ means effortless and natural conversation between people, when opinions and words circulate without impediment.

Of philosophic interest in this experience is the subjective absence of a sense of self (Cole, 2001). In the situation of being ‘lost in conversation’, I am, as Merleau-Ponty suggested, ‘in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in mine’ (Merleau-Ponty,1964). To have a conversation with another person, and to be lost in it, is to be drawn into a quality of relatedness to the other person, to his face and words, such that the other person is inclined to respond to me (think how a child perceives a smile as a smile). Attentional absence of oneself in conversation and social interaction may signal social competence (Leder, 1990).

Persons with facial difference may never experience this absence of a sense of self. A person with facial disfigurement may fear looking at another’s face for fear of what the other will think (Cole, 2001). Not fear of thought in the mind, but fear of thought clearly personified in the face of the other. In this situation, there is no mutual gaze between conversationalists, no sense of intimacy or empathy with the other. The result is that those with facial difference develop a fragile sense of self, which they are not prepared to risk – as we routinely do – in conversation or social interaction.  

The gaze of a person has the capacity to penetrate, to create a demand. This is the demand that I reveal myself to you. At the same time, the existence of facial difference creates an opacity between a person and the other who seeks to relate to him or her. This opacity of the face revealed in facial difference is the source of stigma associated with facial difference – because the face is always visible – and the recognition on the part of someone with facial difference that his or her face stands to the other as his does to me is the origin of shame.  


Cole, J. 2001. Empathy Needs a Face. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No. 5-7, pp.51-68.

Leder, D. 1990. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chcago Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1964. The Primacy of Perception. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.