Aristotle's claim that "it is impossible even to think without a mental picture" (On Memory and Recollection 450a) has frequently been echoed by subsequent philosophers. David Hume equated thinking with having mental images, since he appears to have considered ideas and images to be the same; for of any sense impression "there is a copy taken by the mind, which remains after the impression ceases; and this we call an idea" (Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part I, Sec. ii). The sole contents of the human mind are original impressions and these copies of them. Thomas Hobbes was stating much the same view when he said, "Imagination therefore is nothing but decaying sense " (Leviathan, Ch. 2).
Many other philosophers have also accepted the existence of such mental contents without examining their nature; they had assumed that images are things whose nature or existence is obvious to all human beings and that can most simply be described as "copies" or "pictures" of the external world. Views denying the existence of such objects have been rare; the chapter in Gilbert Ryle's Concept of Mind that seems to attack the commonly held view of the imagination as the power of producing mental images is felt by many to be contrary to normal experience. The images that Hobbes and Hume were talking of, and that Ryle attacks, are mental existents, depending on our prior experience of the physical world, though they may have objective counterparts in the brain. In this they differ from the Epicurean eidola or simulacra, which Lucretius defined as "images of things, a sort of outer skin perpetually peeled off the surfaces of objects and flying about this way and that through the air" (De Rerum Natura, Book IV, 11. 29ff.). These images Lucretius thought of as physical objects, albeit rather ethereal ones, whose function is to explain perception as well as images and dreams. When actual existence is attributed to them they are made to resemble the physicists' "real images," which are the representations of objects formed on screens or in space by lenses, or on the retina of the eye by the same mechanism. Physicists also talk of a "virtual image," a visual appearance that cannot be detected by physical means in the place in which it seems to be (for example, the appearance of objects behind the mirror's surface). This usage, which implies that there is something unreal about the image, is nearer to the normal philosophical or psychological use than is that of the term real image. The connection between "image" and "imaginary" is preserved in ordinary usage.
Images as the Meanings of Words
Undoubtedly the strongest desire to maintain the existence of mental images has come from the need to provide something to serve as the bearer of meaning for words of our language. George Berkeley's attack on John Locke in the introduction to The Principles of Human Knowledge is mainly concerned with this question. Against what he took to be Locke's view of the existence of "abstract general ideas," or the meanings of general terms, Berkeley argued that images must be particular. It is, he claimed, impossible for anyone to form a general idea (by which he clearly meant "image") of a triangle, for it would have to be "neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once." Whether Locke had meant this by his argument for abstract general ideas will not be discussed here; the important point is that Berkeley may be said to have shown that in some cases thought may proceed without images, because there could be no image or "mental picture" to correspond with some terms of our vocabulary.
Nevertheless, it may still be claimed that imagery is an important part of our mental life; this is argued by H. H. Price in his Thinking and Experience and elsewhere. Empirical evidence would appear to show that there is considerable divergence in the amount of mental imagery experienced by different individuals; Sir Francis Galton (in Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development ) stated that imagery tended to be lacking in "scientific" minds and to be common in those of artistic bent. The Würzburg school of psychologists in the early twentieth century maintained that their experiments proved the existence of "imageless" thought. The difficulty here lies at least partially in determining what is to be called a "mental image." Although most people, as has been said, understand the instruction "Picture to yourself a familiar building" and claim to be able to do so, it is obvious that what they do in such a case is not the same thing as looking at a picture or photograph of the object, and it is not clear what connection this ability has with that of using the words of a language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that if some form of mental picture is needed to "give meaning" to a word, then an actual picture can be used instead; for example, asked to get a red apple, a man could use a color chart that gave a specimen of red opposite the word red. He could then compare apples with this sample until he found one that matched. Those who think of images as being essential to the use of language are talking as if each person carried such charts "in his head" and proceeded in the same way in the absence of an actual sample. The difficulty with this view, in Wittgenstein's opinion, is that the command "Imagine a red patch" can be given and obeyed; here it is obvious that the "mental sample" will be of no use or will lead to an infinite regress. The image can itself be recognized as red without the use of any intermediary, so there is no reason why a specimen of red should not also be recognized. Most people do, in fact, immediately recognize specimens of the common colors, though they may need a chart for the rarer ones. Wittgenstein summarized his attack on the false picture of recognition as follows:
It is as if I carried a picture of an object with me and used it to perform an identification of an object as the one represented by the picture. Our memory seems to us to be the agent of such a comparison, by preserving a picture of what has been seen before, or by allowing us to look into the past (as if down a spy-glass). (Philosophical Investigations, Sec. 604)
There are two further difficulties about this view of the image as the bearer of meaning. First, it is not clear how an actual picture functions, and second, the comparison of the image with a picture itself gives rise to difficulties.
Functioning of Actual Pictures
Price has stated that "both words and images are used as symbols. They symbolise in quite different ways, and neither sort of symbolisation is reducible to or dependent on the other. Images symbolise by resemblance" (Thinking and Experience, p. 299). Price's arguments for his weakened version of the imagist theory rest, as the quotation shows, on the assumption that images, like other pictures, are related to their objects by resemblance. Such a view assumes that there is no problem in recognizing a picture of, say, a man as a man. Just as anyone who could pick out a real man could identify a mirror image of a man, so, it is thought, could he pick out a pictorial representation of a man.
But what is to count as a picture of a man here? A child's matchstick man consisting of five lines and a circle? A rough sketch? A "lifelike" portrait by a Royal Academician? A life-size photograph? As the art historian E. H. Gombrich has shown in his Art and Illusion, the representation and the recognition of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface is a sophisticated activity. Our children are taught something of the appropriate techniques at about the same time as they learn their native language. There is no basis for feeling that the procedure of representing objects in these ways is more "natural" than describing them by means of words. It has been said that some primitive peoples find it impossible to recognize a photograph of one of their number because they have not learned to interpret the pattern of black and white in the appropriate way. Yet it would seem that a photograph is the most "natural" representation because it is the product of a purely objective projection of the object; drawings and paintings depend on a variety of learned techniques of representation.
It is necessary to distinguish between the way in which a picture is produced and the use that is made of it. There may be a method of projection, but it is not because of that method that we accept the picture as a likeness. Furthermore, it is not clear from the picture itself, though it may be from the title, what it is meant to be the likeness of. A picture of an oak may be that of a particular historic tree (King Charles's Oak, for example), an example of an oak tree for purposes of identifying the species, an illustration for a general article on trees, a sign for a forest, or a composition to hang on the wall for its "artistic" quality. Without some rule it is impossible to tell what the picture is for and hence what its subject is; its meaning, what it symbolizes, lies in the use we make of it. In the context of a botany class it may be quite clear that the picture of an oak is being shown to enable students to identify specimens of that tree; here the rule is given by the situation in which the picture is used. Similarly, it is clear that the man who carries a photograph of his sweetheart does it to remind himself of her, uses it as a kind of substitute for her presence. Real pictures have a variety of uses.
Images as Pictures: Objections
A picture may be used to give information; from a picture of the Pantheon it is possible to discover the number of columns in the facade. But as Jean-Paul Sartre points out in L'imaginaire (p. 117), an image of the Pantheon may not be sufficiently detailed to enable this, even though before the question was asked the agent thought his image was perfectly clear. If he does not already know the number, then he cannot count the columns in his image. In this the image differs radically from the picture. Furthermore, it is usually known what the image is an image of without the need to inspect it for clues. Even when an image arises in the mind and cannot be recognized, no closer examination will provide clues to its identity; we have to wait until the name comes to us. In the extreme case of dreaming, we may "recognize" a person even though his characteristics are entirely different from those possessed in real life. A picture, on the other hand, may be identified gradually by the collection of clues. Thus, "having an image" of an object differs from contemplating either the object or a picture of it. The image is not a picture in a special private gallery (cf. Ryle, op. cit., p. 247).
Part of the difficulty, as Ryle stresses, is due to an excessive concentration on the sense of sight; we naturally talk of "picturing" or of "visualizing," but there are also aural, tactual, and olfactory imagery. (A blind man's imagery, presumably, would be entirely of these kinds.) But in these cases there is no recognized means of representing the sound, touch, or smell—what would such a process be like?—and hence no temptation to talk of such images in terms that are drawn from the inspection of physical representations.
We do find it very natural to talk of mental images, and because external objects are normally described in visual terms, these terms are also applied to images.
Images are not always under our control; a person may find he is "haunted" by the image of a street accident or by the cries of the victim. Images do occur and must be accounted for. But to say this need not lead us to think of them as "decaying sense." Such a description would apply to afterimages, caused by staring at a bright light and then looking away. But these are actually perceived and can be physically located, on or just in front of whatever is looked at. Mental images have no location and are not related to public visual space; it is useless to ask a subject, as some psychologists have done, to project his mental image onto a screen, for it is impossible to look at the physical world and contemplate an image at the same time. But the "seeing" of a visual image or the "hearing" of an auditory one is only, in Sartre's terminology, a "quasi observation"; as Ryle puts it, "an imagined shriek is neither louder nor fainter than a heard murmur. It neither drowns it nor is drowned by it" (op. cit., p. 250; despite differences in terminology, there is a measure of agreement between Ryle and Sartre on this topic). The "quasi-observational" nature of our apprehension of images is marked by the device, naturally adopted, of putting quotation marks around "see" and "hear" in this context.
Nevertheless, the question "What is a mental image?" is wrongly posed, for it implies that there is some definite mental content to which the words can be applied. As has been shown above, the similar question "What is a picture?" equally has no definite answer. A picture may be regarded as a pattern of pigment on a piece of canvas, and much can be said about it in this respect. But such a description leaves out of account its function as a picture, which may be to recall the face of an absent friend. When it is being used for this purpose its characteristics as a physical object are ignored; the person is seen "through" the painted representation. It is he in whom we are interested. Similarly, when a mental image is being used it is the object that is of interest to us, not the image itself. "When we are thinking, although we must know what our images are of, it is not necessary for us to know what our images are like—even whether they are clear and distinct, or fuzzy and shifting" (D. W. Hamlyn, "The Stream of Thought," 71). Indeed, it is hard to see how it is possible to know "what they are like," for they are described only in terms of their objects. In the case of the portrait there is a public object that can be described in physical terms and serves as the "analogue" of the absent friend.
It has been suggested that there are similar analogues in the case of mental imagery—for example, movements of the eyeballs. These may well occur, but their occurrence is not part of what is meant by having an image. In the case both of the picture and of such movements it is the way in which an existing but absent object is indicated or referred to that constitutes the essence of the representation. Sartre has suggested that we can set up a series of representations, starting with a photograph, continuing with a full portrait, a drawing, a caricature (which may be a few lines on paper or a piece of behavior on the part of an actor). All these are ways of indicating a particular person. The series can be continued with a mental image, and finally with the person's name. These different ways of thinking of him depend on a relation of meaning. "For the contents (images for instance) which accompany or illustrate them are not the meaning or intending. … If God had looked into our minds He would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of" (Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 217). Or whom we were thinking of. So far from being the vehicles of meaning, images are dependent on a prior ability to mean or intend particular objects for their very existence. In this they are like pictures, but this fact must not lead us into talking of our apprehension of images as if it were the inspection of private pictures.
Aristotle. On Memory and Recollection.
Aristotle. On the Soul.
Berkeley, George. The Principles of Human Knowledge.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan.
Hume, David. Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. I.
Locke, John. Essay concerning Human Understanding.
Lucretius. De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things ).
Flew, Annis. "Images, Supposing and Imagining." Philosophy 28 (106) (July 1953): 246–254.
Furlong, E. J. Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1961.
Furlong, E. J., C. A. Mace, and D. J. O'Connor. "Abstract Ideas and Images." PAS, Supp., 27 (1953): 121–158. A symposium.
Galton, Francis. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: Macmillan, 1883.
Gombrich, E. H. Art and Illusion. London: Phaidon, 1960.
Hamlyn, D. W. "The Stream of Thought." PAS, n.s., 56 (1955–1956): 63–82.
Harrison, Bernard. "Meaning and Mental Images." PAS, n.s., 63 (1962–1963): 237–250.
Humphrey, George. Thinking. London and New York, 1951.
Price, H. H. "Image Thinking." PAS, n.s., 52 (1951–1952): 135–166.
Price, H. H. Thinking and Experience. London, 1953.
Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'imaginaire. Paris, 1940. Translated by Bernard Frechtman as The Psychology of the Imagination. London and New York, 1949.
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Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953.
A. R. Manser (1967)
See also 23. ART ; 170. FORM ; 315. PHOTOGRAPHY ; 352. REPRESENTATION .
- 1. a two-leafed waxed tablet for writing with a stylus.
- 2. a pair of paintings or other images on two hinged leaves.
- a three-dimensional representation in photographic form, recorded on film by a reflected laser beam of a subject illuminated by part of the same laser beam. —holograph, holography , n.
- Obsolete, imagery.
- 1. the practice of destroying images, especially those created for religious veneration.
- 2. the practice of opposing cherished beliefs or traditional institutions as being founded on error or superstition.
- 3. the doctrines underlying these practices. —iconoclast , n. —iconoclastic , adj.
- iconodule, iconodulist
- a person who worships images.
- the worship or adoration of images. Also called idolatry . —iconolater , n.
- 1. the study of images.
- 2. iconography. —iconologist , n. —iconological , adj.
- opposition to icons or other forms of sacred imagery.
- a mania for icons.
- the mental image or representation of a real person or thing. See also 182. GHOSTS ; 309. PERCEPTION .
- a type of magic-lantern show in which rapidly moving images blend, change size, etc.; hence, any series of images that move and change rapidly, as a dream. —phantasmagorial, phantasmagoric , adj.
- sciamachy, sciomachy
- battle with shadows or imaginary enemies.
- 1. an image orlikeness.
- 2. a mere image or one that does not represent the reality of the original.
- the state or quality of appearing to be greater or more than is to be found on a close examination, as an argument that has the appearance of merit but does not stand up to a close look. —specious , adj.
- symbology, defs. 1 and 2.
- 1. the study and interpretation of symbols. Also called symbolism.
- 2. representation by means of symbols. Also called symbolism.
- 3 . any system of symbols. —symbologist , n. —symbological, adj.
- an apparatus combining a telescope and the camera lucida, used for producing images of distant objects on a screen.
- a set of three paintings or images, each on a separate leaf, but hinged together.
- Bible. the worship of idols instead of God; idolatry.
Images ★ 1972 (R)
Minor Altman is a confusing mish-mash with the scenery more dramatic than the flick. Hugh (Auber jonois) has taken his anxiety-ridden wife Cathryn (York) for a weekend at their country retreat on the Irish coast. Cathryn is having hallucinations about dead lovers but Hugh doesn't seem to realize his wife is going nuts until it's too late. 101m/C DVD . Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais, Cathryn Harrison; D: Robert Altman; W: Robert Altman; C: Vilmos Zsigmond; M: John Williams.