A New Way to See a Leaf

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn; drawing by David Levine


It is autumn. All around, the leaves are blown. Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red. We may disagree a bit, perhaps, about the hectic red. For you, that is a bit over the top. Why invoke a fevered hue when this splendid maple leaf is just plain bright red? Pick up a leaf of another color. You think that is from a poplar? It is the leaf of an aspen. And so on: we know how to talk about these things, if they interest us.

How different it is with mental images (if that’s the right term). From now on I shall, in the spirit of Colin McGinn’s subtitle, just say “images” meaning “mental images,” “image” as sense 6 in the American Heritage Dictionary, “a mental picture of something not real or present.” That is sense 5 in the OED—in most of its meanings, there is nothing specially mental about “image.” Some people say they can visualize the leaf we held in our hands this afternoon, right down to the small black spots, and the tiny hole eaten by an insect. Others say they cannot think of doing that. I visualize the face of an elderly friend, crippled with arthritis, but grimly hanging on. Or do I? With what detail? Some people say they use images to help them remember intricacies. Others say they just remember. If they are able to form an image of the face, it is because they remember how it was: it is not that an image guides memory, but that memory produces an image, or the sense of imaging. We have no agreed way to talk clearly about such things.

And why should we? We need to be able to answer questions about the things around us, even leaves, on occasion. All peoples have evolved extraordinarily precise ways of settling issues about the things that matter to them. My images matter to me, but they do not matter much to us as a group. Many things about the mental life of others do matter. I want to know if I have hurt my neighbor’s feelings, or if a colleague on a committee has it in for me, or if the reason I got such-and-such an honor was that it was finagled by an old schoolmate whom I have not seen for decades. But it does not matter so much, or at all, whether the neighbor, hating me, has an image or not, or if the person of influence still has an image of me as the youth that he has not met since. The powers of visualization of my colleague are irrelevant to whether he will be able to vote against my proposals. We do not need to have a way to talk clearly about other people’s images.

Of course some people are more imaginative than others, and that matters—but not because of images. The…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.