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A New Way to See a Leaf


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 other day I came across a few pages, previously unknown to me, by a writer whom I know very well. Probably dashed off in a moment, when asked to say some things to a group of architects. I was bowled over by the playfulness, by the depths, by the startling comparisons, by the shining ironies, by the sheer wit of the piece. When I say that, I am talking about a production. You may detest my writer, and say it is all flash and no substance. I laughed from time to time; you were offended and can tell me why. There we go again, talking about something we know how to talk about. Lots of imagination, I say.

Does that have anything to do with images? Maybe, but not obviously. I might have asked the writer, were he alive, “Did you visualize the cemetery, or the deflowering of the bride on the train, or the Persian carpet, etc., when you put them into your essay?” Maybe he replies: “Never, I just write the thoughts as they come to me.” Or: “Yes indeed, everything is present to my mind’s eye as my pencil skims the paper.” Both answers are interesting, but they do not affect the fact that my author is a man of great imaginative power, as well as one who has the skill to write and argue, to move in a handful of words from a joke to an abyss.

In short, we know how to recognize, admire, or fear the power of imagination. We know how to talk about it. But not about images. That must be why analytic philosophers have shunned them. Analytic philosophy depends on a steady, reliable way of talking. And now Colin McGinn, the very type of an analytic philosopher of mind, proposes to use exactly his sharpened skills in a reflection on images. Actually this is not quite such a surprise, for ever since “consciousness” became a hot subject in the Nineties, analytic philosophers have begun to say that they are going back to “phenomenology.” McGinn himself says he is doing the phenomenology of imagery. This does not refer to Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and others who are identified with phenomenology. It is rather a case of what William James called “introspection,” the process of looking intensely into one’s own mind, long discredited among psychologists. So McGinn is both analyzing and introspecting in his innovative little book.1

Did not philosophers formerly talk much of images, as well as of the imagination? Yes, but remember we live in a world in which imaging as a mental act is not prized. Imagination, yes, but imaging, I suggest, no. Shamans and other priests once earned their living seeing what no one else could see. Did they see in the world of their mind, or out there? For us that is one big difference, but for many another civilization it did not matter one whit. Closer to home, take the arts of memory. Before the invention of printing, scholars had prodigious memories, and there was a whole raft of techniques for remembering. As a primer, you learned how to visualize a very complicated room, with lots of tables and niches. To remember a complex store of information, you mentally placed objects, people, even ideas, on standard places in this template room. Those skills are no longer needed.

McGinn is not one to lure us into thinking about the past. One of the delightful things about his new book is that none of his fellow philosophers of mind has had much to say about images, so he has no need to get into the dry business of referring and refuting. There are only two twentieth-century masters to whom he resorts, namely Wittgenstein (in scattered but powerful remarks) and Sartre (in a little book of 1940 called L’Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination2). A class act, I’d say.

Nevertheless, loyal to his roots, he starts with Hume. Hume began by distinguishing what he called “impressions” and “ideas.” Impressions include, he said, “all our sensations, passions and emotions.” Ideas are “faint images of these in thinking and reasoning.” And what distinguishes the two? Hume was the model for every future positivist. There is, he said, nothing to distinguish them, in our consciousness, except the fact that impressions have a greater degree of force or vivacity. What on earth could he have meant by vivacity? Usually he can be read like a twenty-first-century thinker, but here he seems like a visitor from an older world, now lost to us, accessible only to scholars and then but dimly. McGinn will have none of that. Hume should be read without further interpretation. Hume was just wrong. McGinn is not quite as blunt about Hume as William James was—“The slightest introspective glance will show to anyone the falsity of this opinion”3—but he is much of the same mind.

McGinn gets to Hume on the first two pages of Chapter 1. We are reminded of the distinction between actually seeing something—having what McGinn calls a “percept” of it—and merely visualizing it within the mind. What, asks McGinn, is the difference between these two experiences? Rephrasing, in a not very obvious way, he asks, “In other words, how do percepts and images differ?” The classic answer, he replies, was given by David Hume—and then comes the quotation about impressions and ideas. Hume’s answer was wrong because the difference between percepts and images is not a matter of degree, of force or vivacity. It is a difference in kind.

And here is a curious fact about McGinn’s analysis. It is strictly within Hume’s framing of the subject. There is an initial dichotomy out there. Hume wrote of a distinction between impressions and ideas. McGinn does not use these words. He speaks of a distinction between percepts and images. This is a truncated version of Hume’s dichotomy. Hume’s impressions were very rich, spanning all the items that “make their first appearance in the soul,” starting with (to use Hume’s words, which may not have meant the same to him as to us) sensations, and proceeding through the passions to the emotions. McGinn’s percepts do not stray far from the sensation end of this range of experiences. McGinn writes as if the word “percept” picks up Hume’s impressions, and “image” picks up his ideas—without remainder. This is a little misleading, for passions and emotions have been dropped from percepts, and Hume’s “ideas” cover a lot more than images. Perhaps we should read Hume in a way that makes better sense of his words—when one of the most brilliant and careful thinkers in history says something obviously false on his second page, it may be our reading, rather than his words, that is at fault. But Hume will not concern us further. What does concern us is the persistence in McGinn of a dichotomy between “percept” and “image.”

As is so often the case in philosophy, it is the first step that counts. Here the first step is the dichotomy. In analytic philosophy, it is also the first word that counts. Here we have the word “percept.” It will not be familiar to most readers. I never spoke or wrote it in my whole life until now. McGinn does not define it. The OED teaches that it was invented by nineteenth-century philosophers, and that it had two senses. In the first sense, a percept is an object of perception, as one of them put it, “outside the organism of the percipient,” so not in the mind. Perhaps even the hectic leaf itself could be a percept, that very leaf we looked at this afternoon. But in the second sense the percept is the “mental product of perceiving,” and so definitely not the leaf in the hand, but a mental product. “Percept” could be a very handy word, even if you scrupulously avoided saying in which of these two senses you were using it. How disagreeable it is that the old bully appearance-and-reality is hiding just around the semantic corner waiting to bop you on the nose.

  1. 1

    Fifty years ago Merleau-Ponty explained—unkindly—how he saw the difference between introspection and phenomenology (Phenomenology of Perception, original 1945, translated by Colin Smith, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, p. 59). I have little enthusiasm for phenomenology, but I do suggest that Husserl and his descendants now own the name. In his latest book, Seeing and Visualizing: It’s Not What You Think (MIT Press, 2003) Zenon Pylyshyn says in his preface that both “ordinary language philosophy” and “phenomenological inquiry” try to give “a satisfying description in terms…of how seeing and imaging appear to us.” Those are proj-ects to which he has no objection, but as his title implies, he thinks scientific explanation will lead to a very different type of account from either. I expect that many scientists would agree.

  2. 2

    A remarkable history of l’imaginaire and l’imagination in French cultural and political history is to be found in Jan Goldstein’s new book, The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850 (Harvard University Press, 2005).

  3. 3

    William James in The Principles of Psychology (Holt, 1890), Vol. 2, p. 46.

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