Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XII: Sartre’s Imagination)

In 1940 French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published “The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination” in which he expounds his theory of imagination. Sartre is frequently cited as a prominent critic of mental imagery - as indeed he was - but his work is nonetheless far from rejecting mental representation altogether. For Sartre what we call a “mental image” is in fact a jumble of interlaced and simultaneously available representations, or what he calls an "Analogue" of perceptual experience. According to Sartre, when we imagine something our consciousness is not directed toward an image but rather the object is directly apprehended:
The imaginative consciousness I have of Peter is not a consciousness of the image of Peter: Peter is directly reached; my attention is not directed on an image, but on an object.
In neither case (perception or imagination) is the object – a chair for instance - actually physically present in consciousness, that would be impossible. Instead we have "a certain type of consciousness, a synthetic organisation, which has a direct relation to the existing chair and whose essence consists precisely of being related in this or that manner to the existing chair." He argues that perception and imagination are identical relations between consciousness and reality.

Despite his criticisms of mental imagery, it is strange that Sartre should be so willing to use the term "imagery" extensively to refer to these figments throughout his book. Mary Warnock, in her 1972 introduction to "the Imaginary", also raises issues in this respect:
…so what is this object of my consciousness? To what am I attending? We have to remember that Sartre has said that there can be no image in the mind. But it is here that he genuinely appears to vacillate.
To be fair to Sartre, it is not in the least surprising that he struggled over the question of mental imagery. It is a subject that has vexed numerous eminent philosophers and scientists alike and continues to do so. So, rather than dwelling on this weakness in his theory, perhaps it would be more illuminating to ignore his vacillations and focus our attention elsewhere.

One of Sartre’s more radical claims is that we can learn nothing from mental imagery. In comparing mental images with the “overflowing of the world of things” – of perception –  he writes:
“The image [i.e. mental image] teaches nothing: it is organised exactly like the objects which do produce knowledge, but it is complete at the very moment of its appearance. If I amuse myself by turning over in my mind the image of the cube, if I pretend that I see it’s different sides, I shall be no further ahead at the close of the process than I was at the beginning: I have learned nothing. […] No matter how long I may look at an image, I shall never find anything in it but what I put there.”
Warnock finds this “neither entirely clear, nor, as far as it is intelligible, strictly true". She gives the example of envisaging some previous acquaintance to establish whether or not he has a moustache and she finds that this “example suggests that we may sometimes believe ourselves to be able to find out more about something from our image”. Warnock may be right that Sartre is not entirely clear on this issue but I think something important may be falling between the cracks. No doubt Sartre would agree that it is sometimes worthwhile striving to recall what we barely remember, and trying to ‘picture’ – as we say – whether someone does or doesn’t have a moustache may be an excellent way to tease out a residual memory. But the point Sartre is making is a more profound one I think. He is engaged in distinguishing between perception and what he occasionally - and helpfully - terms the “quasi-observations” of imagination. For Sartre what we call mental images are the products of memory – that is to say – what we have experienced and remembered, and in this sense they are unlikely to teach us anything we do not already know. If imagination is fuelled by memory, then it would seem to be perfectly consistent to say that we “shall never find anything in it but what [we] put there”.

But where Sartre oversteps the mark, and where Warnock is right to question his claims, is on the subject of our ability to learn from our imaginings. If to imagine were simply to remember something then he would be correct and there would be nothing further to be discovered. But imagination is not simply a process of linear memory recall of uninterrupted episodes. If it were so, then why distinguish between memory and imagination? Unlike straightforward memory recall, imagination allows us to recombine and compare fragments of memories in order to form inferences, to plan, anticipate, and problem solve. If through such cognitive recombination we arrive at realisations that had previously been unavailable to us, then I think it would be true to say that we do indeed learn, or at the very least we come to form ideas and intentions that have the potential to direct our actions in ways that lead to productive learning.

So, we should probably be a little skeptical of Sartre’s claims. He undoubtedly has a lot to offer in terms of raising and discussing some important issues at a time when few others were interested. But despite its seeming radicalism, Sartre’s view turns out to be somewhat less illuminating than might be hoped. Having said this, he does have one or two important things to say about the relationships between intention and imagination. This will be the next stop on our journey through the neural networks of the imagination and as we begin to look a little deeper into the subject we should see how intention plays a pivotal and widely recognised yet poorly understood role not only in imagination but in consciousness also.


Seán said...

Never mind that shit! Here comes Mongo!

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Sean,
I'm guessing you mean "Mongo just pawn in game of life."

Seán said...

That's him.

Jim Hamlyn said...

"Well Mongo aint exactly a who, he's more of a what."

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