Mental Images and Content: Philosophic Approach
Philosophers often take a different approach to the topic of mental images than psychologists. Psychologists will often ask
WHAT CAN MENTAL IMAGES DO?
They will then attempt to investigate the matter empirically. Philosophers, on the other hand, are interested in questions
DO IMAGES REFER?
DO IMAGES HAVE CONTENT OR MEANING?
When these questions are answered first, a philosopher might argue, the question of what images do may need to be rephrased. If images can be shown not to refer or not to have content, then, no matter how it appears to us that images work, it must be the case that some other mechanism or structure is responsible for providing reference or content in the mental acts in question. So, for example, if it appears to us that our memory image of our dog refers to our dog, but we know (through philosophic argument) that images cannot refer or have content, then it is not really the image itself (or the image alone) that is doing the referring or providing the content.
There are several classic philosophic arguments in favor of the notion that images cannot refer. One line of argument is based on some conceptions about the nature of images in general. A strong intuition about the nature of images is that
AN IMAGE MUST RESEMBLE, IN SOME SIGNIFICANT
THAT WHICH IT IS AN IMAGE OF.
In the case of visual images, we should add that the image must VISUALLY resemble what it is an image of. Suppose that A is an image of B. That is, A significantly resembles B, or bears determinate correspondences to B. Now suppose A is the mental image of a stone, and B is a stone. In what sense, if any, does the image REFER to the stone? Note that we have said
A RESEMBLES B.
But this also means that
B RESEMBLES A.
The "direction" in stating the resemblance is purely arbitrary. If resemblance between two things could ALONE constitute reference, we could say the stone refers to the mental image just as much as the mental image refers to the stone. (cf. Landesman, 1972, p. 3).
Recall from our discussion of intentionality that the "direction" of intentionality is "one way." The mind is directed toward the object, not vice versa. We see, then, that resemblance appears to be a requirement of calling something an image, but resemblance alone does not constitute reference. There is, therefore, no "easy" way to show (as we might be first inclined to think) that images acquire reference simply by the fact that they "resemble" something.
If resemblance does not constitute reference, what other characteristic of mental images could be the source of reference? One possibility is that mental "things," or "intentional objects," such as images, aquire the property of referring by virtue of the fact that they reside "in" the mind. Brentano said that intentional objects need to exist in a knowing subject. If we understand mental images this way, they acquire intentionality automatically. The problem with this suggestion is that it does not establish anything much beyond what we already know. Mental images may be "in" the mind, but this still leaves our initial question unanswered: how do they acquire any particular meaning or content?
Wittgenstein wrestled with this last question. Consider Wittgenstein's famous example of the inclined figure: is it climbing up or sliding down? To be sure, we can establish a specific determination when we think of such a figure as, say, climbing up. But the image itself does no work in fixing the determination. The image (picture, sign, or mental image) need not change when we declare "let this now represent such and such." We may state the conclusion this way:
IMAGES REQUIRE AN INTERPRETATION IN ORDER TO FUNCTION AS IMAGES.
Since something else, e.g., statements, propositions, or perhaps actions, must provide the interpretation, we conclude that
IMAGES THEMSELVES HAVE NO CONTENT.
Images are inert. Therefore, many philosophers conclude that images, in an of themselves, do not refer.
This fundamental and powerful criticism of images is based on a conception of what
images are -- on their nature or being -- and has forced many philosophers to conclude (as I
idicated above in this document) that
NO MATTER HOW IT SEEMS TO US THAT IMAGES "FUNCTION" OR "WORK" IN OUR MENTAL LIVES, IMAGES CANNOT BE DOING THE ACTUAL WORK IN FUNDAMENTAL PROCESSES THAT INVOLVE REFERENCE OR CONTENT.
So, to repeat the example above, simply having the memory image of my dog cannot, in and of itself, constitute my referring to or thinking about my dog. Even more importantly, philosophers often conclude that because images cannot refer, they cannot have a fundamental role in any of the higher cognitive fuctions. This is especially evident, it is often claimed, when we considter abstract thought about mathematics, or other topics, for which there seem to be no images in any case. This line of criticism can be extended to form the basis of a set of objections that support descriptivism.
For an alternate view, see pictorialism.
Return to Introduction to Mental Images Page