Our books

Become a Fan

« What drew you to philosophy? | Main | Bullied or self-imposed? I don't think it matters--people should be encouraged! »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Pete Mandik

Are you aware of the phenomenological penny wars? There's apparently some dispute about whether obliquely viewed coins have an elliptical appearance. I think they do, and am amazed that there's room for controversy. But apparently there is. See this for instance: http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/Flat.htm


Loved the Zombie Fight. I was surprised that Pete doesn't identify with Nagel's "What's it like to be...." criterion/'intuition pump'. I think it´s not obviously easier asking "What is it like to be another person?" than the bat question. Some might think, ´Well, it is OBVIOUSLY easier: It's intra-specific, so it's just about empathy'. But that misses Nagel's original insight (about subjectivity and perspectivism). Nagel's not looking for an argument from analogy, an inference. The worry might be that Nagel proves too much: "The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point point of view". So maybe nobody knows what it's like to be anything! But in fact Nagel's argument against current reductions survives that awkward consequence.
Looking forward to Zombie Fight 2! Anyway, thanks.
Ralph Brooker

Gary Williams

Regarding individual differences in visual imagination, William James wrote about this in Chapter 18 of Principles of Psychology, basing his writings on the psychological work of Francis Galton, who was famous for conducting "anthropometric tests" of individual differences.

Daniel Brunson

I too fall into the 'no visual imagination' camp. Also, to follow up on Gary Williams' post, Peirce makes similar observations as James, and uses them as part of a critique of copy-theory empiricism. Here is a representative passage:

We remember it [sensation]; that is to say, we have another cognition which professes to reproduce it; but we know that there is no resemblance between the memory and the sensation, because, in the first place, nothing can resemble an immediate feeling, for resemblance supposes a dismemberment and recomposition which is totally foreign to the immediate, and in the second place, memory is an articulated complex and worked-over product which differs infinitely and immeasurably from feeling. Look at a red surface, and try to feel what the sensation is, and then shut your eyes and remember it. No doubt different persons are different in this respect; to some the experiment will seem to yield an opposite result, but I have convinced myself that there is nothing in my memory that is in the least like the
vision of the red. When red is not before my eyes, I do not see it at all. Some people tell me they see it faintly -- a most inconvenient kind of memory, which would lead to remembering bright red as pale or dingy. I remember colors with unusual accuracy, because I have had much training in observing them; but my memory does not consist
in any vision but in a habit by virtue of which I can recognize a newly presented color as like or unlike one I had seen before. But even if the memory of some persons is of the nature of an hallucination, enough arguments remain to show that immediate consciousness or feeling is absolutely unlike anything else. (CP 1.379)

Marcus Arvan

Daniel: *Really* fascinating stuff. Visual (and auditory) imagery are such an enormous part of my life that I have a hard time imagining life without it. In fact, my standard way of solving philosophical problems is through "picturing models" in my head--so it's hard for me to picture (pardon the pun) how you do philosophy! :P

Daniel Brunson

Well, I can still manipulate models without a Tony Stark-hologram interface in my mind's eye, but it's more 'felt' than 'witnessed'. But it's perhaps a bit like blindsight - I can close my eyes and still accurately point at objects before me, or even recall where a quote is on a page, without seeing more than 'static'. So clearly my brain is doing some modelling work despite not sharing its diagrams with my consciousness.

My own joking response: How can you do philosophy with your eyes closed?

Marcus Arvan

I have a quick follow-up question for those of you who lack visual imagination. When you dream, do you experience visual images?

Daniel Brunson

I hardly ever remember my dreams, but sometimes, sort of. Incidentally, a phenomenological reason for dismissing the argument from dreaming.

Andrew Stephenson

I have no (or very, very little) visual imagery and Idon't really know what it would be like or what people are talking about - I honestly find it really hard to believe (though I know I probably ought to believe) that it's actually like seeing.
I, like Daniel, hardly ever remember dreams or even dreaming. When I do, it is no more visual than when I close my eyes and 'imagine' a friend (or whatever).
Sometimes I wonder what I'm missing, but again, like Daniel, I still feel like I can very well mentally manipulate models - I tend to call it seeing the structure of a certain chunk of logical space, but there's nothing literal to those words, except insofar as there is a suggestion that the tracing of a chain in the space, say, is quicker, and, I want to say, less explicitly linguistically articulated than it would be if I thought through the argument in words.
More generally, there must be data on whether differences in reported degree of imagery track differences in recall/descriptive/etc abilities. I vaguely remember being told that there is such data and that is suggests no particularly significant tracking, but perhaps that's just me hoping...

Phil H

I think there is a lot more variation in phenomenological experience than many philosophy papers seem to assume. In fact, I think there is a lot more variation in many areas than philosophy papers seem to assume - ethics experiments which assume that variation in moral instincts can be captured with binary choices spring to mind; or philosophy of language which assumes that variation in definitions is a matter of combinations of features. The desire of philosophers to capture the universal can perhaps sometimes lead to premature claims of universality for what is actually particular experience. Much philosophy would be improved by paying close attention to how people describe their own experiences and beliefs. It's impossible to cast aside all models and assumptions, but we should certainly try.


I was wondering about this too after hearing their conversation.

I have more of Richard's experience. I was wondering if it was not just poor translation between the two positions, maybe with some phenomenological peculiarities thrown in. When people say they have a "mental image" of an apple or imagine an apple, they do not mean they see it with the same vividness as they would see an actual apple, do they?

Also following Richard, I am more inclined to say I have an image of a melody in my head. But I think there may be a subtle confusion there as well. There is a difference, I think, in having a thought in my head (in words) as compared to hearing the same recording of that thought actually played on a recorder. There may be enough overlap in the two however for me to presume the mental thought to be very similar images to real language. The same may be true with music, with the capacity to run through a line of notes in one's head capturing much of the phenomenology of hearing actual music, but yet the images or conceptions may be significantly different in ways that we ignore.

As far as dreaming, I feel like there are "real" robust images of apples in my head during dreams, how vivid that memory is of those representations can of course be questioned. But, when I close my eyes and concentrate and imagine apples it gets no where close to such imagery, such representations, as during real life or during dreams. Do Mandik and other imagers really have something more robust?

Marcus Arvan

Lyndon: Thanks for sharing your phenomenology. In fact, even before you commented I was going to say that my mental visualizations are *exactly* like dreams. When I daydream, remember scenes from the past, or even imagine an image of an apple, it really is no less vivid for me than in a dream: I can *see* whatever it is I am visualizing. I think I am probably a bit odd/extreme in this sense. I can literally "shut off" my eyes and enter into an "inner world". This sometimes gives others the impression that I can be a bit of a "space cadet." Sometimes I get so lost in inner visualizations that I forget to see or hear things going on around me!

Daniel Brunson

More from James' Psychology: A Briefer Course (pp. 302-5):

Our ideas or images of past sensible experiences may be either distinct and adequate or dim, blurred, and incomplete. It is likely that the different degrees in which different men are able to make them sharp and complete has had something to do with keeping up such philosophic disputes as that of Berkeley with Locke over abstract ideas.


Until very recent years it was supposed by philosophers that there was a typical human mind which all individual minds were like, and that propositions of universal validity could be laid down about such faculties as 'the Imagination.' Lately, however, a mass of revelations have poured in which make us see how false a view this is. There are imaginations, not 'the Imagination,' and they must be studied in detail.

[Some phenomenology of the two extremes.]

A person whose visual imagination is strong finds it hard to understand how those who are without the faculty can think at all. Some people undoubtedly have no visual images at all worthy of the name, and instead of seeing their break-fast table, they tell you that they remember it or know what was on it.

James' Psychology

Daniel Brunson

Sorry, the link didn't come through:


'The Imagination' is chapter XIX, starting on page 302.

Pete Mandik

Response to Lyndon. My visual images are rarely as vivid as open-eye visual perceptions, but the images do vary in vivacity. Especially at night, when I'm pretty relaxed, but not drowsy, I can form incredibly vivid visual images. My main means of distinguishing them from perceptions is not vivacity, but the directness of control that I can exert upon them.

I also find it to be introspectively clear that there's a difference between a thought and a visual image. One sort of example that brings this out is to form a visual image of an expanse of red while simultaneously thinking the thought "this is not an image of an expanse of green." I also find Descartes remarks about chiliagons pretty convincing on this matter.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread