Concerning Mental Pictures

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Concerning Mental Pictures Arthur C. Danto The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 55, No. 1. (Jan. 2, 1958), pp. 12-20. Stable URL: The Journal of Philosophy is currently published by Journal of Philosophy, Inc..

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thought clear since he has not explained why he does not consider "brittle" a mental adjective. My own belief is that the distinction between what is mental and what is physical does not lie in any intrinsic character of either, but in the way in which we acquire knowledge of them. I should call an event "mental" if it is one that somebody can notice or, as Professor Ryle would say, observe. I should regard all events as physical, but I should regard as only physical those which no one knows except by inference. Although it might seem as if my disagreement with Professor Ryle were linguistic, this is only superficially true. I t is from differences as to the constitution of the world that he and I are led to different views as to the most convenient definitions of the words "mental" and "physical' '. One very general conclusion to which I have been led by reading Professor Ryle's boolr is that philosophy cannot be fruitful if divorced from empirical science. And by this I do not mean only that the philosopher should "get up" some science as a holiday task. I mean something much more intimate: that his imagination shonld be impregnated with the scientific outlook and that he should feel that science has presented us with a new world, new concepts and new methods, not known in earlier times, but proved by experience to be fruitful where the older concepts and methods proved barren. BERTRAND RUSSELL CONCERNING MENTAL PICTURES


may be led to assert propositions of the form "There is po such thing as X" for any number of reasons, but I wish only to distinguish two very general types of reasons we might give for asserting such propositions. I n the first place, there are propositions like "There is no such thing as a unicorn" or "There is no such place as South Thalymus, Rhode Island"-propositions which happen to be true by virtue of certain zoological and geographical facts. I shall call all such propositions factually-based. On the other hand, we can distinguish propositions like "There is no such thing as an eight-sided triangle" or "There is no place bearing the name 'Nowhere.' " I shall call all such propositions linguistically-based. Persons who may be inclined to deny true and factually-based propositions of this sort are guilty only of ignorance and may be rebutted by the proper kinds of remedial factual education. But persons who somehow deny true and linguistically-based propositions of this form may be accused of not understanding the logic of their language, and are only to be



disabused of their waywardness by the patient labor of linguistic therapy. To be sure, it is not always an easy matter to decide whether certain propositions of this form belong in the one class or the other. Ontologists have long debated over propositions like "There is no such thing as Giraffehood," and, in general, the history of thought has often seen denial-of-existence propositions transferred from one class to another. I t must once have seemed that "There is no such thing as a finite unbounded world" was true on linguistic grounds, though i t was later declared false on factual grounds. And similarly, "There is no such thing as Material Substance" must once have seemed false on factual grounds, only later to be declared true on linguistic ones. I t is particularly linguistically-based denial-of-existence propositions which have latterly come to attract the analytical scrutiny of philosophers. What I wish to do here is simply to reclassify one such proposition, namely a contention by Professor Ryle to the effect that "There are no such things as mental pictures." This statement may be found embedded in the chapter on Imagination in T h e Concept of Mind; and, if I understand him correctly, Ryle wants to maintain there that the statement is both true and linguistically-based. I , however, want to maintain that people are not in fact misled by their language when they claim that there are mental pictures, in spite of Ryle's argument that though people are entitled, f a ~ o nde parley, to speak of seeing things in their minds' eyes, this does not count as proof that there are mental pictures for them to see there. I shall argue that Ryle's is really a factual hypothesis which I, for one, cannot accept, chiefly because I know that there are mental pictures. I am maintaining that the statement in question is false and factually-based. Ryle thinks that because visual observation holds pre-eminence over other kinds of observation in common experience, and because, again, there are visible simulacra of visible things, there is the unfortunate result that we tend to misdescribe certain kinds of imaginations in visual language. Whether this is or is not correct etymology I am not prepared to say, but I do not believe the result is unfortunate. I think it perfectly natural to speak of certain kinds of imagining in visual terms because the kinds of imagining to which I refer consist in the actual mental gazing a t actual mental pictures. And I shall hope to show that Ryle's contrary argument is based upon an ignoratio elenchi.

When I speak of mental pictures, I mean the following sort of thing. Right here and now I can see in my mind, and without

T H E JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY using my eyes, a mental picture of Kuniyoshi's Nishiren i n the Snow. I am not supposing that I can see this mental pictnre, nor am I under the impression that I am really seeing something with my eyes-something which is in this room and outside my head and which seems to be or look like the Kuniyoshi. I am aware that the paper counterpart of my mental picture is really a.ot anywhere in the room a t this moment. My eyes are not shut, they are gazing at the wall, and at the same time I am gazing at the mental picture. It does not block out any part of my visual field. But there are the brown tree, the grey sky, the falling flakes of snow, the curve of houses along the shore, the man bending into the wind with his red robe and yellowish pack. I could count the twigs, the houses, I can discern the diagonal slope of the hillside. Now, if I may paraphrase Ryle's text, he would say that I am not really witnessing a mental picture, but I am only seeming to see a physical, mulberry-paper and ink picture which isn't here a t all. I am not, he would say, being a spectator of a resemblance of a n actual Japanese print; rather, I am resembling an actual spectator of a n actual print. This sounds more like a description of a pantomimist than of me a t this moment (characteristically, Ryle's analysis of imagination employs words like "make-believe," "pretending," "mock," etc.). For the fact is, I am looking a t the wall with my eyes while seeing the mental picture with my mind's eye, but am not projecting the mental picture onto the wall. I don't seem to be seeing two things when I am actually seeing one : I am seeing two things, though admittedly in different ways. Ryle's analysis of mental pictures is, as I shall try to show, really a n analysis of illusions. And that is why his is an ignoratio elenchi. For in no sense of the word "illusion" am I, in mentally seeing Nishiren. i n the Snow, having an illusion. I t would be an illusion if, for instance, I glanced a t the wall with my eyes and took something there 'to be the print which wasn't the print a t all, or if I sincerely (but wrongly) believed that my eyes were witnessing the print in question. But these are not the same kinds of experience I am now reporting. Ryle ranks the witnessing of mental pictures with such nonveridical experiences as A's non-ostensive glimpse of a ghost or B's hypochondriacal suffering from imaginary gastro-enteritis. When we say that A and B only imagine that they are respectively glimpsing and being afflicted, we are using "imagine" in one special sense of the word, namely, in the sense in which the putative content of their experiences is imaginary. Were one to ask where exists the imaginary ghost or the imaginary gastro-enteritis which A and B vagrantly imagine to exist, we would properly answer



"No~~here." That is what we mean by "imaginary" and as soon as we decide that mental pictures are similarly imaginary, it becomes tautologous to ?laim that they do not exist. But the point I would urge is that at least some mental pictures (indeed anything which I would class as a mental picture) are not imaginary in the way in which ghosts and sham-illnesses are. Now I am mentally witnessing a mental picture of a green centaur against a mauve sky. Centaurs I know to be imaginary, and neither do I now fancy, nor have I ever fancied, myself as seeing a centaur with my eyes. I would worry about myself if I did. But my mental picture is not imaginary the way its content happens to be (and of course I can easily produce mental pictures with non-imaginary contents). I don't know what i t would mean to say that I only imagine that I am gazing at a mental picture of a centaur: I could only really be said to imagine I were seeing a picture of a centaur in case I thought I were truly seeing with my eyes a painted (say) picture of a centaur when there was no picture to be seen. Then I would have been imagining something to be the case which was not, and I would have been in error. When someone put a better light on the spot and showed that it was really a picture of Hercules, or when further investigation revealed that what I took for a painted picture of a centaur was but an intricate shadow, then I would say that I had been imagining things. To imagine in this way, then, is to take something for something else, or to mistake nothing for something. I , however, am not thinking that my mental pictures are anything other than what they are: I would not try to get other people to see them because I cannot show them to other people (unless I transfer them to paper or copy them or describe them publicly). I would not offer them for sale, nor try to send them to the framers, nor hope, by turning on the light, to get a better view of them ( I can see them when the room is pitch-black). To look at mental pictures, then, is not the same thing as to imagine one is seeing non-mental pictures with the eyes. Yet all except one of Ryle's examples are examples of the latter sort of thing. The one exception is a n olfactory one and lies beyond my own experiences. So I shall consider only the visual examples, and examine two of them. There is first the example of a child who imagines that her doll is smiling. She is not, Ryle claims (correctly), looking at two things, a doll and a spectral smile. She is looking at one thing only, an unsmiling doll which she fancies to be smiling. The smile is not on those painted lips, for, if it were, the child would be seeing, not fancying. Nor is the doll uncharacteristically really smiling, for if it were, the child would be frightened. Nor

T H E JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY is the smile hovering somewhere betwixt child and doll, Cheshirefashion, for there are no disembodied smiles. Accordingly, there is no smile about: the child is only seeming to see something with her eyes which we regretfully disallow as part of the world she gazes at. And Ryle is right, but he is talking about an illusion, not what I term a mental picture. For, to be crudely hardheaded, that child is deluded, however charmingly. Now, right at this moment I have decided to and do entertain a mental picture of a smiling doll. I do not fancy that I am with my eyes witnessing a smiling doll or any spatially distended doll-there are no such in my room. ( I could easily enough witness a mental picture which contained me looking at a doll.) No, I am mentally gazing at a doll which happens to be imaginary (in the sense that she duplicates no real doll known to me), but which I know to be imaginary on the same grounds on which I know my mental picture not to be imaginary. Ryle says that, though imagery occurs, images are not seen. This is false unless "seen" means "with the eyes.'' But I claim the ability to see mentally, in the sense that I can only report the mental pictures I behold in visual terms-colors and shapes. Mentally seeing mental pictures of dolls is not the same thing as remembering what dolls look like, or thinking about seeing dolls, or knowing how to describe a doll (for I can do all those things without at the same time gazing at a mental picture). Ryle may doubt that I am gazing at a mental picture, but I can't doubt it. I t is what is going on in my head a t the moment. As a second example, Ryle cites the familiar case of not quite knowing how to spell a word. We write down the first few syllables and then we somehow seem to see the rest of the word written out, as it were, just to the right of the nib. Yet we know in such cases, as Ryle again correctly claims, that there is no shadowy half-word imprinted on the page and waiting to be inked in, for we know the page to be blank just where we seem to' see those marks. So there is no "mental picture" of an incomplete word for us to see. But Ryle continues to speak of illusions, in this instance one of those common semi-illusions familiar I am sure to most of us, where habits of perception conflict with what we conceptually know to be the fact. A similar case occurs when we seem to see rabbits pulled out of a magician's hat which we know were not in the hat to begin with. Of course we don't, in Ryle's language, see "shadow rabbits coming out of spectral hats." We seem to see real rabbits coming out of real hats, and we know we are victims of a hand being faster than our eyes. But this again fails to tally with what I mean by mental pictures. Here I have



produced a mental picture of a magician. He is pulling silver rabbits from a golden helmet and he is standing on stilts with Mt. Vesuvius smoking behind him. I can transfer to this mental picture the same illusions of prestidigitation I would be taken in by were I now with my eyes looking at a real magician. But there is no magician before my eyes: I am doing nothing with my eyes at all. Nor do I need to do anything with my eyes to look a t mental pictures. Ryle says "We already know, and have known since childhood, in what situations to describe persons as imagining that they see or hear or do things." And so me do. But to say that the provincial Bostonian imagines the State House to be the highest building in the world, or that Smith imagines he is hearing mice when it is only the door creaking, or that Baby imagines she is playing the piano when she is only making noise-to say all these things is to speak of people as being mistaken, or taken in, or deluded. But when an artist tells me he can see the Ghent Altarpiece any time he wants simply by conjuring up a mental picture, or when a musician claims he can hear a melody in his head and at the same time determine the harmonies, I might claim that these persons were imaginative, but not that they mere making mistakes or reporting illusions or employing language metaphorically. I believe they are reporting the truth. Ryle flatly says that to have a mental picture of Helvellyn is "imagining that Helvellyn is right in front of our noses." I don't know what Helvellyn looks like, but I shall suppose it looks like the Grand Tetons. I may be mistaken in this supposition. However, I now am gazing at a mental picture of those mountains I know. I don't for a moment imagine them to be right in front of my nose, nor have I ever imagined that any mental picture was right in front of my nose. If they are anywhere, they are behind my nose, I suppose, though I prefer to say they are in my mind. The point is, I never think to locate them outside my head, but I have never been much concerned to locate them at all, save perhaps with respect to one another. My mind, to contradict Ryle, is like a picture gallery or, better still, is a special gallery in which only mental pictures may be hung. I can bring my mental pictures up for a closer look, I can focus on details, change the colors if I need to, and I can turn a mental picture upside down (though Ryle 1 I n strict accuracy, I can only turn a mental picture upside down by mentally placing i t in a frame. That is, I can contemplate a mental image of a room I am familiar with, but I can only turn the image upside down if I make a picture out of it by framing it. Thus my mental space a s such is incapable of rotation, but any image which doesn't fully occupy this space can easily b e rotated.



claims I can't). And all this without seeming to be in a physical gallery, or even imagining that I am in one. For I know the difference.

I felt much the same incredulity when Ryle denied the existence of mental pictures that some denizen of the Antipodes might have felt upon learning that wise men asserted such a place to be impossible. He could follow the argument but reckon its conclusion a gross exaggeration. The question is, why should Ryle be persuaded that all there is to mental pictures is seeming to see things with our eyes and being niistalren? I realize that it is probably no fairer to employ an argunzentum ad honzinenz than it is to resort to an ignoratio elenchi, but I strongly suspect that Ryle never has mental pictures the way I do. And I will venture the conjecture that the difference between us isn't a matter of language but a matter of physiology: I think our minds are different because our brains are different. It is a reasonably wellknown fact about brains and mental behavior that alpha-rhythms are generally incompatible with visual imagery. Dr. Grey Walter, in his interesting book, The Living Brain, reports that most but not all persons are so constituted that the alpha-rhythm-the pattern characteristically present when the eyes are closed and the mind a t rest-ceases abruptly when the mind begins to work or the eyes arct opened. There are, however, two other groups of persons with fairly stabilized characteristics: those whose alpha-rhythms periist even during mental effort and ocular witnessing, and those who fail to show alpha-rhythms even when the mind is a t rest and the eyes are closed. Characteristically, those with persisting alphas don't, and those without alphas do, entertain a great deal of visual imagery. This can be supported introspectively by tests of the followilig kind. Walter asks a number of persons to divide, mentally, a painted cube several times, and then to calculate the number of painted surfaces which result. He then asks them what color the cube was painted, how it was cut, whether they could see sawdust falling, etc. While these questions don't make much sense to persons with persistent alphas, or are deemed merely metaphorical by them, they are taken literally and given positive answers by those without alpha-rhythms. Indeed, some of the latter group even maintain that the interviewer had specified that the cube was of a certain color. I realize that this is the sort of "wires and pulleys" answer that Ryle dislikes, and I am not sure that I am correct in my brain-wave ascriptions



(though this is for once a decidable controversy in philosophy !), but for the moment it is the only way in which I can understand why Ryle7s arguments do not make sense to me, and why persons who claim that there are mental pictures seem to Ryle to be linguistically misled. I wish to remark, however, that when people like myself or others claim to see mental pictures (which they never confuse with other kinds of pictures) they may still remain neutral with respect to any special theory of mind. I mean, for one thing, that propositions about mental pictures do not follow as deductive consequences from either the Ghost-in-the-Machine theory or any other theory known by me to have been held by any philosopher. Rather, such statements are quite non-theoretical, non-philosophical reports of mental occurrences, made by ordinary non-philosophical speakers of ordinary language. Here, at least (and this is true for a good bit of Ryle's book), Ryle is not criticizing any philosopher, nor any philosophical system, but quite ordinary persons whom Ryle seems to feel don't know what they are talking about. I, for one, enjoyed mental pictures long before I read a page of Descartes, or any philosopher for that matter. Nor has anything I ever read in Descartes, or in any other philosopher, one whit weakened or strengthened my belief in the existence of mental pictures. I never felt, and do not now feel, that this sort of thing requires philosophical support the way, for example, philosophical support might be required for one's belief in the existence of free-will. And similarly, I never felt either that it merited or was vulnerable to philosophical attack. For it is not a philosophical matter. Mental pictures are part of the facts of mental life that would have to be accounted for by any adequate theory of mind, I suppose. I t is always possible, and sometimes convenient, to solve philosophical problems by classing any recalcitrant phenomenon as unreal or merely subjective, and it is similarly possible to lump mental pictures in with illusions or linguistic slips. But this can hardly conduce to a very great understanding of the extraordinary complex mental life of human beings. Now, if my thesis is correct, I still would not feel that the Ghost has thereby been resurrected and made substantial. The Ghost is no more entailed by mental pictures than my mental pictures are entailed by it. But I do think my thesis raises some problems about the limits of ordinary-language analysis in general, and Ryle7s doctrine of privileged access in particular. If nothing else, I hope I have shown that Ryle has not, on this point at least, adequately mapped our language about minds, for he has mistaken a factual issue for a linguistic one. How far a different alpha-

rhythm might have altered his general views on minds is a problem of counter-identities, and one I am not prepared to ponder. We ought, however, r h e n we philosophize, to make sure that we are not generalizing for all men on the basis of what might, after all, be a special physiological fact about ourselves. But we can always counter such a generalization by citing special physiological facts about ourselves. And this is what I have tried to do. ARTHURC. DANTO COLUMBIAUNIVERSITY




the immense legacy left by British Empiricism, a very considerable portion concerns sense impressions and their role as mediators in the transaction of knowledge. Whether referred to as ' 'sense-data, " "presentations of sense, " "sensible appearances, " " sensa, " ' ' qualia, ' ' " givens, ' ' or simply "sensations, ' ' these presumed objects of direct awareness figure prominently 111 the realistic epistemology of Russell and his follo~vers,in the analytic approach of Broad and many others, in the common-sensism of G. E. lfoore, in the logical einpiricism of the Vienna Circle, and in the conceptualistic pragmatism of Lewis. Sense impressions have been eulogized as the ultimate data of all science, the primary objects of acquaintance, the locus of scientific certainty, the source of clarity, the touchstone of significance, and the basis of factuality. A t the same time many practicing scientists and scientifically trained philosophers prefer to take operationistic measures to avoid the appeal to private data, and seek to confront sensationistic empiricism with the fait accompli of a direct awareness of public objects. While complete disregard of sense mediation suggests the nayvet6 of a species of realism that is now a thing of the past, still the scientist's distrust of the sense-datum is understandable in connection with the vagueness of its definition and the insecurity of its scientific status. Empiricists have indeed been slow to point out the identifying marks by which sense-data are to be recognized, and to specify the ineans by xhich they are to be bounded and set off from whatever else may be given in direct experience. That these difficulties are not idle is vouched for by the fact that the experimental approach to the psychology of perception does not encounter genuine sensations a t all, and tends to regard the sense-datum coiicept as, at best, a hypothetical construct re-