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Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book The Imaginary, describes a mental image of a chair as follows:

"My perception is, in accordance with the terminology that we have adopted, a certain consciousness and the chair is the object of that consciousness. Now I close my eyes and I produce the image of the chair that I have just perceived." (p. 7)

After saying this, he goes on to assert that his use of the word "image" is primarily in keeping with the traditional use of the word in philosophy. However, in order to avoid ambiguity, he believes that it is better to speak of it as a relation:

"The word 'image' could only indicate therefore the relation of consciousness to the object; in other words, it is a certain way in which the object appears to consciousness, or, if one prefers, a certain way in which consciousness presents to itself an object." (p. 7)

According to Jonathan Webber, who wrote the introduction to the book, this is not simply a question of terminology. Rather, it represents Sartre's stand against the traditional philosophical position:

"This is probably because in the three hundred years preceding the publication of The Imaginary, perception itself was generally understood as involving mental pictures. On such a view, to say that mental imagery consists in contemplating mental pictures is to say that it is akin to perceptual experience, and vice versa. This is the view that Sartre calls 'the illusion of immanence'." (p. xx)

The following might help to clarify Sarte's position:

"Now – this is, above all, what reflection teaches us – whether I perceive or imagine that chair, the object of my perception and that of my image are identical: it is that straw-bottomed chair on which I sit. It is simply that consciousness is related to this same chair in two different ways. In both cases, it aims at the chair in its concrete individuality, in its corporeality. Only, in one of the cases, the chair is 'encountered' by consciousness; in the other, it is not. But the chair is not in consciousness. Not even as an image." (p. 7)

First of all, it seems to me that what qualifies something as being an image is that it looks like an image. Sartre closed his eyes and could presumably see a extendend figure with contours, edges and perhaps color. He does, for example, give a very vivid description of hypnagogic images:

"It is a question, indeed, of a world in perpetual motion: figures are transformed, in rapid succession, a line becomes a string, a string becomes a face, etc. In addition, each figure is animated by translation movements and rotations, which are but whirling wheels of fire, shooting stars that descend quickly, faces that approach or recede." (p. 47)

Secondly, the fact that he closed his eyes seems to indicate that the relation between conciousness and its object was broken. Although it might be claimed that an intentional relation remains, the mechanics of closing the eyes seems to be a very definitive way to break any visual relation.

Because of these considerations, his aversion to the use of the word "image" seems rather baffling. If the perception of something with all the characteristics of an image is, in fact, not an image at all but a relation, couldn't we equally conclude that there really is no such thing as an image? What could the word "image" possibly mean if it requires more than appearing as an image?

Perhaps a more important question is: What does Sartre gain by this? If mental images have all the characteristics of images, in what way is he really differentiating his position from the traditional view?

  • See Intentionality: "Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs." If when I think at a chair I'm producing the (mental) image of the chair (I've previously seen), what happens when I think at a number, or at God ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 11 '16 at 13:16
  • The image I have of a table I see before me, is nothing like taking a photographic image of said table; perhaps it's better to say representation rather than image? – Mozibur Ullah Mar 11 '16 at 13:22
  • @ Mauro Allegranza - I can't visualize God or numbers, but I can visualize a chair, so I have no idea what point you're trying to make. Sartre's descriptions of mental images are very image-like. – user3017 Mar 11 '16 at 13:35
  • @ Mozibur Ullah - I'm sure the philosopher's before Sartre could also distinguish between mental images and reproductions such as drawings and paintings. However, such discernment was not considered sufficient grounds for rejecting the word "image." An image is simply a likeness. When I close my eyes I can picture a likeness of the same things as when my eyes are opened. – user3017 Mar 11 '16 at 13:44
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To understand this passage, we have to note that Sartre inherits Husserl's theory of intentionality. For Husserl, all intentional mental states have both a content and an object. I am directed at the object (in this case, the wooden, physical chair) via the content. By contrast, many other theories of intentionality hold that intentionality is a relation between a subject and a mental content (such as, for example, a mental image). The mental image of the chair is not physical, not made of wood, but something purely mental. For example, sense-datum theorists hold that I am intentionally directed at a sense-datum, say, a brown patch, and I infer to the existence of the physical, wooden chair. But for Husserl (and so Sartre), there is no inference here; there is in fact an intentional directedness on the physical, wooden chair itself. I am not intentionally directed at a mental image of a chair, I rather have a direct encounter with the chair by means of the mental content that my mental act has.

Now in the passages you cite Sartre is attempting to refute the "classical" view of imagination. The classical view consists in two main theses, only the first of which is relevant to your question. This is the thesis that the image we concoct in our mind during imagination is an object of some sort---say, a purely mental object like a sense-datum. This is the crux of Sartre's objection: that the classical view reifies mental contents into mental objects.

First of all, it seems to me that what qualifies something as being an image is that it looks like an image. Sartre closed his eyes and could presumably see a extendend figure with contours, edges and perhaps color. He does, for example, give a very vivid description of hypnagogic images:

So to answer this question: when Sartre mentions the word "image," this is a term of art, a technical term that should be understood in a strict sense. He isn't denying that we have an image in our mind, in any non-technical sense. But he is denying the image-theory of imagination in exactly the sense of the image as the object-relatum of an intentional relation. That's why he's saying when we imagine the chair, the object on which we are directed is still the chair itself, that physical thing made of wood and nails; we are not directed on, related to, an image of the chair. The representation in the mind is an act of consciousness, by virtue of which I am directed on the chair itself by means of an imagination rather than a direct perceptual encounter.

Secondly, the fact that he closed his eyes seems to indicate that the relation between conciousness and its object was broken. Although it might be claimed that an intentional relation remains, the mechanics of closing the eyes seems to be a very definitive way to break any visual relation.

Indeed, when one closes one's eyes the chair can no longer be the distal cause of a mental perceptual experience by acting on my visual system. However, the intentional relation in Sartre's theory of intentionality is not identical to the causal relation between me and the chair. The intentional relation is a formal relation by virtue of which the chair is an object for my consciousness, and this can happen with or without the causal relation between my eyes and the chair's physical surface. Even in the case of vision, the intentional relation is not identical to the visual-causal relation. For example, suppose there were three hundred chairs stacked in a room. All three-hundred are acting on my visual system, yet the one I establish an intentional relation with is the one I attend to.

What Sartre gains by this is that there is a categorical distinction between perception and imagination, a view radically different than the traditional account. Imagination is not merely a deficient perception, as the traditional view holds. More specifically: if you held the classical view and thought that both perception and imagination were an intentional relation to a sense-datum, for example, then the only way to differentiate perception from imagination would be to say that the sense-data involved in imagination were of the same type as those in perception but differed in their vividness, clarity, etc. On Sartre's view, the difference is a difference in the manner in which one represents things in consciousness, i.e., it is a different type of act that consciousness carries out. In one case, that of perception, consciousness executes an act that gives it a direct encounter with an existing object as existing. In the other case, that of imagination, consciousness executes an act that only gives the object as non-existent or not present. This is important for Sartre's wider account of phenomenological ontology.

  • Excellent answer, very lucid and thorough. – Conifold Sep 20 '18 at 21:08

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