The phenomenology of imagining

I’ll close my eyes and imagine some shape. Maybe I’ll go through a geometrical proof. I notice that there is a very great difference between what imagining is actually like, and how I talk about imagining.

When I close my eyes and actually imagine things, there are no pictures: I close my eyes and see all black, then I imagine a shape and I still see all black. Again, taking a picture of a snowflake makes something whiten, but imagining doesn’t. There is, for example, no field of consciousness that whitens. It’s not that something whitens in a “less vivid” way, as Hume would have it – nothing whitens at all. And where is this shape I’m imagining anyway? As soon I try to see where it is, it vanishes.

This whole argument appeals to experience:  if you  come back and tell me that you actually see red when imagining stop signs, I can’t say anything to it; but I doubt that this is the case. When I look out my window at the snow and imagine stop signs, the one image isn’t placed over the other (If it were, I’d see pink). Say I look out at the sidewalk and try to imagine someone there that I really want to see. How do I “see” “them” “there”? None of the colors I look at change, nor do I sense anything differently, and yet the very process of “seeing” in this way can increase the pulse rate.



  1. Mike Flynn said,

    January 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Not sure, myself. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish imagining a stop sign from conceiving of a stop sign. When I imagine a stop sign I get a red hexagon with the letters STOP inside it. But when I conceive it, it is its essential stoppiness that comes to mind. To the extent that it is possible to conceive of a stop sign without imagining one!

    I can imagine “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and I will sorta kinda “hear” the tune. But imagining the smell of haddock is another kettle of fish.

    My memories are “memories that…” not replays of realtime sensations. I remember that I pain

  2. January 3, 2013 at 12:56 am

    The problem is closing your eyes, imagination works better if you simple cease looking while your eyes are open.

    Capacities vary.

    I can replay back to myself songs and conversations identical to how they sounded to me when I heard them. Others cannot.

    I couldn’t do a geometrical proof in my head to save my life, nor can I with any sense of vividness imagine a red stop sign, but I can visually as well as conceptually work out fairly complex three dimensional architectural problems in my head which is rather useful because of the plasticity of the medium even though it does lack the precision required of the built form.

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