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Paul Crowther

How Images Create Us


Imagination and the
Unity of Self-Consciousness
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Abstract: This paper offers a phenomenology of the structure and


scope of imaginations cognitive significance. It does so through dis-
cussing the unifying role of imagination in self-consciousness, and
then the way in which this role is continued through the making of pic-
tures in physical media such as drawing and painting. The study
begins with discussion of four key features in terms of which imagina-
tion is often characterized. Particular emphasis is assigned to the
quasi-sensory aspect. Part one then explains imagination as a capac-
ity subject to the will, whose exercise enables a blendingbetween the
object imagined and the subjective style in which it is imagined.
Through imagining, the imaginer comes to inhabit the object. Parts
two and three explore this inhabiting in relation to memory and the
imagining of possibility per se. Part four explains how picturing takes
imaginative inhabiting to a level of completion.

Far away is close at hand, in images of elsewhere.


A piece of graffiti formerly on a wall
outside Paddington Station, London

Introduction
As a mental activity, imagination is widely regarded as the capacity to
represent what is not immediately present to perception. This is often
analysed in terms of four closely related aspects spontaneity,

Correspondence:
Paul Crowther, Philosophy, School of Humanities, National University of Ireland,
Galway, Ireland.
Email: paul.crowther@nuigalway.ie

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, No. 1112, 2013, pp. 10123


102 P. CROWTHER

indeterminacy, intentional repleteness (as I call it), and the quasi-


sensory.1 Spontaneity in this context means imaginations genera-
tive aspect. To perceive an object, the object must be physically avail-
able to perception. We can choose how to position ourselves in
relation to it, but in order for this to take place, the object must be
there. To imagine an object, in contrast, is not at all dependent on the
objects presence. It is generated, rather, through a spontaneous act of
mind, and is thence subject to the will in terms that perception is not.
This factor is implicated, also, in imaginations indeterminacy.
McGinn suggests that The percept represents the world as dense,
filled, continuous; but the image is gappy, coarse, discrete (McGinn,
2004, p. 25).2 One explanation of this is that the image is psychologi-
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cally generated rather than perceptually encountered. Even perception


involves a selective orientation towards what is given, but how we
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interpret the given is constrained and stabilized by factors independ-


ent of the will by the nature of what is present. Imagination is not so
constrained or stabilized. The image is projected selectively on the
basis of the imaginers own experience. This means that what is imag-
ined is subject to emphases, de-emphases, discontinuities, and omis-
sions based on its significance for the imaginer.
The intentional repleteness of imagining is another aspect of all
this. What is in the image in the sense of what it means consists
only of what we ourselves intend through the act of imagining. We
create the images meaning through generating it, rather than discov-
ering it through investigation.
The features just described also apply to some kinds of thinking.
This might suggest that imagination can be analysed, ultimately, as a
more complex mode of thought based on propositions or concepts.
Again, McGinn is instructive. He suggests that the concept theory
cannot do justice to the sensory character of the image. [Indeed,] The
mental state I am in when I form a visual image of my mother is very
different from the state I would be in if I simply entertained a number
of descriptive thoughts about her; indeed, I could do the latter without

[1] This overview presents criteria addressed in varying degrees by all the most important
(specifically) philosophical approaches. I have found McGinn (2004) to be the most use-
ful discussion. He rightly emphasizes the quasi-sensory aspect of imagination, and offers
the fullest logic and phenomenology of it. Other important studies are Sartre (2004);
Casey (2000); and Husserl (2005). See also Crowther (2013b).
[2] It should be emphasized that McGinn goes on to explain the point in my quotation from
him on lines differing from the one I take in this paper. In effect, I emphasize the images
schematic character a factor that McGinn does not make central. Most of the differ-
ences between his approach and mine stem from this issue.
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 103

being able to imaginatively represent her at all. An image is no more


reducible to acts of thinking than a percept is (ibid., p. 37).
On these terms, in other words, imagination has a quasi-sensory
aspect that cannot be reduced to processes of thought in some abstract
or discursive sense.
Now, understood in terms of these four characteristics, imagination
can be given a fuller characterization. It is the mental capacity to rep-
resent in quasi-sensory terms what items and states of affairs
might be like. Of course, there are some approaches to imagination
which prefer to treat it as a broad family of competences.3 These cer-
tainly have value in exhibiting, as it were, the scope of mind. How-
ever, the sense of imagination that I have just outlined has more
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focused explanatory potential for issues in both philosophy and cog-


nitive psychology.
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Nigel J.T. Thomas brilliantly summarizes why:


Imagination makes perception more than the mere physical stimula-
tion of sense organs. It produces mental imagery, visual and other-
wise, which is what makes it possible for us to think outside the confines
of our present perceptual reality, to consider memories of the past and
possibilities for the future, and to weigh alternatives against one
another. Thus, imagination makes possible all our thinking about what
is, what has been, and, perhaps most important, what might be.4
In this paper I shall follow a thread that in effect runs through
and binds all the factors noted by Thomas. It focuses on how the four
aspects of imagination (just described) unify self-consciousness in an
existential sense. This unifying function has been little noticed, let
alone explored, in the literature.5

[3] Casey(2000) is an influential recent protagonist of such a pluralistic view.


[4] This is the opening substantial remark on Thomass website. His site is far and away the
best interdisciplinary resource for understanding the imagination. He proposes a Percep-
tual Activity theory of mental imagery based on schemata, the stored procedures that
determine the sequence in which the various perceptual instruments are brought into
play. Thomass key point is that During normal perception the current schema activates
certain instruments which then proceed to make their tests during imagery, the schema
is active in much the same way that it is during perception. It still sends out at least some of
its orders to the perceptual instruments, and selects procedural branches to follow.
However, the reciprocal control of the schemas activity by the perceptual instruments is
lost, or at least much attenuated. For more detail see Thomas (1999). Thomass approach
is an effective philosophical integration of different psychological and neuroscientific
accounts of the basis of imagination. My approach, in effect, explores a further level of
meaning embedded in this.
[5] Casey (2000), and Husserl (2005) do not assign any privileged role to the quasi-sensory
aspect of imagination. Hence they fail to understand its broader unifying significance.
Sartre (2004) touches on it in his remark that imagination is a necessary condition of the
104 P. CROWTHER

To get a preliminary sense of what is at issue here, it is worth con-


sidering a contemporary approach in cognitive psychology that tries
to explain mental images without any reference to the aforementioned
function. The Kosslyn, Thompson, and Ganis research team argue
that image representations are like those that underlie the experience
of seeing something, but in the case of mental imagery these represen-
tations are based on information retrieved or formed from memory,
not immediate sensory stimulation (Kosslyn, Thompson and Ganis,
2007, p. 4).
The Kosslyn-type approach holds that mental images understood in
these terms have a depictive character with a distinctive informational
value. In their words again, depictive representations make explicit
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and accessible all aspects of shape and other perceptual qualities (such
as color and texture), as well as spatial relations (ibid., p. 14).
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On these terms, then, the Kosslyn groups basic position is as fol-


lows. If a stimulus is registered in perception, it can occasion a mental
image which reproduces its perceptible character (in terms of shape,
colour, and texture, etc.) without the presence of the stimulus itself.
The image has this character because it uses, in large part, the same
neural mechanisms and structures as perception. Through depicting
the stimuluss specific perceptible structure it is intrinsically mean-
ingful. This is why it has informational value that is not dependent on
propositional representation.
Kosslyn and his fellow researchers defend the informational signif-
icance of this against Zenon Pylyshyn and others, who argue that
propositional features based on linguistic structure is basic to all men-
tal representation, and that the depictive aspects of mental imagery are
merely epiphenomenal upon this.6 However, whilst the Kosslyn group
accept that propositional representation can be involved in some men-
tal imagery, they insist that depictive content cannot be explained
away as an epiphenomenon.
Now, Kosslyn et al. put a good case for mental imagery involving a
representational mechanism other than the one sustaining language.
But the fact that such imagery involves the same neuro-mechanisms

freedom of empirical humans in the midst of the world. He does not, however, explain
why this is the case, or the role played by imagination in knowledge and perception.
McGinn (2004) explores all these themes in much fuller terms, as does Thomass website.
Neither of these thinkers, however, emphasize the factors that are central to the present
paper namely the unifying existential significance of the schematic and stylistic aspects
of imaginations quasi-sensory basis. It may be, however, that this can help clarify more
specific issues in McGinns and Thomass approaches (such as the latters concept of
schemata).
[6] See, for example, Pylyshyn (2002).
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 105

as perception does not warrant the further inference that mental imag-
ery must be intrinsically depictive in character. The Kosslyn group
assume that if such imagery is interpreted as depictive, then this is
enough to explain its quasi-sensory character. However, to depict
something (in the usual sense of the term) involves making a likeness
of that somethings selected aspects on the basis of learned conven-
tions of artifice, and a publically accessible medium. True, the mental
image also involves selective interpretation of its object, but it is psy-
chologically generated. There is nothing of the made and enduring
nature of the picture.7 Indeed, as I will argue later, it is the felt lack of
this, vis--vis mental imagery, that is implicated in our making and
enjoyment of pictures.
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It follows, then, that to explain mental imagerys distinctive


quasi-sensory character adequately, we must focus on the conditions
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of its psychological generation rather than the strained depictive anal-


ogy. This requires discussion of cognitive capacities much broader
than those considered by the Kosslyn group.
The rest of this paper proceeds, accordingly, as follows. Part one is
a phenomenology of the imagination that emphasizes the images psy-
chologically generated and selective character. It is argued that this
enables a kind of blending between the object imagined, and the sub-
jective style in which it is imagined. Through imagining, the imaginer
comes to inhabit the object.
Parts two and three, respectively, explore this inhabiting in relation
to memory and then the projective imagination of possibility per se.
Part four explains how making pictures takes imaginative inhabiting
to a level of completion and gives the visual imagination autonomy.
The aesthetic significance of this completion is analysed in detail. It is
concluded that picture-making completes a striving to understand and
inhabit the world that is implicit in the generation of mental images as
such.
Part One
Imagination can evoke sensory modalities of touch, sound, odour, or
taste, and even more importantly, enable us to feel what it might be
like to experience the world as other people experience it. However,
visual imagery has a privileged status. In order for something to exist

[7] McGinn (2004, pp. 6173) offers a very effective critique of The Picture Theory of
Images that makes similar points to mine and more besides. Thomas likewise deploys
useful critical material in the Picture Theory section of an extended web-only version of
his Encyclopedia of Consciousness article Visual Imagery and Consciousness
(http://www.imagery-imagination.com/viac.htm#pic) [accessed 8 May 2013].
106 P. CROWTHER

in physical terms it must occupy space, or be an effect of a space-occu-


pying body or bodies. Touch and taste can describe the physical prop-
erties of such bodies to us but only if we are physically contiguous
with them. Smell can indicate the presence of individual spatial bod-
ies, their proximity, and (sometimes) their number. In human beings,
however, vision operates much more effectively vis--vis spatial
information. It comprehends individual spatial characters and interre-
lations simultaneously, and at distances ranging beyond what is possi-
ble for touch, and our senses of hearing, taste, and smell. Through the
visual perception of primary qualities, we can recognize space-occu-
pying individuals, their particular spatial features, and their relations
with one another as a field of space-occupying phenomena. Vision has
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cognitive fundamentality.
Imagination in its visual mode plays a key role in this. I will,
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accordingly, focus on it (though many of the points argued can also fit
imaginings based on other sense modalities).
First, then, in terms of its psychological generation imagination
involves deliberative activity. It is something we can both choose to
do, and, when appropriate, do thoughtfully either through visualiz-
ing some described state of affairs, or through paying close attention
to what we are imagining. Imagining can also happen involuntarily. In
this case, imagery intrudes upon our consciousness without any obvi-
ous explanation as to what occasioned it.
Now, as noted in the Introduction, whether a phenomenon can be
perceived or not involves factors beyond our control. To be perceived,
the object must be physically available to perception.8 In this sense it
is independent of the will. In contrast to this, an object can be imag-
ined irrespective of whether or not it is physically available to us. In
fact, we can even and often do imagine things that do not actu-
ally exist. The objects availability to imagination, in other words, is
determined by the will alone.

[8] It might be asked how the distinction between perception and imagination fares in relation
to hallucinations and other delusional states. The answer is that the very recognition that
there are such states presupposes a context of rationality where the distinction between
what is perceived and what is imagined can be justified in publically accessible terms
through the mediation of language. At the ontogenetic level, matters are more complex.
There is a case for arguing that pre-cognitive experience, at least, involves a sense of real-
ity which does not make a clear distinction between perception and imagination.
OConnor and Aardema (2005) propose, for example, that (in pre-cognitive terms) per-
ception and imagination are absorbed in explorations of what is possible and not possible.
The argument is extremely viable. But, of course, this absorption does not last. Developed
rationality involves (at least in part) becoming aware that objects exist independently of
our will, and do so even when they are not being perceived. This entails that we can distin-
guish explicitly between what is perceived and what is imagined.
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 107

There is a second contrasting feature. Perception and imagination


are necessarily selective. This is because, from our cognitive view-
point, reality is only experienced under aspects i.e. features that
enable us to identify one kind of object or individual, and distinguish
it from others. In order to perceive, our attention must focus on
aspects of the object which enable this, and where relevant situ-
ate it in respect of our interests and activities. The objects other
aspects go unnoticed, but remain, of course, physically available and
(thence) independent of the will.
With the imagination, matters are more complex. It, too, has to be
selective through generating quasi-sensory aspects that identify a spe-
cific kind of object or individual. However, since the image is subject
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to the will, this means that in contrast to perception it is inten-


tionally replete, there are no unnoticed details available in the image.
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To imagine is to generate quasi-sensory content not to discover it.9


If, for example, I imagine my friends gloved hands, the rest of her is
not tucked away in the corner of the image waiting for me to attend to
it. It is not there at all, except when before the minds eye. Of course,
an image may have peripheral details, or involve superimposed fea-
tures one of which we attend to more than others. But in so far as we
are aware of these, it is because we are representing them as periph-
eral details or as the aspects that are not our main interest. Everything
in the image is generated by us as we project it. It is the result of spon-
taneous activity.
This is the case even in the most deliberative imagining. Suppose,
for example, that I imagine my friend on the basis of a very detailed
description. I stipulate that she has to be wearing the black coat with
the mushroom coloured edgings. She must be visualized exactly two
feet away, motionless and facing towards me. It must be twilight on a
rainy day by the side of the pharmacy adjoining Dunnes supermarket
in Westside. Despite this detailed specification, the images content is
still spontaneous. Details such as the black coat and the pharmacy by
the side of Dunnes can be imagined in many different ways how
[9] This does not rule out discovering previously unremembered facts through the use of
imagination. We may try to imagine the details of some event that we remember having
being present at, and, in so doing, visualize something that we now recognize to have been
part of the event, though it was not part of our initial recollection. However, in such a case,
we do not discover the detail sitting in the image as we might stumble across something we
had lost, in the corner of a room. It is generated through our striving to recollect. Again,
images that spring up involuntarily may surprise us, but the surprise is surely based on the
images occurrence as such rather than the details found in its content. The discovered-
detail possibility would only be intelligible if our images had the enduring material char-
acter of real pictures, where we can discover hitherto unnoticed details whose presence is
independent of the will.
108 P. CROWTHER

they appear in our imagining of them is something that just happens.


And this is true for every detail that one generates an image for.
On these terms, then, the act of imagining can be deliberative, but
its content involves features that are not pre-planned and which can-
not be sufficiently determined through description. The character of
an image is determined spontaneously rather than by taking a means to
an end that would allow the images detail to be controlled.
The spontaneous character of such imagining has some further cor-
related features. Most important amongst these is the one that, in the
Introduction, was described as indeterminacy. This term whilst
frequently used is not wholly adequate. What is involved can be
better described as the images schematic and unstable character. Qua
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selective the image presents only a range of identifying aspects of its


object. This means that some features characteristic of the kind or
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individual in question are omitted, and others are perhaps exagger-


ated. And the identifying aspects may change even as we hold the
image before the minds eye. The image is a schematic quasi-visual
interpretation and not a reproduction of the object.
Its instability is linked to this. The image is unstable because, as we
have already seen, its content is generated in the very act of attending
to it. As we focus on one aspect of the imagined object, its other
aspects disappear from consciousness reappearing (and then, in a
visually changed form) only when we focus on them again. Indeed,
even as the image is before the mind, it may be generated in a frag-
mented or partial way, or involve overlapping features. In all respects,
the image is unable to settle in an enduring and stable state that might
approximate visual perceptions relation to its object.
The reason why imagination has this character centres on (at least)
two important factors. One is that if images were not schematic and
unstable, we might confuse what is perceived and what is imagined,
and thus lose our sense of reality. Hence, if imagination has evolved so
as to be of cognitive utility, it must have a mode of being that allows it
to be clearly distinguished from perception.
A further reason for imaginations schematic and unstable character
is its relation to the will. As we have seen, imagination is subject to the
will in so far as we can choose to, and what, we imagine. It can now be
added that the images spontaneously generated content is determined
by its relation to the structure of the will (rather than by the act of will-
ing as such). This is because the will is not a static substance but a
decision-making capacity an intentional nexus which is emer-
gent from a broader, constantly transforming flux of desires, beliefs,
attitudes, and experiences. We are often conscious of our willing, but
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 109

our understanding of the conditions that enable some specific act


rarely extends beyond the recognition of a few salient features.
Indeed, if acts of will always had to take explicit account of their
enabling conditions, our capacity for making decisions would be
overwhelmed. But that being said, these conditions do enable our
decisions whether we are conscious of them or not. They are the shift-
ing contours of who we are as it were between the lines.
In so far, therefore, as imagination is subject to the will, it follows
that the ever-transforming character of the wills enabling conditions
explains why the image is spontaneous, schematic, and unstable. Its
content is materialized from these shifting conditions. The image can-
not be exhaustive or stable because the features shaping it are in con-
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stant flux.
To imagine something now, and to imagine the same thing next
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week or even in a minutes time will involve different image-


content because the experiential base which provides their content has
changed. The only way in which image-content might be fixed is if the
subject stopped accumulating moment to moment experiences. A state
of this kind could conceivably arise in coma victims, but in such a
state they would not, of course, be able to exercise their imagination
anyway (unless they had some understanding of their situation).
This brings us to a vital point. All the features just described inter-
sect through the notion of style. In imagination, the appearance of
what we imagine has a style determined by its relation to that accumu-
lating whole of experience the intentional nexus which sustains
our willing (a whole that is, in effect, our personal history). Style in
the image means that the object appears differently than it does in real
life, and the difference is down to us.
Through this, there is a kind of ontological bond between the
imaginer and the imagined. In order to imagine x we must include spa-
tial features that identify x, but the spontaneous character of the
images content make it appear from our point of view. We do not just
project it, we characterize how it appears on the basis of our own per-
sonal history. In this way the object is inhabited by us. This inhabiting
is of central importance to both our knowledge of self and objective
knowledge in general. I shall consider these in turn.

Part Two
In order to understand the importance of imagination for self-knowl-
edge it is important to consider first its relation to memory. The pos-
session of language allows us to recollect facts about our past the
110 P. CROWTHER

places we have been, and the things we did or which happened to us


there. We use the term memory trace in reference to the causal resi-
due of what we have experienced. The trace must, at the very least,
involve some factual knowledge of what the experience involved.
Indeed, when we remember something this is very often no more than
factual recall. However, on some occasions we try to remember what
the fact about our past experience was like. Our memory trace is acti-
vated through an imaginative realization of the past experience. This
is episodic memory.10
Now, it might seem that imagination is one thing, and episodic
memory something different, in so far as the former allows us free
depiction of space-occupying things, whereas the latter is tied to spe-
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cific events that happened. However, in so far as imagination is the


capacity to represent what is not immediately given in perception, this
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can just as easily encompass our past experiences as it can the projec-
tion of possibilities as such. In so far, accordingly, as imagination cov-
ers both of these, we have no need to invent some further mode of
visualizing that is distinctive to memory. Episodic memory, in other
words, can be regarded as factual memory realized through the
occurent exercise of imagination.
Memory of this kind actually has an epistemologically privileged
status. Without it, we would have no criterion for distinguishing
between mere knowledge about our past, and actually remembering it.
There are many things we know about what happened to us but which
are beyond our power of recall. We can frame such facts through first-
person descriptions, e.g. It was my first day at school, and I went in
through the main entrance. But unless we can generate a sequence of
imagery consistent with this, then there is no way of distinguishing
between factual knowledge about our past and actually remembering
the event. The role of imagination allows us to, as it were, own our
memories from the inside.
Now, it might be objected that this is not a sufficient criterion of
actual remembering. Is it not possible, for example, to generate
sequences of imagery consistent with the factual content of the things
we experienced, but whose quasi-sensory character has little or no
resemblance to what the experiences in question were actually like?
This is true, and the further we get from the present to the time of what
we are trying to remember, or the more mundane the experiences in

[10] A good philosophical treatment of ideas relevant to episodic memory can be found in
Wollheim (1984, pp. 62161). The burden of Wollheims account falls on the different
subject positions available within memory and imagination, rather than on the phenomen-
ology of the image itself.
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 111

question were, the more likely this outcome to remembering


becomes.
Hence the character of episodic memory has to be qualified. It
requires not only the generation of images that are consistent with
what we remember, but also that we believe them to be accurate repre-
sentations of how we experienced it. Of course, this by no means guar-
antees that our belief is correct, but the possibility of it is enough to
logically distinguish episodic memory from mere imaginings that are
consistent with factual knowledge of past experiences.
As it happens, however, these imaginative realizations of factual
knowledge concerning past experiences are also of special cognitive
import. The great bulk of our past is simply not accessible to memory.
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We remember salient contours of experiences, and often odd details of


them sometimes quite intensely. But we cannot recall the past in
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any quasi-sensory terms that even begin to approximate our immedi-


ate perception of the present. But neither is the past a wholly foreign
country. Our power of imagination is such that we can at least imagine
what some past experience might have been like, even though we can-
not actually remember it.
For example, despite being very fond of Nanna (my great grandfa-
thers wife Miriam, who died in 1959 when I was 5) I have only one
vague actual memory of her. But she remains important despite my
lack of episodic memories. Through the one memory I do have, and
photographs, and factual knowledge, I am able to imagine what she
might have been like in a sustained way. Such projection (as I shall
call it) has a more general application which I shall consider later on.
But employed as projective-memory, it allows bare factual knowledge
concerning what we have experienced to be given life again, as and
when we wish. Indeed, it is because of this capacity that as long we
have basic factual knowledge about our past there need be no abso-
lute blind spots in memory. Something consistent with the facts can
always be projected. What our past was like can be modelled through
episodic memory supported by projective evocation of factual knowl-
edge. This gives an important existential continuity to our experience.
I am arguing, then, that imagination has a vital role in memory, as
the basis of its episodic and projective modes. Both modes allow the
present self to inhabit its past in quasi-sensory terms from the inside.
It may be that on occasion the two are confused with one another
that we mistakenly take a merely projective memory to be an episodic
one. But the possibility of being mistaken does not entail that we are
always mistaken, and indeed, it is often possible to correct such
112 P. CROWTHER

mistakes through consultation with others who witnessed the situation


that we are attempting to recall.
There is a vital point to emphasize. Memory is central to personal
identity, but it does not involve the retrieval of self-contained or
sealed past experiences. Indeed, one of the reasons why personal iden-
tity is possible is because past experiences matter to us now. This is not
just because they are causally implicated in the path to our present
experiential situation. It is because they return to our attention on the
basis of our present interests. The meaning of the past constellates
around the present.
Again, imaginations relation to the will is deeply implicated in
this. We can choose to imagine something from our past in relation to
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our present context, but, even more importantly, the present comes to
bear on memory through those spontaneous origins of the images
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content (in the conditions of the will) that I described in part one. How
the image appears is mainly spontaneous and determined by factors
that are constantly changing. The imagination does not simply repro-
duce that which is an image of; rather it offers a schematic and unsta-
ble stylized interpretation of it. Each time we imagine it, it will have
some difference or other determined by our situation, intentions,
and interests at the moment of interpretation.
Now, in the case of episodic and projective memory, this interpreta-
tive dimension means that the remembered past experience is partially
constituted by our present orientation. The features we imagine in
relation to it embody who we are now (as much if not more than they
embody who we were in the past). Imagination allows us to possess
the memory to inhabit it as something living rather as a mere fact
about our past. In this way, the past comes to matter to us. It becomes a
motivating force in the present precisely because imagination allows
us to access it and give it content on the basis of the current state of our
will.
I turn now to the existential significance of imagination in the field
of objective knowledge.

Part Three
At the heart of our knowledge of the objective world is what I earlier
called projection the capacity to imagine what possible items and
states of affairs other than those presently perceived might be like. As
we saw, this can be applied to memory, but its main application is
rather more general. It is sometimes based on expectations of how the
future might be, or how things might have turned out if things in the
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 113

past had happened differently, or, on many occasions, involves possi-


ble states of affairs that are simply projected without further
specification.
Such a capacity assists our survival instincts in so far as it allows
the positing of possible dangers or situations of interest before we
have to physically negotiate them. But, as well as this evolutionary
use, it also changes the character of the species in a qualitative sense.
Animal consciousness is closely tied to the negotiation of stimuli
which the creature comes across, and to the following of habitual rou-
tine. A self-conscious being, in contrast, is one which not only exists
in the field of the immediate present, but which projects possibilities
of location and action in alternative elsewheres and elsewhens. It can
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think of itself as having occupied, and being able to occupy, positions


in space-time over and above the immediate perceptual present.
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At first sight, this capacity to project elsewheres and elsewhens


might seem sufficiently explicable in terms of language. It is not. Lan-
guage involves terms whose essence is to be applicable to different
individuals in different times and places. Some understanding of
elsewhereness and elsewhenness (however crude) must already be in
place in order for us to even be initiated into language.11
Such initiation involves the learning of rules. But we cannot learn
to follow rules without grasping how they apply to situations extend-
ing beyond the immediately given. This, in turn, cannot be explained
through the learning of simpler rules concerning such application, as
this would assume the very thing the strategy is meant to explain. At
some point, we must assume the involvement of a non-linguistic cog-
nitive capacity that enables some comprehension of the not-immedi-
ately present.
I would suggest that imagination provides this. It does so in the
course of the infants habituation to the enduring and re-encounter-
able character of objects and to the coming to be and passing away of
events and transient phenomena. It is reasonable to assume that in this
habituation, imagination allows the infant to get a purchase on hidden
aspects, and things that appear, disappear, and reappear in correlation
with its own movements and changes of position. It learns as cir-
cumstances demand to project what the hidden or not-present
aspects or things might be like.
Through imagination, in other words, the infants sensory receptiv-
ity is extended. This enables it to get a rudimentary sense of the
[11] I first argued a link between imagination, the understanding, and language in Crowther
(2002, pp. 6677). As far as I know, the only other modern protagonist of a similar view
(albeit argued on different grounds) is McGinn (2004). See especially pp. 14854.
114 P. CROWTHER

enduring character of the world and of regularity and repetition in


things that happen. It becomes cognitively orientated in a way that is
shared with adults. This enables it to be instructed by them, and to
engage with the rule-following that is basic to language acquisition. A
full understanding of persons and their relation to an objective world
is an eventual outcome from these origins.
I am arguing, then, that imagination makes its contribution to the
formation of knowledge through representing what the hidden aspects
of things, and elsewhere and elsewhens, might be like in quasi-sen-
sory terms. Through this, perceptual possibilities that are not given in
the immediate field are made available to us. Our relation to what is
imagined here depends, of course, on what the object of the imagining
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is. However, there are also more fundamental relations involved, that
are intrinsic to imagining as such (on the lines described in part one).
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For whilst the objective world exists independently of the will, pro-
jective imagination presents possible items, events, or state of affairs
as in effect adapted to our personal experiential perspective. The
imagined objects embody our style. Whether we imagine ourselves in
active relation to what we imagine or merely behold it neutrally in the
minds eye is neither here nor there. The world as imagined is consti-
tuted through our style. It answers to the form of the object being
imagined but also makes that form answer to our individual experi-
ence of the world. This means that just as imagination allows us to
inhabit and posses our past through episodic memory its projective
variant allows us to create possible items, events, and state of affairs
wherein the world has been adapted to our own being. No matter what
we imagine be it the back of the computer, or a small planet at the
edge of the universe the imagining of it makes reality amenable to
us even when it extends beyond what is immediately perceptible.
Even in imagining a wholly hostile environment, we frame the
character of its hostility on our terms. Imagination allows us to model
anywhere or anywhen that we want. There are potentially no gaps in
reality. Given any possible state of affairs past, present, future,
counterfactual, or hypothetical we can imagine them and be there,
on the basis of that decisive interface between the deliberative and the
spontaneous which I described earlier.
Imagination provides an atmosphere of alternative possibilities
through which our sense of the present breathes, and extends itself.
And this involves far more than the sustaining of knowledge alone. It
extends into practical reason in so far as there is a conceptual connec-
tion between freedom and possibility. A being cannot make free
choices unless it knows the possible outcomes of its actions. Such
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 115

knowledge can involve thought or imagination or both. In fact, a great


deal of our imaginative life is spent in visualizing possible scenarios
as to how our potential choices might eventually play out. Being able
to visualize these is both a boon and a burden. It is a boon because it
clarifies the ramifications of our choices; it is a burden because the
very power of what it might be like presented by our imaginings may
sometimes make a final choice harder to make.
Imaginings also express our freedom in less dramatic ways such
as, for example, in daydreams which take us away pleasurably from
where we are at present. Even more significant are those spontaneous
imaginings which come upon us without explanation and which
underline our sense that there are other places where we might be, or
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might have been, and other places where we cant be all coexistent
alongside the place where we are just now. They project possible are-
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nas of action for us located elsewhere and/or elsewhen, or possible


scenarios where no action would be possible.
This is all indicative of the fact that imagination is not just an aid to
freedom, it is an expression of it. It projects a space of possibilities
without which we would be locked into an (as it were) animal present
defined by responses to immediately given stimuli.
I have argued, then, that through imagination we do not simply
posit the past or alternative projective possibilities to things in the
present perceptual field, we also inhabit them. This is because whilst
imagination is constrained by specifying the identifying characteris-
tics of what is imagined, it involves deliberative activity with a spon-
taneous content that bonds us to what we imagine. The image
embodies both an object and a style of experiencing it, and this
extends to both our own memories and how we posit alternative possi-
bilities to those given in the present perceptual field of objects and
events. Style allows us to inhabit the things we imagine, and make
them into an expression of freedom. Through all these factors, imagi-
nation is fundamental to our existence as individuals. It is not some
luxury add-on cognitive capacity, but rather one through which we
live.
Part Four
Imagination, then, has a profound existential significance in the unify-
ing of self-consciousness. The creation of art both continues this and
brings it to completion. In the final part of this paper, however, I shall
consider the link between imagination and the making and enjoyment
of pictures, since it is here that the unifying existential significance of
imagination is given its most direct public expression. It should be
116 P. CROWTHER

noted that, in what follows, the phrases making of pictures or pic-


ture-making mean, quite specifically, pictures created through physi-
cal labour rather than mental pictures. However, I shall, of course,
also identify some important relations between the physically embod-
ied picture and the mental one.
First, a picture (in the most basic physical sense) is a notionally
plane surface on which marks or lines are placed or inscribed, so as to
communicate the appearance of some recognizable kind of three-
dimensional item or state of affairs. Sometimes, the represented con-
tent may be based on an object that exists in real life or might have
existed in the past. If the artist has had direct acquaintance with the
represented subject matter, then the picture can be based on episodic
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memory. If the artist has not had personal acquaintance with the sub-
ject matter, then he or she can still create a picture which is consistent
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with descriptions of its spatial character. In this case, making pictures


is guided by what I earlier called projective imagination (a notion
which has a broader importance for making pictures, that I shall come
to in a few moments).
Now the fact that pictures can preserve and/or engage with the
visual appearance of things which actually exist or did exist is an exi-
stentially powerful aspect of picture-making. It means that the past is
not only remembered, but is remembered in a way that is autonomous.
This is because whilst all the people who saw or engaged with the
visual appearance of something that actually existed will one day be
dead, the pictures mortality is in principle more extended.
Indeed, with tender, loving curatorial care it can, in principle, exist
indefinitely.
However, this existential aspect of making pictures is not the deci-
sive factor ontologically speaking. In order to recognize that the pic-
ture represents an actual or former existent, we need secondary
knowledge about the circumstances of the pictures creation. The pic-
ture, however, does not provide this at the level of pictorial meaning
itself. All we see at that level is an image of such and such a kind of
visible object. The more specific identity of the represented individual
requires confirmation through reference to sources external to the pic-
ture itself.
It follows, accordingly, that it is projective imagination which is
ontologically decisive for picture-making qua picture-making. We
can create a pictorial image of something by simply following the rel-
evant conventions of making. And what is thus represented is a possi-
ble visual appearance of some kind of item or state of affairs. It may be
based on something that existed, or it may not. The foundational
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 117

ontology of the picture is to simply present a virtual appearance of


some possible spatial existent as such. Making pictures is founded on
visual possibility.
Now, from what has been said, it is clear that picture-making has
kinship with the visual imagination in so far as it is guided by episodic
memory, or, more fundamentally, by projective imagination. How-
ever, there is more than kinship involved here. Over and above the rit-
ual or informative functions that pictures fulfil, they have an intrinsic
fascination as expressions of freedom which allow visual imagination
to achieve a kind of autonomy.
One aspect of this centres on possibility itself. Imagination gives us
a kind of symbolic power over it. Quite literally, one can imagine talk-
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ing rocks, flying volcanoes, honest politicians, planets made of red


cheese and rolled-up copies of The Times, or all sorts of other unlikely
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possibilities. Making pictures allows the ultimate ontological conjur-


ing trick in respect of such things. For (in contrast to literature, for
example) it can represent the fantastic at that level of being most fun-
damental to concrete existence namely space-occupancy. Pictorial
space represents space-occupying items and states of affairs in virtual
terms, and qua physical object the picture itself literally occupies
space. By, as it were, slipping the boundaries of possibility at the level
of virtual and real spatial things simultaneously, the fantastic picture
allows a blending of imaginative and perceptual reality.
However, we must recall also that when imagining a possibility, the
style of our imaging blends us with what is thus projected. Style is the
feature which leads us deepest into the intrinsic fascination of making
pictures. As we saw earlier, the content of the mental image is mainly
spontaneous. We can choose what to imagine and how to change the
image, but its quasi-visual fabric its way of appearing before the
mind cannot be chosen. If we make a picture, however, the agent
has, in principle, exact deliberative control of all the elements in the
image. The artist can control and fix the character of the images
shapes, lines, tones, colours, and textures, and their positions and
magnitudes relative to one another. There remain some important fac-
tors at play in compositional and related choices which reflect the sub-
conscious conditions of willing but how the image appears is now
much more subject to the will.
This takes personal style in imagination to an entirely higher level
of accomplishment. Whereas the mental image is unstable and, in a
sense, never completed (in so far as it is simply replaced by other
images in the flow of consciousness), the picture is stabilized in the
making of a physical object and brought to completion. It can have a
118 P. CROWTHER

stable final state that is chosen by the artist. In this way it achieves an
autonomy that images qua mental can never achieve.
The fact that this is done through a publically accessible medium
means that the picturers imaginative style can be made accessible to
others, and be compared and contrasted with the work of other artists.
The character of its uniqueness or otherwise is thus made available in
concrete terms. We can determine what is distinctive to the artist, and
what has been based simply on generally available rules and tech-
niques. Now, in many cultures, what is important are traditional idi-
oms of picture making rather than personal articulations. But even so,
in such contexts it is often possible to identify the individual style of
specific geographical or cultural ensembles. It becomes possible, in
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other words, for the artist to share a style with a group of other such
agents.
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Hence, whilst pictures are often made for ritual or informational


purposes this is not the only reason for making them. Indeed, even
when they are created with functional intent, it is possible in certain
cases to find an intrinsic fascination to the image based on the style in
which it represents the spatial world.
There is a further important aesthetic consequence of all this. For,
by being made in a publically accessible medium, the image becomes
physically discontinuous from the existence of the artist. This is of the
greatest moment in terms of aesthetic appreciation for both artist and
audience. In terms of the former, it means that the artist can, on the one
hand, behold the image free from practical preoccupations that can
beset the psychological life of imagination (for example, in illuminat-
ing the outcomes of possible choices); on the other hand, the image is
freed from the domain of the spontaneous. The artist made this picture
and brought it completion. It now becomes possible to identify traits,
choices, and compositional factors that cannot be identified in the
mental image. He or she can observe at the level of vision itself the
kind of things that are basic to his or her mode of visually interpreting
the world. Through making pictures, the artist can now inhabit his or
her own style.
The audience for the image is equally fortunate. Not only is another
persons interpretation of vision made available to us, it is so in a form
that allows aesthetic empathy with it. Normally, when someone tells
about how they see the world or when we witness an interview with an
artist talking about his or her art, there is persuasive pressure exerted
on us to identify with the work on the lines indicated by the artist. But
a picture is, of course, physically discontinuous from its creator. And,
as noted earlier, in the strictest ontological terms, the picture qua
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 119

pictorial simply renders a possible appearance of some kind of


three-dimensional spatial item or state of affairs. It may be based on
actual existents, and have been created with all sorts of complex inten-
tions. But in order to appreciate the picture qua pictorial and the style
of its making, reference to these external contexts is not presupposed.
Of course, it might be objected that to empathize with the artists
style surely involves some kind of recovery of the artists intentions
(as has been argued, for example, by Richard Wollheim).12 However,
if we are seeking expressive meaning that the artist finds in visual
reality, then we must focus on the image itself. If the image is still in
the artists consciousness as a state of inspiration, then descriptions of
his or her intentions are all that can we can know of it. But if this cre-
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ative state has issued in a picture, then we have the testimony of the
work itself. Whatever an artists intentions might be in creating a
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work, these are transformed in the making of it through the


demands of working with a publically-accessible physical medium to
achieve virtual effects. To mix metaphors wretchedly, the proof of the
visual pudding is in the visual eating and not in the recipe of creative
intentions.
Now, the very fact that reference to the artists intentions or creative
context is not presupposed in order to appreciate the picture qua pic-
ture is actually of special importance in its own right. For it means that
the work exists in the form of an invitation to the viewer rather than a
report of what the artist felt or did. The invitation is very simple it
amounts to try seeing it this way. If we accept the invitation, then
we do, indeed, see with the artists style (hence the involvement of
empathy) but there is a freedom of identification involved; we can
share in the vision, we can participate in it as a possible way of seeing.
The audience, in other words, can come to inhabit the artists style on
their own terms.
To end with, I shall analyse an aspect of pictorial aesthetic apprecia-
tion that cuts across all the factors I have just been considering. Again,
it centres on one of the deepest features of human experience. All the
events in a life the decisions made, and actions undertaken arise
as the outcome of that persons previous history. Remove any experi-
ence however small and an exponential wave of further changes
would occur, issuing in a different future for that person. The identity
of any specific experience is tied necessarily to the exact order of
events which preceeded it in that persons experience. These are not,

[12] See, for example, Wolheim (1987, pp. 868). Wollheims position is criticized in detail in
Chapter 1 of Crowther (2013a, pp. 928).
120 P. CROWTHER

of course, a sufficient condition of the experiences identity. This is


because it is a response to present circumstances, and thence involves
willing which, as I suggested earlier, is a whole that cannot be
reduced to the sum of its enabling experiential conditions.
The identity of the individual experience has, in other words, holis-
tic necessity if not sufficiency. This extends also to the things we
make. Each stage in the physical process of making presupposes those
steps which went before, and when the thing is finished each step is
contained as a necessary factor in the final outcome. However, in the
flux of moment to moment and day to day experience this character is
not easily comprehended, and, even if it is, it easily washes away in
the flow of new experiences until such time as it is brought to attention
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again through some specific happenstance or project. In many cases,


indeed, the character of the thing we make a meal, a tool, or a docu-
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ment is not something whose final form is suited to evoking the


factors implicated necessarily in the creative process. In general psy-
chological terms, indeed, it is probably the case that we tend to regard
our experiences and the things we make as if they had no more than a
contingent relation to the things preceeding them. Sometimes we may
note how one thing that we did was obviously responsible for some-
thing that happened later. But we rarely attend to the necessary role of
all preceeding experiences as factors in the identity of the later ones.
However, in this respect the picture (and, indeed, other autographic
visual art forms) has a special significance in that it is created through
physical, voluntarily-sustained gestures brought to completion
through marks placed or inscribed on the pictures surface. This pro-
vides an important contrast with photography, where the final image is
derived from causal impacts of light (registered electronically or upon
a negative). Whereas the photograph is taken, the picture is made
as the culmination of processes of gesture.
This gives the picture an intriguing ambiguity. It presents to percep-
tion as something visually static. But we know that qua picture it
was brought into being and taken to completion through a process of
gestures. We might not be able to identify the exact order of these ges-
tures in the creation of the work, indeed, if the picture is highly fin-
ished the gestural character of the marks may be concealed. However,
if the work is a picture (in the traditional sense) we know that it is a
whole which is emergent not simply from spatial parts, but gestures
deployed in a process of creation. Each one of these made a necessary
contribution to the identity of the finished compositional whole.
If the picture is an artwork, this is precisely what our aesthetic
attention focuses on. We enjoy the way in which the gestures or
HOW IMAGES CREATE US 121

markings enable the whole to emerge, and through this we understand


both the whole and the individual character of the parts all the better.
The necessary relation of all the gestures to the final whole is made
available for visual scrutiny. In this way the necessary relation
between the identity of the individual experience, as such, and the ele-
ments that enabled it finds an expressive visual analogue.13
It might seem that such an analogue can be found in literature and
music also in so far as they too are wholes composed from parts. How-
ever, as arts of temporal realization their unity is a linear one. Each
part has to be apprehended successively and the whole is a function of
this. It can be held in imagination, but its unity cannot be presented
complete as an immediate object of perception.
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The pictures unity, in contrast, can be so presented. Our perception


of it is not constrained by linear temporality. Parts and whole are pres-
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ent to perception simultaneously. As a spatial object with a virtual spa-


tial content, the pictures structure of parts and whole has an open
unity. It can be explored in any order that we wish. We can start at the
top and work down, or at the left and work right. The picture is imme-
diately present in a way that makes the necessary reciprocal depend-
ence of the aesthetic whole and its gestural conditions of emergence
available to perception.
From the viewpoint of both artist and audience this is of great aes-
thetic import. In life, everything passes along with the things that
made it possible. The artistic picture, however, overcomes the sponta-
neity and instability of the image and completes experience. It does so
through a finished whole whose gestural conditions of emergence are
made (in principle) permanently available to vision. Through this,
something intrinsic to the human condition the holistic necessity of
experience is clarified and made visible for both artist and audi-
ence. The pictures mode of aesthetic disclosure allows artist and
audience to inhabit a symbolic refuge from transience.

Conclusion
I have argued, then, the following basic case. Imagination is not only a
formal condition of self-consciousness and objective knowledge, it is
intrinsic to how we inhabit memory, and to how we inhabit the objec-
tive world. Through its mix of deliberative and spontaneous features
imagination blends its object with the style of the imaginer (through

[13] Dufrenne (1973) explores the relation between gesture and the emergence of the pictorial
whole very effectively. See especially pp. 27780. He does not, however, pick up on the
holistic aspect that I am emphasizing.
122 P. CROWTHER

the conditions of his or her will). Imagination makes us at home with


the world it gives a sense of belonging that is present no matter how
alien or disturbing our present circumstances might happen to be, and
is also an integral aspect of our exercise of freedom.
Making pictures develops all this. It is has great practical uses, but
also complex levels of intrinsic significance based on its refine-
ment of imagination as a mode of inhabiting existence. It allows this
inhabiting to be developed and brought to a completion that both
accomplishes the artists imaginative style and makes it available
objectively to both his or her self-understanding and the aesthetic
empathy of others. The origins and destination of the picture are to be
found in the imaginative dimensions of experience in factors that
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are basic to self-consciousness. Making pictures accomplishes what


is otherwise left unsaid in the spontaneous aspects of episodic mem-
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ory or projective imagination. Through making pictures, the visual


imagination in general becomes autonomous, and invites both creator
and viewer to inhabit the imaginative style the artists way of artic-
ulating the visible world. Pictures complete a striving to understand
and inhabit the world that the very generation of mental images tends
towards.
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Paper received January 2013; revised May 2013.


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