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Philosophy of Mind

On Images

James Dallett

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ABSTRACT: Concrete images are like pictures in the mind's imagination which have been transferred from real objects through the eyes. Abstract images also exist in the imagination, but are not easily described or communicated. Both images interplay in various ways as a person experiences emotional, dream and pure thought states of consciousness. Despite the interplay, the two kinds of images do not merge or meld into a third image type as a graduation between the two. Concrete images change, sometimes drastically. They never become abstract images, however deformed they are. Abstractions are somewhat assumed and exist as spontaneous and at times irrational images in the mind's eye. Light, reason, infinity and nothing are examples of abstract images which cannot be given accurate visual representation. Images take on different meanings with regard to language, death, prayer and society or politics; but the two types remain distinct. All human beings experience both concrete and abstract imagery. However, the level of ability to think abstractly varies from person to person.

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For Aristotle, the most important and most enjoyable of the senses is the sense of sight. (1) The human eye receives an image with the use of light. Vision of the physical world outside ourselves occurs as light reflects off objects, passes through the eyes, and presents an image to the mind. It is believed that these images are not unique to any single person because they are communicated and described back and forth, thus weakening the solipsist's struggle. In this paper, abstract and concrete images will be defined by way of discussion of the imagination and the mind. Apparently the mind functions in such a way that many images happen without any mechanistic equation to tell us how. The imagination is familiar and so are the images, but it is the wonder and challenge of how they interact that deepens our understanding. It is contended here that the line between the two types of images is stark and obvious, and not a graduation. Images are either concrete or abstract, without any in between.

By concrete image we understand a sort of picture present when we are seeing something or as we close our eyes and remember it. The image seems to be present as a form outside ourselves in the object and in our mind simultaneously. It is an image which has color and real properties like shape and texture. By abstract image we mean what is understood when someone says - "He or she was imagining it". It is a type of thought that cannot be exactly matched up to anything outside the mind. They are in a sense unreal. Artists have tried throughout history to present abstract images out into the corporeal world by painting or sculpting. Surrealistic and sublime forms of artistic expression are styles of inner abstractions. When exact examples are discussed a problem arises.

Typically, dream images are believed to be abstract. The images that are described, although very deformed and altered from waking experiences, are concrete. After describing our dreams to others we are commonly left with a disappointment that the person didn't really understand what we tried to convey.

It is easier to describe other memories of waking experiences, or even communicate descriptions of present time images. Dreaming however, is a unique imaging process which sometimes involves such intensity that the thought seems too subjective. Our emotions effect the imagery, which when remembered and told to others, makes us think the imagery is abstract. But no matter how a concrete image is deformed, it is always concrete. Even if the thing becomes unrecognizable it is still not abstract. Interestingly, when the dream is described we use phrases like: 'it was like', 'it seemed as though' or 'it was as if'. These are comparison words which try to describe the dream. Yet because there were emotions going on, and because dreaming is a whole person experience (not isolated thinking), the comparison language does not tell the truth. This is precisely what makes us want to say the images are abstract, however, the isolated thought patterns themselves are concrete.

The confusion arises when it seems that abstract images are only concrete images that are bizarre or 'foggy and fuzzy'. For example, when a person looks through binoculars the image changes from clear to fuzzy and back again as the mechanism is turned. All these images should be defined as concrete. An abstraction is a kind of image that we talk about and think of, but cannot describe easily. Mathematicians and physicists are accustomed to using the abstract image of infinity. One cannot see infinity with the eyes. It is however known to exist and is understood with the mind's eye. It may be described as a tangent curve coming closer and closer to a straight line without ever touching it. Infinity is said to be eternal, boundless or without end. Surely, it is imaginable and communicable, but not concrete. Let's look at some more types of imagery.

If a person is asked, "What are you thinking about?" and they reply, "The Golden Gate Bridge", an obvious and concrete image is fairly easily communicated. But it should not be the case that we define all images as pictures. The person might say, "I'm thinking of nothing." Do we have an image of nothing? It seems that we do, but it is an abstract one. We understand what the person means when they say it. The idea of nothing is conveyed in an assuming way which believes the image necessarily exists in the imagination. Abstract images are incapable of visual representation. However, symbols are used to try and get the image into the mind -

Figure 1

The actual abstract thought cannot be shown, displayed or pointed to; it must be grasped.

Less clearly, the person could reply - " I'm having an hallucination which consists of seeing all the ocean waters melt together to form a saltwater taffy candle". Intuitively this seems to be a very abstract image. However, it is contended, that it is actually a deformed and changed concrete one which is quite unlike infinity or nothing because it consists of oceans, taffy and a candle. There is activity and an adjusted concrete picture. We can visualize the entire hallucination, even maybe draw it.

We can now discuss the possibility of a third kind of image. Are there images which are not abstract or concrete, yet somehow present deep in the mind? We have seen that infinity and vision images can be recognized and described; but are there images beyond abstraction which are, ironically, unimaginable? The answer seems to be no. There are, however, emotive type feelings closely associated with mental processes in a segment of ones being where something is happening beyond abstraction. These states of consciousness are not called imaging patterns. One may be hungry or sad and have thoughts associated with the emotive status. The difference between these emotion associated thoughts and what we call images is that images are mostly isolated to conscious conceptualization. If one is in shock or fear there are mental processes in action that are rather subconscious. We describe our feelings and whole being status, but we do not communicate any type of image. In a sense this is similar to dividing the mind from the body so that physicochemical responses are separate from images in the mind.

It is important to draw a conclusion and discuss whether all people have both concrete and abstract imaginations. It is believed that everyone has concrete images; but some abstract images are not shared by everyone. Children provide a touchstone source to debate the problem. The reasoning is that the imagination in all children is abstract; therefore, all humans have this capacity. But a closer look at what really happens when a child imagines reveals that he/she is only using concrete images. To the adult the images present a deformed and distorted understanding of the world. Play toys are only rough replicas of accurate and true things, and so are the images they reflect. Rather than calling the images abstract, they are strange and irrational, or false and ridiculous. The child is providing a framework wherein concrete images are changed, but abstract images are not present. Later in life the person will be presented with the opportunity to have abstract imagery, e.g. mechanics. It is widely believed that not all humans can understand mechanics. The gears and levers are put forth as a test to see if the person can manipulate them to a rational end. Concrete images of the objects are present in each person's mind; however, it requires abstract imagery to know how to move them correctly. While some people can look at a Ferris wheel and know the way it works, others find this impossible to imagine. Everyone has witnessed someone who can lift an object and come very close to telling us the weight. Other people have an inner clock and can estimate the time. It is contended that this type of judgment abstraction exists only in the imagination of some people. The question is posed - after enough trials and repetitions will everyone eventually learn to estimate? No, the abstract judgments will come to only some minds! Other learning challenges in higher mathematics and physics require special abstract images. Abstract images happen spontaneously and often irrationally. Concrete images are static.

All human beings experience some sort of abstract images. Human compassion for others makes use of both kinds of images in that there is a concrete stimulus which results in an internal emotion imagined abstractly in the other person. That is, as one visualizes another's joy or suffering he/she imagines that emotion in the self unknowingly and abstractly. When we cry or laugh it is a combination of abstract images about the fullness of life and concrete reasons producing the effect. A very concrete image of the self occurs when a photograph of oneself is viewed. When we subjectively ponder our existence without pictures or mirrors, abstraction takes over and a different understanding occurs in the mind. The true self exists in a strange and abstract form throughout our lives as an image we carry known only to others and God.

The division between the two kinds of images becomes quite vivid when linguistic analysis is used. When a particular concrete image becomes a universal name or word, it also becomes abstract and classifies in an imaginary way. In John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding this mental phenomenon is described:

The use of words then being to stand as outward marks of our internal ideas, and those ideas being taken from particular things, if every particular idea that we take in should have a distinct name, names must be endless. To prevent this the mind makes the particular ideas received from particular objects to become general; which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances, separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called ABSTRACTION, whereby ideas taken from particular beings become general representatives of all of the same kind; and their names general names, applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas. Such precise, naked appearances in the mind, without considering how, whence, or with what others they came there, the understanding lays up (with names commonly annexed to them) as the standards to rank existences into sorts, as they agree with these patterns, and to denominate them accordingly. (2)

Again, it is believed that abstract images are virtually void of visual representation and exist in the form of bare essence. Other facets of language reveal many images both concrete and abstract which are unique to the way words are used.

In addition to images conveyed through words, there are images of what can be called events in life. These images are not tied to thoughts associated with the self or emotions, but they have to do with things like society, politics, religion, war or death. Death will be discussed here. And what is true about death images is true of other life events also. Death imagery is two-folded. We know of factual concrete images about our physical destruction, but our minds find it necessary to attach an abstract image onto the event itself. Even the atheist imagery of belief in total annihilation must use an abstract image to see a void. Or if death is seen as a religious passing of the soul into heavenly bliss, another abstract image is needed. Concrete memories of funeral visits help us prepare for death in a real way, yet are inseparable from the abstract mystery of the unknown. Likewise, thoughts of historical events and holidays bring to mind real events, or people and places; but there is always attached our personal belief imagery about what it means.

Imagination takes place during meditation, prayer and psychoanalysis. The mind is making a special effort to be ordered, structured and disciplined. Generally these mental processes are abstract since visual representation is not occurring. Recitation or clearing the mind of all thought both use abstract imagery. Of course if the prayer state involves icons, religious events or angels, the imagery may become picturesque thus taking on a concrete quality. The act of disciplining the mind is a way of imaging which may work on concrete images. The therapist who is trying to get the patient to - "think a certain way" projects his/her self through the mind with the hope of changing abstract imagery into concrete and consciously human decisions. Some psychologists use symbols, which are concrete images, to better understand the patient's inward state. To be sure, various levels and depths of abstraction depend on the psychological make up of that person with concrete images providing only rough clues.

Abstract imagination is a part of the mind which is assumed when someone says, "I can't imagine it". No concrete image is brought to mind; however, it is argued, an abstract one is. What is actually being conveyed is that the idea is unbelievable, false or impossible. Some image is definitely communicated. The person did not respond with, "What are you talking about?" or "I don't understand, it's confusing". The thing that happened was they couldn't think of the image concretely, or bring up any typological representation. In abstraction, some sort of image was necessarily understood and imagined well enough for an intelligible response. This is characteristic of abstract images; that they are mysterious and vague. In the above example, the language works in such a way that the exact image was not literally imagined. In place of this absent concrete thought is an abstraction assumed in mind. The 'it' at the end of the sentence indeed has a reference.

It is known that there is such a thing as light. However, it is known so only in an abstract way. If it is asked - "What is a concrete image of light itself?" there is none. In fact, we cannot see light at all, but we have it in our imagination and trust it to reveal real objects to our senses. Abstract imagery uses reason to verify itself. Every day we think through possible activities and situations making decisions at each moment along the way. Reason itself, isolated from human decisions, is an operation of the abstract mind. We know there is a cognitive process going on and even try to put it out in the form of logic textbooks. But the part of our mind called reason has no concrete picture, just as light has none either. The imagination is known dualistically, by way of concrete vision of objects and other images which are abstract.

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(1) Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York; Random House, 1941) Metaphysics Book A 980a, p. 689.

(2) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Great Britain: Wm. Collins Sons and Co., Ltd., 1964), p.129.


Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Great Britain; Wm. Collins Sons and Co., Ltd., 1964

McKeon, Richard. Ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York; Random House, 1941

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