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There may be intellects capable of pure “contemplation” but most of us must envision just to think. Plotinus describes an eidetic experience, which means that the mental form is not attributionally transcendent but actually so. We are, for that moment, theophorai, “godbearers,” possessed by immortals.

I’ll begin by asking your indulgence for speaking to you on Zoom, when we all rejoice in being back together for real, in soul and in body.* It’s the physical exigency of old age. In spirit I am, I hope, all there, deeply invested in a question that rises to an enigma. It is encapsulated in my title, which I’ll cite, and the terms of which I’ll explain in a preliminary way.

So first, mental images. There are people, for instance among cognitive scientists, who deny that we have images in our mind, quasi-visual events, that is, events which occur behind, rather than in front of, our eyes. They argue that these purported visions are thoughts that we take for sights.

It seems to me, however, that when I close my eyes I often see pictures. Some are spontaneous, coming on their own, some are deliberate, summoned by me. I think that these non-believers are caught in the net of a confusion: They take a postulate, a demand of their own, for a non-existence proof. I’ll amplify that later, together with the reason why I think they’re wrong: There is something sometimes, in fact, usually, in my mind, and my natural term for it is “image.” That term is even more problematic than “mental” and that preoccupation—I might say it’s lifelong and gets more mystifying as it goes—that preoccupation is what I want to lay before you. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you have sometimes wondered about it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if others among you couldn’t bring yourselves to care much. I’ll try my best to cause you to care.

In that preoccupation, I take the word image—be it a picture in the mind or a picture on the wall or, as some philosophers whom I feel particularly close to claim, the very world itself, taken as an appearance—I take that word “image” at its word, so to speak. “Image” signifies imitation, copy, and so cannot help but imply an original. The term “image” calls for the preposition “of,” and “of” calls for an object to be complete.

For the picture on the wall, that’s sometimes unproblematic. On my wall, there’s a picture of my brother, a smiling private in his uniform. Clearly he is what the photograph is a picture “of,” the original, once a little brat to put up with, later a fraternal companion to confide in. But there’s also another picture, an engraving of a depiction of an infamous cave that the freshmen among you will, before long, read about in Plato’s Republic and recognize as the one you’re stuck in and came to St. John’s in order to clamber out of.

Now I ask you and, of course, myself: Where is the original of that? It’s even more curious of the imagery in my mind, especially the kind that’s not attached to memory, that is, to some reality that you’ve seen and remember, recall.

I’m a great lover of novels, of narrative fiction, both as a genre and in particular. As a genre, a kind, they all have this in common: the fact that most of what they report never happened. Writers of fiction are, one and all, folks who make up stories, an activity commonly called “lying.” And there are also artists, painters, say, who make works for our admiring delight. So they might be called “admirable deceivers” and “incarnate contradictions-in-terms.” Their activity might be ethically questionable, but they are surely just philosophically problematic. (Let me here quickly interject that by “ethically” I mean: “concerned with doing right or wrong,” and by “philosophically” I mean: “concerned with what lies behind or beneath or beyond our appearing world.”)

As particulars, instances of the genre, what makers of fiction have in common is precisely also their vital difference: Each fiction, if it is a work of art, re-enacts in a lesser scope the creation of a sub-world, with the characters indigenous to it, a world made analogously to the one whose creation is reported in the scripture called the Old Testament.

There is, however, this enormous difference: The God of the Old Testament is certainly an image-maker. Though He has forbidden us to make images, He has made us in His own image. But we are not told how he goes about it. Human image-makers must, I am persuaded, rely on their own mental images as originals for their image-making. I mean that so-called “original” work is drawn from the artist’s imagination. That’s partly what is so fascinating: Our mental images are dyadic, in turn the originals of the image we put out into the world and themselves images, whose very originals are the object of my pursuit here.

Let me now, by way of intermediate summary, lay out the ascendent series I’ve been establishing:

1. material things animate and inanimate; 2. dual memory images present in consciousness or accessible in some sort of (metaphorical) storage, serving (in one direction) as the originals of re-presentative works of art; 3. the same, serving (in the other direction) as the images of originals; 4. these same originals, mysterious in mode of being and in venue of existence, possibly some sort of originary images (a deliberate self-contradiction) in the mind of a divinity.

If your head is spinning, you’ve got it straight. But now I want to take up briefly (in order to be done with them) the heretics, the unbelievers with regard to images in the mind. When this debate was hot, way back in the last century, it went (I’ve already indicated) as follows:

But let me interrupt myself here to say what you’d expect a lifelong Johnnie to say: For a notion to be old, especially in the ever-oscillating world of scientifically tinged humanities, is, if anything, a cause for confidence—that old conception has staying power. So reviving for you an academic debate that is a few decades out of date is excusable, especially since it ended in a draw, that is, it ended in a draw in what is, so oddly, called the “literature” on the subject, meaning a few books and oodles of articles, none particularly remarkable for their literary qualities, at least when I immersed myself in it.

When I say it ended in a draw, I mean at least as far as the world of research and scholarship was concerned—not for me. So let me tell you in a very few more sentences what the arguments were on the two sides, on the side of those who believed that mental images were a misapprehension, and of those, like myself, who thought not only that they were a real phenomenon, but even that they were among the most interesting of common human experiences.

This was thought to be the most telling “anti-” argument: Defenders of mental images could produce no hard evidence, such as science demands, for their existence—nothing that could be exhibited, could be submitted to common inspection. All they could offer was introspection, so terminally internal that no fellow human being, not your most intimate friend, had access to it. It was, therefore, a purported phenomenon that was terminally private, unexhibitable. Anyone could claim anything about the contents and events of their mind.

The skeptics were not accusing the imagists of lying, of making things up. Their best arguments were much more objective and much deeper. Introspection, they argued, which means, literally, “looking within,” is in principle impossible. What’s looking and at what? If my consciousness, my active mind, is looking at itself, then it’s seeing mind looking at itself. If the mind’s looking is analogous to the eye’s seeing, then, as I think Aristotle points out somewhere, what it sees is never just itself simply, but always itself engaged in self-viewing. And that’s like trying to observe what two opposed mirrors each display without putting your viewing self in the picture. It’s unimaginable.

So introspection turned out to be a big muddle such as a sound-minded inquirer wouldn’t touch with a long pole. And with that the claim to be seeing pictures by looking within was thought to have collapsed.

What was to be said on the other side? The reply was dyadic, double. First, then, there was reference to the mere experience of internal seeing, either memory pictures, more or less accurate, or imaginary images, more or less spontaneous. Second, imaginers could produce external images of their internal visions. And though the makers usually, even the talented painters, hastened to say that their external productions didn’t do justice to their original experiences, which might be originally from unbidden dreams through laboriously summoned memories to artful imagery—partly spontaneous, partly crafted—they persisted in trying.

Incidentally, why are the externalizations of internal imagery almost always defective? I’ll venture a guess. Most of us have, on occasion, tried to retell a dream, especially those so-called “great dreams” that recur over decades. We find ourselves doing what psychologists call “confabulating,” producing as much made-up narrative as accurate recall. We meant to be truthful, but it proves impossible. Why? Because the dream was more atmosphere than story. And “atmospheres” are immaterial environments, highly evanescent under description. If you’ve ever attempted such a description, you’ll recall that you need more and more words, but the more words you use, the more occulted, the more evanescent, the atmosphere gets. Stories, I’m saying, flourish as accurate narration, but atmospheres are articulation-averse. They’re fugitive under verbiage.

All that said and taken into consideration, I’ll declare myself on the side of mental imagery as a real, in fact practically universal, occurrence. And I’ll use as my chief argument my own experience. For if I can’t prove to you that I have such imagery, you can’t prove that I don’t.

I’ll leave out of account the laboratory evidence of brain activity that seems to be concurrent with mental events, and ingenious experiments which show by time lapses that people are in fact following imagined motions. Those, apparently highly evidential episodes, actually can’t prove anything. The reason is that in order to call them in for that purpose, you have already to have named, recognized, and specified mental imagery. If you deny that such events exist, you can’t claim that they are or aren’t underlain by brain activity, or that the passage of time is concurrent with internal image-watching.

So I’ll feel myself entitled to ask what seems to me a wonderful question—and recall that “to wonder” as a verb means both “puzzling and marveling”: “What are the originals of which mental images of imaginary beings and events are the images?” Concretely put: “Who is the original son of Laertes by any name, from Homer’s Odysseus to James Joyce’s Ulysses?” And let me confess again that the way I put my question—“What are the originals of the mental images of imaginary beings?”—assumes their existence.

When we propose a topic of inquiry, people often demand that we “define our terms.” That seems to me pretty wrong-headed. When you’ve defined your terms, you’re done, but no one is any the wiser. It’s a dictionary-makers true business to define terms, but what sensible person consults a dictionary, even one as good as my trusty Heritage Dictionary, to find out what a word intends or a thing is?

For when you’ve been given the definition of a word, you’ve learned what people tend to understand by it when they come across it or use it, but not what the word itself means (be it noun, adjective, or verb) or what its intended object is (be it thing, quality, or action).

What appears to me to be the drudge-work of “defining your terms” is very often and most unjustly imputed to Socrates, who hasn’t, so I think, the slightest interest in that respectable but pedantic activity. Most of the college has by now read the Meno and will recall that Socrates requires the people he talks with to know Greek. For of that young slave, with whom he carries on what I think of as the most momentous conversation two human beings ever had with one another—the one that shows that true learning is always recall, recollection—of that slave boy Socrates needs to know only one thing: Does he know Greek? The significance of that condition is that your words don’t need defining, since to speak the language is to know, so to speak, a somewhat “indefinite” but adequate “definition.” What Socrates is after—and in this the boy proves to be a good partner to him—is not what the word knowledge means but what the object this word reaches for, intends, namely what knowledge itself is.

Nonetheless, from sheer perversity, I shall give brief preliminary meanings of my terms, not to close but to open a conversation. These terms are: copy, image, original, in ascending order, both of dignity and of difficulty. It’s a little bit as if I were your freshman language tutor, watching over you learning Greek, but now it’s “imaginese,” so to speak.

So: by copy I mean a rendering of a prototype, a rendering that is in some aspect achieved by mechanical means and intended to be, as near as possible, identical to the prototype. For example: a monk’s careful handwritten copy of an ancient text, or a student’s hurried copy of an annual essay on a xerox machine, missing the last page with the grand conclusion. (It’s happened.)

By an image I mean a sort of inherently pivotal object, being an imitation of something prior from one aspect and a prototype of copies on the other.

By an original I mean a prototype, literally an object first-in-line (proto-) of a sort to follow (type). The word expresses in itself the problem of originals: are they sui generis, “their own-and-only-kind,” or are they merely the first of many typical instances? You can see right away that here is a common case of a uniquely elevated theological condition, that of the Uncreated Creator, the Uncaused Cause. On the answer to the question whether the material world can contain uncaused causes depend whole ways of life, for to say that there are uncaused causes is to say that our world contains miracles. And to believe in them is to believe that a divinity not only brought this world into being but is at work in it daily—not only creating but maintaining it. It’s a possibility we should not let ourselves off from considering.

But now, to bring me back from the wider background to my concrete case, let me restate the question: What is the object of the preposition “of” that must needs go with “mental image”?: “Image of what?”

If you immerse yourself in that question, you soon discover—at least I did—that you can’t just leap on it, but you have to scrabble your way through some thorny problems. The Greek word problema is a really interesting term, because it is a counterpart to the word “question.” “Problem” means literally an outwork, an obstacle, an outer fortification: “thrown out before,” from ballein, “to throw,” and pro, “before”—a defense against smooth entry.

A really good question is perennial; it causes clarifying thought and sometimes incites an answer you can live by, but never resolutions and settlements. “What are the originals of mental images?” seems to me to be a really good question. Now problems may persist, but they are not perennial, not inherently irresoluble. On the contrary, they are meant to be resolved, dissolved, solved—“loosened-up” and washed away. You’ve solved a problem, and that’s it; solved problems are not great objects of interest. You receive the solution gratefully and put the problem, now no longer of interest, behind you. Much of adult life consists of solving and forgetting problems. Much of life’s file is headed “Done with.”

In the sphere of interest I’m talking about, there is an important issue: What is an image?—not by the definition of a word-meaning but by the formulation of its essence, its way of being. That was a problem, at least to me; I wanted an answer, a resolution. I found one, deep but plausible, plain but consequential. It is given in Plato’s dialogue Sophist. There a visitor to Athens, who is versed in the tradition that originated philosophy as the inquiry into Being (the thought that comprehends everything that presents itself to us as positive), tells what an image is in its very being. It is not a definition. My dictionary gives this definition of an image: “A reproduction of the form of a person or an object…” The visitor in Plato’s dialogue doesn’t define but delineates its being. (A definition delimits, a delineation only outlines.) So: an image is an object which both is and is not that of which it is the image, that is, of its original. Speaking ontologically, meaning in the terminology of the account of beings, this says that an image is a thing which is not what it is, and is what it is not.

And that, though it is food for evermore thinking, is a highly satisfying solution to the perplexity, the problem of how to get hold of the being of an image. The dictionary definition was a pseudo-solution because it didn’t say what “the form of an object” was or what it meant to produce it once again, to “re-produce” it. The dialogue’s delineation, however, which is not just a word-meaning but an attempt to articulate the being of the thing, is highly illuminating: An image has a dual character; it is a comingling of Being and Nonbeing. And like any respectable understanding of a grand object, it immediately signals trouble: In averring that an image is an amalgam of Being and Nonbeing, I was driven to assert “is,” that is, to attribute Being, to Nonbeing. Moreover, in opposing Being and Nonbeing, I was, inadvertently, implying that “Being is not Nonbeing,” and so intimating that it is afflicted with negativity. And thus a simple picture of a dog, that anyone can pull up on their iPhone, turns out to be a thing of deep ontological perplexity.

But my present question, having accepted a solution, albeit ontologically roiled, to the primary problem of saying what an image is, is not thereby answered, although it required these preliminaries to be even approachable.

This is the moment to present to you one approach, a formulation and an answer to my question. It may persuade you that it is a respectable inquiry, not only because it was regarded seriously in a great philosophical tradition, but also because at least one really interesting answer—that I know of—exists. Moreover, that tradition to which I am referring is, or will soon be, well known to you, because it originates with Plato speaking for Socrates and is carried on by the so-called Neoplatonists, a philosophical movement that maintained the conversations of Plato’s Academy for centuries. They did that by subjecting the spontaneous and occasional thinking recorded in the Platonic dialogues to something analogous to canning food: The Neoplatonists carved up neatly and recomposed the Platonic tradition into a global system, a coherently connected edifice of thought, with a good shelf life. The Neoplatonist who particularly concerned himself with images was Plotinus. He lived through much of the third century of the Common Era. The essay by Plotinus which is particularly to my point is called “On Intellectual Beauty.” So let me report its doctrine.

Plotinus regards his subject as on the edge of the sayable. He has plenty to say, so I think—and this is corroborated later—that he means something of great importance. What he is setting forth is an invitation to an experience, and, moreover, an ultimate experience. He describes the final step of the ascent, when the visionary no longer sees Beauty at all, sees it, that is, as one sees an other, “since he has come to be in beauty.” It’s a consummation that has an erotic aspect of penetration (though maybe not; I suspect these devotees of the intellect of being a little priggish). In any case, this intellectual seeing is a merging.

There follows Plotinus’s esthetic theory, which requires speaking of the Platonic eidos, the “form.” The first thing Plotinus says is that the form is in the mind of the artist. What, I ask, is its way of being there? It comes, he says, through the eyes, leaving mass and size behind, and there it moves the soul; it is form only. So the eidos is seen, for what else could it mean to come in through the eyes, and it is all that is seen, the only sight. More: the eidos, the form, brings along its own place, and that place is the intellect, nous; it is the topos eidon, “the place of forms.”

The forms in that realm are not “axioms,” acceptable propositions, such as introduce Euclid’s Elements, but beautiful statues. They are such as one might imagine to be in the souls of wise men, not painted statues but real beings. What are these beings like? Plotinus refers to Egyptian temples in which statues, that is to say, images, are used rather than words, one image per thing. “Thinking these up,” summoning them, is quite impossible; whence would they come to one who’d never seen them? Here we have, I think, a familiar description of mental imagery, and Plotinus will continue in this vein, but first he reminds us that our cosmology Here, on Earth, is not intelligible because we think that way but because it is disposed as are things There, Beyond. What then is the Beauty There? He says, “It is what primarily comes to be present to view by being form and vision of the intellect—this also is most adorable for seeing.” He refers to Plato’s Timaeus in which a Divine Craftsman models our world on a paradigm, an idea and its adorable beauty.

Then comes a really interesting passage, a description of the inception of a mental image—for it becomes increasingly clear that, intentionally or not, that is what Plotinus is describing: “Let there be in the soul a luminous image of a sphere,” first the container, the place, the exterior sphere, and then the imagination (phantasia) of the sun and the other stars follow straightway, then the earth, the sea, and animals, some entities staying still, others moving, all inside a diaphanous, a transparent, sphere. That is exactly one way of learning to see our world: first cosmology (the diurnally turning container with its fixed stars), then astronomy (the orbiting planets in the middle place), then meteorology (the disorderly zone of shooting stars), and geography (the Earth fixed at the center, our place). But now comes the theological complement. Plotinus says: “Hold on to this, and take another such sphere into yourself and remove the mass. Remove also the places and the image of matter within you, and don’t try to take in another, smaller in mass, but call on the god who had made the mental image (aphantasmawhich you have, and pray for him to come.”

Plotinus had introduced these instructions by bidding us “take into our thinking this cosmos, without any confusion gathering all into one.” But to me it is clear that he slides from thinking to viewing. He says that Being is longed for because it is the same as The Beauteous (kalon), and The Beauteous is lovable because it is Being. If Beauty and Being are convertible in a sentence, they are in fact identical, and if so, the more immediate question for me is what this betokens for visibility: Must Being be a vision, that is, beautiful, to be Beauty? It’s, once more, an old question, whether transcendents are qualitatively what they ground transcendently. Again, Plotinus’s language says yes; so he soon will speak of the vision of virtues like justice, that differs from its imitation here below. The imitation is discerned by those who have already seen many lucid visions. This gathering of visual references ceases when the visionary is no longer looking at the Beauteous, but has now penetrated within it—as alluded to before.

Our cosmos is a beautiful image (an eikon), and it imitates a beautiful archetype. So it is wrong to try to destroy it, since it exists by nature as long as its archetype remains. Plotinus ends as he began: He must, he says, use this language from his need for signifying. The ending of the essay implies that the intellectable place (the noetos topos) has not been satisfactorily explicated. And that seems right to me. Whether intentionally or not, Plotinus has slipped, driven by his language, into implying that the Platonic forms behave like, or even are, mental images: spatial and sized, receivable but uncontrollable, matterless but sensory, shapely while evanescent.

Plotinus tacitly refers us to his essay entitled That the Intellectual [Beings] Are Not Outside the Intellect. Here he eschews all attributions of sensory perception to the intellect because its objects are within it and so not really objects such as sensory perception presents. Consequently, intellectual Beauty is downplayed because, as internal to its possessor, it is now invisible to him. Moreover, the realms of sensory perception and mental apprehension are here clearly distinguished: He who wants to “see” intellectual beings must let sensory perception go (that is, the seeing we would not put between raised eyebrow quotes). Moreover, he who wants to “see” beyond intellectual beings, so as to rise even higher in the Neoplatonic system, must let even those go. In brief: “Don’t believe that intellecting…is seeing” (12, 4).

Here’s my take: Plotinus has really fallen—my guess is driven by his own experience—into sometimes thinking that forms can be in the human mind as mental images, though, of course, he knows better. He pulls down the Platonic ideas into the field of the imagination, so they become available as the archetypes of art. Plato would not turn but whirl in his grave. (The notion reappears, however, full-blown in the nineteenth century, revived by the philosopher Schopenhauer.)

Mental images, in their unstable, feeling-imbued, eminently imitational quiddity, are almost the antithesis of intellectual beings. Moreover, this Neoplatonic non-answer simply nullifies my question. Usually, when the thought of transcendent beings—a thought short of an experience—is lodged in our minds, we understand that we are to apprehend them in the mode of mortals. There may be intellects capable of pure “contemplation” (theoria) but most of us must envision just to think. Plotinus is describing an eidetic experience, which means that the mental form is not attributionally transcendent but actually so. We are, for that moment, theophorai, “godbearers,” possessed by immortals.

Mental imagery and its origins could not be more grandly described. So back down to earth: Am I persuaded, should you be, by Plotinus? I would like to be. But that is not a dispositive reason why I, or you, should be. So I must leave you with a non-answer, but, I hope, with this sense: A question that elicits such enchanting answers is worth entertaining, over and over. To put it as it seems to me: Nothing feels more expectantly free than to be left dangling in perplexity (aporia).

*This essay is a transcript of a lecture given by Dr. Eva Brann and was first published here in August 2021.

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