Can you see what I mean?

How does one visually represent a concept?

Imagine that the following sentence, “Jane sat on a yellow cushion and literally fell head over heels,” were ‘pictorialized’ such that “Jane” was replaced by a picture of Jane, “sat on a yellow cushion” were replaced by a picture (or a couple shots in series) of Jane sitting on a yellow cushion, and “literally fell head over heels” were replaced by a picture of a startled Jane mid-tumble.

Visually, we find that “literally” evaporates; it is just a part of “fell over”. “Literally”, it seems, literally has no visualizable reality. You cannot point at the concept of “literally” in spacetime. It is a sheer verbal parlor trick, used only to dramatize and exaggerate an otherwise mundane description of events. Conceivably, every instance of “literally” in written history could be literally deleted and the associated meaning would survive. A word like “literally” is a, visibly, a meaningless waste of ink and ASCII.

And yet––yet, “literally” does have a meaning. It is a coherent concept which we can and do use all the time. It is a real “intentional object”––otherwise how could you be reading what I have written about it and with it?

It seems, then, that not all words are visually registered. What we know, in other words, is not coextensive with what “Literally” cannot be “caught on film,” but it can be caught in the mind. You can see what I mean without ever seeing what what-I-mean is. The only fitting picture of “literally” is the series of conjoined letters in ‘literally’. The word, thus, acts as an unnatural sign of an unnatural reality. A material in quo (by which) of an immaterial quod quid est (that which is).


2 Responses

  1. There are two oddities here, to me.

    1. Why would someone claim that every concept can be visualized? That seems as limiting and unsatisfying to me as the claim (which I have heard in postmodernist circles) that every thought can be verbalized–which latter claim always makes me think that the speaker probably doesn’t do much geometry.

    2. If the demonstration that we have (and use) concepts that can’t be visualized is intended as a demonstration that the immaterial exists, I think it fails. It does demonstrate that we can conceive of something immaterial, but that doesn’t mean that this immaterial whatever-it-is has real existence outside our minds. (I can visualize world peace, too, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to stop the folks in Darfur.)

    What am I missing?


  2. Peter:

    1. This point is a major victory over crude empiricism. Sometimes small gains are enough.

    2. The non-visualizibility of concepts is integral to arguments for the immanteriality of the intellect. All that is needed is to show that the mind is more than an empirical viewing box, as Descartes did with his chiliagon illustration, is elicit acts of conception which exceed the powers of empirical perception. What we know is more than what we can see, with our eyeballs and with our “mind’s eye.” The point is not that our conceptions exist outside our minds–after all they are OUR conceptions–but that they exist in our minds in an intellectual, as opposed to perceptual, way. Do you deny chiliagons are possibly materially real? (If I make one tonight out of a sheet of construction paper, I’ll mail it to you.) Do you deny they are conceptually real even when not materialized? They exist apart from our tactile and neural constructions of them.

    If things like “literally” and “chiliagons” existed only in our minds (i.e., as phantasms), we would never come up with the idea, since we can’t visualize them. Hence, they do exist in a way that exceeds, or so to speak awaits, our grasp of them. Such abstract things have esse intelligibile et naturale (i.e., an intelligible existence as their own nature), but can also exist in a different mode by esse intentione (i.e., with an ‘intentional’ existence).

    I would also challenge your claim about Darfur. You cannot visualize world peace, since, who can really say in clear detail what would have to change, who would have to die, etc., for it to come about? What you can do is conceive of “world peace” and associate mental images with that concept. Can you visualize “humanity”? No, but you can conceive of it. Can you visualize your self, viz., your enduring identity at every spatiotemporal point of its existence? No, but you can grasp such a concept. Can you visualize God? No, but etc. etc. People say their life flashed before their eyes at a moment of near death–which for all I know may really happen visually, but I doubt it–yet that kind of claim only makes sense to OTHERS by conception, not visualization. Even though we cannot “see” our entire life, such a thing exists, and in a way that does run through but does not stay within our minds.

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