It is one thing […] to apprehend directly an image as image, and another thing to shape ideas regarding the nature of images in general.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Imagination (1962)

Any attempt to grasp „the idea of imagery“ is fated to wrestle with the problem of recursive thinking, for the very idea of an „idea“ is bound up with the notion of imagery. “Idea” comes from the Greek verb “to see,” and is frequently linked with the notion of the “eidolon,” the “visible image” that is fundamental to ancient optics and theories of perception. A sensible way to avoid the temptation of thinking about images in terms of images would be to replace the word “idea” in discussions of imagery with some other term like “concept” or “notion,” or to stipulate at the outset that the term “idea” is to be understood as something quite different from imagery or pictures. This is the strategy of the Platonic tradition, which distinguishes the eidos from the eidolon by conceiving of the former as a “suprasensible reality” of “forms, types, or species,” the latter as a sensible impression that provides a mere “likeness” (eikon) or “semblance” (phantasma) of the eidos.

A less prudent, but I hope more imaginative and productive, way of dealing with this problem is to give in to the temptation to see ideas as images, and to allow the recursive problem full play. This involves attention to the way in which images (and ideas) double themselves: the way we depict the act of picturing, imagine the activity of imagination, figure the practice of figuration. These doubled pictures, images, and figures (that I will refer to—as rarely as possible— as “hypericons”) are strategies for both giving into and resisting the temptation to see ideas as images. Plato’s cave, Aristotle’s wax tablet, Locke’s dark room, Wittgenstein’s hieroglyphic are all examples of the “hypericon” that, along with the popular trope of the “mirror of nature,” provide our models for thinking about all sorts of images—mental, verbal, pictorial, and perceptual. They also provide, I will argue, the scenes in which our anxieties about images can express themselves in a variety of iconoclastic discourses, and in which we can rationalize the claim that, whatever images are, ideas are something else.


There have been times when the question “What is an image?” was a matter of some urgency. In eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium, for instance, your answer would have immediately identified you as a partisan in the struggle between emperor and patriarch, as a radical iconoclast seeking to purify the church of idolatry, or a conservative iconophile seeking to preserve traditional liturgical practices. The conflict over the nature and use of icons, on the surface a dispute about fine points in religious ritual and the meaning of symbols, was actually, as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, “a social movement in disguise” that “used doctrinal vocabulary to rationalize an essentially political conflict.” (See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 5 vols., University of Chicago Press 1975-1991; vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600 -1700), chap. 3: “Images of the Invisible”) In mid-17th-century England the connection between social movements, political causes, and the nature of imagery was, by contrast, quite undisguised. It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say that the English Civil War was fought over the issue of images, and not just the question of statues and other material symbols in religious ritual but less tangible matters such as the “idol” of monarchy and, beyond that, the “idols of the mind” that Reformation thinkers sought to purge in themselves and others.

If the stakes seem a bit lower in asking what images are today, it is not because they have lost their power over us, and certainly not because their nature is now clearly understood. It is a commonplace of modern cultural criticism that images have a power in our world undreamed of by the ancient idolaters. And it seems equally evident that the question of the nature of imagery has been second only to the problem of language in the evolution of modern criticism. If linguistics has its Saussure and Chomsky, iconology has its Panofsky and Gombrich. But the presence of these great synthesizers should not be taken as a sign that the riddles of language or imagery are finally about to be solved. The situation is precisely the reverse: language and imagery are no longer what they promised to be for critics and philosophers of the Enlightenment—perfect, transparent media through which reality may be represented to the understanding. For modern criticism, language and imagery have become enigmas, problems to be explained, prison-houses which lock the understanding away from the world. The commonplace of modern studies of images, in fact, is that they must be understood as a kind of language; instead of providing a transparent window on the world, images are now regarded as the sort of sign that presents a deceptive appearance of naturalness and transparence concealing an opaque, distorting, arbitrary mechanism of representation, a process of ideological mystification.

My purpose […] is neither to advance the theoretical understanding of the image nor to add yet another critique of modern idolatry to the growing collection of iconoclastic polemics. My aim is rather to survey some of what Wittgenstein would call the “language games” that we play with the notion of images, and to suggest some questions about the historical forms of life that sustain those games. I don’t propose, therefore, to produce a new or better definition of the essential nature of images, or even to examine any specific pictures or works of art. My procedure instead will be to examine some of the ways we use the word “image” in a number of institutionalized discourses— particularly literary criticism, art history, theology, and philosophy— and to criticize the ways each of these disciplines makes use of notions of imagery borrowed from its neighbors. My aim is to open up for inquiry the ways our “theoretical” understanding of imagery grounds itself in social and cultural practices, and in a history fundamental to our understanding not only of what images are but of what human nature is or might become. Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution from creatures “made in the image” of a creator, to creatures who make themselves and their world in their own image.