Seeing is believing, etymologically speaking. The Old English witan, 'know' (you may recognize it in 'wits', 'wizard', or 'wisdom') comes from the older *weid- or vidi, 'to see'.1 When you say "I see your point", you mean "I understand". Perhaps echoing Galton's study of mental imagery, more recent studies suggest it takes some time for children to understand the difference between seeing and knowing. Sight, these studies suggest, is the sense children use to anchor concepts.2
Images as the stuff of thought predates and permeates Aristotle. In his treatise on memory, Aristotle wrote: "it is impossible to think without an image, for the same phenomenon occurs in thinking as is found in the construction of geometrical figures. […] Memory, even the memory of concepts, cannot exist apart from imagery."3 To many ancient Greek philosophers, words and language derive from inner images,4 and knowledge always involves a visual object.5 The important point here is not that it was considered difficult to think without images, but that the essence of a thought was itself a sensory impression, like a figure pressed into wax.
The image/thought connection percolated through Christian thought via St. Augustine and others in the 4th-6th centuries and remained prominent in Western thought until surprisingly recently. Since the prevailing thinkers of the time, with few exceptions, did not differentiate the order of knowledge from the order of being [link elsewhere in doc], an imaginative representation of a concept could not be untangled from the concept itself. That is, how someone visually thinks about something, whether it be a table or the abstract concept of justice, has some deep connection with essence of the object itself. Both tables and justice are connected to our knowledge of them via images. Thus, illustrated trees of knowledge were not merely helpful organizational schemes, but indicative of real underlying connections between the branching concepts they depicted.
The entanglement of ontology and epistemology continued for over a millennium, even in the presence of influential figures who challenged their codependence. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, felt there to be a strong disconnect between personal imagination and the object of that imagination, and that words (themselves not directly traceable to sensory impressions) were closer to the essence of reality than our images.
Though Aquinas' division lent itself to the separation of order from knowledge, the Franciscan scholastics, in their realist tradition, continued to argue a strong visual connection between ontology and epistemology. They embraced a deeply diagrammatic mode of cognition, wherein thoughts, objects, and concepts could all fit into neatly branching visual structures, whose spatial representations actually mapped to some underlying reality. The Franciscan scholastics' geometric thinking, exemplified in and perfected by Ramon Llull, was carried into modernity by the same undercurrents that alternatingly fed and fought the mathematization of early modern science.6
[This links to Order of Being vs Order of Knowledge]
Mitchell, Spatial Form in Literature7
Radden, Gunter. “How Metonymic Are Metaphors?” In Metaphor and Metonymy in Comparison and Contrast, 407. Walter de Gruyter, 2003.↩
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, 1999.Radden, Gunter. “How Metonymic Are Metaphors?” In Metaphor and Metonymy in Comparison and Contrast, 407. Walter de Gruyter, 2003.↩
Aristotle. De Memoria Et Reminiscentia, 350 BCE.Elsner, Jas, and Michael Squire. “Sight and Memory: The Visual Art of Roman Mnemonics.” In Sight and the Ancient Senses, edited by Michael Squire. The Senses in Antiquity. London ; New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.↩
Thomas, Nigel J.T. “Mental Imagery.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2016., 2016.↩
Robinson, Forrest Glen. The Shape of Things Known: Sidney’s Apology in Its Philosophical Tradition. Harvard University Press (1972), Edition: Harvard University Press, 1972., p. 23↩
Robinson, Forrest Glen. The Shape of Things Known: Sidney’s Apology in Its Philosophical Tradition. Harvard University Press (1972), Edition: Harvard University Press, 1972., pp. 45-49↩
Mitchell, W. J. T. “Spatial Form in Literature: Toward a General Theory.” Critical Inquiry 6, no. 3 (1980): 539–67.↩
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