Image, Percept, and Seeing Through

Wed. May 24, 2006
Categories: Papers



This essay attempts to compare mindsight by Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, and seeing-through, as described in the book Revisioning Psychology by James Hillman.

Percepts are the passive reception of visual stimuli, similar to viewing one frame of a movie, as opposed to images which are internal experiences that require willful activity. McGinn (2004) analyzes various arguments about the differences between image and percept in Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning, referring back to Hume who suggested that an image is just a faded percept, like a faded photograph that varies in its degree of vividness (p. 10). McGinn argues against Hume’s idea of images as degraded percepts and supports Wittgenstein’s claim that you cannot have a perception and simultaneously imagine the thing you are seeing (p. 12). This is because, as McGinn said, image and percept are very different, the distinction being that of desire, choice or willingness. An example might be my perception of a gorgeous gorilla at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Perception required no willpower on my part when I stood in front of him, as did the children and their mothers around us. But it requires willingness to imagine him in my mind’s eye now that I sit in front of my computer. Wittgenstein would say it is impossible to imagine the gorilla at the moment of perception.

Depth psychologists who are using philosophical terms to understand Hillman’s concept of seeing-through phenomena would say that percepts are not to be taken literally or that phenomena is not to be taken at face value. In contrast to Wittgenstein’s assertion, seeing-through includes “looking at the frames of our consciousness, the cages in which we sit and the iron bars that form the grids and defenses of our perception” (Hillman, p127). To see-through would mean to engage the image of the gorilla at the moment of perception, and include the glass wall that separates us as representative of the psychological cages we both sit in separately. When seeing-through, my percept of the gorilla includes the psychological ideas that I have in regards to the gorilla.

Ideation means the act of forming ideas about phenomena, and in the field of archetypal psychology, ideation would translate as looking at phenomena with “classical ideas of psychology in mind while examining the ideas themselves in terms of archetypes” (Hillman, p. 127). Its purpose is to allow Psyche to reveal the idea behind the phenomena, which is not to move away from the physical act of seeing, for Hillman (1975) writes “psychologizing does not mean merely moving from the concrete to the abstract” rather “seeing-through is a process of deliteralizing . . . a search for the imaginal in the heart of things by means of ideas” (p. 136).

Could it be said that seeing-through involves “active imagination” when perceiving phenomena? In other words, engaging percept with desire, choice and willingness whereas alone percepts are only known through the senses, not thought or intuition. Hillman said these “archetypal ideas or fantasies” that he is engaging in psychologically are “considered primarily as a manifestation of the psyche, as first of all an archetypal problem of the soul” (p.118). Love, death, sorrow, happiness and much more are encountered in the seeing-through of a world that needs mirroring. The problem in the world and in our souls according to Coppin (2006) is that there is a poverty of ideas and the world suffers because of it, so in order to revive ideas from unconsciousness people have to think them. Using the philosophical terms previously introduced, that would mean to engage both image and the percept with thought to find the ideas that live behind the surfaces of things. Hillman goes even deeper when he said he “would remove discussion of ideas from the realm of thought to the realm of psyche,” in other words he would look for occurrences where the psychological effects of ideas can be seen and witnessed as soul experiences (p.121).

What McGinn (2004) said about ‘looking’ is that images and percepts have different visual fields (p. 24), which probably led to the development of his theory of “mindsight”.  For example, the percept has

a boundary or perimeter, a center and a periphery, a blind spot; it presents objects as in some definite spatial relation to the perceiver; it exhibits depth, aided by binocularity; it permits concentration on parts of it; it presents objects in a foreground/background configuration; it can be eliminated by closing the eyelids. (McGinn, 2004, p. 22)

Hillman (1976) has written that philosophers do not usually like to ask the ‘what’ question because “what belongs to phenomenology…we search for the essence of what is going on in terms of an essential idea…putting to one side all “whys” and “hows” that a philosophical perspective demands” (p.138). Still, McGinn handles the ‘what’ rather well by identifying not only will, observation, and the visual field but he posits indeterminacy and saturation in his grasp of image and percept. It is not necessary for us to fill in all the details, the image is allowed to be incomplete or unsaturated, while parts of it are not even in the visual field. This is because as the image makers we know what we mean and do not feel the need fill in all the details. We can easily live with unsaturated images, but that is not true of percepts.

McGinn (2004) said that whereas the image is “gappy, coarse, discrete…at every point of the phenomenal visual field you can find a manifested quality” (p. 25), i.e., the percept is complete and saturated. It begs the question if saturation is analogous to seeing-through. Freud saw through phenomena, as did Jung and Husserl, only differently (Hillman, 1976, p.139). In their practices, they began to saturate images with ideas in order to make them more meaningful, and is this not what Hillman is suggesting we do with percepts?

Saturation of the percept, such as depth psychologists do when seeing-through, may be similar to mindsight, which is like having a telescopic eye. A telescopic eye takes in more information from visual fields at greater distances, in contrast to having a microscopic eye that narrows the focus of the visual field. Robert Romanyshyn (1989) reminds us in Technology as Symptom & Dream thatthe more narrow, precise and tight one’s gaze becomes the less one has a sense either of the whole or of the relation of the parts to the whole” (p. 91). When seen with mindsight the images and percepts seem to merge as more of the visual field is taken in. The subject and the object come incredibly near to each other.

This nearness of subject and object from a third perspective may be similar to seeing-through or perhaps even dreaming as depth psychologists understand it. In dreaming there is no percept or phenomena at all, and we are observers in a world where the image has become passive and has escaped our will. Is seeing-through anything like awake dreaming? These ideas themselves lead me to believe that the definition of the visual field should be broadened to include images, percepts and ideation. In this way whether dreaming or awake, neither philosophers nor psychologists are limited to viewing phenomena with only physical eyes. Likewise, if my images were infused with ideas, then my perception of the gorilla was appropriately seeing-through.

In my own experience of seeing-through, or at least my attempt of it, certain ideas caused the experience to feel soulful. First, I sensed a heart of anger from the gorilla which frightened me. The humans were in a superior position physically as viewed from his “cage” and he was being observed by the noisy humans from a short distance above. His beautiful wildness was trapped behind glass which served as a protection between the apes and humans (from our fear of each other?)  Second, from an archetypal perspective the gorilla represented the contained animus, masculine virility and strength, a metaphor of the heroic ego. I also felt my animus trapped and sensed that each of us would be happiest in the wildness that we, the gorilla and I, were being denied. I felt a disturbing pornographic quality while gazing. It was reminiscent of what Romanyshyn (1989) said, that when people are

Lost in the world, dispassionately indifferent to it, fragmented within ourselves, may very well have forgotten how to cry. The eye of distant vision . . . may very well be, for all its precision, a vision without tears; a vision marked by a dispassionate objectivity, leading to an indifferent gaze, and by a sharp intensity of purpose leading, in its turn . . . to a knowledge which tends to leave the self fragmented within itself – composed of bits of knowledge unrelated to the whole – probably sentimental in its emotional attachment to the world, and perhaps even essentially pornographic. (p. 93)

The pornographic quality made me want to retreat to that mononocular, microscopic, literal way of seeing where I do not have any ideas at all, like watching images on a flat screen television, sitting comfortably on the couch. Seeing this way, such as would be seen on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, would justify the argument that percepts are meant to be merely passive, and would only confirm a lack of psychological insight. While pornography may be an imaginal attempt to observe the gorilla by looking under his skin to the skeleton to see the marrow of his bones, it could also mean gathering scientific facts about the gorilla.

The mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) is a subspecies that lives high on the mountain slopes in the eastern Congo and adjacent Uganda. Weighing as much as four hundred and fifty pounds and measuring nearly six feet in height, the big, older, silver-backed males dominate the family group that is the basis of gorilla society. This family group, with several younger and smaller males and adult females and their young, numbers sixteen on average and wanders about a home range of ten to fifteen square miles. They are not territorial, and encounters with other gorilla families are peaceful. Gorillas are diurnal, and spend the day slowly moving through the dense vegetation, feeding on leaves, bark, stems, and fruit of more than one hundred plants. They get all the water they need from their moist food, and have never been seen to drink in the wild. At night the females and young build twig nests low in trees and sleep there. The heavier males sleep on the ground. In captivity gorillas have lived thirty-eight years. (American Museum of Natural History, 2006).

The encounter with soul goes beyond the image that the retina receives.  The retina is the sensory membrane which lines the eye, that receives and then converts the percept into chemical and nervous signals which reach the brain by way of the optic nerve. Hillman qualifies his type of sight, which is similar to ‘looking’ that McGinn writes about, by saying that without ideas “we cannot see even what we sense with the eyes in our heads, for our perceptions are shaped according to particular ideas (already)” (p.121) (italics mine). Imagining depends on the energy of spirit and this is where I come to believe that Hillman is engaging spirit in seeing-through phenomena.

Seeing-through, also called psychologizing, is a willful activity, it is something done internally to have a more complete understanding of observed phenomena. It is done at the risk of projecting subjective states onto objective phenomena, which does not appear to be the right understanding of seeing-through and is perhaps what I did with the archetype of the animus. My feminine physiology affects my psychology, and it feels penetrative to see through the gorilla if the directional flow of ideation is moving from subject to object. It appears to be something the subject is doing . . . yet on deeper reflection it is the other way around: seeing-through allows the flow of ideas to arise from the percept or image. Seeing-through appears to have the attribute of being receptive to ideas, in other words, it includes the feminine. I make mention of this because, upon meeting him, I found Hillman to be compassionate and seemingly non-judgmental in his method of seeing-through. My misconception was that compassion could only be possible if a person were purely open to what the phenomena revealed without ideas, however, empty minds are problematic. Not seeing-through feels comfortable, yet it reflects a lack of energy to engage with phenomena. This is unusual in light of the fact that in order for the gorilla to see-through me I need to reveal something about myself.

Is it possible for the gorilla to have archetypal ideas of me or humans in general, and if so, would not opening my own imagination to them be a means of connection? Otherwise, it would it mean that the gorilla and I are to remain forever completely separate in this world. I know what it feels like to be invisible, those times when another person’s eyes are focused on me and I sense that they have no idea or image about me. That is not how it felt when the gorilla looked at me, which leads me to conclude that using ideas to see-through does not necessarily mean forming an ideology that would require the use of language. When we truly see-through it is not as a subject hoisting pre-conceived ideas onto the object, no, there is the risk self-exposure. One is flowing, moving, engaged with the phenomena in contrast with just looking which, although a verb, seems to function almost like a noun in comparison.

McGinn said that if there were such a manifestation, that mindsight or a mind’s eye would be located in the visual cortex of the brain (closer to the ideas center) which makes it possible to experience visual images without perception. Look at the example of Helen Keller, the blind woman who as a girl gained awareness of reality with the persistent aid of Anne Sullivan. Helen Keller began to imagine, she began to visualize without percepts. This is an example of how “both percepts and images can equally count as visual … apprehension” (McGinn, 2004, p. 44).

When first trying to see-through as Hillman suggests, it felt like a grope in the dark. The activity seemed to require the same kind of sight that Helen Keller developed, that is, psychological discovery. The process of seeing-through first requires “a psychological moment or shift of awareness that may startle us, puzzle us, cause reflection or puzzlement that interrupts our visual field (image or percept) and serves to lead us from the apparent to the less apparent” (Hillman, 1976, p.140) (italics mine). Hillman calls it ‘interiorizing’ as a first step and said it leads to the second step of ‘justifying itself’, which is the feeling that what is invisible is more real than the visible, that there is hidden value in the depths. The third step is that the phenomenon before us is given a narrative or mythology based upon ideas, which lead us to the soul’s tools, the fourth part of seeing-through (p. 141).

Returning to image and percept, it is needful that these are different, that the image is not just a faded percept and that our will is ascribed to the image. This is because only two different things could ever merge and create a third. The experience when image and percept are merged in the mind’s eye is like a third way of seeing which McGinn calls mindsight. Without mindsight, images alone are monocular, lacking depth just as without seeing-through percepts alone are literal, lacking ideation. The image that remains with me of the gorgeous gorilla is monocular, flat and two dimensional, but at the zoo my percept of him was binocular with the shape of those beautiful dark eyes and nose and mouth, along with his huge hairy body (even the glare in my direction) yet both image and percept alone lacks depth of soul. Whereas depth perception requires binocularity, or two different eyes that focus on the same thing simultaneously, and whereas mindsight requires both image and percept, nevertheless ideas are the energy that creates depth of soul. Seeing-through is an act of the imagination.

McGinn (2004) has argued that mindsight is a way to connect meaning to imagination (p. 144) and this is reminiscent of seeing-through. Hillman (1976) said that “ideas, as the eyes of the soul, give the psyche its power of insight…without ideas the soul is a victim of literal appearances and is satisfied with things just as they present themselves” (p. 141) in other words, without ideas phenomenon are simply percepts. Seeing with ideas sounds very much like seeing with the mind’s eye, and both are like having a third eye through which we bring depth into our experiences. I would also argue that since image and percept are so closely related that mindsight also attributes meaning to phenomena.

The gorilla has a percept of me and some people think it possible he has ideas and/or possesses an imagination, and why not? Strangely, on my best days I want to experience his imagination of me. This would be akin to love and, as Hillman (1976) said, “love, too, can be a method of psychologizing, of seeing into and seeing-through, of going ever deeper” (p. 136). This is not a passive love, it is very energetic! And if all of this is possible, then I am finally inspired by the way Hillman loves, by seeing-through.


Coppin, J. (2006) Unpublished lecture presented at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

Hillman, J. (1976) Revisioning Psychology. Harper and Row: NY.

McGinn, C. (2004) Mindsight: image, dream, meaning. Harvard University Press.

Romanyshyn, R. (1989) Technology as symptom and dream. Brunner-Routledge: NY.

American Museum of Natural History. (2006). Retrieved October 20, 2006 from

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