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Journal of the History of Philosophy, Volume 14, Number 3, July 1976,

pp. 259-265 (Article)
DOI: 10.1353/hph.2008.0189

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Imagination and Truth

in Aristotle


THE PURPOSE OF THIS PAPER iS to clarify Aristotle's conception of imagination,1 and

to examine his discussion of images (or "imaginations") as possible bearers of trothvalues.
1.0 Aristotle's account of imagination is at first sight confused and inconsistent.
A good starting-point is 427627-28: "As for thought, since it is different from perceiving and seems to include on the one hand imagination and on the other hupol~psis . . . . ,,2 Here one may take "thought" as a very general capacity, and interpret
Aristotle as saying that one form of thought is imagination, another hupol~psis. The
meaning of hupol~psis is fortunately fairly constant in Aristotle; it is usually translatable
by "judgment" or "belief," and is used interchangeably with doxa. a In 427b16 it is
substituted for dianoia. According to Bonitz, dianoia is used of the process of reasoning
as distinct from the conclusion thereby arrived at (doxa, hupol~psis); but it is sometimes so used (e.g., in 427b15) as to comprise both the process of reasoning and the
resulting conclusion. According to Hicks, hupol~psis is not a technical term, and is used
in 427b16 because it will include epist~rr~, doxa and phronesis. What, then, is the
contrast between the imagination and judgement whose existence is stated at 427b2728 and 14-16? (From now on I shall use "judgement" and "belief" to translate hupol~psis and doxa respectively.)
1.1 One might take 432a10-13 as being relevant: "But imagination is different
from assertion and denial; for truth and falsity involve a combination of thoughts. But
x I have adopted the usual translation, "imagination," for cpctvx~xofct. It is not an altogether
satisfactory rendering, for two reasons. Firstly, Aristotle uses q~vx~os to refer to acts of
imagination and to the contents of such acts rather than to what one may loosely call the faculty
of imagination; indeed, for Aristotle q~ctvx~tos was not a faculty at all but a function of the
central sense (see the references of fnn. 9 and 10). Thus the word may appear in the plural
(e.g., 429a4-6). I have sometimes, though not always, circumvented the awkwardness of "imaginations" by speaking of "cases of imagination": this is intended simply to correspond t o
tpct~r~cto~ct~. Secondly, the tpctv-rctoCetwhich is contemporaneous with or immediately follows on
sensation (Beare's "presentation," as distinct from "representation") is more naturally translated
"appearance" or "impression": cf. K. Lycos, "Aristotle and Plato on 'Appearing'," M i n d LXXIII
(1964), 496. But it has seemed better to reflect Aristotle's own usage by retaining a single term
throughout. I shall try to show later that scme of the difficulties in his treatment of cpcxv-rctofet
arise from the very comprehensiveness of the.. concept.
References to Aristotle are to the de A n i m a except where otherwise specified. Translations
of Aristotelian passages are from the Clarendon Aristotle Series, sometimes with slight alterations.
a De An. 434a16--20, N.E. 1139b17, An. Post. 89a2-4, Met. 1073a17-18, with 1078b11-13.




what distinguishes the primary thoughts from images? Surely neither these nor any other
thoughts will be images, but they will not exist without images." Here it is implied that
imagination cannot be true or false because it does not involve a "combination of
thoughts"; and that images are presupposed by the primary thoughts whose combination results in assertion or denial. This suggests that the contrast between imagination
and judgement is one between simple images (incapable of truth and falsity because
uncombined) and forms of assertion and denial which are capable of truth and falsity.
This might seem at first sight to be borne out by the first point of difference Aristotle
gives between imagination and judgment: "For this state is in our power whenever we
wish (for we can bring something before our eyes, as those do who set things out in
mnemonic systems and form images of them); but forming beliefs is not within our
power; for our belief must be either true or false" (427b17-21). But Aristotle cannot
mean simply that belief (or judgement) involves truth and falsity whereas imagination
does not, for that would not show that judgement is within our power, unlike imagination; he might mean that once I have come to some conviction I cannot (logically)
choose whether or not to belief it; I am necessarily committed to my (true or false)
opinion. So possibly it is not being denied here that imaginations are capable of truth
or falsity, since they are sufficiently distinguished from beliefs by being voluntarym
even though there does seem to be a verbal implication to the effect that they cannot be
true or false. But in any case at 428b17 Aristotle says that imagination may be true and
false; at 428a18 he speaks of false imagination; and at 428a12 he says that the
majority of imaginations are false.
1.2 Is the contrast, then, that imagination (though capable of being true and false)
does not involve assent to what is being though of, whereas judgment does? This is more
hopeful, for it is what seems to be behind the second point of difference: "Moreover,
when we believe something terrible or fearful, we are immediately affected correspondingly, and similarly with what is encouraging; but when we imagine, we are just as if
we saw the terrible or encouraging thing in a picture" (427b21-24). This is explicit in
428a19ff.--the difference between belief and imagination is that belief is accompanied
by pistis, assent, or, as Hamlyn puts it, acceptance.
1.3 It seems that Aristotle wishes to make a twofold contrast between (i) simple
images and (li) the combination of them (or of the thoughts which they partially constitute) which may result in truth or falsity, and between (iii) entertaining a thought
(which in itself may be true or false but is considered without commitment to its truth
or falsity) and (iv) believing or asserting something. The former is the contrast from
which in de Int. 1 Aristotle derives one of his conditions for truth and falsity in speech:
"Just as some thoughts in the soul are neither true nor false while some are necessarily
one or the other, so also with spoken sounds. For falsity and truth have to do with
combination and separation." It is this contrast which is made in III. 8, while III. 3 is
mainly concerned with the latter one. Aristotle does not bring out the difference between (iii), the second type of imagination, and (il), the "combination of thoughts."
One possible difference might be that the images which make up a developed imagination are not, properly speaking, thoughts, as are the components of the type of combination to which truth and falsity belong (so he seems to say in 432a10-14); but
probably the important difference is that they lack the element of assertion which is
said in the de Interpretatione to be essential to that which is characterized by truth and
falsity. (Nevertheless, Aristotle does say in III. 3 that imaginations are true and false;



the reasons for this will be gone into in a moment.) If there is intended to be a contrast
between the "combination of thoughts" and the second type of imagination, and a
contrast of this sort, then the "combination of thoughts" is more or less identical with
the belief or assertion which I represented Aristotle as distinguishing from the second
type of imagination. The "twofold contrast" is therefore over-schematic, but this is
difficult to avoid in view of the imperfect tie-up between III. 3 and III. 8. There is a
psychological difference involved in the second contrast, as Aristotle shows by pointing
to thoughts which have some emotional significance---when we merely think of some
frightening event we are like onlookers, but the belief that a frightening event is going
to happen is accompanied by a physical change.
2.0 But what underlies the apparent inconsistencies in Aristotle's account of imagination is not only a dual conception of imagination, but also a dual conception of truth.
In 432a10-12 he says that images cannot be true or false because they do not involve
combination. This is a statement of his more usual view of truth and falsity, according
to which it is a necessary condition of a thought or expression's being true or false that
it should be a combination or separation of what is combined or separated in reality;
it follows from this that nothing simple (whether a name or a thought) can have a truth
value. 4 But at various times Aristotle in practice admits as bearers of truth-values three
classes of exception to this rule. First, the apprehension of what a thing is "according
to the what-it-is-to-be," which, he says, is not the apprehension of the predicability of
something of something else, and is always true (430b27-29); this is presumably
identical with the apprehension of "the indivisible in form" which is briefly referred to
at 430b 14-15. Second, the perception of the special sensibles, which are simple properties such as white or sweet; this is frequently said to be always true; 5 in the passage just
quoted (430b27ff.), Aristotle goes on to compare the apprehension of what a thing is
to the perception of a proper sensible in this respect. Third, imaginations are true and
false. The theoretical amendments to Aristotle's account of truth which these admissions
suggest are made in Met. O. 10, though with reference only to the apprehension of what
a thing is. 6 The sense in which this is true is there said to be a different one from that in
which statements (involving combination and separation) are true. In the new sense of
"true," there is no complementary predicate "false" (Met. 1051a-2). Aristotle compares such apprehension to touching, where the alternatives are touching and not
touching; just as it does not make sense to talk of somebody's touching something unsuccessfully, so it does not make sense to talk of someone's apprehending what a thing
is falsely.
2.1 Aristotle does not, explicitly, apply this "different" sense of truth to the other
classes of exception in practice recognized by him to his usual thesis that truth and
falsity involve combination or separation. One might think that the position with regard
to the proper sensibles was closely analogous to the apprehension of what a thing is, as
described in Met. O. 10: that here too the question of falsity does not arise, but one
either sees or does not see, hears or does not hear, etc., and when one does see or hear,
one's perception of the sight or sound is necessarily "true." If, as I believe, T the
4 Cat. 2a4-10, de Int. 16a12-18, Met. I027b18-19, de An. 430a26-28.

5 E.g., 427b 11-12, 428b18-19, 428a11.

6 See my "Aristotle on Being as Truth," forthcoming.
Pace Kenny, "The Argument from Illusion in Aristotle's Metaphysics," Mind L X X V I
(1967), 184-197.



"Berkeleian" way of interpreting the infallibility Aristotle assigns to the senses is the
correct one, this must mean that there can be no disputing the way things appear to
my senses now. Since the faculty of imagination is dependent on perception (42.8b10429a2), or is identical with it though different in being (de Insomn. 459a15-17), one
might think that Aristotle would give the same account of the truth of imagination as
of perception: the alternatives are to have an image or not to have it; when I imagine
something, there is no disputing the content of my imagination.
2.2 But, in spite of the close connection between imagination and perception so
that "imagination is thought to be a kind of movement and not to occur apart from
perception, but only in things which perceive and with respect to those things of which
there is perception, and it is possible for movement to occur as the result of the activity
of perception and this is necessarily similar in character to the perception itself"
(428bl 1-14)----~istotle does not derive his account of the truth of imagination from
that of perception: the truth or falsity of imagination is instead determined by whether
or not what is being imagined is at present in the field of perception. Aristotle does not
say this in so many words; thus Hamlyn concludes, "how truth and falsity attach to it
(imagination) is left unclear." But it is, I think, the only explanation of 428b25-29:
"The movement which comes about as the result of the activity of perception (i.e.,
imagination) will differ in so far as it comes from these three kinds of perception. The
first is true as long as perception is present, while the others may be false whether it
is present or absent, especially when the object of perception is far off." The "three
kinds of perception" which Aristotle has just (428b18-25) distinguished are (i) perception of the proper sensibles: this is "true, or liable to falsity to the least possible
extent"; (ii) perception of incidental sensibles, i.e., in effect the identification of physical
objects whose sensible qualities we perceive: error is possible here, "for we are not
mistaken on the point that there is white, but about whether the white object is this
thing or another we may be mistaken"; (iii) perception of the common sensibles, i.e.,
size, shape, etc., with regard to which the deliverances of more than one sense are
relevant: here, Aristotle says, there is the greatest possibility of error. Aristotle says
in 428b25-29 that the imagination which results from the first kind of perception is
true, provided that "the perception is present." Thus if I have an image of white, the
image is "true" if a white thing is present to my senses. The imagination which results
from the other two kinds of perception may be false even when the perception is present,
clearly under the same conditions as the original perception is false. For example, if I
have an image of Coriscus, which results from a perception of a white thing as Coriscus,
this image is false if the original identification is false, even when the white thing which
I wrongly think to be Coriscus is still present and is being perceived. This is more
likely to happen when the white thing is a long way off (b29-30): and similarly with
the common sensibles. It seems clear that the assignment of falsity to cases of imagination resulting from perception of type (i) when the perception is no longer present (i.e.,
when the perceptible object is no longer present and being perceived) is meant to apply
to the other two cases as well. Imagination is therefore only true when the original
movement in the sense-organ of which imagination is a continuation is still present,
i.e., while the perceptible thing which is the content of the imagination, and is capable
of being imagined because it has set up a movement in the sense-organs, is still present
to the senses. This is why most cases of imagination are false (428a12). (The notion of
imagination contemporaneous with perception is an obviously odd one; I do not simultaneously see the almond-tree outside my window and imagine it. As Aristotle himself



says, "Further, it is not when we are exercising our senses accurately with regard to
objects of perception that we say that this appears (r
to us to be a man, but
rather when we do not perceive it distinctly" (428a12-15). Aristotle must have thought
that the contemporaneous imagination was required by his explanation of the physical
processes necessary for imagination: if imagination is a movement set up in the senseorgans, it must take place as soon as the movement begins, so that if the object continues
to be perceived, there will be imagination of it as well as perception.)
2.3 This criterion for the truth and falsity of imagination is in many cases a forced
and unnatural one, for when I imagine, say, some distant scene, I am not led into believing that it is actually spread before my eyes; so that to characterise what I imagine
as false on just the ground that it is not present to my senses seems quite irrelevant,
rather suggesting that all instances of imagination are hallucinations. The artificial nature
of the criterion can be seen in the case where I am thinking of some familiar object
while not realising that I am actually looking at it; Aristotle would presumably say that
my imagination was true.
3.0 Aristotle's adoption of this criterion can, I think, be explained as follows. The
mental activities comprised within Aristotle's concept of imagination are very heterogeneous. Kenny, in a brief but suggestive recent discussion, distinguishes them as
Among the things which human beings do are (a) think of sensibilia in their absence,
(b) make mental, verbal or real pictures of sensibilia, (c) acquire by the use of the senses
misleading impressions and false beliefs about sensibilia, (d) wrongly believe that they
are using the senses about sensibilia. All of these are sometimes described by uses of the
verb "imagine." . . . These uses also apply to ~ctvxaokt. . . .
In Chapter III of the de
Anima, III, in his fullest discussion of q~ctvxao~a,Aristotle says that it is something which
is contemporaneous with a sensation: x~v-qo~g ~nb x~g ctto0fioeco~ x~g ~ct~' ~v~ove~ctv
Vt~,volJ~V'rlgbut in the De Memoria (450a12-25) and the De Insomniis (459a14-22) it is
used of a state which occurs when the object has ceased, perhaps long ceased, to be
perceived. This seems to correspond with the distinction between (a) and (b) on the one
hand and (c) and (d) on the other, s
Kenny does not make clear the difference between (a) thinking of sensibilia in their
absence, and (b) making mental pictures of sensibilia. (The examples he gives, "I often
imagine you sitting at your desk" and "Imagine the heavenly Jerusalem" respectively,
do not illuminate the point.) There would appear to be no such difference between these
activities as to warrant assigning them to different categories. There are further difficulties with (b). Making real pictures, or even verbal pictures, of sensibilia, though it may
involve imagination, is not per se imagination, but artistic creation. With regard to (d),
wrongly believing that one is using the senses about sensibilia (Kenny's example is, "I
didn't hear a sound at all; it was just imagination"), Aristotle nowhere appears to consider such cases (the closest he comes to it being in his discussion of dreaming). But the
major shortcoming of Kenny's account is the assumption implicit in (c) that the imagination which is contemporaneous with or immediately following on sensation is confined to perpetual errors and illusions. It is dear, rather, that this form of imagination
occurs whenever we perceive: see the description of "images and the other movements
consequent upon sensations" in de Insomn. 2-3, which is quite general in its applicas Ibid,, pp. 196-197.



tion to veridical as well as illusory sensations; indeed it does not occur to Aristotle to
make the distinction in this context.
I would suggest that imagination for Aristotle covers at least the following activities:
(a) Thinking of things in their absence, what Aristotle calls "bringing something before
our eyes" (427b18-19); this activity is voluntary, within our power whenever we
wish. 9 (b) Having an image. Images are present whenever we think (432a8-9), and are
related to thoughts in some unspecified way. The "first thoughts"--by which Aristotle
probably means the most basic, least abstract thoughts, like the thought of a cat--are
so much like images that one may raise the question how they differ from images
432a12-14). (For (a) and (b), of. (iii) and (i) in w
(c) Dreaming. (d) The appearance or impression we receive whenever we perceive something. This is the source from
which all other forms of imagination are derived.
3.1 In Met. A 29, in his discussion of the different senses of "false," Aristotle says:
We call a f a l s e h o o d . . , sometimes anything which, while being a thing-that-is, is nevertheless characteristically imagined either not to be such as it is or to be something that
is not, as for instance shadow-painting, and dreams--for these are something, but not
what they impose on us to imagine they are. These, then, are the ways in which actual
things are called false, either from their not themselves being or from their giving rise
to an imagination of something that is not. (1024b17, 21-26)
A little later he refers back to this sense of "false" with the words "just as we assert
that actual things are false when they impose a false imagination" (1025a5-6).
What Aristotle says here about cases of false imagination accords well with our interpretation of his statements about true imagination in the de Anima. The falsity of a
dream-image no doubt consists precisely in the fact that the thing imagined is not
there. 1~ It may exist; it may be just as it is imagined to be; but it is not within the
dreamer's field of perception. Similarly with the false imaginations produced by deceptive objects and phenomena such as shadow-paintings and mirages. I think I see a
shadow and a solid object; in fact I see only a two-dimensional sketch. What appears
to me to be a stretch of water is only a mirage. In both cases my "imagination" is false.
3.2 In cases of imagination of type (c) and (d) such as Aristotle is discussing in the
Metaphysics passage, a genuine possibility of deception exists. We may be misled by
our senses; it is also possible to be misled by our dreams. In de Insomn. 3, Aristotle
points out that very often we do not mistake our dream-images for reality; "something
in the soul" tells us that we are dreaming, and that what appears to be Coriscus is not
really Coriscus. Sometimes, too, however, "it escapes us that we are dreaming"
(461b29-462a8). We may then be uncertain whether something has happened in real
life or in a dream. Here it makes more sense to talk of truth and falsity than it does in
the case of deliberate, or at least conscious acts of imagination such as were considered
in w
There is prima facie nothing particularly objectionable in saying that the image
9 Some have claimed or implied that Aristotle does not recognize a voluntary use of imagination at all. See for example Lycos, "Aristotle and Plato on 'Appearing'," p. 496 and D. J.
Allan, The Philosophy of Aristotle, p. 75. It is true that for him the involuntary form is more
basic, and figures more prominently in the discussions of the Parva Naturalia if not of the de
Anima. But 427b16--24 makes it clear that it is an overstatement to say, as Lyeos does, that we
must "exclude from our minds the ordinary uses of 'imagination' and, especially, of the verb
'to imagine'."
lo Note, however, that when we dream of a thing that is present, Aristotle does not say that

this dream is true, but that this is not, properly speaking, a dream (de lnsomn. 462b16-17).



of a dog which I have in my dream is false, because no dog is at the moment there to
be seen. It is likely, then, that Aristotle has elevated a criterion of truth which is not
without plausibility for certain forms of imagination into a general criterion for all. The
phenomena embraced by Aristotle's concept of imagination are so diverse that it is not
surprising that this extension cannot be carried out successfully.
Aristotle's treatment of imagination in III. 3 (unlike that in III. 8) thus contains
implicitly two differences from his normal conception of truth: it is possible for simple
thoughts, or rather, images, to be true or false, and the element of assertion which he
normally takes to be characteristic of that to which the predicates "true" and "false"
properly apply is allowed to be absent. These deviations are not without parallel elsewhere in his works. I have tried to establish the sense in which Aristotle regards imaginations (both simple and complex) as capable of truth and falsity, and to show the
extent of its application among the different forms of imagination which he recognizes.

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