1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Impressions and Ideas

(Part 37)

(F) Imagination or Ideation

Impressions and Ideas

Before the intuition of things has reached a stage so complete and definite as that just described, imagination or ideation as distinct from perception has well begun. In passing to the consideration of this higher form of mental life we have to note the distinction between impressions and images or ideas, to which Hume first gave general currency. Hume did not think it "necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction. Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference …; though it is not impossible but in particular instances they may very nearly approach to each other. Thus in sleep, in a fever, in madness, or in any violent emotions of soul, our ideas may approach to our impressions ; as, on the other hand, it sometimes happens our impressions are so faint and low that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas," [Footnote 57-2] In most cases, no doubt, the obvious difference in intensity, or, as Hume puts it, "in the force or liveliness with which they strike upon the mind," is a sufficient characteristic, but we must examine a good deal further and pay more attention to his uncertain cases if this important distinction is ever to be in any sense psychologically "explained."

To begin with, it is very questionable whether Hume was right in applying Locke’s distinction of simple and complex to ideas in the narrower sense as well as to impressions. "That idea of red," says Hume, "which we form in the dark and that impression which strikes our eyes in the sunshine differ only in degree, not in nature." [Footnote 57-3] But what he seems to over look is that, whereas there can be a mere sensation red—and such a presentation may for present purposes be regarded as simple—we can only have an image or representation of a red thing or a red form, i.e., of red in some way ideally projected or intuited. In other words, there are no ideas answering to simple or isolated impressions : what are revived in memory and imagination are percepts, not unlocalized sensations and movements. It is not only that we cannot now directly observe such representations,—because, for that matter, we can no longer directly observe even the original presentations as merely elementary impressions ; the point rather is that ideas as such are from the first complex, and do not begin to appear in consciousness apart from the impressions which they are said to reproduce till after these impressions have been frequently attended to together, and have been more or less firmly synthesized into percepts or intuitions.

The effects of even the earliest of these syntheses or "associations" of impressions must of course in some way persist, or progress in perception would be impossible. On this account it has been usual to say that "perception" implies both "memory" and "imagination"; but such a statement can be allowed only so long as these terms are vaguely used. The dog’s month waters only at the sight of food, but the gourmand’ mouth will also water al the thought of it. W recognized the smell of violets as certainly as we recognize the colour when the spring brings them round again ; but few persons, if any, can recall the scent when the flower has gone, so as to say with Shelley—

"Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they question"—

Though most can recall the colour with tolerable clearness. In like manner everybody can perform innumerable complex voluntary movements which only a few can mentally rehearse or describe without the prompting of actual execution. And not only does such reproduction as suffices for perception fall short of that involved in reminiscence or memory in the narrower sense, but the manner in which the constituent elements in a perception are combined differs materially from what is strictly to be called the association of ideas. To realize this difference we need only to observe first how the sight of a suit of polished armour, for example, instantly reinstates and steadily maintains all that we retain of former sensations of its hardness and smoothness and coldness, and then to observe how this same sight gradually calls up ideas now of tournaments, now of crusades, and so through all the changing imagery of romance. Though the percept is complex, it is but a single whole, and the act of perception is single too ; but, where, as is the case in memory and imagination, attention passes, whether voluntarily or non-voluntarily, from one representation to another, it is obvious that these several objects of attention are still distinct and that it is directed in turn to each. The term "association" seems only appropriate to the latter. To the connexion of the partial presentations in a complex, whether perception or idea, it would be better to apply the term "complication," which was used in this sense by Herbert, and has been so used by many psychologists since. When we perceive an orange by sight we may say that its taste or feel is represented, when we perceive it by touch we may in like manner say that its colour is represented, symbolizing the whole complex in the first case sufficiently for our present purpose as C t f, in the second as F c t. We might also symbolize the idea of an orange as seen by c' t f and the idea of an orange as felt by f' c t, using the assented letter to signify that different constituents are dominant in the two cases. What we have, then, to observe is briefly (1) that the processes by which the whole complex c' t f c t is brought into consciousness differ importantly from the process by which C or F reinstates and maintains t f or c t, and (2) that c, t, and f never have that distinct existence as representations which they had as presentations or impressions.

The mental synthesis which has taken place in the evolution of the percept can only partially fail in the idea, and never so far as to leave us with a chaotic "manifold" of mere sensational remnants. On the contrary, we find that in "constructive imagination" a new kind of effort is often requisite in order to dissociate these representations complexes as a preliminary to new combinations. But it is doubtful whether the results of such an analysis are ever the ultimate elements of the percept, that is, merely isolated impressions in a fainter form. We may now try to ascertain further the characteristic marks which distinguish what is imaged from what is perceived.


57-2 Treatise of Human Nature, book i. part 1 § 1.

57-3 Ibid.

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