Remembering From the Outside: Point of View in Visual Imagery

Theories of sensory imagination often make a distinction between first-personal or ‘subjective’ imagery, in which one views an imagined scene from-the-inside, and third-personal or ‘objective’ imagery, in which one sees oneself from-the-outside.[1] For example, if you are imagining swimming you may feel the cold and pull of the water, and perhaps visualise the ocean floor. This is the subjective case. According to Zeno Vendler, subjective imaginings involve “the representation of the experiences I would have if I were in a certain situation” (1979: 163). In contrast, in the objective case, imagining (yourself) swimming may involve visualising yourself from-the-outside, bobbing up and down in the foamy sea.

Do we really have two different types of imaginings here? Vendler thinks not. He claims that third-personal imagery is nothing but a special case of first-personal imagery: objective imagination reduces to subjective imagination. The reason for this, so the argument goes, is that objective imagery involves the experience of seeing. And, because this experience of seeing is a subjective experience, then the objective reduces to the subjective. Imagining oneself from-the-outside is really a case of imagining seeing oneself, and this imagining seeing is inherently subjective.

This way of reducing objective imagination to the subjective entails an occupied point of view within the imaginative project. Here is how François Recanati describes such objective imagination: “the subject imagines seeing himself swim in the water. In that special case the subject plays two roles: he is not only the experiencer, the person from whose point of view the scene is seen, but he is also an object in the scene. This duality enables the subject to look at himself (herself) from an external, third person point of view” (2007: 196).

The duality that Recanati envisages here is most accurately thought of as a duality within the imaginative project. Note that it is the ‘objective’ case that is described in dualistic terms: the actual real-world imaginer is so far not included in this description. If we take into account the real-world imaginer, then imagining from-the-outside necessarily involves a three-term relation between: 1) the real world imagining self, 2) an implicit self within the imaginative project doing the seeing, and 3) the self as an object in the imagined scene. Such an imaginative project actually involves three selves: the real-world self, the objective self, and the observing self. This last self is something of a fly on the wall, an oblique onlooker at the edge of the imaginative project.

I do not deny that such types of imaginings may occur. What I do deny is that such three-term relations in imagination are necessary. Further, it is this notion of an occupied point of view that partly grounds the scepticism Vendler articulates about remembering from-the-outside. For Vendler, there is no possibility of ‘objective’ memory in this sense, there is no possibility of remembering from-the-outside. On Vendler’s analysis of remembering from-the-outside, one would need a three-term relation between: 1) the actual remembering (experiencing) self, 2) the subjective (observing) self, and 3) the objective (observed) self. And this three-term relation would be involved both in the original experience and then preserved in memory. On the face of it this dissociation required during (perceptual) experience is impossible, and this fact seems to be driving the worry about remembering from-the-outside. Vendler’s conception of remembering from-the-outside brings in the notion of seeing oneself from a particular point of view: the experience of seeing from this point of view becomes an essential part of the content of memory.

I argue, in contrast, that normal observer perspective memories involve a two-term relation. Observer memories involve an unoccupied point of view. But what exactly is an unoccupied point of view? In order to answer this question, let me first pose another one. Can we visualize something that is not seen, can we visualize an unseen tree, say? The idea that one cannot visualise an unseen object seems intuitively correct, given that visualising an object is naturally taken to involve thinking of oneself as seeing that object. According to Bernard Williams, however, one need not include one’s seeing in what is visualised: the notion of oneself seeing the object is an element that can be left out of an imaginative project.

To illustrate this, Williams draws an analogy with cinematic point of view. The notion of visual perspective is relevant here, and implicit in Williams’ analysis is the thought that a point of view need not be occupied. He tells us that the point of view in film is in fact how the camera depicts the action. This point of view may reflect the visual perspective of one of the characters, but it need not do so and typically does not. Nor is the point of view of the camera in any simple sense that of the director. Yet neither can it be said, without great care at least, that the point of view of the camera is in some sense ours: we are not normally “invited to have the feeling that we are near to this castle, floating towards its top, or stealing around these lovers, peering minutely at them” (Williams 1973: 36-37). Williams considers the case of visualisation to be sufficiently similar to the case of point of view in cinematography. A visualised object will be presented from a particular point of view—say, from the front—but this point of view need not be my visual perspective; in fact, it need not be anyone’s visual perspective. In this sense, one’s seeing is not part of the content of the imagination, and one can visualise an unseen object.

Of course, Williams’ analogy between the point of view in visual imagery and in film has been subject to both criticism and support. One critique is that a film director has a degree of freedom that the imaginer does not share. But I think that this is too restrictive for imagination. The director of cinema intends to create either an immersive or detached representation, and uses special editing or filming techniques to do so. But the imaginer can also create either detached or immersive mental imagery by being in control of the intended imaginative project. The experience of seeing need not be part of the content of an imagining. Indeed, in a similar vein to imagination, the literature on field and observer perspectives in memory shows that most people can intentionally switch perspectives. There is often a degree of freedom in how we remember the past.

Using these insights from imagination, I propose that thinking about the point of view in visual imagery as unoccupied should be applied to observer perspectives in personal memory. In recalling an event from an observer perspective one sees oneself in the memory, and this past scene is depicted from a particular point of view, but the point of view upon the remembered scene need is not occupied: it is not a point of view within the remembered scene. The experience of seeing oneself is not part of the content of remembering from-the-outside. Observer memories are (typically) recalled from unoccupied points of view. Observer perspectives involve a two-term relation between 1) the remembering self, and 2) the remembered self that is viewed from-the-outside.

The idea of an unoccupied point of view—and the two-term relation this involves—arguably explains the phenomenology of observer memories: the experience of seeing is not part of the content of the memory, and this is why such images present “from somewhere” rather than “to someone” (Gregory 2013: 204). Observer perspectives do not present as memories of having seen oneself at the time of the experience from an external point of view. Part of the reason why observer perspectives present in such an ordinary way, why they are so quotidian, and why the detached point of view is not often noticed, is because the remembered scene is viewed from an unoccupied point of view.

In remembering from-the-outside there is no implicit self whose experience of seeing is part of the content of memory. There is a sense, then, that the term ‘observer memory’ is misleading. When remembering from-the-outside there is no observer within the memory.

[1] The terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are arguably imprecise, but as they are used in the literature I engage with here I continue to use them. Indeed, even the term ‘from-the-inside’ may need careful unpacking.



    Hi Christopher,

    Some quick off the cuff comments. There’s a lot of stuff I like here, both this and esp. the last post.

    For me the really valuable stuff is where you analyse images in detail, and esp. in the last post before this, make me start to think seriously about how the brain does analyse and record the scenes of consciousness, because there must be a system to it, if necessarily of a somewhat “scatty” nature – a system that, excitingly, can be discovered.

    My general position here is that we have just left textual civilisation and de facto entered multimedia civilisation – although philosophy and science haven’t realised it yet, let alone how they are about to be entirely revolutionised. Our unimedium book of the world has been replaced by our multimedia screen of the world – in which all media and sign systems have finally to be recognized as complementary , not alternatives – and all based on *the movie*. That’s what the mind is clearly based on – the movie that is consciousness, directed by the movie watcher-and-director that is the conscious self. And the mind does that because the movie is the most real, the most embodied representation there is of the real bodies of the real world. Science, in its demand for “evidence” in effect says the same.

    So I suggest that any development of this project should be based on, and extensively illustrated by movies/movie clips. The focus should be those clips.

    I think the weaker parts of your work are where you get bogged down in classical philosophical arguments and dichotomies – like objective/subjective, occupied/unoccupied – which are all derived from a textual not a multimedia standpoint – the latter being the vastly more sophisticated and truly scientific position.

    I’d draw an analogy with the field of cog. embodied linguistics, and the study of image schemas, introduced by Lakoff and others. What you see there is a remarkable consistency in the actual graphics/depiction of schemas – accompanied by a remarkable inconsistency in the verbal analyses of what such schemas are and do. It was as if scientists were to analyse verbally what the geometry on which most of science is based, does. That’s a largely pointless endeavour. The forms of geometry “speak” for themselves. The only universal “language” that everyone speaks automatically without instruction from early infancy, is the “language” of images. That’s because images are embodied representations of bodies, and the viewer automatically knows what they are “talking”/thinking about – often not the case, say, with language, maths or logic. The result of all that crazy verbal analysis is that image schemas (a term I’d change) have almost been forgotten, when they are actually the mind’s complementary opposite to geometry – fluid vs concrete, flexiform vs rigiform abstract outlines of the world.

    If you base your philosophical analysis here on the movie, then it is a *given* of the movie – whether of screen, or waking or dream consciousness, – that the conscious self/viewer is a “flying eye/I” continually adopting new points of view, first person, third person, or any body-in-a-scene’s (or in-the-world’s) POV, incl. say, that of a pair of glasses reflecting a scene.

    Note also that objective/subjective disappears, because *every* image in the movie is seen from a point of view. In a movie, there is no such thing as objectivity. There are just different points of view. That doesn’t mean a given image/pov isn’t true of a particular body – *up to a point/point of view*. But it necessarily shows only one pov/set-of-sides of the bodies in the movie, and excludes others.

    Note on a wider scale that the simplicities of true/false logic on which 2000 years of philosophy have been based, automatically go into the dustbin. A multimedia and especially movie-based philosophy will recognize that there are always conflicting pov’s/ perspectives/ angles/ styles of viewing on any subject bodies -as there are in the movies and arts generally – and oh yes, as there are in every part of philosophy.

    Note finally that is no image/view of the world without a viewer. They can’t be detached. The bodies depicted in images only make sense when the conscious, corporeal viewer embodies them. That’s mainly because images are *flat*. A geometric cube is only a set of flat lines on a page or a screen, until the viewer gives it body and decides it is a cube.

    Just some thoughts..

    • Christopher McCarroll

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks so much for your comments and suggestions. You make interesting points. Thanks also for mentioning the notion of ‘image schema’; it’s been a while since I’ve read anything on that and this has prompted me to revisit that literature. Thanks.

      I guess you’ll be pleased to hear that in the book I do engage a little bit with film and other media (gesture, art, and comics) to discuss the notion of perspectives and how different perspectives can help us make sense of or interpret the world or things in the world. One thing, however, that I wouldn’t want to emphasise too much is that the mind is like a movie. I don’t think you mean that either (you say just ‘based on’), because there are, of course, lots of aspects of the mind and cognition that are not conscious, and that we don’t ‘direct’.

      I like your point that no image/view of the world is without a viewer. I see what you mean, and there is definitely a sense in which I don’t want to deny that. I think the ‘viewer’ in observer memory just is the real-world embodied and remembering subject, which you mention. So in that sense there is a way that the term ‘observer memory’ can be reclaimed. What I do want to deny is that there is necessarily a ‘viewer’ or even an occupied point of view within the remembered or imagined scene. I think that by outlining the way points of view can be occupied or not gives us a more nuanced way of thinking about mental imagery. Some images are more immersive, others are somewhat more detached. But, again, I agree with you that the real-world rememberer is ‘viewing’ the image.

      Thanks again for taking the time to engage with this!


        The *conscious self*’s consciousness is , with qualifications a movie. A surround movie. A movie watched by a self with a simultaneous constant kinaesthetic distributed sense of body. A movie with additional taste/smell etc. But v. def a movie. And a movie with a movie director continuously framing, zooming, cutting. (Studying consciousness without the conscious self is like studying “driverness” without the driver – Hamlet without the prince)/

        It is unbelievably important to make this the foundation oi the new millennium as it is of the mind. (Ah perhaps I confused you – it’s the “foundation”/”basis” – but in no way the whole – of the mind. On top of the perceptual images of the movie are all the conceptual images that underlie language, and form the stuff of our v. extensive and v. ignored graphics culture).

        Why so important? Because it’s a complete transformation of our philosophical /scientific worldview from one of static, textual form conserving images – whether of printed words or illustrations – to one of moving, ever formchanging images. From a rational to a creative worldview… Or more strictly, creative/rational worldview in which you retain rational, logicomathematical static structures, but creative. moving image/ moving bodies frameworks become primary. (No more would you look for the “bricks” or “blocks” of the world or thought, but rather the “blobs” and “blobules” (lava-type). From a world of zero/deterministic possibilities to a world of infinite/freeform possibilities.

        It’s also a transformation of philosophy from a word/logic based field, to an image/movie-based field. If you were to take up my suggestion re re-framing philosophical papers as movies, you would be a revolutionary philosopher.

        I see that I have only to a limited extent communicated to you – we are talking about a massive revolution here (there is at the moment *zero* systematic culture of images, period, let alone movies – it’s all been textual) – but thx anyway for kind response.

  2. Thanks again, Christopher. Interesting stuff.

    I work in L.A. as a filmmaker, and was thinking about posting about cinema’s relevance to your book, but you beat me to it.

    I used to think that cinema shared the language of dreams, but as I got to know more about episodic memory, I realized that film language is closer to the way we tell stories from our memories.

    That’s why cuts make sense in film, rather than just seeing everything in point-of-view. We don’t remember panning and tilting from one person to another during a conversation; we remember one person talking, and then the other person talking, the way it happens in film. Likewise, montages seem like a very artificial presentation form, but it’s actually one narrative thread that binds together a string of related memories.

    Films that extensively use POV actually feel gimmicky and unreal. We want to see our protagonist. Perhaps that’s because we can’t feel our film heroes, the way we feel our selves from within. Or perhaps it’s because we tell our own personal narratives, with a built-in objective view.

    Thanks again!

    • Christopher McCarroll

      Hi Matt,

      That’s very interesting that you’re a film-maker and it gives you a nice perspective (no pun intended) from which to think about these issues. That’s a great point that you make about the relation between narrative and memory, that a narrative thread binds a string of related memories, and of course there is evidence of the tight links between autobiographical memory and narrative (e.g., developmental literature).

      That’s also a fascinating point you make that we can’t feel our film heroes in the same way we feel our selves from within. In the book I provide an example from film in which we share the point of view of a character but we adopt the emotional perspective of a different character, one we see and ‘feel’ from the outside. So sharing an internal visual perspective with a character does not guarantee that we share the emotional (or psychological) perspective of that character. Again, though, I don’t think that this is always the case. There are times that POV shots can help us ‘feel’ what a particular character is going through. There is an interesting discussion about field and observer perspectives in the film Memento which you may enjoy (Sutton 2009. The feel of the world: exograms, habits, and the confusion of types of memory). You can find this paper (and other interesting work on memory) on John Sutton’s webpage (

      I also like the notion that film language is close to the way we tell stories from memories. One point that complicates that a little is that episodic memory is reconstructed, and each time you remember an event it may be slightly different. Rather than replaying the exact same ‘film’ in our minds, evidence shows that memories are labile and liable to change. The content can shift depending on your present context. This ‘reconstructive’ element is not something that film seems to share (although perhaps it’s something future ‘interactive’ films could play with!).

      Thanks again for your thoughts and insights!

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