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. 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.
 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.