Meaning and Motoricity

Essays on Image and Time

by Kristof Nyiri (Author)
Monographs 152 Pages


There is an intrinsic connection between the notions of image and time. Visual images can strike us as incomplete, as ambiguous, unless they are moving ones, happening in time. However, time cannot be conceptualized except by metaphors, and so ultimately by images, of movement in space. The philosophy of images and the philosophy of time are interdependent. This book argues for the reality of time and for visual images as natural carriers of meaning. The experience of the passage of time, of the reality of time, is embodied and made visible in the bodily gestures of time, and indeed in all our gestures. Meaning, both emotional and cognitive, is grounded in the motor dimension. By implication, no meaningful philosophy of time can neglect the aspect of motor imagery.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1. Visualization and the Horizons of Scientific Realism
  • 2. Hundred Years After: How McTaggart Became a Thing of the Past
  • 3. Gombrich on Image and Time
  • 4. Image and Metaphor in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein
  • 5. Time As a Figure of Thought and As Reality
  • 6. Images in Conservative Education
  • 7. Time and Image in the Theory of Gestures
  • Index

← 6 | 7 → Preface

Pictures and pictorial meaning did rarely become philosophical topics before the twentieth century. The reason has quite clearly to do with technology, namely with the technology of communication. Prior to 1400, European culture was not familiar with any technologies for duplicating pictures, an exact pictorial representation of reality was impossible before the age of photography, to deal with images was much more cumbersome than to deal with texts, philosophers communicated in words about words. In the twentieth century however there emerged, within a few decades, satisfactory answers to the fundamental questions of the philosophy of images – answers, to be sure, still today largely rejected by the philosophical community. I believe the definitive work done here is that by Ernst Gombrich. The journey he travelled from the 1960s to the end of the 1970s is telling. In his Art and Illusion (1960) he highlighted the role of conventions in pictorial representation. In his 1969 paper “The Evidence of Images” he still stressed that images without words are not unequivocal: discussing Dürer’s woodcut “Death and the Lands-knecht” (1510) he pointed out that here the artist himself seems to have felt necessary to support the pictorial message by a rhymed text – “Vnd thu stetz noch gnaden werben/Als soltestu all stund sterben” (“Always seek for grace/As if you might die any moment”). By 1978 however, in his essay “Image and Code”, Gombrich came to argue for the idea that images might be self-evident natural signs.

By contrast, since the two fundamental pronouncements of Aristotle – “time is the number of movement in respect of the before and after”, yet it is “a question that may fairly be asked … [w]hether if soul did not exist time would exist or not” (Physics, 220a25, 223a22–23, Hardie–Gaye transl.) – the problem of time has, for all the genius of Bergson, Heidegger, or indeed Einstein, apparently not come any closer to a solution. In my view the reason for this is that any appropriate philosophy of time will presuppose an appropriate philosophy of images. Time and image refer to each other, and in particular it is not possible to build up an argument for the reality of the passage of time without accepting that pictorial meaning is essentially non-conventional, images being expressions of physical forces acting on us. This volume represents a rudimentary attempt towards such an argumentation. I am aware of going against the stream both when it comes to the philosophy of images and the philosophy of time – drawing courage not so much from philosophy, as rather, say, from Russian film ← 7 | 8 → director Andrey Tarkovsky’s notion of “time-pressure” and his idea of a “time flowing” with “dignity, independently” (Sculpting in Time, transl. by Kitty Hunter-Blair, University of Texas Press, 1987, pp. 117 and 120).

The first chapter of the volume serves to introduce my main topics. Verbal thinking, as also mathematical thinking, is fundamentally intertwined with, and indeed presupposes, visual thinking, while all involve an underlying motor dimension. The significance of the visual was recognized both by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, but still went mostly unnoticed in twentieth-century philosophy, with the result that defenders of scientific realism in the philosophy of science, most importantly perhaps Wilfrid Sellars, were not capable of exploiting an important line of argument indispensable to their position. In particular, in the philosophy of time the purported realism of “four-dimensionalism” will be seen as phoney once visual imaginability is accepted as a criterion of intelligibility. Four-dimensionalism is often taken to be related to McTaggart’s “B-theory”. In my second chapter, I endeavour to show the spuriousness of McTaggart’s arguments, suggesting that their baffling popularity might well have to do with the parallel appearance of, and a mistaken similarity to, the Einstein–Minkowski conception of space-time. I conclude the chapter with a first brief interim summary of the way I believe a philosophical argument for the vindication of the common-sense view of time might proceed.

The third chapter is a survey of Gombrich’s writings on pictorial meaning, on the interdependence of word and image, on how movement can be suggested by static images, and on how the passage of time is represented by pictures themselves immobile. Gombrich takes issue with the notion of a punctum temporis, of static points of time (inevitably leading, as he emphasizes, to Zeno’s paradox), arguing for the idea of the “specious present”, a broader time span present to the mind, a time span that allows for the immediate perception of real change.

As I indicate throughout this volume, to Gombrich’s work a felicitous and indeed necessary complement is that of Rudolf Arnheim. I am discussing Arnheim in some detail in chapters 5 and 6, but, before that, I have to present an admittedly iconoclastic, and hopefully convincing, image of my life-long hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein. I do this in chapter 4 (coming then back to Wittgenstein again in chapter 6). Wittgenstein, I submit, was a precursor of the iconic turn, while of course being one of the main actors of the foregoing linguistic one. However, to his and to our detriment, he never succeeded in synthesizing his views on language on the one hand and images on the other, and was crucially unsuccessful precisely when it came to developing the theory in which words and pictures should from the very beginning meet: metaphor theory.

← 8 | 9 → No adequate philosophy of time is possible without an adequate theory of metaphors. I attempt to establish the connection between the two domains in chapter 5. And it is in this chapter I actually try to sum up my argument for the position that the common-sense view of the reality of time is philosophically defensible. Chapters 6 and 7 adduce further elements to this argument. In chapter 6, “Images in Conservative Education”, I emphasize the capacity of the visual mind to mirror physical reality, suggest that today’s abundance of informative and indeed veridical images, still and moving, redeem us from a more or less uncritical reliance on often delusive texts, from verbal traditions handed down by word of mouth or in writing, and that the diminishing role of traditions implies a changed sense of past, present and future. Chapter 7 focusses on bodily gestures as translating the motor into the visual, and concludes, once more, that the experience of the passage of time is an embodied, primary one. The section “Meaning and Motoricity” in chapter 7 provides a brief summary of the ideas which made me conceive of the title of the present volume.

The essays here collected, written in the course of the past six years or so, have, with the exception of the last one, already appeared in print, but they were from the very beginning meant to become chapters of a single book. Chapter 1, “Visualization and the Horizons of Scientific Realism”, emerged from a talk given in 2008 at a conference in Pécs (Hungary) on Richard Rorty, and was, in an extended form, published in András Benedek and Kristóf Nyíri (eds.), The Iconic Turn in Education (series VISUAL LEARNING, vol. 2), Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012. Chapter 2, “Hundred Years After: How McTaggart Became a Thing of the Past”, appeared in T. Czarnecki et al. (eds.), The Analytical Way: Proceedings of the 6th European Congress of Analytic Philosophy, London: College Publications, 2010. Chapter 3, “Gombrich on Image and Time”, was published online in the Journal of Art Historiography, no. 1 (December 2009), and in hardcopy in Klaus Sachs-Hombach and Rainer Totzke (eds.), Bilder – Sehen – Denken: Zum Verhältnis von begrifflich-philosophischen und empirisch-psychologischen Ansätzen in der bildwissenschaftlichen Forschung, Köln: Herbert von Halem Verlag, 2011. Chapter 4, “Image and Metaphor in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein”, appeared in R. Heinrich et al. (eds.), Image and Imaging in Philosophy, Science and the Arts, Proceedings of the 33rd International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium, vol. 1, Heusenstamm bei Frankfurt: ontos verlag, 2011. Chapter 5, “Time As a Figure of Thought and As Reality”, was published in András Benedek and Kristóf Nyíri (eds.), Images in Language: Metaphors and Metamorphoses (series VISUAL LEARNING, vol. 1), Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2011. Chapter 6, “Images in Conservative Education”, appeared in András Benedek and Kristóf Nyíri (eds.), ← 9 | 10 → How to Do Things with Pictures (series VISUAL LEARNING, vol. 3), Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2013. I gratefully acknowledge the permission of Peter Lang Verlag, and of András Benedek, co-editor of the series VISUAL LEARNING, to reprint Chapters 1, 5, and 6. As indicated above, chapter 7, “Time and Image in the Theory of Gestures”, is here published for the first time.

Dunabogdány, March 2014


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 152 pp., 21 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Kristof Nyiri (Author)

Kristóf Nyíri is Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Technical Education, Budapest University of Technology and Economics. His main fields of research are Wittgenstein, the theory of conservatism, the philosophy of images and the philosophy of time.


Title: Meaning and Motoricity