We’ve all heard the Confucian adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and that we’ve evolved from an age of verbal discourse to an age of images. Social networking on Facebook makes it possible to express our identity and social relations through pictures. Graphic novels take us by the hand and save the trouble of conjuring images on our own. In a way we’ve returned to where we began. The 30,000 year-old images of horses, bisons, woolly mammoths, and bears discovered in a French cave reveal that our pre-historic ancestors prized pictures too.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the immediacy of the pictures that glow on my laptop. But in this imagistic age, it’s worth remembering what’s left behind. First, the supposed Confucian adage about pictures and a thousand words is not from Confucius. The best guess is that an ad man named Fred Barnard spun it, posted it on buses in the 1920s to bolster ad campaigns and called it a Chinese proverb. Popular opinion linked it to Confucius.
The dazzling brilliance our pictorial age can be blinding. The problem of imagistic thinking has been a worry of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists since Plato. As Descartes pointed out, we can imagine a pentagon, but never a thousand-sided figure. Mathematics would be impossible if it relied on imagistic thinking alone. Spinoza warns that our senses tell us the sun is 200 feet away. And, Leibniz, co-founder of the infinitesimal calculus, over and over cautions us against mistaking an image for an idea. We have an idea of the universe, but we could never manage an image of it alone.
Maybe sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. But one true abstract thought can be worth a thousand pictures.
With a Perspective, this is Peter Hadreas.