Imagining seeing

Flannery Wilson
6 min readApr 23, 2018
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It might seem like an easy question. What do you see when you watch a movie?

But the question is deceptively difficult.

Even philosophers of film have not settled on one theory to describe the mental relation between the viewer and the characters on screen.

Does the viewer “see” (transparently see something, such as: I saw a mouse under the bed) or “imagine seeing” characters in a movie (I imagine that I am seeing Indiana Jones in order to remain entertained)?

Or are both of these choices inaccurate descriptions?

We all know, intuitively, that we do not see fictional characters in the exact same sense that we see our friends and loved ones in real life.

But if this is true, then our reaction to the lives of fictional characters should surprise us.

Why do we cry when a fictional person dies, for instance? Why do we flinch when characters are shot? After all, these are not people that we know or have met at any point in our lives.

These are nontrivial questions that have yet to be answered satisfactorily, despite many attempts by philosophers of film and others.

Perhaps we could put it this way. When writing stories, authors pretend to assert propositions about abstract objects, i.e. fictional characters.

Some philosophers consider the propositions asserted by the authors to be “true” propositions.

I, on the other hand, have referred to these propositions as “deception in good faith.”

We are both referring to the same phenomenon.

When acting in a film, actors enact this same set of propositions, as if they were true. Or, to put it another way, they perform the deception in good faith.

The viewer witnesses a performance that consists of this deception in good faith, in two ways:

First, we assume that the director, author, producers, screenwriters, etc. pretended that they were stating true propositions about fictional characters.



Flannery Wilson

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.