Like us, many of you are alarmed about the decline of rational thought in Western society.
In his book The Humiliation of the Word, philosopher Jacques Ellul theorizes that a major cause of this decline is the fact that most people no longer think in words, but in images.
In what he refers to as “the greatest mutation known to humankind since the Stone Age”—or better yet, a reversion to the Stone Age—Ellul explains that we have moved from being a word-based society to an image-based society:
“Make no mistake here: this is how modern people usually think. We are arriving at a purely emotional stage of thinking. In order to begin reacting intellectually, we need the stimulus of an image. Bare information or an article or book no longer have any effect on us. We do not begin reflecting on such a basis, but only with an illustration. We need violent visual impact if thought is to be set in motion. When we jump from image to image, we are really going from emotion to emotion: our thought moves from anger to indignation, from fear to resentment, from passion to curiosity.”
Now, many would object here that images have the same ability to promote thought in people as words. But Ellul firmly maintains that word-based versus image-based thinking are actually “opposing mental attitudes”:
“Experience tends to show that a person who thinks by images becomes less and less capable of thinking by reasoning, and vice versa. The intellectual process based on images is contradictory to the intellectual process of reasoning that is related to the word.”
Ellul explains that words, to be effective, must rely on reasoning, demonstration, dialectic, analysis, and synthesis. Images, however, come prepackaged, and beckon for their viewers to accept them immediately through intuition and emotion. Thus, images naturally decrease critical thinking.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, NYU professor Neil Postman came to a similar conclusion about the rise of images: “the picture forced exposition into the background, and in some instances obliterated it altogether.”
Numerous examples could be cited to show that we now live in an image-based society rather than a word- or reason-based society:
- It’s believed that Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth—in which he gave an ostensibly authoritative presentation on a stage with slides—did more to raise public awareness about climate change than any scientific paper.
- In 2015, the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkey beach was determined to have almost singlehandedly “transformed the debate on immigration.”
- A growing number of people do not bother to provide a rational defense of their position on controversial issues; instead, they simply change their Facebook profile picture.
- The rise of protesting also coincides with the rise in image-based thinking. Almost everyone knows that protests are not an effective medium for a rational presentation of arguments. Rather, the goal of the protesters is to get media coverage so that they can convey an emotionally-charged image of their position to the public.
I’ll close by noting that Ellul sounded this warning in 1981. Since then, the number of images we’re subjected to each day has increased exponentially. There’s a chance that our society’s reasoning abilities have declined at similar rate.
Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.