Image and the illusion of immanence in Jean-Paul Sartre

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The starting point for understanding Sartre on the image and the imaginary is the fact that for the existential philosopher, the image is a relation of consciousness. Indeed, to follow the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, as Sartre did in the mid-1930s when he was working out his ideas regarding the imaginary and imagination—although L’Imaginaire (1986), which deals directly with the image, was not published until 1940, most of the material for the work was done at the same time as Sartre was writing L’Imagination, first published in 1936—an image is always an image of something; just as, for Husserl, consciousness is always consciousness of something (cf. Husserl 1982). As there is no consciousness in itself, so there is never an image in itself. What perhaps surprises here is that although the image is a relation of consciousness it is not simply produced by consciousness but has an autonomy that is entirely its own. As Sartre says: “An imaging consciousness is, indeed, consciousness of an object as imaged and not consciousness of an image” (Sartre 2004, 86). But, as we shall see, to speak of the autonomy of the image is not to imply that the image is an object; far from it. Conceiving the image as an object is an indication that one has fallen for the “illusion of immanence”, the illusion that posits the image as always already existing in the psyche and the imagination. Instead, the image is what enables access to what is imaged: it is the presence of the imaged (or object) in its absence, as Sartre puts it. Such an approach puts Sartre’s notion of the image at odds with much of contemporary media theory, which proposes that the image is indeed an object—an object that is media specific, so that rather than a face being made present in a photograph it is said the medium ultimately becomes manifest, not the reality of the face. Thus, photography—that is, the medium—appears and not the immediate thing (the imaged) (cf. Wolf 2007).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Palgrave handbook of image studies
EditorsKrešimir Purgar
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9783030718305
ISBN (Print)9783030718299
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Sartre, image, immanence,


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