The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society

In The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society by Kenneth E. Boulding he presents a unifying concept through which a better understanding of individual behavior and social dynamics may be had. He proposes, in effect, a new theory of knowledge: knowledge as image.


The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society will be of interest to those seeking to understand how individual worldviews are created and changed, and how such worldviews affect behavior.

This work is divided into eleven chapters.

Chapter One: the concept of the image

In Chapter One Boulding introduces the concept of the image. Image refers to one’s subjective knowledge of the world, one’s worldview, one’s sense of being located in space and time, and in a web of human relations and emotions. Two propositions follow. First, a person’s behavior depends on their image of the world. Second, the meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image. There are three sorts of effect a message may have. The image may remain unaffected. The message may be simply added onto the image. The image may undergo revolutionary change and reorganization.

Chapter Two: the image in organization

Chapter Two discusses the role of the image in organization. Organization here refers simply to the obverse of chaos. The author describes a hierarchy of increasing organization, from static structures to dynamic process of the human mind. An image occurs in most rudimentary form in any system capable of homeostasis. The concept of the image becomes an increasingly important part of any theoretical model as the degree of organizational complexity increases.

Chapter Three

Chapter Three then discusses the image at the biological level of complexity, focusing on the phenomena of growth and information processing.

Chapter Four

Chapter Four discusses the image at the levels of the human being and society, and explores the relation between individuals’ images and society’s image.

Chapter Five

In Chapter Five the author observes that “The image not only makes society, society continually remakes the image.” This process is the key to understanding the dynamic of society. This chapter further explores the sociology of knowledge.

Chapters Six and Seven

Chapters Six and Seven discuss the image in economic and political life. In economics the image will be helpful in exploring the impact of knowledge and information on the individual’s economic behavior and economic processes more generally. Mechanical models of the political process have failed. He suggests a view of politics as “a process of image-formation under the stimulus of messages transmitted by networks of communication,” with special emphasis on decision-making processes.

Chapters Eight and Nine

The next two chapters discuss the image as a motive force in history, and the role of images in sustaining subcultures.

Chapter Ten

In Chapter Ten the author considers the possibility of a new science devoted to studying the image: eiconics, and explores the new science’s roots in more traditional disciplines. The text concludes with a discussion of some philosophical implications of this approach, particularly of the relation between image and truth.

The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society offers a new approach to understanding the role of knowledge in human life and behavior, and to understanding the nature of knowledge itself. Vivid and thought-provoking, it is quite accessible to the lay reader.

This Book Summary was written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

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