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Claremont McKenna College, Philosophy (CMC)

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Imagination has been assigned an important explanatory role in a multitude of philosophical contexts. This paper examines four such contexts: mindreading, pretense, our engagement with fiction, and modal epistemology. Close attention to each of these contexts suggests that the mental activity of imagining is considerably more heterogeneous than previously realized. In short, no single mental activity can do all the explanatory work that has been assigned to imagining.

Hume famously wrote in the Treatise that nowhere are we more free than in our exercise of the imagination. A review of the contemporary philosophical discussion of the imagination suggests what seems to be an odd corollary to Hume’s remark: Nowhere do philosophers take themselves to be more free than in the philosophical uses to which they put the imagination. Over the last couple of decades, imagination has been increasingly invoked across a wide swath of philosophical terrain—from aesthetics to epistemology, from ethics to philosophy of mind—and the list of philosophical problems in which imagination is implicated continues to grow. Though Hume took our powers of imagination to be virtually unlimited, I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.

Given the increasing importance that imagination has been assigned in philosophy, it is important to try to get clear on what this mental activity is. But, in Brian O’Shaugnessy’s words, to put the question this way is already to “assume too much”—namely, it is to assume that “there exists something that is the Imagination” and that “there is some one thing that is the phenomenon of Imagining.” (O’Shaughnessy 2000, 339–340) Thus we have the question that motivates this paper: is there such a thing as the phenomenon of imagining, i.e., is there a single mental activity that can do all the explanatory work that has been assigned to imagination?1

To help motivate this question, let’s consider the following four descriptions of relatively common activities:

  1. 1.

    Engagement with fiction. Dennis is reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and he’s completely caught up in the story. At the dénouement, when Cedric dies in the graveyard in Little Hangleton, Dennis finds himself overcome by sadness. Then, as Voldemort begins to fight Harry, he feels anxious and desperately wants Harry to get away safely.

  2. 2.

    Pretense. Christopher is pretending to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and his brother Sean is pretending to be Darth Vader. Each boy also pretends that the long tree branch in his hand is a light saber. Christopher forcefully swings his tree branch at Sean, who parries it with his own tree branch.

  3. 3.

    Mindreading. Carole is playing the board game Settlers of Catan. In order to place her settlement in the most strategic location possible, she wants to determine what her opponent is likely to do on his next turn.

  4. 4.

    Modal epistemology. Sam plans to rearrange the furniture in his living room, but before he moves any of the very heavy pieces, he wants to determine whether it’s possible for the piano to fit where the couch currently is.

Philosophers have assigned imagination an especially central role in each of these activities. Imagination is supposed to explain how we engage with fiction, and it seems to have the power to cause strong affective responses: Dennis is overcome by emotion precisely because he imagines the activities depicted in the book. Imagination is supposed to explain why we take the actions that we do when engaging in games of pretend: In pretending to be a Jedi Knight, Christopher imagines that the tree branch in his hand is a light saber. Imagination is supposed to explain how we can understand and predict the mental states of others, as well as to understand and predict their behavior: Carole’s predictions of her opponent’s game-playing behavior are achieved by simulating his mental states via imagination. And imagination is also supposed to provide justificatory support for our modal conclusions: It is by imagining the room in the proposed configuration that Sam becomes justified in believing that it would be possible for the piano to fit in the alternate location.2

These are just a small sample of the many activities in which imagination has been assigned an important role. To mention a few other examples, imagination has also been invoked to explain dreams, delusions, empathy, and our ability to engage in counterfactual reasoning.3 It is, unfortunately, too big a task for a single paper to survey all of the many activities in which philosophers have assigned imagination an important function, so I here limit myself to the four above. In what follows, I explore whether a single mental activity can do the requisite explanatory work across all four of these contexts. Can we explain Dennis’ engagement with Harry Potter in terms of the same mental activity that explains Carole’s attempt to predict what her opponent will do? Is either of their projects explained in terms of the same mental activity that explains Christopher’s pretend play? And are any of their projects explained in the terms of the same activity that explains Sam’s exploration of possibilities? Ultimately, I suggest that the answer to at least some of these questions is most likely “no.” Insofar as philosophers have invoked imagination to explain these very varied activities, they have not always had the same sort of mental activity in mind.

Perhaps this conclusion is, at some level, unsurprising. The philosophical literature is rife with distinctions drawn between different kinds of imagination—propositional imagining versus objectual imagining, sympathetic imagining versus perceptual imagining, hypothetical imagining versus dramatic imagining.4 As P. F. Strawson has claimed, “The uses, and applications, of the terms ‘image,’ ‘imagine,’ ‘imagination,’ ‘imaginative,’ and so forth make up a very diverse and scattered family. Even this image of a family seems too definite.” (Strawson 1970, 31)5 Likewise, Richard Moran has noted that “It’s no secret that the concept of imagination is a heterogeneous and ill-understood one in philosophy.” (Moran 1994, 106) But even if the heterogeneity of the imagination is no secret, the significance of this heterogeneity has not been sufficiently appreciated. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that the specific kind of heterogeneity in which I will be interested—namely, a heterogeneity across different philosophical contexts in which imagination has been invoked—has generally been recognized. Consider, for example, the following claim from a recent paper by Tyler Doggett and Andy Egan: “By ‘imagining’ we mean what you do when you daydream or pretend or when you take on board, without believing, the contents of books or movies. We assume there is a single something you do in these three disparate activities, but we don’t think much hangs on this assumption.” (Doggett and Egan 2007, 1) In what follows, I aim not only to show that this assumption is mistaken—i.e., there is no “single something” that we do that underpins the kinds of activities they mention—but also to show that something does indeed hang on it.

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