Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy
Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

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Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

1 Imagination

Imagination, a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations and impatient of restraint, has always endeavoured to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the enclosures of regularity.

(Samuel Johnson, Rambler, no. 125, 28 May 1751)

In much of western thought, the imagination has an ambiguous status, seemingly poised between spirit and nature, mediating between mind and body – the mental and the physical – and interceding between one soul and another. For Aristotle, the imagination – or phantasia – was a kind of bridge between sensation and thought, supplying the images or ‘phantasms’ without which thought could not occur. Descartes argued that the imagination was not an essential part of the mind, since it dealt with images in the brain whose existence – unlike that of the mind – could be doubted. Kant, on the other hand, held that the imagination was fundamental to the human mind, not only bringing together our sensory and intellectual faculties but also acting in creative ways, a conception that was to blossom in Romanticism and find poetic expression in the works of Coleridge and Wordsworth. More recently, the role of the imagination in empathy has been stressed: the ability to identify with our fellow human beings and with fictional characters being regarded as crucial in accessing other minds, enriching our own experience and developing our moral sense. In fact, in the history of western thought, the imagination has been seen as performing such a wide range of different functions that it is problematic whether it can be understood as a single faculty at all. In imagination we are able to think of what is absent, unreal or even absurd, and so it appears to grant us almost unlimited conceptual powers. Yet it also seems to inform our perception of what is present and real and everyday, and so permeates the most basic levels of our daily lives. In this course, we will be concerned with some of the different ways in which the imagination is talked of and conceived, exploring just what the imagination might be and what philosophical issues it raises.

The course is divided into two main sections. In the first, we will look at the range of conceptions of imagination, address the question of whether ‘imagining’ can be defined in any useful way, and consider the implications of this for a philosophical understanding of imagination. Despite the important role that is often accorded to the imagination in our mental activities, the topic has been somewhat marginalised in the philosophical literature, particularly (and perhaps surprisingly) in contemporary philosophy of mind. This has led one writer to call imagination the ‘missing mystery’ of philosophy, and in this course I will say something about what this mystery is meant to be, and how one might go about ‘demystifying’ the imagination. In the second main section, we will examine the relationship that imagination has to imagery and supposition, both of which have been seen as closely connected to, and sometimes even identified with, imagination. I will end with a review of the discussion.


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