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

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Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

2 The varieties of imaginative experience

What would life be like without imagination? Perhaps, in this very first question, we have found something that is impossible to imagine. Imagination infuses so much of what we do, and so deeply, that to imagine its absence is to imagine not being human. Some people, I am told, think about sex every five minutes. For them, I presume, a sudden loss of imaginative powers would be devastating. Some people (not necessarily the same ones), at certain points in their lives, think about getting married or having a child. They might imagine the sanctity of a white wedding or the horrors of having all their relatives in one place at one time, the patter of tiny feet or the exhaustion of sleepless nights. As they play, children imagine all sorts of things, and their ideas of what they want to be and do when they grow up are fundamental in their development. Most people have ambitions of one kind or another. Imagining being promoted, or seeing something you have done recognised publicly, plays an essential role in motivation. In our idle moments too, or in diverting ourselves amidst tedious tasks, we might imagine winning the lottery or our hero scoring the winning goal in a match or, more sinfully, an obnoxious colleague falling under a bus. When we meet or talk to anyone, whether we are assessing them as potential friends or enemies, lovers or colleagues, for either ourselves or others, we are imagining what they would be like in certain circumstances.

But the imagination is not just involved in thinking of ourselves or other people. When I look at a painting, or read a novel, or hear a piece of music, or taste a wine, I bring my imagination to bear in its appreciation. I imagine other things to compare it with, or simply allow my imagination free flight, making no effort to control the images that spring to mind. Or in creating something myself, I may conjure up an image or images of what I want to realise. Imagination is also involved in the most ordinary experiences. When I go for a walk, I might imagine what it is like to live in a particular house I see, or if it is dark, I might suddenly imagine that there is something following me. In thinking what to cook for dinner, I imagine what I can do with the ingredients I have. In choosing clothes, I imagine what they would go with and the occasions on which I might wear them. In perceiving anything, I might imagine it transformed in some way, coloured differently, radically restructured, or simply moved to another location. And even if I do not deliberately transform it in my mind, previous or anticipated experiences may influence how I perceive it.

Clearly, we talk of imagination across the full range of human experience. Indeed, it may be hard to find an experience in which the imagination is not somehow involved. But if this is so, then does ‘imagination’ really have a single sense or refer to a single faculty? Can any order at all be brought into the varieties of imaginative experience? What conceptions of imagination might be distinguished? And what philosophical issues arise, or are reflected, in our attempts to do so? We will explore these questions, in a preliminary way, in the first part of this course.


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