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

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Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

2.2 Twelve conceptions of imagination

Can we say anything more systematic about the different ways in which we talk of imagination? In a paper entitled ‘Twelve conceptions of imagination’ (2003), Leslie Stevenson distinguishes the following meanings of imagination, which I list here (in italics) as he formulates them, together with my own examples to illustrate each one:

  1. The ability to think of something that is not presently perceived, but is, was or will be spatio-temporally real. In this sense I might imagine how my daughter looks as I speak to her on the phone, how she used to look when she was a baby, or how she will look when I give her the present I have bought her.

  2. The ability to think of whatever one acknowledges as possible in the spatio-temporal world. In this sense I might imagine how my room will look painted in a different colour.

  3. The liability to think of something which the subject believes to be real, but which is not real. Stevenson talks of ‘liability’ rather than ‘ability’ here to indicate that there is some kind of failure in the cognitive process. In this sense I might imagine that there is someone out to get me, or Macbeth imagines that there is a dagger in front of him.

  4. The ability to think of things one conceives of as fictional, as opposed to what one believes to be real, or conceives of as possibly real. In this sense I might imagine what the characters in a book are like, or imagine the actors in a film or play as the characters they portray, aware that the characters are only fictional.

  5. The ability to entertain mental images. Here I might conjure up an image of a large, black spider or a five-sided geometrical figure.

  6. The ability to think of (conceive of, or represent) anything at all. Here I might imagine anything from an object before me being transformed in some way to an evil demon systematically deceiving me.

  7. The non-rational operations of the mind, that is, those kinds of mental functioning which are explicable in terms of causes rather than reasons. Here I might imagine that smoking is good for me since I associate it with the cool behaviour of those I see smoking in films. It may not be rational, but there is a causal explanation in terms of the association of ideas, upon which advertisers rely so much.

  8. The ability to form beliefs, on the basis of perception, about public objects in three-dimensional space which can exist unperceived, with spatial parts and temporal duration. Here I might imagine that the whole of something exists when I can only see part of it, or that it continues to exist when I look away.

  9. The sensuous component in the appreciation of works of art or objects of natural beauty without classifying them under concepts or thinking of them as practically useful. In looking at a painting or hearing a piece of music, for example, I may be stimulated into imagining all sorts of things without conceptualising it as a representation of anything definite, or seeing it as serving any particular purpose.

  10. The ability to create works of art that encourage such sensuous appreciation. In composing a piece of music, the composer too may imagine all sorts of things without conceptualising it in any definite way in the sense, say, of having a message that they want to get across.

  11. The ability to appreciate things that are expressive or revelatory of the meaning of human life. In contemplating a craggy mountain range at dusk, for example, or a painting by Caspar David Friedrich depicting such a scene, I may imagine how much we are subject to the awesome power of the natural world, and yet ourselves have the conceptual and imaginative power to transcend it all in thought.

  12. The ability to create works of art that express something deep about the meaning of human life, as opposed to the products of mere fantasy. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Goethe's Faust, Beethoven's late string quartets or Wagner's Ring cycle might all be offered as examples of this final conception of imagination.

Any attempt at bringing order into discussions of the imagination runs the risk of arbitrariness and distortion, and many alternative divisions are possible. Indeed, Stevenson subdivides some of these conceptions and offers various illustrations, which might be taken to warrant adding to the main list. As a subdivision of the first conception, for example, he identifies ‘the ability to think about a particular mental state of another person, whose existence one infers from perceived evidence’ (2003, 241), which might be thought to deserve separate recognition. Nor are the conceptions he distinguishes either exhaustive or exclusive, as he admits himself, and there are many interrelationships that are, at best, only implicitly indicated. But the twelve conceptions he distinguishes provide a useful initial framework for locating the philosophical issues.

Activity 2

With any division – and particularly with a division into as many as twelve things – there is always the question, ‘Why this many?’ Why not, in this case, thirteen, or just two with further subdivisions? Looking down the list of the twelve conceptions, are there any ways of simplifying or bringing further order into the division, or any obvious omissions?


It seems to me that the twelve conceptions fall naturally into three groups of four. The first four articulate ways in which the imagination is seen as differing from ordinary sense perception. The second four reflect more general conceptions of imagination, in which its relation to thought is stressed more than its relation to sense perception. The final four are concerned with the role of the imagination in aesthetic appreciation and creation. It is hard to think of any omissions, given the generality of the second group of conceptions, and in particular the sixth, ‘the ability to think of anything at all’. But you might feel that more specific conceptions deserve to be brought out from under the cover of the ones listed here. For example, the ability to see or make connections, to link what might initially seem disparate things or fields, is also an important conception in both the arts and the sciences – and not least in philosophy.

As far as the first four conceptions are concerned, the contrast with sense perception is fundamental to imagination. In sense perception we have some kind of conscious awareness of something that is actually before us in the spatio-temporal world. Where we are aware of something that is not actually before us in the spatio-temporal world, we speak of ‘imagining’ it. But this can take several forms. What we imagine can be real (but just not present at the time), merely possible, or even impossible; and where possible or impossible, we can believe it to be such or not. (There is argument over what kind of impossibility is allowed, however. Can you imagine a round square, for example? Or imagine that a banana is a gun? Or imagine being an insect?) This gives us Stevenson's first four conceptions. One or more of these conceptions is involved in every (more complex) conception of imagination that can be found.

Taken together, the first four conceptions already suggest a certain generality to imagination. Imagination may be said to be involved whenever we think of something not actually present to us. Even when we think of something present to us, i.e. perceive something, that (perceptual) thought may be informed – rationally or non-rationally – by thoughts of other things; so it is a natural move to see the imagination at work in all thought. This gives us the second group of conceptions, numbered 5 to 8 in Stevenson's list. If thinking of something involves having a mental image of it (a view which we will examine shortly), then we have the fifth conception. The sixth is the most general of these conceptions, and the seventh restricts the imagination to the non-rational operations of thought. The eighth makes specific the supposed role of the imagination in perception. Stevenson identifies a source of the fifth conception in Aristotle's work, as already noted above (section 2.1), and mentions Descartes too in this regard. All four conceptions he finds illustrated in Hume's philosophy, and the eighth in particular is also characteristic of Kant's philosophy.

The final four conceptions, numbered 9 to 12, concern the role of the imagination in aesthetic experience, and highlight the creative aspects of imagination. In the eighteenth century, when aesthetics as a discipline itself emerged, a distinction was drawn between the beautiful and the sublime. Flowers and birds were often given as examples of what is beautiful, while towering waterfalls in a thunderstorm and the starry firmament above provide good illustrations of what was seen as sublime. The beautiful gives rise to a kind of calm and comforting pleasure, while the sublime generates a more exhilarating pleasure, but one tinged with pain or fear. If we make use of this distinction, then we could say the following. Imagination is required in both the aesthetic appreciation and artistic creation of what is beautiful, which gives us the ninth and tenth conceptions, and also in both the aesthetic appreciation and artistic creation of what is sublime, which gives us the eleventh and twelfth conceptions.


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