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

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Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

2.3 A first attempt at defining ‘imagining’

So far I have made some preliminary remarks on the meanings of ‘imagination’ and related terms, and considered one attempt at distinguishing different conceptions of imagination. In a broad sense, ‘imagining’ means thinking in some way of what is not present to the senses. Imagining may involve, but is not the same as, imaging. In a derogatory sense, ‘imagining’ may mean ‘fantasising’, as suggested by their etymological roots in Latin and Greek, and our use of the term ‘imaginary’; in a more appreciative sense, it may mean ‘creating’, as suggested by our use of the term ‘imaginative’. In considering the twelve conceptions of imagination that Stevenson distinguishes, I divided them into three groups of four. The first group, numbered 1 to 4, highlight the point that, in imagining, I am aware of something that is not actually present to the senses. The third conception captures the sense of ‘imagining’ as ‘fantasising’. In the second group of conceptions, numbered 5 to 8, we have both the conception that imagining is imaging (the fifth conception) as well as further recognition that there may be an element of ‘fantasy’ or ‘delusion’ in imagination (the seventh conception). The creative aspects of imagination are explicitly reflected in the third group of conceptions, numbered 9 to 12.

What emerges from this is the possibility of defining ‘imagining’, in its most basic or core sense, as ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’. As I have noted, this sense certainly underlies Stevenson's first group of conceptions, which are divided according to whether what is thought is real (but just not present), possible or impossible, and if possible or impossible, whether it is believed to be such or not. We also saw how we might move from the first to the second group of conceptions. One way to think of what is not present to the senses is to conjure up an image of it, which gives the fifth conception. The sixth conception might seem even more general than the core sense. But if it is possible to think of anything regardless of whether it is present to the senses or not, then we might be tempted to identify the heart of any thinking with ‘imagining’. (We will return to this shortly.) As far as the example illustrating the seventh conception is concerned, it can certainly be claimed that what I ‘imagine’ – the goodness of smoking – is unreal, and hence cannot be present to the senses. So too, in my example illustrating the eighth conception, when I imagine that the whole of something exists when I can only see part of it, the part I do not see is not, of course, present to the senses. It is possible to argue, then, that the core sense of ‘imagining’ just suggested underlies Stevenson's second group of conceptions of imagination as well.

How might this core sense be seen as involved in the third group of conceptions, concerning aesthetic appreciation and creation? In all four conceptions, we have the idea of imagining all sorts of things without fixing on any single definitive conceptualisation or representation. So here too we have thinking of things that are not directly present to the senses, things which go beyond what is strictly or literally perceived or created, although the thought of those things may well be triggered by what lies before the senses.

What Stevenson's conceptions suggest, then, is this. If it is possible to identify a core sense of ‘imagining’, then an obvious candidate is ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’. Admittedly, this is rather vague and general. But any sense that might be offered as underlying all twelve of Stevenson's conceptions is bound to be vague and general. And there may be virtue in its vagueness. For bearing it in mind may make us less likely to restrict our attention to just a few kinds of case, and more willing to consider the complex relationships that ‘imagining’ has both to other mental acts and to the wider context in which it occurs. Vague and general though it may be, it is also a sense that has often been articulated and, as we will see, has had a role to play in talking of imagination.

Activity 3

Consider the following case. You look out of the window and see a small tree with two branches sticking out from its sides that look like arms and a clump of leaves on top that looks like a head. You know very well that it is a tree, but you ‘imagine’ it as a person. Is this a counter-example to the claim that imagining is thinking of something that is not present to the senses?


In one way, it might seem obviously not. For are you not imagining something – namely, a person – that is not present to the senses? On the other hand, there is certainly something present to the senses that provides a kind of sensory basis for what you imagine. Merely talking of ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’ arguably does not do justice to what is going on here. What you are imagining is that something that is present to your senses is something else. So one might feel that some kind of qualification is needed.

What we have here is a case of what is called ‘seeing-as’. We see the tree as a person, and in this case at least it also seems reasonable to describe what is going on as ‘imagining’ the tree as a person. Wittgenstein remarks on the topic of seeing-as. Wittgenstein does not talk of ‘imagining’ in all cases of seeing-as, which we might take to indicate – if we agree with him – that what we have here is a special kind of case. We could still claim, in other words, that the definition of ‘imagining’ as ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’ captures its core sense, while allowing qualifications or even departures from it in certain cases, which might then be counted as ‘non-standard’. But we should keep in mind that such qualifications or departures may be necessary.

Any adequate definition of a term should lay down both necessary and sufficient conditions for its applicability (in all the main kinds of case). If we can handle such cases as imagining a tree as a person, then we might take ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’ as a necessary condition of imagining. If I imagine something, then I am thinking of something that is not present to my senses. Without such thinking, there could be no imagining. But is it a sufficient condition? If I am thinking of something that is not present to the senses, then am I imagining it? The core sense suggested by Stevenson's twelve conceptions is admittedly vague and general. But is it too general?

Activity 4

Can you think of (imagine?) any examples of ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’ that you would not describe as imagining?


There are various possible counter-examples that might be suggested. Here is one important kind of case. What is involved when you remember something? Are you not thinking of something that is not present to the senses (at that time)? Yet remembering something is not the same as imagining it. What we have, then, is a case of ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’ that would not be described as imagining. Thinking of something that is not present to the senses is not a sufficient condition for imagining.

What is the difference between remembering and imagining something? When we talk of remembering something, we imply that what is remembered actually happened or is true. (We need the clause ‘or is true’ to cover cases such as remembering a mathematical equation or remembering that I have an appointment tomorrow.) There is no such implication in talk of imagining something. But did I not admit, in illustrating Stevenson's first conception, that I can imagine something that actually happened or is true? We can indeed imagine what actually happened or is true, but when we talk of imagining it, there is nevertheless a recognition that we could be wrong (even if we are not). That what we are imagining actually happened or is true is a merely accidental or contingent feature of our imagining, in the following sense. If it had not happened or were not true, then we would still talk of imagining it; whereas if something that we claim to remember had not actually happened or were not true, then we would regard talk of ‘remembering’ here as illegitimate.

What this suggests, then, is that the definition of ‘imagining’ as ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’ is inadequate as it stands. While it arguably lays down a necessary condition for imagining, it does not lay down a sufficient condition. The definition is too general, since it includes things – such as remembering – that we would not count as imagining. If what we have said in distinguishing imagining from remembering is right, then in imagining something we are not just thinking of something that is not present to the senses, but also thinking of something that need not have actually happened or that need not be true. But can more be said about this additional requirement? Or are there alternative or better specifications? One attempt to offer a more restricted definition has been made by Berys Gaut in a paper entitled ‘Creativity and imagination’ (2003), an extract from which is included as a reading in section 2.4.


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