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

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Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

2.5 The problematic status of the imagination

Let us review the position we have reached. Stevenson's twelve conceptions of imagination suggest that ‘imagining’ might be defined as ‘thinking of something that is not present to the senses’. This definition succeeds in distinguishing imagining from perceiving, but is too general in including such things as remembering. Gaut defines ‘imagining’, in its core sense, as ‘thinking of something without commitment to its truth or falsity, existence or non-existence’. This succeeds in distinguishing imagining from both perceiving and remembering, but is arguably too specific in excluding too many standard cases of imagining (i.e. cases that ought really to be captured in any core sense we specify). Can a better definition be offered? My alternative account might suggest the following possibility. ‘Imagining’ means thinking of something that is not present to the senses and that may or may not be true or existent, thinking which, in being called ‘imagining’, indicates a lack of commitment to the truth or existence of what is thought of by the person calling it such.

But in what sense is this a definition, and what are the implications of the suggested alternative account? If talk of ‘imagining’ says something about the person using the term (namely, that they are not committed to the truth or existence of what is being thought of) and not just about the person doing the thinking, then ‘imagining’ cannot be taken to denote a specific kind of mental activity or state. The definition, then, does not provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be imagining, but rather, to the extent that it is correct, explains our use of the term ‘imagining’. In describing someone as ‘imagining’ something, we are indeed describing them as thinking of something, something that is not present to the senses. But at the same time we are evaluating that thinking, in refraining from committing ourselves to the truth or existence of what is being thought of. On some occasions, we may be implying something stronger, that we are committed to the falsity or non-existence of what is being thought of, as when we say that someone is ‘merely imagining’ something. On other occasions, there may be other implications too. But we might see the definition as capturing what is minimally involved in all the basic uses of the term ‘imagining’. However, the key point is that, in using a term such as ‘imagining’, we are not just referring to some mental activity, but also evaluating that activity in some way. The general idea here – that we must reject the assumption that terms such as ‘imagining’ get their meaning by simply denoting mental states or processes – is particularly associated with the work of Wittgenstein. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that this is the governing idea of Wittgenstein's philosophy of mind. Although Wittgenstein does not say as much about ‘imagining’ and its cognates as he does about other mental terms, and does not himself offer the suggested alternative account, which reflects merely the spirit of his thought, the case of ‘imagining’ provides a good way to illustrate Wittgenstein's philosophy.

Without saddling Wittgenstein with the suggested alternative account, then, what are the implications of what might nevertheless be called a Wittgensteinian view of imagining? If ‘imagining’ does not denote a specific kind of mental activity, categorically distinct from forms of thinking such as believing, then talk of ‘imagination’ – as the faculty responsible for ‘imagining’ – may be misleading. This might seem disconcerting, but it does offer the beginnings of an explanation of the problematic status that the imagination has had throughout the history of western philosophy. From ancient Greek thought onwards, the imagination has been invoked in describing and explaining certain kinds of unusual or puzzling experiences or phenomena, but it has proved enormously difficult to say just what the imagination is. But if ‘imagining’ does not denote a specific kind of mental activity, then it is not surprising that it has been hard to say exactly what it is; and if our use of ‘imagining’ partly expresses an evaluation on our part of a mental activity, then it is not surprising that it should be invoked in trying to account for these experiences or phenomena where we may well be unsure about matters of truth or existence.

In fact, the imagination has been invoked not just in describing and explaining unusual or obviously puzzling experiences or phenomena. In the work of Hume and Kant, for example, the imagination is seen as involved in all forms of perceptual judgement; and in Romanticism, which was heavily influenced by Hume and Kant, we find the imagination glorified as the most important cognitive power. In his essay ‘On the imagination’ (1817), Coleridge declared: ‘The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a representation in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’ (1983, 304). Wordsworth described the imagination, in Book XIII of The Prelude, as ‘but another name for absolute strength/And clearest insight, amplitude of mind/And reason in her most exalted mood’ (quoted in Wu 1998, 405). But despite the virtually unlimited powers accorded to the imagination, or perhaps because of it, one is hard pressed to find clarification of the nature of the imagination in Romantic writings, and one must look to Hume and Kant for the source of this conception.

Partly in reaction to the excesses of Romanticism, discussion of imagination has been relatively absent in recent philosophy of mind. Sensation and perception, thought and language, content and representation, consciousness and intentionality are all topics that are standardly covered in textbooks, but not imagination. However, there are a few notable exceptions. Eva Brann, for example, in The World of the Imagination (1991), makes the most substantial effort to date to explore the imagination in all its relations and ramifications. The imagination, she remarks in her preface, ‘appears to pose a problem too deep for proper acknowledgment. It is, so to speak, the missing mystery of philosophy’ (1991, 3). In referring to this ‘missing mystery’ later on, with Kant specifically in mind, she writes:

the imagination emerges as an unacknowledged question mark, always the crux yet rarely the theme of inquiry. It is the osmotic membrane between matter and mind, the antechamber between outside and inside, the free zone between the laws of nature and the requirements of reason. It is, in sum, the pivotal power in which are centered those mediating, elevating, transforming functions that are so indispensable to the cognitive process that philosophers are reluctant to press them very closely.


In The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (1987), Mark Johnson has also argued against the marginalisation of the imagination in contemporary philosophy and cognitive science. His book opens with similarly grandiose claims:

Without imagination, nothing in the world could be meaningful. Without imagination, we could never make sense of our experience. Without imagination, we could never reason toward knowledge of reality … It is a shocking fact that none of the theories of meaning and rationality dominant today offer any serious treatment of imagination.

(1987, ix)

In the sixth chapter of his book, Johnson outlines the theory of imagination that he thinks is required, developing Kant's account. It is significant that both Brann and Johnson appeal to Kant in arguing for the importance of the imagination. For the imagination is indeed accorded a central role in Kant's philosophy, and it is natural to see Kant's conception of imagination as the model here.

Despite its importance, however, even Kant described the imagination as a ‘hidden art in the depths of the human soul, whose true operations we can divine from nature and lay unveiled before our eyes only with difficulty’ (1997, A141–2/B180–1). [Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was first published in 1781, and a second, revised edition appeared in 1787. In a number of places there are significant differences, and most modern editions, while based on the second edition, note the original formulations and, where an entire section has been changed, give the whole of the first version as well. Standard references to the Critique are given in the form ‘Ax/By’, where ‘A’ and ‘B’ indicate the first and second editions, respectively, and ‘x’ and ‘y’ give the relevant page numbers of the original editions, which are also given in the margins of modern editions.] So Brann might seem right in calling the imagination a ‘missing mystery’. But is there really a ‘missing mystery’ here, in the sense she has in mind? There may be a great deal of philosophical work to do in clarifying our talk of imagination, in understanding the complex ways in which the imagination is invoked, and in explaining the intricate relations between our concepts of perception, imagination, thought, and so on. But if the Wittgensteinian view suggested above is right and ‘imagining’ does not denote a specific kind of mental activity, then there is nothing that has the astonishing powers attributed to ‘imagination’, and so, as far as this goes, nothing to explain. There is no problem here that is ‘too deep for proper acknowledgment’. Nor is it ‘shocking’ that current theories of meaning and rationality do not offer any ‘serious treatment’ of imagination, at least in the sense that Johnson has in mind. It may be regrettable, but it is not clear that the imagination must be accorded pride of place in any such theory. In any case, to use a distinction that Wittgenstein draws, what may be needed is not so much a theory of imagination that ‘solves’ the mystery of imagination as a conceptual clarification that ‘dissolves’ it – that demystifies the imagination.


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