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

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Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy

3.2 Imagination and supposition

To regard images as playing an essential role in imagining is to conceive of imagination as a sensory power. But as we have seen, imagining can also occur in the absence of imagery, and we might take this to reveal a more intellectual form of imagination. Many philosophers have suggested that this more intellectual form of imagining be construed as supposing. On this view, to imagine something, in cases where there may be no imagery involved, is to suppose something. But is it right to identify imagining in such cases with supposing? In the last section we considered White's arguments against the identification of imagination with imagery. In chapter 16 of his book, he also argues against the identification of imagining with supposing.

Activity 9

Read the second extract from White's book.

Click on the 'View document' link below to read Alan R. White on 'Imagining and supposing' [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

  1. What is the difference between imagining and supposing that White states in the first two paragraphs of the extract, and what is the conception of each that he offers as the source of this difference?

  2. White elaborates on this difference in the final three paragraphs. What does he say, and how convincing do you find his account?

  3. As we saw in the last section, in arguing against the identification of imagination with imagery, White offered cases of imagination without imagery and of imagery without imagination. Either drawing on White's discussion in the present extract or thinking up your own examples, can you suggest cases of imagination without supposition and of supposition without imagination?

  4. In the case of imagery, White wanted to draw the conclusion that imagery never plays an essential role in imagination. He seems to be suggesting something similar here: that supposition never plays an essential role in imagination. Whether or not this is actually White's view, do you think such a view is right?


  1. According to White, one can be justified or unjustified in supposing something, but not in imagining something. As he conceives them, to suppose is to hypothesise, whereas to imagine is to think of a possibility.

  2. To imagine something, White goes on, is to exercise a power, which some people have to a greater extent than others. This power is a power to ‘embroider’ in thinking of a possibility, whereas to suppose something is merely to invite consideration of its implications. White is right, I think, that imagining may involve richer thought processes than mere supposing, but I am not convinced that in being asked to imagine something, there may not equally be an invitation to consider its implications.

  3. It seems fairly easy to find cases of imagining that could not really be described as ‘supposing’. In imagining that the tree in my garden is a person, for example, I am not supposing that it is a person. In imagining that my cat Immanuel is wet, as he stands dry before me, I am not supposing that he is wet. It is perhaps more difficult to find cases of supposing where there is no room for talk of imagining. But here are two kinds of case that might be suggested. In searching for a proof of a complex theorem, a mathematician might suppose that a certain abstract formula holds, in order to see what conclusions can be drawn from it, without ‘imagining’ that it holds in any normal sense. Or to take one of White's examples, perhaps I can ‘suppose’ that something terribly evil has happened without being able to ‘imagine’ it, precisely because it is so terrible.

  4. Even if we accept that supposing is not identical with imagining, there seem to be many cases of imagining in which supposing plays an essential role. In imagining how my daughter looks as I speak to her on the phone, I may well be supposing her to look that way. In imagining that there is someone out to get me, I may well be supposing that there is someone out to get me. Perhaps it would be wrong to call these examples cases of hypothesising something, but that would only show that supposing cannot be equated with hypothesising, as White seems to suggest. However, even if we accept that there are cases of supposing in which there is an invitation to consider the implications of something (which we may or may not wish to call ‘hypothesising’), here too the supposing may play an essential role in acts of imagining. In imagining how my room will look painted in a different colour, I may suppose that it is painted that colour in order to see what follows from it. I may then realise, for example, that the colour of the walls would clash with the colour of the carpet or curtains. In creating imaginative works of fiction, writers may suppose people and things to be thus-and-so, and consider what follows from this. If they set the work in an actual place, populate it with a certain cast of characters, and invent a chronology of events, then they have to think through the implications of all this to tell a coherent story. Indeed, on White's own conception, ‘imagining’ means thinking of a possibility and ‘embroidering’ on it. But does this not involve, at least in some cases, supposing that this possibility obtains and exploring its consequences?

According to White, in supposing something, I am merely assuming or hypothesising it, as a preliminary to considering its consequences. But this seems too restricted a conception of supposing. And even if we allow that some cases of supposing involve an invitation to explore the consequences of something, this may still reveal an imaginative act. In finding a mathematical proof or in writing a story, many things may be supposed along the way and their implications thought through, and it seems appropriate to regard this as part of the imaginative process. ‘Supposing’ and ‘imagining’ may not be synonymous, just as ‘having an image’ and ‘imagining’ are not synonymous, but this is not to say that there are no acts of imagining in which supposing plays an essential role, or that supposing itself may not constitute a form of imagining.

‘Imagining’ covers a wide range of different mental acts and activities, and a number of different things may be involved, depending on the type of case. Imagery and supposition are not the only things that may be involved. Imagining may also involve visualising, fantasising, and pretending, for example, all of which have raised further questions in discussions of imagination. But the two issues we have just considered – the relationship that imagination has to imagery and supposition – do illustrate that fundamental tension identified at the beginning of this second main section. Imagery suggests a sensory conception of imagination, while supposition suggests a more intellectual conception.


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