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"Imagination": An essay by Amy Kind (Keywords: Epistemology; History of Philosophy; Reason; Perception; Thought Experiments)

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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Imagination has at times gotten a bad rap in philosophy. While Hume considered it to be our primary source of knowledge of modality and Kant assigns it an essential role in perception, Plato speaks for many in philosophy when he associates it with the irrational part of humanity in the Republic. Writing in the 12th century, Maimonides identifies imagination with “evil inclination,” and claims that “all our defects in speech or in character are either the direct or the indirect work of imagination.” Another particularly strong indictment of imagination comes in the 17th century work of Blaise Pascal.  Referring to imagination as an “arrogant power,” Pascal sees it as “the enemy of reason.”  As described in his Pensées:

[Imagination] is that deceitful part in man, that mistress of error and falsity, the more deceptive that she is not always so; for she would be an infallible rule of truth, if she were an infallible rule of falsehood. But being most generally false, she gives no sign of her nature, impressing the same character on the true and the false.

And in his Rules, Descartes contrasts the “deceptive judgment of imagination as it botches things together” with the “conception of a clear and attentive mind.”

What is especially interesting is the extent to which those philosophers who so disparage imagination are in actuality so dependent on it themselves. After all, how else could Plato have come up with his famous allegory of the cave than by way of imagination? Moreover, when he presents this allegory in the Republic, we are told to “picture” the individuals dwelling in the subterranean cavern and to “picture” the light from the fire that casts its shadows on the wall.  In order to engage with this allegory, then, it looks like we would have to call upon our powers of imagination. And the same holds true when we engage with any of the numerous thought experiments that have played such an influential role throughout the history of philosophy and up to the current day. When a philosopher presents us with the Ship of Theseus having been rebuilt one plank at a time, or a runaway trolley threatening five lives that could be diverted onto another track where it would only threaten one live, or the prince who wakes up one morning in the body of a cobbler, it is only by virtue of imagination that we engage with such a hypothetical scenario, and it is thus only by virtue of imagination that we are able to see the case for or against a relevant philosophical theory.

When we’re engaged in philosophical inquiry, is imagination to be trusted or to be dismissed? 

We are thus presented with a number of pressing questions: How should we come down on the question of the value of imagination? Is it best viewed as deceptive and misleading or as an important source of knowledge?  When we’re engaged in philosophical inquiry, is imagination to be trusted or to be dismissed? 

To my mind, the answer to these questions is clear. I’m an optimist about imagination, and in my view, it has a lot to offer us – not just in the creative and artistic endeavours where it naturally finds a home, but in philosophy itself. Insofar as some have thought that we should refrain from relying on imagination in the philosophical pursuit of knowledge and understanding, they get things precisely backward. Philosophy needs more imagination, not less.   


My defence of imagination starts with a brief story that will serve to provide us with a useful analogy.

This fall, my older son went away to college in another state. Like many families in this situation, we’ve set up a regular video call so that we can catch up once a week. If I were asked what I think of these video calls and their ability to keep us in touch, the answer would be obvious:  They’re great!  Even though my son is hundreds of miles from home, I’m able to get a virtual glimpse of him and hear about his college life. The video calls really help us stay connected.

But now suppose I was asked a second question: Wouldn’t it be better to be together in person?  Here too the answer would be obvious: Of course it would be better! After all, if I were able to be with him in person, I wouldn’t be seeing him on a screen but in the flesh.  I’d be able to give him a hug.  And I’d be able to see all of him.  On the video call, I only see his upper body, so for all I know he could be hiding a broken ankle. Or something worse! The video calls don’t really give me the whole picture.

Have I just contradicted myself? One minute I’m enthusiastically singing the praises of video calls and saying how great they are for enabling our family to stay in touch, and the next minute I’m criticizing them for their shortcomings and for providing a partial and potentially misleading picture of things.  What do we make of this quick turnaround? 

In fact, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that there’s not really any deep inconsistency here.  Rather, it simply comes down to the fact that I’m holding video calls to a different standard when I’m answering the second question than when answering the first question. Moreover, given that the evaluative context has changed between the first and second question, it seems perfectly appropriate to shift my standards.  When I’m asked the first question, it’s assumed that in-person contact is not possible.  When I’m asked the second question, that assumption is no longer in play.   

Perhaps the moral of this discussion is already apparent, but let me make it explicit.  With these reflections about video calls in mind, my hope is that the philosophical hostility towards imagination not only loses some of its potency but also starts to seem misplaced. Video calls are a great way for families to stay in touch when they can’t be together in person, and they are very well suited for this purpose.  Likewise, imagination is a great way to get access to certain truths when we can’t use other means, and it is very well suited for this purpose.

It is certainly the case that imagination has some shortcomings when we compare it to other means of getting knowledge. For example, philosophers often compare it to sense perception, and, in doing so, imagination often seems to come up short. As Hobbes famously put it, imagination can be thought of as “decaying sense.” If we expect imagination to deliver everything that perception delivers, then we’ll be sorely disappointed. But that’s not the right way to think of imagination. Why would we hold it to those standards? Likewise, in many contexts – both philosophical and otherwise – perception is not going to be useful in helping us get to the kind of insights we need. For example, perception is not helpful for considering hypothetical cases.  It provides us no access to possibilities that are not actualized in the world, nor do we have other non-imaginative means to get at them. Yet these non-actualized possibilities are often highly relevant to the philosophical issues under discussion. When we need to consider these possibilities, imagination is just what we want.

When philosophers are putting forth thought experiments, the value of imagination is highly salient, and so it is no surprise that it would be invoked. What is surprising, however, is that the value of imagination would so often be forgotten as soon as the thought experiments are not front and centre. Why does an attitude of suspicion of imagination tend to take over at this point?   


Confronted with these questions, the philosopher who is suspicious of imagination does have a natural line of response. The fact that imagination can provide us with access to non-actualized possibilities is something of a double-edged sword.  Right now, as I sit at my desk, it is possible that there are gremlins hiding beneath it, but as a matter of fact, there aren’t any gremlins there.  It is a non-actualized possibility. Insofar as I can imagine the gremlins there, my imagination might seem to lead me astray. It gives me a false sense of the world as it is. It is in this way that imagination appears to be a source of deception rather than a source of truth.

Perhaps it seems unlikely that I would allow my imagination to mislead me on this matter.  But there are other situations where the risk of error is significantly greater.  Suppose I’m grocery shopping and trying to decide whether to get a gallon of milk.  I pause for a minute, imagining the contents of the fridge at home.  Though my spouse had finished the milk this morning, I might imagine that there’s still plenty left.  My imagination leads me astray.  Or suppose I’m doing the shopping right after I’ve consumed a hearty lunch.  As full as I am, I imagine that I’d prefer a very light meal for dinner.  In fact, once dinnertime rolls around, it turns out that I’m actually quite hungry.  When imagining my dinnertime self, I forgot to take into account how busy and active I would be all afternoon. 

The fact that imagination can provide us with access to non-actualized possibilities is something of a double-edged sword.

Unlike perception, imagination does not purport to track the world as it is. As philosophers put the point, imagination is not “world-sensitive”. In imagination, we’re more or less free to paint the world however we want, and it’s precisely because imagination is driven by our wants and intentions that it has seemed to many philosophers to be useless when it comes to learning about the world – hence their worries that imaginings have no positive epistemic status.  

In response, it helps to contrast cases where I’m using imagination to escape the world from cases where I’m using imagine to learn about the world. In the former cases, such as daydreaming, imagination often operates completely untethered from reality. But things are different when we’re engaged in imagination in pursuit of other aims. When we’re trying to use imagination to make a decision or to solve a problem, for example, we put the tethers back on. Think of how we constrain our imagination when trying to plan a future vacation, or when choosing which colour to paint the living room walls, or when selecting the right sized Tupperware to use for tonight’s leftovers. When I’m vacation planning, I constrain my imagination to the budget I actually have;  when I’m redecorating, I constrain my imagination to the design of my living room as it actually is; and when I’m cleaning up after dinner, I constrain my imagination to the amount of leftovers that there actually are. The more that I do to keep my imagination on track and to keep it lined up with the facts as they’re known to me, the more useful it will be to me in those types of decision-making contexts.  Matters are likewise when we’re engaged in philosophical endeavours like the consideration of thought experiments.


Philosophers like Pascal are undoubtedly right that imagination cannot be an “infallible rule of truth;” it can certainly go off the rails on occasions. But more traditional epistemic sources like perception are not infallible either: there are plenty of times when we’re insufficiently attentive, when we misperceive, and when we’re subject to illusion. Just as perception is not the enemy of reason despite its fallibility, neither is imagination. Imagination might not give us everything we want, but oftentimes it is exactly the right tool for what we need to do.


Amy Kind is Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, where she also serves as Director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.  Her research interests lie broadly in the philosophy of mind, but much of her work centres on issues relating to imagination. 



From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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