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Imagination. The Philosophy Portal.











Imagination


To imagine something is to form a particular sort of mental representation of that thing. Imagining is typically distinguished from mental states such as perceiving, remembering and believing in that imagining S does not require (that the subject consider) S to be or have been the case, whereas the contrasting states do. It is distinguished from mental states such as desiring or anticipating in that imagining S does not require that the subject wish or expect S to be the case, whereas the contrasting states do. It is also sometimes distinguished from mental states such as conceiving and supposing, on the grounds that imagining S requires some sort of quasi-sensory or positive representation of S, whereas the contrasting states do not.

Both imagery and imagination play an important part in our mental lives. This article, which has three main sections, discusses both of these phenomena, and the connection between them. The first part discusses mental images and, in particular, the dispute about their representational nature that has become known as the imagery debate. The second part turns to the faculty of the imagination, discussing the long philosophical tradition linking mental imagery and the imagination—a tradition that came under attack in the early part of the twentieth century with the rise of behaviorism. Finally, the third part of this article examines modal epistemology, where the imagination has been thought to serve an important philosophical function, namely, as a guide to possibility.

The imagination has traditionally been associated with unreality and is commonly thought to be the antithesis of reason. This is a notion of imagination that can be found in Plato's writing and has influenced modern Western epistemology and educational ideals. As such, traditional schooling, which has focused on the cultivation of reason and the accumulation of facts, has devalued the imagination and frequently encouraged children to transcend their imaginative natures. In this paper, I draw on the work of John Dewey to explain how imagination is not opposed to thinking. Nor is the imagination a distinct form of thinking. I argue that it is actually integral to all thinking and, as such, is essential for living a meaningful life. I then argue that one of Philosophy for Children's strengths is that its pedagogy and curriculum content are ideal for facilitating this Deweyian ideal of imagination and, thus, reflective thinking and meaningful learning.

Aristotle sometimes recognizes as a distinct capacity, on par with perception and mind, imagination (phantasia) (De Anima iii 3, 414b33–415a3). Although he does not discuss it at length, or even characterize it intrinsically in any detailed way, Aristotle does take pains to distinguish it from both perception and mind. In a brief discussion dedicated to imagination (De Anima iii 3), Aristotle identifies it as “that in virtue of which an image occurs in us” (De Anima iii 3, 428aa1–2), where this is evidently given a broad range of application to the activities involved in thoughts, dreams, and memories. Aristotle is, however, mainly concerned to distinguish imagination from perception and mind. He distinguishes it from perception on a host of grounds, including: (i) imagination produces images when there is no perception, as in dreams; (ii) imagination is lacking in some lower animals, even though they have perception, which shows that imagination and perception are not even co-extensive; and (iii) perception is, Aristotle claims, always true, whereas imagination can be false, false even in fantastic ways (De Anima iii 3, 428a5–16). He also denies that imagination can be identified with mind or belief, or any combination of belief and perception (De Anima iii 3, 428a16–b10), even though it comes about through sense perception (De Anima iii 3, 429a1–2; De Insomniis 1, 459a17). The suggestion, then, is that imagination is a faculty in humans and most other animals which produces, stores, and recalls the images used in a variety of cognitive activities, including those which motivate and guide action (De Anima iii 3, 429a4–7, De Memoria 1, 450a22–25).

What is imagination and can philosophy define it in any meaningful way? This free course, Imagination: The missing mystery of philosophy, will introduce you to some of the possible answers to these questions and will examine why philosophy has sometimes found it difficult to approach imagination. It will then go on to examine the relationship that imagination has to imagery and supposition, charting where these concepts overlap with imagination and where they diverge.