Book Symposium: Introduction from Kathleen Stock

Kathleen Stock is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, UK. She has published widely on the relations between imagination and fiction, and most recently is the author of Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation and Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017). She blogs about fiction and imagination at

Kathleen Stock is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, UK. She has published widely on the relations between imagination and fiction, and most recently is the author of Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation and Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017). She blogs about fiction and imagination at

This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Kathleen Stock's recent book:  Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation, and Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017).  Today we begin with an introduction from Kathleen, followed by the first commentary and reply.  Additional commentaries and replies will run each day this week.

* * *

In my book Only Imagine, I start with a fairly basic question, the answering of which, I argue, has many implications: for the nature of fiction, imagination, and more besides. This is: how can we best characterise the practice of interpreting what happens in the plot of a novel or story (or what is “fictionally true” in that work, as it’s sometimes called)? The answer can’t be: we interpret plot/ fictional truth simply by taking the words of the text at face value. For, in some stories, the plot contains elements not directly mentioned by the words of the text. For instance, in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, the identity of the murderer is obliquely indicated but never explicitly identified in so many words. And arguably, in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the character Rhoda is a lesbian, though Woolf never says so outright. In a different sort of case, the words of the text contain what looks like a mistake, and so can’t straightforwardly be taken as a good direct guide to plot elements. For instance, in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, he apparently mistakenly describes a conversation as taking place between the character Flora and ‘her sister Flora’. Presumably it doesn’t follow that Flora was literally talking to herself.

There’s a relatively simple account available that explains what plot-interpretation is: explains why perhaps Rhoda counts as a lesbian, and why Flora definitely doesn’t count as talking to herself. I defend this theory in the first three chapters of my book. Put simply, with a few important qualifications omitted here, the theory says that the plot elements/ fictional truths within a work are determined by what the author intended the reader to imagine as being the case. Interpretation involves attempting to recover these intentions. Though we can’t be sure, because current evidence is mixed, Woolf perhaps intended readers to imagine that Rhoda was a lesbian; and Proust almost definitely intended us to imagine that Flora was talking to her sister Celine, and not to herself.

This is “extreme” intentionalism (E.I.), to be contrasted, not just with anti-intentionalist views, but also with “moderate” intentionalism (e.g. Noël Carroll, Robert Stecker, Paisley Livingston) and “hypothetical” intentionalism (e.g. Jerrold Levinson, Gregory Currie). Each of these rival positions take steps of varying size away from making interpretation of fictional truth a matter of recovering authorial intentions.  Anti-intentionalism is most popularly associated with contintental philosophy, and the work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida; but these philosophers find a surprising bedfellow in the analytic philosopher David Lewis, whose well-known article “Truth in Fiction” argues for an anti-intentionalist position. I tackle Lewis’s argument in Chapter 2. Anti-intentionalism is also instantiated in the “value-maximising” position of Stephen Davies, discussed in Chapter 3.

Readers new to this debate may find E.I. an unexceptionable position. Yet published objections to it are emphatic. Some worry that it implies, incoherently, that words and sentences can be made to mean arbitrary, unrecognisable things. However, as I show in Chapter 1, this turns out not to be a worry once two points are recognised. First, we need to distinguish, as H.P. Grice did, between i) conventional word/ sentence meanings; and ii) the ‘speaker’ meaning of an author, who intentionally uses words, either to convey their conventional meanings, or to subvert them. Second, we need to recognise, as Grice also did, a feature of intention: you can’t seriously intend someone else to do something you believe to be impossible. So for an author to subvert ordinary conventional word meanings, intending readers to imagine certain things as a result, she must believe it possible that those readers will understand her intention; and in practice this usually entails that she’ll employ methods of writing that ensure this. (Think, for instance, of the way readers of A Clockwork Orange gradually come to understand all the words Burgess has made up, because of the way he gives clues to their reference by their context).

Others worry that E.I. entails that we are stuck with uninterpretable texts in many cases, since often we can’t tell what the intentions of an author were, in writing as they did. Authors from the past are dead and can’t talk; authors in the present can lie, or refuse to explain. This worry can be partly assuaged by detailing how the text itself contains an enormous amount of evidence about authorial intention, as does available biographical information, and I do this in Chapter 2. But equally, it would be a strange theory that made it impossible in principle for fictional truth to be hidden from readers. To espouse this looks close to saying that all interpretations are right, implying unattractively that novels and stories are no different from clouds, tealeaves, and other phenomena into which people read “meaning” that was not put there by any maker.  

If, on the other hand, we want to think of fictions as acts of communication - things that authors can be held responsible for, and which readers can get right or wrong - then E.I. fits the bill. In particular, it fits with the fact that some fictions can inform us of things that are true (true “in the real world”, one might say). Think of the psychological truths in Middlemarch by George Eliot, or the historical truths about the animal liberation movement in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, or the historical and geographical truths about Singapore in The Singapore Grip. If fiction can function to inform in this way, then we need a mind responsible for it, to whom we can attribute such information. In Chapters 3 and 4, I argue that, compared to its rivals, E.I. best accounts for the practice of communicating reliable information through fictional means.

Also in Chapter 4, I explore the phenomenon of imaginative resistance (recently also explored on this blog by Eric Peterson and Kengo Miyazono). I argue that imaginative resistance should be understood as arising where the reader detects that the author intends her to engage in a certain kind of imagining in particular. The relevant kind of imagining is “counterfactual” imagining, which is to say: imagining aimed at the establishment or reinforcement of some counterfactual claim about the real world. In other words, imaginative resistance is a pragmatic phenomenon, depending on the reader’s sense of the particular authorial intention of the author as to what kind of imagining she is being asked to perform.

What other payoffs does E.I. have? One is it that it helps us reach a plausible theory of fiction itself: a fiction is a set of instructions to imagine certain things.  Moreover, if we use this theory in conjunction with some further plausible claims about the imagination, drawn from inspection of how the reader’s imagination works, then we no longer need to build into the notion of fiction any explicit reference to a negative relation to truth, reality, or an intention to inform, as others such as Currie, Peter Lamarque and Stein Olsen, and David Davies have felt the need to do. This is the argument of Chapter 5, in which I also critically discuss the anti-essentialist accounts of Stacie Friend and Derek Matravers. 

The final payoff of E.I. is that it helps us understand more about the imagination. This is the topic of Chapter 6. Some philosophers (e.g. Currie again, Shaun Nichols, Neil Van Leeuwen) construe imagination as ‘belief-like’ in the following way: they think that ‘by default’ or ‘normally’ an imaginative episode with ‘imaginative premises’ ‘x’ and ‘y’ will unfold as a conscious act of reasoning from beliefs x and y, to further beliefs, would do. Yet readers’ imaginative episodes only occasionally unfold like this. Their central aim, in imagining, is to interpret what the author intended them to imagine, in writing ‘x’ and ‘y’, and not just to work out what else they would believe, were they to believe x and y. Meanwhile, the author’s imaginative episodes in the process of writing (and what she intends the reader to imagine as a result) need not, and very often don’t, unfold in a ‘belief-like’ way either. If your aim is to write a fantasy or a thriller, it’s usually counterproductive to think about what else probably would happen ‘in the real world’, were ‘x’ and ‘y’ to happen. The real world is very often mundane and uneventful.

So by examining fiction, and the ways authors and readers engage with it, we’ve discovered that a popular philosophical view about imagination is wrong. In the rest of Chapter 6, again with reference to fiction, I go on to discuss and reject a different, equally wrongheaded, view of imagination – that it’s completely unconstrained, and so (by implication) that it can never give us reliable information about counterfactual situations. I finish by offering a new account of supposition, according to which supposition is the dominant imaginative attitude called for by fiction.


Carroll, Noel (1992) Art, intention and conversation. In Gary Iseminger (ed.), Intention and Interpretation Temple University Press. pp. 97-131.

Currie, Gregory (1990) The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge.

Davies, David (2007) Aesthetics and Literature. Continuum.

Davies, Stephen (2006) Authors’ intentions, literary interpretations and literary value. British Journal of Aesthetics 46(3): 223-247.

Friend, Stacie (2012) Fiction as a Genre. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 112:2, 179-209.

Grice, H.P. (1957). Meaning. The Philosophical Review. 66:3, p.377-388.

Lamarque, Peter and Olsen, Stein H. (1994) Truth, Fiction and Literature. Oxford University Press.

Levinson, Jerrold (2006) Hypothetical Intentionalism: Statement, Objections, and Replies, in his Contemplating Art. Oxford: OUP.

Lewis, David (1983) ‘Truth in Fiction’ reprinted in his Philosophical Papers. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 261-80.

Livingston, Paisley (2005) Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matravers, Derek (2014) Fiction and Narrative. Oxford University Press.

Nichols, Shaun (2004). Imagining and believing: The promise of a single code. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (2):129-39.

Stecker, Robert (2006) Moderate actual intentionalism defended. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64(4): 429-38

Van Leeuwen, Neil (2013) The meanings of ‘imagine’ Part One: constructive imagination. Philosophy Compass 8 (3): 220–230.