Constructive Imagination

Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Philosophy at Vassar College, where her primary areas of speciality are contemporary philosophy of mind and epistemology. She is currently researching the imagination, mental taxonomy, and the epistemology of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun from New Spain.

Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Philosophy at Vassar College, where her primary areas of speciality are contemporary philosophy of mind and epistemology. She is currently researching the imagination, mental taxonomy, and the epistemology of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun from New Spain.

A post by Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa.

Anne T. King is an interior designer. She has a variety of specialized skills and kinds of knowledge which make her good at her job. She has knowledge of the prices and various features of building materials, home decor, and furniture. She is familiar with the locations of good shops for home goods. She has the contact information of reliable craftsmen. Anne also possesses an aesthetic sense for color and composition, business acumen, people skills, and, most importantly, the capacity we call a “good imagination”.

What does her “good imagination” consist in? Well, on one level, we might want to say that what Anne has is some ability to accurately or perhaps vividly visualize non-present objects. But there is more to her “good imagination” than that. Suppose Anne is designing a new living room for a young couple, who already have a couch for the space. She is shopping for curtains, a coffee table, and a rug. How does Anne ensure the colors and styles of each object match, that the lighting is correct, that the sizes for her picks are correct? How does she pick the right wall color to tie it in? And how does she make each room she designs unique, personable, and inviting?

One ability it seems like she needs is the ability to assemble and dissemble, resize, change, and rearrange features in a given scene. If we accept a representationalist theory of mind, we would describe this as the ability to manipulate representations. In my own work, following Neil Van Leeuwen’s (2013) usage, I call this ability our constructive imagination. Constructive imagination is not the same as imagistic imagination, the ability to call up mental imagery, which includes visual, auditory, tactile, and other sensory imagery. We might suppose that there are more kinds of representations — perhaps linguistic representations, or the propositional contents of attitudes — that can be manipulated by our constructive imaginations than the ones that we use for mental imagery. For example, constructive imagination might help a busy professor generate a weekly dinner plan, deciding to make lasagna early in the week so as to have ample leftovers for lunch on busy weekdays, rather than later in the week, when she has a deadline.

My contention is that Anne, like many other cognizers, can use her constructive imagination, perhaps in coordination with other capacities, to plan her actions and to acquire knowledge. It is not simply the ability to visualize that tells Anne that these yellow drapes, which would complement the rug she likes, will probably clash with the leather couch. Her ability to compare this arrangement with others she constructs tells her that there are better alternatives. Those yellow drapes, after all, would look fine when paired with a different couch. Or perhaps they would look fine if she added throw pillows in just the right shade, or if she put the couch against the farther wall. Her constructive imagination allows her to problem-solve productively, testing out many options before making a real purchase or leaving the store with it. In short, her constructive imagination is an important part of her successful reasoning.

Consider, for instance, our ability to plan our days. Who can more easily drop off and pick up the kids from school tomorrow? When is a good time to have lunch or dinner, and how long can be spent preparing or buying it? Which makes more sense to work on Tuesday morning, class planning or a new article? Or consider a baseball coach deciding who to put on which base, and what the batting order should be. The choreographer, composer, teacher, actuary, and performer need similar skills. Some of these problems require mental visualization, but mostly they ask us to test similar composed wholes while comparing varying elements, including duration and timing, distances and sizes, types, positions, and features of objects, emotional and preferential attitudes, and outcomes of possible actions, whether those elements are imagistically represented or not.

Crucially, properly employed constructive imagination is not simple re-creation. Sometimes changing one element changes all of the others. Imagine holding a 6-person dinner party at a 4-person table, growing plants by a north-facing window, doing a hiking trip in a silk dress, buying leopard-print throw pillows for your office, or making the worlds in your worlds-set reflexive. I picked provocative examples, but we can picture more subtle cases, such as deciding between cheeses and salad dressing to use in a salad: one choice effectively influences the other.

Some theorists might subsume the capacity for constructive imagination under simulation, understood as either the capacity for perspective-taking, or the capacity for re-creating experiences or attitudes. But others, it seems, have identified it as independent or even independently important. Currie and Ravenscroft (2002) distinguish the recreative imagination from creative imagination, which they describe as “putting together ideas in a way that defies expectation or convention” (p. 9). Peter Langland-Hassan (2016) has explored how the voluntary elements of similar kinds of imaginings, which he calls ‘Guiding Chosen’ imaginings, relate to their epistemic status. The taxonomic and epistemic questions are interesting on their own. There is also a notable link between the ability to manipulate representations and the notion of ‘creativity’.

I contend that constructive imagination has epistemic merits of its own, independently of the value of imagistic imagination, and independently of more familiar processes we use in reasoning, such as deductive inferences or simple associative mechanisms. Of course, they might work in tandem. But while Anne might learn by visualizing a certain coffee table that it is too heavy for the space, without the ability to vary the properties of the coffee table to those of ones she hasn’t seen yet, she will be stuck. It is by changing the coffee table mentally that she figures out she wants a glass top, or metal legs, or what have you.

Some theorists may be resistant to the idea of splitting up imaginative processes further. Our own imaginative mechanisms may be explained by one process which both assembles representations and runs through the consequences of that assembly. But it is unclear that we really ought to think of the ability to imagistically imagine, for instance, as presupposing the ability to manipulate representations. We can conceive of a sophisticated being who can visualize scenes described to it, but not vary them; or a different being who can modify or substitute representations—possibly a brilliant writer—but who experiences no mental imagery.

Perhaps my most provocative thought about constructive imagination is that it best explains what most of the uses of our folk concept, ‘imagination’, have in common. Amy Kind (2013) has argued that a simulation process, described as a capacity to generate pretend attitudes, cannot account for pretend play, counterfactual reasoning, mind-reading, and engagement with fiction all at once. I think it is possible that constructive imagination, armed with plural representational types, does have a role to play in all of these different sorts of imaginative activities.


Currie, Gregory and Ravenscroft, Ian (2002). Recreative Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kind, Amy (2013). “The Heterogeneity of the Imagination,” Erkenntnis 78(1): 148-159.

Langland-Hassan, Peter (2016). “On Choosing What to Imagine,” in Knowledge Through Imagination, eds. Amy Kind and Peter Kung. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Leeuwen, Neil (2013). “The Meanings of ‘Imagine’ Part I: Constructive Imagination,” Philosophy Compass 8(3): 220-230.