Is imagining from the inside just what you imagined?

Margherita Arcangeli is a Humboldt research fellow at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Department of Philosophy). Her main areas of research are philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, aesthetics and epistemology.

Margherita Arcangeli is a Humboldt research fellow at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Department of Philosophy). Her main areas of research are philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, aesthetics and epistemology.

A post by Margherita Arcangeli.

A key notion in many discussions on imagination is that of imagining something “from the inside”. Wollheim (1974) underlined that such a notion is so abused in philosophy, that one might not trust it. Although imagining from the inside can be intuitively interpreted as imagining involving a “point of view” or perspective within the imaginative scene, this notion deserves much more attention, since it can yield different and more technical meanings. The main goal of this post is precisely to rehabilitate this notion by disentangling three meanings which, I think, often overlap, and are even confused in philosophical debates.

“Imagining from the inside” can refer at least to three different imaginative phenomena:

(1) re-creative imaginings;

(2) subjective imaginings;

(3) imaginings implicitly involving the self.

Re-creative imaginings

Let’s start with Peacocke’s definition of imagination:

To imagine something is always at least to imagine, from the inside, being in some conscious state (Peacocke 1985, p. 21).

It has been objected that this definition makes all imaginings about the imaginer’s self. Imagining seeing a lilac bush should be read as “imagining oneself seeing a lilac bush”, where the imagining’s content includes an explicit reference to the imaginer’s self.

Pecocke’s definition of imagination can be interpreted in another way, which does not fall prey to this worry. Imagining seeing a lilac bush should be read as “imagining-seeing a lilac bush”, where “seeing” modifies and specifies our way of imagining, and the self is not necessarily part of the imagining’s content. The idea is that our imaginings mimic or “re-create” non-imaginative kinds of mental state, in the sense that they are similar, from a phenomenological and/or functional point of view, to the non-imaginative “counterparts” they re-create. This view has often been associated to the simulationist approach to imagination, but can be interpreted in a weaker sense without all the commitments of simulationism – e.g., about the cognitive underpinnings of our imaginings. On this view, “imagining from the inside” is another way of saying “X-like imagining”, or “re-creating X in imagination”, where X is a type of non-imaginative state (e.g., a visual experience). Then, the question is which is the scope of X, that is, which types of non-imaginative mental states can be re-created in imagination. This is a vexed issue in the literature that I cannot fully address here, but the second sense of “imagining from the inside” is partially tied to it.

Subjective imaginings

The phrase “imagining from the inside” can be used in a narrower sense to refer to a specific sub-set of imaginings, which re-create specific non-imaginative mental states.

Consider the following examples (adapted from Vendler 1984) :

(i)  imagine whistling in the dark (auditory experience);

(ii) imagine whistling in the dark (sensation of puckered lips).

What these examples aim at capturing is a contrast between two ways of fulfilling the same imaginative request. (i) suggests that, in imagining whistling in the dark, one is re-creating in imagination an auditory experience. For instance, I can imagine hearing the whistled theme of My Favorite Things. (ii) hints at when, in imagining whistling in the dark, one is re-creating in imagination the proprioceptive experience of puckering one’s lips. These two types of imagining (i.e., audition-like and proprioception-like) are notionally distinct, and, maybe, even practically. We might re-create in imagination only one of the two types of experiences, though complex imaginative exercises can, of course, involve both types of imagining.

On a second interpretation of “imagining from the inside”, the latter should be restricted to cases like (ii). Proprioception, kinaesthesia, bodily sensations (e.g., pains) are typically considered as specific ways of gaining information involving awareness of our own bodies from within. We can call them “internal experiences”. The idea is that imagining from the inside is not simply re-creating non-imaginative mental states in imagination, but more specifically re-creating internal experiences. In collaborative work, I have called imaginings re-creating internal experiences “subjective imaginings” (Dokic & Arcangeli 2015).

Imaginings implicitly involving the self

Finally, consider the following quote:

In this other kind of imagining, if I am trying to imagine what I will think, feel and do in the interview, I imagine the events unfolding not from the inside, but from an external perspective, where I myself am part of the content of what I imagine (Goldie 2005, p. 128).

Here emerges a third sense of “imagining from the inside”, which has to do with how the self is involved in our imaginings. In an imagining, the self can be involved either implicitly, when it fixes the point of view internal to the imagined scene, or explicitly, when it is a constituent of the imagined scene. Taking Goldie’s example, I can visually imagine, for instance, following the gaze of the committee members and turning aside from a member, who seems disappointed by what I am saying. In this case my imaginings involve myself in an implicit way. But, as suggested by Goldie, I can imagine myself being at this job interview in an explicit way (e.g., I can visually imagine the scene from a point of view behind the committee members). Goldie’s suggestion is to label “from the inside” those imaginings implicitly involving the self only.

This third sense of imagining from the inside is orthogonal to the previous senses. Implicit self-involvement is not required for re-creating mental states, such as visual experiences or beliefs, in imagination – as Goldie himself acknowledges. It can be argued that even re-creating internal experiences do not require implicit self-involvement. I cannot motivate this claim in detail, here (see Dokic & Arcangeli 2015), but I can offer a preliminary consideration. While the issue about the implicit self-involvement is a matter of the imagining’s content, the re-creation of internal experiences has to do with the attitude re-created in imagination. The fact that the second and the third meaning of imagining from the inside deal with different levels of description can motivate their orthogonality.

The correct analysis of the notion of imagining from the inside is crucial to an understanding of central issues, for instance, about personal identity, about mindreading, in ethics, in aesthetics, and in philosophy of language. It can also shed light on psychological phenomena outside the sphere of imagination, such as perception and memory. I hope to have offered here a starting point for the clarification of such a notion, which proved to be not unitary, but rather as referring to a variety of imaginative phenomena.

This post was inspired by talks given at Macquarie University (Sydney) and the Institut Jean Nicod (Paris). I thank Jérôme Dokic for having read a draft of this post.


Dokic, J. & Arcangeli, M (2015). The heterogeneity of experiential imagination. In Open MIND: 11(T). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group, eds. T. K. Metzinger and J. M. Wind, doi: 10.15502/9783958570085, [published in 2016 in Open MIND. Philosophy and the Mind Sciences in the 21st Century, eds. T. K. Metzinger and J. M. Wind, pp. 431-450, MIT Press].

Goldie, P. (2005) Imagination and the Distorting Power of Emotion. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, pp. 127-139.

Peacocke, C. (1985). Imagination, Possibility and Experience: A Berkeleian View Defended. In Essays on Berkeley, eds. J. Foster and H. Robinson, pp. 19-35, Oxford University Press.

Vendler, Z. (1984). The matter of minds. Clarendon Press.