Desire, Imagination, and the Guise of the Good

Uku Tooming is a Researcher in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Tartu and a Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard University. His main research interests are in philosophy of mind, epistemology and aesthetics.

Uku Tooming is a Researcher in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Tartu and a Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard University. His main research interests are in philosophy of mind, epistemology and aesthetics.

A post by Uku Tooming.

There is a conception of desire, call it the Guise of the Good view (GG), according to which having a desire involves representing its content as good or valuable. For instance, when I want to eat ice cream, I treat the prospect of eating ice cream as good in some sense. I here identify the content of desire with its satisfaction condition and take the latter to be a state of affairs which would obtain when the desire were satisfied. GG can then be rephrased as a claim that having a desire involves representing its satisfaction as good. This view has a respectable philosophical ancestry, going back at least to Plato, and it still has its proponents today.

How the relevant positive evaluative representation and desire are exactly metaphysically related is a point of dispute. This is not the question that I am going to address in this post, however. Instead, the question is: on the assumption that GG is correct, what is the nature of the relevant evaluation? Proposals in the literature can be divided roughly into two camps: on the one hand, it has been suggested that the evaluation in question is perception-like (call it ‘perceptualism’), on the other hand, it has been argued that the evaluation is more like a judgment or belief (call it ‘judgmentalism’). Both views face serious problems. In this post, I will argue that an appeal to imagination might be the remedy.

The stumbling block for judgmentalism is constituted by cases of wanting something against one’s better judgment: these occur when a person evaluates something as good in virtue of wanting it but judges it to be bad. If desire involves an evaluation, it should allow for cases in which the content of that evaluation diverges from the content of the agent’s evaluative judgment. Plausibly, the possibility of divergence derives from the fact that the relevant evaluation is less sensitive to evidence than judgments are.

Perceptualism is in a better position to make sense of the cases of wanting something against one’s better judgment. A perceptualist can argue that although a person judges the satisfaction of desire to be bad, it can still (quasi-)perceptually appear good to her. That being said, perceptualism faces a problem of its own: the supposed similarities between how perception and desire represent are too slim for the proposed analogy to go through. While perception represents or at least purports to represent what is in an agent’s actual environment, the satisfaction condition of desire is not represented as actually obtaining. This modal difference between perception and desire-related evaluation is also revealed at the phenomenological level: perception seems to put us in touch with what is actually the case. The content of desire, on the other hand, is characterized by phenomenal absence: experience of wanting is an experience of a lack, of missing and not possessing what one wants.

Given that both perceptualism and judgmentalism are problematic, how else could we understand the relevant evaluative representation? My answer proceeds from considering how to respond to the non-actuality problem that was faced by perceptualism. Given that the satisfaction condition of desire does not obtain, the evaluation in question should be an attitude which is fit to represent non-obtaining states of affairs. What kind of attitude could it be? I suggest that the relevant attitude is a kind of imagining.

I call the view according to which having a desire involves an evaluative imagining the Imaginative Desire thesis (ID). I take it that the relevant imaginings can range from sensory forms which are akin to perception, rich in detail and affectively engaging, and in which case the evaluation presumably consists in an imagined pleasantness of desire satisfaction, to more cognitive forms which are more judgment-like and represent desire satisfaction as a possibility which would be valuable in a more abstract way. The imaginative evaluation may also combine both sensory and cognitive elements.

Aside from escaping the non-actuality problem that perceptualism faced, ID is also preferable to judgmentalism. Unlike the latter, ID can easily allow for cases of wanting against one’s better judgment. What one is inclined to imagine as good need not align with one’s evaluative judgment. I might imagine a prospect of engaging in some activity as good while being convinced that there is sufficient evidence that the activity would actually be bad for me. Evaluative imaginings are less evidence-sensitive than evaluative judgments (I am open to hear about evidence that suggests otherwise, though).

Perhaps surprisingly, the idea that wanting involves imagining also finds empirical support. There is a model of desire, the Elaborated Intrusion theory, developed over the years by David Kavanagh and his colleagues, which is not well-known in philosophical circles but which explicitly takes having a desire to involve imagining the content of desire in a particular way (Andrade et al. 2016; Kavanagh et al. 2005; May et al. 2015). According to the theory, desire is a cognitive episode which is initiated by cue-driven intrusive thoughts regarding the desired object or state of affairs, typically followed by an imaginative elaboration. Having a desire puts one in a position to elaborate on what the satisfaction of desire would be like and this elaboration is an imaginative activity. The proponents of the model have in particular stressed the role of sensory imagery in constituting such episodes and making the desired state of affairs affectively salient. Admittedly, the Elaborated Intrusion model is quite different from the standard philosophical understanding of desire since it conceives of desires primarily as occurrent episodes with a complex structure. But it makes for a natural companion to ID.

What challenges does ID face? One worry is that while what we imagine seems to be up to us, what we desire isn’t. Doesn’t this imply that the imaginative evaluation is too arbitrary to be involved in wanting? I do not think it does. The relevant evaluative imaginings are generated by having the desire, not by the agent’s deliberation. Also, it is not up to the agent to decide whether the satisfaction condition appears good to her. For instance, if I want to eat ice cream, eating it appears pleasurable and therefore good in my imagination, but this appearance is not up to me to decide. That being said, there remains an interesting question of whether one has agential control over one’s desire, to the extent that one is able to elaborate on the imagined content and in virtue of this either strengthen or weaken the desire. However, the possibility of that kind of limited control over desire should not be a problem. Instead, it merits further investigation.

What other challenges to ID can you think of?


Andrade, J., M. Khalil, J. Dickson, J. May, and D. J. Kavanagh. 2016. “Functional imagery training to reduce snacking: Testing a novel motivational intervention based on Elaborated Intrusion theory.” Appetite 100: 256–262.

Kavanagh, D. J., J. Andrade, and J. May. 2005. “Imaginary relish and exquisite torture: the elaborated intrusion theory of desire.” Psychological Review 112: 446–67.

May, J., D. J. Kavanagh, and J. Andrade. 2015. “The elaborated intrusion theory of desire: a 10-year retrospective and implications for addiction treatments.” Addictive behaviors 44: 29–34.