The Imagination and The Intellect

A post by Magdalena Balcerak Jackson

Magdalena Balcerak Jackson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. She works on the nature and the epistemology of various cognitive capacities, such as perception, reasoning, intuition and linguistic understanding, but she is currently most intensively working on a book about what imagination is and what it can do for us. 

Magdalena Balcerak Jackson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. She works on the nature and the epistemology of various cognitive capacities, such as perception, reasoning, intuition and linguistic understanding, but she is currently most intensively working on a book about what imagination is and what it can do for us. 

On first glance, the intellect and the imagination have little in common. The purest expression of the intellect appears to consist in explicit and formal reasoning that utilizes our understanding of concepts and our mastery of the rules of logic, and that abstracts away from how anything seems and feels. The purest expression of the imagination can be found in free play and artistic expression that utilize our ability to vividly and imagistically represent worlds and situations very much unlike the ones we are confined to in everyday life. But intuitive associations as well as philosophical orthodoxies can be misleading. Indeed, the more general idea that there is an intimate connection between experience and rationality can be illuminated by looking at how imagination makes certain things intelligible to us in ways that matter for making better decisions about what to think, what to do and how to treat others.

In contemporary analytic philosophy, the dominant notion of intelligibility has been fairly minimal. Contents are intelligible – in this thin sense – if they do not involve any obvious nonsense, logical inconsistency, conceptual incoherence or category mistakes. And making these contents thinly intelligible is showing that they do not suffer from any of these formal deficiencies. ‘Pippi is the strongest girl in the world’ is intelligible and can be made intelligible. ‘Pippi is a married bachelorette’ is not and cannot.

But there is a more robust and theoretically neglected notion of intelligibility that is operative in many perfectly ordinary contexts, and that is closely related to understanding and comprehending. Remember reading about Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar or about Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Now compare the remembered experience with reading a ‘bare bones’ Wikipedia-style summary of the book. While reading the summary might make it minimally intelligible to you that a young, smart, perceptive person with many decent options in life can be drawn to dramatic or even horrendous actions, reading the full story makes the actions of Esther or Raskolnikov intelligible to you in a much deeper sense. Engaging with narrative works of fiction makes it intelligible why and/or how the protagonists react given their background and the circumstances they encounter. More generally, for a cognitive process to make a content thickly intelligible is for it not merely to make it intelligible that something is or could be the case, but also for it to make it intelligible why or how something is or could be the case. It does not merely make the relevant content seem logically consistent and conceptually coherent, but gives us access to a broadly epistemic explanation for this content by providing answers to relevant why- or how-questions. Here are other examples: Following a proof of a mathematical theorem in conscious reasoning makes it thickly intelligible why it is rational to believe it. Projective empathizing with another person makes it thickly intelligible how they feel and think in a given situation. The form in which the relevant explanations and answers to why- or how-questions are given differs widely from case to case. But a first grasp of this natural robust notion of intelligibility will suffice to show how imagining something can be a way of making it thickly intelligible in a distinctive and distinctively useful way.

Imagination can be many things, but it is not supposition. While supposing something merely requires you to accept it as if-true for the purposes of deliberation, imagining it requires you to represent it in a special way. For at least a core class of imaginings, this special way of representing is essentially experiential, and I am strongly in support of restricting our use of the term ‘imagining’ to this experiential kind. I believe that a broadly simulationist framework can best account for the experiential nature of imagination: It’s the ability to put ourselves into the perspective of an actual or merely hypothetical somebody who is the subject of a specific corresponding experience. Imagining seeing a shooting star is putting yourself in the perspective of somebody who perceptually experiences a shooting star. Imagining feeling angry is putting yourself in the perspective of somebody who emotionally experiences anger. Understanding the nature of imagination as the cognitive capacity for experiential perspective-taking leads to understanding the special way they represent things: They represent ways of experiencing things.

Consider a case from Zeno Vendler: You and I are standing with him on a cliff watching the ocean, when he says: “Just imagine swimming in the rough, cold water!”. We are likely to imagine different things. This is not because you will succeed and I will fail, but because there is more than one way to genuinely satisfy the request. Imagination by its very nature leads us to selectively create a way of experiencing this swimming and representing it in fine-grained ways. In (optional but helpful) Fregean terms: There are different phenomenal modes of presentation under which we can represent ourselves as swimming in the ocean. And when we imagine swimming in the ocean, we represent the situation under one of these phenomenal modes of presentation.

It should now be easy to see why imaginings can make things thickly intelligible to us. Imaginings represent ways for us to experience actual and merely hypothetical situations. By representing how it would be to experience something, they provide informative answers to interesting how-questions and distinctively experiential how-explanations (albeit ones that might not be fully discursively communicable). Our example can serve as a simple illustration: When we imagine swimming in the ocean, we make it thickly intelligible that we could be swimming in the ocean by representing a specific way of swimming in the ocean. Once we consciously represent at least one specific way swimming in the ocean would be like, we intuitively understand the coarse grained content better as well. We are now, for instance, in a better position when deciding whether to accept a bet and jump into the water for 100 bucks. But more importantly, once we understand the process by which imagination makes things thickly intelligible to us, it is easy to find examples of things that we have a deeper epistemic grasp on in virtue of this role of the imagination: the relationships between people’s actions and people’s emotional reactions, the ways sensory qualities combine in complex aesthetic or gustatory experiences, the options we’re choosing between when making decisions about future actions etc.

On first glance, the intellect and the imagination have little in common. On a deeper look, imagination is an essential part of our intellect.

This post was inspired by an invitation to speak at a conference on “The Intellect and Its Philosophical Limits” organized by Gurpreet Rattan at Simon Fraser University.