Recent Developments in the Philosophy of Imagination?

A post by Shen-yi Liao.

  Shen-yi Liao  is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. He is interested in the imagination, but also in too many other things.

Shen-yi Liao is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. He is interested in the imagination, but also in too many other things.

The introductory post to this blog tells a brief history of the philosophy of imagination. From Aristotle’s time to ours, the imagination has been asked to explain mindreading, pretense, engagement with the arts, modal epistemology, etc. And, not surprisingly, there remain little agreement about its nature.

In this post, I want to zoom in the timeline and ask: What has changed in the philosophical study of imagination in the last 10 years or so? To operationalize the question, you might take a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on imagination and ask: What has changed since that snapshot? What are the entry points from philosophical subfields or cognate areas? What are some general tendencies? Which new discussions have emerged? Which discussions seem to be maturing, or even becoming stale?

This post is more of a bleg than a blog. I’ll offer my own—no doubt esoteric—answers. But my primary interest is in learning from the community’s response.


Before I can give my own esoteric answers, I need to put them in the context of my potted history of developments in the philosophy of imagination.

The Aesthetics Era. Around the time of Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), the philosophy of imagination was mostly relegated to aesthetics. Sure, Walton’s book inspired some engagement from other philosophical subfields, such as from metaphysics on the topic of fictionalism. But my sense is that, for example, at this time philosophers of mind did not take imagination seriously.

The Pretense Era. Ten years later, the philosophy of imagination began to branch out from aesthetics. The topics of pretense and mindreading were common entry points. Paul Harris’s The Work of the Imagination (2000) testified to the interest from developmental psychology. And Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft’s Recreative Minds (2002) and Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich’s Mindreading (2003) have done much to shape the philosophical discourse in the following decade. This is when imagination became more tractable for empirically-minded philosophers of mind. The driving force was a general project to naturalize the imagination via integration with cognitive science.

The Current Era (that awaits a better name). In the last ten years, while the general project has continued, the entry points began to shift. There are still important, innovative, incisive works on pretense and mindreading, but they seem to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. In contrast, there is now an exciting emerging discussion on memory and imagination (as previously discussed on this blog). Whereas the work on pretense and mindreading primarily intersected with developmental (and some cognitive) psychology, the work on memory and imagination primarily intersects with neuroscience (and still some cognitive psychology). So, this is not only a new entry point to the philosophy of imagination, it also represents a new interface for integration with cognitive science.

This potted history is woefully incomplete. But I think it still offers a glimpse into the development of the philosophy of imagination in recent years. Two observations:

1.        The naturalistic approach remains popular. As one philosopher observes, “now any credible contributor to the imagination literature has to at least pay lip service to cognitive science”.

2.        There are more and more entry points to the philosophy of imagination. The work on memory and imagination, for example, interfaces with work done in cognitive science, epistemology, and philosophy of action. This broadened scope also means, however, that puzzles from aesthetics (such as those discussed in section 5 in the SEP entry) now seem less central to the philosophy of imagination.


What else?

When I chatted about this question with other philosophers, Neil Van Leeuwen, Margot Strohminger, and Tyler Doggett have all (independently) pointed out that there is growing work on imagination and knowledge, as exemplified by Amy Kind and Peter Kung’s edited volume Knowledge through Imagination (2016). Of course, there are earlier important works on thought experiments, counterfactuals, and modal epistemology, but there remains much to be uncovered about the epistemic prospects and limitations of the imagination. (My own sense is that the growing work on epistemic injustices offers opportunities for exploration by philosophers of imagination. One example is chapter 6 of José Medina’s The Epistemology of Resistance (2012).)

And Neil Van Leeuwen has also pointed out that there is growing work on imagination and action, as exemplified by this Brains symposium on Bence Nanay’s “The Role of Imagination in Decision-Making” (2016).

Enough of my peculiar and limited perspective. I welcome your observation and thoughts!