Implicit Imaginative Resistance?

Eric Peterson is the postdoc teaching fellow in Business Ethics for the Heider College of Business at Creighton University.  He is also the managing editor of The Junkyard.  He has research interests in imagination and related attitudes. He also has interests in philosophy of religion, virtue ethics, and business ethics.

Eric Peterson is the postdoc teaching fellow in Business Ethics for the Heider College of Business at Creighton University.  He is also the managing editor of The Junkyard.  He has research interests in imagination and related attitudes. He also has interests in philosophy of religion, virtue ethics, and business ethics.

A post by Eric Peterson.

Following Liao (2016), we can say that imaginative resistance is roughly a phenomenon where otherwise competent imaginers fail to comply with a request to imagine some proposition.  In the literature on imaginative resistance, philosophers tend to focus on particular propositions that are purported to be a cause of resistance. These can be referred to as “puzzling propositions”.[i]  Examples of these puzzling propositions are the often cited “Giselda” (Walton 1994) or the last sentence of Weatherson’s (2004) “Death on a Freeway.”  In this short blog post, I want to explore a different kind of puzzling propositions—implied puzzling propositions.

It is accepted that any given narrative has implied propositions that readers use to successfully navigate through the story.  It is impossible for any author to list every explicit proposition that is true in the story.  Of course many of these would be ordinary propositions.  But are there any of these implied propositions that can be puzzling and so cause imaginative resistance?  We can call such a phenomenon, Implicit Imaginative Resistance.  Rather than do all of the hard work of trying to prove that there is such a phenomenon, I will take a more modest route arguing that if there is implicit imaginative resistance, then the terrain of the phenomenon just got a bit more complicated.

As a first pass, implicit imaginative resistance is a failure to comply with what one takes to be a request to imagine some implied proposition.  In order to imaginatively engage with the story, it seems that you are asked to imagine some implied proposition that you find puzzling for some reason, and so you resist imagining this proposition.  Thus, implicit imaginative resistance is just like the original phenomenon except that implicit imaginative resistance is triggered by an implied proposition rather than an explicit proposition.

But are there cases of implicit imaginative resistance?  I started thinking about this question through reflecting on my own experience with the show House of Cards.  I have experienced some kind of resistance to watching this show.  I enjoy the writing.  And the acting is great.  There is no explicit proposition from the show that I resist.  So what explains my resistance?  Possibly, it is some implied proposition that I find puzzling.  For instance, it is not a stretch to engage the show and take the writing as implying what we can call a Thrasymachean justice.  But because the genre that House of Cards belongs to is, arguably, a realist political thriller, it follows that we import and export truths about the House of Cards “world” and our own world with liberality.  Yet, because I reject the notion of Thrasymachean justice, I attempt to import into the story, my notion of non-Thrasymachean justice, which keeps conflicting with what is implied by the story.  House of Cards implicitly continues to ask me to imagine a world very similar to our real world where justice is nothing but the interests of the stronger.  But because I do not want to imagine such a world, I resist engaging imaginatively with House of Cards.  (Full disclosure: because of this “resistance” I am not caught up through the current season of the show.  I both want to continue and do not want to continue watching the show—oh to be human…  As a strange twist of irony, the show may end with each getting his or her due showing that Thrasymachean justice is false in the story.  If this happens, I wonder if we might rather characterize my experience as an implicit hermeneutic recalibration.[ii]  We’ll have to wait and see.  Further, this example may only reveal that I have an idiosyncratic take on the show House of Cards rather than it being a genuine example of implicit imaginative resistance.  Even if that is the case, I still think that it is worth exploring whether there is a phenomenon in the vicinity of implicit imaginative resistance.  I am hoping that the readers might offer better examples.)

Upon reflection, my first pass implicit imaginative resistance might expand to include different dimensions of implicitness.  For example, implicit resistance might not only include cases where the propositions resisted are implied, but it might also include cases where the felt resistance is implicit rather than explicit.[iii]  These different ways of being implicit could cross-cut with one another and with the more common explicit resistance.  With this idea, we could have four different cases to consider, three of which could count as implicit imaginative resistance:

1) cases with explicit resistance caused by an explicit proposition—these would be cases of the original phenomenon of imaginative resistance.

2) cases with explicit resistance caused by an implicit proposition—this is my first-pass implicit imaginative resistance.

3) cases of implicit resistance caused by an explicit proposition.

4) cases of implicit imaginative resistance caused by an implicit proposition—the last two are addenda to my first pass implicit imaginative resistance. 

This is at least a start to how we might characterize implicit imaginative resistance.  So now what?  What does it mean if there is Implicit Imaginative Resistance? The most obvious take-away is that with the phenomenon of imaginative resistance, we might not know what proposition we are resisting (case 2 above), or we might not know that we are resisting (case 3 above) or both (case 4 above).  This complicates the terrain a bit, and it might require change to existing theories of imaginative resistance that want to account for both Explicit and Implicit Imaginative Resistance.  But this is a cause for optimism; after all, our understanding of the phenomenon of imaginative resistance is still in its early stages and the more data we have about it, the better.  Further, as Mike Stuart has suggested, Implicit Imaginative Resistance is compatible with recent empirical findings related to imaginative resistance.  For instance, Liao, Strohminger, and Sripada (2014) found that genre can affect what we resist.  This fits well with implicit resistance because what a fiction implies depends in part on the genre of the fiction.  Black and Barnes (2017) found that different people experience different levels of imaginative resistance.  This fits well with implicit resistance because what is implied by a fiction may be different for different people.  Kim, Kneer, and Stuart (forthcoming) found that the content of a fiction is the main trigger for imaginative resistance (as opposed to whether it is a moral or factual proposition).  This fits well with implicit resistance because the content of the fiction will include both what is explicitly stated and what is implicitly stated.

So I ask my friends of imagination:  Is there such a thing as implicit imaginative resistance?  Can you provide some more examples?

This post was much improved thanks to comments from Amy Kind, Sam Liao, and Mike Stuart.

[i] Liao (2016) refers to them as this in order to remain neutral about the type of proposition that triggers imaginative resistance, i.e., moral, normative, response-dependent, etc…

[ii] Liao (2013) claims that hermeneutic recalibration shares the phenomenology of imaginative resistance, but the resistance on the part of the reader is only temporary.  According to Liao, hermeneutic recalibration is a literary technique that an author employs in order to get the reader to reconsider and reinterpret the work.  If my implicit resistance to House of Cards disappears upon finding out the Frank Underwood gets what he is due, then maybe this would be an example of implicit hermeneutic recalibration rather than implicit imaginative resistance.

[iii] Thanks to Amy Kind for this suggestion.


Black, J. E., and Barnes, J. L. (2017). “Measuring the unimaginable: Imaginative Resistance to Fiction and Related Constructs.” Personality and Individual Differences 111: 71–79.

Kim, H., Kneer, M. and Stuart, M. (forthcoming). “The Content-Dependence of Imaginative Resistance.” In F. Cova and S. Rénhault (eds.), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury.

Liao, S., Strohminger, N., & Sripada, C. S. (2014). “Empirically Investigating Imaginative Resistance.” British Journal of Aesthetics 54: 339–355.

Liao, S. (2013). Moral Persuasion and the Diversity of Fictions. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 94(3), 269–289.

Liao, S. (2016). Imaginative Resistance, Narrative Engagement, Genre. Res Philosophica, 93(2), 461–482.

Walton, K. L. (1994). Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality (I). Supplement to the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 68, 27–50.

Weatherson, B. (2004). Morality, Fiction, and Possibility. Philosophers’ Imprint, 4(3), 1–27.