The Scope of the Imagination

Samantha Matherne is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Her primary research interests lie in exploring the relationship between perception and aesthetics in Kant and post-Kantian traditions, including Phenomenology and Neo-Kantianism.  

Samantha Matherne is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Her primary research interests lie in exploring the relationship between perception and aesthetics in Kant and post-Kantian traditions, including Phenomenology and Neo-Kantianism.  

A Post by Samantha Matherne

How capacious a role does the imagination play in our lives?  Here’s one more restrictive answer: the imagination is exercised in a relatively narrow set of experiences, like visualization, make-believe, and some aesthetic experiences, like reading a novel or going to the theater.  It seems that what these experiences have in common is that they involve a sensory experience of something that is, in some sense, not real.  I say ‘in some sense’ because sometimes the object imagined is not real in the sense that it cannot possibly be real, e.g., when my niece pretends she is riding a unicorn.  At other times, however, the object that we imagine is not per se impossible.  For example, when I imagine brunch with Stevie Nicks, although I am sadly not at brunch with her right now, were I so lucky, I could be.

We find a robust defense of this restrictive view in the phenomenological tradition, particularly in the work of Edmund Husserl and Jean Paul Sartre, following him.[1]  Setting the details of their positions aside, in general, they treat imagining as a distinctive way of relating to or ‘intending’ an object.  As with all intentional structures, they think imagining can accordingly be analyzed from two, related perspectives: that of the object intended and that of the experience or act of intending.  In the object-oriented vein, Husserl and Sartre argue that the object intended in imagining is something ‘irreal’ [unwirklich, irréel].  So, on their view, in my imaginary brunch scenario the object intended is not the real Stevie Nicks, but rather irreal Stevie Nicks as I imagine her, mimosa in hand.  Meanwhile, in the experience-oriented vein, they describe the experience or act involved in imagining as one of ‘quasi-perception’ [Quasi Wahrnehmung] or ‘quasi-observation’ [quasi-observation].  Like perceiving, they take imagining to involve an immediate sensory or intuitive experience of an object.  However, unlike perceiving, they claim that imagining does not ‘posit’ its object as actual.  Thus, on this view, though my experience of imagining Stevie Nicks is an intuitive one (she looks so cool), I do not posit her as an actual object, the way I would if she were, in fact, in front of me.  On the Husserl-Sartre version of the restrictive view, then, the imagination is involved only in the set of intentional experiences that involve a quasi-perception of irreal objects. 

However, the restrictive view is not the only answer to the question about the ubiquity of the imagination.  There is another more expansive answer that accords the imagination a significant role not just in our sensory experiences of what is not real, but in our sensory experiences of the real as well, e.g., in perception, memory, or knowledge.  Of course, one of the central challenges for such a view is to give a broad enough account of the imagination that can accommodate this range of experiences, without becoming vacuous.

One such attempt at an expansive account of the imagination is that of Immanuel Kant.  According to Kant, the imagination, in general, is the capacity for the intuitive representation of something that is not present.[2]  In his words, “Imagination [Einbildungskraft] is a faculty for representing an object even without its presence in intuition” (Critique of Pure Reason B151).  Kant, in turn, has a rather encompassing notion of the ‘not present’ things that can be represented by the imagination.  He allows for the imagination to represent things that are not present in the sense of being fictional, past, or futural.  He also indicates that the imagination can represent concepts, which count as not present in intuition insofar as they have their seat in the intellect.  However, there is one further sense of ‘not present’ that we need to clarify, which is connected to Kant’s claim that the imagination is a “necessary ingredient of perception" (Critique of Pure Reason A120fn).  Here, I am sympathetic to cashing out the kind of not presence involved in Kant’s account of perception in terms of the phenomena of ‘perceptual presence’.  As articulated recently, e.g., by Alva Noë in Action in Perception, perceptual presence involves the perceptual experience of the features of an object that are not directly given to your current point of view, e.g., when I perceive the backside of a palm tree as present even though I am looking at it front-wise.  On at least one interpretation of Kant’s view, it is the imagination that is responsible for perceptual presence: it fills out perception in the needed way by intuitively representing as present the features of the object that are, strictly speaking, absent.[3]

Stepping back, unlike on the Husserl-Sartre view, on Kant’s view, the imagination is something we exercise not just in our intuitive experiences of irreal objects, but of real and conceptual objects as well.  From a Kantian perspective, then, it is not just when I visualize Stevie Nicks brunch that I use my imagination; I also use it when I recall watching the studio footage for “Edge of Seventeen” last week, see her in concert now, anticipate her next reunion with Tom Petty, or project her as an exemplar of the concept ‘cool’.

I am not now going to attempt to offer a decision between the restrictive and narrow accounts of the imagination, let alone between the versions of them defended by Husserl, Sartre, or Kant.  Instead, by way of conclusion, I will flag Husserl, Sartre, and Kant’s approaches as valuable resources that should not be neglected on account of their difficulty, density, or date.  Not only do many of the details of their views remain insightful, but also their overarching strategy is instructive.  For they, each in their own way, attempt to strike a balance between the specific analyses of the imagination’s relation to memory, perception, intellect, pretense, aesthetic experience, affect, etc., on the hand, and a more general account of the structure of the imagination, on the other.  And, it seems to me, that whatever the answer to the question of the scope of the imagination is, we will reach it only through this sort of equipoise.


[1] For a recent overview of Husserl’s view of the imagination, see Jansen (2016), and of Sartre’s, see Lennon (2015) (who situates Sartre’s account in relation to a wide variety of figures, including Hume, Kant, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Fanon, and Castoriadis) and Hopkins (2016).

[2] See Matherne (2016) for my overview of Kant’s account of the imagination.  I there address many of the details I here have to set aside, e.g., the further complications on Kant’s view that are connected to his claim that the imagination can operate on both the transcendental and empirical levels, and in a productive and reproductive fashion.  

[3] For discussions of Kant’s view in relation to the topic of perceptual presence, see Thomas (2009), Matherne (2015), and Kind (forthcoming).


References:

Hopkins, Robert (2016). “Sartre.” In the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Imagination, ed. Amy Kind. London: Routledge: 82-93.

Jansen, Julia (2016). “Husserl.” In the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Imagination, ed. Amy Kind. London: Routledge: 69-81.

Kant, Immanuel (1998). Critique of Pure Reason, ed. and transl. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Kind, Amy (forthcoming). “Imaginative Presence.” In Perceptual Presence, eds. Fabian Dorsch, Fiona Macpherson, and Martine Nide-Rumelin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lennon, Kathleen (2015). Imagination and the Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Matherne, Samantha (2015). "Images and Kant's Theory of Perception." Ergo 2(29): 737-777.

—(2016). “Kant’s Theory of the Imagination.” In the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Imagination, ed. Amy Kind. London: Routledge: 55-68.

Noë, Alva (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Thomas, Alan (2009). “Perceptual Presence and the Productive Imagination.” Philosophical Topics 37: 153-74.