A post by Saam Trivedi.
The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination - Albert Einstein
As is well-known, unlike our colleagues in the sciences, social sciences, and other fields, philosophers do not often take field trips for their research. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if they could go regularly to the San Francisco Bay area or Paris or Greece or China, say? Patagonia or the Kalahari, anyone? The Himalayas, maybe? In what follows, I will indeed propose some field trips for philosophers, though I have something much humbler in mind than the exciting destinations mentioned above.
In their work on children’s imaginings, developmental psychologists such as Paul Harris and others have found some fascinating things. Here is a rough-and-ready summary of some of these findings.
Far from being disorganized and primitive, as Freud and Piaget thought, little children’s early imaginings are quite sophisticated. In fact, their ability to imagine hypothetical scenarios and counterfactuals, as in pretend play, helps their cognitive and emotional growth.
Children can engage in the same kinds of activities as adults do when we pretend and make-believe. They take their real world knowledge into their pretend play, where they stipulate things, imagine episodes, and suspend objective truth for make-believe truth. Even children as little as two can exercise the same kind of imagination we engage in when we consider fictional scenarios and alternative realities.
Particularly interesting is children’s pretend play, where they impersonate others for a while or project roles onto props such as dolls or toys or invent imaginary creatures or companions. Creating these make-believe situations involves flexibility and sensitivity. And children engaging in complex pretend play with others are likely to be better at assessing others’ affective states. I am especially fascinated by Harris’ finding that it is only when children impersonate animate beings with mental states as opposed to inanimate objects (such as cars and trucks) that they better understand others’ mental states. Also, children who engage in more pretend play are better at seeing others’ viewpoints.
When inventing creatures and things in their pretend play, little children know that what they fear or miss is only imaginary and yet feel sad or fearful. Children can also be absorbed in imaginary worlds, just as adults can. And imagining situations can sometimes provoke genuine emotions, not mere ideas of emotions, in children as well as in adults. As with grown-ups, children who identify with imagined scenarios are more likely to be emotionally aroused by them, unlike those that remain detached.
Children can also compare imagined scenarios with actual events. Though they usually assume our ordinary causal laws apply to imagined situations, they can also imagine violations of these laws such as, for example, in some fairy tales or religious scenarios.
Now we have all come across some philosophers, usually middle-aged and older members of my gender, who dismiss the imagination; they say, “Let’s give it a break!” for example. No amount of argument or evidence will convince them. What are we to do with them? In their case, as I am told William James put it, percepts may matter more than concepts.
And so with all due respect, I suggest the following field trips for at least some philosophers. Spend a lot of time with little children ages two onwards, when language and the imagination start developing. Note you do not need to have biological children nor do you need to adopt children to do so! Instead, visit your nieces, nephews, or friends’ children often, and do not be afraid to get down on the floor, and play with them often and for extended periods. Failing that, I suggest field trips to daycare centers, pre-schools, and such. (I have alarming visions of armies of philosophers armed with notebooks, both electronic and paper, descending unannounced in busloads on such institutions, where their unexpected arrival would likely not be welcome! And so I suggest writing to these places and calling them in advance, and seeking permission and pre-arranged times for your field trips.)
Underestimating the imagination is itself a failure of imagination. Children and their more flexible imaginations may show us this where words fail; to borrow the Wittgensteinian distinction between saying and showing. The power of the imagination is something many of us forget as we pass from childhood to adulthood and as our imaginations often grow weaker. Amy Kind, who runs this blog, has asked why some philosophers are afraid of the imagination; or at least of what she calls the productive, transcendent kind (as opposed to the reproductive, instructive sort), with its connection to fancy and whimsy (for an example of which, see the cover of my book in the attached picture). Part of the answer - and only part of it - may be that many of us have forgotten what it is like to be a child, and are afraid to be childlike (as opposed to childish) again.
By way of conclusion, I recount here an anecdote from my own experience. On a flight from New York to Florida last fall to attend my late father-in-law’s memorial service, my 8-year old daughter asked me if they made airplanes with swimming pools! Besides lifting my spirits immediately, it struck me that this is a thought involving simpler ideas juxtaposed in a way that had never occurred to me. After all, if we can eat, drink, sleep, talk, read, see movies, hear music, and engage in other desirable activities on planes, then why should we not also be able to swim while airborne, at least in principle? Except for some such as Elon Musk, grown-ups might never think of such things or might even dismiss them as silly or trivial, but not children with their more flexible imaginations.
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This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the late Fabian Dorsch (1974-2017).