Vivid descriptions and intense imaginings

Julia Langkau is a research fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her main research areas are epistemology, philosophical methodology, aesthetics and philosophy of mind.

Julia Langkau is a research fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her main research areas are epistemology, philosophical methodology, aesthetics and philosophy of mind.

A post by Julia Langkau.

Imagine walking through a winter landscape: there is fresh snow on the trees, on the hills and rocks around you, and in the background, you see the snow-covered mountains. It has stopped snowing and a little bit of blue sky and sunlight is getting through the clouds and reflecting in the snow. 

Now read this passage from The Magic Mountain:

Yet there was a momentary hint of blue sky, and even this bit of light was enough to release a flash of diamonds across the wide landscape, so oddly disfigured by its snowy adventure. Usually the snow stopped at that hour of the day, as if for a quick survey of what had been achieved thus far; the rare days of sunshine seemed to serve much the same purpose—the flurries died down and the sun’s direct glare attempted to melt the luscious, pure surface of drifted new snow. It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises—it was comic to behold, straight out of a book of fairy tales. But if there was something roguish and fantastic about the immediate vicinity through which you laboriously made your way, the towering statues of snow-clad Alps, gazing down from the distance, awakened in you feelings of the sublime and holy. (Thomas Mann, translated by John E. Woods)

I am supposing that you imagined walking through and seeing a winter landscape in the second case as well. Which one of your imaginings was vivid or more vivid? Surely the second one. Note that besides imaginings, and in a derivative way, text can also be called ‘vivid’. Vivid text is text in response to which a competent reader has vivid imaginative experiences.

Amy Kind (2017) has argued that the notion of vividness as it has been discussed in philosophy shouldn’t bear any argumentative weight because it is poorly understood and “seems recalcitrant in the face of analysis”. Imaginative vividness has been thought of as consisting in the amount of detail, or the clarity, or the color intensity, or the brightness of the imagining, or in some combination of these features. I agree with Kind, but I think that with respect to imaginative experiences, a notion in the vicinity of ‘vividness’ can do the work ‘vividness’ was supposed to do. Two assumptions are prevalent in the literature: that vivid imaginings imitate perceptions, and that they somehow do it more accurately than non-vivid imaginings. If we get rid of both of those assumptions, we can explain epistemically relevant differences in imaginative experiences.

An interdisciplinary group, Elspeth Jajdelska et. al. (2010), distinguishes between intensity of experience and accuracy of mental images. They claim that vividness in imaginative experiences evoked by descriptions of faces is the degree to which the reader feels as though they are looking at the face itself. Building on results from the psychology of face perception and the neuroscience of the mirror neuron system, they argue that vivid imaginative experiences are achieved by recreating a holistic, embodied experience of a face. The accuracy of the mental images is not crucial: a vivid imagined experience of a face doesn’t even necessarily include a mental image of a face. 

What are some features of a text that are likely to provoke a vivid imaginative experience of a face? One is the description of moral or emotional qualities of a face, as in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady: “He had an ugly, sickly, witty, charming face, furnished but by no means decorated with a straggling moustache and whisker.” Another one is the description of changes and movements, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “Her very wide-set sea-green eyes had a funny way of traveling all over you, carefully avoiding your own eyes. Her smile was but a quizzical jerk of one eyebrow.” (Jajdeslka et. al.’s examples)

Maybe these predictions as to what leads to a vivid imaginative experience apply to the description of a winter landscape as well. What makes the second description vivid is, probably among other things such as the use of comparisons, concepts, etc., indeed the description of changes and movements (e.g., “release a flash of diamonds”) and the use of evaluative (e.g., “oddly disfigured”) and emotional (e.g., “feelings of the sublime and holy”) language. But does the reader really feel as though they are walking through a winter landscape? Can we also generalize Jajdelska et. al.’s notion of vividness?

First of all, there is obviously not one way to feel as though walking through a winter landscape. And the way in which the description of the winter landscape is vivid is much different from the way we usually experience a winter landscape. Usually, I’m concerned with not getting hit by snow falling from the trees, not getting snow into my boots … and yes, I might also enjoy the light reflecting in the snow, but I’m usually not seeing snow-covered rocks as gnomes in droll disguises, or snow on the trees as fluffy pillows, and I’m certainly never thinking about the sublime. But suppose I do, because I might. Suppose the description makes me feel as though I was walking through a winter landscape while also having all the thoughts expressed in the description. But this clearly misses the point, since it is the description of changes and movements and the use of evaluative and emotional language that is supposed to make my imagining of a winter landscape vivid. For instance, describing the snow-covered rocks as gnomes is supposed to make my imagining of these rocks vivid, it is not supposed to make my imagining of the rocks as gnomes vivid. I’m not supposed to vividly imagine seeing the rocks as gnomes, I’m supposed to vividly imagine these rocks.

It seems thus that the only thing a ‘vivid’ imaginative experience of a winter landscape has in common with experiencing a winter landscape is that it is more intense than a ‘non-vivid’ imaginative experience. Hence, we should get rid of the idea that there is an aspect of imitation that marks a difference between ‘vivid’ and ‘non-vivid’ imaginative experiences. I suggest that we drop ‘vivid’ imaginative experiences for ‘intense’ ones. We could continue to speak of ‘vivid text’ as text that evokes, in a competent reader, intense imaginative experiences.

Can the notion of intensity bear the argumentative weight vividness cannot bear? Of course, we have to say more about intense experiences (experiences that are holistic, embodied, etc.) to answer this question. The distinction between imaginative experiences that are intense and those that aren’t could be relevant with respect to, for instance, the empathy that a text can evoke in us, with respect to how much we are entertained by a text, how much we enjoy it, or how much we might be able to learn from it.


Jajdelska, Elspeth; Butler, Christopher; Kelly, Steve; McNeill, Allan; Overy, Katie: “Crying, Moving, and Keeping It Whole: What Makes Literary Description Vivid?”, Poetics Today (2010) 31 (3): 433-463.

Kind, Amy: “Imaginative Vividness,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 3: 32-50 (2017)