Imaginative resistance and disgust

Emine Hande Tuna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Brown University. Her research project on historical and contemporary approaches to imaginative resistance is funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

Emine Hande Tuna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Brown University. Her research project on historical and contemporary approaches to imaginative resistance is funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

A post by Emine Hande Tuna.

The phenomenon of imaginative resistance (IR) has been discussed in some other Junkyard posts, such as Eric Peterson’s post which examines implicit IR, Kengo Miyazono’s post about truth in fiction, Margherita Arcangeli’s commentary on Kathleen Stock's recent book, Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation, and Imagination, which touches on the issue of IR since it is the topic of Stock’s fourth chapter. Here, I will attempt an alternative interpretation of the phenomenon.

The phenomenon of IR refers to the inability or unwillingness to engage in the particular imaginative activities prompted by works of fiction; novels, movies, TV shows, etc. For instance, suppose that Crime and Punishment were modified so that the narrator told us that Raskolnikov’s crime was the morally right thing to do. Even though we would have no problem imagining the rest of the story as it is and accepting the author’s authority in telling us what is true in the story, it would still be problematic for us to imagine that Raskolnikov truly is morally justified.

Intuitively, one might say that they do not experience such a phenomenon of resistance when watching Kill Bill and indeed might admit that they cheer for Beatrix Kiddo murdering various different individuals on her way to exacting revenge. I too am someone who does not exactly cringe during those scenes.[1] But why? Shen-Li Liao argues that genre makes a difference (2016). On the basis of the study he conducted with Nina Strohminger, and Chandra Sekhar Sripada,[2] he argues that genre conventions limit the types of propositions that can appear within the context of a work, so the puzzle of IR arises due to genre convention-discordant propositions (2016, 474). He also claims that each genre convention is associated with different expectations as to what kind of propositions can appear within that genre (471). Therefore, we experience IR when we find it comparatively difficult to imagine genre expectation-discordant propositions (476). For instance, in realistic fiction, we expect all the propositions to be in compliance with our real-world moral norms. But not so much so, if the work is an Aztec myth or an ancient Greek tragedy. In those worlds, according to Liao, propositions, such as that female infanticide is morally justified, are fine. If Liao’s explanation is right, then all that is interesting about the phenomenon disappears. He explains IR via authorial failure to conform to genre conventions.

I think that we do not need to read or watch a fictional work to resist it. It is very well possible that we won’t even attempt to read it or watch it if we know that the work is meant to justify or glorify some act that is repugnant according to our moral values, such as rape, infanticide, and so on. Of course, I do not want to give the impression that I think that we cannot imaginatively engage with these works. On the contrary, we can imagine morally deviant scenarios but, as some interpreters of IR (Wontians) suggest we are unwilling to do so.[3] In particular, I agree with Tamar Szabó Gendler: Imagination is distinct from belief and unlike believing, imaginability does not require conceptual possibility but only conceivability (2000, 69). Even if we are asked to imagine something that is not conceptually possible we can exploit our capacity for selective attention as Gendler suggests (69). It turns out that we can imagine morally deviant situations. The question now is: Why are we unwilling to do so? Gendler thinks that we are unwilling to engage in the imaginative activity because in doing so we might export the morally deviant outlooks to the actual world, something we would naturally want to avoid (2000). In general, I agree with Gendler’s proposal, but I think some additions need to be made for the account to be able to explain the strong reactions we might have, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not.

My suggestion is the following: our unwillingness to engage in the imaginative activity prompted by an artwork is grounded not only in the moral disapprobation it creates but also in the emotion of disgust that mingles with and amplifies the disapprobation. As if we are going to be contaminated by what we consider to be morally repugnant ideas expressed in the work we want to break off our engagement with it. This amplifying effect of the emotion of disgust on moral disapprobation has been recognized both in the ethics and moral psychology literature – even the skeptics of moral disgust, such as Joshua May accept the existence of this effect (Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 1999; Wheatley & Haidt, 2005; Schnall, Haidt, Clore, & Jordan, 2008; Eskine, Kacinik, & Prinz, 2011). However, its effects on IR have never been explored. Recognizing this effect of disgust has the potential of strengthening our reasons for favoring the Wontian view, particularly the version developed by Gendler (2000, 2006). In this sense, Wontians are right in assuming that we do not want to engage in the imaginative activity prompted by an artwork because doing so might involve exporting out of the story a way of looking at the actual world which we do not wish to endorse. The further and possibly better explanation of why we do not want to modify our worldview in such ways is rooted in the psychological state we find ourselves in, we feel that we are going to be contaminated by these ideas; we find that even entertaining these ideas evokes disgust.

Why might genre make a difference nonetheless? Realism brings the story line too close to home, while other genres (such as Aztec myth or science fiction) can keep the two worlds, the fictional and the real world, comparatively further apart. For instance, we might have considerable difficulties engaging with a story that depicts and tries to justify female infanticide in 21st century North America but perhaps we might not react as strongly if the story takes place in 11th century before the common era in a Mesopotamian settlement of the extinct nation of Chaldeanians or in the 30th century, in the planet Frukret, in the galaxy Argothon, which emerged after the whole universe imploded and reformed. The time and place of the story make a difference, the ethnicity or the race of the characters, perhaps even their gender or sex, make a difference. The closer the fictional world gets to the real world, the higher the risk of intellectual contamination gets. This is my take on the IR puzzle.

The account I presented also has the potential for allowing us to develop a better understanding of the mechanism that is at work in our hesitance to engage with the relevant works, by appealing to the influence of our biases rather than our ethical assessments. Unlike other accounts, my account explains why we sometimes resist to engage in the imaginative activities prompted by works of fiction, even though objectively speaking there is no moral deviance. Our racial, sexist, and homophobic biases can sometimes compromise our engagement with works of art, not on the grounds of justified ethical responses but as a result of the amplifying effect of the emotion of disgust on moral disapprobation. Understanding the role of disgust and how it fuses into our ethical and aesthetic responses can help to identify and develop strategies for overcoming groundless biases that affect people’s engagement. But this will be a topic for some other post or paper.

[1] I also think it is very plausible that some would cringe.

[2] The results are published in 2014.

[3] See Liao and Gendler (2016) for the Wontian-Cantian distinction.


Eskine, K., N. Kacinik, and J. Prinz. “A Bad Taste in the Mouth: Gustatory Disgust Influences Moral Judgment,” Psychological Science 22.3 (2011): 295.

Gendler, T.S. “The puzzle of imaginative resistance,” The Journal of Philosophy 97:2 (2000): 55-81.

 ---. “Imaginative resistance revisited,” in Nichols, S. (ed), The Architecture of the Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Liao, S. and Gendler, T.S. “The Problem of Imaginative Resistance,” in Gibson, J. and Carroll, N. (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature. London: Routledge, 2016.

Liao, Shen-yi. “Imaginative Resistance, Narrative Engagement, Genre,” Res Philosophica 93:2 (2016): 461-482.

Rozin, P., J. Haidt, and C. McCauley. “Disgust: The Body and Soul Emotion,” Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. New York: Wiley, 1999.

Schnall, S., et al. “Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34.8 (2008): 1096–1109.

Wheatley, T., and J. D. Haidt. “Hypnotic Disgust Makes Moral Judgments More Severe,” Psychological Science 16.10 (2005): 780–784.