Jennifer A. McMahon is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide. She is editor of   Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment: Pleasure, Reflection and Accountability   forthcoming in 2018 with Routledge; and recently edited the inaugural issue of the  Australasian Philosophical Review  1.1 (March) 2017 on “The Pleasure of Art”.

Jennifer A. McMahon is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide. She is editor of Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment: Pleasure, Reflection and Accountability forthcoming in 2018 with Routledge; and recently edited the inaugural issue of the Australasian Philosophical Review 1.1 (March) 2017 on “The Pleasure of Art”.

A post by Jennifer A. McMahon.

Art or fiction considered as a source of information, say as historical artefact, reporting or journalism is different from art as insightful. The former can be expressed as a series of propositions, the latter not. It is the latter that concerns me here.

Insight is acquired through art or fiction in virtue of our imaginative engagement. This implies that the imagining occasioned by art can have a lasting impact. However, imagining as engaged by art including fiction is usually treated as motivationally inert and quarantined from belief (Currie and Ravenscroft 2002; Leslie 1987).  The worry is that if imagining is used to motivate action, it is not quarantined from belief, and this would place us in the realm of delusion (Egan 2010). Yet, many seemingly non-deluded people claim that they have acquired insight from particular instances of art or fiction; and what is insight if not a guide to behaviour directly or indirectly?

According to Amy Kind and Peter Kung, there are three topics which dominate philosophical discussions on the imagination and these are: engagement with fiction, modal epistemology and mindreading (2016: 13, 23). They argue that in all such discussions imagination is either treated as instructive or transcendental. When used instructively, imagination results in learning about the world. In this mode, imagination is anchored in reality and is under certain constraints. In contrast, in transcendental mode it can “fly completely free of reality” (2016: 1) such as when engaged in day dreaming and fantasy. They include fiction here as a form of unconstrained imagining (Kind and Kung 2016: 15-16; Kind 2016: 158). And unconstrained imagining cannot guide behaviour as that would amount to acting from delusion.

Kendall Walton argues that participation in fiction involves taking part in “games of make-believe” where the propositions that are represented are fictional truths which are “prescriptions to imagine” and which lead to the reader being caught up in the fictional world (1990: 274). For Walton, the only time art can provide the kind of engagement which involves us in importing back into our actual world insight prompted by the work, is not through imagining per se which for Walton is make-believe and keeps us in the fictional world, but when we are distanced from the work through “ornamentation” and are prompted to reflect upon the actual world significance of our imaginative engagement. An implication of Walton’s account is that fictions which carry us along without prompting distance and hence reflection, are fictions from which we do not import any beliefs or insight back into our actual world. Walton’s idea is that we are simply caught up in make-believe which evokes quasi (motivationally inert) emotions in response to fictional truths, in a fictional world.

Walton thinks reflection is prompted by how a work is formed or styled, but he does not treat reflection as a component of the imagining engaged by fiction but rather as something that happens as a consequence of imagining. However, this does not adequately explain my experience of fiction. A successful fiction involves me in a constant looping backwards and forwards between actual memory, experience and the fiction. I do not escape from the actual world into a fictional world and then return to the actual world when ready to test the hypotheses of the fiction (cf. Young 2001: 106-7) nor reflect in retrospect upon the imagining I engaged in while in a fictional world (cf. Walton 1990). Expressions like “in a fictional world” or “transportation” (see James O. Young’s post) just mean engaging imaginatively in the fiction. Our emotions are actual but they are part of a complex of emotions including the emotion of enjoying a good fiction (cf. Samuel Kampa’s post).

When fiction engages imagining, there is a continual interaction with real world constraints. And reflection is part of the imagining: it enriches and motivates it.  This is most obvious where emotions and feelings are concerned. For example, when we are required to link feelings and objects in entirely new ways, such as finding something funny or surprising that in the actual world we would not, our subjectivity becomes disengaged, imagining thwarted (see Moran 1994). This is an example of the plausibility constraint on imagining. There can be weird and wacky facts which we are meant to entertain but even in Science Fiction and Aztec myths (cf. Emine Hande Tuna's post), unless our subjectivities are hooked into the protagonist’s goals and feelings, our attention will flag. For example, the broader themes which carry us along in such fictions are often about one group attempting to gain control and power over another and this gains traction with us due to our actual world experience. So imagining as engaged by art is not like hypothesizing in scientific and legal reasoning, nor is it unconstrained.  However, it is not clear on what basis we might claim to learn anything new from imagining including gaining insight given the plausibility constraint on imagining.

There are a number of accounts according to which imagining impinges on belief by influencing the way beliefs are associated into complex units and made psychologically salient by repeated environmental triggers including repeated imaginings (Gendler 2006; Schellenbeg 2013). Peter Langland-Hassan (2016) argues that in imagining we intervene at certain points to redirect the flow of imagination but that each stipulation generates inferences based on our experience of real world possibilities. In this way imagining is both constrained by plausibility but guided by our intentions. We can apply this to fiction. The imagining is chosen by the author, but the actual world inferences that are generated hook our subjectivity into the fiction.  When interwoven through with our reflections, they can contribute to the way beliefs are linked and the psychological salience they hold for us. Langland-Hassan identifies three features that characterise the cognitive architecture of imaginings (2016: 63) and I present them here as they nicely explain how imagining can provide insight through art or fiction:

1. Initial involvement of top-down intentions

2. Use of lateral constraints in the development of an imagining

3. The cyclical involvement of top-down intentions throughout the course of an imagining

We can acquire insight or understanding from art or fictions without acquiring new beliefs. Imagining impacts upon what are the salient schemata in memory and hence can influence interpretations, descriptions of what we see, and the threshold at which we consider evidence adequate for belief. The effects of imagining are different to the effects of believing with the same contents (Stock 2011: 277-79; Weinberg 2008: 217). But the difference between imagining and belief is not in motivation per se but in what we are motivated to do. I might not escape from the cinema when a fictional tiger runs at me but my fear of tigers or fear generally might be more salient as a consequence. The quality of the imagining will differ between individuals not only due to difference in background experiences but also in the degree to which reflection is entwined through our imagining.


Currie, Gregory and Ian Ravenscroft 2002. Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Egan, Andy 2010. Imagination, Delusion, and Self-Deception, in Delusion and Self-Deception: Affective and Motivational Influences on Belief Formation, ed. Tim Bayne and Jordi Fernandez, New York & Hove: Psychology Press, T&F: 263-80.

Gendler, Tamar Szabó 2006. Imaginative Contagion, Metaphilosophy, 37/2: 183-203.

Kind, Amy 2016. Imagining Under Constraints, in Knowledge Through Imagination, ed. Amy Kind and Peter Kung, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 145-59.

Kind, Amy and Peter Kung 2016. Introduction: The Puzzle of Imaginative Use, in Knowledge Through Imagination, ed. Amy Kind and Peter Kung, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1-37.

Langland-Hassan, Peter 2016. On Choosing What to Imagine, in Knowledge Through Imagination, ed. Amy Kind and Peter Kung, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 61-84.

Leslie, Alan 1987. Pretense and Representation: The Origins of ‘Theory of Mind’, Psychological Review 94/4: 412-26.

Moran, Richard 1994. The Expression of Feeling in Imagination, The Philosophical Review 103/1: 75-106.

Schellenberg, Susanna 2013. Belief and Desire in Imagination and Immersion, The Journal of Philosophy 110/9: 497-517.

Stock, Kathleen 2011. Unpacking the Boxes: The Cognitive Theory of Imagination and Aesthetics, in The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology, ed. Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 268-82.

Weinberg, Jonathan 2008. Configuring the Cognitive Imagination, in New Waves in Aesthetics, ed. K. Stock and K. Thomson-Jones, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 203-23.

Walton, Kendall L. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Young, James O. 2001. Art and Knowledge, London & New York: Routledge.