Embodied Imagination

 Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. She has authored a number of books, most recently  The Life of Imagination: Revealing and Making the World,  forthcoming in 2018 with Columbia University Press.

Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. She has authored a number of books, most recently The Life of Imagination: Revealing and Making the World, forthcoming in 2018 with Columbia University Press.

A post by Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei.

When Goethe’s Faust appeals to the ‘wings that lift the mind,’ and Wordsworth describes wandering ‘as a cloud,’ an imagination is invoked that seems to leave behind the limits of the physical world.[i]   The truth in these metaphors lies in the fact that we can imaginatively exceed our bodily capacities, thwart physical laws, in contemplating possibilities.  Yet in recent decades, the mind itself has come to be understood as embodied and embedded in its world, as correlative to enactive perception.[ii]  This unraveling of Cartesianism has made embodiment relevant to understanding of imagination in a number of ways. The capacity for internal representation may arise in material interaction with the surrounding environment,[iii] conditioning the emergence of imagination in human cognitive evolution.[iv]  Social empathy for others may be facilitated by responses to their embodied actions and experiences.  Literary experience can be understood to draw upon the resources of embodied life, while the body is the medium of expression for many feats of creativity.    

The recognition of embodied imagination is not altogether recent.  Montaigne described the physical effects of the internal presentation in the mind of things not present: ‘we start, tremble, turn pale, and blush, as we are variously moved by imagination.’ Montaigne elaborated, too, on the embodied nature of his imaginative empathy: ‘The very sight of another’s pain materially pains me.  I often usurp the sensations of another person.’[v]  Through imaginative contagion, Montaigne suggested, a subject’s own throat can itch when another person coughs.  Subjects may also experience motoric and kinaesthetic empathy. Witnessing a ballet dancer leap across the stage, or an aerial slam-dunk by a champion basketball player, it is as if the action were echoed in the body of the viewer.  Neuroscientific research has demonstrated that the perception of actions undertaken by others provokes a subject’s own motoric neuronal responses; such responses are manifest in anticipation of the goals or consequences of action.[vi]

Embodied imagination may be involved in social empathy.  Phenomenological accounts of social cognition locate the intersubjective basis of objectivity—our very sense of reality as exceeding our own perspective—in our awareness of the possibility of various viewpoints on the same world, viewpoints grounded in different bodily positions with respect to the world with which we interact.[vii]  The horizons of our own perceptual experience imply others’ access to the same world according to their own embodied positions.  This vital social dimension fulfills our perception of the world with potentiality.  Merleau-Ponty emphasized in his later work how human perception is supplemented by the virtual inclusion of possibilities.[viii]

Even merely reading about, and correspondingly imagining, others’ embodied actions will provoke a physical response.  Readers of literature can be observed responding both at the neuronal level and in heartbeat, breath, pupil dilation, and muscular contractions.[ix]  Although study of such physical responses alone does not illuminate the meaning of literature, it serves as reminder that readers are not disembodied subjects.  Cognitive literary theory has begun to explore how embodied responses are evoked in the realization of literary meaning.[x]  A fundamental role for embodiment may also be conveyed through language itself: the shaping of metaphor, it has been argued, originates in early image schemas structured by embodied experience.[xi]

Of course, the body may also be itself the medium and resource for artistic expression—in dance choreography, in gestural pantomime and some performance art—and so manifest embodied imagining.  While in ordinary everyday experience the body is ‘restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life,’ as Merleau-Ponty writes, the body is ‘at other times elaborating upon the primary actions and moving from their literal to their figurative meaning’—and when it does so ‘it manifests through them a new core of significance.[xii]  While some theorists of imagination would differentiate creativity (and its material manifestations) from imagination proper, this position may become less tenable as the embodied nature of imagination is more fully understood.


[i] This post is drawn from material in my forthcoming book, The Life of Imagination, to be published in 2018 with Columbia University Press.

[ii] See for example, Shaun Gallagher, How the Body Shapes the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999); John Haugeland, ‘Mind Embodied and Embedded,’ in Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).  On enactive mind, see Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); S. L. Hurley, Consciousness in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).  Maurice Merleau-Ponty offered a phenomenology of mind as embodied and enactive in Phenomenology of Perception [1945] (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

[iii] Marc Jeannerod, Motor Cognition: What Actions Tell the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); ‘Mental Imagery in the Motor Context,’ Neuropsychologia 33:11 (1995), 1419-1432; ‘The representing brain, neural correlates of motor intention and imagery,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17 (1994), 187-202.

[iv] Peter Gärdenfors, How Homo Became Sapiens: On the Evolution of Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[v] Miguel de Montaigne Essays in Ten Volumes [1580], trans. Charles Colton, ed. William C. Hazlett (New York: Edwin C. Hill, 1910), vol I, 214, 215.

[vi] See for example, Julie Grézes and Beatrice de Gelder, ‘Social Perception: Understanding Other People’s Intentions and Emotions Through Their Actions,’ in Stranio, T., Reid, V. (eds), Social Cognition: Development, Neuroscience, and Autism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 67-78; Marco Iacobini, ‘Neural Mechanisms of Imitation,’ Current Opinion in Neurobiology 15:6 (2005), 632-37; G. Rizzolatti, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, ‘Neurophysiological Mechanisms Underlying the Understanding and Imitation of an Action,’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2:9 (2001), 661-670; Vittorio Gallese, ‘The Inner Sense of Action: Agency and Motor Representations,’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 7 (2000), 23-40.

[vii] See Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); ‘Embodiment, Empathy, and Interpersonal Understanding: From Lipps to Schutz,’ Inquiry 53: (June 2010), 285-306; and ‘Simulation, Projection, and Empathy,’ Consciousness and Cognition, 17 (2008), 514-22; Dan Zahavi and Shaun Gallagher, The Phenomenological Mind, Second Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).

[viii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes [1964], trans. Alphonso Lingus (Evanston, IL: Northestern University Press, 1968).

[ix] See for example Michael Burke, ‘The neuroaesthetics of prose fiction: pitfalls, parameters and prospects,’ Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 9, (2015); Peter Dixon and Maria Bortolussi, ‘The scientific study of literature: What can, has, and should be done,’ Scientific Study of Literature, 1:1 (2011), 59–71; and Katrin Riese, et al, ‘In the Eye of the Recipient,’ Scientific Study of Literature 4:2 (2014), 211-31.

[x] See for example, Terence Cave, Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, ‘The Mimetic Dimension: Literature Between Neuroscience and Phenomenology,’ British Journal of Aesthetics, 54:4 (October 2014), 425-448; Guillemette Bolens, The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary Narrative (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012).

[xi] See Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, and more recently George Lakoff, ‘Explaining Embodied Cognition Results,’ in Topics in Cognitive Science 4 (2012), 773-85. For an early phenomenological argument about the embodied origins of literary imagery, see Gaston Bachlard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

[xii] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 169.