A post by Julia Jansen.
New models of the mind have conquered much of contemporary research in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. They replace the classical model that, put in very simple terms, pictures the mind as internal to an individual and populated by mental representations. Under the general titles of ‘situated’ cognition or ‘4e’ cognition embedded, embodied, enactive, and extended models have quickly gained currency since the turn of the millennium. What these models share, despite significant differences between them, is the departure from the individualist, internalist, and representationalist models that had reigned for so long. However, while ‘cognition’ is cited as what receives more appropriate and fruitful explanation by these models, imagination is routinely left behind as an ‘offline’ mental activity that, in the absence of its objects and de-coupled from its environment, must rely on representations (‘mental images’) that replace those objects ‘in the imaginer’s mind’.
I believe that our fixation with classical individualist, internalist, and representationalist notions of imagination may be loosened by entertaining the application of those new models of the mind. Husserl’s account of imagining can really help here because it offers an alternative to the classical conception of imagination – an alternative that by about one hundred years preceded the now new models, but that already rejected what Husserl called the ‘image theory’ of imagination. In its place, Husserl advanced a notion of imagining, not as mental faculty, and not as representational power that allows us to replace absent objects with their images, but as a mode of conscious relating to imagined objects. More precisely, imagining is a simulated intentional experience, an intentional relation between an imagined embodied subject and its imagined object.
With this relational understanding in hand, we can also begin to see how such a relation might be ‘situated’ in different ways (unlike pictures in somebody’s head). Relations are always embedded in natural and social environments that causally influence those relations. This means that how and what we imagine, and what we find imaginable or un-imaginable, depends, in part, on the landscape (or cityscape) we live in, the technology we are connected to, and the culture we are part of. Sensuous intentional relations always involve an embodied consciousness. This means that how and what we imagine, and what we find imaginable or un-imaginable, is constituted, in part, by what kinds of bodies we have and what kind of sensuous experience is possible for us. Moreover, our imaginings are bodily situated; for example, we imagine a visual object or scene from a certain perspective, or we imagine a sound coming from the left or right, near or far. Moreover, intentional relations are not static but dynamic; they are enacted. This means that how and what we imagine, and what we find imaginable or un-imaginable, is constituted, in part, by the dynamic interactions we have had with our natural and social environments, but also with the very environments that we imagine and which are themselves constituted in the process. Finally, intentional relations may be extended to include objects (e.g., paper models or computer simulations) or social institutions, such as museums, or be distributed across groups whose members do not entertain pictures in their heads, but who collectively simulate possible experiences.
Which models of imagining to work with, is not a ‘merely academic’ question, but has ethical and political implications. For example, recognizing other extended and collective models, makes it easier to identify and appreciate imaginative ways of thinking and acting in cultures that are not beholden to the same individualist and representationalist image of imagination. Part of that image in ‘the West’ is also a Judeo-Christian association of the human power to imagine with a divine power of creation, which refers back to a single creator. The imagination is, in this context, also a means by which humans can elevate themselves and connect with the divine and super-natural—a link that reaches a particular figuration in Romanticist notions of the creative genius.
It probably is not by accident that this notion of imagination has also been used to elevate some humans over others. For example, the stereotype of the unimaginative ‘Asian’ is still very much in circulation in European and Caucasian circles. Think, let’s say, of the Chinese or Japanese pianist who is said to be a technical virtuoso, but who somehow remains ‘without the right affect,’ ‘without imagination,’ unable to deliver a truly creative interpretation. Then think of the link that is commonly made between imagination and freedom, and, in effect, you end up with the view that those who do not have imagination, are incapable of critique, are not, in a word, free. In turn, one can also be judged for being too imaginative: Women have often been described that way, and entire ‘primitive’ civilizations. In these cases, having too much imagination means to be irrational, not to be able to distinguish between reality and fiction. Those who have too much imagination therefore also end up incapable of critique and unfree, just for inverse reasons. Hence, we need to be very mindful of what notions of imagining we engage and how we use them. They transport normative claims of ethical and political relevance.
In turn, our notions of imagining also have an impact on our notions and, potentially, actions of critique and resistance. One pervasive element of our Zeitgeist appears to be the sentiment (unfortunately given academic support in Fukuyama’s thesis of the ‘end of history’) that we have reached the end of imaginable alternatives. Politically, this often plays out as a fatalist giving in to the status quo as ‘the only alternative,’ even when it is seen as sub-optimal, or even unfair and unjust. New models of imagining can help here, too. For, if we assume that proper critique requires that one is able to imagine a constructive alternative to the status quo, understood as the desirable outcome that we can then takes steps to produce, then it makes sense that we quickly become overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues involved and thus conclude that alternatives are unimaginable and change impossible. Then it is only reasonable to be discouraged. However, I believe, the notions of extended and collective imagining, which do not rely on a genius individual imagining new possibilities, not only make it easier to feel able to participate in imaginative modifications, variations, challenges and resistances of the status quo. What’s more, in line with notions of imagining that do not even require a personally aware imagining subject (I’m thinking, for example, of what Castoriadis called ‘social imaginaries’), we realize we are always already involved in the imagining of ways of life, and of what counts and does not count in them. And, finally, perhaps we can also free ourselves from the Judeo-Christian image of the imagining subject as a creator by design, that is, as a creator who can predict the consequences of his or her actions, and gain a sense of imaginative action, which, following Hannah Arendt’s important insight in The Human Condition, as genuine action, initiates, begins, sets something into motion, something new that cannot be predicted, but that nonetheless happens “against the overwhelming odds of statistical probability.”
Image credit: © KU Leuven - Rob Stevens