A post by Amy Kind.
Recently at a conference someone remarked to me that since I’d gotten my PhD back in 1997 – actually, he might have said “way back” – I must have been working on imagination before it became a hot topic in philosophy. And imagination has indeed lately become hot. Though the subject was largely ignored by philosophers throughout most of the twentieth century, it has been the subject of dramatically increased attention over the last twenty-five to thirty years – and especially so over the last decade or so. This chance remark – in addition to reminding me how old I’ve become – got me reflecting on how, exactly, we've gotten to this point, that is, how did imagination come to be as hot as it has become? So I thought I'd use this blog post in an effort to try to answer this question.
As I've thought more about this, it seems to me that there are at least four different and independent developments that are particularly salient in tracing the rise of imagination in philosophical discussion. In no particular order, here they are:
(1) First, following the publication of books such as Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity in 1980, philosophers became increasingly interested in issues relating to metaphysical essences and, relatedly, to questions about how we can know about the essential properties of things. Imagination seemed important in this regard, and more generally, in the emerging discussions of epistemology of modality.
(2) The second development arose amidst discussions of fiction in the aesthetics literature. Two influential books published in 1990 – Mimesis as Make-Believe by Kendall Walton and The Nature of Fiction by Gregory Currie – both implicated imagination in an explanation of how we are to understand what fiction is. In particular, they claimed (roughly) that fictions involve prescriptions to imagine. As discussions of this view developed and philosophers attended to the role of imagination in constituting fiction, philosophers also began to pay increasing attention to the broader role of imagination in our engagement with and appreciation of fiction.
(3) The third development stemmed from the theory of mind debate in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, i.e., the question of how we know the mental states of others and how we use our knowledge of such mental states to predict and explain the actions of others. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, most philosophers and cognitive scientists had subscribed to the view that we gain this knowledge and make the relevant predictions on the basis of a folk-psychological theory. But this view, known as the theory theory, came under attack in the late 1980s via the development of the simulation theory. On the simulation theory – initial versions of which were posited by Robert Gordon and Jane Heal – we don’t employ any kind of theory in an attempt to understand others but rather engage in a kind of mental simulation or modeling of them. It was inevitable, perhaps, that philosophers would look to imagination to help spell out how this simulative process works.
(4) The fourth development grew out of a battle fought by both philosophers and cognitive scientists in the 1970s and 1980s about the nature of mental images – a battle that is often referred to as the imagery debate. Though we often have experiences that seem to us to be imagistic in nature, how is such experience encoded by the brain? On one side are the pictorialists like philosopher Jerry Fodor and psychologist Stephen Kosslyn who argue that the representations underlying our mental imagery experience are pictorial in nature. On the other side are the descriptionalists like philosopher Daniel Dennett and psychologist Zenon Pylyshyn who argue that the representations underlying our mental imagery experience are descriptive in nature. Increased focus on the experience of mental imagery in turn led to increased attention to imagination.
Given these developments occurring across a wide swath of territory in philosophy and cognitive science 1970s to the 1990s, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we have since witnessed an explosion of interest in imagination. Moreover, this explosion of interest has occurred across a variety of sub-disciplinary perspectives – from philosophy of mind and aesthetics to epistemology and ethics. What is imagination and how does it relate to complementary mental states like belief and perception? What role does imagination play in our engagement with and appreciation of works of literature and film? How does imagination help us understand others? How does imagination play a role in empathy, and thus in enabling us to act ethically towards others? What can imagination teach us about the world in which we live? These are just some of the many questions that have motivated philosophical investigations of imagination in these first two decades of the twenty-first century.
I don't think these four developments outlined above tell the whole story, but it does seem to me that they play a significant role in whatever story there is to be told. And I'd be very much interested in hearing readers' thoughts on this issue as well!