Imaginative Associations: The Return of the Repressed?

    Talia Morag is postdoctoral fellow at Deakin University working on a project on implicit bias.  Her main research interests are philosophical psychology, especially the philosophy of emotions, ethics, and the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis, as well as philosophy of television.


Talia Morag is postdoctoral fellow at Deakin University working on a project on implicit bias.  Her main research interests are philosophical psychology, especially the philosophy of emotions, ethics, and the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis, as well as philosophy of television.

A post by Talia Morag.

Philosophers mobilize the term “imagination” for many explanatory tasks, including empathy, mindreading, counterfactual reasoning, and pretending. The recent flourishing of the study of the imagination favors the active exercise of imaginative capacity. When Amy Kind declares this to be the “primary sense” of the imagination, she reflects a contemporary trend (Kind 2013, 145). Kind contrasts this active sense to occasions where ideas “pop” into one’s mind, which she identifies with what Currie and Ravenscroft call “the creative imagination”, that is, “put[ting] together ideas in a way that defies expectation or convention” (Currie & Ravenscroft, 2002, 9).  I prefer to call this associative capacity “the passive imagination.”

Philosophical discussion of the imagination never fails to mention Hume, but his conception of the associative imagination as a universal human capacity has gone out of fashion, as has associationism quite generally. In fact, the few philosophers that give a role to associations in psychology, no doubt influenced by the current revival of associationism in social psychology, typically divorce them from the imagination (e.g. Gendler 2008). The only place one can find imaginative associations playing a central philosophical role today is in the explanation of metaphor in terms of similarities between otherwise unlike things (e.g. Ricoeur 2004). When it comes to artistic creativity of, say, poets and painters, we talk about inspiration, being struck by an idea, what used to be called hearing the voice of “one’s Muse”.  I suggest that ideas that pop play a significant role in our lives, whether we are artists or not. The passive imagination – the non-rational and imagistic capacity we have to associate ideas, emotions, sensory experiences etc. without any intention to do so – is, I want to claim, overdue for a comeback in philosophy, especially if we are to explain the aspects of ourselves that are not illuminated from the rational point of view.

It has been said that not only metaphor but also all other literary connections – such as similes, metonyms, symbols, synecdoche, antonyms or oppositions (e.g. incongruity in jokes or binary oppositions such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) – find their basis in associations, such as similarity, part-whole, inversion, and contiguity (Sperber & Wilson 1986, 155). But philosophers have not acknowledged the imaginative genesis of such associations. Ricoeur, for example, describes the similarity at the basis of metaphors as imaginative, but insists that the contiguities that explain metonyms are (merely) given by reality. Those select contiguities that matter for metonyms, however, such as being “in diapers” for infancy, merit their figurative use precisely because they capture our imagination. The salience of diapers is not merely perceptual like the salience of the smaller size of infants in comparison to adults. They have imaginative salience, inasmuch as we can take them to signify various features of immaturity such as incontinence and dependency on adults.

Although imaginative associations can be used to form literary connections they are distinct from them. A statue at the center of town symbolizes a leader. The symbolic relation is an intentional unidirectional relation involving such things as the leader’s grandeur and centrality. The similarity association that founds a symbol, conversely, is an imagistic bi-directional relation. One sees the leader in the statue and may also see the leader recalling the statue, much like experiencing a similarity between two faces, seeing a father in his son and vice versa. Even seemingly conceptual metaphors, such as “All the World’s a Stage,” that invite us to articulate the respects in which the theatre stage is similar to the social world, are grounded in such a bi-directional experience. The basis of this conceptually fruitful metaphor is an imaginative experience of Shakespeare, a playwright, director and actor, that finds himself feeling as if he were on stage in his everyday life and vice versa. And when we “get” this metaphor, even before we can spell it out, we too, I contend, suddenly see ourselves or people we know as actors in a play or see certain fictional characters as ordinary people.

We are not all poets, coming up with new associations to convey fruitful insights. But – even if we normally do not notice it – all of us imaginatively associate most of the time. Try to meditate and think of nothing and see for yourself. Memories, fantasies and phrases keep popping into our minds, and more often than not they are connected to one another through similarities, inversions, and part-whole relations. They may not qualify for art or science, but they often “defy expectation or convention,” if only due to their idiosyncrasy, inherited from the particularity of one’s personal history and behavioural patterns. And these associations are as affectively laden as the memories and the fantasies they involve.

Now I am going to invoke another philosophically unfashionable theory (or, rather, a curious combination of theory and practice), Freudian psychoanalysis, to make what I take to be a very plausible empirical hypothesis about imaginative associations. We normally ignore or inattend to our imaginative associations, because we are busy engaged in practical tasks or formulating or following a line of thought, argument or story. But sometimes many associations lead to the same memories or fantasies, and their accumulated affect becomes too much to ignore. As a result, whoever or whatever triggered the associations is seen in terms of people and things from the enlivened emotional memory. We end up emotionally reacting to our partners, say, because they imaginatively remind us of our parents, without being aware of it – a kind of a seeing-as experience. The psychoanalytic phenomenon known as “transference,” according to which we treat our therapist as if she were someone from our own private life (Freud 1914), also occurs frequently in everyday life, as is attested by common phrases such as “don’t take it out on me” or by fictional characters like Donna in the TV series Suits who keeps reminding everyone around her that their anger is misdirected.

This is how I interpret Amélie Rorty’s example of Jonah, a newspaper journalist, who finds himself resenting his female boss Esther, even when he knows he shouldn’t from a rational point of view (Rorty 1980). Jonah sees Esther in terms of his mother, whom he has been resenting for years, and, plausibly, when he visits his mother, he sees her in terms of his boss. Rorty and others talk of dispositions to explain cases of recalcitrant emotions, but disposition talk does not fit with the well-known fact that patterns such as Jonah’s are not very reliable.  Jonah may have good and bad days with Esther, and may feel differently about a new female boss. Why is the “disposition” sometimes manifested and sometimes not? Imaginative associations, alternatively, are habitual, as Hume notes, but only weakly so. They are also characterized by “contingency and caprice,” as Hegel claims in his critique of Hume. Associative habits may come and go and change over time, features that fit well with our messy emotional lives.

Hume’s associationism is over-ambitious. It is a global theory about the operations of the mind in general, including perception of an “external” world, the explanation of universals, the continuity of the self, and causal reasoning. My suggestion, which I pursue at greater length elsewhere (Morag 2016), is that we turn to imaginative associations for the more modest but worthy challenge of explaining our emotional and affective lives, including recalcitrant emotions, sexual fetishes, and moods.

Finally let us note that the passive or associative imagination makes sense of the otherwise mysterious, obscure, but highly influential Freudian unconscious. When we go to psychoanalytic therapy we are told to “free associate” i.e. to say whatever pops into our mind, a rule that is, in fact, very difficult to follow (Lear 2014). Our associations may be too immoral or embarrassing to confront or share. If we succeed, we are effectively attending to the imaginative associations we normally ignore but which are, arguably, one of the root causes of our emotional difficulties. “Free association”, as I see it, is not the road to a mysterious unconscious entity or agency – which is the standard view. Rather, free association is the unconscious revealed.


Currie G. & I. Ravenscroft, Recreative Minds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Freud, Sigmund “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through” [1914] S.E. 12, 148.

Gendler, Tamar. “Alief and Belief,” Journal of Philosophy 105 (10): 634-663 (2008).

Hegel, G. W. F. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Trans. Bernard Bosanquet. Ed. Michael Inwood (London: Penguin, 1993).

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature [1738] (London: Everyman’s Library Press, 1911).

Kind, Amy. “The Heterogeneity of the Imagination,” Erkenntnis 78:1, 141-159.

Lear, Jonathan. “Integrating the Non-Rational Soul,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 114(1pt1): 75-101.

Morag, Talia. Emotion, Imagination, and the Limits of Reason (Routledge, 2016)

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: The creation of meaning in language [1975], trans. Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello, SJ (London: Routledge, 2004).

Rorty, Amélie. “Explaining Emotions:” In Explaining Emotions, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980),103–126.

Sperber, Dan and Deidre Wilson, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series 86 (1985-1986) 153-171.