Beyond Solitary Reveries: On the Possibility of Collective Imagination

 Thomas Szanto is Senior Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and Visiting Research Fellow at the Center of Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. You can access his work at .

Thomas Szanto is Senior Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and Visiting Research Fellow at the Center of Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. You can access his work at

A post by Thomas Szanto.

In the face of an ever-thriving research on imagination as well as on collective intentionality, memory and collective emotions, it is rather surprising that hardly anybody has yet systematically inquired whether and how individuals could collectively perform acts of imagination.

There are several reasons for this desideratum, but I think it is mainly due to two: first, the focus in the social sciences typically has been on the symbolic or aesthetic content or the public display of so-called ‘social imaginaries’ rather than the intentional structure of the act or performance of collective imagination. Secondly, psychologists and philosophers have been reluctant to account for collective imagination (henceforth: CI) because of the presupposition that it would entail some super-individual mental imaginary, or groups with an own sensory faculty or phenomenal consciousness (cf. Szanto 2014).

And indeed, it seems mysterious how collectives could have proper imaginary representations, their own mental imaginary, or even their own faculty of imagination. Given the broadly phenomenological account of imagination (cf., e.g., Casey 2000; Summa et al. 2017; Jansen 2016) I endorse, and, in particular, the requirement of imagination involving a quasi-sensory phenomenology, the question of how two or more individuals can imagine something together becomes conceptually non-trivial in light of the Scylla and Charybdis of any adequate account of CI: on the one hand, we must conceive of ‘sharing’ in the strong sense in which aggregating individual subjects’ imaginative acts who merely imagine the same object ‘alongside’ each other (accidentally or simultaneously) doesn’t amount to shared imagination; on the other hand, we must steer clear of the metaphysical trap of assuming some supra-individual subject with an own quasi-sensory phenomenology who would realize CI.

Yet, isn’t imagining together a rather ordinary phenomenon? As Walton—one of the few philosophers who have explicitly pondered the issue (see also Jansen 2017)—observes, imagining is not always a “solitary affair,” rather, “fantasizing is sometimes a social event. There are collaborative daydreams as well as private reveries.” (1990, 18) Now, whether or not people “together may be able to think of more exciting things to imagine than they could come up separately, or more interesting or satisfying one,” (ibid.) collective imagination, rightly construed, is a real phenomenon, or so I argue (for details, see Szanto 2017).

So what, if not the subject of imagination, is shared? Is it the acts of imagination and the resulting experiences, mental images, representational qualities or contents and/or the specific (quasi-)sensory phenomenology of imaginings? As already hinted at, however, this cannot be the right route, as it leads to assuming a supra-individual subject with an own (quasi-)sensory phenomenology, if not a collective consciousness. On any sensible account, the experiential vehicles of the phenomenology of imagination will remain within the purview of individuals.

Is then the defining feature of CI that we are directed towards a shared intentional (existing but absent or non-existing, fictional) object? Though this is in fact necessary, it is not a sufficient requirement. After all, I certainly can imagine the same Sleeping Beauty as you, but without each of us knowing that the other also engages in the imagination our imaginings will not be shared in the relevant sense. Moreover, not just the fine-grained representational content of my Sleepy Beauty but also the representational, symbolic or discursive vehicles of my mental imaginary might widely differ from yours. Consider the coincidentally converging imagination of a Japanese 4-year-old imagining a Sleeping Beauty illustrated in a manga, and your imagination prompted by reading about it here as a conceptual intuition-pump.    

Is then maybe mutual awareness or even some explicit agreement among the subjects regarding their joint engagement in an imaginative project, plus the (shared) use of certain “props” or “prompters”, such as toys, fiction or visual arts pieces, that facilitates and coordinate the joint activity and marks the difference between merely corresponding and shared imaginings, as Walton suggests (1990, 19–24)? Indeed, as with any type of collective intentionality and emotions, there must be some awareness of one another at play (even if not necessarily of the mutual kind, for various reasons of circularity) (cf. Szanto 2015, 2016; forthcoming; Léon et al. forthcoming). But as Walton also points out, there may be explicit agreements about the course of imaginative engagements in specific cases (e.g., collaborative brainstorming in artistic, scientific or organizational practices), but are not necessary. Too unwieldy to allow for spontaneity and elasticity of ordinary imaginings, or the “‘vivacity’ of imagining spontaneously” (Walton 1990, 19), and too heavily laden with deliberation, agreements will typically be supplanted by what Walton calls “props” or “prompters”. Prompters such as mythological stories, fairy-tale figures, paintings or artefacts such as dolls or snowmen are produced not so much as to induce solitary imaginative musings but precisely to spontaneously elicit and facilitate coordination in CI. Importantly, they do so by “directing the imaginings of others in predetermined ways” (ibid., 22) and often become conventionalized, habitualized and internalized.

Herein now—to wit in the normativity and social typification of imagination—lies the crucial last step for a proper account of CI. Thus, I suggest that, along with requirements on the sharedness of the objects and epistemic requirements on the acknowledgement of that among the parties, it is the specific type and degree of normativity that makes all the difference between solitary and collective imagination.

The basic idea is this: For a number of individuals to imagine X together, there must be certain commonly acknowledged and shared norms of imagination, guiding (though not fully determining) what and how to imagine X together, eventually furnishing the given X-world with a common imaginative ‘typology’, and determining membership in the given group of ‘imaginers’. It is the higher degree of normativity involved in CI that unifies individuals’ imaginings and makes them eventually exhibit group-relative ‘imagistic typologies’. Surely, norms guide what (not) to imagine in solitary imagination, too. This is, incidentally, what explains the emergence of the much-discussed phenomenon of imaginative resistance. But there are important differences between the norms regulating solitary and shared imagination, which concern the normative powers and, importantly, the very way in which norms regulate imaginations.

Concerning normative powers, the constitution and the success of CI will to a higher degree depend upon the way in which the participants’ presentational capacities comply with what their group takes to be essential features of the imagined object. If my mental imaginary falls all-too short of what my ‘fellow imaginers’ require, I will no longer participate in the shared imaginative project, even if others or myself fail to acknowledge that. The reason is that the imagined object or world is supposed to be precisely not my own imaginative representation but our common one and must consequently respond to shared norms and commitments. This is also the reason why each of us is indeed entitled to reclaim our (shared) imaginative typologies if they are violated by our fellow imaginers (‘This pig-tailed figure is not a Sleeping Beauty, whatever else it may be!’), as already pretense-play among very young infants demonstrates (Rakoczy 2008). In imagining together, not everything goes—and much less than in solitary musings—even if we know full well that there are no facts of the matter as to the representational properties of any imagined world.


Casey, Edward S. 2000. Imagining: A Phenomenological Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

León, Felipe, Thomas Szanto, and Dan Zahavi. Forthcoming. Emotional Sharing and the Extended Mind. Synthese. doi: 10.1007/s11229-017-1351-x.

Jansen, Julia. 2016. Husserl. In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination, ed. by Amy Kind, 69–81. London, New York: Routledge.

Jansen, Julia. 2017. Shared Imagining: Beyond Extension, Distribution and Committment. In Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology, ed. by Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, and Luca Vanzago. London, New York: Routledge.

Rakoczy, Hannes. 2008. “Taking fiction seriously: Young children understand the normative structure of joint pretend games.” Developmental Psychology 44(4):1195–201.

Szanto, Thomas. 2014. How to Share a Mind: Reconsidering the Group Mind Thesis. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 13(1):99–120.

Szanto, Thomas. 2015. Collective Emotions, Normativity and Empathy: A Steinian Account. Human Studies 38(4):503–527.

Szanto, Thomas. 2016. Husserl on Collective Intentionality. In Social Reality: The Phenomenological Approach, ed. by Alessandro Salice, and Hans Bernhard Schmid, 145–172. Dordrecht: Springer.

Szanto, Thomas. 2017. Collective Imagination. A Normative Account. In Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology, ed. by Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, and Luca Vanzago, 223–245. London, New York: Routledge.

Szanto, Thomas. Forthcoming. The Phenomenology of Shared Emotions: Reassessing Gerda Walther. In Woman Phenomenologists on Social Ontology, ed. by Sebastian Luft and Ruth Hagengruber.  Dordrecht: Springer.

Walton, Kendall L. 1991. Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.