To which fiction do your imaginings refer?

Peter Langland-Hassan is Associate Professor of philosophy at the University of Cincinnati.  He is (still…) working a book he calls ‘ Explaining Imagination.’

Peter Langland-Hassan is Associate Professor of philosophy at the University of Cincinnati.  He is (still…) working a book he calls ‘Explaining Imagination.’

A post by Peter Langland-Hassan.

If you have seen The Big Lebowski, you know that The Dude hates The Eagles.  Being sympathetic to The Dude, I don’t want him to hear the Eagles any more than he has to.  Here are three competing options—following Gregory Currie (2010)—for characterizing my desire:

The Simple View:  I desire that The Dude does not hear The Eagles.

The Change of Content View:  I desire that, in The Big Lebowski, The Dude does not hear The Eagles.

The Change of Attitude View: I i-desire that The Dude does not hear The Eagles.

Currie (2010) has an ingenious argument against the Simple View.[1]  He asks us to suppose that there is a fictional BBC drama, Death of a Prime Minister, the plot of which involves the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, being pursued by an assassin.  While enjoying the fiction, Currie comes to side with the assassin.  Despite bearing Ms. Thatcher no ill will in reality, he wishes for her to die in the fiction.  (Only, that’s not how he would characterize the desire.  Currie holds he i-desires that Thatcher is assassinated, while desiring that she lives.)  The case is intended to create trouble for the Simple View, as follows.  Suppose that, while Currie is viewing film, an actual assassin chases Thatcher into the cinema and assassinates her before his eyes.  He would be distraught and outraged—not at all satisfied.  This suggests—against the Simple View—that he never really had the desire that Thatcher be assassinated.  There are replies we could consider, and that Currie does consider, on behalf of the Simple view.  (See, e.g., fn. 2).  But, for the purposes of this post, I will assume that the argument succeeds.

Currie himself favors the “change of attitude” option in responding to this puzzle:  he holds that he i-desires that Thatcher is assassinated, and desires that she is not assassinated.  The i-desire’s satisfaction conditions, he tells us, pertain to what goes on in the fiction, while the desire’s satisfaction conditions pertain to reality.  This is why he is not satisfied or relieved when Thatcher is, in fact, assassinated. 

The “change of content” view holds, by contrast, that he desires that, in Death of a Prime Minister, Thatcher is assassinated; and he desires that Thatcher is not assassinated.  This combination of desires—one mentioning the fiction, the other not—makes plain why he would frown upon Thatcher’s actual assassination.  This is my favored view.  I will spend the remaining space defending it and drawing out an interesting consequence.

Suppose that there is a second Thatcher-inspired BBC drama, A Dangerous Pearl.  I am binge-watching BBC dramas one day and end up watching just the first half of both A Dangerous Pearl (ADP) and Death of a Prime Minister (DPM).  My plan is to watch the second half of each the following day.  I am sympathetic to the assassin in DPM, but not in ADP.  As I would put it, I desire that, in DPM, Thatcher is assassinated.  And I desire that, in ADP, Thatcher is not assassinated.  I am not sure how Currie would describe the situation, however.  He faces a prima facie problem in having to hold that I both i-desire that Thatcher is assassinated and i-desire that she is not assassinated.  (For the Change of Attitude view, like the Simple View, aims to omit mention of the fiction from the content of i-desires).  This would wrongly suggest that I am somehow conflicted in what I wish to happen to Thatcher.  But there are no “mixed emotions” here, no ambivalence.  I want Thatcher to perish in one film and not in the other.  (By contrast, I think the enjoyment of tragedy does involve one’s being conflicted about what happens in a particular fiction, pace Currie and some others). 

One response Currie might make is that i-desires are “condition-dependent,” existing only while one is enjoying the fiction to which they relate.  This would prevent one from ever having (conflicting) i-desires relating to two different fictions simultaneously.  Currie rejects this kind of response, however, as it could equally insulate the Simple View from his own critique.[2]  His response aside, I think it is wrong to suggest that our fiction-directed desires (or i-desires, if there be such) pop out of existence as soon as we turn away from the fictions that elicit them.  Like desires generally, they are dispositional states that persist day to day.  Whenever we return to the mini-series we have been binging upon, they are there at the ready.  Sound asleep, I want the protagonist of the miniseries I’ve been watching to solve the murder she is investigating, just as much as I want to go to a concert the next day.

Another response Currie might offer is that the satisfaction conditions of each state relate to distinct fictions and that this is why there is no conflict between the two.  But this would require that something other than an i-desire’s content and attitude determines whether it conflicts, or not, with another i-desire.  At that point, the notions of content and attitude are no longer doing the explanatory work we expect of them.

Now to a more radical conclusion—one aimed at the popular view that our fiction-elicited imaginings pair with desires, or desire-like states, to generate fiction-directed affect.  On the Change of Content view—the only view still standing—I desire that, in DPM, Thatcher is assassinated; and I desire that, in ADP, Thatcher is not assassinated.  When I resume my viewing of ADP, I discover that, in ADP, Thatcher is in fact assassinated.  I don’t feel any satisfaction at this.  The reason is obvious:  I did not desire that, in ADP, Thatcher is assassinated; rather, I desired that, in DMP, Thatcher is assassinated.  Yet this shows something interesting.  Presumably, while watching ADP, I imagine that Thatcher is assassinated, in accord with what the film prescribesThis imagining, evidently, is not the right sort of state to pair with a desire that, in DPM, Thatcher is assassinated, to generate positive affect.   

Why isn’t it?   Well, intuitively, the imagining is not about the right fiction.  What would it take for the imagining to be about the right fiction?  The answer seems clear to me:  the specific fiction would need to feature in the content of the imagining.  That is the only way to render the imagining relevant to my desires about one, as opposed to the other, fiction—or, indeed, about any fiction at all.  If I imagine that, in DPM, Thatcher is assassinated, this state can potentially combine with my desire that, in DPM, Thatcher is assassinated, to generate positive affect.  But simply imagining that Thatcher is assassinated will not do the trick.  Conclusion:  if our imaginings are to play a role in generating fiction-related affect, we need “in the fiction” operators within our propositional imaginings just as much as we need them among our beliefs and desires.  (Really, something stronger follows:  for our imaginings simply to concern one fiction, versus another, relevant “in the fiction” operators are required within the imaginings).

But once we are committed to “in the fiction” operators within our (fiction-related) imaginings themselves, what is the point of these imaginings?  We already have beliefs about what is true in each fiction.  These can combine with our desires about what is true in each fiction to generate affect.  Imaginings involving “in the fiction” operators would simply duplicate the contents of these beliefs—to what end?[3]

[1] This post continues a line of thought I began in a previous post.  In that post I put forward an example involving a fiction where terrorists storm Buckingham palace.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that example was similar, and put to suspiciously similar ends, as Currie’s example from his 2010, which involves Margaret Thatcher.  The common theme of British authority figures suggests this wasn’t a mere coincidence!  Had I seen Currie’s paper at some point and forgotten?  Probably.  That’s embarrassing, and more than a little ridiculous.  I apologize.   

[2] The Simple View theorist might say that Currie has a long-term, stable desire that Thatcher lives, and a condition-dependent desire (while watching DPM) that she is assassinated.  Currie responds that, when the assassin runs into the theater chasing the actual Thatcher, he is still in the context where his desire (or i-desire) that she is assassinated (in DPM) is active; and yet, her actual assassination does not satisfy any desire of his.  This, he suggests, shows that even if the fiction-directed desire is condition-dependent, it still is not a desire that Thatcher be assassinated.  My response can piggyback on his: instead of Thatcher being chased into the theater, suppose that we simply bring an iPad into the theater where Currie is enjoying DPM and show him a snippet of ADP where Thatcher is assassinated.  No desire, or i-desire, of his is thereby satisfied—and yet he is imagining that Thatcher is assassinated and remains in the context where he (purportedly) i-desires that she is assassinated. 

[3] Thanks to Maxwell Gatyas for helpful discussion of these arguments.


Currie, G.  (2010)  “Tragedy,” Analysis 70(4): 632-8.