Practical Problems and Imaginative Confabulations

Magdalena Balcerak Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. She works on the nature and epistemology of various cognitive capacities, such as perception, reasoning, understanding and intuition. Currently, she is putting all her energy into finishing a book on what imagination is and what it can do for us.

Magdalena Balcerak Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. She works on the nature and epistemology of various cognitive capacities, such as perception, reasoning, understanding and intuition. Currently, she is putting all her energy into finishing a book on what imagination is and what it can do for us.

A Post by Magdalena Balcerak Jackson.

I am standing in front of the classroom with my co-teacher Sara, a smart female graduate student. It is her turn to lead the discussion today. She explains all the ideas and arguments clearly and competently. Most students listen and cooperate. And yet, two male undergraduates keep interrupting her, making provocative, unhelpful comments and undermining her. I see her getting more and more insecure about how to deal with the situation. As I stand in the corner observing, I ask myself: What to do?

This situation is not a matter of life-or-death. It is also not a grand stage-setting to reflect on our fundamental ethical principles. It is a rather ordinary practical situation. But this doesn’t make it insignificant, but rather more practically relevant. I am in a specific real-life situation and I need to figure out what to do. I care about doing the right thing, and I care about doing right by the people involved.

It is important to realize that in order for me to settle the question what to do, it is insufficient for me to figure out what I ought to do (see Hieronymi 2005). After all, even when I sincerely decide that I ought not spend the night binge-watching the latest season of Shameless, I might still decide to do just that. So, deliberating about my classroom problem, I need not only decide what I ought to do and what I owe to the people involved, but also make sure that I do it.

How do I go about settling my practical question? I will give my answer in what follows. The not so controversial part of my answer is: I use reasoning and the imagination. The more controversial part of my answer is: I engage in creative, confabulatory imaginative work to find a good solution to my practical problem.

In order to decide whether to intervene or to let Sara handle the situation by herself, I have to consider the objective properties of the situation: that Sara is academically less experienced, that she is generally a reserved person, that she is an equal co-teacher of the course. I consider my general ethical commitments to treat my colleagues with respect. But I also consider how the situation is for Sara (and for the undergraduates, but let’s focus on Sara for the sake of discussion). After all, if I care about not merely doing the right thing abstractly, but doing the right thing by Sara, I owe it to her to consider her point of view. The natural way to do this is to imagine being Sara. Imagining being Sara differs significantly from imagining myself being in the equivalent position. I am a more experienced teacher and a more confrontational person, so my cognitive and emotional response to the situation would surely be different. I want to know whether the way Sara feels and perceives the situation gives me reason to step in rather than hold back.

But what do I imagine when I imagine being Sara? I try to create an appropriate mental representation of the situation from a first-person (experiential) point of view. When I try to represent first-personally how Sara feels and thinks, I use my observational knowledge of the situation to guide my imagination. I also use my background knowledge about Sara’s character: Sara is reserved, so she might feel hesitation; Sara is smart and competent, so she is confident about her understanding of the material. These are all natural inferences I ought to make. But my background information is quite limited. Is it sufficient to get a rich enough first-personal imagining of Sara’s point of view?

In addition, psychology has taught us to be suspicious about our ability to imaginatively project ourselves into other people. Even if we can accurately imagine what it would be like for us to face some alternative circumstances, we are notoriously egocentrically biased when imagining the mental lives of others. Should this worry me when I imagine being Sara?

Remember, I care about doing the right thing by Sara, and it seems like I owe it to Sara to consider her point of view. So how do I address the cognitive challenge I am facing? I suggest that we look for inspiration in a rather unlikely place: our engagement with fiction.

When we competently read a piece of fiction with the goal of genuinely understanding the story – the characters, the situations they are facing, their actions and their inner lives – we project ourselves imaginatively into the fictional world. But this activity is much more creative than most philosophers want to acknowledge. We do not merely imagine what the text explicitly tells us, and infer what is implied by the text. We imaginatively confabulate. We make up a lot of details in order to achieve a rich and experientially compelling picture of the fictional world and the characters inhabiting it. (Balcerak Jackson/Langkau ms.) These creative imaginative confabulations are not directly guided by the text (even if they are constrained and motivated by it). And yet, they often seem to be essential to truly understanding the story behind the text. If I want to truly grasp a difficult fictional character and understand their motivation, it is helpful to assist the author in creating and completing it. We readers are in fact imaginatively co-authoring stories.

Sara is not a fictional character, and I am not writing her story. And, yet it might be useful to engage in the same kind of imaginative confabulation in order to solve my very real practical problem: In order to get a detailed, rich and compelling picture of Sara’s point of view, I add details that go beyond what I can know or infer. I make up aspects of her inner life - not randomly but competently and creatively – that allow her to come alive in my imagination. What I will imagine will not likely be the actual point of view of Sara, but rather of Imaginary Sara, who is in many ways like Sara, in some ways like me and in some ways like neither of us. And yet, I find it plausible that if I base my decision about what to do on what things are like for Imaginary Sara, I will likely do right by Sara.

I think that engaging in competent imaginative confabulations does not merely help us to understand the fundamental traits of people we are committed to treating well, and figure out what we ought to do in specific real-life practical situations. It also creates a rich representation of people’s experiential points of view that is likely to intimately affect us in ways that will motivate us to do right by these people. In many everyday real-life cases, we morally fail by not acting when we should, rather than by doing the wrong thing. In many everyday real-life cases, subtle details about people’s characters and desires will not affect how we ought to treat them. If imaginatively confabulating helps us to grasp the points of views of others in ways that helps us to treat them well, why not do it?!


Balcerak Jackson, M. / Langkau, J. (manuscript): Imagining Fictional Stories.

Hieronymi, P. (2005): The Wrong Kind of Reason, Journal of Philosophy 102, 9: 437-457.