Imagination and Acquaintance Principle

Uku Tooming is a Researcher in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Tartu and a Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard University. His main research interests are in philosophy of mind, epistemology and aesthetics.

Uku Tooming is a Researcher in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Tartu and a Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard University. His main research interests are in philosophy of mind, epistemology and aesthetics.

A post by Uku Tooming.

It is intuitive to think that grasping the aesthetic value of something – be it an artefact or a natural object – requires first-hand experience. For instance, it seems problematic to say: “That painting is beautiful, although I have not seen it”. This idea has found its formulation in the so-called Acquaintance Principle (AP). Take an influential statement of the principle by Richard Wollheim:

judgements of aesthetic value, unlike judgements of moral knowledge, must be based on first-hand experience of their objects and are not, except within very narrow limits, transmissible from one person to another. (Wollheim 1980, 233)

Both the content and status of AP are under debate. It may be treated as an epistemic principle concerning aesthetic knowledge or justification, or a non-epistemic principle concerning the acceptable way of making aesthetic judgments. In the context of this blog post, I try to avoid these intricacies and focus on the general idea that first-hand experience of an object is necessary for aesthetic appreciation.

The central assumption of AP, namely, that bypassing first-hand experience is impossible, seems to be falsified by the fact that people can use surrogates in order to access the aesthetic properties of artworks: in the case of paintings, for instance, this purpose could be served by a photographic reproduction. I am not going to evaluate how successful this general appeal to surrogates is. Instead, I am going to focus on a particular candidate for a surrogate: a vivid imagining of an experiential encounter with an artwork. From the literature, one can occasionally find the suggestion that one can appreciate an artwork by imagining it. For instance, Malcolm Budd has argued that one can form aesthetic judgments about an artwork when one imagines what it would be like to experience it (Budd 1995, 12) and Errol Lord has mentioned in passing that a vivid imagining can be a way of getting acquainted with aesthetically relevant properties (Lord 2016, 11). Something similar has also been suggested by James Grant when he considers deaf Beethoven appreciating in his imagination the works that he has composed (Grant 2013, 30).

On the face of it, this suggestion may seem quite promising. After all, vivid imaginings simulate first-hand experiences and provide a way in which one can gain knowledge about an experience without having it oneself (leaving aside bats’ feelings and transformative experiences). I think, however, that this proposal faces serious difficulties. First, appreciation of an artwork usually involves having the relevant affective responses. Often it even requires feeling specific emotions – ranging from horror to amusement, depending on the category to which the work belongs. For an imagining to capture the first-hand experience it should thus accurately simulate what the first-hand affective experience would be like. There is a reason to suspect, however, that our imagination is not up to this job. Research on affective forecasting supports the view that people are quite bad at predicting their affective reactions to future events. Our proclivity to errors in affective forecasting therefore gives a reason to doubt that simulating the experience is a fitting substitute for actually having that experience. And if that is the case, imaginative representation of an artwork is a not a trustworthy guide to aesthetic appreciation.

Second, in order to form the relevant imaginings, the agent has to possess information regarding what to imagine. What could provide this information? One suggestion is that it comes from detailed descriptions of the artwork. But if imaginings are made possible by descriptions, then the latter are what fundamentally matters in making appreciation possible. Since appreciation has to be anchored in the artwork’s aesthetically relevant properties, it is ultimately grounded in accurate descriptions that pick out those properties. But then it is unclear what further contribution to appreciation imaginings can make. The agent should already be in a position to judge the aesthetic merit of an artwork on the basis of those descriptions and imagination does not seem to play any further role in contributing to this. It is of course a contentious claim that a detailed description of an artwork can make aesthetic appreciation without first-hand experience possible. However, it seems that this claim has to be true for appreciation through imagination to be possible. And if it is true, then there doesn’t seem to be any substantial work left for imaginings.

Third, the way in which an imagining unfolds is up to the agent. Since they have discretion over their imagination, the informational link between the artwork and the imagining becomes fragile when they have not experienced the work themselves. As I’ve already pointed out above, for an appreciative response to be appropriate, the structure of the response should be constrained by the properties of the artwork. Imaginings of a person who is not familiar with the artwork lack those constraints. One might argue that the imaginative activity of an appreciative agent can be constrained by detailed descriptions of the work, but then we fall back on the second problem.

Since imaginings by themselves cannot play a substantial role in enabling aesthetic appreciation without first-hand experience, I suggest that a more promising way to think of the role of imagination in aesthetic appreciation is to consider how it can prepare for appreciation. Although imaginings are not a proper substitute for first-hand experience, they can make an agent more open and more willing to go along with the responses that the author of the work invites them to have.

For instance, imagination can prepare for engagement with a work of fiction which requires openness to developments in the fictional world. If one’s imaginative capacity is too constrained by one’s beliefs about the actual world or by genre-expectations, then reading the kind of fiction in question may cause imaginative resistance: one is not prepared to accept the invitation to imagine what the fiction represents. One way in which a person can learn to go along with this invitation is to try to consider in one’s imagination new possibilities and thereby expand their imaginative capacity. What was considered as impossible before may become a live possibility, at least in a fictional world. Preparatory imaginative exercises can thus contribute to immunizing oneself against imaginative resistance and put one in a position to appreciate the work.

Another way in which imagination can play a preparatory role is by contributing to aesthetic motivation to engage with an artwork. Take, for instance, a person who hasn’t listened to a particular piece of music but knows that thus far the genre to which it belongs has not resonated with them. However, they are willing to imagine different possibilities that the genre contains, and by imagining those possibilities, they might acquire motivation to listen to that piece of music. The relevant imaginings need not accurately reflect the first-hand experience, but they may be needed for the relevant kind of aesthetic motivation.

Finally, aside from the preparatory role, imaginings may contribute to appreciation after first-hand experience. As a result of getting acquainted with an artwork through real-life engagement, one is able to rehearse that experience in one’s imagination. In some contexts, this might provide access to the work’s aesthetically relevant properties which do not fully reveal themselves in a real-life experiential encounter.  For instance, if a song that one has listened to remains fresh and does not lose its appeal after one has replayed it numerous times in one’s head, one can then appreciate its replay value as an aesthetic merit. It is compliment to an artist if their work comes to haunt us in our imagination. One could object that this is a function of memory, not imagination, but given the constructive nature of both, they bleed into each other almost seamlessly.


Budd, M. 1995. Values of Art: Pictures, Poetry and Music. Penguin Books.

Grant, J. 2013. Critical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Lord, E. 2016. On the rational power of aesthetic testimony. British Journal of Aesthetics, 56(1), 1–13.

Wollheim, R. 1980. Art and Its Objects. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.