Book Symposium: Introduction from Margherita Arcangeli

Margherita Arcangeli is a post-doctoral researcher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the Institut Jean Nicod. Her main areas of research are philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, aesthetics and epistemology.

Margherita Arcangeli is a post-doctoral researcher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the Institut Jean Nicod. Her main areas of research are philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, aesthetics and epistemology.

This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Margherita Arcangeli’s recent book:  Supposition and the Imaginative Realm (Routledge, 2018).  Today we begin with an introduction from Margherita.  Commentaries and replies will appear Tuesday through Thursday.

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The fundamental question that drives my inquiry is: What is supposition? This is a crucial and pressing question, if we consider that while supposition has been frequently invoked as a key notion in many philosophical debates in different domains (e.g., aesthetics, logic, phenomenology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science), we lack a consensual characterisation of supposition. There is a tendency to contrast supposition with imagination, but most of the time this is not premised on a detailed analysis. It may well be, indeed, that supposition is rather a type of imagination. The book offers an extensive analysis of supposition that does justice to its place in the architecture of the mind. My main goal is to show that there are good arguments in favour of the view that supposition is a type of imagination, but that these very arguments also suggest that supposition is a specific type of imagination, distinct from other varieties of imagination recognised by the literature.


An informed answer to the question “What is supposition?” must involve an analysis of imagination, given that supposition is typically put in relation with the latter. The problem is that we also lack a consensual definition of imagination! Where should we start? In the introductory Chapter of the book I argue that there is, in fact, a common core in attempted definitions of the imagination, namely to consider imagination as the capacity to mimic or to “re-create” non-imaginative kinds of mental state. The idea is that imaginings are phenomenologically and/or functionally similar to the non-imaginative “counterparts” they re-create, in the sense that imaginings preserve or inherit, so to speak, most of the defining features of their counterparts. This re-creativist take on imagination should not be confused with a strong kind of simulationism, according to which imaginings share with their non-imaginative counterparts core cognitive mechanisms (on this point see also my previous post on this blog Is imagining from the inside just what you imagined?). On the basis of this definition of imagination, my starting point is the plausible idea that there are at least two varieties of the imagination: while one type of imagination has sensory perception as its non-imaginative counterpart (“sensory imagination”), another type has belief as its counterpart (“cognitive imagination”). This widespread distinction is central to shed light on the nature of supposition, since a large part of the debate revolves around whether the latter is nothing but cognitive imagination.

The debate over supposition is polarised: non-imaginative views versus imaginative views. However, I believe that we cannot assess merits and demerits of these views without a sufficiently rich characterisation of the features describing supposition. The first part of the book deals with such a characterisation. I start by considering three “negative” features typically attributed to supposition: it would not involve a phenomenological aspect, emotional responses, or participatory character. It might sound strange to begin with what supposition is not in order to define what it is. But supposition is mainly defined negatively by stressing the features that it lacks and the imagination possesses. Chapters 1, 2 and 3 focus on phenomenology, emotionality and participation, respectively. My aim is to show that the contrasting arguments regarding each feature are open to several interpretations. Indeed, the relevant contrasting notion might be either imagination tout court or rather a variety of imagination (sensory or cognitive). Take home messages are:

(1) supposition may involve a phenomenal character, but plausibly of a non-sensory type;

(2) supposition can be accompanied by emotions, though the connection between supposition and emotion differs from how the latter connects to sensory and cognitive imagination;

(3) supposition is characterised by a high degree of freedom (i.e., there is almost no limitation to what can be supposed);

(4) supposition is characterised by a fixed nature: once something is supposed, we have to stick to the given supposed content as if it were true.

Though (1) and (2) are controversial, (3) and (4) are widely accepted in the literature. To these we can add four more quite undisputed features of supposition (the topic of Chapter 4):

(5) supposition is a propositional attitude;

(6) suppositions are in inferential relations similar to those beliefs are in;

(7) supposition is will-dependent (i.e., we are free to suppose as we please);

(8) supposition is truth-independent (i.e., it is not committed to what is true, in the way, for instance, belief is).

The second part of the book turns to different theories of supposition and to whether they are able to account for such a pattern of features. As hinted above, the big divide is between views categorising supposition as outside the imaginative realm (e.g., Peacocke 1985; White 1990; Gendler 2000; Kind 2013; Balcerak Jackson 2016), and views taking supposition as a variety of imagination (e.g., Mulligan 1999; Currie & Ravenscroft 2002; Nichols & Stich 2003; Goldman 2006; Weinberg & Meskin 2006). There are different ways to spell out each position.

In a previous post on this blog (Only suppose, within Stock’s symposium) I have pointed out that there are at least three non-imaginative views about supposition: reductionism, primitivism and deflationism. Deflationism does not take supposition to be a genuine mental state, neither reducible to some non-imaginative mental state (like reductionism) nor a sui generis one (like primitivism). The literature lacks a thorough defence of deflationism, favouring the idea that supposition is a type of mental state. Therefore, in the book (Chapter 5), I briefly mention this possible account and go into the details of reductionism and primitivism only.

I consider three reductionist views. First, supposition is quite commonly associated with entertaining or related phenomena (e.g., apprehending, grasping, considering, understanding), thus suggesting that supposition can be reduced to entertaining. Supposition and entertainment seem to share some features – i.e., (3), (5), (7), (8), and even (2) and (6). I argue, however, that supposition lacks two core (perhaps the only) features of entertainment, namely neutral intentionality (i.e., in entertaining that p we have a neutral stance towards p) and ubiquity (i.e., it underlies most, if not all, intentional psychological attitudes). Under this light the alleged similarities between supposition and entertainment are not genuine as they might appear at first sight.

Second, supposition may perhaps be reduced to belief, given prima facie similarities between them – i.e., (5), (6), and in some sense even (3). I call this sort of reductionism “belief-based doxasticism”. On a closer look such a view is unappealing, given that supposition and belief deeply differ – notably with respect to will-dependence and truth-dependence (i.e., belief is unlike supposition with respect to (7) and (8), which reveals differences also with respect to (3) and (4)).

Third, there is another sort of doxasticism, which reduces supposition to acceptance. This is “acceptance-based doxasticism”. I do not have enough space to properly introduce the notion of acceptance. Suffice it to say that it is meant to capture a kind of mental state similar to belief, but differently related to evidence and epistemic reasons, as well as to truth. These aspects of acceptance seem to bring it closer to supposition. I believe that the literature has overlooked the distinction between two types of acceptance, which I dub “doxastic” and “pragmatic” acceptance. Only the latter significantly differs from belief and shows most, if not all, essential features of supposition. But reducing supposition to pragmatic acceptance is a type of primitivism, rather than a genuine form of reductionism, insofar as it reduces supposition to a sui generis mental state irreducible to other mental states such as imagination, entertainment, belief or doxastic acceptance.

Primitivism is an appealing view, but, to have any pull, it should show that supposition cannot be explained in terms of already known phenomena, which would be more parsimonious. I argue that imaginative views succeed in explaining supposition as a type of imagination, and prove to be resistant to many lines of objection. More precisely, I plea for “imaginative primitivism”, which I contrast with “cognitivism” – a widespread imaginative view which comes in two grades (see again Only suppose). Like cognitivism (in both its grades), imaginative primitivism takes will-dependence (7) and truth-independence of supposition (8) as signs of its imaginative nature. Contrary to cognitivism, however, imaginative primitivism does not consider supposition to be a belief-like type of imagination, given that some features neatly distinguish supposition from cognitive imagination (i.e., (3) and (4), and for many authors also (2)). Interestingly, these features point at dimensions which keep belief and doxastic acceptance apart. Thus, my proposed account is to see supposition as a sui generis type of imagination, which has doxastic acceptance, rather than belief, as its counterpart. The idea is that features distinguishing supposition from cognitive imagination are inherited from their counterparts: cognitive imagination does not show (3), (4) and even (2) because it re-creates belief, supposition shows (3), (4) and even (2) because it re-creates doxastic acceptance.


Balcerak Jackson, M. (2016). On the epistemic value of imagining, supposing, and conceiving. In A. Kind & P. Kung (Eds.), Knowledge through imagination (pp. 41–60). Oxford University Press.

Currie, G. & Ravenscroft, I. (2002). Recreative minds: imagination in philosophy and psychology. Oxford University Press.

Gendler, T. (2000). The puzzle of imaginative resistance. Journal of Philosophy, 97(2), 55–81.

Goldman, A. I. (2006). Simulating minds: the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. Oxford University Press, USA.

Kind, A. (2013). The heterogeneity of the imagination. Erkenntnis, 78(1), 141–159.

Mulligan, K. (1999). La varietà e l’unità dell’immaginazione. Rivista di Estetica, 11(2), 53–67.

Nichols, S., & Stich, S. (2003). Mindreading: An integrated account of pretence, self-awareness, and understanding other minds. Oxford University Press.

Peacocke, C. (1985). Imagination, possibility and experience. In J. Foster & H. Robinson (Eds.), Essays on Berkeley, (pp. 19–35). Oxford University Press.

Weinberg, J., & Meskin, A. (2006). Puzzling over the imagination: philosophical problems, architectural solutions. In S. Nichols (Ed.), The Architecture of the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction (pp. 175–202). Oxford University Press.

White, A. (1990). The language of imagination. Blackwell.

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I would like to express my gratitude to Amy Kind for giving me the space to discuss my book in The Junkyard. I also owe special thanks to all symposium commentators for their close engagement with my work.