This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Margherita Arcangeli’s recent book: Supposition and the Imaginative Realm (Routledge, 2018). See here for an introduction from Margherita. Commentaries and replies appear Tuesday through Thursday.
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Commentary from Steve Humbert-Droz.
In her excellent monograph, Margherita Arcangeli argues in favour of a positive account of supposition that aims at situating this phenomenon within the imaginative domain. Embracing a simulationist approach of imagination, she debunks faulty desiderata on imagination used against the imaginative account of supposition (Part. I) and argues that supposition is a re-creative state of acceptance (Part. II). She also makes a valuable contribution to the literature by showing against a widespread view that supposition is more demanding than merely entertaining a content (§ 5.2).
Supposition and the Imaginative Realm is, in my opinion, an important book and the best existing defense of the imaginative account of supposition.
The structure of Arcangeli’s argument is as follows. According to her, supposition is a sui generis mental state (p.6). This can be understood with the help of two claims:
A. Supposition is neither reducible to cognitive imagination (belief-like imagining) nor to a non-imaginative state (entertaining a thought, believing or accepting); it is a genuine mental state (pp.85; 132–133)
B. Among the imaginative states, supposition is the only one to be fully realised in the higher cognitive system (i.e. system2) while perceptual and cognitive imagination have a leg in the lower cognitive system (i.e. system 1), another in system 2 (pp.43–45 & 133–135)
In the first part of the book, Arcangeli convincingly dismisses phenomenology as a criterion that might set supposition outside the imaginative domain (§ 1). She then discards objections according to which supposition cannot be an imaginative state because it lacks emotional engagement (§ 2) or any participation/engagement by the subject (§ 3). In the process, she relies on claim B to explain the specificity of supposition in contrast with the other imaginative states that possess these features (pp.41-3).
This strategy is highly efficient inasmuch as Arcangeli not only rejects classical objections, but also offers a positive explanation of the specificity of supposition. For instance, claim B sheds light on how we enrich content in supposition – we add content proposition-by-proposition without embellishment, rather than holistically (p.42). It also makes clear why we cannot be surprised at supposing whereas we can imagine perceptually without noticing it or having decided it (p.81, fn.16).
However, the strength of claim B is also what makes the imaginative account less plausible owing to the peculiarity of supposition. We should take Alan White seriously when he argues that imagination is a faculty we can exercise – just as thinking (1990, p.185). As Amy Kind (2013) puts it, philosophers want to identify what imagining in a primary sense is: a sense in which imagination is a faculty we exercise. Arcangeli anticipates this criticism by saying that “faculty” is a fuzzy notion and that supposition is a way of thinking since it is a psychological attitude which takes its content in a specific manner (pp.56-7).
Let’s say that supposing is an attitude in this broad sense. Still, this should not make us think that supposing is on a par with the psychological attitudes we ordinarily identify. The attitude involved in supposition seems much closer to the attitude involved in playing chess than it is to the attitudes of believing, desiring, being afraid and even perceptually imagining. In playing chess, we surely take an attitude toward chess pieces, but this is simply an activity derived from explicit intentions to follow game rules, not a way we are presented with a content.
There is indeed no natural function of supposing (or playing chess) since all its aspects are retrievable at the personal level. Even the aim of supposition is retrievable – although it can be implicit (p.55). Conversely, a baby can be afraid without knowing that the aim of his/her emotion is representing danger – or without knowing anything about danger at all (Deonna & Teroni, 2012).
As White (1990: 138) emphasises, no skill is involved in supposition precisely because there is no faculty to exercise. This distinctive trait, just like the others noticed by Arcangeli, speaks in favour of White’s account rather than in favour of the imaginative account. By situating supposition within the realm of imagination, Arcangeli seems to face the same problem as Gilbert Ryle. Since Ryle considers imagination to be pretending, he seems to endorse the claim that training to box is imagining just as much as having mental images – Ryle, 1949, p.237; see Currie & Ravenscroft, 2002, § 2.3, for a discussion.
To be fair, Arcangeli has a card up her sleeve. She can keep supposition within the imaginative domain thanks to the simulationist approach: some (but not all) features of acceptance are preserved in supposition (p. 117). Arcangeli insists that supposition possesses two additional paradigmatic features of imagination: it is not truth-dependent (contrary to accepting) and it is subject to the will (p.118). All in all, the imaginative account may be accepted in the absence of a better explanation (p.124).
Let me emphasize that Arcangeli does not just hold a conceptual distinction depending on our goals, she argues that supposition and acceptance are two genuine mental states (p. 127). There is a natural kind of supposing – that is claim A.
I am not sure that we can distinguish acceptance from supposition in such a clear-cut way. Observe first that they are hardly separable. When someone supposes, she seems to deploy the concept of acceptance – this is suggested by expressions such as “let’s accept/say/assume p for the sake of the argument”, “by hypothesis, I will take p for granted”. Second, it seems that as soon as a subject is able to accept, she is immediately able to suppose – this is clearer when we consider Arcangeli’s example of a lawyer who either accepts or supposes that his client is innocent (pp.98–99). By contrast, we can form mental images without invoking the concept of perception (think about dreams or involuntary images) and someone can perceive without having the ability to imagine perceptually – see Galton, 1880; Zeman et al., 2010; 2015.
Of course, acceptance and supposition still differ in important respects, especially in the fact that acceptance is truth-dependent. However, if supposition and (presumably) acceptance are fully realised in system 2 (i.e. claim B), the so-called “doxastic goal” of acceptance and the “pragmatic goal” of supposition (pp.99-101) are entirely up to a willing strategy endorsed by the subject. There is no reason to say that the differences between these two phenomena trace back to a difference in kind rather than a difference in cognitive strategy – just like choosing to play offensively or defensively at chess.
In a nutshell, Arcangeli’s distinctions are certainly sufficient to explain why we distinguish supposition from acceptance, but insufficient to endorse the claim that supposition is a specific kind of mental state simulating acceptance – like perception and perceptual imagination are. The plausibility of the simulationist approach in Arcangeli’s argument “depends on how the notion of re-creation is spelled out” (p.123) and she explicitly adopts a broad interpretation of this approach (ibid).
That being said, Arcangeli’s inquiry is essential to understanding the peculiarity of supposition and acceptance. However, since supposition is a fully cognitive strategy, we should detach these ideas from the claim that supposition is an imaginative faculty or a genuine mental state.
 Arcangeli does not qualify B as a sui generis claim, but it turns out to be central to her discussion.
Arcangeli, M. (2018). Supposition and the imaginative realm: a philosophical inquiry. London; New York: Routledge.
Currie, G., & Ravenscroft, I. (2002). Recreative Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Deonna, J. A., & Teroni, F. (2012). The emotions: a philosophical introduction. London ; New York: Routledge.
Galton, F. (1880). Statistics of Mental Imagery. Mind, os-V(19), 301–318.
Kind, A. (2013). The Heterogeneity of the Imagination. Erkenntnis (1975-), 78(1), 141–159.
Ryle, G. (1949). The concept of mind (60th Anniversary Edition). London ; New York: Routledge, 2009.
White, A. (1990). The Language of Imagination. Oxford ; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Basil Blackwell.
Zeman, A., Della Sala, S., Torrens, L. A., Gountouna, V.-E., McGonigle, D. J., & Logie, R. H. (2010). Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: A case of ‘blind imagination.’ Neuropsychologia, 48(1), 145–155.
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 73, 378–380.
Response to Steve Humbert-Droz from Margherita Arcangeli
Steve’s commentary is very rich and pushes me to clarify several issues. I will try to discuss what I take to be his two main points.
On the one hand, Steve suggests that White’s analysis of supposition can put pressure on my account. One of White’s main claim, as stressed by Steve, is that supposition is not a skill. “[O]ne can exercise or use one’s imagination, but not one’s supposition (…). One can set one’s imagination, but not one’s supposition at work”, White says (White 1990: 138). I insist, as I do in the book, that White overlooks the possibility that “imagination is a faculty which is exercised” (ibid.: 185) not only in imagining, but also in supposing. As Steve himself foresees, the definition of imagination on which I am relying allows me to understand supposition in this way, while avoiding an overly liberal take on imagination. I espouse the idea that the “skill” we exercise in imagining is that of re-creating non-imaginative mental states. Putting things this way can clarify what is common to all imaginings (i.e., the fact that they inherit key features of their counterparts), but also what sets them apart. Re-creation is not a single capacity, but rather a functional characterisation of several, finer-grained capacities that bring about the re-creation, often by different means, of different mental states. Though not concerned with a recreativist account of imagination, Moran nicely captures this point when he says: “[D]ifferent kinds of imagining involve different kinds of effort, draw on different kinds of resources within the person, and may thus require such things as being receptive in the right way, or having had certain experiences” (Moran 1994: 89). On my view, in supposing we are re-creating doxastic acceptance. This is different from re-creating other mental states, such as belief and perception. Differences in the abilities underlying those different types of imagining are to be expected, rather than being diagnostic for qualitative differences in nature. For instance, I claim that supposition is more deliberative than other types of imagining (e.g., sensory and cognitive imaginings). Therefore, claim A – following Steve’s label – does not run against an imaginative view of supposition.
On the other hand, Steve advances three different objections to my idea that supposition is the re-creation of doxastic acceptance, suggesting that there might be just a quantitative difference between the two mental phenomena. First, I agree with Steve in thinking that ordinary language shows that supposition and acceptance are difficult to disentangle. However, the same can be said for imagination and supposition or imagination and belief (“suppose” is sometimes used as a synonym for “imagine” and the latter for “(falsely) believe”). Ordinary language can be a useful, but also unreliable guide to the nature of psychological categories. My aim is to offer a clearer theoretical concept of supposition, which should be highly compatible with the folk concept, but may also reshape our understanding of supposition.
Second, arguably the ability to accept entails the ability to suppose, as Steve points out. This does not mean, however, that in supposing we need to deploy the concept of acceptance. It simply means that the abilities underlying acceptance are enough to suppose (i.e., to re-create acceptance, in my view). This echoes the aforementioned idea that different abilities underlie different types of imagining. Supposition, compared to other varieties of imagination, seems to require less resources because of the mental state it re-creates (i.e., doxastic acceptance). Indeed, it seems easier to suppose than to cognitively or sensorily imagine. Re-creation, as I understand it, posits a dependence-relation between imaginings and their counterparts: the former piggy-back on the latter, so to speak. But being able to X (i.e., perceive) might be, in some cases, necessary but not sufficient for re-creating X in imagination. This might be due to the kind of resources needed to re-create the given type of mental state.
Third, I don’t think that supposition and doxastic acceptance are merely two different “willing strategies” of the same mental phenomenon. The epistemic anchor shown by doxastic acceptance does not only make it truth-dependent, but arguably also will-independent. One cannot doxastically accept at will that gnomes exist or that Paris is semi-submerged as Venice. At least partial and feeble epistemic evidence is needed. It is true that doxastic acceptance at bottom is the execution of a choice (i.e., plausibly it relies on System 2), but accepters cannot decide to accept whatever and whenever they want.
Moran, R. (1994). The expression of feeling in imagination. The Philosophical Review, 103(1), 75–106.
White, A. (1990). The language of imagination. Blackwell.