Book Symposium: Stock Commentary and Response

Kathleen Stock is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, UK. She has published widely on imagination and fiction, and blogs about both at

Kathleen Stock is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, UK. She has published widely on imagination and fiction, and blogs about both at

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.

* * *

Commentary from Kathleen Stock.

I’m delighted to contribute to this symposium. The book is a fantastic addition to the literature on the nature of supposition. My aim in this piece is to outline what I take to be Margherita’s view, and contrast it informatively with my own.

Margherita takes certain features to be central to whatever account of supposition we eventually give. Namely, supposition:

i)        involves taking a propositional attitude.

ii)       Isn’t dependent on what is true.

iii)      is dependent on the will (we have voluntary control over its content).

iv)      displays inferential relations which resemble, though aren’t identical to, those operative between beliefs.

v)        is ‘effortless’ and unconstrained (that is, we can suppose whatever we want).

vi)       is relatively ‘cold’ and unengaged emotionally; moreover, our emotional responses don’t provide material for the cognitive direction of supposition.

Through a process of eliminating competing accounts, Margherita builds a case for her preferred theory, which she calls ‘imaginative primitivism’. This says that supposition is a sui generis species of imagination, distinct both from ‘cognitive’ (belief-like) and ‘sensory’ (perception-like) imagining, and from non-imaginative kinds such as believing, entertaining and ‘doxastically accepting’. She argues that, just as sensory imagining is a ‘recreative’ mental counterpart of perceiving, and cognitive imagining a recreative counterpart of believing, suppositional imagining is a recreative counterpart of doxastic acceptance.

To understand this, we need a sense of what doxastic acceptance is. One accepts rather than believes a proposition, when one treats the proposition as true in a limited context, perhaps even disregarding or ignoring any countervailing evidence; even though, in other contexts, one might well remain neutral on the matter, or reject the proposition altogether. Margherita adds that this counts as ‘doxastic’ acceptance when one accepts a proposition, in this sense, on the basis of some limited evidence. She contrasts this with ‘pragmatic’ acceptance, which isn’t evidence-based.

I turn now to my own view. In Chapter 6 of my book Only Imagine, I argue that supposing is best understood as common-or-garden propositional imagining, when given a particular stipulative role in an imaginative episode. Meanwhile, I claim of what Margherita calls ‘cognitive’, or ‘belief-like’ imagining, that it is propositional imagining put to a particular use (that of finding out the truth of a given counterfactual). There are lots of other instances of propositional imagining which don’t serve this purpose, and so aren’t belief-like. Hence, not only would I deny Margherita’s conclusion that supposing is a sui generis kind of imagining, I would deny that ‘cognitive’ imagining is too. This makes it hard to categorise my view within the schema of the book, exactly. Roughly, though, I qualify as a ‘deflationist’, in that I think there is no special kind of imagining involved in supposition, over and above the familiar kind - propositional imagining - used elsewhere.

Briefly, features i) to vi) above are explained by Margherita as follows. The truth-independence (ii) and will-independence (iii) of supposition is indicative that it is a form of imagining, according to her, since these are both core features of all imagining.  Meanwhile, supposition’s propositionality (i) and inferentiality (iv) are derived from the prior propositionality and inferentiality of doxastic acceptance; since supposition is a recreative mental counterpart of doxastic acceptance, it shares these features with it. Finally, the effortless, unconstrained nature of supposition (v) and its ‘coldness’ and independence from emotional inputs (vi) are both explained by the prior fact that supposition, like doxastic acceptance, has a ‘channelled dynamics’: ‘a commitment to take the given content as if it were true and to draw what is directly inferable from it’. In contrast, other forms of imagining (i.e. cognitive and sensory) have a ‘holistic dynamic’: they can permissibly wander, survive embellishment, emotional digression, and even rejection of the presumed consequences of some imaginative starting point (as in ‘imaginative resistance’). Since, Margherita argues, imaginative resistance only bites when the dynamics are holistic in this way, supposition’s tightly focused and ‘channelled’ nature explains why it is effortless and unconstrained, and generally meets no resistance. It also explains why it is not prone to emotional digression and is relatively ‘cold’.

I explain these features differently. Generally speaking, according to me, propositional imagining is a goal-directed mental action, which can be put to various uses. One, but not the only one, of these uses is the exploring of counterfactuals – working out what else would be true, if some proposition p was true (‘counterfactual imagining’). Other uses of the propositional imagination include inventing stories of various kinds, engaging with fiction, fantasising, and catastrophising. In contrast to counterfactual imagining, none of these latter uses involve ‘belief-like’ imagining, in any interesting way; or so I argue. Most obviously, the relations between such imaginings don’t in any way resemble those inferential relations between beliefs.

Meanwhile, supposition, as I characterise it, is a kind of propositional imagining which cuts across these further uses, but which is most commonly associated with counterfactual imagining. What is supposed, in an imaginative episode, is that part of the episode which is stipulated as fixed and non-negotiable, on pain of counting as abandoning that scenario and starting a different one. What counts as fixed, in a given episode, will depend on the thinker’s purpose, in so imagining.

Returning to explanations of i)-vi), I agree with Margherita up to a point. Supposition is propositional (i) because it is propositional imagining. Supposition is will-dependent (iii) because all propositional imagining is will-dependent. Supposition isn’t essentially truth-dependent (ii) because imagining isn’t essentially truth-dependent, though it might be contingently truth-dependent (as when I suppose something which I also believe to be true, along with other things I believe to be false). However, if it’s truth-dependent in a particular case, it’s only that way because the thinker has chosen to suppose something she also believes true. This differentiates it from the more fundamental truth-dependence of belief.

Response to Kathleen Stock from Margherita Arcangeli


In a previous post (Only suppose) I suggested that Kathleen’s view could be seen as a version of the second sort of cognitivism (C2): supposition is a belief-like type of imagination. Kathleen objected that her view might be better categorised within my proposed taxonomy as deflationist. Here she is offering further arguments in favour of this interpretation.

According to Kathleen, supposition is a type of propositional imagination, but not necessarily belief-like. This casts her view as strongly in disagreement with cognitivism, but potentially in agreement with my own view (imaginative primitivism claims that supposition is a non-belief-like type of imagination). Still, in my view supposition is similar to a doxastic mental state (i.e., a mental state that shares core features with belief), specifically doxastic acceptance. Moreover, I call on this similarity to explain features of supposition like (iv), (v) and (vi) (my (6), (3) and (2) in the opening post), some of which neatly distinguish supposition from cognitive imagination (i.e., (v) and (vi)) – as acknowledged by partisans of C2 too. In claiming that supposition is not belief-like, Kathleen is suggesting that it is not doxastic-like either.

Kathleen thinks that picturing supposition (and cognitive imagination) as belief-like or doxastic-like is misguided, insofar as it models supposition (and cognitive imagination) on one particular use of it only, namely the purpose of working out what else would be true, were a given scenario the case (“counterfactual imagining” in Kathleen’s terms). She points out that supposition (propositional imagination, more broadly) can be used for different purposes (e.g., “inventing stories of various kinds, engaging with fiction, fantasising, and catastrophising”), which would involve propositional imaginings that are not belief-like.

In fact, I am sympathetic with Kathleen’s main points. I also believe that treatments of supposition have too often modelled all cases of supposition on some specific instances (e.g., reductio ad absurdum arguments). This has led to underestimate the many other contexts in which supposition plays important roles (e.g., fiction). However, I do not think that this is enough to undermine the idea that supposition and cognitive imagination are doxastic-like (belief-like and acceptance-like, respectively, in my view).

Supposition is acceptance-like, because it is a mode of apprehending mental contents similar to doxastic acceptance. My idea is that when we suppose a given content, we imagine such a content in a way similar to doxastic acceptance. Supposing that the Third World War has begun would stand for “imagining-accepting that the Third World War has begun”. What ties supposition to doxastic acceptance is primarily to be found in their modes of representing (i.e., the psychological attitudes they are), rather than in what they represent (i.e., the mental contents they have). The same holds for cognitive imagination with respect to belief. To put it differently, all these mental states bestow a similar intentional force to a given content: while doxastic acceptance and belief present as true that p, supposition and cognitive imagination present as if it were true that p (see Chapters 5 and 6 of my book for the differences between these mental states).

This is so in “counterfactual imagining”, but also in other contexts. When we evaluate counterfactual conditionals, we explore in imagination the causal connection between various antecedents and the consequent: we take the content of the antecedent as if it were true and we work out what else would be true. Similarly, when in a fictional context we suppose that the Third World War has begun, we take the content of our supposition as if it were true. This does not mean that when we suppose (or cognitively imagine) that p we should suppose (or cognitively imagine) next what we would accept (or believe), if we accepted (believed) that p (this is what Kathleen seems to have in mind when she discusses inferentiality in her Only imagine). I can, for instance, suppose that I will move with my family to Mars, though I do not believe that this is possible in the actual world. Anyway, there is something doxastic-like in the relationship between the contents of my two suppositions. The inferentiality of supposition (and cognitive imagination) should be interpreted in this way, as a claim about how imaginings interact with each other.

These considerations suggest that Kathleen might, after all, accept that propositional imagination is in a relevant sense belief-like (or better doxastic-like). Indeed, in her book she admits that propositional imagination, like belief, is “quasi-factual” (Stock 2017: 177, fn 1) – another way to refer to the similarity in intentional force, I take it. With respect to supposition, it would be still open to her to embrace either a form of C2 according to which (v) and (vi) are contingent features of supposition, or deflationism. I am still convinced, though, that our interpretations of (v) and (vi) are more similar than they might appear, and our views may eventually converge.