Under-explored Epistemic Uses of the Imagination

Madeleine Hyde is a PhD student at Stockholm University working with Professor Kathrin Gluer-Pagin on a project in the epistemology of mind called ‘The Nature of Representation’. The project is part of the Diaphora European Training Network, which works on a spread of philosophical problems in epistemology, mind, logic and metaphysics.

Madeleine Hyde is a PhD student at Stockholm University working with Professor Kathrin Gluer-Pagin on a project in the epistemology of mind called ‘The Nature of Representation’. The project is part of the Diaphora European Training Network, which works on a spread of philosophical problems in epistemology, mind, logic and metaphysics.

A post by Madeleine Hyde.

Our imagination is useful in a variety of ways - including ways which engage with our beliefs, desires and knowledge, and ways that the philosophical literature sometimes overlooks. Our focus has often been on how the imagination can aid modal reasoning and scientific discovery – both important, but limited to technical thinking and expertise rather than everyday knowledge. Here, I want to highlight some more familiar ways that imagining can impact our beliefs and knowledge. I'll start by telling a story of why our attention has often been elsewhere until now.

The imagination has long been thought inferior to our other sensory states, particularly when it comes to providing us with new knowledge. Imagining might look much like the visual experiences we have with our eyes open, the line goes, but we’re not perceiving anything. Even worse, the images we get when we imagine are supposedly ‘weaker’ than those of visual perception - David Hume said that imagination is simply a less ‘vivid’ kind of perceptual experience. Worse still, when we imagine, we can select those images for ourselves in a way that is unavailable to us when we perceive. Hume, again, put it succinctly: that imagining is our ultimate mental freedom.

These points do a disservice to the role that imagination can play in our epistemic lives, in aiding knowledge and justifying beliefs. Yes, imagining cannot tell you the kind of things perception can: about what things look like in your immediate surroundings. But who would consult the imagination to find this out? Moreover, why think that just because the imagination cannot supply this kind of information, it is therefore epistemically useless? Again, our Scottish grandfather of the epistemology of imagination said it for us long ago: that although the imagination has nothing new to say about what is currently happening around us (nor indeed, about what we have previously experienced, leave that to memory instead), we can learn something about what is possible through the hypothetical scenarios we can imagine. Stephen Yablo and David Chalmers have since revived the discussion about the implications of imaginability for possibility (or at least for special kind of imagining, conceiving – we can have a separate debate about how those two terms relate). This, according to Tim Williamson’s recent work on the topic, can work just like any other counterfactual reasoning process, where having an imaginary experience is just like running through a logical argument to its conclusion. Williamson says that we do not even need to use sensory imagery in order to do so (this is called propositional imagining).

If these authors are right then our imagination, when used a particular way, has unique power in being able to generate such modal knowledge. However, the idea that we can do this just by propositional imagining, without utilizing any sensory imagery, does a disservice to one of the greatest attributes of sensory imagination: its ability to construct scenarios that much resemble perceptual experiences. When we exercise voluntary control over our episode of imagination – and this is typically available to us, even if we didn’t choose to start imagining – we can construct a vision-like scenario for ourselves: selecting the location, who is there, and so on. Although many of the details will be filled out for us on auto-pilot, many of them we can nonetheless override. This lines up with a very agreeable point that is central to ‘recreative’ views of imagination, like Greg Currie’s and Magdalena Balcerak-Jackson’s: that in imagining, we simulate experiencing a situation we have not yet seen for ourselves. In doing so, we can do more than just imaginatively explore different possible ways in which future events could work out. We can also use our imagination to ‘recreate’ a plausible depiction of a host of both counterfactual and actual situations. We can imaginatively picture how a previous event could have happened otherwise (the counterfactual past), what may have happened at an event we missed (the likely actual past), what is going on right now, but out of our sight (the likely actual present), and how a current situation could have turned out otherwise (the counterfactual present). Each time, even though we usually know we aren’t perceiving - realising our control over the situation should bring that to our attention - we often emotionally react to it as if it were a live experience.

When we pay attention to such ordinary, everyday uses of the imagination, we can see how it can do much more than justifying only modal beliefs. For instance, we can deliberately set up a target hypothetical scenario for the sake of seeking self-knowledge too. What do I desire? What would make me feel anxious? How might I react to certain different scenarios? We can get some answers by imaginatively road-testing situations we haven’t yet experienced. Suppose that I have been considering for a while moving to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city. I’ve visited there before, so have lots of imagery stored in my memory of its red-brick avenues, industrial harbours and rustic blue trams. I can draw on that, and imaginatively run through picturing some daily activities that my life there would likely consist of: my tram commute, walking through the botanical gardens during my lunch hour. My emotional reactions will be telling: I can find out what I desire, based on an experience of what that hypothetical situation would likely look and feel like to me, if it were actual.

Of course, the mental pictures I come up with will be full of bias, as based on desires and beliefs that were already somewhat established in my mind – but suppose that I try to make the imaginative experience as realistic as possible. Amy Kind calls this imagining under ‘reality constraints’. I think that such cases can give us a counterfactual kind of phenomenal knowledge: knowing what something might be like to experience. It is not the kind of knowledge that Mary in Frank Jackson’s Mary’s Room Argument lacks. In the thought experiment, despite having all the available physical knowledge about the colour red, scientist Mary has only ever seen black and white (supposedly she is trapped in a monochrome environment her whole life!); until she is released and sees a red object for the first time, she does not know what it is like to see red. My imaginative exercise alone cannot teach me exactly what it is like to live in Gothenburg, of course - only moving there would enable that. But without experiencing it for myself, my imaginative exercise, when suitably set up and tightly-controlled, is the next best thing.

Hopefully by now it is clear why our focus is too narrow if we only think of the epistemic usefulness of imagination in terms of providing modal knowledge. In our everyday, ordinary experience, the imagination is a helpful forum for remixing images from experiences we remember with other knowledge, into a new mental experience. Although this experience cannot give us knowledge of reality in the same way perception can, it can reflect how hypothetical scenarios would work out if they were real - and to great success, if the imagined scenario is well-informed. My hope it that this encourages further exploration of what the imagination can do for us, epistemically, by widening the scope of investigation.


Balcerak-Jackson Magdalena Justification by Imagination [Book Section] // Perceptual Imagination and Perceptual Memory / ed. Macpherson Fiona and Dorsch Fabian. - Oxford : OUP, 2018.

Chalmers David Does Conceivability Entail Possibility? [Book Section] // Conceivability and Possibility / ed. Gendler T. and Hawthorne J.. - Oxford, UK : Oxford University Press, 2002.

Currie Gregory and Ravenscroft Ian Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology [Book]. - Oxford : OUP, 2002.

Hume David Enquiry concerning human understanding [Book] / ed. Beauchamp Tom L.. - Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1748/ 2000.

Jackson Frank What Mary Didn't Know [Journal] // The Journal of Philosopy. - May 1986. - 5 : Vol. 83. - pp. 291-295.

Kind Amy How Imagination Gives Rise to Knowledge [Book Section] // Perceptual Imagination and Perceptual Memory  / ed. Macpherson Fiona and Dorsch Fabian. - Oxford : OUP, 2018.

Kind Amy Imagining Under Constraints [Book Section] // Knowledge Through Imagination. - Oxford, UK : OUP, 2016.

Williamson Timothy Knowing by Imagining [Book Section] // Knowledge through Imagination / ed. Kind Amy. - Oxford : OUP, 2016.

Yablo Stephen Is conceivability a guide to possibility? [Journal] // Philosophy and Phenomenological Research . - 1993. - 1 : Vol. 53. - pp. 1-42.