Incrementalist Imagination

Shen-yi Liao  is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. He is interested in the imagination, but also in too many other things.

Shen-yi Liao is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. He is interested in the imagination, but also in too many other things.

A post by Shen-yi Liao.

1.        To Change the World, Imagine Differently

Nothing is more free than the imagination of man, said Hume. We use imagination as our tool for accessing possibilities other than the actual, times other than the present, and perspectives other than our own. Imagination’s power takes us beyond things as they actually, presently, and subjectively are.

Given this power, it is no surprise that imagination often comes up in discussions about how to ameliorate our social ills. Imagination lets us transcend reality, to travel to a better world in our heads, a world that we might one day make. “Moral imagination”, “political imagination”, or whatever its name, the thought remains the same: to change the world, imagine differently.

2.        Imagination for Post-Cartesians

For Cartesians, our minds are detached from the bodies and the world that we inhabit. There is no difference, in this respect, between the minds of you and me and the minds of brains in vats. Untethered from our bodies and our world, there is indeed nothing more free than the imagination of detached minds.

The specter of Descartes haunts discussions of imagination and social change. Even though the Cartesian worldview is rarely made explicit, it is frequently taken for granted. If ought implies can, then the ongoing calls for imagining radically differently seem to imply that our imaginings can, in fact, be detached from the ways in which we are situated in and situated by our bodies and our world. In general, discussions of imagination and social change tend to be centered on agent-guided imagination, where the primary constraints of our moral and political imaginings are only that of our moral and political willpower. 

In the last 30 years or so, there is a growing movement against the Cartesian worldview in cognitive science. As John Haugeland (1995/1998) phrased its central commitment, “Mind, therefore, is not incidentally but intimately embodied and intimately embedded in its world”. On this post-Cartesian worldview, imagination—just like other components of the mind—is embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended. Our imaginings, then, are unlike those of brains in vats; they cannot be untethered from our bodies and our world. Instead, our imaginings are necessarily socially situated and ecologically embedded.

Of course, the ways in which our imaginings are bounded are not only noticed by post-Cartesian cognitive scientists. In theorizing about whiteness and the racial imaginary, writer Claudia Rankine (2015) noted:

But to argue that the imagination is or can be somehow free of race—that it’s the one region of self or experience that is free of race—and that I have a right to imagine whoever I want, and that it damages and deforms my art to set limits on my imagination—acts as if the imagination is not part of me, is not created by the same web and matrix of history and culture that made “me.” […] our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds.

In the actual world, our imaginings cannot be free of race, for racism shapes the world that we live in and the way that our bodies travel through it. Our imaginings are part of ourselves, and our selves are more than our Cartesian detached minds, and so our imaginings cannot transcend our bodies and our world.

Similarly, in theorizing about why hearing people might struggle with the concept of Deaf Gain, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke (2014) noted:

The experience of hearing people in Hearing worlds thwarts the imagination; one cannot know what it is to experience the world of hearing privation unless one has never heard. Now, couple this with the challenge of conceiving one's life as deaf privation. Even if the arguments for Deaf Gain are intellectually accepted (and I am not suggesting that they will not be), the arguments may be resisted by a limited imagination. (p. 9)

In the actual world, our imaginings cannot be free of ability status, for ableism also shapes the world that we live in and the way that our bodies travel through it.

While the bodiliness of the ways in which our imaginings are bounded is readily noticeable, the worldliness is less so, but no less important. What thwarts hearing people’s imagination is not merely their experience of hearing, but their experience of hearing in Hearing worlds. Neither race nor disability is a feature of individuals. Instead they are features of the world that inhibit individuals’ “ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings” (Young 1990: 40).

3.        To Imagine Differently, Change the World

Children’s make-believe does not happen in blank spaces. Sometimes, their imaginings shape their choices of props. To play a game of telephone, they would pick up a couple of bananas, and not a couple of apples. But sometimes, their props too shape their choices of imaginings. When there are a couple of bananas around, telephone might well just be the game to play. Of course, children are transcendental imaginers who engage in agent-guided imagination, but they are also worldly imaginers who engage in prop-guided imagination.

Adults are no different. Imagining radically differently, as it turns out, may not always be possible in a world structured by oppression. To pin our social change hopes solely on agent-guided imaginings is not only unrealistic, but unproductive. Instead, we should also harness the power of prop-guided imaginings. As components of the world, props can guide and constrain our socially situated and ecologically embedded imagination. Imagining incrementally differently, as unexciting as that sounds, could be a more realistic and maybe more productive lever for social change.

So we should think about the props we have in the world, and the imaginings that they guide and constrain. Yes, we do have to imagine differently to change the world. But to imagine differently, we might also have to change the world.


Burke, Teresa Blankmeyer (2014). “Armchairs and Stares: On the Privation of Deafness”, in H-Dirksen L. Bauman & Joseph J. Murray (eds.), Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 3–22.

Haugeland, John (1995/1998). “Mind Embodied and Embedded”, in Having Thought, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 207–237.

Rankine, Claudia (2015). “On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary”, Literary Hub.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). “Five Faces of Oppression”, in Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 39–65.