Philosophy of Imagination

What is the imagination? How do we use it to engage with fictions and fantasy worlds, but also to simulate and predict real-world events? And what is involved in imaginatively taking on another person’s perspective?

This topic relates very closely to my work on empathy and morality, because I understand empathy as a form of imagination: if I am right then the same faculty that lets us explore fantasies and fictions is also central to our grasp of other minds, and thereby to our experience of moral obligation. But imagination is famously difficult to analyse, with a lot of disagreement about what it even is, so I’m very interested in debates about its nature and properties.

A paper about the status of the desires that we feel in imagination, or imagine feeling, and how they relate to the desires of others, and to our ‘real’ desires. Some philosophers think there are merely imaginary desires (‘i-desires’) while others deny this; I argue both that there are i-desires, and that many of the states that arise in imagination are indeterminate between being mere i-desires and being genuine desires - and that this fuzzy ‘limbo’ between real and imaginary is an important part of the value of fiction.

  • “Imagination, Creativity, and Gender” (in progress, for the Oxford Handbook of Imagination and Creativity, eds. A. Kind and J. Langkau)

A paper looking both at how the psychological category of 'imagination' can illuminate the range of relationships individuals can take to the social norms associated with their gender identity, and also how their navigation of these norms can be an exercise of creativity and exploration. (This links up with my work on philosophy of gender)

  • “In Defence of Problematic Faves: Villains, Vices, and Imaginative Engagement with Evil” (in progress, presented in online talk at 'Cogweirdo', part of the Cogtweeto Workshop Series (while dressed as Yzma); slides here)

A paper about imaginative engagement with evil - liking evil characters in fiction, deriving pleasure from imagining evil things, and empathising with evil people. I argue, against both ‘puritanism’ and ‘libertinism’, that such imagining is ethically significant but not ethically E valuable: it can’t be right or wrong in and of itself, but it does warrant ethical examination and exploration.

A paper defending the common assumption that imagination is a content-involving activity against the contrary view from radical enactivists, who want to analyse it as a contentless recreation of sensation and action.

  • "How Can Imagination Justify Action?" (in progress; draft received Best Paper Award at the German Analytic Philosophy Society, 2018; draft available on request)

A paper arguing that what we imagine, when it is constrained in the right way, can be a distinctive source of practical justification. When we imagine a possible future and find it attractive or aversive, this imagining by itself justifies pursuing or avoiding it. 

  • "Supposition as Insulated Imagining" (in progress, draft presented in a 2018 talk at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum; draft available on request)

A paper about the distinction between ‘merely supposing’ that something is the case, and ‘imagining’ it in a richer sense: I agree with theorists who see these as two ways of exercising the same basic ability, but give a new analysis of what distinguishes them. 

  • "Simulation, Imagination, and Recruitment” (in progress, ideas presented in 2022 talks at the University of Duisberg-Essen and online at the 3rd 'Conference (Online/Virtual) for Imagination Domination'; slides here)

A paper about two ways for imagination to operate: by creating new mental states (images, ideas, feelings, etc.), or by recruiting those which are already there to play new roles. I argue that the latter is generally easier and more efficient, and that situations where there’s more to recruit this enable more effective imaginative simulations.

  • “Imaginative Attitudes and Mental Models: A Critique of Langland-Hassan’s Interpretation of the Johnson-Laird-Byrne Account" (2021 talk given at the University of Bristol; slides available on request

A talk about how to interpret psychological evidence suggesting that when we reason, we model several possibilities simultaneously; are we imagining these possibilities, or do we take some other attitude towards them?

  • “Sympathetic Imagination, Conceivability Arguments, and the Metaphysics of Mind.” (talk given in 2018 at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, responding to some arguments by my friend Jakub Mihálik; slides here)

A talk about the how to evaluate arguments about what can and can't be imagined, and what role they can play in debates about the metaphysics of consciousness; I argue that properly understanding the structure of imagination helps to uphold certain arguments against physicalism and 'panqualityism'. (This links up with my work on panpsychism.)

I’ve posted a lot at ‘Junkyard of the Mind’, a blog on the philosophy of imagination: