We won’t understand what imagination is—we won’t be able to explain imagination—until we can write a recipe for making it out of parts we already understand. My book, Explaining Imagination, is a compendium of such recipes.
What ingredients do they feature? On my telling, they are other familiar mental states like beliefs, desires, judgments, decisions, and intentions. In different combinations and contexts, they constitute cases of imagining.
The idea that imagination can be reduced to other kinds of mental states in this way is at odds with what most (maybe all) other philosophers have had to say about imagination. According to the orthodox view, if we list a person’s beliefs, desires, intentions, judgments, decisions, hopes, wishes, fears, and so on, and fully describe their ongoing use of those states in practical and theoretical reasoning, we will leave open whether they are imagining. For the facts about what, if anything, a person is imagining are thought not to be entailed by any facts about other folk psychological states they might be in. This is the sense in which imagination is commonly held to involve a sui generis or “primitive” type of mental state.
My reductive strategy is to look closely at behaviors and abilities commonly held to be enabled by imagination and to show how the work assigned to imagination can be accomplished by other kinds of states we already knew we had. These phenomena include conditional reasoning (Chapters 5 and 6), pretending (Chapters 7 and 8), the comprehension and enjoyment of fictions (Chapters 9, 10, and 11), and creativity (Chapter 12). In each case I try to explain how it can be that the imagining we associate with each activity is nothing over and above the skillful use of states like beliefs, desires, and intentions.
I do not, however, argue that imagining that p is the same thing as believing or desiring that p—or even as weakly believing or desiring that p. Rather, my claim is that some uses of beliefs, desires, judgments, intentions, and so on—none of which may have the precise content p—constitute cases of imagining that p. Here I apply the maxim, “Don’t assume content mirroring.” For example, suspecting that p is not the same as believing that p; but suspecting that p may nevertheless be reducible to believing that q, where q is the proposition that it is somewhat likely that p.
A second important maxim at work in my book is: “Don’t assume homogeneity.” In order for imagining to reduce to other kinds of mental states, we needn’t assume that it reduces in the same way in each instance. What gets called ‘imagining’ in one context—such as pretense—may be something different than what is called ‘imagining’ in another—such as daydreaming.
What unifies the diverse phenomena I try to explain as “imaginings” is that they are all cases of rich, elaborated thought about the unreal, fantastical, fictional, or possible that is, in general, epistemically safe. (“Epistemically safe” in the sense that it does not tend to decrease one’s epistemic standing, as opposed to, say, delusions which can also be about the unreal and fantastical.) Imagining, in this sense, sometimes involves mental imagery. But it needn’t by its nature.
Some readers of may worry that the reductive approach I recommend is dismissive, deflationary, or even eliminative of imagination proper. But that is a misunderstanding. My aim is to explain imagination, not to question its importance, or to make it disappear. The take-home message is rather this: imagination is mysterious on its face. Because we have a comparatively clear understanding beliefs, desires, perceptions, and intentions, then—if the sometimes surprising recipes offered in Explaining Imagination succeed—a similarly clear conception of imagination is close at hand.