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Towards a dual process epistemology of imagination

  • Michael T. StuartEmail author


Sometimes we learn through the use of imagination. The epistemology of imagination asks how this is possible. One barrier to progress on this question has been a lack of agreement on how to characterize imagination; for example, is imagination a mental state, ability, character trait, or cognitive process? This paper argues that we should characterize imagination as a cognitive ability, exercises of which are cognitive processes. Following dual process theories of cognition developed in cognitive science, the set of imaginative processes is then divided into two kinds: one that is unconscious, uncontrolled, and effortless, and another that is conscious, controlled, and effortful. This paper outlines the different epistemological strengths and weaknesses of the two kinds of imaginative process, and argues that a dual process model of imagination helpfully resolves or clarifies issues in the epistemology of imagination and the closely related epistemology of thought experiments.


Epistemology of imagination Thought experiments Scientific imagination Dual process model of cognition 



I’d like to thank Marco Buzzoni, Nancy Nersessian, Catherine Elgin, John Norton, Margherita Arcangeli, Jim Brown, Michael Hannon, Philip Thonemann, Bryan Roberts, Michael Strevens, Deena Weisberg, Alison Hills, Christoph Baumberger, Susan Carey, Boris Babic, Victoria Hoog, Agnes Bolinska, Maël Pégny, Leonardo Bich, Carol Cleland, Andrew Inkpen, Mattias Unterhuber and audiences at the Summer Seminar on Understanding at Fordham University, the London School of Economics Research Seminar in the Philosophy of Natural Sciences, the Nordic Network for Philosophy of Science, the philosophy of science annual conference in Dubrovnik and the Imagination and Knowledge conference in Konstanz. This paper was funded by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Philosophy of Science, as well as SSHRC Grant Number 756-2016-0830.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland

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