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Towards a dual process epistemology of imagination

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. One might doubt the power of imagination to produce knowledge, although most philosophers writing on the topic now take this for granted (including, e.g., most of the entries in Kind and Kung 2016 and Stuart et al. 2018a; see also Wansing 2017, p. 2843). A weaker objection would be that imagination is not a “proper” object of epistemological study because it is not a “fundamental” source of knowledge. This argument, however, can be run equally on experiments, models, instruments, computer simulations, and other tools of science. It doesn’t seem reasonable (to me, at least) to deny the progress made by epistemologists on the functioning of these tools just to avoid the possibility of epistemology of imagination.

  2. Recent years have seen an “explosion of philosophical interest” in the imagination (Funkhouser and Spaulding 2009, p. 291). Seminal contributions include Byrne (2005), Currie and Ravenscroft (2002), McGinn (2004), Nichols (2006), Nichols and Stich (2003), Walton (1990), Kind and Kung (2016) and Kind (2016).

  3. This is also true for scientific imagination, which will be the main focus of Sects. 4.14.3 (McAllister 2013b, see also Meynell 2018, p. 508), though see Hadamard (1996), Holton (1998), Brown (2011), Frappier et al. (2013), Sorensen (1992), Buzzoni (2008), Gendler (2000), Nersessian (2008), Stuart (2017), Stuart et al. (2018a) and Clement (2008, 2009).

  4. Strawson writes, “The uses, and applications, of the terms ‘image,’ ‘imagine,’ ‘imagination,’ and so forth make up a very diverse and scattered family. Even this image of a family seems too definite. It would be a matter of more than difficulty to identify and list the family's members, let alone their relations of parenthood and cousinhood” (Strawson 1970, p. 31). For other expressions of this difficulty, see McGinn (2004, pp. 1–2), Kind and Kung (2016, p. 3) and Walton (1990, p. 19).

  5. Not all combinations of properties and property-bearers are possible explananda for current epistemology. For example, while epistemologists discuss true propositions and reliable processes, it is not clear how they could discuss true character traits. I thank an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  6. For understanding see Stuart (2016a, 2018).

  7. I think it is tempting to read this schema as a definition because it resembles many existing definitions of imagination. Compare the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines imagination as “having an image or concept of something not presently perceived” (cited in Stevenson 2003, p. 238). Many of Leslie Stevenson’s “Twelve Conceptions of Imagination” (2003) also fit this schema: specifically (1a–d), (4a, b), (5), and (6). This is also true for the characterizations we find in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica I 85 ad 3, Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View §15, Ak. VII: 153, and Hume’s Treatise (e.g., I.iii.ix). Among contemporary philosophers, McAllister (2013a) characterizes imagination as the mental capacity to conceive states of affairs not previously experienced. Similarly, those writing on mental imagery, e.g., Kosslyn et al. (1995, p. 1335), often make claims like “Visual mental imagery is ‘seeing’ in the absence of the appropriate immediate sensory input, auditory mental imagery is ‘hearing’ in the absence of the immediate sensory input, and so on”; Pearson et al. (2015) note that “we use the term ‘mental imagery’ to refer to representations […] of sensory information without a direct external stimulus” and Richardson: “Mental imagery refers to all those quasi-sensory or quasi-perceptual experiences […] which exist for us in the absence of those stimulus conditions that are known to produce their genuine sensory or perceptual counterparts, and which may be expected to have different consequences from their sensory or perceptual counterparts” (1969, pp. 2–3). Several of these examples are taken from Nanay (2015), who also holds a similar characterization.

  8. Notice that this schema does not include anything about a distinctive phenomenology for imagination. Some philosophers claim that imagination has a special phenomenal character (e.g., you know that you are imagining rather than perceiving because the experience is different). I think phenomenology can be useful in contrasting different mental states, and therefore it might be that phenomenology should be a factor for distinguishing between imaginative and non-imaginative mental states. But this schema concerns an ability, and abilities themselves do not have phenomenal character. While the ability to imagine might reliably produce mental states with a unique phenomenal character, I am not sure this is true, so I won’t rely on arguments from phenomenal character at this point. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this.

  9. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  10. A different kind of criticism against using a dual process framework for epistemology of imagination is that system 1 processes are not “cognitive,” in the sense that they do not count as thinking, reasoning, or intelligent behaviour of any kind (see, e.g., Di Nucci 2013; Dreyfus 2002; Stanley 2011). They therefore cannot form part of an epistemological account. See Fridland (2017) for arguments against this claim.

  11. Or “intuiting,” to allow for the possibility of non-perceptual imagination1.

  12. This is in line with Kind and Kung’s own solution to the puzzle, which is that “imagination’s ability to serve an instructive function depends on the presence of constraints” (2016, p. 13). Their solution relies on two kinds of constraint: architectural and those implied by free will. By recharacterizing architectural constraints as constraints on imagination1 and those implied by free will as constraints on imagination2, we can speak the language of cognitive science and take advantage of the rest of the dual process model of cognition, while avoiding metaphysical difficulties concerning “architectures of imagination” and free will.

  13. I do not want to commit myself to the position that imagination is only epistemically efficacious when it is constrained by the world, or that imagination always produces knowledge through truth preservation. This is merely one way to explain the ability of imagination to produce knowledge. Sometimes, imagination works best when it breaks radically from what seemed like reasonable constraints.

  14. Thomas Kuhn’s version of this puzzle is: “How, then, relying exclusively upon familiar data, can a thought experiment lead to new knowledge or to a new understanding of nature?” (1964, p. 241). A more recent wording of the problem is Norton’s: “Thought experiments are supposed to give us knowledge of the natural world. From where does this knowledge come?” (2004b, p. 44). It is fair to ask whether the different statements of this question are really equivalent (see Stuart et al. 2018b, pp. 10–11 for other options).

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Acknowledgements

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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Stuart, M.T. Towards a dual process epistemology of imagination. Synthese 198, 1329–1350 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02116-w

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