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Imaginative immersion, regulation, and doxastic mediation


This paper puts forward an account of imaginative immersion. Elaborating on Kendall Walton’s thesis that imagining aims at the fictional truth, it first argues that imaginings are inherently rule- or norm-governed: they are ‘regulated’ by that which is presented as fictionally true. It then shows that an imaginer can follow the rule or norm mandating her to imagine the propositions presented as fictional truths either by acquiring explicit beliefs about how the rule (norm) is to be followed, or directly, without acquiring such beliefs. It proceeds to argue that to the extent that an imaginer follows this rule (norm) without holding such beliefs, she is more immersed in her imaginings. The general idea is that immersion in an activity is a matter of following rules or norms that apply to that activity without explicitly thinking about how to follow them, that is, without ‘doxastic mediation.’ Lastly, the paper shows that this thesis can explain various features associated with imaginative immersion, such as the sort of attentiveness it involves, the emotional response it generates, and its relation to spoilers.

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  1. In arguing against Schellenberg, Liao and Doggett (2014, pp. 266–267) adduce a case where the difference between non-immersed and immersed pretenders is clearly categorical: a mother playing ‘cops and robbers’ with her son first believes ‘I’m a mother who’s pretending to be a cop,’ but upon becoming immersed in the game, imagines ‘I’m a cop.’ But this case, where there is a shift from believing to imagining, is irrelevant to providing an account of immersion, where the crucial distinction is that between an immersed imaginer and a non- (or less-) immersed imaginer. With regard to this distinction, the relevant shift is a shift from one imagining to another imagining, both of which have the content ‘I’m a cop.’.

  2. Briefly, there are two respects in which Langland-Hassan’s thesis that imaginings are beliefs (judgments, desires, etc.) may be problematic. First, we sometimes believe that it is fictionally true that p, but imagine that not-p, hence imaginings cannot be defined as beliefs about a given fictional scenario. For instance, we may know (say, from a spoiler) the identity of the murderer in a certain murder mystery, but we can nonetheless imagine, in reading the mystery’s first chapters, that the murderer is someone else, as per the work’s initial intimations. In such cases, what we imagine differs from what we believe about the fictional content. The same is true vis-à-vis other folk-psychological attitudes to the fictional content p: we can have those attitudes while imagining not-p. Secondly, consider spontaneous imaginings. Since beliefs arise for a reason or in response to evidence, whereas spontaneous imaginings are extemporaneous, spontaneous imaginings cannot be identical to beliefs about the fictional scenarios.

  3. Walton’s idea also applies to spontaneous imaginings: spontaneously imagining a proposition presupposes that the proposition is also (spontaneously) set down as fictionally true (1990, pp. 44–45).

  4. See, e.g., Walton (1990 ch. 4), Currie and Ravenscroft (2002, p. 12ff), Nichols (2006, §3.5). And see Sect. 4.2 below.

  5. A similar claim is made by Langland-Hassan (2020, ch. 7) regarding the concept of pretense.

  6. Since young children can be immersed in imagining to varying degrees, it is important to acknowledge their ability to hold explicit beliefs about the fictional world, as per my claim that the more an imaginer holds such beliefs, the less immersed she is. For one thing, when asked about the fictional world (e.g., the world of the game of make-believe they just played), young children respond in a manner demonstrating that they can hold such explicit beliefs. For another, when invited to play a new game, or when a new stipulation or prop is introduced during a game, they can acquire such beliefs (e.g., ‘this box is an oven’; ‘this coin is a pie’; etc.). To the extent that young children engage in imagining (and not in falsely believing fictional content), they can distinguish between reality and fiction, and hold beliefs, explicit or non-explicit, about the fiction; they can thus be immersed to varying degrees.

  7. As explained in Sect. 2.2, my account is compatible with the claim that even fully-immersed imaginers can have non-occurrent, dispositional, or unconscious beliefs about the fictional world. The crucial point is that immersed imaginers do not explicitly think about which propositions are to be imagined, and hence imagine the propositions without explicit doxastic mediation.

  8. It might also be the case that stage (2) does not ensue directly from stage (1), but from the perceptual belief that there is a tree-stump at that spot, which follows from (1). The present paper does not focus on this sort of doxastic mediation, viz., doxastic mediation of perceptual experience; my account of immersion is compatible both with accounts that uphold it, and accounts on which imaginings ensue directly from visual experiences, without the mediation of perceptual beliefs. Likewise, my account is compatible with doxastic theories of perception, on which the visual experience at stage (1) is nothing more than the perceptual belief that there is a tree-stump at a certain spot. The key question vis-à-vis immersion is whether beliefs about the apparent fictional truths are generated by a perceptual experience.

  9. Note that the way in which a work of fiction describes something as true does not depend on any specific theory of fiction or imagination: we discover what a work of fiction describes as or assumes to be true just as we discover what works of nonfiction (e.g., histories, biographies, newspaper articles, etc.) describe as or assume to be true. See Chasid (forthcoming-b).

  10. See, e.g., Walton (1990 ch. 4), Currie and Ravenscroft (2002, p. 12ff), Nichols and Stich (2003, §2.4), Nichols (2006, §3.5), Weinberg and Meskin (2006, pp. 180–181), Van Leeuwen (2013), Stock (2017, §6.2).

  11. See Walton (1990, ch. 8); see also Chasid (2016).

  12. I am assuming, as is widely accepted, that imaginings can arise spontaneously, i.e., without intentions. Those who maintain that spontaneous imaginings rest on implicit intentions, or on what are sometimes called ‘tacit’ intentions (see, e.g., Boghossian 2008, p. 488), can construe the distinction in question as that between explicitly-intended imaginings, and implicitly- or tacitly-intended imaginings.

  13. As Setiya (2018, §5) points out, it is widely accepted that intentions entail beliefs about what one intends to do. Yet even without this premise, having an explicit intention to imagine certain propositions entails having a mental representation of what one intends to imagine. The ensuing imaginings are thus mediated by occurrent, non-dispositional representations about that which is fictionally true, hence the low degree of immersion.

  14. My argument is neutral regarding the controversial question of whether mental images necessarily arise in imaginative projects; see Walton (1990, p. 13), Kind (2001, 2016, p. 7), Van Leeuwen (2013, p. 222).

  15. The intuition that mental images are akin to perceptual experiences seems to be supported by psychological research: empirical findings show that the more vivid (i.e., clear, colorful, well-defined) mental images are, the more similar they are to perceptual experiences; see, e.g., Green and Donahue (2009, p. 244), Iachini et al. (2019, p. 292). Moreover, the correlation between vividness of mental images and absorption in imaginings is also supported by empirical evidence (Green and Donahue 2009; Iachini et al. 2019). The proposed account of imaginative immersion explains this correlation: vivid images, in resembling perceptual experiences to a significant degree, require less awareness, on the part of the imaginer, of the manner in which they present the fictional world, and hence enable her to be more immersed in her imaginings.

  16. There is empirical support for this claim: Iachini et al. (2019) found that control over mental images is not positively correlated with characteristic features of immersion.

  17. For an overview, see Ichino (2019).

  18. Kampa (2018) argues for a thesis in this vein, though his account endeavors to explain imaginative transportation, namely, cases where the imaginer imagines herself to be part of the fictional world, whereas immersed imaginers do not always imagine themselves to be part of the fictional world. The imaginer’s presence in the fictional world can be explained by adducing Walton’s distinction between the ‘work world’ and the ‘game world’ (Walton 2015, ch. 2, §5), but Walton’s distinction only applies to engaging with works of fiction. Another account of the imaginer’s supposed ‘presence’ in the fictional world is given in Chasid (forthcoming-a, §5), which addresses imagining in general, not just imaginative immersion.


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This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 1544/20).

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Correspondence to Alon Chasid.

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Chasid, A. Imaginative immersion, regulation, and doxastic mediation. Synthese 199, 7083–7106 (2021).

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  • Imagination
  • Belief-like imagining
  • Rules
  • Immersion
  • Belief
  • Attentiveness
  • Doxastic mediation
  • Spoilers
  • Imaginative emotions