Imagination in Thought Experimentation: Sketching a Cognitive Approach to Thought Experiments

  • Margherita Arcangeli
Part of the Studies in Computational Intelligence book series (SCI, volume 314)


We attribute the capability of imagination to the madman as to the scientist, to the novelist as to the metaphysician, and last but not least to ourselves. The same, apparently, holds for thought experimentation. Ernst Mach was the first to draw an explicit link between these two mental acts; moreover - in his perspective - imagination plays a pivotal role in thought experimentation. Nonetheless, it is not clear what kind of imagination emerges from Mach’s writings. Indeed, heated debates among cognitive scientists and philosophers turn on the key distinction between sensory and cognitive imagination. Generally speaking, we can say that sensory imagination shares some processes with perception, cognitive imagination with the formation of belief. Both the vocabulary used in the literature on thought experiments and what I refer to as “Machian tradition” indicate imagination as a notion of central importance in the reasoning involved in thought experiments. However, most authors have really focused on sensory (in particular, visual) imagination, but have neglected the second kind. Moreover, some authors attribute to Mach the idea that it is visual imagery that is primarily at work in thought experiments. I claim another interpretation is possible, according to which Mach can be said to deal with cognitive imagination. The main aim of this paper is to retrace Mach’s original arguments and establish a connection with the cognitive literature on imagination. I will argue that imagination tout court could play a role in thought experimentation. Once imagination is seen as the key to the “cognitive black-box” of the thought experiment, we will have moved a step closer to a simulative imagining-based account of thought experimentation.


Thought Experimentation Incline Plane Sensory Imagination Visual Imagery Cognitive Approach 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Abell, C., Currie, G.: Internal and external pictures. Philosophical Psychology 12(4), 429–445 (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Arthur, R.: On thought experiments as a priori science. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 13(3), 215–229 (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Bishop, M.: An epistemological role for thought experiments. In: Shanks, N. (ed.) Idealization in Contemporary Physics, Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Rodopi, Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA, vol. 63, pp. 19–33 (1998)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Brown, J.R.: The Laboratory of the Mind: Thought Experiments in the Natural Sciences. Routledge, London (1991)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Burge, T.: Individualism and the mental. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4, 73–121 (1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cohen, M.: Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments. Blackwell, Oxford (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cooper, R.: Thought experiments. Metaphilosophy 36(3), 328–347 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Currie, G., Ravenscroft, I.: Recreative Minds. Clarendon Press, Oxford (2002)Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Darwin, C.: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London (1859), Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Dokic, J.: Epistemic perspectives on imagination. Revue internationale de philosophie 243, 99–118 (2008)Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Duhem, P.: La Théorie physique: son objet, sa structure. Vrin, Paris (1914)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Einstein, A., Infeld, L.: The Evolution of Physics. The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta. Simon & Schuster, New York (1938)Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Galilei, G.: Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze. Louis Elsevier, Leida (1638)Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Gendler Szabó, T.: The puzzle of imaginative resistance. Journal of Philosophy 97(2), 55–81 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Gendler Szabó, T.: Thought Experiment, pp. 388–394. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. Nature/Routledge, New York/London (2002)Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Gendler Szabó, T.: Thought experiments rethought – and reperceived. Philosophy of Science 71, 1152–1164 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Goldman, A.: Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading. Oxford University Press, New York (2006)Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Gooding, D.: What is experimental about thought experiments? In: Hull, D., Forbes, M., Okruhlik, K. (eds.) PSA 1992, vol. 2, pp. 280–290. Philosophy of Science Association, East Lansing (1993)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Hacking, I.: Do thought experiments have a life of their own? Comments on James Brown, Nancy Nersessian and David Gooding. In: Hull, D., Forbes, M., Okruhlik, K. (eds.) PSA 1992, vol. 2, pp. 302–308. Philosophy of Science Association, East Lansing (1993)Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Heisenberg, W.: Physikalische Prinzipien der Quantentheorie. Hirzel, Leipzig (1930)Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Hull, D.: A function for actual examples in philosophy of science. In: Ruse, M. (ed.) What the Philosophy of Biology Is: Essays Dedicated to David Hull, pp. 309–321. Kluwer, Dordrecht (1989)Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Johnson-Laird, P.N.: Mental Models: Toward a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference and Consciousness. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1983)Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Johnson-Laird, P.N.: The history of mental models. In: Manktelow, K., Chung, M. (eds.) Psychology of Reasoning: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives, pp. 179–212. Psychology Press, New York (2004)Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Kant, I.: Von dem ersten Grunde des Unterschieds der Gegenden im Raume. In: Buchenau, A. (ed.) Vorkritische Schriften, 1912th edn., vol. II, pp. 375–383. Bruno Cassirer, Berlin (1768)Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Koyré, A.: Galileo’s Treatise De Motu Gravium: The Use and the Abuse of Imaginary Experiment. Revue d’Histoire des Sciences 13, 197–245 (1960)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Kuhn, T.: A function for thought experiments. In: L’aventure de la science, Mélanges Alexandre Koyré, Hermann, Paris, vol. 2, pp. 307–343 (1964); Reprinted in Kuhn [27]Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Kuhn, T.: The Essential Tension. University of Chicago, Chicago (1977)Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Lennox, J.G.: Darwinian thought experiments: A function for just-so stories. In: Horowitz, T., Massey, G. (eds.) Thought Experiments in Science and Philosophy, pp. 223–245. Rowman and Littlefield (1991)Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Locke, J.: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Thomas Dring e Samuel Manship, London (1690/1694)Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Mach, E.: Über Gedankenexperimente. Zeitschrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht 10, 1–5 (1896); Translated by Price Price, W.O., Krimsky, S.: On thought experiments. Philosophical Forum 4/3, 446–457 (1973)Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Miščević, N.: Mental models and tought experiments. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 6, 215–226 (1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Moue, A.S., Masavetas, K.A., Karayianni, H.: Tracing the development of thought experiments in the philosophy of natural sciences. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 37, 61–75 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Mulligan, K.: La varietà e l’unità dell’immaginazione. Rivista di estetica 11(2), 53–67 (1999)Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Nersessian, N.J.: In the theoretician’s laboratory: Thought experimenting as Mental Modelling. In: Hull, D., Forbes, M., Okruhlik, K. (eds.) PSA 1992, vol. 2, pp. 291–301. Philosophy of Science Association, East Lansing (1993)Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Nichols, S.: Review: Recreative Minds. Mind 113, 450 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Nichols, S., Stich, S.: Mindreading. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2003)Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Norton, J.: Why thought experiments do not transcend empiricism. In: Hitchcock, C. (ed.) Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Science, pp. 44–66. Blackwell, Oxford (2004)Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Peacocke, C.: Imagination, experience and possibility: A berkeleian view defended. In: Foster, J., Robinson, H. (eds.) Essays on Berkeley, pp. 19–35. Clarendon Press, Oxford (1985)Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Peijnenburg, J., Atkinson, D.: When are thought experiments poor ones? Journal for General Philosophy of Science 34, 305–322 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Plato: The Republic. Cosimo, New York (2008) Translated by Benjamin JowettGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Popper, K.: On the use and misuse of imaginary experiments, especially in quantum theory. In: The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Hutchinson, London, pp. 442–456 (1959)Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Putnam, H.: Brains in a vat. In: DeRose, K., Warfield, T. (eds.) Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, pp. 27–42. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1992)Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Shimojima, A.: The graphic-linguistic distinction. Artificial Intelligence Review 15, 5–27 (2001)zbMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Sorensen, R.: Thought Experiments. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1992)Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Stöltzner, M.: The dynamics of thought experiments – comment to Atkinson. In: Galavotti, M. (ed.) Observation and Experiment in the Natural and Social Sciences, pp. 243–258. Kluwer, Dordrecht (2003)Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Vendler, Z.: The Matter of Minds. Clarendon Press, Oxford (1984)Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Walton, K.: Morals in fiction and fictional morality. In: Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts, pp. 27–45. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2008)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Margherita Arcangeli
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut Jean NicodCNRS-EHESS-ENSParisFrance

Personalised recommendations