Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Dustin Stokes: I’m a philosopher of mind and cognitive science. My research concerns three main (sometimes related) areas: imagination, sensory perception (and how it relates to cognition), and creativity. I tend to approach these topics in a broadly empirical manner, and collaborate with scientists in relevant fields. I have an additional interest in applying theories and methods from the philosophy and science of the mind to questions about art. I am trained in analytic philosophy and have typically worked and taught in philosophy departments. My academic home is the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, and I have previously researched and taught at the Universities of Sussex and Toronto, in both philosophy and cognitive science.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice?
DS: Certainly my teachers. As an undergraduate, Bill Brown and Jack Knight. And as a graduate student, Tamar Szabo Gendler, Dominic McIver Lopes, and Mohan Matthen. They each, in their own ways, provided invaluable support and encouragement. And each was sensitive and receptive enough to recognize where my strengths were (and weren’t!), helping me to cultivate those strengths and, in turn to be confident about doing philosophy. This last bit is really important: I think philosophy can be extremely intimidating (it certainly was for me), and I don’t think I would have succeeded without the confidence that these teachers instilled in me. I should add that my schooling involved a lot of different philosophical approaches: history of ideas, analytic metaphysics and epistemology, empirically informed philosophy.
The interdisciplinary experiences that I’ve been lucky to have, and to still have, shaped and continue to shape how I think about philosophical analysis and, generally, theory and science. There are a number of ways that this is true, but here are a couple that come quickly to mind. Engaging with researchers from substantially different fields—for example, the roboticists, Alife researchers and computational neuroscientists at the Informatics department at the University of Sussex, where I had my first postdoc—encourages you, well, forces you really, to reflect carefully on the language and methodologies you use, and the underlying assumptions that you make. All of this has shaped how I think about expressing ideas. Second, and related, these experiences have forced me to be more open minded about the goals and values of philosophy. Put probably too simply: there isn’t just one way, or one good way, to approach a philosophical problem.
RB: What do we imagine we are talking about when we speak of the imagination? Or, to put it another way, can we imagine the imagination?
DS: I think in our ordinary terms, we use ‘imagine’ and its cognates to refer to an array of disparate phenomena. For instance, we sometimes use the term to make clear that we merely thought or believed something, but now realize that we were mistaken, as we do when we say that we “just imagined it”. In a different spirit, we sometimes describe persons as being “imaginative” to express that they are creative or skilled at originating ideas. Sometimes we implore others to imagine so as to encourage empathy; I might say to you, “Imagine if I had done that to you”. And finally, and perhaps most obviously, we think of the imagination in terms of pretence, make-believe, imagery and mental exploration of non-actual, future and past, and merely fictional scenarios.
Now with the exception of perhaps the first imagination-as-mistake sense, all of these ordinary senses of imagination are relatively well theorized in philosophy and psychology: imagination in creative thought, imagination and its importance to understanding other minds, imagination and possibility, fiction, and, most simply, playfully indulging what is not here or now.
Whether there is a singular phenomenon that unifies these roles and mental activities is, to my mind, an open question. But even supposing that the answer to that question is in some sense negative, we can identify some common characteristics that seem to typify each of these cases. Imagination is a mental activity—a way of mentally representing—that is often under immediate voluntary control. (By contrast, you cannot immediately control what you believe at any moment, even if you can steer yourself, so to speak, towards this or that belief. As it is sometimes put, belief is truth-functional, imagination is not.) Second, imagination typically concerns objects and events that are not present to the subject doing the imagining. Put another way, imagining is not, as a mental activity, bound to truth or reality. And finally, and more traditionally, imagination often involves mental images of some sort, visual, auditory, and perhaps other sensory modalities.
RB: Can you give some historical examples of how imagination has been explored philosophically?
DS: I think we first might distinguish examples where imagination is a topic of inquiry, from cases where it is used as part of philosophical method.
Of the second, perhaps with greater or lesser emphasis, imagination has been part of the philosopher’s toolkit from the beginning: imagining hypotheses, possibilities, examples and illustrations. Imagination sometimes occupies an explicit and operative place in argumentation. One clear example is the use of conceivability/possibility principles in the early modern period. For instance, a number of Descartes’ arguments for substance dualism hinge around what he can conceive and the implication this has for what’s metaphysically possible: he claims that he can coherently conceive of his mind without his body, and so it must be possible to have a bodiless mind. Therefore, as a matter of metaphysics, the mind must be substantially distinct from the body. But it wasn’t just Descartes or so-called rationalists that appealed to imagination in this way: empiricists did the same. For example, in some places in the Essay, Locke takes the inconceivability of free-floating properties like colour, shape, motion, and so on to imply that (perhaps) properties without a property bearer are impossible and, therefore, maybe there is (or must be) some underlying substance or “substratum” that bears those properties. And maybe somewhere in between imagination as method and imagination as topic of inquiry, Hume regularly appeals to imagination to explain (but not justify) how we form ideas and beliefs about things for which (he thinks) we lack appropriate evidence, for example, ideas of the self, of substance, and of causes.
Now imagination is currently “in fashion” as a stand-alone topic, but traditionally it has not been a dominant subject matter. One notable exception is Sartre, who wrote two books on (broadly) the imagination. A lot of Sartre’s analysis readily comports, I think, with contemporary discussions of the imagination (and somewhat ironically, since Sartre is not much discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy).
First, Sartre understood imagination to be intentional, in the sense of having aboutness, or being representational. He also tended to have in mind imagery, since he described imaginative episodes as observational. Moreover, when imaging an event, say Pierre in the café (it’s always Pierre in the café), we “see” right through the image to the thing imaged: it is as if we see Pierre, but we do not see our image of Pierre. Imagination is, in more contemporary terms, transparent. But at the same time for Sartre, by contrast to perception, images are somehow tagged as concerning objects or events that are not present. So, imagination is really quasi-observational, since it lacks the feeling of presence that visual or other perceptual experiences enjoy. Finally, he understood our capacity for imagination to be voluntary but also to involve some degree of spontaneity: we construct the objects-as-imaged, but this often happens rapidly and without feeling of effort.
It is this combination of features that, for Sartre, give imagination its creative power. One can actively imagine, where one is thereby responsible for the objects-as-imaged, and without commitment to their presence in one’s environment. And because one can do this, one therefore makes and is responsible for the contents of one’s imaginings (by contrast to the contents of one’s perceptions or beliefs). Imagining is, for Sartre, a richly creative activity, and this is no trivial part of his broader philosophy. The playfulness and freedom enjoyed by imagination is central to how we intend to change the world as we find it, and how we identify as selves. On Sartre’s view, freedom in the world—freedom of the will—consists importantly in our capacity for imagining the world to be ways other than the ways we find it, and then further imagining how we might act to change the world in those very ways. So it’s not an overstatement, I don’t think, to say that imagination and its creative potential are central to Sartre’s existentialism, since they are central to how we mould our existence (which, on the familiar slogan, precedes essence).
RB: Are there different varieties of imagination? Can you give some examples?
DS: Well, as I said earlier, I think this is a point of active debate, since it isn’t obvious that there is a singular phenomenon that falls under the term ‘imagination’. That said, in both traditional and contemporary research, philosophers have made some distinctions. Depending upon one’s views about *a* faculty of imagination, these might be distinctions between types of mental process or state (perhaps not all of them imagination), distinctions in types of imagination, or distinctions in the roles or uses that a single thing the imagination—can serve.
One distinction, acknowledged by both Kant and Sartre is between “productive” vs. “reproductive” imagination (or put in other terms, “creative” vs. “recreative” imagination). The terms already point to the sense of the distinction, but the basic idea is that we can sometimes use imagination to produce or create a thought that is, to some degree, novel. It could be something important like a scientific hypothesis or something banal, like an anxiety-inducing possibility (“maybe that noise in the attic is a gremlin”). But just as often, perhaps more often, we use imagination to reproduce ideas. These could be our own ideas (“there’s that noisy gremlin again”) or be reproductions of ideas of others, as we do when we follow a fictional narrative. Interestingly, Sartre takes the latter—engagement with fictions—to be not entirely re-productive, but importantly productive. He takes the narrative—say a novel—to be incomplete at the stage of the author’s production; although guided by the text, the reader must actively imagine so as to “fill out” the fictional world. The reader is thereby complicit in creating the fictional world, or the “irreal world” as Sartre puts it, and this has an interesting explanatory consequence, it explains why our experiences of fictions can be so powerful: we are actively responsible, on Sartre’s view, for creating that fiction.
Another distinction is between sensory imagination, or imagery, and non-imagistic imagination. Going back at least to Aristotle, mental imagery was the more commonly discussed notion. When we imagine, we form images before the “mind’s eye”. In contemporary discussions, philosophers distinguish this sensory imagination from something that need not or does not involve images, what they call “propositional imagination”. Although imagery has received more attention traditionally, there is certainly early precedent for propositional imagination. For example, Descartes maintained that one could form a mental image of a triangle, but not of a chiliagon (a 1000-sided figure). This is standardly taken to indicate that understanding doesn’t require imagery, since Descartes claimed to find his image-less idea of the chiliagon to be intelligible. But it also points to a kind of imagination: one can imagine that a figure has 1000 sides. This is propositional imagination.
Most recently, propositional imagination has dominated recent theorizing of the imagination, with the consequence that imagery has been relatively neglected by philosophers. My view is that this inversion of tradition is unfortunate, and I hope that more and more philosophers will return attention to sensory imagination.
RB: How do our imaginative capacities differ from other mental capacities?
DS: Well, some of this has come out in what we have already discussed, but here are a few (hopefully not overly controversial) features of imagination, as contrasted with other mental processes. I think most take imagination to be disconnected from truth, reality, and action. So, I can imagine propositions that I know to be merely fictional or false, but I typically cannot (willingly) believe those same propositions. As I’ve put it in some of my work, imagination is non truth-bound in a way that is different from belief, memory, and knowledge. It is also different from sensory perception with respect to the here-and-now. We can grant that vision sometimes suffers illusions and hallucinations (some of them perhaps the mere imaginings of philosophers!), but it is typically responsive to the objects, features, and events that are present in one’s environment. Even if it sometimes misfires, this is certainly the function of vision. Imagination does not share this function: it can be about things that have little or nothing to do with one’s present reality. And indeed part of the fun, and the utility, of imagination consists in this freedom from reality. Finally, imagination is different from other states with respect to action. Unlike forming an intention to perform some action which will, assuming other conditions are in place, result in that action, imagining performing actions is not similarly bound to carrying out those actions.
All of this points to the playfulness of imagination. But, importantly, imagination is not all play and no work. It can result in emotional affect. It plays some non-negligible part in how we empathize with others. It plays a crucial role in a lot of our reasoning: we imagine what may happen if we make one choice instead of another, we form mental images to reason about spaces and bodily actions (“Will this sofa fit through the apartment door?”, “If I turn the handlebars at this angle then I bet I can make that tight switchback.”). It figures in determining whether our evidence is sufficient for certainty or knowledge. And so on.
My view is that it is this combination of playfulness and workfulness that makes imagination crucial, if not essential, to creative innovation and original thinking. The playfulness can get you novel ideas, since it allows you to “try out” thoughts and conceptual combinations unbound to truth and reality; it serves a role that I’ve called “cognitive manipulation”. The workfulness can enable you to determine which of those novel ideas are useful, relevant, or valuable. And all of this can, in the philosopher’s terms, be done agentially, largely under voluntary control.
RB: What role does the imagination have in scientific discovery and how does it fit with rational ways of making discoveries?
DS: I think we are going to talk about imagination and creativity in a moment, and think that is relevant to your question here, so I’ll say a few things now (further to my response to the last question) and more later.
Take it or leave it, but there is a traditional distinction in philosophy of science between “”the context of discovery” and “the context of justification”. The first concerns the scientist’s insight or novel hypothesis, perhaps it comes in a burst of original thinking or after a long period of laborious cognitive work. The second concerns how that hypothesis then gets analysed, scrutinized, tested, and so on. This is rather controversial territory, not least because the distinction essentially identified the context of justification—the “logic” of science—as the only appropriate subject matter for philosophy of science; and it took decades to overcome that theoretical consequence. An underlying assumption here, I think, is that the context of discovery is simply too unruly, unbound with respect to truth and reason, to be evaluated objectively. “Who knows how the scientist gets radically novel ideas!? That’s subject matter for psychology (or magic!) but not philosophy!” What’s right about this is that the generation of novel ideas or hypotheses requires mental processes that are not bound to truth or “objective reality”; it requires, as I said a bit ago, imagination. Imagination is non truth-bound, and playful, in a way that makes it ideal for novel discovery. Now, critics of this distinction and its disciplinary consequences rejected the assumption that the justification or “proof” of theories was a purely objective or logical matter; human psychology and sociology are undeniable factors in the context of justification, not just the context of discovery. An extension of this criticism is to acknowledge how imagination, a mental process not bound to objectivity with a big ‘O’, also figures in scientific reasoning, analysis, justification. Here are a couple ways I think this is true; both of them concern the use of imagination in scientific experimentation.
Philosophers employ thought experiments (sometimes for good, sometimes…not so good). But scientists use thought experiments too; they always have. And it should be obvious why: they often have to “dream up” some conceptual or technological innovation in order to resolve a current problem and, importantly, a problem apparently not resolvable by existing means. And this “dreaming up” involves imagination. It would be wrong to think, though, that this all occurs at an initial stage of discovery or a Eureka! moment. The imagined scenarios or propositions have to be put to the test, so to speak, to determine if they will contribute to the solution to the current problem. And this analysis will often involve imagination. A famous example is William Harvey’s reported method of discovering the human cardiovascular system. The problem was this: the existing anatomical model had it that there were two kinds of blood—one coming from the liver and distributed through the veins and the other coming from the heart and distributed through the arteries. And all of this blood was supposed to be regularly consumed by the human body. Harvey reasoned that this model was incompatible with empirical observation; for instance, it would predict that veins would be regularly dry (which appeared to be false given rapid blood loss upon incision) unless the liver created blood constantly and with inconceivable rapidity. Harvey began to imagine that blood flowed cyclically throughout the body. But this imagined possibility was not yet sufficient for a solution to the problem. To secure that, Harvey then had to construct a new anatomical model, including how the blood flowed from arteries to veins and then returned to the heart through its right ventricle. And he had to construct this new model—a new paradigm, if you like—in a way that was consistent with what else was known about the human body. This is a scientific innovation shot through with imagination at all of its stages.
Another way imagination figures in scientific discovery is technological. A naïve view of empirical science might assume that the technologies used are ready-made, so to speak, and the scientist must then just use them, and sometimes use them creatively. But a moment’s reflection will reveal otherwise: scientific technologies are as much a part of the invention of science as the theories they are used to test and support. The perceptual psychologist, for example, is regularly challenged to identify possible confounds to isolating the phenomenon she is interested in. Perhaps she wants to know if an observed behaviour is a result of vision, but not of the subject’s judgment or desires. So she must attempt to “control for”, as we say, the variables that might be possible confounds and, in the good cases, thereby get data just on the variable/s of interest. A great deal of imagination is required to do all of this successfully: one has to imagine what the possible confounds may be, one has to imagine methods for controlling for the relevant variables and then which ones may work better or worse. And one sometimes must imagine (and construct) a technology in order to serve those very methods. As I like to put it, then, being an experimentalist requires being a tinkerer, both at the stage of experimental construction and technological development. These innovations are themselves creative, are essential for creative scientific discovery, and the tinkering required often involves imagination.
RB: There is little that shapes the human experience as profoundly and pervasively as creativity. What is the relation between creativity and imagination?
DS: I certainly agree. I think it’s right that we simply wouldn’t be human, or what we think of as human, if we lacked the capacity for creative thought and behaviour. And I also think that we wouldn’t be human without the capacity for imagination. As should be clear from what I’ve said about imagination and scientific discovery, I think these two observations are importantly related. I think imagination is central to creativity, and that this is true whether we are talking about richly creative minds like Picasso or Einstein or Coltrane or whomever, or talking about more mundane instances of everyday creativity.
So a lot of my work on creativity has attempted to shift the emphasis from the former to the latter, from genius to what I call “minimal creativity”. I don’t think a Picasso or an Einstein is a good place to start, if we want to understand their innovations from a psychological or naturalistic perspective. Instead, we start with some features that are common to those instances of creativity and ones that many people might make: a clever solution to a hitch in a home improvement project, a new way to explain something familiar, a chess move that surprises both you and your opponent. What is common to all of these?
We can first acknowledge that creative things are valuable, but I don’t think value is informative as a condition on creativity (any more than I think utility is an informative defining condition of, say, a chair). To explain creativity, then, even at the most basic level, we have to say what features are necessary for some F to be creative. This will be incomplete…but I think there are at least two, and even just acknowledging the two can lead us in some interesting directions and make the topic of creativity tractable. First, creative Fs—an idea, an action, a product—are novel or new in some way. But we shouldn’t assume that they must be entirely new, or out of nowhere as we might say. Instead, they can be novel relative to a comparison class, and that comparison class could be the entirety of human ideas, or it could just be the set of ideas had by the thinker in question. Maggie Boden calls the first “historical creativity” and the second, “psychological creativity”. And she urges that an interest in creativity is not exclusive to the first. In fact, I think the point is even stronger: a philosophical or psychological interest in creativity should not centrally emphasize historical creativity, since here our interest is in what the agent does, or has to do, to make something new. And this could be a very individual, rather than a sociological, matter. Second, and related, we think of creative Fs, say a new hypothesis or an interesting performance, as being worthy of praise. Accordingly, they are thoughts and actions for which the agent is responsible (we don’t praise people for things out of their control). So, creativity, in addition to relative novelty, requires agency (in the philosopher’s sense).
This is an incomplete characterization of what I call “minimally creative thought” (or action). But even this minimal sense points to the importance of imagination. As I said above, the playfulness of imagination—its being unbound to truth or reality—allows us to think or act in ways not immediately responsive to our reality (or how we perceive that reality). It enables novelty. And because we can voluntarily control imagination, we can explore those novel ideas and their possible values. And, this is something we do, as agents. The upshot, I think, is that imagination is important for even mundane instances of creativity. And that, to come finally back to the question, is why imagination is so important to being human, and to experiencing the world as human.
RB: Can the imaginative capacity sometimes be a hindrance and restrictive? If so, can you give some examples where this might be the case?
DS: Well, imagination can itself be restricted (and therefore perhaps restrictive). Psychologists (and, following suit, some philosophers) are becoming more and more sensitive to individual differences in cognitive processes. One relevant example here is aphantasia, a condition where individuals have limited to no capacity for imagery. And more broadly, there is good evidence for individual differences in types of imagery. For instance, a lot more people report a capacity for visual imagery than, say, olfactory imagery. Whether these conditions restrict individuals is something of an open question. Persons with aphantasia can perform many of the same cognitive and reasoning tasks as those who have the capacity for imagery, even if they are succeeding by different mental means.
Another way that imagination can be troublesome—perhaps a hindrance—is a familiar one: our imaginations can “run away with us”. One nice development in recent philosophy of imagination and fiction concerns how mere imagining can cause powerful emotional affect. This is obviously true when we watch a film or theatre performance or read a novel. Imagining mere fictional characters and events results in feelings of sadness, pity, fear (or at least, feelings very much like them). In these cases I don’t think we would want to call it a hindrance, but now just notice how roughly the same phenomenon occurs when we are imagining mere possibilities in our lives: one can imagine that a loved one may be terminally ill, that the audience thought your lecture was rubbish, that that’s not a gremlin in the attic but a devastating termite infestation. And these imaginings may absolutely result in genuine emotional affect. This can be a hindrance, emotionally and in our decision making capacities.
A perhaps less familiar way that imagination might be a hindrance concerns knowledge. Many think that having knowledge of some proposition P involves certainty that P is true. Here is one way to characterize this epistemic achievement: certainty that P requires that one be certain that propositions incompatible with P (most obviously, not P) are false. Thus to know that you have a physical body and live in a material world (again, call this ‘P’), you need to be certain (or, as we sometimes say, have a justified belief) that you are not living in some science fictional scenario, say, where all of your experiences are the mere consequence of an elaborate computer simulation. (This may sound outlandish, but how could you be absolutely sure that this scenario is false? It’s notoriously hard to answer that question with certainty. And if you want more down to earth examples: short of going and looking, how can you be certain…that you locked your apartment door this morning? that your car is parked where you left it? that there are no typos in the email you just sent?…it’s easy to imagine possibilities incompatible with each of these propositions). So…this latter proposition (living out an elaborate computer simulation) is incompatible with the truth of P (that you have a physical body and live in a material world), and thus incompatible with your knowing that P. And here is the rub, the more imaginative you are, if you “let your imagination rip”, to steal a phrase from David Lewis, the more salient are those possibilities incompatible with your knowledge that P. So, perhaps surprisingly, imagination can restrict knowledge: as imagination goes up, so to speak, we can become more sceptical and knowledge can elude us.
RB: How do you, or how would you like to, see the future philosophical and psychological exploration of our imaginative capacities progressing?
DS: Well, I’d certainly like to see more collaboration between empirical researchers and philosophers on the topic. Things are trending in this direction, so I’d just like to see that continue. It’s a place—and theories of mind in general are a place—where, I think, interdisciplinarity is worth the hype.
As I noted earlier, the dominant emphasis in the last couple decades has been on non-sensory imagination, and at the cost of work on imagery. I’d like to see that change.
Finally, I think the work on imagination and fiction is good. But I think we should see more emphasis on the importance of imagination to other aspects of life: to the pursuit of knowledge, to happiness, to understanding of others. I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t been some of this work, there has been. But I think there should be more and more of it. To use my own slogan once more, imagination is not all play and no work: it does a great deal of work for us. It may sound lofty, but I think imagination contributes in deep and rich ways to the human condition, and so I would like to see more philosophical and cognitive scientific discussions of this broad importance.
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