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Imagination, in modern philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

In the modern philosophical period, the imagination (sometimes called the ‘fancy’) is standardly seen as a faculty for having mental images, and for making non-rational, associative transitions among such images. This standard view forms a common core of many modern philosophers’ theories of the imagination. Different philosophers elaborate upon it in different ways: for example, some add that there is a close connection between the imagination and the brain; some, that the imagination interacts with the passions in important ways; and some, that the imagination plays a crucial role in explaining how we create artworks and how we appreciate the aesthetic properties of things.

The modern period saw several important controversies among philosophers who share the standard view of the imagination. Perhaps most importantly, Descartes, Arnauld and Nicole, Spinoza, and Leibniz argue that in addition to the faculty of the imagination, we have a faculty of pure intellect or pure understanding, while Hobbes, Gassendi, and Hume deny this. Other important controversies concern the relationship between imagination and reasoning, and the role of the imagination – if any – as a source of modal knowledge, that is, knowledge of what is possible rather than merely actual.

Late in the eighteenth century, Reid and Kant criticized the standard view. Reid claims to disagree with his predecessors about the association of ideas and about the nature of mental images. (However, it is unclear whether he interprets his predecessors correctly; some of his objections may miss their mark.) For his part, Kant agrees with the standard view that the imagination is a faculty for having and associating mental images. But he argues that these reproductive functions of the imagination take place in the human mind thanks to different, productive functions of the imagination that earlier philosophers did not recognize. His account of these productive functions of the imagination plays a central role in his epistemology and aesthetics.

Citing this article:
Cottrell, Jonathan. Imagination, in modern philosophy, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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