Imagination, in modern philosophy

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

3. Controversies among proponents of the standard view

The modern period saw several controversies among philosophers who agreed to the standard view of the imagination but who disagreed over other claims about the imagination.

One such controversy is whether we have a faculty of pure understanding or pure intellect in addition to the faculty of imagination. Such a faculty would allow us to form ideas completely unlike sensory experiences. Descartes, Arnauld and Nicole, Spinoza, and Leibniz argue that we have such a faculty and that it is superior to imagination in various ways. For example, they hold that, unlike the imagination, the pure intellect allows us to conceive the essences of substances (Descartes [1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 20–3); to conceive of immaterial substances, including God (Descartes [1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 265; Arnauld and Nicole [1662] 1996: 26–7); to form true ideas, as opposed to fictitious or false ones (Spinoza [1677b] 1985: 36–7); and to grasp universal, necessary truths, as opposed to particular and contingent ones (Leibniz 1989: 188–91 and 292–3).

Against these philosophers, Hobbes, Gassendi (in his early work) and Hume argue that we have no such faculty of pure intellect. On their view, all ideas are images formed in the imagination or in sensory memory (Hobbes [1641] 1984–91 vol. 2: 122, 125–32, 135; Gassendi [1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 186–91, 228–30; and Hume [1739–40] 2007: 11–12, 52). These philosophers must then explain how the imagination can accomplish the cognitive feats their opponents attribute to the pure intellect, or deny that we can accomplish these feats at all.

Berkeley’s work poses a serious challenge to any philosopher who claims that we have no faculty of pure intellect. He argues that we cannot, by means of the imagination, conceive a sensible object (for example, a tree or a book) to exist unperceived (Berkeley [1710] 1948–57, vol. 2: 50–1). If this argument succeeds, then we have two options: concede that we have some other faculty, such as the pure intellect, by which we can conceive a sensible object to exist unperceived; or conclude – as Berkeley does – that we cannot, by any of our faculties, conceive a sensible object to exist unperceived. Berkeley’s argument for this astonishing conclusion has continued to fascinate philosophers in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Two further controversies concern the relationship between the imagination and reasoning. First, which of our ideas or judgements are due to reasoning, and which are due to non-rational imaginative association? In his writings on vision, Berkeley takes up this question with regard to the judgements we make about objects’ distances, sizes, and situations, based on our visual experiences. According to Descartes and others, we make these judgements by a kind of geometric reasoning ([1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 295). Berkeley argues, on the contrary, that we make them thanks to suggestion – a form of non-rational imaginative association (1709). In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume takes up a similar question about our belief in bodies, or material objects. He argues that this belief is not due to reasoning, and must instead be due to non-rational imaginative association (Hume [1739–40] 2007: 129–43; see also Judgment and belief, in modern philosophy).

The second controversy concerning the relationship between the imagination and reasoning is whether reasoning itself is due to the imagination or to some other mental faculty. Leibniz adopts the latter view, arguing that our faculty of reason is peculiar to human minds and is separate from the imagination, which we share with lower animals (1989: 216–17, 293). By contrast, Hobbes and Hume claim that reasoning is itself a function of the imagination (Hobbes [1641] 1984–91 vol. 2: 125–6 and [1651] 1994: Chapters ii–v; Hume [1739–40] 2007: 67n20, 81n22).

A final controversy concerns imagination and possibility. Hume claims that whatever we clearly imagine must be possible; hence, we can tell that something is possible by clearly imagining it ([1739–40] 2007: 26). Superficially, this resembles a principle of Descartes’: ‘everything which I clearly and distinctly understand is capable of being created by God so as to correspond exactly with my understanding of it’ ([1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 54). In Descartes’ view, however, it is the pure understanding or intellect – not the imagination – that guarantees ‘truth,’ or real possibility through clarity and distinctness (1984–91, vol. 3: 343–4).

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