Imagination, in modern philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved December 12, 2018, from

4. Critics of the standard view: Reid and Kant

Although most modern philosophers shared a commitment to the standard view of the imagination, late in the eighteenth century, Thomas Reid and Immanuel Kant criticized the view.

Reid criticizes the standard view on two main counts. First, he argues that it is imprecise to say that ‘the imagination’ is responsible for successions of associated thoughts because these successions actually require several faculties, including memory, judgement, reasoning and the passions (Reid [1785] 2002: 334). Reid does not use the word ‘imagination’ in this allegedly imprecise way. He distinguishes several further senses of this word (Reid [1785] 2002: 334). In his preferred sense, ‘imagination’ denotes the conception of a visible object (Reid [1785] 2002: 306, 326) or of an object’s visual appearance – the way it would look, were we to see it (Reid [1785] 2002: 326, 394).

Second, Reid criticizes a view about the nature of mental images that he attributes to his philosophical predecessors in the modern period. As he understands them, these philosophers hold that mental images are special objects of thought that exist in our minds and serve as intermediaries between us and the things we imagine. On this view, imagining a triangle must involve thinking of two objects: i) a triangle, and ii) one’s mental image of that triangle. Reid rejects this view of mental images: according to him, an ‘image in the mind’ is not a special kind of object, but is simply someone’s act of conceiving ([1785] 2002: 300–1). On this view, imagining a triangle need not involve thinking of anything other than the triangle in question. In Reid’s own judgement, this is his most important criticism of his predecessors’ views of the imagination. However, it is unclear whether his predecessors did regard mental images as intermediary objects of thought; Reid’s view may differ less from theirs than he supposes.

Kant accepts a great deal of the standard view: for example, he accepts that the imagination is a faculty by which we form and associate mental images that are derived from past sensory experiences and that represent absent things ([1781/87] 1998: 229, 256–7); he calls these functions of the imagination reproductive ([1781/87] 1998: 239, 257). However, unlike philosophers who accept the standard view, Kant argues that the imagination could not perform these reproductive functions as it does in the human mind, unless it also performed an importantly different kind of function, which he calls productive ([1781/87] 1998: 239–41; see also [1781/87] 1998: 256–7 and [1798] 2006: 60). Both kinds of function involve what Kant calls synthesis – an act of combining numerous representations (a manifold) into a single representation as of a unified whole ([1781/87] 1998: 210–11). In reproductive imagination, we combine representations drawn from past sensory experiences, according to laws of psychological association ([1781/87] 1998: 257); for example, we associate the colour red with cinnabar, having previously experienced these together ([1781/87] 1998: 229–30). By contrast, the productive imagination precedes experience ([1798] 2006: 60), and is not constrained by the laws of psychological association. In Kant’s view, earlier philosophers failed to recognize the productive functions of the imagination.

Kant’s distinction between the productive and reproductive imagination is an important difference between his view and the standard one. Another, related difference is that Kant does not accept that imagination is confined to impure or sensory kinds of thought, in contrast with thoughts due to the pure intellect. In his view, the imagination itself has a pure, non-empirical function. This is possible because our sensory representations of objects (our intuitions) have two aspects: first, a posteriori matter, which consists of sensations received through the senses: in reproductive imagination, we synthesize these aspects of our intuitions (Kant [1781/87] 1998: 237–8, 257); second, a priori forms, which Kant argues are space and time ([1781/87] 1998: 159–65). In productive imagination, we synthesize these aspects of our intuitions (Kant [1781/87] 1998: 237–8, 240–1, 257). For example, when representing a line, the productive imagination combines a succession of points; because points belong to space, which is an a priori form of intuition, representing a line is a pure synthesis that precedes experience (Kant [1781/87] 1998: 230). The pure, productive function of imagination is central to Kant’s epistemology: he argues that it makes possible both mathematical knowledge and empirical knowledge of objects.

The imagination is also central to Kant’s aesthetic theory. He argues that our experiences of the beautiful involve the interaction of imagination and understanding, and that our experiences of the sublime involve the interaction of imagination and reason. He also argues that the imagination is responsible for aesthetic ideas – special imaginative representations that an artist seeks to embody in an artwork, and that can provide moral inspiration ([1790] 2000: 191–5).

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