Imagination, in modern philosophy

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

1. The standard view of imagination in the modern period

Modern philosophers typically include the imagination (sometimes called the ‘fancy’) in their taxonomies of our cognitive faculties, together with the senses, memory, and understanding. Their views about the imagination differ in important ways, but many agree that it has the following four characteristics.

First, the imagination is a faculty for having mental images – ideas, or mental representations, that resemble sense-experiences. As René Descartes puts it, imagining a triangle involves ‘see[ing] the three lines with my mind’s eye as if they were present before me’ ([1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 50). Descartes’ example concerns a visual image, but he and many other modern philosophers allow that imagining can involve images corresponding to our other external senses (for example, an auditory image of a melody) and some allow that imagining can involve images corresponding to internal experiences (for example, an image of a passion). Two extreme views on either end of the scale are worth noting: Benedict de Spinoza defines imagination in a remarkably broad way to include, for example, first-hand sensory experiences themselves ([1677a] 1985: 465). By contrast, Joseph Addison defines imagination in a remarkably narrow way that confines it to visual imagery only ([1711–14] 1965, vol. 3: 536–37).

Second, imagination allows us to think of absent objects. I can imagine a triangle, even when there is no triangle before me. More radically, I can imagine a chimera or a golden mountain, even though there are no such things. In this respect, imagination is unlike sensory perception: I cannot see a triangle, unless there is one before my eyes. In one variation on this claim, Nicolas Malebranche holds that when we imagine an object, we perceive it as absent ([1674–75] 1997: 88).

Third, while imagination can reproduce one’s past sensory experiences, it is not limited to doing so. We can imagine things we have never experienced, such as a chimera or a golden mountain. In these cases, the imagination uses elements drawn from past experiences – for example, the colour gold and the shape of a mountain – and combines them in a novel way. Different modern philosophers allow different ways of forming novel images from such elements. In his Institutio Logica (1658), Pierre Gassendi allows that we can form novel images by ‘unification’, as when we combine images of gold and a mountain; by ‘enlargement and diminution’, as when we imagine a giant by enlarging our image of a normal-sized human being, or a pygmy by reducing it; and by ‘transference, adaptation, analogy, or comparison’, as when we imagine a city we have not seen, by analogy with one we have, or when we imagine God by analogy with ‘some grand old man’ (Gassendi [1658] 1981: 87–8). Thomas Hobbes is more parsimonious: in his Leviathan, he allows only that we can form novel images by compounding the parts of images drawn from past experiences ([1651] 1994: 9).

Fourth and finally, imagination involves a distinctive kind of transition between mental images: non-rational transitions due to habituated or customary associations. When two things are associated, someone imagining one of them is likely to imagine the other. Many modern philosophers recognize some form of this phenomenon, including Hobbes, Malebranche, Spinoza, John Locke (who coined the phrase ‘association of ideas’ to describe it, in the fourth edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding), Gottfried Leibniz, George Berkeley, and David Hume. But these philosophers differ in their accounts of association and, indeed, in their degree of interest in theorizing about this phenomenon. For example, Locke contents himself with observing that the mind associates ideas ‘either voluntarily, or by chance’ ([1689] 1975: 396). But others explain association in terms of a few precisely formulated principles: for examples, see Hobbes ([1651] 1994: 12–15), Malebranche ([1674–5] 1997: 101–6; see §2, below), and Hume ([1739–40] 2007: 12–14; [1748] 2000, 17–18).

Although the phenomenon of association was widely recognized in the seventeenth century, it assumed a greater role in the philosophical and psychological explanations of the eighteenth century. Berkeley assigned it an important role in his theory of vision, and Hume and his contemporary David Hartley developed theories according to which association is the central explanatory phenomenon of mind. These theories laid the groundwork for nineteenth-century associationist psychology. (For more about association, see §2 and §3, below.)

The view that imagination has these four characteristics had wide support among modern philosophers. Call this the standard view of imagination in this period. Most philosophers who accepted this view combined it with further, sometimes controversial claims about the imagination (see §2 and §3, below). So, the standard view should be seen as a common core of these philosophers’ theories of the imagination rather than an independent, complete theory in its own right.

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