Imagination, in modern philosophy

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

2. Variations on the standard view

According to the standard view, the imagination is a faculty for having and associating mental images, which may represent absent or novel objects. Modern philosophers who accept this view typically combine it with further claims about the imagination.

For example, many see important connections between the imagination and the brain. Descartes and other Cartesians hold that, when one perceives by one’s senses or imagines something, one’s mind applies itself to a physical image in one’s brain – a physical correlate of the mental image one then experiences in one’s mind (Descartes 1984–91 vol. 3: 344–5; see also Arnauld and Nicole [1662] 1996: 29, and Malebranche [1674–75] 1997: 87–8). In their view, sense-perception and imagination differ in how this brain-image arises: if it is caused by an external object acting on one’s sense-organs, then one has a sense-perception; if it is caused by events taking place within one’s brain (as in dreaming) or by one’s will (as in deliberate acts of imagining), then one imagines.

Relatedly, some modern philosophers hold that physical connections in the brain itself explain associations among mental images. There are various accounts of these connections. According to Malebranche, the association of ideas is due to the flow of animal spirits – a fine fluid posited to explain the workings of the nervous system – through channels in the brain; ideas are associated when their accompanying brain-images are connected by channels through which these spirits flow easily ([1674–75] 1997: 101–6). Locke and Hume at least provisionally accept this. According to a different account, suggested by Isaac Newton and developed by Hartley, association is due to vibrations in the brain and spinal cord.

These philosophers hold that physical features of the brain explain the workings of the imagination. Hobbes sees a more intimate connection here. In his view, imagination is a purely material phenomenon: to form a mental image is simply for a certain motion to take place in one’s brain; and association is simply a causal relation among such motions ([1651] 1994: 12). In his Objections to Descartes’ Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), Hobbes uses this claim about imagination to argue for Materialism – the view that mentality is a purely material phenomenon (Hobbes [1641] 1984–91, vol. 2: 125–6).

In another variation on the standard view, several modern philosophers see important connections between the imagination and the passions. Descartes holds that imagining an object can give rise to passions towards it ([1649] 1984–91, vol. 1: 381; and Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes 2007: 119–20) and that the imagination can help us to control our passions (Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes 2007: 137). Spinoza sees a more intimate connection between imagination and passion. He holds that the passions are themselves imaginations, or what other modern philosophers would call mental images (Spinoza [1677a] 1985: 542, 551). He also holds that our way of imagining something helps determine the strength of our passion towards it. For example, we feel stronger passions towards things we imagine as present than towards those we imagine as lying in the future (Spinoza [1677a] 1985: 551). This can lead us to behave irrationally: for example, it can lead us to choose a smaller good in the present over a greater one in the future (Spinoza [1677a] 1985: 581–2). Spinoza concludes that the imagination needs to be disciplined by reason ([1677a] 1985: 594–606).

Hume and Adam Smith hold that the imagination is responsible for sympathy or fellow-feeling – the mechanism by which we share each other’s passions. They give different accounts of this mechanism: for Hume, sympathy is due to imaginative associations triggered by observing someone feeling a passion ([1739–40] 2007: 206–8, 368); for Smith, it is due to considering someone’s situation, and imagining how oneself would feel in that situation ([1759] 1982: 9–13). Despite these differences, Hume and Smith agree that moral evaluation requires a capacity for sympathy, and hence requires imagination.

Further variations concern artistic creativity and aesthetic appreciation, or taste. Concerning artistic creativity, Hobbes and Addison hold that poets need well-developed imaginations in order to organize ideas derived from the senses in aesthetically pleasing ways (Hobbes [1651] 1994: 38–9; Addison and Steele [1711–14] 1965: 563–4). Hume holds that the creativity involved in writing literary fiction is due to the power of the imagination to form novel images ([1739–40] 2007: 11–12). Concerning taste, Addison holds that our aesthetic responses to a great, novel, or beautiful objects (or to representations of such objects) are ‘pleasures of the imagination’ (Addison and Steele [1711–14] 1965, vol. 3: 530, 536, 540). Hume holds that the appreciation of artwork involves the imagination in various ways. Hence, he thinks that we can discover principles of taste by studying imagination: for example, based on his theory of imaginative association, he argues that literary artworks must exhibit some degree of unity or connectedness if they are to give ‘any lasting entertainment to mankind’ (Hume [1748] 2000: 18–23, 237). (These views about the role of the imagination in taste influenced Kant’s aesthetic theory, though Kant does not accept the standard view of the imagination; see §4, below.)

Hume’s essay ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757) is the source of an important puzzle about our imaginative response to fiction, now called ‘the puzzle of imaginative resistance’: why do we find it peculiarly hard to imagine worlds whose moral properties differ from those of the actual world – for example, a world in which murder is morally right (Gendler 2000: 58)?

Citing this article:
Cottrell, Jonathan. Variations on 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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