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Imagination – phenomenological approaches

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD3589-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

When phenomenologists investigate the imagination, they approach it by examining how objects are experienced when they are imagined (rather than, for example, perceived) and what the experience of imagining is like (as opposed to, for example, the experience of perceiving). Their inquiries into the imagination are thus part of the greater phenomenological project of clarifying the different modes in which we can experience, or be conscious of, the world (or some objects in the world) and the correlating modes in which the world (or some objects in it) can appear to us. Mostly, phenomenologists consider what is often called ‘sensory’ imagination, that is, the experience in some sensory mode (such as the visual or the aural) of something not actually present. In order to emphasize its sensory and embodied dimension, they typically distinguish imagining something from entertaining its possibility merely in thought, which in other discourses is often referred to as ‘propositional imagination’, or ‘imagining that’.

Of central importance, especially in post-Husserlian phenomenology, is the creativity of imagination. Moreover, the imagination is also seen to have an important cognitive and justificatory role insofar as it enables us to generate and consider hypothetical and alternative situations to those that we actually find ourselves in. Imagining is understood as an act (though not always voluntary or self-aware) of experiencing something as possible (rather than actual or necessary), which makes it central to questions of human freedom and to the phenomenological method itself.

Although we often imagine things that are absent or nonexistent, most phenomenologists still consider imagining intentional. They call our attention to the many different ways in which we commonly relate imaginatively to absent, nonexisting or merely possible objects, events, situations or states of affairs. It might seem that phenomenological approaches, since they allegedly consider (only) how things appear, cannot distinguish between what is real and what is (merely) imagined. However, this is not the case. Phenomenologists may, for example, investigate how our beliefs in the reality or unreality, or in the presence or absence, of things are themselves founded in different modes of experience (such as perception or imagination) and motivated by different ways in which things appear to us (that is, as perceived, as imagined, and so on).

Citing this article:
Jansen, Julia. Imagination – phenomenological approaches, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD3589-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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