DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 05, 2022, from

1. The intentionality of imagination

The noun ’imagination’ and the verb ’imagine’ have a family of meanings rather than a single, sharp, meaning. We may use ’imagination’ to indicate an ability to form images of things. Alternatively, ‘imagination’ can take on a more normative use, to indicate a measure of inventiveness, as when we say that something was done with imagination. Turning to ’imagine’, we sometimes use that verb to describe image formation, sometimes as an indication of speculation (‘I’d imagine that Jack the Ripper was responsible’), sometimes as an expression of surprise (‘Imagine!’), sometimes to attribute error (‘He imagines that Mars is the planet closest to the sun’), sometimes interchangeably with ’conceive’. Clearly, not all of these uses directly connote the use of mental imagery.

Exercises of the imagination have intentionality – that is, they are about objects, events and situations, actual and non-actual. We can imagine our best friend, a golden mountain, falling off a ladder, or that Martians visit Earth in the year 3000 (see Intentionality). Imaginings have not taken centre stage in twentieth-century philosophy of mind, which, perhaps regrettably, has tended increasingly to focus on belief and desire in its discussions of intentionality. Yet philosophers directly concerned with imagination have typically felt the need to provide an account of its intentionality. Taking those exercises of imagination that involve mental imagery as central, some have tried to explain the intentionality of imaginings in terms of the intrinsic properties of mental images, usually their pictorial properties. This approach is widely recognized as problematic. Even those who are willing to reify mental images recognize, first, that one cannot explain their intentionality by appealing to pictorial properties – pictorial properties cannot explain my imagining my cottage rather than another one that looks exactly like it – and, second, that there are plenty of mental acts that we call imaginings where mental images do not seem to be at play at all. As a result, accounts of the intentionality of imaginings have, increasingly, appealed to features other then the intrinsic properties of images – some to intentions that lie behind images, some to the mental activity of entertaining propositions, some to similarities between episodes of imagining and episodes of seeing, so that one imagines x just in case one is in a situation that is relevantly similar to seeing x. Of course, since ’imagine’ has a variety of meanings, we need not require or expect that a single account will cover all exercises of imagination.

Many imaginative actions also have intentionality. For example, we can, by acting a certain way, make believe that a broom is a horse. It is natural to think that private mental episodes of imagining are conceptually primary, and that we can understand the intentionality of such actions in terms of the private imaginative episodes that cause them. This natural view has not gone unchallenged, however. Those of a more behaviouristic bent tend to recoil at the idea of private mental imaginings that are relatively inaccessible from a third person, and which could, in principle, be divorced from any link whatever to behaviour (see Behaviourism, Analytic; Privacy). An important source of broadly behaviourist ideas, Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind (1949), offers a package that eschews the existence of mental images before the mind’s eye and instead takes activities of make-believe and pretence as the starting point for an account of imagination.

Citing this article:
O'Leary-Hawthorne, J.. The intentionality of imagination. Imagination, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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