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

4. The justificatory role of imagination

It is important to cognitive excellence that we cultivate imagination in all areas of inquiry. Even in science, it is clear that fruitful inquiry requires an ability to imagine what an explanation for some given phenomenon might look like, imaginatively to see familiar things as somehow representative of theoretical phenomena, and so on.

Granting that imagination is a source of cognitive inspiration, a further question concerns the extent to which an exercise of the imagination can justify various kinds of beliefs.

One interesting test case here is provided by geometry, where some thinkers, including Kant and J.S. Mill (1843), have accorded spatial imagination an important justificatory role, while others have insisted that it is merely a useful aid to the geometer.

Meanwhile, in discussions of possibility and necessity, considerable attention has been given to Hume’s idea that whatever can be imagined is possible. Hume himself wielded this idea against any putatively necessary link between cause and effect, arguing that one can always at least imagine the cause without the effect. The crucial issue here is whether there is a sense of ’imagine’ that can hold the various strands of the Humean view together. If ’imagine’ means ‘form a mental picture’, as in a story, we can well doubt whether an ability to imagine something can justify our believing it possible, because the standards of propriety that we apply when telling stories are quite different to those we apply when the question of genuine possibility is at stake. We may also note in passing that it seems clear that there are possibilities we cannot picture. Meanwhile, there is a use of ’imagine’ that is conceptually linked to possibility, but in that sense it is far from clear that I can imagine, say, eating every living creature on this planet.

Finally, in ethics, some (for example Johnson 1985) have suggested that an exercise in imagination is important to the rational evaluation of competing ethical claims. The idea is that the weighting and choice of values, as well as, perhaps, the concrete deployment of abstract or metaphorical moral principles, requires some sort of imaginative engagement with relevant possible situations.

Citing this article:
O'Leary-Hawthorne, J.. The justificatory role 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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