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Scientific imagination

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q154-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved November 30, 2023, from

Article Summary

The scientific imagination is a cognitive ability that is crucial to a number of scientific practices aimed at producing new knowledge of contingent features of the world. Philosophers of science have generally neglected its roles as limited to the psychological or the social dimensions of scientific practices. This general attitude, however, has changed since the turn of the twenty-first century, when a vast literature on the scientific imagination started to emerge which focused on its uses in scientific thought experiments and scientific models. Three main questions are central to this literature.

The first is a foundational question concerning the nature of the scientific imagination. What is the scientific imagination? For a long time, philosophers of science have assumed a pre-theoretical notion of imagination as visual mental imagery (see Imagery). In 2020 the first taxonomy of the scientific imagination identified two main varieties of imagination: objectual imagination, which includes mental imagery; and propositional imagination, which includes at least supposition, counterfactual imagination, and make-believe.

The second question has to do with the contribution that imagination makes to a characterisation of scientific thought experiments and scientific models as objects that intrinsically involve imagination. Objectual imagination and propositional imagination map onto the two main accounts of the nature of scientific thought experiments and models developed in terms of imagination: the mental modelling account and the make-believe account. On the mental modelling account, scientific thought experiments are mental kinds, which involve sensory-like representations of objects that can be actively manipulated and transformed. On the make-believe account, both scientific thought experiments and scientific models are akin to aesthetic objects, specifically fictions. This account has been developed in different ways within the fiction view of models.

The third question concerns the contribution of imagination to scientific knowledge. What sort of knowledge, if any, does imagination produce in scientific practice? Historically, the role of imagination in science has been limited to the context of discovery, where new ideas and hypotheses are generated. On this picture, imagination has no role to play in the context of justification, which is the proper context of knowledge and epistemic standards. The traditional distinction between discovery and justification has been put under scrutiny since the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, two cognitive theories of discovery have been developed in terms of the mental modelling account and the make-believe account. Whether imagination can provide justification for scientific knowledge, however, is a matter of debate.

Citing this article:
Salis, Fiora. Scientific imagination, 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q154-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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