Creativity, Imagination and Philosophy

Dustin Stokes is a philosopher at the University of Utah, having previously researched and taught at the Universities of Sussex and Toronto, in both philosophy and cognitive science. His research includes work on perception, imagination, and creative thought and behaviour. In this exclusive interview he discusses his ideas on creativity, imagination and philosophy.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Dustin Stokes: I’m a philosopher of mind and cognitive science. My research concerns three main (sometimes related) areas: imagination, sensory perception (and how it relates to cognition), and creativity. I tend to approach these topics in a broadly empirical manner, and collaborate with scientists in relevant fields. I have an additional interest in applying theories and methods from the philosophy and science of the mind to questions about art. I am trained in analytic philosophy and have typically worked and taught in philosophy departments. My academic home is the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, and I have previously researched and taught at the Universities of Sussex and Toronto, in both philosophy and cognitive science.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice?

DS: Certainly my teachers. As an undergraduate, Bill Brown and Jack Knight. And as a graduate student, Tamar Gendler, Dom Lopes, and Mohan Matthen. They each, in their own ways, provided invaluable support and encouragement. And each was sensitive and receptive enough to recognize where my strengths were (and weren’t!), helping me to cultivate those strengths and, in turn to be confident about doing philosophy. This last bit is really important: I think philosophy can be extremely intimidating (it certainly was for me), and I don’t think I would have succeeded without the confidence that these teachers instilled in me. I should add that my schooling involved a lot of different philosophical approaches: history of ideas, analytic metaphysics and epistemology, empirically informed philosophy.

The interdisciplinary experiences that I’ve been lucky to have, and to still have, shaped and continue to shape how I think about philosophical analysis and, generally, theory and science. There are a number of ways that this is true, but here are a couple that come quickly to mind. Engaging with researchers from substantially different fields—for example, the roboticists, Alife researchers and computational neuroscientists at the Informatics department at the University of Sussex, where I had my first postdoc—encourages you, well, forces you really, to reflect carefully on the language and methodologies you use, and the underlying assumptions that you make. All of this has shaped how I think about expressing ideas. Second, and related, these experiences have forced me to be more open minded about the goals and values of philosophy. Put probably too simply: there isn’t just one way, or one good way, to approach a philosophical problem.

RB: What do we imagine we are talking about when we speak of the imagination? Or, to put it another way, can we imagine the imagination?

DS: I think in our ordinary terms, we use ‘imagine’ and its cognates to refer to an array of disparate phenomena. For instance, we sometimes use the term to make clear that we merely thought or believed something, but now realize that we were mistaken, as we do when we say that we “just imagined it”. In a different spirit, we sometimes describe persons as being “imaginative” to express that they are creative or skilled at originating ideas. Sometimes we implore others to imagine so as to encourage empathy; I might say to you, “Imagine if I had done that to you”. And finally, and perhaps most obviously, we think of the imagination in terms of pretence, make-believe, imagery and mental exploration of non-actual, future and past, and merely fictional scenarios.

Now with the exception of perhaps the first imagination-as-mistake sense, all of these ordinary senses of imagination are relatively well theorized in philosophy and psychology: imagination in creative thought, imagination and its importance to understanding other minds, imagination and possibility, fiction, and, most simply, playfully indulging what is not here or now.

Whether there is a singular phenomenon that unifies these roles and mental activities is, to my mind, an open question. But even supposing that the answer to that question is in some sense negative, we can identify some common characteristics that seem to typify each of these cases. Imagination is a mental activity—a way of mentally representing—that is often under immediate voluntary control. (By contrast, you cannot immediately control what you believe at any moment, even if you can steer yourself, so to speak, towards this or that belief. As it is sometimes put, belief is truth-functional, imagination is not.) Second, imagination typically concerns objects and events that are not present to the subject doing the imagining. Put another way, imagining is not, as a mental activity, bound to truth or reality. And finally, and more traditionally, imagination often involves mental images of some sort, visual, auditory, and perhaps other sensory modalities.

RB: Can you give some historical examples of how imagination has been explored philosophically?

DS: I think we first might distinguish examples where imagination is a topic of inquiry, from cases where it is used as part of philosophical method.

Of the second, perhaps with greater or lesser emphasis, imagination has been part of the philosopher’s toolkit from the beginning: imagining hypotheses, possibilities, examples and illustrations. Imagination sometimes occupies an explicit and operative place in argumentation. One clear example is the use of conceivability/possibility principles in the early modern period. For instance, a number of Descartes’ arguments for substance dualism hinge around what he can conceive and the implication this has for what’s metaphysically possible: he claims that he can coherently conceive of his mind without his body, and so it must be possible to have a bodiless mind. Therefore, as a matter of metaphysics, the mind must be substantially distinct from the body. But it wasn’t just Descartes or so-called rationalists that appealed to imagination in this way: empiricists did the same. For example, in some places in the Essay, Locke takes the inconceivability of free-floating properties like colour, shape, motion, and so on to imply that (perhaps) properties without a property bearer are impossible and, therefore, maybe there is (or must be) some underlying substance or “substratum” that bears those properties. And maybe somewhere in between imagination as method and imagination as topic of inquiry, Hume regularly appeals to imagination to explain (but not justify) how we form ideas and beliefs about things for which (he thinks) we lack appropriate evidence, for example, ideas of the self, of substance, and of causes.

Now imagination is currently “in fashion” as a stand-alone topic, but traditionally it has not been a dominant subject matter. One notable exception is Sartre, who wrote two books on (broadly) the imagination. A lot of Sartre’s analysis readily comports, I think, with contemporary discussions of the imagination (and somewhat ironically, since Sartre is not much discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy).

First, Sartre understood imagination to be intentional, in the sense of having aboutness, or being representational. He also tended to have in mind imagery, since he described imaginative episodes as observational. Moreover, when imaging an event, say Pierre in the café (it’s always Pierre in the café), we “see” right through the image to the thing imaged: it is as if we see Pierre, but we do not see our image of Pierre. Imagination is, in more contemporary terms, transparent. But at the same time for Sartre, by contrast to perception, images are somehow tagged as concerning objects or events that are not present. So, imagination is really quasi-observational, since it lacks the feeling of presence that visual or other perceptual experiences enjoy. Finally, he understood our capacity for imagination to be voluntary but also to involve some degree of spontaneity: we construct the objects-as-imaged, but this often happens rapidly and without feeling of effort.

It is this combination of features that, for Sartre, give imagination its creative power. One can actively imagine, where one is thereby responsible for the objects-as-imaged, and without commitment to their presence in one’s environment. And because one can do this, one therefore makes and is responsible for the contents of one’s imaginings (by contrast to the contents of one’s perceptions or beliefs). Imagining is, for Sartre, a richly creative activity, and this is no trivial part of his broader philosophy. The playfulness and freedom enjoyed by imagination is central to how we intend to change the world as we find it, and how we identify as selves. On Sartre’s view, freedom in the world—freedom of the will—consists importantly in our capacity for imagining the world to be ways other than the ways we find it, and then further imagining how we might act to change the world in those very ways. So it’s not an overstatement, I don’t think, to say that imagination and its creative potential are central to Sartre’s existentialism, since they are central to how we mould our existence (which, on the familiar slogan, precedes essence).

RB: Are there different varieties of imagination? Can you give some examples?


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