On Philosophy and the Imagination

Nicholas Wiltsher is a philosopher, working on imagination, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, phenomenology, and feminist philosophy. He is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow in the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp. In this exclusive interview he discusses his ideas on the relationship between philosophy and the imagination.

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

Nicholas Wiltsher: I’m a philosopher trained mostly in the analytic tradition, whatever that means. I did a bachelor’s degree at the University of Bristol in politics and philosophy, from which I emerged with an interest in aesthetics. I then bounced around the shabbier end of the labour market in various unremarkable capacities for a couple of years, and then did an MA in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. I arrived wanting to work on artistic creativity; my supervisor, Rob Hopkins, suggested that the creativity literature was a horrible mess, and that I might like to start by getting to grips with imagination first. This turned out to be very good advice, since the philosophical study of imagination has burgeoned in the 15 years or so since.

A stint as a cocktail bartender followed, and then I was off to Miami to do my PhD. I wrote my thesis on sensory imagination, drawing on a somewhat eclectic mix of figures from analytic philosophy, the continental tradition, and gestalt psychology.

Since then, I’ve held short-term positions in Leeds, Porto Alegre (Brazil), and Auburn (Alabama). I’m currently in Antwerp, and I’m moving to Uppsala soon—for good, I hope. In some of those places, I’ve been employed as a teacher, mostly in aesthetics; in the others, I’ve been employed as a researcher, mostly in imagination. The post in Uppsala will be part teaching, part research, and all aesthetics.

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

NW: The philosophers I admire most are those who engage constructively, appreciatively, and sympathetically with the work of others. I hate, hate, hate this idea, which is endemic in the profession, that philosophical practice is necessarily adversarial, that we should treat question sessions as a kind of blood sport. Criticising arguments and positions is part of the job, of course, but there are ways to do that where you take seriously the other person’s position and respect the work they’ve put in to thinking about these really hard things—and there are ways to do it where you treat their work like a dog treats a chew toy. So I like to think that my practice has been influenced by those departments and individuals who approach philosophy in a collaborative, collegial spirit, with a healthy ecumenicism and openness regarding approach, subject matter, and so forth. I would say that the department in Auburn was particularly close to fulfilling that ideal, which isn’t to cast aspersions on the other places with which I’ve been affiliated.

RB: How would you define the term ‘imagination’?

NW: It’s very difficult to offer a definition, or even characterisation, of imagination that doesn’t immediately commit one to some substantial and disputable theses. This is, I think, a product of the history of the term.

There are loads of ways to characterise a thing: ostensively (“it’s that thing”), intrinsically (“the thing with these qualities”), generically (“it’s a thing of kind K”), functionally (“it’s the thing that does X”). The trouble with imagination is that, over time, common opinion about all these has varied considerably.

So, for example, the kind of thing people think imagination is has changed. At various times, imagination has figured as one among many capacities of mind (as in, so far as I understand, a good deal of medieval philosophy); at other times, it’s been figured as one among just three major faculties (as in Kant, for example). So there we have disagreements over its fundamental ontology (capacity? faculty?) and its relation to other bits of the mind.

Similarly, concerning function,  what people generally think imagination does for us has changed substantially over time—mostly, changed as in expanded. Early on you have the idea that imagination is this quite narrow and specific capacity for reproduction of past experience, or something like that; by the time you get to the Romantics, it’s become this mysterious faculty that allows the blessed genius to spelunk the caverns of their own mind and dredge up poetry from the depths, or something like that. So, again, we have disagreement across time over what it is that imagination does.

If you can’t agree on what kind of thing imagination is, or what it is that it does, you’re unlikely to get far defining it by intrinsic features, either, or ostensively, or any other way. One can, of course, find ways to align ostensive, intrinsic, generic, and functional characterisations, but none will give you a neutral definition of imagination—there’s too much historical baggage being dragged along behind.

The closest I can get to a bland definition would be something like this: imagination is the mental entity that gives us the ability to do a set of similar and connected things, such as the creation of art, the consideration of possibilities, and the pursuit of fantasy. And even that, I should think, would upset some people, who might (for example) think that creativity and conceivability are not powers of the same mental entity.

RB: What is the additive view of sensory imagination and do you agree with this view?

NW: “The additive view” is a label I coined for a particular view of sensory imagination. Regrettably, the nomenclature has yet to go viral, but the view is epidemic. The view is this: when you visualise something, there are two bits of content in your mind. There’s a mental image, which is ambiguous among a number of things it could possibly represent, and some kind of non-sensory content that stipulates what the image is about. So, for example, if you want to visualise Durham Cathedral, you conjure up a cathedral-y image, and something non-sensory that says, “that’s Durham Cathedral” (and not, say, Winchester, or a film set replica, or whatever).

The view seems intuitive, it’s neat, and a lot of people buy it, often thinking that it’s just obviously true. But I don’t agree with it. I don’t really think it makes sense to talk of mental images as ambiguous in the way that the view requires; rather, all mental images of particulars are particular images—not generic images with particular labels.  You can think of this in terms of how you might generate a mental image by deploying concepts. Suppose you decide, for entirely innocent reasons, to visualise your mother. The additive view seems to suggest that you first reach into a stock of sensory concepts and deploy one that is something like “the visual appearance of my mother”, and then apply some semantic concept that provides a particular label to the generic visual appearance concept. But this seems needlessly baroque, and rather implausible. I don’t have a concept of my mother’s visual appearance, and a separate one of my mother; I just have the concept of my mother, which I can choose to use to generate an image of her. The particularity of the image is baked in from the beginning.

In my official published argument against the view, I note the fact that the extra-sensory bits are a theoretical posit dreamed up to explain the fact that we can imagine particulars, and then argue that we can explain that without the extra-sensory bits. I wrote that paper a while ago, and while I would maybe change some details today, I am still happy with the general shape of the argument and position.

The further question, which I’ve never really managed to get to grips with, is this: why does the additive view seem so intuitive, or attractive? It can’t be that it’s just a reflection of a general view of images. The same view seems quite implausible when it comes to portraits, for example: we don’t tend to think that portraits represent generic appearances and the title stipulates who they’re of; rather, the portrait just is of the subject. And it doesn’t seem like it’s a straight report of how things seem when we visualise; certainly I don’t notice extra-sensory labels on the periphery of such experiences. My hunch is that, as it happens, most people’s visual imagery is pretty fuzzy and imprecise, and so it seems somewhat plausible to call the images ambiguous, and then it seems like you have a puzzle over how they get to be of particular things. But I’m really not sure.

RB: Can you say something about the lens theory of imagination?

NW: The lens theory is my attempt to give something like a contemporary version of what I take to be fairly old-fashioned account of what imagination is, and how it does whatever it does. The chief inspiration is R.G. Colllingwood’s theory of artistic creativity. Collingwood thinks that this involves the artist expressing something, where expression is the clarification and refinement of a feeling or thought. This is achieved by imagination. Generally, then, one might think of imagination as a matter of taking some input, and clarifying, refining, distorting, focussing it in the pursuit of some end. If you like metaphors —I do—you can think of imagination as set of lenses, since this is just what lenses do.

As I said above, there’s room for disagreement on what exactly it is that imagination does, but I think that an account of imagination has to encompass at least artistic creativity, fantasy, the consideration of possibilities, and suchlike phenomena. And the lens theory does pretty well here. At least, it’s easy to construe the phenomena in terms of refinement, focus, and so on. How do you model possibilities? Plausibly, you focus on the aspects of the world relevant to the possibility you’re trying to consider. How do you fantasise? You construct a world refined in such a way that you can concentrate on, say, the pleasurable bits of winning the lottery, without worrying about or attending to the problems a sudden superfluity of money would inevitably cause.

The reason I wanted to give this theory is that the old-fashioned idea has been overtaken in contemporary philosophy by a quite different theory of imagination, which I call the imitation theory. This theory says that imagination does whatever it does by imitating other mental states. So visualisation is an imitation of perception, there are imaginative beliefs that are imitations of belief, and so forth. This theory (like the additive view) is so ubiquitous that people often take it as just obviously true. The theory does very well with things like empathy, which is generally taken to be an imaginative simulation of other people’s mental states. But I think it’s pretty lousy for explaining such things as artistic creativity, and I think that the lens theory can equally well accommodate empathy. I also think that the method of approaching imagination by treating it as an imitation of other mental states frustrates proper consideration of imagination itself. If you’re always defining and talking about one thing in terms of another that it imitates, your theory is really about the second thing, not the first thing.

RB: Where does the imagination and aesthetics overlap?

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