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imagination supposition, imagine.

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Margherita Arcangeli is a philosopher whose research centres on aesthetics, epistemology, philosophy of emotions, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. She is also a contributor to the Open Mind Project. Here she broods on what the imagination is, on the simulationist approach, on the connection between imagination and supposition, on whether the imagination is always perspectival, on thought experiments, on imagination and the acquisition of new knowledge, on imagination’s relation to the self, on imagining from the inside, on the relationship between the humanities and science, on gender bias at the academy and on whether interdisciplinary work enhances or waters down. A new mind on the block. Create some space and time – read on…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Margherita Arcangeli: This is really a hard question and not only for philosophers, I guess. It is difficult to say why one chooses one profession rather than another. Nonetheless, apparently I was predestined to be a philosopher (this is what my family tells). When I was a child I went around the house with two books under my armpits, a book with tables of logarithms and a book by an Italian philosopher – Massimo Cacciari. Joking aside, the covers of the books were yellow and my favourite colour was yellow.

The true story is that my passion for philosophy grew up during the high school thanks to the reading of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World and, above all, to brilliant classes taught by a remarkable professor, Paolo Salandini. His passion for philosophy was contagious. This made me forget about literature and psychology, my former interests, and decide to do philosophy at the University. Thanks to other readings and other philosophers I am still doing philosophy.

3:AM: You’ve written about the connection between imagination and supposition. Before saying more about the connection, could you begin by telling us what you think the imagination is because you see it as being important in many areas of philosophy don’t you?

MA: Yes, I do. Imagination emerges as a crucial notion in so many philosophical areas, such as epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science or ethics. One might be sceptical about this omnipresence of imagination and think that “imagination” is a misleading term that does not capture only one mental phenomenon. We run the risk to make imagination “the junkyard of the mind”, to use a colourful expression introduced by Noël Carrol. This is why it is so important to get clear about what the imagination is.

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My starting point is the insight, associated with the so-called simulationist approach, that imagination is a re-creative capacity (to use a phrase introduce by Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft). In a nutshell the idea is that thanks to our imagination we can recreate, simulate or mimic, in our mind a variety of mental states. Less in line with the simulationist approach and more in the spirit of the earlier phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Alexius von Meinong, I understand the recreation or mimicking mainly in phenomenological and functional terms, despite what is really re-used at the neurobiological level.

Our imagination can in good measure recreate what it is like to enjoy a given mental state – that is, its phenomenological profile. Via our imagination, for instance, we are able to recreate what it is like to see a flower as if it were really before our eyes and even to smell and to touch it. That being said, imagination seems to feel different from other mental states such as perceiving. Typically we are able to tell whether we are imagining rather than perceiving.

Imagination also enables us to proceed from what is imagined as it were true, thus playing in our mental economy roles very similar to the roles proper of other mental states. In recreating via imagination perceiving a beautiful landscape emotions may arise like the ones the actual vista would elicit. I may plan to buy a new desk for my office simply on the basis of a visual imagining about how this desk would fit into the office. We can also hold as true propositions that we believe to be false or about which we do not have any opinion at all and try to see what follows from them (e.g., I can imagine that watery stuff has a different chemical composition in a planet like ours).
Then a question arises: How many varieties of imagination are there? Or, to put it differently, how many mental states can be recreated by the imagination?

3:AM: So how does it connect with supposition?

MA: Precisely this question connects imagination to supposition. One of the aims of my research is to show that there is no knocking down argument in favour of the claim that supposition is not a type of imagination. When I suppose, for instance, that some postulate of the String Theory is true, I am clearly doing something different from visualizing or recreating another perceptual modality via imagination. Still I am doing something really similar to what the imagination enables us to do: I am deliberately considering as true a certain state of affairs. Simply I am doing so in a less perceptual and more cognitive way. Hence, supposition should be distinguished from a sensory variety of imagination, but not banished from the imaginative realm.

Indeed, there are philosophers who think that supposition is a type of imagination different from sensory imagination and maintain that supposition is a type of imagination very similar to belief in essential respects. They endorse what I have called “cognitivism about supposition”. On their view, supposition is reduced to the recreation of belief, to belief-like or cognitive imagination. I argued that supposition should be distinguished even from this type of imagination.

There are some intuitive features that contrast supposition and both sensory and cognitive imagination. For instance, supposition enjoys a kind of freedom that sensory and cognitive imagination lack: there is no limitation on what can be supposed, whereas there are limitations on what can be (sensorily or cognitively) imagined. As Alan White puts it: “things are not unsupposable as they are unimaginable” (The Language of Imagination, p. 145). Though White maintains that supposition is not a type of imagination, I claimed that the features contrasting supposition with imagination can be accounted for within an imaginative account of supposition. So, then, the question is: What is supposition the recreation of, if it is neither perception nor belief? My thesis is that supposition is the recreation of acceptance, rather than belief. Acceptance has been introduced in epistemology as a type of doxastic state distinct from, although very similar to, belief. This might explain why in the literature on imagination there is a tendency to associate supposition with belief. Much more should be said, but it is hard to motivate my thesis in few lines, a book would be more apt (and I hope to have one published soon!).

3:AM: Does all imagination have a point of view?

MA: I see also this question tied to the question about the heterogeneity of the imagination. If by “point of view” we mean literally a visual or a perceptual perspective, my answer is “no”, imagination need not have a point of view. Non-sensory types of imagination, such as supposition or cognitive imagination, do not necessarily involve a point of view in this sense. The notion of perspective, however, can be understood in a broader sense encompassing more than spatio-temporal points of view. A perspective can be experiential. The way in which we experience the world or our own mental or bodily states gives us a perspective or a point of view. There is also a phenomenology, a what it is like to enjoy such experiential perspectives. Different kinds of experience offer different perspectives on the world or on ourselves. In this sense not only perception has points of view, but also, for instance, proprioception, emotions and, arguably, even some of our occurrent beliefs or thoughts. Believing in god, for example, can be seen as an experience that brings with it a specific perspective characterised by a phenomenology. On this line of thought, the answer to the question can be that most if not all our imaginative mental states have a point of view, if we think of imagination as the capacity to recreate mainly experiences.

3:AM: Wouldn’t it be possible for us to imagine imagination as not being perspectival – or are you saying that this would be one of its limits, that we couldn’t?

MA: If via our imagination we can recreate mental states that are not experiences and, as such, lack a perspective, then there would be cases of imagination that are not perspectival – even in the broad sense I suggested beforehand. This is not a problem per se. Anyway, it seems to me that the great power of the imagination is precisely to enable us exploring possible worlds. This exploration draws on the perspectivality of the imagination (understood in the broad sense) by taking the form of entertaining mental states similar to those one might entertain if the given state of affairs were actual. Thanks to this power imagination is a source of knowledge. Arguably creative thought, empathy, mindreading, thought experiments, just to mention some of our tools in order to acquire knowledge, exploit at least partially the perspectivality of imagination. In this respect the perspectivality of the imagination is one of its great assets and if imagination were not mostly, if not completely, perspectival, it would be severely impoverished.

3:AM: How does the imagination help us understand the propositionality or conceptuality of our mental content?

MA: Imagination is an interesting case for the issues about the content of our mental states. These discussions typically focus on perception and belief. Indeed, both the propositionality and the conceptuality dimensions have been used in order to distinguish between perception and belief. Actually these dimensions have proven to fail to neatly carve perception and belief at their joints. It seems too simplistic to say that while belief is the paradigmatic type of mental state that has propositional and conceptual content, perception has non-propositional and non-conceptual content. It has been suggested that, on the one hand, some of our beliefs have non-propositional content (e.g., beliefs of the form “to believe in”, rather than “to believe that”) and, on the other hand, some of our beliefs have non-conceptual content (e.g., demonstrative beliefs such as “I believe that this is red”). As for perception many authors have maintained that we should distinguish between two types or levels of perception which would have propositional and non-propositional content respectively. Moreover, it has been argued that perceptual content is, at least partially, conceptual. Of course the whole debate is hostage to a substantial account of what concepts are, and also to a rich theory of content. Still we might say that the propositionality and the conceptuality dimensions capture some differences between perception and belief, albeit not always in clear-cut ways.

If we turn to imagination it is interesting to notice that the propositionality and the conceptuality dimensions have been mentioned to distinguish between two types of imagination, typically sensory and cognitive imagination. Indeed, in the literature you can find a contrast between perceptual or objectual and propositional imaginings. However, this distinction is mainly taken for granted without a deep analysis of its groundings. For instance, we may legitimately ask why there cannot be non-sensory imaginings with non-propositional content or why our imaginings should have non-conceptual content, given that imagination is a higher level faculty. Answering these questions can help us to throw light on the propositionality and the conceptuality dimensions themselves.

3:AM: Thought experiments are a staple of philosophy but there are those who think they aren’t useful because they distort and overestimate the connection between possibility and conceivability. Imagination plays a huge role in these – so is the imagination when applied to thought experiments a good thing or a menace?

MA: I am absolutely convinced that thought experiments are good examples of how imagination can be conducive to knowledge. Take, for instance, a widely quoted thought experiment by Galileo, namely the thought experiment against the Aristotelian idea that the speed of a body’s free fall increases proportionally to its weight. Imagine two bodies (e.g., stones) that have unequal weights, and so speeds (e.g., the heavy stone falls with a rate of 8 and the light stone with a rate of 4). Suppose that these bodies are linked together (e.g., with a weightless chain) and, then, that one drops them from a certain height (e.g., the top of the Tower of Pisa). The Aristotelian thesis would entail that the velocity of the composite body will have: a) an intermediate value between the two, since the lighter body delays the heavier, and b) a higher value than the two, since both bodies are lighter than their union.

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Galileo’s conclusion is that large and small bodies fall with the same speed. He stresses that the slight differences we experience are due to external factors, such as the air resistance. Arguably, “in the vacuum their velocities would be completely identical” (Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze [Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences], p. 73). Interestingly, it turns out that this hypothesis holds also for bodies made of different materials – e.g., a hammer and a feather, as the well-known recreation of the experiment by Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott on the Moon showed. How could Galileo have seen so far using only his imagination?

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There is only a slight bridge between the literature on thought experiments and the literature on imagination. Imagination is often cited in the debate on thought experimentation, but it is not always crystal clear how imagination is defined. More generally, the role of imagination in thought experiment is a controversial topic. On the one hand, imagination is credited with a central role in thought experimentation and, on the other hand, it is the opinion that thought experimenters could and should do without it, imagination being here a source of error.

Thought experiments are mentioned in the literature on imagination, but very rarely there is a deep discussion of how accounts of imagination can inform our views about thought experimentation. Sometimes the role of imagination in thought experiments is even dismissed in favour of other mental capacities, such as mental models.

With my research I am trying to make the bridge more solid. My goal is to throw light on the roles played by varieties of imagination in thought experiments and to determine how they interact. Talking about varieties of imagination and not merely about imagination in general is extremely important for dealing with modal issues. A proponent of an internal relation between imagination and possibility (perhaps via conceivability) might suggest that only some varieties of imagination are internally related to modal properties. This is the reason why I hope to provide new tools against scepticisms about the epistemic validity of thought experimentation, based on the idea that the vulnerability of thought experiments is due to unabridged imagination.

3:AM: Is it your view that science wouldn’t be able to function without thought experiments, that we need thought experiments to make new knowledge?

MA: I like quite a lot the following quote by David Gooding: “How do scientists go from the actual to the possible, on the impossible, and return to an actual world altered by that journey? The short answer is that thought experimentation and real experimentation have much in common. The demonstrative power of either sort of experiment depends on borrowing elements and strategies from the other kind” (Experiment and the making of meaning: Human agency in scientific observation and experiment, p. 70). I strongly agree with Gooding in thinking that science needs both real and thought experiments. To this we can also add numerical experiments or computer simulations. I am not prone to say that the latter will replace thought experiments, as it has been provocatively suggested. All three practices seem to me fundamental to scientific research.

The epistemic force of a thought experiment seems to arise from the fact that it depicts an exceptional case and forces us to account for the latter. As suggested beforehand, one might be sceptical about thought experimentation because it relies on imagination rather than on concrete object, as real experimentation, or on computer software, as numerical experimentation. Perhaps, the real problem lies in an accurate estimation of what we can reasonably expect of these different practices. For example, as for thought experimentation, it might be an exaggeration to consider it a canonical procedure of justification, as if a single thought experiment could lead us to accept or to reject a theory. After all, even real experiments seem not capable of doing so much.

3:AM: Alva Noe’s new book on art as a strange tool makes the argument for art producing knowledge that couldn’t be reduced to any other form. Is it your claim that the imagination is vital for emotions and thinking historically, for example, and that any move to downgrade the imagination’s importance for producing knowledge would be to downgrade a vital source of thinking?

MA: Thought experiments, mental time travelling, empathy, mindreading, and art are just some of the mental activities involving imagination through which we can learn and acquire knowledge. Here another quote I love, by Timothy Williamson: “Much remains to be understood about how imagination works as a means to knowledge — but if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be around now to ask the question” (you can find the quote here ). Hardly there is much more to say about it. What needs to be done is to deepen our understanding of what the imagination is and how it functions.

3:AM: How far is our notion of the self dependent upon the imagination?

MA: First, there is an ontological question: Is the self dependent on imagination, that is, is it possible for a self to lack the faculty of imagination? Second, there is an epistemological or cognitive question: Does our representation of the self, including oneself, depend on our imagination? I have not much to say about the first question. Let me say something about the second question.

We certainly conceive of ourselves, at least naïvely, as being the same entity over time. One might think, as David Velleman does, for instance, that this notion of a substantial and enduring self is an illusion. Velleman notes that this illusory belief is strongly tied to another belief, still illusory according to him, namely that of the passage of time. Kurt Vonnegut nicely captured this belief in his novels about the fictional alien race, the Tralfamadorians: “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. (…) It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments” (Slaughterhouse-Five).

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Both beliefs, whether true or false, are at least partially anchored on our capacity to mentally travel in time. On the one hand, we are able to re-live in our mind an episode of our own past as we remember it. For instance, I can remember when I was offered my cat by some friends, it was June, the end of the school, I was sixteen. I can re-live many details of that episode, my surprise and joy in seeing this little tortoiseshell kitten, the presence of my friends, what we did, the warmth of that bright sunny day. On the other hand, we are also capable of living by anticipation an episode of our own future as we envisage or plan it. For instance, I can anticipate what I will see and do, what I will feel, next autumn in Berlin. I can try to pre-live many experiential aspects of my stay in Berlin.

Mental time travel clearly exploits our imagination, then our imagination has a role in how we build our representation of the self. Still, it is an open question what this precise role is and if it is played by a specific type of imagination. More broadly one might ask about the link between imagination and memory. Neuroscience has discovered that episodic memory and imaginative anticipation share a neural network (specifically related to the hippocampus). It is unclear, however, if we should posit only a single capacity. It is my aim to contribute to advancing the debate with my research on imagination.

3:AM: You ask: is imagining from the inside just what you imagined? Well, is it?

MA: Eh, eh, it depends from what you take to be “imagining from the inside”. Richard Wollheim stressed that the notion of “imagining from the inside” is so abused in philosophy, that one might not trust it. Indeed, this notion has been frequently invoked in several debates and in very different philosophical disciplines, such as ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. One way to rehabilitate the phrase “imagining from the inside” is precisely to sort out its different meanings. This issue is tied to the issue about the perspectivality of imagination. Imagining from the inside can be intuitively interpreted as imagining from a particular perspective or “point of view”. Then the question is: What is the relevant perspective here? There are at least two possible answers. On the one hand, imagining from the inside might involve experiential perspectives (recall what was said about perspectivality above). In this broad sense most of our imaginings would be from the inside. On the other hand, imagining from the inside can be narrowed down to the involvement of the first-person perspective. The idea would be that imagining from the inside exploits some mental perspective on what is imagined that can only be that of the imaginer herself (or of the person whom the imaginer is imagining being). In other words imaginings from the inside would be essentially de se. Another question arises: What is the ground of this feature of imaginings from the inside? Answering to this question in turn leads to distinguish further meanings of imagining from the inside. On one proposal, imaginings from the inside necessarily involve the self implicitly, while imaginings from the outside necessarily involve the self explicitly, that is as a represented constituent of what is imagined. On another proposal, imaginings from the inside involve a specific type of experiential perspectives, namely those where the subject and the object of the experience are internally related, so to speak. These experiences can be characterized by the fact that they must be about a (bodily or mental) state of their own subject. With Jérôme Dokic we suggested that imaginings from the inside so conceived are nothing but what Zeno Vendler called “subjective imaginings”.

3:AM: Linking to this then, do you think the current trend in education to remove funding for many of the arts and humanities, focusing on science instead, is a mistake based on misunderstanding the philosophical points you make about the role of the imagination?

MA: It should be clear enough how imagination is an important source of knowledge. Absolutely in my opinion it is a mistake to cut funding for philosophy and for the humanities in general. Philosophy studies and interprets a rational and overall conception of humankind and of the world. It has been considered a science tout court, in fact the queen of the sciences, which all includes and interprets. In the early days of the modern age philosophy became part of the Humanae Litterae, but without losing its peculiar character of “universality”.

Recently, and unfortunately more and more, we are witnessing the rising of the controversial idea that sees sciences completely separate from, if not even opposed to, humanities. In societies such ours, where almost everything is reduced to be a “goods”, also knowledge becomes “priced”. Therefore, there is an encouragement to give financially support for sciences, at the expense of humanities, probably in the belief that they will bring results that can be immediately expended.

I think it is a nonsense to “sectorialise” in such a way the complexity of knowledge and its need for contamination in between sectors. In so doing we run the risk to eventually impoverish those very sciences that we would favour. The man of science deprived from his need to seek comprehensive answers, he will end up abdicating his role of “scientist” and increasingly taking on that of “technician”. Progressively specialized in segments of branches, he will impose on himself smaller goals and thus inevitably impoverishing and jeopardising his own research capacity.

3:AM: There’s a gender bias in this move too isn’t there – the imagination stereotypically gets linked to women and the sciences and technology to men – is this something that you’ve experienced whilst working as a philosopher in the academy, and would greater understanding of this work help challenge the stereotypes and biases that have lead to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy?

MA: Unfortunately you are right, the topic of imagination can evoke fancy, dreams, artistic abilities, in contrast with reality, facts, scientific abilities. Clearly this is a cliché and imagination, as I tried to show beforehand, is strongly connected to knowledge and the sciences. Stereotypically the humanities in general are tied to women, whereas the sciences to men. Moreover, among the humanities philosophy emerges as more masculine than languages or literature, for instance. But this does not stop here. Analytic philosophy is stereotypically masculine (though analytic feminism is increasing its visibility). Women, of course, are neither analytical nor logical! Ask a student in philosophy to list five names of great analytic philosophers and very rarely you will find the name of a woman in the list. Probably you would obtain a similar result also if you ask about five great philosophers tout court, although you ask to a student in gender philosophy or to my father! (He would probably answer: Simone Weil, Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum and Hannah Arendt).

I started as a philosopher of science and get more and more interested in analytic philosophy. I know what it is to feel that you have to work even harder just because you have to prove that you are smart as a man can be. What is important is not to be silent and to point out practices due to gender stereotypes and biases. I have noticed an increasing of discussions about these practices, which is resulting in a gaining of awareness and acknowledgement about their being genuinely grounded in gender stereotypes and biases and not simply dismissed as problematic only in the eyes of women.

3:AM: You’re working in an area of philosophy that is multi-disciplinary. Is this something that you welcome and is the contemporary philosophical landscape enriched or diminished by such connections? Some argue that philosophy is being watered down, others that its returning to its roots.

MA: I am sympathetic with the view that interdisciplinarity brings philosophy back to its origins. One of the reasons why I decided to study philosophy was precisely its interconnection with almost every branches of knowledge. In my opinion philosophy is in the first place a way of thinking, of looking at things without taking for granted what seems simple and wondering about how and why things are the way they look. Interdisciplinarity opens new horizons and allows to ask new questions or to re-frame old questions. However, it is true that philosophy runs the risk to be watered down, if not even neglected. Once again it is the issue about biases: experimental data count more than philosophical claims. Once again a hopeless platitude: concepts are needed in order to set up experiments and to interpret experimental data, philosophy is the best tool at our disposal to analyse concepts.

3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?

MA: Currie, G. & Ravenscroft, I. (2002). Recreative minds: Imagination in philosophy and psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sartre, J. P. (1940). L’imaginaire: psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination [The imaginary: a phenomenological psychology of the imagination]. Paris: Gallimard.

Sorensen, R. (1992). Thought Experiments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walton, K. L. (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: on the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

White, A. (1990). The language of imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 29th, 2016.