Book Symposium: Explaining Imagination — Précis

Dretske, F. (2002). A Recipe for Thought. In D. Chalmers (Ed.), Philosophy of Mind:  Classical and Contemporary Readings (pp. 491-499). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Some may worry that the reductive approach I recommend is dismissive, deflationary, or even eliminative of imagination proper. But that would be a misunderstanding. My aim is to explain imagination, not to question its importance, or to make it disappear. Think how a master baker—the author of award-winning cookbooks—would feel if you told her she had written cakes out of existence! The real message is this: imagination is mysterious on its face.  Because we have a comparatively clear understanding beliefs, desires, perceptions, and intentions, then—if the sometimes surprising recipes offered in Explaining Imagination succeed—a similarly clear conception of imagination is close at hand.  
Strawson, P. F. (1970). Imagination and Perception. In L. Foster & J. W. Swanson (Eds.), Experience and Theory (pp. 31-54). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Weinberg, J., & Meskin, A. (2006). Puzzling Over the Imagination: Philosophical Problems, Architectural Solutions. In S. Nichols (Ed.), The Architecture of Imagination (pp. 175-204). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Given that the term ‘imagine’ is indeed infamous for having multiple senses, I need to specify the kind of imagining I aim to explain.  I take up this question in Chapter 1, defining the kind of (“attitude”) imagining that is my focus as rich, elaborated thought about the unreal, fantastical, fictional, or possible that is, in general, epistemically safe.  (“Epistemically safe” in the sense that it does not tend to decrease one’s epistemic standing, as opposed to, say, delusions which can also be about the unreal and fantastical.)  Imagining, in this sense, sometimes involves mental imagery.  But it needn’t by its nature.  This definition aims to be neutral on substantive theoretical issues.  Chapters 3 and 4 provide a framework for understanding how some imaginings can both be ordinary folk psychological states like beliefs and desires, while also featuring mental images as proper parts. 
The cake recipes still all list cake as an ingredient.
I do not, however, argue that imagining that p is the same thing as believing or desiring that p—or even as weakly believing or desiring that p.  Rather, my claim is that some uses of beliefs, desires, judgments, intentions, and so on—none of which may have the precise content p—constitute cases of imagining that p.  Here I apply the maxim, “Don’t assume content mirroring,” defended in Chapter 1.  In order for a token mental state of φ-ing that p to consist in one’s being in some more basic token state, that more basic state need not also have the content p.For example, suspecting that p is not the same as believing that p; but suspecting that p may nevertheless be reducible to believing that q,where q is the proposition that it is somewhat likely that p.
 A second important maxim at work in my book is: “Don’t assume homogeneity.”  In order for imagining to reduce to other kinds of mental states, we needn’t assume that it reduces in the same way in each instance.  An instance of φ-ing that p may consist in one’s being in some particular set of more basic mental states ∆, even if another instance of φ-ing that p does not consist in one’s being in ∆. To assume otherwise is to presume a kind of homogeneity to the class φ-ing that may not exist.  For example, within philosophy, many apply the phrase ‘entertaining the proposition that p’ to any of a heterogeneous set of occurrent mental episodes during which the proposition p is “before the mind.” On this usage, we entertain the proposition that p when we judge that p; and we also do so when merely wondering whether p,or when deciding that p. The fact that entertaining the proposition that p is not strictly the same thing as judging that p does not stand in the way of reducing entertaining that p (as a mental state type) to a heterogeneous class of other occurrent states.  It is important to keep this sort of possibility in mind when theorizing about a kind, such as imagination, which even on its face appears heterogeneous to many (Kind, 2013; Stevenson, 2003; Strawson, 1970).
Greetings Brains Blog readers!  I am very pleased to begin a weeklong Brains Blog symposium on my book, Explaining Imagination (OUP, 2020) The entire book is available as an open access download HERE, for those interested in following along at home.  I begin today with a précis articulating the book’s core thesis and argumentative strategy.  Margherita Arcangeli (Institut Jean-Nicod) will post a commentary tomorrow, Alon Chasid (Bar-Ilan University) on Wednesday, and Jonathan Gilmore (Baruch College, CUNY Graduate Center) on Thursday.  I will also post a reply to each commentary on the day it appears.  We will be keeping an eye on the comments section of each post throughout the week and would enjoy engaging with those interested.  Thanks! 
Goldman, A. (2006). Imagination and Simulation in Audience Responses to Fiction. In S. Nichols (Ed.), The Architecture of Imagination (pp. 41-56). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nichols, S., & Stich, S. (2000). A cognitive theory of pretense. Cognition, 74, 115-147.
If you can’t make one, you don’t know how it works.
My reductive strategy is to look closely at behaviors and abilities commonly held to be enabled by imagination and to show how the work assigned to imagination can be accomplished by other kinds of states we already knew we had.  These phenomena include conditional reasoning (Chapters 5 and 6), pretending (Chapters 7 and 8), the comprehension and enjoyment of fictions (Chapters 9, 10, and 11), and creativity (Chapter 12).  In each case I try to explain how it can be that the imagining we associate with each activity is nothing over and above the skillful use of states like beliefs, desires, and intentions.
Explaining Imagination, by Peter Langland-Hassan
In their theoretical accounts of imagination, contemporary philosophers have nevertheless emphasized that there are important similarities between imaginings and other folk psychological states.  Imaginings are alternately described as “belief-like” (Currie & Ravenscroft, 2002; Nichols, 2004; Nichols & Stich, 2000; Weinberg & Meskin, 2006) or “perception-like” (Currie & Ravenscroft, 2002; Goldman, 2006) or “desire-like” (Currie, 2010; Doggett & Egan, 2007).  Yet imagination remains an unreduced phenomenon within each of these accounts—a mental state similar to, yet entirely distinct from, states like belief, perception, and desire.
Currie, G. (2010). Tragedy. Analysis, 70(4), 632-638.

What ingredients do they feature? On my telling, they are other familiar mental states like beliefs, desires, judgments, decisions, and intentions. In different combinations and contexts, they constitute cases of imagining.
So said Fred Dretske in “A recipe for thought,” and so I’m inclined to believe. He offered the slogan both as “something like an engineer’s ideal, a designer’s vision, of what it takes to understand how something works,” and as an axiom at the heart of philosophical naturalism—one that applies as much to the mind as to anything else (Dretske, 2002).
Currie, G., & Ravenscroft, I. (2002). Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Doggett, T., & Egan, A. (2007). Wanting Things You Don’t Want: the Case for an Imaginative Analogue of Desire. Philosophers’ Imprint, 7(9), 1-17.
Stevenson, L. (2003). Twelve conceptions of imagination. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 43(3), 238-259.
Nichols, S. (2004). Imagining and Believing:  The Promise of a Single Code. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62, 129-139.
Knowing how to make something, in Dretske’s sense, entails knowing how to write a recipe for it. Such a recipe can’t include, as an ingredient, the very thing it is a recipe for. “One cannot have a recipe for a cake that lists a cake, not even a small cake, as an ingredient,” Dretske explains. “Recipes of this sort will not help one understand what a cake is.” Likewise for intelligence: “if you want to know what intelligence is, you need a recipe for creating it out of parts you already understand” (Dretske, 2002).
Kind, A. (2013). The Heterogeneity of the Imagination. Erkenntnis, 78(1), 141-159. doi:10.1007/s10670-011-9313-z
Kind, A. (2016). Introduction:  Exploring imagination. In A. Kind (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination (pp. 1-12). New York: Routledge.
The same points apply to imagination. We won’t understand what imagination is—won’t be able to explain imagination—until we can write a recipe for making it out of parts we already understand.  Explaining Imagination is a compendium of such recipes.
The idea that imagination can be reduced to other kinds of mental states in this way is at odds with what most (maybe all) other philosophers have had to say about imagination.  In her introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination, Amy Kind presents the claim that “imagination is a primitive mental state type (or group of types), irreducible to other mental state types” as one of “four basic claims about imagination that enjoy near universal agreement” (2016, p. 2).   According to this consensus, if we list a person’s beliefs, desires, intentions, judgments, decisions, hopes, wishes, fears, and so on, and fully describe their ongoing use of those states in practical and theoretical reasoning, we will leave open whether they are imagining.  For the facts about what, if anything, a person is imagining are thought not to be entailed by any facts about other folk psychological states they might be in.  This is the sense in which imagination is commonly held to involve a sui generis or “primitive” type of mental state.