Intuition, Imagination, and Philosophical Methodology is a collection of fourteen previously published essays that – somewhat unsurprisingly – address the trio of topics enumerated in its title.
The essays are organized into two large sections. The six that appear in Part I explore a cluster of questions about how thought experiments and appeals to intuition can serve as mechanisms for supporting or refuting scientific or philosophical claims. The eight that appear in Part II explore the more general issue of how engagement with subject matter that we explicitly or implicitly recognize as imaginary may affect our actions and perceptions in both predictable and surprising ways.
In the brief précis below, I offer summaries of each of the chapters, and trace some of the main themes that run through the collection as a whole.
1. Part 1: Thought experiments, intuitions and philosophical methodology
The first two chapters – ‘Galileo and the Indispensability of Scientific Thought Experiment’ (Ch. 1) and ‘Thought Experiments Rethought’ (Ch. 2) – examine the role of thought experiments in science. They are concerned with a cluster of epistemic questions about when and how thought experiments can lead to new scientific knowledge.
The papers present and defend two central claims. The first is that our tacit commitments are often detached from our explicit beliefs, and that bringing them to light may provide us with fresh epistemically significant insights. The second is that contemplation of a paradigmatic imaginary case may generate a novel theoretical framework, and that apprehending things through that framework may radically redirect our attention to heretofore unnoticed patterns in the world. These themes – both of which give us reason to expect distinctive epistemic utility to result from the engaged contemplation of certain sorts of imaginary cases – recur in various guises throughout the volume.
By contrast, the papers on philosophical thought experiment (Chs. 3–6) strike a more cautionary note about the value of intuitions that result from considering such cases in certain philosophical contexts.
The two chapters on thought experiments and personal identity – ‘Exceptional Persons: On the Limits of Imaginary Cases’ (Ch. 3) and ‘Personal Identity and Thought-Experiments’ (Ch. 4) – caution against that literature’s case-based method on the grounds that certain patterns of features that coincide only fortuitously may nonetheless play a central role in the organization of our concepts, so that our ability to make sense of certain sorts of imaginary scenarios may outrun our ability to make informative judgements about them. ‘The Real Guide to Fake Barns: A Catalogue of Gifts for Your Epistemic Enemies’ (Ch. 5) addresses a related literature in analytic epistemology, bringing out the ways in which philosophically irrelevant features of a scenario may drive our intuitive responses to it.
‘Philosophical Thought Experiments, Intuitions and Cognitive Equilibrium’ (Ch. 6), examines intuitions from the perspective of cognitive architecture. Drawing on literature from the dual processing tradition in psychology, it tries to explain why contemplation of an imaginary particular may have cognitive and motivational effects different from those evoked by an abstract description of the same content, and hence, why thought experiments may be effective devices for conceptual reconfiguration. Echoing a theme foreshadowed in Chapters 1 and 2 and explored further in Chapters 13 and 14, the paper argues that when thought experiments succeed as devices of persuasion, it is because the evoked response becomes dominant, so that the subject comes (either reflectively or unreflectively) to represent relevant non-thought experimental content in light of the novel frame provided by the thought experimental conclusion.
2. Part 2: Imagination, pretence and belief
Part II begins with an overview paper – ‘On the Relation between Pretense and Belief’ (Ch. 7) – which sketches a conceptual framework for understanding the relation between pretending and believing.
Games of pretence are marked by the presence of two central features, which I call quarantining and mirroring. Quarantining is manifest to the extent that causes within the pretence-episode are taken to have effects only within the pretence-episode (in later papers I call this the Las Vegas Rule: what happens in imagination, stays in imagination). Mirroring is manifest to the extent that features of the imaginary situation that have not been explicitly stipulated are derivable via features of their real-world analogues. But both quarantining and mirroring are often violated in crucial ways. Quarantining gives way to contagion in cases where emotional or perceptual features of the imagined experience shape subsequent engagement with the actual world. And mirroring gives way to disparity as a result of the fundamental incompleteness and potential incoherence of the imaginary.
Each of the papers in Part II considers one or more aspects of this framework.
Five of the book’s chapters – (Chs. 7, 9–12) – provide an extended exploration of contagion, looking at the ways in which imagined content and imaginary attitudes may seep into the domain of the non-imaginary in ways over which we have little control.
‘Genuine Rational Fictional Emotions’ (Ch. 11) explores what is sometimes called the paradox of fictional emotions: the puzzle of why we seem to feel genuine emotions in response to descriptions of characters that we know to be fictional. Drawing on work by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, the paper argues that without the capacity to respond emotionally to merely imagined situations, we would be unable to engage in practical reasoning. So a certain degree of contagion is inevitable, indeed desirable, in a well-functioning mind.
But how widespread are contagion phenomena, and what does their distribution reveal about the structure of the imagination? These are the questions are explored in ‘Imaginative Contagion’ (Ch. 12), which presents a range of examples where merely imagining or pretending P has effects that one might expect would come only from believing or perceiving P. The paper contends that imaginative contagion arises because certain features of our mental architecture are source-indifferent: they process externally-generated (perceived) and internally-generated (imagined) content in similar ways, even in the face of explicit recognition via other features of our mental architecture that the content in question has been generated by a reality-insensitive process.
A particular instance of this phenomenon is explored in Chapters 9 and 10. Since vividly imagined content often leaks into our non-imaginative repertoire, when we allow an author to direct us towards certain ways of experiencing and evaluating an imaginary world, those ways of attending and responding become more readily available in our non-imaginary lives. This observation plays a central role in my response to what I call the puzzle of imaginative resistance: that while we typically have no difficulty fictionally entertaining all sorts of far-fetched and implausible scenarios (including those that invoke impossible situations), we seem to encounter striking impediments when we are asked to imagine situations that require us to suspend or invert our ordinary moral judgements. Both ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ (Ch. 9) and ‘Imaginative Resistance Revisited’ (Ch. 10) argue that it is to the extent that we are tacitly aware of the dangers of this sort of leakage that we find ourselves hesitant to imaginatively engage in ways that call for the suspension or inversion of our ordinary moral judgements.
A slightly different sort of contagion phenomenon can be seen in cases where attitudes such as pretence or make-belief motivate action in ways traditionally credited to belief alone. ‘Self-Deception as Pretense’ (Ch. 8) argues that a special instance of this phenomenon can be seen in cases of self-deception. Paradigmatic cases of self-deception, I suggest, involve a self-deceiver who pretends (in the sense of makes-believe or imagines or fantasizes) that something is the case, where that pretence comes to play many of the roles normally played by belief. As in the cases of contagion described above, this process exploits the ways that imaginative pretence may come to play a central role in one’s mental life – both introspectively and in the regulation of one’s actions – despite one’s residual awareness of its self-generated provenance, and despite one’s consequent unwillingness to endorse its content as fully reflective of reality.
Complementing the discussion of contagion is a discussion of disparity, which explores the ways in which imagined content may diverge radically from content that is believed or perceived. So, for example, one of the key claims of the imaginative resistance chapters (Chs. 9 and 10) is that we can – in the sense of imagine that is relevant for understanding fiction and our responses to it – imagine things that are impossible. This is in part because imagination and pretence involve what I call partial mapping (Ch. 7): entities in stories and imagined aspects in games of prop-based make-believe may have some but not all of the properties of their actual-world analogues, or they may have an incoherent amalgam of them.
This means that while it is arguable that conceivability under ideal rational reflection tracks conceptual possibility (for detailed discussion see Gendler and Hawthorne 2002), this kind of possibility-tracking is a non-starter when the issue is imaginability of the sort we are concerned with in games of make-believe and pretence and fictional engagement. Unlike ideal rational reflection, these sorts of attitudes depend upon precisely the sort of abstraction that leaves out conceptually relevant features of the situation at hand. (Indeed, one of the main points of pretence and make-believe and reading fiction and viewing art is to take on various ways of seeing things – ways that focus on certain elements of the situation, while ignoring others).
This also helps to explain why intellectual contemplation of merely imaginary cases may, in certain cases, produce importantly different responses than actual experience would. This is a central theme of Chapters 3 through 6, as noted above.
The two final chapters in the volume (‘Alief and Belief’, Ch. 13, and ‘Alief in Action (and Reaction)’, Ch. 14) bring together many of the themes of the earlier chapters by exploring the nature and role of a cognitive state that I have dubbed alief. Aliefs are, roughly, innate or habitual propensities to respond to (possibly accurate) apparent stimuli in ways that are associative and automatic. (By contrast, beliefs are, roughly speaking, evidentially sensitive commitments to content that are quickly revisable in the face of novel information.) When aliefs activate behavioural propensities that accord with our beliefs, I call them belief-concordant aliefs; when they activate propensities that run counter to those evoked by our beliefs, I call them belief-discordant aliefs.
In some cases, we deliberately take advantage of the fact that our beliefs and aliefs activate contrary associative repertoires. (The enjoyment of fiction is one such instance.) But in many cases, strong discord between alief and belief is an undesirable state. ‘Alief in Action’ (Ch. 14) explores a number of ways that belief-discordant aliefs can be tamed. One strategy, stressed by Aristotle among others (especially in the Nicomachean Ethics), involves the cultivation of alternative habits through deliberate rehearsal. Another, stressed by Descartes among others (especially in the Passions of the Soul), involves the refocusing of attention through directed imagination.
3. Concluding remarks: the divided soul
The fact that our implicit and explicit attitudes may reflect different contents and different commitments is a theme that is present throughout the volume. It helps to explain the effectiveness of thought experimental reasoning both in science (Chs. 1 and 2) and philosophy (Ch. 6), as well as the challenges posed by such reasoning in certain philosophical domains (Chs. 3–6). It lies behind the apparently perplexing responses that arise in cases involving various sorts of imaginative contagion (Chs. 7, 9–14), and it helps explain the apparent irrationality of certain ways of relating to the world (Chs. 7, 8 and 14.)
The idea of the modular or ‘divided soul’ has been central to philosophical discussions in both the Western and non-Western traditions for nearly two millennia, and its modern-day counterpart underpins nearly every domain of contemporary empirical and clinical psychology. Despite this, its philosophical import in the domains of intuition, imagination and philosophical methodology has not, I think, been fully appreciated. The papers collected in the volume represent my own small attempt to partially rectify this omission.2