Imagination is a Powerful Tool: Why is Philosophy Afraid of It? – By Amy Kind

Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Philosophers have a love-hate relationship with the imagination. René Descartes, for one, disparaged it as ‘more of a hindrance than a help’ in answering the most profound questions about the nature of existence. Trying to imagine one’s way towards metaphysical truth, he wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), is as foolish as falling asleep in the hope of obtaining a clearer picture of the world through dreams.

Yet Descartes also relied heavily on imagination in scientific and mathematical essays such as The World (1633), in which he tried to conjure up the details of the basic building blocks for structures such as humans, animals and machines. According to the philosopher Dennis Sepper at the University of Dallas, Descartes relied upon a kind of ‘biplanar’ imagination, pioneered by Plato, in which one level of reality could embody and display relations that existed on a different level, and vice versa.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was equally conflicted about the imagination – especially when compared with perception and memory. ‘When we remember any past event, the idea of it flows in upon the mind in a forcible manner,’ he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). But imagined images and sensations, he continued, are ‘faint and languid, and cannot without difficulty be preserved by the mind steady and uniform for any considerable time’. However, Hume also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’ Hume said.

What’s behind this apparent tension at the heart of the imagination? Hume put his finger on it when he talked about how our facility for fantasy helps us to move beyond and change our present reality. One need only think of how Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. But imagination is also restricted by the extent of our previous perceptions and experiences, Hume said. ‘Let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the Universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves,’ he wrote.

One way to resolve such ambivalence would be to divide the imagination into different kinds. Along these lines, towards the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive imagination and reproductive imagination. The productive faculty is what helps to synthesise and transform sensory content into a meaningful whole. So the identification of something with pointy ears and fur, which meows and rubs itself against your legs, is brought together via the productive imagination into the form of a cat. This unifying tendency is implanted in every human mind irrespective of experience. For Kant, our productive imagination is what makes perception possible.

By contrast, the reproductive imagination is largely about recollection. When a story comes on the radio about a long-lost cat who has found its way home, you draw from the many cats you’ve seen before to picture the heartwarming scene; this would be the reproductive imagination at work. Because the reproductive faculty works only with materials previously provided to someone’s senses, it is subject to the kind of limits Hume discussed.

Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. Perhaps the kind of imagination we despise is totally different from its more useful cousin. But in accepting this subdivision, we give up on the possibility of seeing the imagination as a unified mental faculty – which is perhaps more how we experience it.

When I think of all the wondrous things we can do with the imagination, I’m inclined towards a different way of unravelling its enigmatic duality. Rather than slicing up the imagination into distinct kinds, we might think about its distinct uses. I like to call these the transcendent and the instructive functions of the imagination. On the one hand, when we pretend, or fantasise, or escape into an engrossing work of literary fiction, imagination can take us beyond the here and now. On the other hand, when we imagine in an attempt to make sense of what other people are thinking, or to problem-solve or to make decisions, our speculations are used to help us understand the here and now. Whereas our transcendent uses of the imagination tend towards whimsy and fancy, its instructive functions point towards the practical and the concrete.

In both these modes, the secret to success seems to lie in the application of a kind of imaginative constraint. But what’s right for one use might not be fitting for the other. Perhaps the reason why philosophers have been conflicted about the imagination is that they haven’t grasped how limitations need to be tailored to circumstances. When we are writing fiction, or playing games of pretend, or making art, arguably we do our best imagining by setting the boundaries widely or removing the shackles entirely. In contrast, when we employ imagination in the context of scientific or technological discovery, or any other real-world problem-solving, we must allow our imaginations to be framed by the situation at hand.

Figuring out where to draw these lines isn’t easy. It can be extraordinarily tricky to know which factors should stay in play, and which should be eliminated. But by looking at how such constraints operate, not only can we see our way towards imaginative greatness – perhaps we can also purge philosophy of its anxiety about the idea. After all, as Hume observed, humans ‘are mightily govern’d by the imagination’.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Amy Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is the author of Persons and Personal Identity (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Model Hallucinations by Philip Gerrans

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Psychedelics have a remarkable capacity to violate our ideas about ourselves. Is that why they make people better?

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Psychedelic drugs are making a psychiatric comeback. After a lull of half a century, researchers are once again investigating the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’) and LSD. It turns out that the hippies were on to something. There’s mounting evidence that psychedelic experiences can be genuinely transformative, especially for people suffering from intractable anxiety, depression and addiction. ‘It is simply unprecedented in psychiatry that a single dose of a medicine produces these kinds of dramatic and enduring results,’ Stephen Ross, the clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, told Scientific American in 2016.

Just what do these drugs do? Psychedelics reliably induce an altered state of consciousness known as ‘ego dissolution’. The term was invented, well before the tools of contemporary neuroscience became available, to describe sensations of self-transcendence: a feeling in which the mind is put in touch more directly and intensely with the world, producing a profound sense of connection and boundlessness….

Read this excellent article in full at Aeon: committed to big ideas, serious enquiry and a humane worldview

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

A Walk to Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Green fields and an old stone wall after a summer rain, Edinburgh, Scotland

Journal: Calton Hill, Edinburgh, early Saturday evening, August 12th

Right now, I’m tucked into a little sort of alcove formed by a guardrail behind me and an old cast iron fence in front of me, sitting on one of the concrete guardrail supports, resting my back on the end of the wide rail, with my feet up on the stone wall from which the cast iron posts rise. The slope of the hill behind Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins on the Holyrood Palace grounds are in my view. I’m eating an early dinner (or late tea) of sharp cheddar, an apple, a tangerine, and gingerbread which I brought with me, and a lightly salted, crusted pillowy pretzel and tiny bottle of wine which I picked up on my way here.

A view from my walk on Alnwickhill Rd north to Edinburgh’s city center with Arthur’s Seat in the background

Arthur’s Seat looms larger and the castle enters the view in the distance to the left, walking north along Liberton… perhaps Brae, perhaps Road, the one becomes the latter as you head north

I slept off much of my jet lag yesterday, last night well into the morning, with a break of wakefulness to sit down for a celebratory carvery dinner – with Yorkshire pudding, oh joy! – and beer, then grocery shopping. Much of this morning and early afternoon was spent on letters, working on my history of ideas travel articles for Ordinary Philosophy, going through photos of my journey of the last few weeks for that series, and a very, very long hot bath. It was raining pretty steadily all that time and it’s Saturday during the annual, world famous Fringe Festival, so it was not a good day to go hiking or taking care of business or commence job-hunting. Not that I minded at all. My room is cheery and cozy and I passed the first part of the day very pleasantly and unhurriedly.

Shops and cafes line Clerk Street

More shops and cafes on bustling Newington Road. The showy peacockian array of vintage clothing in the shop window catches my eye. I have a long background working with vintage clothing and these are very nice specimens

The crowds thicken considerably as I draw near to central Edinburgh

But as soon as I left the bath, it felt like it was time to go out. I was suddenly eager to see the lovely city I first fell in love with about three and a half years ago. It’s about an hour and a half walk from where I’m staying and I need the exercise, so I decide to go on foot. I love walking, and it’s a great way to get a detailed sense of the lay of the land between the city center and where I’m staying at the southern end of town near the city bypass. It’s sprinkling on and off a little, but I don’t mind. I’ll likely get tired of the damp and cold over time, but the last few weeks traveling through the United States have been mostly oppressively hot. It felt good today to put on a light wool sweater and not to be flushed and soaked in sweat after only a few moments of activity.

On the Royal Mile, the crowds meld into a dense throng attending Fringe Festival. During this famous, international event, the city population grows by about a third, even though many of the locals leave for vacation during this time to escape the hubbub and overcrowding

The route north to Calton Hill is pretty straightforward. After about a mile you clearly see Calton Hill and the Castle most of the way, so it’s very easy to orient yourself. I passed by petite and tidy suburban row houses, old and even ancient standalone ones, stone walls ditto, and even in one place, to my surprise, small crop fields [on subsequent thought, I think it’s a golf course, it just looks different than many American ones]. These gave way to taller, fancier buildings, new apartments, large handsome older row homes, parks, rows of shops with flats over them, then fancier homes, then tall handsome guest houses, and then, suddenly, I was in the city proper. It’s usual for Edinburgh’s old city to be very busy in tourist season but today, it’s absolutely packed, thronged with festival goers interspersed with those locals who have not fled the city, gritting their teeth as they try to reach their destinations through the hordes.

A view of Edinburgh’s New Town from the North Bridge. Sir Walter Scott’s darkly romantic neo-gothic monument rises prominently from the center of that stretch of Prince Street

A view of Calton Hill from the North Bridge

David Hume’s mausoleum and a monument to Scottish American soldiers featuring Abraham Lincoln at Old Calton Burial Ground at the foot of Calton Hill. I think it’s a beautiful thing that a great emancipator of the human person has a monument next to that of a great emancipator of human thought

I reached Calton Hill and turned into the cemetery gates to my right and paid my respects at the tomb of my man, the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It was through him I met this lovely city, and he who inspired me to apply to the University of Edinburgh which he attended as a young prodigy of twelve years old.

His monument is beautiful, a neoclassical structure with clean lines, embellished just enough with a frieze of flowers and a carved urn. Other family members are buried here with him. The monument was built to reflect Hume’s wishes about the kind of monument he’d prefer if one was to be built for him; it was designed by his architect friend about a year after his death. He didn’t want anything too fancy. It’s near the base of the hill, just down the street from where the scenic walkway named for Hume circles the crown of the hill and its monuments. He successfully lobbied the town council for this path to be built so that the local people could take their exercise in a wholesome and beautiful environment readily accessible from the crowded, dirty, often dark and dank city. In this as in so many other ways, he’s totally my type of guy.

The doorway to David Hume’s mausoleum, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

I look forward so much to learning more about his life, thought, and legacy in my upcoming year here in Edinburgh. If, indeed, it’s only a year. Who knows, I may get even more hooked on this place and find myself here longer…

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

My view of a slope of Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins from my little picnic alcove tucked between the guardrail and the iron fence, Calton Hill

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford, and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume’s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series I created in honor of my favorite philosopher in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ll soon be in Edinburgh again, this time for at least one year, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Intellectual History at the University of Edinburgh. I can hardly express how thrilled I am at the prospect! I’ll be expanding this Hume series while I’m there.

To Edinburgh I Go, In Search of David Hume

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy! I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my first philosophical-historical themed adventure, and my first trip to Edinburgh, Scotland!

Here’s my plan:

I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’ve decided to start with the philosopher I most admire as a person as well as a thinker, the great David Hume. He was not only revered for the brilliance of his ideas and his honesty in presenting them, but also as a premier example of a genial, generous, great-hearted person; so much so, in fact, that one of his closest friends nicknamed him ‘Saint David’.

Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher to write in English and among the greatest philosophers of all time, period. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a profoundly influential empiricist and moral philosopher

So off to beautiful Edinburgh I go! There, I’ll visit the places where he worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested. I’ll be traveling there in the first two weeks of May, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing in this blog not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life, and whatever feeling of his time and place I manage to uncover in my time there.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!

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Here are my essays on Hume as I discover him in my travels, in (roughly) chronological order:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
and a memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: Portrait of James Boswell, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

James Boswell portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 2014 Amy Cools

James Boswell portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Boswell’s diary of Samuel Johnson has been called the greatest biography in the English language. I visited this portrait during my journey to Edinburgh in 2014 following the life and ideas of David Hume, my favorite philosopher, if I had to name just one. Boswell sat at the bedside of the dying Hume and marveled at his composure in the face of suffering and death.

 

 

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APA Member Interview: Amy Cools

Amy Cools, Portrait by Alex Black, 2014October 21, 2016 by Skye Cleary for the American Philosophical Association Blog

What excites you about philosophy?

There’s something about discovering or realizing a truth about the world and about our inner experiences of it that’s more thrilling to me than anything else. When I first read Wilfred Seller’s definition of philosophy, the “aim…to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”, I recognized that his conception of philosophy is closest to my own. I believe philosophy is something that all human beings engage in, to one degree or another, and to feel that I’m part of this great human endeavor to understand and appreciate the world is also deeply satisfying…

Read the rest of this interview at the APA Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!