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The Architecture of the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction

(Shaun Nichols (ed.))

Reviewed by Stacie Friend

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Page 1


If there are things that are genuinely impossible to imagine, does this tell us anything about genuine possibility? Why is it harder to imagine that female infanticide is morally virtuous than to imagine that a banana is a telephone or that a sea sponge is a walking, talking fry cook? How can we desire that Cordelia live without wanting King Lear to be changed, or be sad at her demise when we know she does not exist? The contributions to this excellent collection address such questions by exploring the nature and limits of the propositional imagination, the capacity exploited in imagining that something is the case. As Shaun Nichols notes in his useful introduction, the last two decades have seen the flourishing of cognitive accounts of the propositional imagination, most of them developed to explicate the mechanisms underlying pretend play or the capacity to understand other people's mental states ('mindreading'). While the simulation theory/theory-theory debate over mindreading informs several of the chapters, The Architecture of the Imagination expands the discussion of imagination beyond the confines of this debate. It is the only collection on imagination that covers such a wide variety of issues, and is thus essential reading for anyone interested in the topic. The essays provide a valuable overview of current work on the propositional imagination and insight into its potential philosophical significance. They also indicate the ways in which philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific considerations can illuminate each other.

One of the questions prompted by this mix of considerations is the appropriate role of empirical evidence in addressing philosophical puzzles. I focus on this question with respect to two issues covered in the volume: emotional responses to fiction and imaginative resistance. I begin, however, with an overview of themes and topics. For those essays I do not discuss in more detail, these brief descriptions must suffice as my recommendation.

The four papers in the first section of the volume explore the nature of the imagination. Timothy Schroeder and Carl Matheson offer neuroscientific evidence supporting the widespread assumption that imagining can be causally responsible for affective responses. Alvin Goldman defends a simulationist account of our emotional engagement with fiction, on which readers create a "rough facsimile" of mental states in their minds, for instance by adopting the point of view of a hypothetical reader or observer of fact. Adam Morton considers the ways in which we may mis-imagine someone's states of mind, arguing that we are likely to be most accurate when representing what another person imagines. Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom consider the implications of evidence that children, like adults, not only distinguish the real from the fictional, they also keep track of what counts as "real" or "make-believe" within different fictional worlds.

In the first of two chapters on pretence, Peter Carruthers argues that children are motivated to engage in pretend play when their imaginings provoke positive emotional reactions, which in turn generate desires to act out those imaginings. Gregory Currie defends a pretence theory of irony against various objections and argues that its main rival, the echoic theory, must also invoke pretence.

In his contribution, Kendall Walton disentangles the variety of puzzles that have been associated with imaginative resistance -- the topic of the third section of the volume -- arguing that the greatest challenge is to account for our resistance to accepting certain authorial claims as establishing what is fictionally the case. Tamar Gendler, refining an account she has offered elsewhere, argues that we resist imagining morally deviant claims in fiction primarily because we take the author to be inviting us simultaneously to believe a corresponding claim about the real world. Jonathan Weinberg and Aaron Meskin develop a cognitive architecture designed to resolve puzzles about fiction and emotion, imaginative resistance, and the imagination/supposition distinction, arguing that this more scientific approach is superior to standard philosophical accounts.

In the paper opening the final section on imagination and modality, Christopher Hill argues that we cannot infer from our ability to conceive a scenario that it is metaphysically possible -- an objection to standard arguments for property dualism -- and goes on to offer a positive proposal about how knowledge of metaphysical possibility might be attained. Shaun Nichols argues from evidence of children's modal locutions that the primary function of modal judgment is to represent risks and opportunities, and that a naturalist account of imagination explains why we have the intuitions about "absolute impossibility" that we do. In the final chapter of the collection, Ray Sorensen argues that those who maintain that conceivability entails possibility are thereby committed to the less plausible "meta-entailment thesis" -- that if it is conceivable that it is conceivable that p, then p is possible -- and shows that a wide range of philosophical arguments in fact depend on this thesis.

I turn now to the topic of fiction and emotion. Recent discussions of the paradox of fiction -- the puzzle of explaining how we can have (rational) emotional responses to merely imagined characters and events -- have been marked by an increased attention to psychological and neuroscientific approaches to the emotions. While this is a positive development, the philosophical problem is not resolved solely by appeal to empirical findings. For instance, the evidence offered by Schroeder and Matheson (S&M) rules out some theories of the relationship between imagining and emotion, but does not determine a single interpretation of this relationship. S&M agree with the widespread assumption that imagining constitutes a "Distinct Cognitive Attitude" (DCA), an attitude similar to belief in some ways but not others, which is responsible for causing affective responses; but they point out that this assumption lacks direct empirical support. They therefore present neuroscientific evidence tracing a clear causal pathway from imaginative stimulus to DCA (consisting in unimodal or multimodal representations) to felt response. This result is philosophically important because it excludes views according to which affect is produced not by imaginings but by associated beliefs, for instance about what is fictional or possible. Yet as S&M make clear, the evidence is compatible with several other competing approaches to emotion and imagination.

In particular, the fact that imagined and believed stimuli produce the same neural consequences, thus causing the same kinds of felt responses, does not by itself refute the contention that our affective engagement with imagined characters should be distinguished from the full-fledged emotions generated by beliefs: that there is a difference, for example, between genuine fear and quasi fear (to use Kendall Walton's familiar terminology). It is common currency between Walton and his critics that we have emotional experiences as a result of engaging with fictions; the dispute is about how to interpret these experiences in a philosophically illuminating way. For this reason I am skeptical of the claim by Weinberg and Meskin that once we reject the folk-psychological assumption that emotions require beliefs and accept that imaginings can produce affective responses, "the puzzle of emotions and fiction is dissolved" (180). This is so only if we take the puzzle to be exhausted by the causal question of how affect can be produced by anything other than belief; but answering this question does nothing to address the philosophical issues about intentionality and rationality provoked by our emotional engagement with fiction.  It is hard to see how empirical results could settle such questions.

I am equally skeptical of Goldman's claim that psychological studies of narrative comprehension support a simulationist account of our emotional engagement with fiction over the rival "single code" theory proposed by Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich (more accurate versions of which are ably defended by Carruthers, Weinberg and Meskin, and Nichols in their contributions). The view that we simulate the mental states of characters has been subject to extensive criticism, since our affective responses are often distinct from those of the characters: our compassion for Anna Karenina is not a simulation of any emotion she feels. Goldman replies to this objection in two ways. First, he suggests that consumers of fiction usually simulate a hypothetical reader or observer of fact, proposing, for example, that in watching a fictional film we take ourselves to be "seeing an unfolding scenario from the camera's perspective" (50). I find this proposal implausible as an account of our experience of fiction in general (or cinematic experience in particular), but for present purposes I will leave these worries aside. Goldman's second reply is to adduce psychological research indicating that readers track the perspective of narrative protagonists and appraise events from their point of view, which "supports the idea that character simulation is a common form of mental engagement with fiction" (51). For instance, Goldman cites studies in which subjects processed sentences mentioning an object associated with the protagonist (e.g., a bag she carries) more quickly than a dissociated object (e.g., the bag after being put down); and studies in which they processed sentences matching a protagonist's likely emotional state more quickly than sentences not matching it.


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