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Resistance is futile.” The Borg The puzzle(s) of imaginative resistance

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Unedited draft of chapter forthcoming in Philosophical Aesthetics and Aesthetic Psychology, Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie (eds), Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2010.

Imagination Unblocked
Resistance is futile.”

--The Borg
1. The puzzle(s) of imaginative resistance

Some things are very hard to imagine—round squares, prime numbers evenly divisible by eight, and five and seven not adding to twelve are pretty plausible mathematical cases of this. Most famously, our imagination seems especially constrained in the moral realm (Walton 1994, Moran 1994). For although it appears fairly easy to imagine a world in which people falsely believe that the torture and murder of innocents is required, it is rather difficult (arguably impossible) to imagine a world in which the torture of innocents is morally required. Relatedly, it seems hard to make sense of a fiction in which it is true in that fiction that the torture and murder of innocents is morally required.

But it is a noticeable feature of artistic practice that talented authors can turn the unimaginable into the stuff of fiction. Graham Priest arguably succeeds in making it true in his story “Sylvan’s Box” that there is an absolutely empty box with something in it (Priest 1997). Tamar Gendler, whose essay “The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance” (Gendler 2000) initiated a flurry of interest in a range of aesthetic issues having to do with the limits of the imagination, composed a clever story in which it certainly seems to be true—and reported as imagined by at least some readers—that five and seven do not add up to twelve. And a range of philosophers skeptical of the puzzle Gendler presented have pointed to cases in which writers do seem able to get us go along with (i.e., accept as true-in-the-fiction and perhaps even imagine) moral impossibilities—Icelandic sagas, mafia movies, the hard-boiled detective genre, and Hamlet have all been suggested as fictions which do not generate imaginative resistance in response to the morally problematic worlds they portray (Landy 2008, Todd 2008, Kieran 2010). Even (fairly) untalented authors can do the trick. Later in this paper, we construct a story that is designed (and we think succeeds) in turning what initially appears to be unimaginable—Brian Weatherson’s “Wiggins World” example—into the imaginable by adding a few details (Weatherson 2004).

Work by Gendler and Weatherson, as well as recent discussion by others such as Gregory Currie (2002), Derek Matravers (2003), Shaun Nichols (2006b), Kathleen Stock (2003, 2005), Dustin Stokes (2005), Cain Todd (2008), Kendall Walton (2006), and Stephen Yablo (2003) has enriched our understanding of the first set of phenomena—the various forms imaginative resistance including imaginative refusal (an unwillingness to imagine) and imaginative blockage (difficulty or full-fledged inability in imagining). But the phenomenon of unblockage—the way in which various imaginative impediments may be avoided or overcome—has gone largely unnoticed and untheorized. We think this is a serious gap in the discussion. For it is a condition on a successful theory of imaginative resistance that it be able to explain the various ways that we can get round such resistance. That is what we propose to focus on in this paper.

In an earlier work on this topic (Weinberg and Meskin 2006), we argued that philosophers’ almost exclusive reliance on metaphysics and folk psychology (see Currie 2002 and Nichols 2006b for noticeable exceptions) has meant that many relevant phenomena are left unexplained. We remain convinced that the psychologically and (cognitive) architecturally informed theory we presented in that work—with some modification—can do a better job than any of the other contenders of explaining various aspects of imaginative resistance. In particular, we shall argue that our theory offers natural explanations of the various ways that imaginative blocks (or would-be blocks) can be circumvented. In the next section of this paper we lay out that theory briefly. We then explain why it predicts the phenomenon of imaginative blockage. In the later sections of the paper we turn our attention to two ways in which we may be able to avoid blockage—either getting around it temporarily or getting rid of it altogether.

Our central interest is in the phenomenon of imaginative blockage. That is, we are primarily interested in a psychological phenomenon rather than in artistic concerns. But like many other writers on this subject, we assume that there is an intimate connection between fiction and the imagination. In broad strokes, fiction may be characterized as a tool to direct the (cognitive) imagination (Currie 1995, Walton 1990). So fiction, and facts about our engagement with them, will provide us with rich source of data about the cognitive imagination. But what is the cognitive imagination? To get a handle on that, we need to turn our attention to issues of cognitive architecture.

2. The Cognitive Architecture of the Imagination

Two important empirically-supported results about the nature of the imagination are key to our account: (1) the functional similarity between believing and imagining and (2) the existence of a distinct cognitive system that underwrites the workings of the imagination. While we do not have room to present the empirical evidence for these results here, we can say a bit about how these two characteristics of imaginings are to be understood

Beliefs and imaginings are functionally similar insofar as they interact with (largely) the same mental mechanisms. By and large, if the belief system takes input from or produces output to a cognitive mechanism, then the imagination system does as well (and vice versa). For example, there is plenty of evidence that various inferential mechanisms operate on both beliefs and imaginings (Leslie 1994). In addition, the cognitive mechanisms that do interact with both systems (e.g., our emotional systems) treat representations from either system in roughly the same way (Lang 1984). In Shaun Nichols’ terms, imaginative states and beliefs states are in a ‘single code’ (Nichols 2004b).1

But despite the functional similarity between beliefs and imaginings, a separate system—distinct from the belief system—must be posited. To take an obvious point, imagining does not appear to drive the action system in the same way that belief does. Since systems are individuated by their functional role, this suggests that there really are distinct systems that subserve imagining and believing.

These results raise some crucial questions. Which cognitive mechanisms interact with both imaginings and beliefs, and which ones interact with just one of the systems in questions?2

We have already mentioned that various inferential mechanisms operate on both beliefs and imaginings. A particularly important piece of the cognitive architecture for our purposes is the mechanism (or mechanisms) that Nichols and Stich (2000) have termed the ‘UpDater’. The UpDater handles the crucial task of adding and deleting beliefs in response to the receipt of new information. And this mechanism is clearly required to make sense of imaginative engagement just as much as belief revision. For example, we regularly update the contents of our fictively-generated imaginings in light of new fictive input.

Other largely automatic or ‘modular’ systems will plausibly interact with both imaginings and believings. For example, most fiction relies heavily on audience use of folk psychology to make sense of characters and their actions, so it is reasonable to suppose that the systems that underwrite those capacities are able to interact with the imagination in much the same way that they interact with belief. In the context of our discussion of imaginative resistance, we are particularly interested in mechanisms that underwrite our moral capacities. For it is crucial to our engagement with ordinary narrative fiction that some moral mechanisms be engaged by the imagination. We could not make sense of the moral emotions of fictional characters and respond appropriately to them were we not able to make moral judgments about the fictive (and, hence, imagined) events which they face.

While the aforementioned mechanisms interact with both beliefs and imaginings, there is at least one important special-purpose mechanisms that must be posited to make sense of the workings of the imagination. Although we cannot generally make ourselves believe whatever we decide to, some mechanism must allow us to imagine just about whatever we decide to – modulo cases of blockage, of course. We will call the mechanism which subserves our capacity to do this the ‘InPutter’.

With this rough sketch of the architecture of the imagination in place, we can turn to our account of the phenomenon of imaginative blockage.
3. Imaginative Blockage: A Diagnosis

Many of the usually automatic systems that interact with the imagination can either add representations to, or remove representations from, that system. In addition to the InPutter, various modular reasoning systems that add or subtract from our store of beliefs also add or subtract from our store of imaginings. And because of this, it is possible to get a conflict between these various systems – in particular, a situation may arise in which one system (most typically the InPutter) is trying to insert a representation even while another (most typically the UpDater) is trying to remove it. On our account, this is exactly what happens in cases of imaginative blockage.

Consider moral imaginative resistance. Suppose in the course of some exercise of the imagination we are confronted with an invitation to imagine some morally abhorrent proposition p and that this results in blockage. Our explanation is that two systems have been put into conflict: as we attempt to comply with that invitation, the InPutter is accordingly trying to insert p into the imagination, but at the same time, the UpDater registers a conflict between p and some output of our moral judgment systems (not-p, since it detects the abhorrence of p). Importantly, since the moral judgment system works automatically -- and is outside of the imagination -- removing not-p will not be effective. The moral system will automatically function to reinsert not-p into the imagination in response to morally salient features of the imagined situation. So the UpDater's only way to resolve the conflict is to remove or reject the offending representation p – even while the InPutter is trying to add p in. At that point, we can no longer proceed smoothly and automatically. And there is no obvious non-automatic way to proceed, either. We can cast about for a way to imagine p without engaging the moral judgment system, but none will prove easily forthcoming. So, we are stuck: we are instructed to do something that we are simply unable to do.3

Our account easily generalizes to other cases of blockage reported in the literature. Most typically, one of the systems involved in the conflict will be the InPutter itself, although we do not believe that this is a necessary condition on blockage. (In fact, our theory raises the very real possibility of blockages generated by the inconsistent outputs of distinct automatic systems.) And note that conflict need not generated by an initially imagined proposition, but may be generated by some other proposition that we automatically derive from it.

Under some circumstances, when we run into such a conflict in the imagination, we simply would end up with one of the relevant propositions removed and then be able to move on. Something similar would happen with a similar conflict in our beliefs, and the single-code approach considers imaginings and beliefs both to be generally subject to the same sorts of coherence-driven revision processes. But this is not always possible: some conflicts involve contents produced by automatic and modular processes and, hence, cannot be revised away. Nor, in many cases, can contents that the InPutter has already inserted be easily removed. For example, we tend to treat many of those contents as (almost) sacrosanct—only allowing the contents we input from engagement with fiction to be removed if we come to believe that we were dealing with an unreliable narrator or a dream sequences or some other “epistemological twist” (Wilson 2006).4

So far, we have presented a general picture of the cognitive underpinnings of imaginative blockage. The account rests on an independently well-supported theory of cognitive architecture (see Nichols and Stich 2000 and Weinberg and Meskin 2006), and that theory of cognitive architecture makes its own predictions as to when we will experience blocks5. We turn now to a consideration of how the account and architecture of blockage are relevant to two phenomena exhibited in our engagement with fiction: imaginative deferral and blockage removal.

4. Imaginative Deferral

In many fictions, the putative necessary cognitive conditions for blockage obtain, and yet we are not blocked. One way this may happen is if we are able configure our imaginations so that various subpersonal and automatic systems that typically interact with it (and with belief) are temporarily disconnected (Weinberg 2008). That is, we have a capacity to adjust our imagination, often aided substantially by the construction of the work of fiction, so that it does not take inputs from various systems (e.g., some of the moral systems); and this capacity is plausibly what enables us to imaginatively engage with works in the various countermoral genres mentioned above.

In some other cases the fiction is so structured as to enable us to defer the conflict between our cognitive systems. Such deferrals are usually paid off by the narrative later demonstrating that the conflict was spurious: what initially struck us as impossible is later revealed as possible, albeit in a surprising way. Apparently unfulfillable prophecies are perhaps the most famous version of this phenomenon. In Macbeth, for example, we seem to imagine all of the following: that the witches speak truly in their claim that “no man of woman born” can harm him, nor can harm befall him “until great Birnham Wood onto high Dunsinane hill shall come"; that these conditions are impossible to satisfy; yet also, that Macbeth will ultimately be overthrown. This is, after all, a Shakespearean tragedy, and we know in advance that matters cannot go well for the title character, and the proper appreciation of works in that genre requires that such knowledge be deployed in our readings and viewings.

We know that these cannot all be true together, yet we seem to imagine them nonetheless. It is clear that all of these propositions are in some way active in our engagement with the play, after all, or else we would not experience the admixture of foreboding and mystery that we do. Hence, cases like Macbeth cannot be explained away in the simple terms of our either just not noticing the conflict between the propositions, or ignoring it. Nor do we allow ourselves to become blocked – it is hardly the case that we throw the text across the room, decrying what a hack this Shakespeare fellow is! So we seem to have a case of an imagined acknowledged impossibility that nonetheless does not create blockage, and we must address the question of how this could be so.

Our suggestion is to take the following propositions to be the ones actually entertained in the imagination: (i) That the witches’ prophecy will be true; (ii) That Macbeth will nonetheless suffer a downfall; and (iii) it does not seem possible that (i) and (ii) can both be true. It is important that this last proposition not be (iii’): it is not possible for (i) and (ii) to both be true, or else we'd still just have the contradiction.

But one might wonder why that is not indeed exactly what we imagine. For it does seem that, on our first reading or viewing, we typically do not find ourselves able to imagine just how it might be that the witches’ prophecy could be fulfilled, consistent with other aspects of this particular imaginative project (e.g., that human reproductive biology is the same in the world of Macbeth as it is in the actual world). Or, at least, we cannot do so – until Shakespeare shows us how. He does this by ultimately presenting us with Malcolm’s wooden tactics and Macduff’s claim to be from his mother’s womb untimely ripped. But we are not supposed to make use of those rather improbable ways of satisfying the witches’ words until near the end of the play. So for most of the play, we are not to imagine any such way. Nonetheless, under normal circumstances, we quite readily make inferences along the following lines:

I cannot imagine how it could be possible that p.

Therefore, not-p.

So it might seem odd that we are so epistemically reticent with regard to propositions like “the witches’ prophecy will come true”.

The close resemblance between belief and imagination in a single code architecture can play a useful role here, however. For we can consider the existence of epistemically unusual, though far from extraordinary, circumstances in which we do not find ourselves making this inference from apparent unimaginability to the outright falsity of what cannot be imagined – namely, those in which one has independent strong reasons for p. (Bits of contemporary physics which we accept on the basis of testimony may be like this for many of us.) Compare to a typical transaction in perception, in which a vision system tokens p, and this leads to the tokening of a belief with content p. Under normal circumstances, this transition happens automatically, even unconsciously. But when we take ourselves to have very good evidence against p – suppose that p is the proposition “a large purple elephant has just appeared in the room” – then we do not seem typically to token p itself in our beliefs, but rather only “it seems that p” or “it seems visually that p”. We take it that this representation-downgrading typically happens fairly automatically when it occurs. For example, when we see the Mueller-Lyer figure while we know that the two lines are the same length, we unconsciously and effortlessly find ourselves in a state of the two lines merely seeming to be of different lengths. So our hypothesis is that the same mechanism of epistemic deflation that avoids cognitive meltdown in cases like perceptual illusions, also serves to help defer blockage in some cases that prima facie should put us into a state of imaginative blockage.

A key difference between cases like Macbeth and perceptual illusions is the source of the evidence for the relevant p that causes the would-be tokening of “not-p” to deflate to a tokening of “it seems that not-p”. For the Mueller-Lyer case, we have such evidence as our perception of the lines when the diagonal ‘wings’ are blocked; measurements of the lines themselves; and the trusted say-so of the vision scientists. We have nothing like that for the three witches, obviously. What we do have, however, is good metafictional evidence: our trust in Shakespeare as an author; our expectation that in general literary works that are disseminated to us will have been executed with at least minimal competency, and thus not have an imagination-blocking impossibility at their core; our understanding of such devices as apparently-unfulfillable prophecies that always do, somehow, turn out to be fulfillable in unexpected ways. It can also help when a main character is in a similar epistemic position to the reader: Macbeth thinks he is unstoppable, but nonetheless fears the prophecy about Banquo’s children. (Mutatis mutandis all these sorts of moves in cases of locked-room murder mysteries.) Such evidence leads us to expect that, despite appearances, there will not ultimately be an unimaginable contradiction in the fictional world. And it thereby leads our cognitive systems to posit as a seeming that which would be imaginatively fatal if tokened in full voice.

We therefore call this phenomenon imaginative deferral: both in the sense that we defer allowing the conflict to break down our imaginative engagement with the fiction, and in the sense that we are willing to defer to the author as to the ultimate coherence of his or her work. Deferral is a successful aesthetic tactic because it allows us a particular narrative pleasure of suspense, which is ultimately resolved with a satisfying sense of closure, indeed all the more satisfying because we could not see for ourselves how it would be possible. This pleasure is deeply connected to that of erotetic (that is, question-and-answer) narrative more generally, as described by Noël Carroll in his Paradoxes of the Heart (Carroll 1990). Carroll is interested there in the notion of erotetic narrative to explain the attraction of monster stories: according to him, it is the conceptually incongruent, ontologically problematic nature of monsters (and our interest in solving the puzzles they raise) that makes stories involving them so compelling. We are suggesting that in cases of deferral, the narrative itself is ‘monstrous’ (at least until the resolution), and that our interest in solving the conceptual puzzles raised by the apparent inconsistencies (i.e., in figuring out how they will turn out to be not inconsistencies at all) is a significant part of our appreciation of them. Hence, an account that claimed that readers ignore or fail to notice the conflicts would thus leave out one of the most compelling aesthetic features of such fictions.

5. Paying off the deferral

A deferral is by its nature a temporary affair: at some point, that which was deferred comes due, and the prima facie unimaginable must be ultima facie imagined, or else the fiction revealed to be a sort of literary Ponzi scheme.6 A deferral must be paid off, and the blockage of the imagination unblocked.

The easiest form of unblocking is when we no longer take ourselves to be invited to imagine one of the impossibility-generating propositions. As the fiction develops, it becomes clear that there is an unreliable narrator, or a dream sequence, or the like. We take it that there are no psychological or philosophical puzzles about such cases, which we will thus call cases of simple unblocking.

More interesting are cases in which we come to see that there is a possibility we had not foreseen, and which shows what had seemed impossible is not actually so. Kathleen Stock (2005) presents such an account. According to Stock, many cases of imaginative blockage stem from “contingent imaginative failure”—in particular, a failure to find an appropriate context in which the blocked proposition would be warranted. Such blockages can be overcome when further content is added which serves to make the proposition intelligible. (She tells a very different story about the apparent overcoming of blockages that are generated by conceptual impossibilities and the non-contingent imaginative failures they induce; see below.) So, for example, Walton’s (in)famous Giselda sentence, “In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing; after all, it was a girl” (Walton 1994), is initially unimaginable because readers cannot conjure a scenario in which that sentence would be true. But, according to Stock, the addition of background information about, e.g., the awful fate of female infants in Giselda’s culture, might make the sentence imaginable because a relevant context has now been supplied. We think Stock is on the right track here, though we might not put things as she does, in terms of the contingent unintelligibility of the proposition. (On our account, the propositions are perfectly intelligible, and must be such in order for the automatic systems to generate contents inconsistent with them.) But although this approach – which we will call reinterpretation unblocking – seems the right story about some cases, we think that there are other cases that it doesn’t account for.

What simple unblocking and reinterpretative unblocking have in common is that the end-state of the imagination is self-consistent. Things look impossible early on, but are shown not to be such by the end. But in still other, rarer fictions, the addition of further content from the fiction can lead to the elimination of the blockage, but not by ultimately revising the contents to the point of consistency. The “Tower of Goldbach” story is just such a one as these: we would be blocked in trying to follow the imaginative instructions of a shorter version of the story that included the claim that an arithmetical impossibility was made actual. But, with all the trappings of Gendler’s story – especially the theological ones – we seem enabled to imagine it, impossibilities and all. How is that so? In particular, surely our ordinary reasoning systems that are generally engaged in the imagining of the story would reject that mathematical impossibility as, well, an impossibility. This is the phenomenon of the nonmonotonicity of imaginative blockage: one can have a fiction with blockage, and add more fictional contents to it even without rendering the imagined contents consistent, and not necessarily end up with blockage in the new fiction. The rest of the story does not make it less of an impossibility – so how can the rest of the story nonetheless succeed in rendering it more of an imaginability?

Let us put another example on the table. As it stands, Weatherson’s “Wiggins World” story seems to be a case of imaginative blockage:

The Hogwarts Express was a very special train. It had no parts at all. Although you’d be tempted to say that it had carriages, an engine, seats, wheels, windows and so on, it really was a mereological atom. And it certainly had no temporal parts - it wholly was wherever and whenever it was. Even more surprisingly, it did not enter into fusions, so when the Hogwarts Local was linked to it for the first few miles out of Kings Cross, there was no one object that carried all the students through north London (Weatherson 2004, 5).
But now consider the following extension of Weatherson’s story, which we will call “Parts & Parcels: The Attack on the Hogwarts Express”, noting that it has none of the features of either simple or reinterpretative unblocking:
And it was a lucky thing for Ron and Hermione that Dumbledore’s protective enchantment had given the Express these unusual mereological properties. When Voldemort’s evil minion in the Department of Literary Theories and Other Dark Liberal Arts first let loose with Derrida’s Devious Dismantlement –‘deconstructing’ any object into all its component parts – the Local was flung into an infinite number of pieces, and indeed further flayed into the arcane power set of that number. The Express, though adjoined to the Local, was never part of any larger train, and was thus spared its lethal effect.
Then, the spell was cast again, this time directly on the Express. But this assault fizzled as well. The Express having no parts to be deconstructed into, the students didn’t even know that their trusty vehicle had been subject to an attack in the first place, arriving at Hogwarts without any further effects (though one student who had been working on a jigsaw puzzle later claimed that the puzzle strangely resisted any future assembly).
We take it that this further story is imaginable, and precisely because of the ways in which the deviant mereology plays a substantive role in the story – e.g., it protects the Express from a dark spell of Voldemort’s that’s meant to dissolve the target of the spell into its component parts. We take it that our story is thus rather Tower of Goldbach-esque, in particular in that what was once impossible-and-unimaginable is rendered impossible-yet-somehow-imaginable.

It may seem that what these cases relevantly have in common is the supernatural: in a fictional world with such a God, or with such magic spells, is anything truly impossible? But that only takes us part of the way there – we predict that similar stories in which we’re just told “God did it” or “it’s magic”, without any further narrative stage-dressing, would still lead to blockage.7 Rather, in such stories the supernatural element is part of a larger effort by the author to give the reader is given a special way of complying with the author’s instructions for the imagination. As we have analyzed them, cases of blockage are cases of wanting to follow an author’s instructions, but simply not being able to see how to do so. One way of being shown how to do so would be to remove a presupposition that had been in the way – that’s what’s going on in simple or reinterpretative cases. But one can also be told that one’s compliance with the instruction may take a special, somewhat delimited form.8

We are told, in essence: “imagine that 5 + 7 does not equal 12”, and at first we can do nothing that seems to comply with this instruction. The further developments of the story, however, show us some ways in which this can be done. For example, we can imagine that when five righteous souls and seven righteous souls are brought together, nonetheless God’s conditions have not been met. Or we can imagine that a spell that was shown to decompose things into their component parts fails to have any effect on the Express. Once we receive these further instructions to imagine from the author, we can recognize how they are appropriate to the not-yet-fulfilled instruction to imagine the impossibility.9 We are also open, if these stories were to continue, to being shown still more ways in which we are to comply with the instruction to the imagination, should those be enumerated within the work of fiction itself.

What exactly does complying with the invitation to imagine amount to in these cases? Do we, somehow, actually insert the (typically) blockage-inducing representation into our imagination in some special way; i.e., with various automatic sub-systems toggled off so as not to generate blockage (as may have been suggested by our discussion in Weinberg and Meskin, 2006)? We suspect not. While there is good reason to think various automatic systems can be toggled on and off, continued full-blown imaginative engagement with fictions typically requires that such subsystems be left on. Rather, we comply with the instructions to imagine that p (where p is some blockage-inducing content) by placing a cluster of other relevant representations in the imagination. In “Tower of Goldbach”, for example, we do not imagine that 5+7 does not equal 12 by placing that content in the imagination, but rather by placing contents such as God can do the impossible and so on in the imagination.10 And it is in virtue of having a number of such representations in the imagination that we may be said to imagine the blockage-inducing representation. Do we, then, strictly speaking imagine such impossibilities? After all, on the account we have sketched, when engaging with Gendler’s story we do not ever come to have a representation with the content ‘5+7 does not equal 12’ in the imaginative system. But we suspect that ordinary usage of “imagine” may nonetheless countenance such as cases that properly fall under them, just as we sometimes countenance agents as having beliefs even when they are not explicitly tokened anywhere in the agents’ cognitive workings11. Most importantly in this aesthetic context, we are in such cases succeeding in complying with the author’s instructions regarding the imagination for such fictions, all the while cognizant that we are doing so. We have been instructed to imagine that p, and we are doing something that we recognize will count as satisfying that instruction – so there seems to us little point in denying that whatever we’re doing, we’re imagining that p.12

The explanation of the nonmonotonicity of blockage that we have offered may remind some readers of Stock’s account of the merely apparent imagining of conceptual impossibilities. Stock argues that we cannot, in fact, imagine conceptual impossibilities, and so when it seems to us that we are doing so, we are in fact imagining what she refers to as “conceptually possible defeaters”; i.e., conceptually possible propositions that we mistake for the impossible one: “[I]f a reader thinks that she is imagining that twelve is and is not the sum of seven and five as she reads Gendler’s story, the content of her imagining rather should be explicated in terms of one of these or some other conceptually possible ‘defeater’” (2003, 120-121).13 While there is a structural similarity between this story and our account of what happens in blockage removal (viz., the idea of substituting one or more imaginable contents for a blockage-inducing content), there are, in fact, a range of instructive differences between the two views. In the first case, we believe that the focus on conceptual impossibility and possibility is a red herring. Full-fledged blockage is generated by irreconcilable conflict between the outputs of various cognitive systems (and the folk ‘theories’ they implement)—there is no need to make a tendentious appeal to conceptual impossibilities. In addition, Stock is insistent on denying that we do, in fact, imagine the problematic proposition, and that in such cases readers are often mistaken about what they are actually imagining. We resist taking such a firm line on the ascription of propositional imagining, and much more importantly, we would resist attributing any such error to the readers of such fictions. On our account, readers may recognize both what they are doing and that they are cooperating with the author in so doing. This brings us to the most important differences between our view and Stock’s—a difference that can be seen in the failure of her account to explain an important aesthetic phenomenon in the area. For on Stock’s account, it would not make sense to admire the skill the author has exhibited in getting us to imagine the seemingly unimaginable. But we think that readers’ appreciation of this sort of achievement may be central to their engagement with such fictions. For example, we take it to be a central source of the pleasure we take in reading Gendler’s “Tower of Goldbach” story: she has succeeded in getting us to imagine (in some sense) the previously unimaginable, and it is because of this that her story is enjoyable. We don’t see how Stock can capture this key aesthetic explanandum.

We should note that the phenomenon we have described is possible because the InPutter is at least partially under our conscious control. We can simply decide to imagine various propositions, and thereby do so. This form of blockage removal, therefore, reveals further the importance of what we have called active management in our imaginative engagement with works of fiction: our ability to decide, using our extrafictional (but frequently metafictional) mainline cognition, what we ought to be imagining, and thereby come to imagine it. We have suggested elsewhere (Weinberg and Meskin 2005) that simple versions of simulation theory may be insufficient to capture the complex back-and-forth between what is imagined and what is believed. On our account, active management is also crucial in cases of nonmonotonicity. Without this active management, we would have a simple case of blockage – we’re asked to imagine that p without being able to see any way to comply with that request. But when we’re shown the way to do so, we can decide to imagine other contents and by doing so comply with the authors initial instructions.

With this picture in place, we can see how nonmonotonicity is possible. It is not because the additional material induces a mistake in the reader (as Stock has claimed), or that it somehow distracts us from or disguises the impossibility (as suggested by Gendler in her (2000)).14 As with many other cases of deferral, fully attending to the impossibility is a prerequisite for a proper appreciation of the work. And, unlike the simple and reinterpretative cases, we still take ourselves to be instructed to imagine the impossible, even at story's end. The additional material informs the reader as to the manner in which they are, for purposes of engaging with the story, to imagine the proposition. With a little extra help from the author, and with the appropriate management from resources outside the imagination itself, even the impossible can be imagined.
6. Conclusion

The psychologically and (cognitive) architecturally informed theory of the imagination that we have outlined here and in previous papers offers a natural and plausible explanation of various imaginative resistance phenomenon. In this paper we have focused on the theory’s capacity to explain some of the ways that imaginative blocks (or would-be blocks) can be circumvented. The ease with which the account handles imaginative deferral and blockage removal is a significant point in its favor, and it provides a framework for simultaneously accommodating a range of both psychological and aesthetic data. It’s not what the White Queen had in mind, but with a little help from the author, an active reader can indeed imagine six impossible things before breakfast.

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1 “The core claim of the single code hypothesis is that a mechanism that takes pretense representations as input will process those representations much as it would process isomorphic representations” (Nichols 2004b, 131). A plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that the two sorts of representations exhibit the same representational format; hence, talk of a ‘single code’. (The notion of ‘code’ here should be understood along the lines of the computational theory of mind which holds that cognitive processes are to be understood as formal operations performed on representations ‘written’ in something like a computer code.)

2 The discussion in this section is heavily indebted to the work of Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich (Nichols and Stich 2000; Nichols 2004b). See Weinberg and Meskin (2006) for a more detailed discussion.

3 We would note that there is something not entirely right about this diagnosis; namely, we can on occasion enter propositions into the imagination without triggering various of the representation-management systems that are normally engaged. We take it that this is exactly what goes on when we do not try to fully imagine A, but merely try to suppose it (cf. Gendler 2000 and Weatherson 2004). We take it that the vast majority of imaginings with works of fiction are not merely suppositional, but rather involve full-fledged imagination. For a preliminary discussion of the supposition/imagination see Weinberg and Meskin (2006); see also the discussion below on configuration of the imagination.

4 In fact, it is because of the norm that underwrites this tendency (i.e., the norm that we should treat fictively-generated contents as sacrosanct unless confronted with evidence of unreliable narration) that we may end up positing something like unreliable narration ('doubling the narrator' as Gendler puts it in her (2006)) in response to certain blockage-inducing contents. See below for more on unreliable narrators.

5 To take another example, see Nichols (2006b) for discussion of why, given that in ordinary cases we cannot believe obvious contradictions, it is to be expected that we will find it difficult—perhaps impossible—to imagine obvious contradictions.

6 Of course sometimes the creator of a work of fiction aims to generate literary payoff precisely by constructing a sort of Ponzi scheme—take, for example, the mise en abyme “infinite loop” device used in some stories. In such fictions, it is the cleverness of the scheme itself that the reader appreciates, instead of and, indeed, in lieu of a plot. But most fictions are not to be understood in this way. (Thanks to Peter Goldie for encouraging us to think about these cases.)

7 Not that magic is particularly blockage-prone -- the invocation of magic most often does not induce any blockage in the first place. Our point is that in cases where there already is blockage, merely being told that ‘it’s magic’ is (usually) not enough by itself to dissolve the block. Mutatis mutandis for the fictional actions of deities.

8 Note that Priest’s “Sylvan’s Box” story does not rely on the mention of God or magic. Rather, Priest encourages readers to imagine the impossible by providing a detailed and compelling account of the effect on the narrator of perceiving a “naked and brazen” contradiction (Priest 1997).

9 The nature of this recognition will likely involve a separate, metafictional deployment of our imaginative faculties. But we think that this is not unusual in our engagements with even more ordinary fictions. E.g., detective fictions will standardly call upon our powers of supposition and hypothetical reasoning. There is an open empirical question here as to just how many parallel deployments of the imagination are possible for typical human subjects.

10 Similar mechanisms may also make possible some highly atypical believings of the impossible. Such believings – we will not say “beliefs” here, since they may not ever get literally tokened in the belief system – would be predicted to occur fairly rarely, just as with nonmonotonic fictions, and might well be restricted only to matters like “mysteries of faith”. (Thanks again to Peter Goldie for encouraging us to think about this.)

11 For a classic discussion of tacit belief see Lycan (1985). See Nichols (2004b) for discussion of tacit pretense.

12 Which is entirely consistent with their being other contexts and projects for which it would make more sense to rule the other way. For example, someone with a rich modal epistemology of imagination might want to only countenance a content as properly imagined if that content does indeed get tokened in the relevant cognitive system. Our point here is not really that boundaries of the ordinary language term "imagine" must include these cases, so much as it is that it may include them, and that such an inclusion best fits the aesthetic data.

13 So, for example, in this case a reader might, in fact, be imagining “that Solomon said that twelve is and is not the sum of seven and five” or “that most people believe the twelve is and is not the sum of seven and five” (Stock 2003, 120).

14 It is worth noting that, on our architectural story, we have an explanatory advantage that Gendler did not avail herself of in her earlier paper: namely, the distinction between what is recognized by the agent, and what might nonetheless not be detected by some subpersonal modular system of the agent. There is a sense in which our "active management" story is one in which the agent takes a direct role in hiding the impossibility from the subpersonal systems, while nonetheless being aware at all times that it is indeed an impossibility that is being thus hidden. Given Gendler's more recent substantial interest in subpersonal cognition (e.g., Gendler (2008)), we expect that she would be amenable to our current story.

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