Aesthetics and ethics
Essays at the Intersection
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1998
Online Publication Date:March 2010
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511663888.006
Imagination is usually contrasted with knowledge, as imaginative literature is contrasted with fact or purported fact. Legitimate distinctions underlie these contrasts: imagination is not knowledge, nor is fiction factual assertion. But don't separate these ideas completely. Imagination might be a source of knowledge; in imagining things, we might thereby come to know (possibly other) things. And if fictions are aids to imagination, they may lead indirectly to knowledge.
Such a claim is likely to get a skeptical response. True, imagination is often cited as a source of recollection; if you want to recall the number of windows in your house, imagine walking around in it, counting them. But that is not an example of imagination resulting in knowledge you didn't previously have.
Some will argue that imagination can never lead to new knowledge: if imagination is to have reliably factual content, it must be content you already know, though you might not know you know it, as you don't know, before the imaginative exercise, that you know how many windows your house has. If we think of imagination as something like an inferential process, it does look as if imagination could at most be knowledge-preserving, rather than knowledge-increasing; if I merely imagine something happening without knowing that it did, and draw conclusions from that, then surely none of the conclusions can count as knowledge, though they might be true.
But imagination is not an inferential process; at least, there is a legitimate and familiar use of “imagination” which refers to something that is not an inferential process. Imagination in this sense is a process of role taking, or empathetic enactment.