In his Philosophical Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imagination: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, published in 2004, Jonathan Webber observes that despite the centrality of the imagination to numerous philosophical debates, scant attention has been given to questions such as “What is imagination? What are we actually doing when we imagine? What are we aware of, and what kind of awareness do we have of it?” (2004: xii). The situation has changed dramatically since 2004. Today, questions concerning the character, function, potential, and limits of the imagination are the focus of many exciting debates not only within phenomenology and the philosophy of mind, but also in the fields of psychology, social and political theory, and aesthetics. In short, the imagination is now flourishing as a subject of interdisciplinary scholarship.
Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology takes on the vital task connecting new insights about the nature of the imagination to questions concerning “the meaning and formation of social perspectives” (1). Although it would be incorrect to claim that research into the imagination has hitherto ignored questions about human sociality (see, for example, Castoriadis 1987 ; Lennon 2015; Robinson and Rundell 1994), this edited volume strives to fill some notable gaps in the available research on imaginary dimension of sociality. Specifically, the editors state that their aim is to offer new investigations into the nature of the “interplay between imaginative and social experience” (1), a topic that has been relatively under-researched.
As the subtitle suggests, the volume emphasizes insights from phenomenology and phenomenologically informed research in psychopathology. However, an increased appreciation for centrality of the imagination to human life – along with the recognition that phenomenological methods provide the most satisfactory means to investigate it – means that this emphasis has the potential to furnish a rich interdisciplinary exchange. This potential is realized in this volume, which brings together contributions from leading and emerging scholars working not only in phenomenology and psychopathology, but also in philosophy of mind, epistemology, psychology, social and political philosophy, philosophy of language, and anthropology. What’s more, Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology does some work towards bridging the so-called divide between continental and analytic philosophy by combining insights from thinkers from both traditions.
The volume’s eighteen chapters are divided into five sections: Imagining Oneself; Imagination and Intersubjectivity in Psychopathology; Imagination and the Experience of Others; The Sociality of Imagination; and Aesthetic, Ethical and Social-Political Grounds of Perspective-Taking. These section titles provide an accurate indication of the diversity – in terms of both focus and approach – of the volume’s contents. Although it is impossible to do full justice to all eighteen contributions in the context of a review such as this, in what follows, I shall try to provide a general sense of the achievements of the collection as a whole by discussing it in terms of what I take to be three of its key themes.
Unsurprisingly, empathy is an important theme. What is perhaps more surprising though is that the chapters that offer theorizations and analyses of empathy in are not confined to the third section on Imagination and the Experience of Other but, rather, peppered throughout the volume. Indeed, the idea that our common conception of empathy – as an imaginative action through which one simulates the experience of another in order to feel what s/he feels – is impoverished is continually reinforced throughout the book.
Matthew Ratcliffe’s chapter, titled “Empathy Without Simulation”, is the chapter that most obviously calls our preconceptions about what empathy is into question. Drawing on instances of empathy in clinical practice, Ratcliffe contends that empathy has a “wider applicability” than is generally supposed (199). He criticizes theories of empathy that define it as the (implicit or explicit) simulation of another’s experience for mistaking a characteristic particular to quite sophisticated kinds of empathy – and which is neither necessary nor sufficient for empathy – for the essential characteristic of empathy. Further, he maintains that while phenomenological accounts – such as those defended by Edith Stein and, more recently, Dan Zahavi – correctly underline the centrality of the second-person to empathic experience, they tend to overstate its perceptual (or quasi-perceptual) quality, with the consequence that they render the other’s feelings as visible but vague; they seem incapable of explaining how one subject would be able to “‘see’ why” another feels the way she does (212). Sight is, therefore, gained at the cost of empathetic insight in Ratcliffe’s view. In order to preserve both “the second-person orientation” of empathy and grant its subject insight into another’s perspective, Ratcliffe argues that empathy ought to be characterized as an “openness to potential phenomenological difference between self and other” (205), with more sophisticated forms of it also involving “exploratory” processes, including simulation (202).
Anita Avramides examines simulation and perception accounts of empathy in chapter 11, so as to contrast their respective views on the role of the imagination in “knowing others”, which she takes to be a means not only for predicting others’ behaviour but also for calibrating one’s mental life with regard to theirs (194). She contends that simulation accounts assign a central role to the imagination and perceptual accounts, none at all. This sets the stage for the introduction of Avramides’s own alternative account, which grants the imagination a key role in the process of knowing others, but turns out to be in accordance with perceptual accounts due to its insistence that “the role of the imagination in our coming to know the minds of others is the role it plays in the perception of others, not the simulation of others” (192). Building primarily upon the work of P.F. Strawson, Avramides’s chapter may be of particular interest to readers from continental and phenomenological backgrounds, since it employs an “analytic” frame to defend a perceptual account of perception, which makes an interesting contrast to the phenomenological (quasi-)perceptual accounts of empathy discussed elsewhere in the volume.
Matthias Flatscher and Sergej Seitz’s chapter on “The Ethico-Political Turn of Phenomenology” makes another important contribution to the overarching idea that empathy may function in ways that extend far beyond our conscious efforts to understand others. The authors hold that Husserl’s key insight that “the other is ultimately not a phenomenon in the phenomenological sense” (327) – since the other qua other conscious subject is given to conscious as inaccessible – when considered alongside the “riddle of how empathy becomes indeed possible”, gives us cause to challenge the “two basic assumptions that Husserlian phenomenology shares with the whole tradition of modern Western thought”; namely, the presumed “analytic priority of the subject over the other” and the idea that the “relation between self and other is first and foremost epistemological” (328). Then, through a careful discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’s view that subject’s being is one that “occupied by the other” from the beginning (332), Flatscher and Seitz suggest Levinasian phenomenology – which takes the ethico-political sphere as ontologically more primary than the epistemological – opens up the possibility of conceiving of empathy not as a riddle, but as a the principal ethical event triggered by perception of a face that “speaks” (330).
The idea that intersubjective events play a fundamental role in shaping human experience motivates all the chapters in this collection, in one way or another. It is an idea of central philosophical importance because it prompts us to challenge our preconceptions about the autonomy of the individual, and many of the chapters within this volume attempt – in more or less direct ways – to respond to this challenge. Even Andrea Altobrando’s chapter, titled “Imagining Oneself”, eventually connects the capacity to abstractly conceive of oneself on one’s imagination to the capacity to be a social subject (39). The indispensability of the imagination to social experience is the subject of chapter 8, where Jens Bonnemann seeks to illuminate the fundamental role it plays in Sartre’s conception of intersubjectivity. The novelty of this chapter lies in the fact that rather than examining Sartre’s thought on the imagination in The Imaginary, it focuses on his discussion of “The Look” in Being and Nothingness, in order to highlight the role of the imagination in shaping social experience and, primarily, the experience of being looked at. Bonnemann’s analysis elaborates upon Sartrean insight that when one feels oneself as the object of a look, the “perceptible qualities of the objective Other become the basis for imagining his/her inaccessible view” (161). In the context of Sartre’s phenomenology, it contends that only our interactions with others can show us who we are. This implies that “[w]hen I think about myself, the imagination comes into play as well because I try to imaginarily see myself with the eyes of another” and so the other’s otherness, together with “the inescapability of the first-person perspective”, provide “the basis for the constitutive correlation of interaction and imagination” (165). And, what Sartre sees as being constituted by this correlation is, according to Bonnemann, precisely the subject’s sense of herself as an I.
Fittingly, the chapter that follows Bonnemann’s provides an elucidation of Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to move away from what he regards as overly individualist philosophical accounts of intersubjective experience – which he even finds preserved in Sartre’s phenomenology – by shifting the emphasis from the subjectivity of consciousness to “intercorporeality”. Here, Luca Vanzago explains that intercorporeality for later Merleau-Ponty designates something more than the “incarnated subjectivity” discussed in The Phenomenology of Perception. Although the nature of this “something more” is difficult to define, Vanzago’s suggestion is that it involves a revision of Merleau-Ponty’s earlier sharp distinction between the imagination and perception, as well as “a different articulation between the two” (167). This different articulation is described as being one that presupposes a “relationist” as opposed to a “substantialist” conception of life and nature. It, therefore, gives way to a new relational ontology. This gives us further insight into what the “something more” of Merleau-Ponty’s later notion of intercorporeality consists in, as the “ontologization of the interrelations between subjects” in his later work is described to take “the shape of intercorporeality”, which – rather than deriving from substance – appears to be “more fundamental than substance” (171). But what does this ontological claim have to do with sociality? What does this understanding of intercorporeality imply for intersubjectivity? In responding to these questions, Vanzago underlines the crucial point that if intercorporeality provides the basis for intersubjective experience, then “what a subject is can neither be equated with its own self-consciousness or with its own biological body”, since “Othernes” is “already present as a constitutive part of the subject’s sameness” (172). Why might this view be considered more radical than, for instance, Sartre’s idea that the imagined other is essential to the subject’s capacity to understand herself as an “I-subject”? The answer is because it refuses to posit even a weak sense of self-consciousness as existing prior to the encounter with otherness. The perspective from which the problem of intersubjectivity is considered is, therefore, reversed in Merleau-Ponty’s later work, according to Vanzago. The task for the philosopher approaching this problem is no longer that of accounting for the experience of another but, to the contrary, that of accounting for the experience of the self as an individuated subject.
Silvana Borutti, and Karl Mertens, in chapters 16 and 17 respectively, offer further illuminating changes of perspective in relation to the problem of intersubjectivity. The perspective put forward by Borutti is one that regards “an aesthetical-imaginative relationship with otherness” as “the foundation of meanings comprehension” (288), which is illustrated through an analysis of Kant’s concept of Gemeinsinn (common sense) alongside Wittgenstein’s notion of Übereinstimmung (literally: consonance of voices). Mertens’s chapter asserts that if the perspective that “agents are always already embedded in situations that are fundamentally social” is adopted, “there is no need to transcend the individualistic perspective of the involved agents” and the “problem of explaining how it is possible for individual agents to develop collective intentions that guide their social action no longer arises” (311). Mertens presents “collective social perspectivity” – whereby “the particular social perspectives of social groups and even whole societies are considered in the specificity” (306) – as real possibility, in order to support the adoption of this perspective in analyses of societal change and social progress.
Rudolf Bernet’s chapter, “Spinoza on the Role of Feelings, Imagination and Knowledge in Sex, Love and Social Life”, is an investigation into the possibilities that emerge from considering the metaphysics of intersubjectivity by following Spinoza, for whom “[t]he metaphysical interest in what it means to be a human among other humans and the ethical interest in what it means to lead a good life in relation to other persons are intimately related” (140). Bernet’s close study of Spinoza’s understanding of the passions provides a way of conceiving of “the imagination of others” as something that may be surpassed and transformed into “an intellectual insight into their intrinsic nature” (151).
A different question to that of how the imagination may function in our awareness of others’ experiences is the question of whether we can share imaginative experiences with others. The three chapters comprising section IV, The Sociality of Imagination, take up this question. In chapter 14, Julia Jansen uses a phenomenological approach to consider whether there is “even such a thing as shared imagining” (247). By situating the question concerning the possibility of shared imagining within a phenomenological framework that considers the imagination not merely as a cognitive function that generates private representations “inside” the subject’s mind, but as a dynamic mode of consciousness that can also be embedded in, extended into, and distributed throughout a social world, Jansen shows that the idea of shared imagining is not strange as it might initially seem. What is most illuminating about Jansen’s chapter, is its development of Husserl’s idea that imagined objects are not individual objects (as objects of perception are), but ideal objects that are, in Jansen’s terms, insusceptible to “individuation” (255). When imaginary objects are conceived of in this way, it becomes possible to see how different subjects can still be said to imagine the same thing even if the contents of each subject’s consciousness is not the same: “Despite the different psychological episodes the two [imaginers] may be undergoing, they can still share the content of their imagining because that content is ‘ideal’ insofar as it is irreducible to any real experiences in space and time or any processes underlying them . . . we can both imagine the same (snow white, ‘a just state’) in different ways”, and this “same” turns out to be “merely quasi same” because the imagined object necessarily lacks a distinct position in space and time (256). The possibility of having the quasi same imaginary object as another opens up the further possibility of bringing our imaginings closer together through communication. For instance, if we imagine Madame Bovary together and you tell me that she has brown eyes, so long my imagined Madame Bovary is neutral with regard to eye-colour, I can adjust my image of Madame Bovary to bring it closer to yours. However, Jansen suggests that Husserl’s key insight about sharp distinctions between perception and imagination being phenomenologically unviable is not pushed to its full conclusion in his work, which places too much emphasis on the “creative” aspects of imagination (261). More work must be done then, in Jansen’s view, in order to satisfactorily account for the imaginative aspects of less cerebral forms of collaboration at work in activities such as dancing together, playing music together, etc.
Emanuele Caminada’s exploration of Scheler’s account of the social cognition, in chapter 15, and Thomas Szanto’s normative account of collective imagination, in chapter 13, compliment Jansen’s chapter by investigating the conditions for sharing mental states that are usually construed as “subjective”. First, Caminada’s chapter does a good job of underlining the value of following Scheler when considering different types of social understanding in connection to different forms of sociality, by showing how “paying attention to the role played by different forms of sociality permits to see how direct social perception is constitutively embedded in communities that share a good amount of expression forms” (278). Caminada draws upon Scheler’s famous example of shared grief to provide a typology of social emotions that illustrates how the difficulty in understanding how another feels may be reduced or increased depending on the social situations of both parties, as well as their relation to the object of the emotion in question. Second, Szanto’s chapter considers the phenomenon of “imaginative resistance” – where the subject finds that s/he is unable to engage in imagining a situation s/he finds morally abhorrent – in order to counter the common assumption that there are no limits to what can be imagined. Then, it proceeds to argue that the normative constraints that the imagination is subject to take on a stronger role in collective imaginings. Szanto maintains that an appreciation of the enhanced normative dimension in collective imaginings turns out to be crucial for grasping the ways in which collective imaginings differ from individual imaginings. Drawing on the work of Edith Stein, Szanto reinforces Jansen’s point that subjects can imagine the same object differently, and he helpfully outlines the normative criteria he believes must be satisfied in order for the imagining of an object to be considered collective by developing Kendall Walton’s classic account of collective imagination. A final result of Szanto’s chapter is that it provides a solid basis for more comprehensive accounts of the collective imagination.
The final key theme of this volume, as I see it, is that of the as-if function of the imagination. This function is shown to be essential not only to our theoretical understanding of the imagination, but also to our understanding of certain psychopathological conditions, since the awareness that imaginings merely constitute objects “as if” they were present is vital in distinguishing fiction from reality – as Michela Summa’s chapter “Experiencing Reality in Fiction: Discontinuity and Permeability” superbly illustrates – as well as for separating the real from the unreal within experience. Thus, in addition to revealing the imagination as an essential component of human experience, the volume also offers systematic analyses of its potential to be dangerous and alienating. In chapter 5, Thomas Fuchs provides a fascinating account of the ways in which the as-if function of imaginings may be reduced or altogether lost in schizophrenia by investigating some of its symptoms, including: concretism, defined as “the failure to adequately use an understand the metaphorical or figurative meaning of language”; transitivism, “the loss of self-other distinction or self-demarcation”; and delusion (87-94). Moreover, Fuchs also argues that the transition from the delusional mood – in which aspects of experience take on an unreal character – to full delusion – in which the unreal is mistaken for the real – involves not only a loss of the as-if function, but also a loss of intersubjectivity (92). The centrality of a sense of a shared reality to non-pathological imagining is further explored in the two chapters that follow: Tim Grohmann’s chapter 6, titled, “Intersubjective Expression in Autism and Schizophrenia”, and Zeno Van Duppen’s chapter 7, “The Phenomenology of Intersubjective Reality in Schizophrenia”.
If one expects to find some sustained engagement with Cornelius Castoriadis’s philosophical work on the imaginary institution of society in this volume, one will be disappointed. Castoriadis is mentioned in Szanto’s chapter (224) and briefly discussed in Jansen’s (249-50), but there is no sustained treatment of his work here. As the focus of this volume is on phenomenological analyses of the imagination and social perspectives, it would be unfair to regard the absence of a prolonged engagement with Castoriadis’s work as a flaw. But, it certainly would be a bonus, in my view, particularly as Kathleen Lennon has recently underlined its significance for philosophical investigations into the social imaginary (2015: 71-95). Further, even though Sartrean insights are developed throughout this volume outside of Bonnemann’s chapter in ways that will surely be of interest to Sartre scholars (see, especially, 84, 124-5, 223, 228), some may find it disappointing that there is only one chapter that concentrates on Sartre’s thought on the imagination. My only real issue with this volume, however, is that it has been let down by careless copy-editing in places. Notably, one finds “deem [instead of doom] to failure” on the first page, then “synonymous of [instead of with] ‘supposing’” (2), “how [instead of what] your experience would be like” (11), and “the most evident bias of these current debates consists in its naturalism” (265, emphasis added). Castoriadis’s name is also missing from the Index. Although minor, these errors can distract the reader from the content.
In conclusion, this collection of original articles – some of which were first presented at the 2015 conference “Imagination, Intersubjectivity, and Perspective-Taking”, held at Villa Vigoni, Loveno di Menaggio, Italy – offers a fresh and truly interdisciplinary perspective of on the significance of the imagination in our social lives. But it has much to recommend it beyond its novelty and interdisciplinary scope. First and foremost: it brings together vitally important research on the social features and functions of the imagination that have so far been under-researched. The editors’ helpful introductory chapter outlines the problems raised by the question of the imagination’s role in human life and gives readers a good sense of which chapters will be most relevant to their interests. The chapters themselves each yield new insights into the incredibly complex ways in which the imagination provides structural support for human sociality and indicate areas where further research is required. Altogether, this means that Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology represents an invaluable resource for scholars and advanced students working on the philosophy of the imagination and/or the psychological mechanisms involved in social interaction.
Castoriadis, C. 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. K. Blamey. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Lennon, K. 2015. Imagination and the Imaginary. New York and London: Routledge.
Robinson, G. and J. Rundell (eds). 1994. Rethinking Imagination: Culture and creativity. New York and London: Routledge.
Webber, J. Philosophical Introduction. In The Imaginary: A phenomenological psychology of the imagination, by J.-P. Sartre, trans. Routledge. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.