Philosophy Imagination
Peter Lamarque
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0130


It is a commonplace to preface discussions of imagination with disclaimers about how unclear the concept is and how the history of the subject is riddled with confusion and ambiguity. It is also often said that there have been few treatments by analytical philosophers, and that this is largely a “neglected” concept. In fact, as the readings cited here indicate, there is a substantial literature on the subject over the past sixty to seventy years (what follows being merely an illustrative selection with the focus largely, but not exclusively, on analytical approaches), revealing many an effort to clear up the confusions and pin down imagination as a workable concept in, for example, philosophy of mind or aesthetics. There is little evidence of neglect in recent decades, although the degree of clarity attained is certainly a matter of judgment. What is plain is that there are many different aspects of imagination—from creativity to mental imagery, from a cognitive faculty to art appreciation—and it is far from obvious that there is a unified conception underlying all such applications.

General Overviews

Scruton 2009 is probably the best place to start to get a short introduction to philosophical issues about imagination, and Beaney 2005 is a straightforward and accessible discussion of arguments, both in the history of the subject and in contemporary treatments. The magisterial Brann 1991 is a comprehensive survey covering the historical context from the Greeks to the present day, the science of imagination, and literary applications. White 1990 also covers the historical frame, with short chapters on nearly all the main players. It also offers a close conceptual analysis of the concept itself, remarking on the wide range of uses to which “imagine” and its cognates are put. Stevenson 2003 finds twelve distinct conceptions, and thereby reveals both how elusive the concept is and the importance of making clear which conception is at issue. Well-chosen examples reveal the complexities. Warnock 1976 and Warnock 1994 provide a broad and urbanely characterized intellectual framework in reflecting on the central importance for imagination in human thought.

  • Beaney, Michael. Imagination and Creativity. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Worldwide, 2005.

    An accessible introduction to theories both historical and contemporary. The book is part of the Open University course AA308, “Thought and Experience: Themes in the Philosophy of Mind.” Information available online.

  • Brann, Eva T. H. The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance. Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991.

    A monumental survey that presents and reflects on a wide range of views across the history of philosophy and across scientific and artistic applications.

  • Scruton, Roger. “Imagination.” In A Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Stephen Davies, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310436

    A concise, clear, and informative account of the main questions that arises in philosophy about imagination.

  • Stevenson, Leslie. “Twelve Conceptions of Imagination.” British Journal of Aesthetics 43.3 (2003): 238–259.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjaesthetics/43.3.238

    A useful overview in identifying and characterizing twelve distinct conceptions of imagination, each well illustrated.

  • Warnock, Mary. Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

    Surveys and analyses historical views and makes the case for the significance of the imagination in different areas of philosophy.

  • Warnock, Mary. Imagination and Time. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    A wide-ranging and accessible treatment, including the role of imagination in perception and artistic creativity.

  • White, Alan R. The Language of Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

    Includes a critical survey of all the major historical approaches, by philosophers, and develops a tentative positive account using the methods of ordinary language philosophy.

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