In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Imagination and Belief

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Imagination and Belief in Pretense
  • Imagination and Belief in Irrationality and Psychopathology
  • Imagination and Belief in Religious Cognition
  • Are Imagination and Belief Enough?

Philosophy Imagination and Belief
Anna Ichino, Kengo Miyazono, Shen-yi Liao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0320


This bibliography focuses on recent debates about the relationship between imagination and belief in the philosophy of mind, although it also considers ramifications for other relevant areas of philosophy. In so doing, the focus is restricted to propositional imagination, as opposed to sensory imagination, since it is more closely related to belief. Until recently, despite some exceptions, analytic philosophy has mostly ignored imagination in offering architectural descriptions of the mind. In discussing the nature of mental states, their mutual relationships, and their behavioral outputs, 20th-century philosophers gave a prominent role to belief and desire. Strikingly, for early functionalists like Jerry Fodor or David Lewis, talking of “folk psychology” was tantamount to talking of “belief-desire psychology.” It is around the 1990s–2000s that an increasing number of theorists began to discuss propositional imagination as a functionally distinctive attitude (see, for example, Currie and Ravenscroft 2002 and Nichols and Stich 2003, both cited under General Overviews). These theorists argued that the inclusion of imagination in our mental architecture is necessary to explain a number of phenomena—such as mindreading, pretense, and engagement with fiction—that cannot be fully understood in belief-desire terms. These theorists’ functional characterizations of imagination were typically built in stark contrast to belief: while belief is responsive to evidence, imagination is responsive to the will; while belief is action-guiding, imagination is motivationally inert. Although this basic picture remains influential, it has recently been challenged in various ways. Notably, there has been a trend toward recognizing that the motivational force of belief may be less hegemonic than it prima facie seems to be. Domains like self-deception, psychopathology, or religion all provide examples where people’s behaviors do not match their beliefs. Imagination, it has been argued, is the most plausible candidate to play the relevant motivating role in (at least some) such cases. This suggests that, far from being motivationally inert, it is rather similar to belief with respect to action-guidance (although the extent of the similarity remains highly controversial). This bibliography offers a guide to these debates on imagination and belief. The first two sections, General Overviews and Anthologies, collect key works in the contemporary debate. The following four sections focus on particular phenomena—pretense, irrational or psychopathological behaviors, religion, and various aesthetic experiences—that have important implications for our understanding of imagination and belief. The final section, Are Imagination and Belief Enough?, surveys the conceptual spaces in between and outside of imagination and belief, where one can find “alief,” “patchy endorsement,” and other novel mental entities of philosophers’ concoction.

General Overviews

Walton 1990 made imagination again a worthy subject for philosophical inquiry by showing its importance to various facets of our mental lives. Currie and Ravenscroft 2002, Nichols and Stich 2003, and Nichols 2004 then offered extensive, systematic, and influential accounts of propositional imagination as a distinctive capacity operating alongside belief in our cognitive architecture. In spite of some significant disagreements (notably related to the existence of conative, or desire-like, imaginings), Currie and Ravenscroft’s and Nichols and Stich’s accounts share some important features. For one thing, both accounts postulate the existence of imagination for similar reasons—notably, to explain such phenomena as engagement with pretense, fiction, and mind-reading (although Currie and Ravenscroft also consider cases of psychopathology). On this basis, they both articulate a view according to which the relevant distinction between belief and imagination lies at the functional level—rather than at the level of the content—and involves two key functional differences: differences in the cognitive inputs in response to which beliefs and imaginings are formed, and differences in the behavioral outputs that they are (or are not) able to produce (with imaginings taken to have very limited, if any, motivating power). Gendler 2010 includes a number of papers that challenge this view in some important respects. Gendler argues that imaginings play an important role in a large range of everyday circumstances outside the domains of pretense, fiction, and mind-reading; and that the analysis of such circumstances reveals imagination’s motivating power to be much more similar to that of belief than it prima facie seems to be (on this, and on internal developments of Gendler’s view, see also Imagination and Belief in Irrationality and Psychopathology and Are Imagination and Belief Enough?). Much of Gendler’s discussion is indebted to the seminal paper Velleman 2000 on the aim of belief, which argued for the claim that imagination and belief do not, in fact, differ in any way with respect to motivating power. Sinhababu 2016 gives an article-length introduction to these recent philosophical debates on imagination and belief. Harris 2000 provides a psychological perspective on these issues that complements the philosophical perspectives.

  • Currie, Gregory, and Ian Ravenscroft. Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198238089.001.0001

    This book develops a comprehensive theory of imagination characterized as a “recreative capacity” that allows us to produce mental states functionally similar to—but not identical to —beliefs, desires, and perceptions. One of the central concerns of the book is the defense of a peculiar version of simulationist approach to mind-reading and mentalizing.

  • Gendler, Tamar S. Intuition, Imagination, and Philosophical Methodology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199589760.001.0001

    A collection of essays on intuition, imagination, and their role in philosophical methodology. Reproducing essays that Gendler had published across several years, the book reflects the evolution of her views on various topics. Arguably most interesting from the point of view of the relationships between imagination and belief is a change in Gendler’s treatment of cases of “belief-behavior mismatch,” which are first explained in terms of imaginings (chapters 7, 12), and subsequently reinterpreted in terms of “aliefs” (chapters 13, 14).

  • Harris, Paul L. The Work of the Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

    This book articulates a comprehensive account of the cognitive architecture of imagination and its role in human psychological development. Topics discussed include the interplay of imagination and belief in children’s pretense, in counterfactual reasoning, and in magical/religious thinking. A classic in the psychological literature that is also clear and accessible to non-psychologists, this volume is highly recommended to any empirically oriented philosopher interested in these subjects.

  • Nichols, Shaun. “Imagining and Believing: The Promise of a Single Code.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62.2 (2004): 129–139.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-594X.2004.00146.x

    This paper expands on the view defended in Nichols and Stich 2003, according to which imagination and belief have isomorphic contents and crucially differ only with respect to their functional role. The author argues that this view (known as “single code hypothesis”) helps to solve several puzzles surrounding our engagement with fiction.

  • Nichols, Shaun, and Stephen P. Stich. Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretence, Self-Awareness, and Understanding Other Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198236107.001.0001

    This book argues that the same imaginative mechanisms that underlie pretense have a key role in explaining our capacity to understand our own and other people’s mental states. The picture of the functional architecture of imagination and belief that emerges in the discussion has been endorsed by many, but it has also been criticized in various ways.

  • Sinhababu, Neil. “Imagination and Belief.” In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. Edited by Amy Kind, 111–123. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    This handbook chapter provides an opinionated introduction to the recent debate on the relation between imagination and belief, including detailed discussions of many different views. It is an ideal starting point for anyone who is approaching this area for the first time.

  • Velleman, J. David. “On the Aim of Belief.” In The Possibility of Practical Reason. By J. David Velleman, 244–281. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    The main claim of this paper is that belief is distinguished from other cognitive attitudes by its “aim at truth.” Velleman argues that imagination and belief have the same motivating power—a thesis he defends by discussing a large number of actions that seem to be imagination-driven—and so what distinguishes imagination and belief must be their respective aims.

  • Walton, Kendall. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

    This book argues for the centrality of imagination in human cognitive lives and culture. Walton articulates a complex, nuanced picture of imagination and discusses its various uses, from children’s pretense games to masterful representational arts. Although it does not explicitly discuss the relationship between imagination and belief, by investigating imagination’s various uses, the book implicitly highlights aspects of our cognitive lives that seem poorly explained by belief-desire psychology alone.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.