The Work of the Imagination
Paul L. Harris
[In CEU lib? Yes.]
If you are like me, you had an imaginary companion, from maybe around 4 to some years later. Not necessarily a friend. Mine wasn’t at least. Depending on how one counts, it turns out that most children take part in such Twilight Zone scenarios. There’s more, of course. Kids play with toys or make toys of random objects. Kids pretend to be animals, heroes, or monsters; fighter pilots or doctors. And they like stories.
It’s not only kids. The last film I saw was Le Scaphandre et le Papillon. It is based on a book that describes a real event that triggered a tragically real situation for one very real human being. But the film itself is a piece of fiction. Mathieu Amalric, who plays Jean-Dominique Bauby, is not ‘locked-in’. I knew that, but still the emotions were there. I could have used better examples, where reality doesn’t even come into question. Magic realism or Kafka, the worlds of Star Trek or Lord of the Rings, the chalk labyrinth of Dogville.
Kids and adults get carried away by the currents of their own minds, they care about, or play with flimsy creatures – borrowed or of their own making. The term of art for this was, in the early 20th century psychology, ‘autistic’ thinking. It echoed the Freudian distinction between the Principle of Pleasure and the Principle of Reality. Kids start off as obsessive hedonists, we were told, till the Facts hit them in their little fragile heads. Piaget was happy with the Freudian view, and claimed that his observations also supported the ‘autism’ hypothesis – kids were slowly emerging from the mirror room of their imagination into the real world, shedding their primitive magical thinking, their ‘symbolic play’ (pretense), and embracing reality and ‘logical’ thinking. A bit like losing vestigial tails in early intrauterine life.
There is however an alternative story about imagination, and Paul Harris contributes to it in the book I’m writing about.
The basic idea behind this story is that the prominent role of imagination in our lives is not an accident or side effect. Imagination is not vestigial, but a functional element of our mental machinery at both infantile and adult stages. As Harris briefly points out in the first chapter of the book, the idea is not new. Bleuler, who introduced the term ‘autism’ in connection with some symptoms of schizophrenia, didn’t think that Freud was right about imagination. The ability to disengage the mind from the real world doesn’t seem to be a primitive stance, or an option forced on to the child by limited capacities. It is rather something that requires a degree of cognitive sophistication. The idea didn’t make a career with Piaget, but was well received in Moscow by Vygotsky. Harris builds up on this tradition.
Three arguments seem to support the general idea that imagination is a defining trait of our thinking: (i) the earliest manifestations of imagination – pretend play – appear late in development, around 2 years of age, (in synchrony with language acquisition), and they become more elaborate as years pass; (ii) such manifestations are very rare in animals, including apes; (iii) “it is the absence of early imagination, and not its presence, that is pathological” (p.6) – here the reference is to one of diagnosis criteria of autism (in the contemporary sense of the term).
The structure of Harris’ book makes his project transparent: he tries to develop the general idea mentioned above first by investigating paradigmatic manifestations of the imagination, such as pretend play or engagement with fiction, and then by giving evidence about the contribution of imagination in other mental domains, as emotion or causal reasoning. At all points the empirical data is connected to the overall theoretical project; experiments are never just thrown in. It is the fact that the book is so well-cut conceptually that could make it, I think, a classic.
I will not follow all the topics Harris deals with, since I’m already running against the austere (Viennese :p ) customs of this blog. Chapters 6 and 7 might interest philosophers most.
Thus, chapter 6 builds on the idea that counterfactual thinking is essential for causal reasoning. That is, the ability to evaluate scenarios that didn’t in fact develop is part of the ability to say something about the causal structure of the situation we find ourselves in. As Harris notes, this idea belongs to the criticism of the Humean notion of causation. A stable sequence of the events – stable priority relations and contiguity – will not be enough for causality. What’s needed, among other things, is some notion of what could have happened but didn’t. Harris borrows explicitly at this point from Mackie’s The Cement of the Universe. His goal however is not to specify by analysis the content of the concept of causation, or to work out a usable notion of causation; he is not a philosopher after all. But the fact that there is evidence of counterfactual tracking – even in young children – when it comes to establishing causal relations (Harris uses data from experiments by Wells and Gavinski), is, I think, of some philosophical interest. One example might make the point clearer.
Children begin to use correctly the conditional in English when they are 4 – 5 years old. Before that, however, they pay attention to what in possible worlds terms we might call close possibilities. In other words, kids talk a lot about what almost happened. They start to do that before they are 3. What almost happened influences their judgments of what actually happened and why. One almost fell, but one did not because one grabbed daddy’s hand. (At 3 you’re not presumably David Lewis; so don’t be scared, counterfactuals are with us from early on, and when philosophical imagination is not taken to be imagination simpliciter, we find them easy.)
The connection of this kind of reasoning with assignments of responsibility or merit is obvious. Not only in such cases however an intuitive asymmetry has been documented. Kids – and adults – think more of what could have happened if the actual outcome is negative. Retrospective avoidance one might call it. In this case too Harris makes a nice theoretical maneuver – he proposes that the difference might arise from how we anchor counterfactuals scenarios. In positive cases too we track non-actual possibilities, but from the lucky position we’re in; in negative cases, we’re stuck with what we should have done.
Chapter 7 deals with obligation and violation – deontic reasoning. Now, I’m not especially interested in that, but here’re a few points. We’re a species that pays attention when someone talks (on mountains tops and what not) about what one ought (not) to do. Accordingly, kids start to use deontic modals in English when they’re around 2-3 YO. Performance in prescriptive conditionals – vs. descriptive conditionals – is a well established phenomenon, in both children and adults. Take the following example used by Peter Wason in the late 60s. You are shown 4 cards and then you’re told: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” The cards you see show a vowel, a consonant, an even number, and an odd number. How do you check if the rule holds (logicians, shut up)? Most people don’t bother to turn the odd number card. But phrase the same rule as “If one is to eat, then one must wash one’s hands first” and most of us will pass logic 101 with flying colors (except it’s not about logic). What happens? Counterfactuals again: “The observed course of action is evaluated in terms of its departure from some alternative but prescribed course of action.” In other words, in prescriptive contexts, scenarios are not seen as “mere possibilities”. Some possibilities, as the rule specifies, ought to be realized.
Some other points could be mentioned here. For example, children’s appetite for rules (Are adults less guilty? Not in philosophy.). As long as an obligation has a purpose, even a hidden one, children are ready to trust an authority. So please, don’t tell them cars will hit them if they miss one prayer. They can also set rules for themselves, as in their pretend play, and swiftly judge breeches accordingly. This is how one does things. Have you heard that before? Never too early to practice a bit of policing, mes bons sauvages.
More than enough I think for an informal review. Don’t feel too bad then if you find refuge in far away places, in books, films, and philosophical hallucinations. It’s only human.
PS: a round-table on imagination with Harris as moderator: here.