Knowledge and Imagination

Simplifying somewhat … In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant was trying to understand how imagination makes knowledge possible. The implication, of course, is that without imagination there can be no knowledge, i.e., it would be impossible to know anything if we could not imagine anything. Indeed (and I think I’m remaining faithful, in my simple-minded way, to Kant here) it is possible to know things only in so far as we imagine them as objects. Objects are just things construed in terms of the conditions of the possibility of knowing them, and those conditions are, let’s say, “imaginary”.

I’m not just trying to be profound here. I think many students and scholars today have forgotten the importance of imagination, not in the romantic sense often associated with artists, but in the more mundane sense of picturing facts. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” said Wittgenstein. And a fact is merely a collection of things in one of many possible arrangements. The possibility of these arrangements is determined by the objective properties of the things in question. That is, an object is a thing construed in terms of its possible combination with other things to form facts. To know a thing, then, requires us to literally imagine its possibilities.

Like I say, I think we need to remind ourselves of the importance of imagination. We need to keep it in mind when reflecting on what we know. In fact, there are a number of cognitive steps between our knowledge and our imagination that are worth keeping in mind as well.

First, remember that you can’t know anything if you don’t form a belief about it. This belief will, of course, have to be true in order to really count as knowledge, and in that sense we have to accept that we can’t ever be certain that we know anything. The best we can do is to have good reasons for holding beliefs and be prepared to abandon them when better reasons against our beliefs emerge. At the end of the day, whether or not we really know something depends on the facts and not only are they not always in plain sight, they have a habit of changing. What’s true today may be false tomorrow, and the things themselves seem in no hurry to inform of us of their new arrangements. Nonetheless, at any given moment, we must hold beliefs, and those beliefs, when true and justified, are our knowledge. If we believe nothing, we know nothing.

But this should not render us simply credulous. We should not easily believe the things we want to know about, for appearances can be deceiving. Before forming a belief about something, therefore, we must investigate the matter carefully and this will require us to, first of all, understand what we were are looking at, or what we are being told. Often we will form a belief on the basis of nothing other than someone else’s testimony, often in writing. We read an account of a historical event or the analysis of a dataset and we form a belief about the reality it represents. Here it is clearly not enough to believe; we might well misunderstand the conclusions reached by author. While the account or analysis we’ve read is perfectly correct, and while the author therefore holds a true belief, i.e., knows what they’re talking about, we might yet form a false belief simply by misreading the text. Without belief there can be no knowledge, then, but we should not believe things we cannot understand. As scholars, in particular, we should not believe things we have not made a serious effort to understand.

And this brings us back to where I started. In order to understand something we must be able to imagine it. We should be able to “picture” the situation or population that we are forming a belief about. What’s really happening here is that we are ensuring that we are not forming a belief about an impossible arrangement of things. To say that something is imaginable is simply to say that it is “possible” in the broadest possible sense. It is logically possible. We can imagine a horse with a horn (a unicorn) or a horse with wings (Pegasus) but not a horse that is both all white and all black (not like a zebra, but like one horse that would have to be two horses at the same time). But notice that fantastic creatures are only “possible” on the background of a good deal of ignorance. An evolutionary biologist might have a much harder time imagining a winged horse than you or me simply because they know that wings evolved from arms, so a four-legged creature with an extra set of wings doesn’t really fit anywhere on the tree of life. I don’t know if it’s easier to imagine a unicorn in nature, but I suspect it is since there are rhinoceroses and reindeer in nature already. You and I can imagine Pegasus because we don’t know that much about horses and wings. A biologist, however, must suspend disbelief.

These considerations, like I say, are pretty elementary, simple-minded even. But they do suggest a heuristic for thinking about what you know and how you know it: imagine, understand, believe. Don’t claim to know something you don’t believe; don’t believe something you don’t understand; and don’t try to understand something you can’t imagine. As a scholar, your job is to get things to make sense. As a student, you’re trying to make sense of things too. It takes imagination to do it well.

(See also: my post on knowledge, imagination and intuition, feat. Ezra Zuckerman and Catherine Turco.)

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