Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Pretending to Ourselves

"You only live twice
Or so it seems
One life for yourself
And one for your dreams."

The purpose of this post is to challenge the view that imagined episodes qualify as experiences of the things imagined. Do those who claim to have a rich imagination live a life in addition to the one they actually live? Fortunately for most of us, actual life and imaginary life are clearly not the same. My aim is to explore some of the differences and to explain why we might sometimes be led to the mistaken conclusion that our lives are divided between the public world of perception and a private realm of what Sartre called "quasi observation" or quasi experience.

Many people would rightly argue that imagining a traumatic event can be a deeply unsettling experience, so it would seem that my argument must necessarily fall at the first hurdle. I don't deny that imagined episodes are experiences, but what they are experiences of, are not experiences of the things and states of affairs imagined but rather they are experiences of imagining those things and states of affairs.

Now it might be objected that I am twisting language, but my aim is to do precisely the reverse. When we pretend to eat a lemon we are not eating a lemon. The experience is simply an experience of pretending. And whilst this may share much in common with the actual experience, there is one obvious missing component that must be taken into account. Eating a lemon involves the perception of an actual lemon. When we pretend to eat a lemon, we elicit many of the same embodied responses — for example we might salivate more. And when we imagine eating a lemon these same responses are also triggered to some degree.

So my argument is simply this: imagining is a species of pretending. And in the same way that pretend experiences are not experiences of the things pretended, nor are imaginary episodes experiences of the things imagined.

Unlike imagining, pretending is typically an interpersonal activity. Pretending and performing are thus intimately intertwined in a way that imagining and performing are not. To pretend is to act as if something is the case when in fact the pretend condition or object is absent. To imagine is to know how to pretend. It is to know how to perform in such a way as to elicit (in oneself and others) the embodied responses that accompany perceptions of the things imagined. Just as we learn to read out loud before we learn to read in silence, so too I suggest, do we first learn to pretend in public before we learn to pretend to ourselves: to imagine. This is why I believe that it makes good sense to view imagination is a species of pretending, because imagination is parasitic upon our skills as performers; as producers and consumers of communicative actions.

It might be objected that I am neglecting something important about imagining. When we conjour up remembered episodes, colours, sounds, tastes etc. the experience (of imagining) might be thought by many to be more fulsome, more rich and more substantial than a mere deceipt, dissimulation or act of feigning. Some philosophers might even argue that imaginings have what they describe as "phenomenal character"; a term that refers to the "feel" of imagined experiences. But the point that needs to be borne in mind is that an imagined colour, texture, sound or flavour etc. has no sensory component and cannot therefore be "felt." What we might be tempted to treat as the felt component of such imagined experiences is precisely the embodied responsiveness already outlined above. Whenever we ordinarily perceive objects and states of affairs, we are subject to a whole variety of causally generated responses. And when we imagine or pretend to experience objects and states of affairs we are also subject — though to a lesser degree of course — to many of the same causal influences. Imagining and pretending are thus skills of expectation, of having learned and not forgotten what Gilbert Ryle called "perceptual lessons." Julia Tanney puts it like this:
Imaging or picturing involves knowledge how things look or sound and not having forgotten. But it does not require, what Hume seems to have thought, that in imagining Vinzelles’s gooseberry green eyes, his eyes have left a visual sense impression that occurred when my eyes were open which cause or bring about a faint sort of impression (or representation).
Tanney continues with a quote from Ryle:
All that is required is to see that learning perceptual lessons entails some perceiving, that applying those lessons entails having learned them, and that imaging is one way of applying those lessons.
Professor Adam Zeman of Exeter University has been in the media recently in relation to his coining of the term "aphantasia." Aphantasia refers to a reported inability to produce mental images, a condition (although Zeman is careful to emphasise that it is "not a disorder") that has been documented for more than a century at least. A portion of people — around 1 in 50 Zeman estimates — are subject to aphantasia.

As a scientist, Zeman's research clearly garners a fair amount of credence, but if my analysis is not mistaken then there may be reason for skepticism regarding his conclusions. Many of the people who report aphantasia are understandably distressed at their incapacity to perform the feats of imagination that others seem to be readily capable of. One aphantasiac put it like this: “I was devastated... Actually, it put me into a depression, realizing that everyone saw the world in a different way — like suddenly discovering you’re blind.”

I think these people have been misled. Like many artists, I would say that I have a vivid imagination. I spend a lot of my time visualising ideas, daydreaming and thinking about how things look. And like most art teachers, I have no difficulty imagining the images and objects that students discuss on a daily basis and I would say that I am quite skilled in making suggestions of how these plans might be improved or how the associated pitfalls might best be avoided. But in spite of these pleasures and skills, I have never once mistaken my imagination for perception and not do I expect to. The two are so unalike that there is no question of confusing one for the other. 

Like many people I have spoken to on this subject, I have never regarded the term "mental image" as anything other than a convenient metaphor for the ability to think of how things appear. Taken literally the term simply mischaracterises imagination by reference to a class of very specific tangible cultural contrivances that cannot possibly be formed in the mind or brain. There are no "pictures in the head," just as there are no "inner eyes" to see them.

Imagining is not an inner display of any sort. It is a skill of knowing what to expect in acts of looking, listening, tasting etc. It is the capacity moreover, of effortlessly having expectations (perceptual lessons learned) and being surprised whenever these expectations are thwarted. When we imagine eating a lemon, we do not find ourselves surprised that the imagined flavour is not as we expected. We might be disappointed that it does not have the zest of experience but that of course is one of the characteristic differences between imagining and perceiving. We can pretend to compare lemons, but only actual lemons bear comparison.


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