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Recreative MindsReview - Recreative Minds
Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology
by Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft
Oxford University Press, 2003
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Apr 9th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 15)

At first glance, the topic of the imagination appears somewhat peripheral to the major concerns of philosophy and psychology. Currie and Ravenscroft quickly persuade us otherwise. Imagination, it turns out, is central not only to those subdisciplines in which we would expect it to play a major role, like aesthetics, but also to our ability to plan our lives, to reason practically, and perhaps to morality. Breakdowns of imagination, deficits or excesses in our imaginative capacities, have devastating consequences for those who suffer from them.

Currie and Ravencroft are concerned here only with the recreative, not the creative, imagination. Whereas the creative imagination is the ability, utilized by artists and scientists, to make unexpected connections and imaginative leaps, the recreative imagination is the ability, possessed by almost all of us to some degree, to recreate in imagination the experiences and perspectives of other agents. Given that this is their topic, Currie and Ravenscroft devote a great deal of attention to the simulation program, which has been a central concern of many cognitive scientists, psychologists and philosophers of late. The central claim of simulationists is that we understand the mental states of others, not by utilizing folk psychological theories but by simulating their states: by placing ourselves in their shoes. For instance, it is often claimed that we predict how others would behave by running our own decision-making apparatus “off-line”: so that its inputs are (in part) imaginary and its output is disconnected from action. Currie and Ravenscroft reject the notion that we need to bring the system off-line. If the inputs are imaginings, then the output is automatically disconnected from action, and there is no need to postulate an extra step.

Much of this consideration of simulation is devoted to its relation to theorizing. Simulationists have often claimed that simulation renders theorizing redundant, while skeptics have argued that simulation collapses into theory. Currie and Ravenscroft steer a course between these two positions, arguing that some, but not all, simulation is theory.

Imagination, Currie and Ravenscroft argue, is essential to normal childhood development. They devote two chapters to ways in which breakdowns in imagination can have devastating consequences for sufferers. The first of these is devoted to autism. It is uncontroversial that autism is characterized by some kind of imaginative deficit. Autistic children engage in very little pretend play, for instance. But the precise nature and cause of this deficit is still little understood. Some theorists contend that autism is an executive disorder: its characteristic symptoms, from lack of play to difficulty in dealing with social situations, are the result of the heavy demands placed upon the executive system by these tasks. Currie and Ravenscroft contend, instead, that imaginative impoverishment is the root cause of the observed problems. Rather than strains on the executive system explaining the imaginative deficits, the imaginative deficits explain the strains on the executive system. We use our imagination not only to predict the behavior of other people, but also to plan our own future actions, allowing us to assess the consequences of a proposed course of action before we carry it out. If we lack the capacity to imagine our own actions, our ability to plan is significantly impaired. They suggest that autistics do not suffer from a complete lack of imagination, but from an inability to integrate their imagined assumptions with the rest of their beliefs and desires. Such integrating is more or less difficult for all of us, at least some of the time: autistics lie toward one end of a continuum upon which we are all situated.

If autistics suffer from imaginative impoverishment, schizophrenics suffer from imaginative excess, Currie and Ravenscroft argue. Schizophrenics suffer from an inability to distinguish between their own imaginings and their beliefs, due to a breakdown of mechanisms that monitor their own acts of will. Thus, when they imagine something, they take it for a perception, or a belief.

I found this section of Recreative Minds the most puzzling. The suggestion that schizophrenics mistake their own imaginings for perceptions or beliefs faces a difficulty: how are we to explain the fact that they themselves frequently do not seem fully to believe in their delusions? (This is a phenomenon we witness in many psychopathologies: Capgras patients, for instance, often seem strangely unconcerned by the fact –as they see it – that their spouses and friends have been replaced by replicants). Currie and Ravenscroft see in this an advantage of their account: it is in the nature of imaginings for their possessors not to seek to resolve inconsistencies between them and their beliefs. But this is the wrong tack to take, since they hypothesize that schizophrenics take their imaginings for beliefs. If they take them for beliefs, why do they treat them as imaginings?

Currie and Ravenscroft suggest an answer to this question: Though they do not recognize their delusions as imaginings, they retain the capacity to see that they are often wildly implausible. In this case, however, they do not take them to be beliefs at all. Instead, the behavior of schizophrenics suggests that their delusions occupy some kind of position midway between imaginings and beliefs: taken to represent the way the world is, yet not fully integrated into the patient’s set of beliefs. This is, more or less, what Currie and Ravenscroft themselves suggest. But it is not a position for which they seem to have an adequate explanation.

Currie and Ravenscroft are important players in the debates over simulation and related topics. The reader of this book is plunged directly into these debates. This is both the book’s strength, and its weakness. Although the authors do not explicitly assume much, they move so fast that the reader unfamiliar with this terrain is sure soon to find herself lost. Even for those who manage to keep up, the rapidity of the pace, and the concentration upon the details of relatively obscure debates within cognitive science and philosophy of mind ensures that the shape of the overall theory of the recreative imagination, its significance in human life and for human development, remains somewhat obscured. This book might have been better if it was longer: if the authors took more time to explore why the recreative imagination matters, rather than plunging into a series of debates with their peers.

 

© 2003 Neil Levy

 

Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.


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