Advertisement for a Sketch of an Outline of An Argument for Desire-like Imagination

Desire-like imagination, or I-Desire, is said to be analogous to desire in the same way that belief-like imagination, or imagination, is analogous to belief. There are a few different arguments for positing desire-like imagination in print. Greg Currie has given a few on the grounds of inference to the best explanation: he argues that desire-like imagination can best help us explain phenomena including affective response toward fiction and seemingly conflicting desires toward fiction (Currie and Ravenscroft 2002), and imaginative resistance (Currie 2002, in Gendler & Hawthorne). Tyler Doggett and Andy Egan similarly argue that desire-like imagination can best help us explain behaviors of pretenders who are immersed in the fiction of the pretense (Doggett and Egan 2007). I am unconvinced by these arguments and remain skeptical of desire-like imagination. But in a reading group today, I tried to provide a new motivation for positing desire-like imagination.

Take as the starting point the analogy at the beginning of this post: desire-like imagination is to desire as (belief-like) imagination is to belief. There is a tradition of differentiating belief and desire by their “directions of fit”. Belief is said to have a mind-to-world fit: the aim of belief is to represent a fact about the actual world. Desire is said to have a world-to-mind fit: the aim of desire is to make the world as the non-actual state of affairs represented. Arguably, we can also say that imagination has a direction of fit, at least when we are exercising the faculty in pretense or engagement with fiction. Imagination, I want to claim, has a mind-to-fictionality fit: the aim of imagination is to represent a fact about the (relevant) fictional world. The relationships between belief, desire, and imagination are summarized by the following table:

belief-like mental states desire-like mental states
real world belief (mind to world) desire (world to mind)
fictional world imagination (mind to fictionality) ???

Now it seems natural to fill out ??? with a mental state that is both desire-like and about the fictional world. Desire-like imagination fits. Following through with the analogies, desire-like imagination has a fictionality-to-mind direction of fit: the aim of desire-like imagination is to make the fictional world as the non-fictional state of affairs represented.

Whether the picture presented constitutes a positive argument for positing desire-like imagination depends on the strengths of the analogies. It seems to me that it at least offers some potential for such an argument. However, my goal for presenting this, what I think is a quite natural, picture is to use it as a pre-emptive strike against some common objections against positing desire-like imagination.

Challengers to desire-like imagination often say that (1) the nature of desire-like imagination is mysterious, and consequently, (2) it seems that we can reduce desire-like imagination to the better-understood mental state of desires: desire-like imagination is just desire about the relevant fiction. The arguments presented by Currie and Doggett and Egan somewhat address (2) but they do not appear to address (1). I think the picture I have presented can address both.

In response to (1): if the analogies about directions of fit is right, then we can in fact say something about what constitutes desire-like imagination: its direction of fit. Granted, more needs to be said, but it is at least a positive step forward.

In response to (2): we now have pretty good reasons to say that desire-like imagination is not just desire about the relevant fiction. The proponent of desire-like imagination can respond thus, “There is a difference between belief’s direction of fit and imagination’s direction of fit. Directions of fit are quite metaphorical, I admit. Given that you must think that there is a difference between imagining p and believing that p is true in the fiction, you must have some way of spelling out that difference. However you spell that out, I will borrow it to spell out the difference between desire’s direction of fit and desire-like imagination’s direction of fit. As such, desire-like imagining p and desiring p is true in the fiction have different directions of fit, so the former cannot be reduced to the latter.”

How does that sound?

revisions July 3, 2008.

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8 Responses to Advertisement for a Sketch of an Outline of An Argument for Desire-like Imagination

  1. nate charlow says:

    Hmm. Not knowing even a little bit about this area, I’m not sure how to make sense of the idea of a mental state whose aim is to make a fictional world a certain way. It’s hard to avoid this strange sort of locution when you’re using the direction of fit metaphor.

    But even if it does make sense, I don’t think we need a distinct kind of mental state to handle it. Say there’s a single mental state, desire, that represents a subset Q of some set of possibilities P as desirable. In some cases, P is the set of worlds compatible with what you believe; in others, P is the set of worlds compatible with the content of your imagination that F. In the latter case, desiring that A amounts to representing some subset of the worlds compatible with the fiction (the A-worlds) as desirable. And this seems just like wanting A to be true a fiction according to which F.

  2. Shen-yi Liao says:

    The problem is that we can believe and imagine the same propositions. So there are desires that will be compatible with both believing and imagining that p. So it seems that we can represent some subset of the worlds that make up those propositions as desirable. However, that cannot be quite right because it intuitively seems very different to really desire something as opposed to to desire something as true in the fiction. Your account seems to apply that there isn’t this difference.

    Maybe let me put it a different way. If you accept some version of functionalism, mental states are distinguished with respect to their connections to other mental states and cognitive functions. It seems that really desiring something and desiring something as true in the fiction lead to very different behavioral and affective consequences. So, you can label desire-like imagination as “desiring something as true in the fiction” but there is still a need for that to be a distinctive mental state.

    I think I am more sympathetic to your first instinct. There is something very wonky about talking about directions of fit for imagination and desire-like imagination. But I guess the exact objection would have to depend on how you cash out the metaphorical talk. However, the brief argument I gave seems to be general enough such that it doesn’t depend on any particular interpretation of the metaphor, which is why I think it is harder to say exactly what is wrong with it.

  3. Colin Caret says:

    I lost track of the argument at the end. You say “there is a difference between imagining p and believing that p is true in the fiction, and plausibly the different directions of fit is a good way of explicating that difference.”

    I don’t see how directions of fit are supposed to help with this particular distinction. I thought you were using directions of fit to explain the difference between two different kinds of imagination, not between imagination and belief per se. Are you trying to argue that states with the content “that p is true in the fiction” are all belief-like in having a fiction-to-mind direction of fit? What is the closing argument exactly?

  4. nate charlow says:

    What I had in mind was that divergent behavior can be explained by the differing nature of the relevant set of possibilities P. There are, on the one hand, desires that use your beliefs as a basis. These represent some subset Q of the worlds compatible with how you actually take the world to be as desirable. Since you take yourself to be located in one of these worlds, you will ceteris paribus do things that conduce to eliminating worlds not in Q from the worlds compatible with your beliefs. And, on the other hand, there are desires that use the contents of your imagination as a basis. You do not generally take yourself to be located in one of the worlds compatible with the contents of your imagination, and this plausibly has a behavioral upshot. The key here is that different behavior is explained by differences in the relevant cognitive attitudes. One parameter of difference would be how seriously the subject takes the representation of a state of affairs contained in the relevant P (but there might be others).

  5. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Colin–

    Thanks for the call for clarification. I agree that the argument got sloppy there. What I meant is that believing that (p is true in the fiction) is still a belief. So it has a world-to-mind direction of fit. Whereas imagining that p is an imagination. So it has a fictionality-to-mind direction of fit, which is distinct from the world-to-mind direction of fit of a belief. That’s the distinction. Better?

    Nate–

    That’s helpful. In response, I would say that as long as you want to say there are different natures of relevant set of possibilities, this difference has to come at the mental state level, since the propositional level just spells out the relevant set of possibilities. Think about the case with belief and imagination. Believing that sausage roll tastes awful and desiring that sausage roll tastes awful are contents of different nature, and that difference is reflected in the different mental states.

    Another thing you say is that “The key here is that different behavior is explained by differences in the relevant cognitive attitudes. One parameter of difference would be how seriously the subject takes the representation of a state of affairs contained in the relevant P”. It seems that how seriously the subject takes the representation is more of a difference in degrees, like how I am more behaviorally motivated by beliefs I have high credence in rather than beliefs I have low credence in. So unless you want to say whether something is a belief or an imagining is a matter of degree, rather than different kinds, that distinction does not seem to help.

  6. sp says:

    My difficulties in understanding the argument for real, and not just formally, begin much earlier than for Colin and Nate, I suspect. I do not understand what phenomenon you’re talking about. Is desire-like imagination supposed to work exclusively in the immersed pretense? It seems not, it seems that’s a context in which it is easier to see it at work, but not the exclusive case, right? But then, what does it mean to desire that p is true in the fiction? I can see two possibilities: I desire that Anna Karenina will not die, when I read Tolstoj’s novel, but I do not believe to be in the fiction. Or I desire that Anna Karenina will not die, because I am pretending to be Vronsky, and I love her, and I don’t want her to die. Which of these cases are you talking about? I know that I should remember, since I read your other paper, but I don’t!
    If the first is the case, then it seems more a normal desire, which happens to be on a fiction, and cannot be realized, as many of our desires. So I guess you’re talking of the second case, but that seems to be plausible only in the immersed pretense, which is a very peculiar phenomenon in the first place.
    In that case, I think of the mental states of the subject in terms of “imagining” which in turn seems to resemble believing much more than anything else. If I pretend to be Vronsky and I “desire” that Anna won’t die, I think I am actually imagining to desire, in a way that is not parallel to belief-like imagination, but parasitical. It is a sub-specie of the belief-like imagination, not a couterpart in the realm of desire.
    The metaphor of the direction of fit might hold even if the account of the mental state is like the one I’m suggesting. The metaphor might still be explanatory, but it does not need to say much about what the underlying model of the mind, or am I totally wrong? I really know nothing about this, but I tend to think that your usage of the metaphor does not do the work. I think someone who denies that desire-like imagination exists can still agree that there is a different direction of fit AT SOME LEVEL, the level of the fiction. While I’m Vronsky, I actually imagine to be desiring something, and therefore there is a direction from mind to fictionality. But in fact it’s still the world, “me being immersed ina fiction and reacting to it” that is reflected in the mind. The world is determining what happens in the mind. The metaphor of direction of fit is too rough, and simple to handle what you want it to handle.
    But again, I might be totally confused about what you have in mind, and above all about the philosophy of mind apparatus, which I am far from mastering.
    But I think examples, as always, would help.

  7. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Thanks for commenting!

    I meant desire-like imagination to be a mental state like belief, desire, and imagination. Currie and Egan and Doggett give a few examples of where they think desire-like imagination comes in, namely affective responses to fictions and immersed pretense. So you’re right that immersed pretense is not the only case.

    Desire-like imagination is more like the second case you talk about, where you put yourself into someone (fictional)’s shoes and desire as he would. This simulation of another person’s mental state is definitely something that people who like desire-like imagination would be sympathetic to, though I am sure they would commit to some kind of simulation being the definition or the exclusive case of desire-like imagination.

    So your suggestion is an interesting one: to reduce desire-like imagining p to imagining desiring p. This isn’t what most people who reject desire-like imagination has in mind, but it is plausible. Ken Walton a view like your suggestion. Though Currie and Ravenscroft 2002 criticize the reduction suggested as failing to get the phenomena quite right.

    Lastly, if the suggestion “But in fact it’s still the world, ‘me being immersed in a fiction and reacting to it’ that is reflected in the mind. The world is determining what happens in the mind” is about a way to reduce desire-like imagining to desire, then I do not think it is right because that is not what happens with the distinction between belief and imagination. In that case, imagining p appears to be different from believing I am immersed in a fiction containing p and reacting to it. As long as you think there is some difference in that case, then there ought to be some difference between desire-like imagining p and desiring I be immersed in a fiction containing p and reacting to it.

  8. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Actually, “I do not understand what phenomenon you’re talking about” is probably the right way to respond… I’ll write a new post on this.

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