Imagination And Anticipation by Robert Sokolowski

July 27, 2012

Another set of phenomenological descriptions to develop an idea of what what phenomenological analysis is and why it is philosophical. There is, within human experience a role played by the structures of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and by presence and absence. We can amplify all these themes by examining perception, memory and imagination. These essays come from a precious little book titled Introduction to Phenomenology by the philosopher Robert Sokolowski. I featured four of them earlier in these posts that begin here.


Memory and imagination are structurally very similar, and one easily slips into the other. The same sort of displacement of the ego or the self that we find in memory also occurs in imagination. In both forms of intentionality, I here and now can mentally live in another place and time: in memory the there and then is specific and past, but in imagination it is in a kind of nowhere and “nowhen,” but even in imagination it is different from the here and now I actually inhabit. I am displaced into an imaginary world, even as I live in the real one. Furthermore, an object in imagination, an imaginary object, might well be taken from my real perceptions or from my memories, but it is now projected into situations and transactions that did not occur.

The major difference between memory and imagination lies in the doxic [vocab: of, relating to, or based on such intellectual processes as belief or opinion.]modality proper to each. Memory operates with belief. The memories I call up, or that intrude on me, are of what really happened and what I did experience and do. It is not the case that I first have the memories and then add belief to them; rather, they originally come with belief (of how it was), just as my perceptions come with belief (of how it is) . We have to make an effort to delete the belief in memory, or to change it into another modality, such as doubt or denial.

Imagination, on the other hand, is pervaded by a kind of suspension of belief, a turn into the mode of “as if.” This modal change is a kind of neutralizing, but one different from the kind that comes into play in the transcendental reduction. In imagination I displace myself into an imaginary world, but the real world around me remains as the believed-in, default context within which I imagine, from which I am displaced. All the things I imagine are pervaded with a sense of unreality; imagined events do not strap me with the true regret or terror that horrible events from my past can inflict on me. It may be the case that an overactive imagination can skew my memories and make me think that some things happened that did not, but such a breach of the boundary between memory and imagination is possible only if imagination and memory are indeed two different kinds of intentionalities.

However, even when I imagine, the identity synthesis that is proper to all intentionality remains in force. An imaginary object stays one and the same through many imaginings of it. There is a manifold with an identity at its core even in imagination. We can take things we have actually perceived and enroll them into imaginary scenarios, and the things remain the same; or we can fabricate purely imaginary things and put them into an imaginary routine, and they too remain the same throughout.

Obviously, imaginary objects do not have the thick solidity of perceived objects, since we can fantasize them into all sorts of improbable situations, but we are not totally free even in our imaginings; the things we imagine put some restrictions on what we can fantasize about them. If the thing is to remain itself, certain things cannot be imagined about it; if they were to be proposed, the thing would become something else. I can imagine a cat flying through the air (although I cannot remember a cat doing this), but I cannot truly imagine a cat being read as a poem, or a cat smiling and talking to me. A cat is not the kind of thing that can be read out loud, and a cat that smiled and spoke would not be just a cat any longer. It makes no sense to blend “ideas” or even the images in that way.

Imagination therefore works in a doxic modality different from that of perception and memory; it is unreal, only “as if.” However, there is a form of imagination that has to get realistic, that has to move back into the mode of belief. It is the kind of imagination we engage in when we are planning something, when we imagine ourselves in some future condition that we can bring about through the choices that we make. This is an anticipatory form of imagination, and it brings us back to earth, so to speak, from the flights of pure fantasy. Suppose that we wish to buy a house. We look at several homes, we narrow the possible options down to two or three, and then we deliberate about which to buy. Part of our deliberation involves imagining ourselves living in each of the houses, using the rooms, walking outside, and the like. Such projections come back to a doxic mode analogous to that of memory; we come back to a mode of belief, correlated with a sense of reality in what we imagine.

If we are serious about buying the house, we do not imagine ourselves floating over it like a balloon or crawling through the walls like a termite. That sort of imaginary projection is all right for dreams and fantasy, but it is not helpful in buying a house. (It is interesting to note how television advertising takes advantage of the difference between fantasy and serious projection. It displays all sorts of attractive but totally unreal situations — a car surrounded by beautiful people, a truck flying over the Grand Canyon, a romantic encounter facilitated by toothpaste — with the intention of getting the viewer to realistically imagine himself into a future in which he buys the product.)

The advance experience of ourselves in a new situation is a displacement of the self, but it is the reverse of memory. Instead of reviving an earlier experience, we anticipate a future one. Since the future has not yet been determined, we can realistically anticipate ourselves in several possible futures and not only one: we imagine how we will have been if the choice has been made, and we can at this point still imagine ourselves in several different circumstances. We project ourselves into the future perfect in different ways. In the enterprise of buying a house, we project ourselves as living in three or four different homes; we try them on for size. We might do so while actually visiting the houses or else afterward, when we daydream about what it would be like.

We may take such projections of the self for granted and assume that anyone can easily perform them, but in some situations it takes considerable ego strength to be able to carry them out effectively. For some people at some times the strain of realistically imagining themselves into new circumstances is too great; they collapse emotionally and get all confused, and their self does not have the flexibility plus the identity to project into circumstances they have not yet lived through. They may panic at the thought of moving to a new place or changing a job or leaving a certain person. Part of the terror of death lies in the fact that our imagination turns blank in the face of it.

One might object that deliberation about future action is more intellectual than this. When we deliberate, we set down our goals, we draw up lists of advantages and disadvantages, and we figure out the means by which we can attain what we want. We weigh the pros and cons and make our decision. Such rational calculation is indeed part of deliberation, but the whole sense of its being deliberation about the future is given to us first of all by our imaginative projection.

The list of pros and cons only applies if we realize that this information has to do with the way we will be in the future, and it is our imaginative projections that open that dimension to us. We sample in advance our future selves. We imagine certain wished-for satisfactions. We may in some cases find that our anticipations were quite wrong; things may not turn out as we imagined they would; but such errors are possible only because we are dealing with the future in the first place.

That new dimension, of a future that has a range of possibilities that can be determined into actuality by the choices we make, is opened up to us not by rational lists, but by imaginative projections. Only because we can imagine can we live in the future. And the imaginative projections also enter into the motivations that nudge us into this choice or that; we feel more “comfortable,” as the saying goes, with one particular future perfect than with others, and so we are inclined to make the choices that lead to that one. The intellectual lists are played off against the imaginative anticipation.

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