Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Imagining the Given and Beyond: On Joseph Margolis' Phenomenology of Imagination

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Imagining the Given and Beyond: On Joseph Margolis' Phenomenology of Imagination

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Imagination plays a pivotal role in the philosophy of Joseph Margolis. In fact, his work suggests, in a way, that imagination is the very fabric of human life: recently, in On Aesthetics - An Unforgiving Introduction Margolis proclaimed that imagination plays a role both in "experiencing life and in understanding art" (Margolis 2009b, 20) and in The Arts and the Definition of the Human, he refers to imagination as underlying the very "possibilities of the human condition" (Margolis 2009, 112).

Nonetheless, it might seem odd to claim that Margolis assigns imagination such prominence in his work given the fact that he repeatedly criticizes the central role that imagination plays in various aesthetic theories - from Wollheim's "seeing-in" to Walton's "make-believe" (Margolis 1995; 1999; 2001; 2009). In The Cultural Space of the Arts and the Infelicities of Reductionism (Margolis 2010), where Margolis comments on Walton's "make-believe" theory, he rejects the former's position and says:

I'm afraid that Walton's remarks are hopelessly contorted: mistaken, arbitrary, misleading, equivocal, excessive, incapable of being literally accurate as a rule, utterly idiosyncratic if meant as a figurative resume of what we actually see, and, most important, entirely negligent about what we actually see when we see a painting and about how we actually see a pictorial representation in a painting.

MARGOLIS 2010, 148

According to Margolis, Walton (and others who argue along these line) produces a distorted account of aesthetic experience precisely because he overemphasizes the role imagination plays in this experience. Despite variances in Walton's, Wollheim's, and Danto's accounts, Margolis finds that a single conception of imagination underlies their work: they all understand imagination as the ability to conjure fictional and unreal scenarios and argue that this ability is operative in the perception and appreciation of works of art. In Arts and the Definition of the Human, for instance, Margolis reads these three thinkers as committed to a twofold process at the basis of aesthetic experiences: one first perceives the physical surface of the painting (e.g. paint blots and shapes on the canvas) and this perception serves as an occasion for a second mental process, the act of intending an imaginary, fictional, non-physical world (the world depicted by the painting, which is not itself on the canvas. Consequently, argues Margolis, these theories falsify the nature of aesthetic experience by centering on ideal mental contents, instead of the encounter between the spectator and the concrete artwork.

In what sense, then, can one call Margolis' philosophy a philosophy of imagination? Criticizing the theories mentioned above, Margolis argues that they fail to address a crucial dimension of perception, a dimension which he terms the "imaginative dimension" of perception (Margolis 2009, 100). Hence, Margolis too holds that imagination plays a central role in aesthetic experience (as well as in "real life"). Yet, his notion of imagination is radically different from the fictional imagination (the ability to conjure fictional worlds) that he so vehemently rejects in Walton, Danto, Wollheim, and others. Margolisian imagination inheres and plays a part in concrete experiences. According to him then, the loci of aesthetic experiences (as well as "real life" experiences) are not ideal and fictive contents conjured by fictive imagination, but rather actual, material works of art embedded with (imaginative) meaning and content.

Margolis insists that the emphasis on fictive imagination in aesthetic experience leads to absurd conclusions in philosophy of art, but worse than that, it poses a serious threat to philosophical theories of human existence. This is again due to the fact that imagination is not first and foremost a faculty responsible for conjuring fictional images or engaging in make-believe. As Margolis puts it in one of his latest works, "the imaginative is hardly limited to the imaginary. …

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