Tuesday, August 24, 2010

just imagine

Interesting reflections on the philosophical uses of imagination, from Oxford don Timothy Williamson last week in The Stone. Like Williamson, and unlike some of my colleagues, I have great respect for the novelistic imagination as a vehicle for ideas and critical thinking. 

In New Hampshire, for instance, I mentioned Rebecca Goldstein's novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, about an "atheist with a soul" who strikes me as a Jamesian who's read his "Will to Believe." What so impresses me about that essay, and about James in general, is his vast well of sympathy for beliefs not necessarily his own. That's the power of the philosophic mind attuned to possibilities, only a fraction of which will ever be actualized or validated in our own personal experience.

Williamson, though, says something near the end of his essay I think a Jamesian could quarrel with:
Today, if someone claims that science is by nature a human activity, we can refute them by imaginatively appreciating the possibility of extra-terrestrial scientists.
Umm, no. We can extend and deepen their claim, not refute it, by noting that human activities bear the potential to open us up imaginatively to worlds we've barely begun to dream of.

How did Emily Dickinson put it? "The brain is wider than the sky..."


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