Abstract The purpose of this paper is two-fold: to
identify the problem of cinematic imagination, and then to propose a satisfactory
solution. In part one I analyze the
respective claims of Dominic McIver Lopes and Roger Scruton, both of whom
question the scope of imagination in film, when compared to other art forms, on
the basis of its perceptual character. In
order to address these concerns I develop a hybrid of Gregory Currie’s model of
cinematic imagination and Kendall Walton’s theory of make-believe in section two. Section three offers a reply to Lopes and
Scruton, examining the problem in terms of the tension between the normativity
of films as props and the employment of the creative imagination by audiences. I conclude with a solution that admits of two
incompatible conceptions of cinematic imagination.
Key Words creativity, experience, fantasy, film, imagination,
1. The scope for imagination
the most mimetic of contemporary art forms in the sense that it seems almost to
replicate rather than represent reality.
It is this capacity for reproduction and simulation that makes cinematic
imagination problematic. I shall use a
particularly realistic example, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), to demonstrate the puzzle. My response to the second scene in the film
was something along the lines of “This is exactly what it must have been like
on Omaha Beach on D Day.” The use of
surround-sound technology in the cinema theater provided an effective
complement to the visual devices employed onscreen, the result of which was that
the experience of war was reproduced as accurately as possible. The simulation was so realistic that I felt I
was using my imagination at only the most basic level, so that it seemed
impoverished when compared with how I appreciate art forms such as painting,
literature, and music. Currie produced
the first comprehensive philosophy of film in the analytic tradition,
and I shall present a brief summary of his model of cinematic imagination
before proceeding to Lopes’ and Scruton’s respective articulations of the
that the word “imagination” is variable and opaque, and specifies his concern
as the engagement with fiction. He proposed
the “simulation hypothesis” as
an account of the functioning of the imagination: imagining involves projecting oneself into the
situation of another, and then conceiving of one’s own beliefs and desires in
that situation. Therefore, imagination consists of pretend
beliefs and desires that are run “off-line, disconnected from their normal
perceptual inputs and behavioural outputs.” Currie distinguished primary from secondary
imaginings. Primary imagining is simply imagining what is
fictional, for example, Captain Miller on Omaha Beach on D Day. Secondary imagining supplements primary
imagining when it concerns the experience of a fictional character, such as
Miller, on Omaha Beach on D Day, as disorientated and frightened. That secondary imaginings are essential to
one’s engagement with fiction is self-evident.
in film is typically and distinctively impersonal and perceptual. It is impersonal because of Currie’s
rejection of the “imagined observer hypothesis” and the absence of egocentric
information. When I watch Saving Private Ryan, I imagine Miller on Omaha Beach; I do not
imagine myself seeing Miller on Omaha
Beach,which would imply that I have some sort of presence in the
film. The perceptual imagination involved in film
has features of structure and content absent in literature. Perceptual beliefs “bunch together in so far
as perception tends to give us beliefs about color, size and shape as an
indissoluble package with a high degree of specificity.” I therefore imagine Miller as looking exactly like Tom Hanks as he appears in Saving Private Ryan.
“whether cinematic experience…takes advantage of our imaginative capacities.” He challenged Currie’s replacement of the
traditional model of imagination as quasi-experience, that is, visualization,
with quasi-belief, and draws attention to the difference between the experience
of reading a detailed description of a landscape, for example, and the
experience of seeing that landscape in a film.
When watching King Kong (1933) he does not imagine – simulate
perceptual belief in – King Kong, but has a sensory experience of the monster
which prompts his simulated perceptual beliefs. According to Lopes, therefore, the sensory
experience of a giant gorilla onscreen is prior to, and more fundamental than, the
simulated belief in King Kong; the imagination is subordinate to perception. Lopes holds that an account of propositional imagining
must be accompanied by an account of sensory imagining:
pictorial imagining, the propositional imagination harnesses an occurrent
visual experience in order to shape its content, borrow its phenomenology, and
sustain a rich variety of imagined visual actions.
criticism of Currie is that he ignores the significance of the sensory
experience that is so crucial to the experience of film; he believes this
omission is proved by a flaw in Currie’s model.
Lopes noted that experience is belief-independent for Currie because a belief
in Captain Miller is actually an off-line imagined belief, that is, an
imagining. I imagine Miller rather than
believe in him, and so my experience occurs without belief. “And if my experience is independent of what
I believe then it is independent of what I imagine, since, on Currie’s account,
imagination is simulated belief.” According to Lopes, Currie’s own theory relies
on the primacy of the sensory (cinematic) experience that he has failed to
“Fantasy, Imagination and the Screen” is a somewhat rhetorical defence of theater
over film, and although his condemnation of fantasy appears to have a moral
rather than logical basis, Kathleen Stock agreed that there is indeed a link
between film and fantasy.
Scruton proposed a strict dichotomy between imagination and fantasy. The appreciation of art employs the
imagination and aims to understand reality by indirect means. This return to reality through representation
is realism. The imagination grasps the reality by way of style,
convention, and manner in description and depiction. The route to reality (for example, the
bombing of Guernica on the 26th April 1937) is circuitous (the complex
representation in the cubist painting by Pablo Picasso), and the reality can
only be understood by the active employment of the imagination.
contrast, fantasy is “a real desire which, through prohibition, seeks an
unreal, but realized, object.” Scruton is concerned with desires that are typically
the target of self-imposed prohibitions, such as sex and violence. An object of fantasy is realized when it
“leaves nothing to the imagination” and is a surrogate for another object. In fantasy, the desire is for the surrogate
to mirror the reality as closely as possible, like a waxwork or photograph, but
this mimesis focuses attention on the surrogate and thus away from the reality. By
combining photography with movement and sound, the medium of film is a
near-perfect simulacrum. Whereas the theater employs conventions and stylistic
constraints to represent reality, film constitutes an absolute and explicit
realization that is actually an escape from reality. In watching a film, therefore, I am presented
with a substitute for reality, which Stock refers to as a “fantasy prop.”
believes that the medium of film contains an inherent conflict between the
reality principle of dramatic representation and the realization principle of
the camera. In the case of prohibited desires, the
camera’s capacity for complete realization means that “There is therefore a
danger that fantasy will take over, so as to dominate the interest in
representation.” If his view is correct, then the second scene
of Saving Private Ryan is not a
representation of Omaha Beach on D Day but a realization, and so focuses on the
fantasy (the explicit violence in the film) rather than the reality (the human
drama of D Day). Stock agrees that an
increase in realization produces a more potent fantasy prop because it
contributes to the fantasist’s goal of avoiding awareness that the fantasy is
It is worth noting that Scruton recently
reiterated the distinction between imagination and fantasy, claiming that both
he and Stock understated the essential differences in the respective paradoxes
by which they operate.
to Scruton, there is no doubt that I used my imagination when I watched Saving
Private Ryan. I imagined that Hanks
was Miller, that Miller was disorientated and frightened, and that there were
(at least) three series of events happening coincidently: Miller fighting on Omaha Beach, Private Ryan
en route to Ramelle, and Mrs. Ryan learning of her tragic loss in Iowa. These imaginings, and many others like them,
were necessary to understand the film as a narrative. However, in a sense Scruton was correct in
that, despite my awareness of the fiction, I seemed to actually see soldiers
being shot, drowning, and blown apart, and Spielberg’s graphic portrayal of D-Day
appeared to have left very little for me to imagine. In fact, I appeared to have employed
significantly less of my imaginative capacity in watching the fictional film
than if I were to read a non-fictional account or examine historical
photographs. Perhaps Lopes is correct,
and watching Saving Private Ryan is an experience that is, or could be,
independent of the imagination, or perhaps the answer lies with Scruton, for
whom the film would be a paradigm of realization, the gratification of a violent
fantasy. I shall return to these
2. Imagination as make-believe
of cinematic imagination is based on his earlier work in “Visual Fictions” and
forms part of his contribution to the cognitive theory of imagination, which recognizes
the functional similarity of imagination and belief. He identified two distinct conceptions,
visualisation and make-believe. Visualization
is the “activity of image-making.” It can be produced by both fiction and
non-fiction, but is necessary for neither.
Make-believe applies to fiction alone, and is best understood as an
attitude. To make-believe is to take a
particular attitude towards the propositional content of fictions, and the
functional relations between the attitudes of believing and make-believing a
proposition are similar in some ways and different in others. For example, adopting an attitude of
make-believe to the proposition that Miller is dying of his wounds disconnects
me from my response in the case of belief: I may weep but I will not call for an
concern is with the role of the imagination in the engagement with fiction, and
he regards imagination as identical with make-believe. He noted the similarities and differences
between fantasies, such as daydreams, and fictions. While they both involve a narrative
consisting of characters and events, the latter are interpersonally accessible
where the former are not. Fantasies and fictions are both “objects of
make-believe,” and neither necessarily involves visualization. Although Currie and Walton’s respective
conceptions of make-believe differ on a number of points, I
believe the similarities are significant.
As the lion’s share of Currie’s discussion of imagination is devoted to
its impersonal character, I shall develop his views on perceptual imagining by
referencing Walton, and then use this hybrid model to answer the question of
the extent to which the imagination is employed in film.
the interaction with representational works of art as a continuation of the
games of make-believe played by children.
He conceived of the imagination as a type of make-believe that is
independent of truth conditions. This neatly explains how I can imagine Miller
on D Day without contradiction. I
imagine certain things about Miller, such as that he looks like Hanks, that are
false because Miller is fictional; but I also imagine other things that are
true, such as that the battle on Omaha Beach in 1944 occurred. Like Currie, Walton identified the
imagination as variable and distinct from visualization. His theory relies on three core concepts: prompters, objects, and props.
a prompter as something that prompts the imagination “by being perceived or
otherwise experienced or cognized.” A broomstick that prompts me to imagine a
rifle is a prompter, and conventions may be internalized so that whenever I see
a broomstick I automatically imagine a rifle.
The broomstick also functions as an object of imagining, because I
imagine of real object X (the broomstick) that it is imaginary object Y (a
rifle). Objects such as the broom become
prompters by chance; other objects, like toy trucks and snowmen, are designed
to produce the imaginings of real trucks and living creatures, respectively. Neither prompters nor objects are necessary
for imagining. I could, for example, decide
to imagine what it was like on Omaha Beach on D Day out of curiosity or a desire
to pass the time, in which case there would be no prompter and no object. When I watch Saving Private Ryan, the images onscreen serve as prompters but not
objects. Walton believes that imagining
with an object is more vivid than without.
Props are “generators
of fictional truths, things which, by virtue of their nature or existence, make
propositions fictional.” The broomstick is a prop because it is
responsible for the fictionality of the proposition “I am holding a rifle”; an
image of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
is a prop because it is responsible for the fictionality of propositions such
as “John H. Miller is a captain in the US Army.” Props function by “principle of generation,”
which involves a convention, prescription, or stipulation. “Fictional propositions are propositions that
are to be imagined – whether or not they are in fact imagined.” Thus, there is a normative aspect to the
concept. If I agree to the prescription
that broomsticks are rifles in a game of make-believe, my failure to notice a
broomstick lying on the floor will not alter the fact that, in the game, a
broomstick is a rifle. Similarly, my
thoughts about Hanks, like reflections on his acting ability or the extent to
which he has aged since his previous film, do not alter the fact that in Saving Private Ryan Hanks is Miller. Walton defined games of make-believe as “exercises
of the imagination involving props,”
and restricts representation to the kinds of things that are typically created
to function as props. Representational
works of art are “made specifically for the purpose of being used as props in
games of certain kinds, indefinitely many of them played by different
appreciators on different occasions.”
discuss props explicitly, but he touched on the issue when he considered the
difference between fantasy and fiction. I
cannot be mistaken about the content of a daydream unless I fail to remember it
accurately, but I can misunderstand the content of Saving Private Ryan
because this content is determined by the work. The film is clearly a prop about which “there
are certain things it is appropriate to make-believe, and certain things not.” I see the images onscreen, and those images authorize
me to imagine the events represented by the film, that is, to adopt an attitude
of make-believe towards the narrative. Here, the essential congruence between Currie
and Walton is the relation they both recognize between normativity and
imagination in fiction.
that depiction is characterized by features such as resemblance and “the
capacity of a representation to be understood without decoding and inference,”
and that depictive representation is consequently conducive to rich and vivid
perceptual games of make-believe. He used ‘rich’ to refer to the amount of
detail conveyed, and ‘vivid’ to describe the level of realism the experience
involves, that is, the ease with which one is able to make-believe the fiction. Depiction stands in contrast to description. “In
general, what we call pictures make much better props in visual games than
verbal descriptions would.” My imaginings of Miller are therefore
particularly rich and vivid because the prop, that is, the image of Hanks, is a detailed and
realistic depictive representation.
agrees that the perceptual nature of the imagination in film produces rich and
vivid imaginings. In the novel
Saving Private Ryan, the author could have chosen to describe Miller’s
hair as “short, brown.” Different readers would imagine different
shades of brown and different styles of short.
In the film, I imagined Miller’s hair to be the exact color and style I
saw on Hanks’ head. The same would be
true of a painting of Miller, and the experience of the visual arts is characterized
by giving rise to these perceptual imaginings.
Currie and Walton both addressed this perceptual nature, but neither attached
significance to film as a paradigmatic form of depictive representation. I shall consider this omission after
returning to Lopes’ and Scruton’s respective arguments.
3. The creative imagination
to defend Currie from Lopes, I must demonstrate that his theory of cinematic
imagination does not allow for experience without imagination. The defense is straightforward, and I
summarise Lopes’ objection as follows:
I can have a cinematic experience
P2 Imagination is imagined belief.
P3 Real beliefs and imagined beliefs are
I can have a cinematic experience
accept P1 because I can have an experience of Miller without
believing in his existence. P2
is questionable because imagination is not restricted to imagined belief. For Currie, imagining comprises two different
elements: simulated beliefs and
simulated desires. I imagine Miller on Omaha Beach,
but if the narrative is to succeed I must also desire (imagined desire because
Miller is fictional) that he survive the battle. So there is an aspect of imagination that
cannot be subsumed under belief, because it is imagined desire.
is even more precarious. Real beliefs
and imagined beliefs are only two types of belief in a linguistic sense, and
they cannot be substituted for each other.
Currie described imaginings as different from real beliefs and desires
by being removed from the usual perceptual inputs and behavioural outputs. Imaginary beliefs and beliefs are two
entirely different types of thing. Consider
a parallel argument:
P1 I can ride a horse.
P2 Imaginary horses and real horses are
C1 Therefore I can ride an imaginary horse.
can imagine riding an imaginary horse but I cannot really ride a creature that
only exists in my mind. The meaningful
dichotomy for Currie is between the imagined and the real, not between beliefs
and desires. Imagined beliefs and
imagined desires share the common characteristics of being non-real and being
run off-line. Real beliefs and real
desires both respond to perceptual input and both motivate behavior. Imagined belief cannot therefore be
substituted for real belief in Lopes’ conclusion, and his claim that Currie’s
theory allows for experience without imagination is false.
proposal that film is a prop for fantasy seems even less convincing. First, it relies on his idiosyncratic
definition of fantasy as a phenomenon opposed to imagination, rather than
Currie’s idea of fantasy as a variant of imagination. Although Stock supports much of Scruton’s
argument, she also maintains that fantasy involves the imagination, which, in
the light of Scruton’s subsequent insistence on the importance of the contrast,
seems to call her endorsement into question. Second, Scruton’s position is dependent on
his view that film is not a representational art form, which is based on his
theory that the causal relation between an ideal photograph and its subject
means that photographs are transparent. He maintains that the use of the camera is
analogous to the use of a mirror and that while a hypothetical “art of mirrors”
could exist, it would not be a representational art form.
conceived of cinematic imagination as visualization, one might be inclined to
agree with Scruton, as there seems little, if any, visualization required in
watching a film. I do not need to visualize
Miller: I see an image of Hanks and the
image serves as a prop for me to imagine Miller looking exactly like Hanks. On a broader scale, the whole film serves a
prop for me to imagine the fictional narrative.
I make-believe when I watch a play, complete with its conventions and
constraints, and I make-believe when I watch a film, which, due to its closer
likeness to reality, is usually easier to understand. While Scruton’s philosophy of film fails, he
is nonetheless correct in identifying a tension between the role of imagination
and the art form of film, as I shall show.
In one of
his few discussions of film in Mimesis as Make-Believe, Walton used the
contrast with theater to prove that make-believe is more vivid if it has an
object. In the theater the audience is actually in
the presence of the actors, and the actors are the objects of the audience’s
imaginings, as well as prompters and props.
In the cinema, the audience is in the presence of images onscreen, and these
images are prompters and props, but not objects. Hanks is the object of imagination, because I
imagine him as Miller; I do not make-believe of the image of Hanks that it is
Miller. This seems accurate, but I
cannot accept Walton’s conclusion that the presence of actors as objects of
imagination makes a play more vivid than a film. ‘Vivid’ refers to the ease with which one is
able to make-believe, and the contrary seems true.
notes that the depiction of events in a play, e.g. the murder of Desdemona in Othello, is
“stylized and bound by convention,” whereas cinematic depiction is lifelike. The art form of theater is constrained in
ways that film is not, like the size of the stage. In Richard III, therefore, Shakespeare
uses a duel between King Richard and the Earl of Richmond to represent the
historical Battle of Bosworth Field, which involved over 20,000 combatants. One needs to interpret the representation and
have some knowledge of theatrical convention to understand the work. In Saving Private Ryan, the landing on
Omaha Beach is represented in a completely lifelike fashion and requires no
interpretation. There may have been only hundreds, rather
than thousands, of actors, but the special effects are such that it appears as
if the viewer is watching a representation that is almost identical to the
event. I shall not labor the point, but
I maintain that photorealistic film (usually) involves a more realistic
representation than theater, and is therefore (usually) more rather than less
vivid. The presence of the actors in the
theater undoubtedly adds an element that is missing in film, but film is,
paradoxically, perhaps, more lifelike.
film prompts more vivid imaginings than theater is found in Walton’s account of
the power of depictive representation and Currie’s account of likeness. A film is more lifelike than the theater and
painting and requires less decoding. One
might say the same of a photograph as opposed to a painting, but a film is more
lifelike than a photograph because of its transtemporal information – the
automorphic representation of duration – and the auditory experience it affords. My thesis is that film is the most lifelike
of all representational art forms, the paradigm of perceptual realism, and that
the tension between film and imagination is between the normativity of film as
a prop and the creative imagination of the audience.
of Hanks in Saving Private Ryan do indeed produce detailed and realistic
imaginings. As the imaginings become
richer, however, they become correspondingly more restricted. In the novel, the words “short, brown” serve
as a prop that authorizes me to imagine Miller’s hair in a number of shades and
lengths. So long as I do not stray from
the meaning of the two adjectives, I will be adhering to the rules of the
particular game of make-believe for which the text is a prop. But when I see an image of Hanks, I must
imagine Miller’s appearance as exactly the same. If I imagine that Miller has slightly longer
or lighter hair, or a different shaped face or different colored eyes, then I
am not responding to the prop appropriately.
Where the novel makes it fictionally true that Miller has short, brown
hair, the film makes it fictionally true that Miller’s hair is exactly like
considers the film as a whole, one can see similarly how the very richness and
vivacity of the imaginings restrict my response by specifying what is
appropriate in explicit detail. Richard
III presents me with two actors pretending to duel and leaves me free to
imagine the battle that rages around them in a variety of ways. Saving Private Ryan presents me with
images of the actors apparently engaged in a real battle and requires me to
imagine that they are the characters in the fictional narrative. My experience of Omaha Beach
is more realistic and detailed than Bosworth Field,
but there is far less creativity required on my part. The latter requires extensive use of my
cognitive processes, while the former is relatively effortless and even
I realize that
this is a superficially controversial claim.
I have already explained how, even in my chosen example selected as a
paradigm of vivid cinema, I had to employ my imagination to understand the film. Offscreen events need not be supplementary to
the main narrative, and there are many films where the viewer is invited to imagine
crucial scenes, such as the murder of Marion Crane in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s
Psycho (1960). The very same device, however, is frequently
used in literature. A particularly
dramatic example occurs in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Sun Over Breda (1998), where half of the fourth chapter is
devoted to setting the scene for a duel between Captain Alatriste and another
soldier. The narrator comments on Alatriste’s
smile as the men prepare to fight, and the next sentence is: “As they pulled
the Valencian onto land, blood stained the calm waters of the canal around him.” There are also films, like Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), where the
complexity of the narrative structure demands an active imaginative engagement from
the audience. Once again, however, a
similar complexity is employed in novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). My claim is simply that the viewing of a photorealistic
film usually requires less effort on
the part of the audience than watching a play or reading a novel. This characteristic is a symptom of the
problem of cinematic imagination; I shall show how it also provides a solution.
Walton describe imagination as a variable term, and cognitive theorists in
general admit of different varieties of propositional imagination. I have mentioned two variations in Currie
I1: mental image-making.
I2: adopting an attitude
of make-believe towards fictional propositions.
Stevenson identifies 12 different conceptions of imagination (18 if one
includes his sub-categories). The two conceptions which parallel Currie’s
The ability to entertain mental images.
The ability to think of things one
conceives of as fictional, as opposed to what one believes to be real or
conceives of as possibly real.
specifies that I4 is compatible with Walton’s account of fiction as
a game of make-believe generated by props.
He then identifies two sub-categories of I4:
[I5:] The ability to create (or “think up”)
[I6:] The ability to think of already-created
fictions as fictional.
concept of creativity is itself variable, and perhaps opaque as well, and I5
refers to the creation of fictions by poets, dramatists, and novelists. Stevenson’s classification reflects the
standard concern with the concept in aesthetics, the discussion of the creative
genius of the artist exemplified in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement. My
concern, however, is with the creativity required on the part of the
appreciator of the work rather than the creator. Ignacio Götz identified five different
conceptions of creativity, but defined the term as “a process of making.” The delineation captures the basic meaning of
creativity I wish to convey, a meaning that is confined to neither the artist
nor art. I am reluctant to add to
Stevenson’s list of conceptions of imagination and prefer to consider I5
in terms of Götz’s definition of creativity.
In fact, the move is unnecessary, as I5 is well-suited to my
purpose: if the connotation (the
creativity of the artist) is dropped, one is left with the denotation, which is
simply the ability (of anyone) to create fictions.
is a requirement of the appreciator of a work of art as well as the creator,
albeit to a much lesser extent. When I
watch Richard III, the work of art serves as a prop for my imagination,
and in making believe that the battle rages around the two actors, I engage in
a creative process of making, or thinking up Bosworth Field. I5 is thus the aspect of
imagination that creates what is not perceived by the viewer, that is,
the creative imagination. I propose that
a film is very poor prop for I5.
A play, with its conventions and restrictions, is better; and a novel,
where my perception of a few words might inspire the creation of a complete
character or setting, is better still. In
contrast, film is a very effective prop for I6. When I watch the already-created fiction
called Saving Private Ryan, the work serves as a prop for my
imagination, and my imaginings are particularly rich and vivid because of the
paradigmatic nature of the depictive representation. Scruton is therefore right in claiming that
film leaves little to the imagination (I5), but Currie is also
correct, because film produces detailed and realistic imaginings (I6).
distinction between the creative and, for want of a better term, fictional
imagination provides the solution to the problem. Film is the most realistic of the
representational arts, and this likeness to reality results in a unique
relationship between film and imagination. Film serves as a prop for rich and vivid
imaginings, but the richness and vivacity leave little room for creativity on
the part of the imaginer. I maintain
that it is impossible to reconcile the fictional and creative conceptions of
imagination, and the question of the scope for imagination in film depends
entirely on which is being employed. The
solution to the problem of cinematic imagination is the recognition of the two
different conceptions, which itself involves an understanding of the
normativity of props. The reduced role
for the creative imagination in film appreciation may have consequences for the
status of the art form, but that is a question which must be answered
McGregor is a second-year philosophy PhD student at the University of York. His thesis is on the relationship between
aesthetic value and moral value, and his interests include history of
philosophy and fictionality.
Published on January 12, 2012.
 Gregory Currie, Image and Mind: Film,
Philosophy, and Cognitive Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
 Gregory Currie (“Visual Fictions,” pp. 133-134)
maintains that make-believe is a type of belief for Walton; and Walton (Mimesis as Make-Believe, p. 28) holds that
self-reference is essential to imagination, which seems compatible with the
Imagined Observer Hypothesis. Walton nonetheless regards Currie’s simulation
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