The Multidimensional Spectrum of Imagination:
Images, Dreams, Hallucinations, and Active, Imaginative Perception.


by Nigel J.T. Thomas

Published in Humanities (vol. 3, no2, 2014, 132–184).


A theory of the structure and cognitive function of the human imagination that attempts to do justice to traditional intuitions about its psychological centrality is developed, largely through a detailed critique of the theory propounded by Colin McGinn. Like McGinn, I eschew the highly deflationary views of imagination, common amongst analytical philosophers, that treat it either as a conceptually incoherent notion, or as psychologically trivial. However, McGinn fails to develop his alternative account satisfactorily because (following Reid, Wittgenstein and Sartre) he draws an excessively sharp, qualitative distinction between imagination and perception, and because of his flawed, empirically ungrounded conception of hallucination. His arguments in defense of these views are rebutted in detail, and the traditional, passive, Cartesian view of visual perception, upon which several of them implicitly rely, is criticized in the light of findings from recent cognitive science and neuroscience. It is also argued that the apparent intuitiveness of the passive view of visual perception is a result of mere historical contingency. An understanding of perception (informed by modern visual science) as an inherently active process enables us to unify our accounts of perception, mental imagery, dreaming, hallucination, creativity, and other aspects of imagination within a single coherent theoretical framework.

Keywords: imagination; mental imagery; mental image; perception; eye movements; active vision; enactive perception; seeing as; dreams; hallucination

Download from here (open access)

Erratum: I have discovered a likely factual error on page 144 of the published article, where I state that the only type of cone cells to be found in the far periphery of the human retina are "blue sensitive" S-cones. Further reading of the literature on the subject* now suggests to me that I probably misunderstood my original sources, and that, in fact, cones of all three classes (L-cones and M-cones, as well as S-cones) do occur, sparsely, even in the far periphery. However, this mistake does not affect my overall argument. It remains the case that, because of their sparse distribution, cones in the peripheral retina provide very poor visual acuity there (as compared to the fovea and parafovea), and that, because of the way in which they are interconnected, they do not enable color vision (certainly not to any significant degree) in the far periphery.

*In particular: Roorda, A., Metha, A.B., Lennie, P., & Williams, D.R. (2001). Packing Arrangement of the Three Cone Classes in Primate Retina. Vision Research (41 #10) 1291-1306.

A revised and updated, peer reviewed version of the article once available in draft from this page has now been published in the online open access journal Humanities (volume 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 132–184; doi:10.3390/h3020132). Please download it (for free) from the journal page here. (If you have a problem with downloading from the Humanities journal site, you can download a locally cached version of the paper via this link, but please use the main link to the journal if possible.) The old, draft version is still available here, but the published version supersedes it, and only the published version should now be cited. The main differences between the draft and the published version are in section 5, which has been quite extensively rearranged and rewritten, but there are also numerous smaller differences elsewhere.

Please download the 23 April 2014 "updated" version from the main link on the Humanities page, not the "original" version, first published there on 15 April 2014 (and available via a subsidiary link). Although, to the best of my knowledge, the textual content is the same in both versions, the "original" version omits some significant bibliographical information from a couple of items in the reference list, and also suffers from some (very minor) formatting errors. (This all arose from the actions of an overzealous copy editor, who made further "corrections" after I returned the proofs.) These minor errors are corrected in the "updated" version. Otherwise, the two versions there should be identical.

I understand that it is intended that Humanities will, at some point, move to an open access, pay-to-publish business model, and it may have done so by the time you read this. However, at the time my article was submitted, and when it was published, this was not the case. I did not have to pay to get this article published, and you will not have to pay to download it, either now or in the future. - N.J.T.T.


To contact the author, click here
Mail me

Return to Home Page:
Imagination, Mental Imagery, Consciousness, Cognition:
Science, Philosophy & History.

Imagination, mental image, consciousness, cognition