Ways of Imagining: A New Interpretation of Sartre’s Notion of Imagination

Research paper by Levy L.

Indexed on: 13 Mar '20Published on: 17 Jun '19Published in: British Journal of Aesthetics


In the conclusion to The Imaginary Jean-Paul Sartre draws attention to the centrality of imagination in human life, describing it as a constitutive structure of consciousness. Imagination, according to him, is not a contingent feature of consciousness, but one of its essential features. This essay re-examines Sartre’s notion of imagination, arguing that current interpretations do not exhaust its meaning. Beginning with a consideration of dichotomies that dominate his theory of imagination—such as those between present, material objects and absent images, or real entities and fictional creations, as well as interpretative responses to them—the essay moves on to explore the possibility of locating a different sense of imagination in his work, one which is irreducible to such oppositions. Focusing on Sartre’s example of the work of an impersonator, this essay advances the idea that the playful activity of impersonators and actors enables the spectators who are watching them to explore novel and often unfamiliar connections between objects in the world. Imagination, according to this interpretation, enriches and augments perception, rather than suspends or replaces it with mental images. This new interpretation of Sartre’s notion of imagination places him in proximity to Wittgenstein’s discussion of ‘aspect-seeing’ in Philosophical Investigations. However, whereas Wittgenstein’s discussion of ‘aspect-seeing’ can lead to the conclusion that it is impossible to draw a line between perceiving and imagining, the notion of imagination operative in Sartre’s example enables us to maintain and explain the differences between ordinary and ‘imaginative’ perception.