Katja Maria Vogt (PI) (Philosophy, Columbia University)

In Imagination and Agency, I ask how envisaging positive future scenarios figures in motivation and agency. I start from three observations. First, in ordinary life we take for granted that imagining future scenarios bears on motivation and agency. Second, philosophical theories of action are surprisingly silent on this. Third, there is substantial empirical research on related questions. Jointly, these observations lead me to ask whether philosophers have neglected a basic dimension of agency and decision-making. My project addresses this gap in the light of both philosophical theory and empirical research, and it aims to introduce questions about truth and the modal scope of agential thought into an interdisciplinary debate.

Imagination and day-dreaming tend to have a bad reputation. Imagination is often contrasted with deliberation. Imagination, on this picture, fails to be a rational way of
arriving at a decision. When someone is said to be ‘a dreamer,’ this often expresses criticism. The agent is seen as unrealistically optimistic, wasting time that would be better spent with practical reasoning or action. Day-dreaming and imagination, it is often assumed, negatively affect motivation. Against this, I argue that representing positive future states plays a vital role in an agent’s mental life.

Agency Imagination, as I call the kind of imagining that figures in motivation and decision-making, is episodic in the sense that the cognizer imagines future scenarios that include herself. She represents herself in certain circumstances—say, she imagines herself living in London. That is, she imagines herself in a certain ‘world-setting’ and she registers her responses to this imagined scenario.

On the account I develop, representing positive future scenarios is by itself a constitutive dimension of well-being. It can be conducive to good decision-making and thus to an agent’s life going well in the long-run. I argue that there is such a thing as being good at agency imagination, analogous to how it is often assumed that one can be good at deliberation. With this proposal, I aim to pull away from approaches that conceive of decision-making primarily as the weighing of reasons for/against particular courses of action.

On standard philosophical accounts, imagination differs from belief by not aiming at the truth. This premise has recently been called into question. I contribute to its reassessment specifically with respect to Agency Imagination. Imagination can only support good decisions if the agent aims to correctly represent what, say, life in London would be like for her. Relatedly, I aim to get clear about the modal scope of Agency Imagination. Philosophers of action tend to adopt versions of the Aristotelian premise that decision-making ranges over the possible. The modal scope of Agency Imagination, I argue, is wider than the possible as typically understood in action theory.

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