Imagination and Social Change Conference – September 26-28, 2019

Talk Titles and Abstracts


Reparative trust

Mavis Biss, Loyola University Maryland


J.M. Bernstein has offered an astute analysis of trust in terms of a paradox of practical deliberation: prospectively, trust is too risky; retrospectively trust is naïve; but, trust is necessary to living a life with others. The stance of distrust may seem prudentially justified in any given instance, but clearly as a policy it is at odds with the fulfillment of our social and moral needs. It diminishes others, construes them as competitors and reinforces our mutual moral isolation.

Eve Sedgwick distinguishes between paranoid and reparative relational stances and practices in the context of literary interpretation, noting that paranoid knowing is essentially motivated by aversion to pain and surprise, though it represents itself as savvy and reality-responsive. Sedgwick’s sense of the reparative stance is less easy to define, yet its contrast to paranoia indicates an attitude of openness to and anticipation of positive possibilities for discovery. According to Sedgwick the reparative motive is “no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic”; rather, it “undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks.”

I will apply Sedgwick’s framework to the domain of social life in order to address the practical paradox of trust. I argue that paranoid and reparative relational stances are both partially constituted by imaginative processes, including anticipation and narrative construction. My aim is to outline a conception of reparative trust that contrasts the reparative (social) imagination to the paranoid (social) imagination.

Embodied imagination and the demands of empathy

María Jimena Clavel Vázquez, University of St. Andrews

Adriana Clavel-Vázquez, The University of Sheffield


In our everyday lives, we seem to think that our moral concern for the wellbeing of others requires us to understand their plights, and it seems that feeling with them is an important part of this. Empathising with others is often taken to involve imagining what it is like to be in their situation. Exercising our imagination could improve our moral capacities and encourage moral concern for others, particularly in contexts of significant inequality. In this paper, however, we argue that we should be cautious about assigning a central role to empathetic imagination in our moral practices because, insofar as it is an exercise of imagination that is embodied in a robust sense, it is significantly constrained and does not lead to affective empathy for those whose circumstances are radically different from our own. Following concerns raised by Helen Ngo, we argue that the exercise of imagination involved in empathetic imagining is embodied in two different ways: (1) it is embodied because it is situated, and (2) it is embodied because our social situation is embedded in specific affective dispositions. Our suggestion is that the second sense of embodiment can in part explain the lack of neutrality of situated embodiment and the impossibility of disattuning ourselves to attune to a different perspective: it is our very own personal history of interactions in a specific context that ultimately determines how we cope with our circumstances.

Epiphanies, imagination, and salience

Sophie Grace Chappell, Open University


There can be an approach to ethics that is philosophical, but not about the construction of a systematic moral theory. I am developing such an approach in my own work at the moment, based on the notion of an epiphany, peaks in our experience, and on attention to the stream of experience in which epiphanies are peaks. I introduce my approach, and suggest some reasons why such an approach might arise naturally from what we actually do in our ethical thought. And I present three questions for systematic moral theory that I think it doesn’t convincingly answer: “What counts as success?”, “Who is it about?”, and “Who is it for?”

One advantage of an epiphanies- and experience-based approach to ethics is that it can make good sense of the importance of imagination in ethical and political thought. Our deployment of our imaginations in reflecting upon possible courses of action or policy depends in key ways—often inarticulate—on our perceptions of salience and on our implicit or explicit decisions about which alternatives to take seriously, and which to leave in “deliberative silence”. Such perceptions and such decisions are never ethically neutral: there is always (or nearly always) a right way to see and to frame the situations in front of us, and that right way is not simply given by non-evaluative reality. I explore some examples in which in our society our imaginations, and so our deliberations, have been (as I see it) polluted or corrupted by bad ways of framing situations, and I point out some ways in which epiphanies might reverse this pollution and corruption.

Imaginative Vision and Trust

Jason D’Cruz, University at Albany, SUNY


The focus of my investigation is the complex overlay of hopeful imaginative vision and protective skepticism that together form the basis of hopeful trust in contexts of moral leadership. The challenge of moral leadership is to anchor the projective vision of what society may one day become in a highly realistic representation of the way the world is today. This is a more complex task than it may initially appear. To channel the galvanizing, motivational power of hopeful trust, one must be able to see people now through the lens of a hopeful vision, a vision that will not always be an appropriate guide for making rational plans about how to proceed in the future.

 I elucidate the sense in which the trust of others can be a choice despite the fact that it is not always so experienced. I then make the case for the moral and practical consequence of that choice by describing social dynamics in which the attitudes of trust and distrust can be self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating, as well as the ways in which trust and distrust express respect and disrespect. I argue that attention to these dynamics and their moral consequence calls into doubt the common observation that trust is riskier than distrust, particularly in contexts of moral leadership. The hopeful trust of a moral leader is shaped by a distinctive attunement to the moral risks and opportunities of trust and distrust.

White imaginaries and the problem of political loss

Juliet Hooker, Brown University


“Because white men can’t police their imagination black people are dying.” The poet Claudia Rankine’s succinct and acute diagnosis of the origins of the police violence that spurred the Black Lives Matter protests points to the urgency of understanding how certain kinds of white political imaginaries are shaping contemporary racial politics in the United States. In theory all democratic citizens are required to accept political loss, but in practice democratic loss has not been evenly distributed. Whites have historically been insulated from certain types of loss by white supremacy. This results in a distorted form of racial political math that sees black gains as white losses, and not simply losses, but defeats. As a result, in moments when white privilege is in crisis because white dominance is threatened, many white citizens mobilize a politics of white grievance in response. How, then, should a democratic polity committed to racial justice respond to such claims? I argue that distinguishing between symbolic and material loss can help determine the appropriate normative response to political claims expressed in terms of white grievance.


Imagining radical entanglement for social change

Janine Jones, University of North Carolina at Greensboro


I begin with the assumption that throughout history, across geo-political contexts, where social change has been experienced—or painfully endured —a social imaginary (or set of interacting social imaginaries) has been crucial in creating conditions that have brought about such change. Thus, the key question, for me, is not whether through imagination we can bring about social change. Rather, the question I ask is, “What should communities put into imaginative play if the goal is to eradicate various forms of oppression, inextricably connected to the degradation of our shared environment?” I argue that certain forms of radical entanglement must be undertaken if we are serious about certain types of social change.


Memorials and memories

Shen-yi Liao, University of Puget Sound


Arthur Danto famously said that “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget”.

What is the relationship between memorials and memories? And what explains the political disputes about memorials? Philosophers have primarily examined memorials from aesthetic and political perspectives. I suggest we can gain a new understanding from contemporary cognitive science.

I will draw on two recent research programs. The first, sometimes called “4E cognition”, says that cognition is not just in the brain, but in brain-body-world interactions. We shape the world to include material anchors for cognition, and those material anchors in turn shape our thoughts. The second, sometimes called “mental time travel”, says that there is a psychological continuity between remembering and imagining. Our memories involve not just make-believe games about the past, but the future too.

In a slogan, my proposal is that memorials are material anchors for mental time travel. The political disputes arise from the differences between make-believe games about the past that people want to play, and the default prescriptions of the material anchors themselves.

Claudia Rankine said that “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds”. Sometimes, we need to imagine to remake the world. But sometimes, we need remake the world to free our imaginings.

Contemplative imaginations and pro-social practices

Lisa Liang, Dharma Realm Buddhist University

Brianna Morseth, Dharma Realm Buddhist University


Imagination assumes diverse characters across Buddhist contemplative traditions. In its unskillful manifestations, imagination (Pāli: vikappa; Sanskrit: vikalpa) signifies deluded thinking (i.e., the inability to see phenomena as they are) characterized by subject-object duality. Phenomenologically, this mode of imagination corresponds to “conceptual proliferation” (Pāli: papañca; Sanskrit: prapañca) which, according to Bhikkhu Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda, operates in the realm of ideation and draws on individuation, leading to stress. Yet imagination also serves skillful functions in Buddhist contexts. Contemplative practices, whether compassion meditation or mindfulness of one’s conduct guided by hiri-ottappa (conscience and concern), utilize visualization and prospection of the possible consequences of one’s conduct, respectively. While imagination is sometimes depicted in Buddhist traditions as a distorting filter that obscures clear vision, Buddhist contemplative practices widely employ imagination as a skillful means for cultivating pro-sociality, which has broad applications for social change. Such anecdotal reports from the Buddhist traditions are corroborated by empirical findings in affective neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics on contemplative practices and their contributions to a range of health benefits and pro-social outcomes.

Combining our training in the sciences and humanities, we interweave these perspectives into an interdisciplinary analysis of “contemplative imaginations.” We integrate these fields to illuminate the applications of skillful forms of imagination in both Buddhist contemplative contexts and in broader contexts of social well-being. This paper discusses the role of imagination in social change as evidenced by contemplative studies and empirical data, opening space for further interdisciplinary engagement with imagination.

How to turbo-charge your imagination and effect social change

Heidi Maibom, University of Cincinnati


Imagining that we are in someone else’s situation is a great tool for understanding others better, to get to care about what they care about, and for improving our relationship with them. It can be used when we consider whether certain practices should be legal or not, by considering the impact on individuals. But it is important to understand the limitations of this approach. Our imagination is constrained in various ways, and does not always provide the right results. Our imagination needs to be supported by an understanding of its limitations, by embodied simulations, or real-life experience. My talk shows why and how.


How imagination creates space for progress

Michele Moody-Adams, Columbia University


At critical moments in the history of particular societies and, more broadly, in the life of the human species our capacity to achieve constructive, non-violent social change depends upon our ability to create new “’space”—conceptual, perceptual and motivational—for such change. Some culturally influential social theorists contend that resistance to “factfulness” (to the persuasive power of empirical facts and data) is the main obstacle to social progress. But constructively addressing phenomena such as persistent economic inequality, continuing gender and racial injustice, and worsening climate change typically demands more than getting the data right.  All too often, if we are to understand the challenges posed by relevant facts, and then devise appropriate actions to meet those challenges, we must come to see, understand and respond to familiar aspects of our environment in unfamiliar ways. This paper argues that the processes and products of human imagination are often indispensable to this project, and explores the role of imagination in three crucial tasks: (a) creating consensus that a given situation is, in fact, in need of remedy or redress, (b) motivating widespread readiness to act on that consensus, and (b) sustaining the conviction that the relevant action can be effective.

Situated knowledge and untestable social hypotheses: The case of Simón de Bolivar

Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa, Vassar College


Montesquieu posits in The Spirit of the Laws that political institutions cannot succeed unless they reflect social and geographical features of their community. This sensible and shrewd postulate cannot, however, be tested a priori – it may only be disproven by empirical counterexample or, as we tend to do, tested in imagination. The exercise of imagination in this domain is unbelievably tricky, in that the number of variables seem to exceed the human capacity for simulating them. So how, then, does one go about imagining new social institutions in a way that is sensitive to not just physical possibility, but also to viability? This paper will examine the political imagination of one figure in particular, Simón de Bolívar, who made both accurate political predictions (such as that the breakup of Gran Colombia would lead to long periods of civil war and instability) and arguably inaccurate political predictions (such as that a federalist system could not be implemented successfully in South America). Bolívar was sensitive to the difference between the viable and the unrealistic in his attempts to imagine a political future for Latin America. I will argue that vast social knowledge, including that situated in disempowerment and that situated in privilege, is a necessary condition on social imagination that makes good predictions about viability.


Constituting collective action through imagination and pretense

Abraham Roth, Ohio State University


How might the imagination play a role in effecting social change?  One broad strategy for answering this question is to survey different roles theorists have envisioned for the imagination, and to consider how fulfilling of such roles might serve the agency required to effect change.  Some of these roles are informative.  Others are motivational.  But sometimes it’s not for want of instruction and knowledge, or for want of motivation or concern, that we fail to do what we ought to do.  If imagination is going to help in such cases, it’s not merely by providing some such input into agency.  The imagination, I will suggest, can have a more immediate or fast-track significance for agency, and indeed can help constitute it.  I consider “shared agency” approaches to problems of moral agency and coordination and suggest how an imaginative exercise can constitute the agency needed to address these problems.  More specifically, theories about the role of imagination in pretense will inform our understanding of the distinctive form of agency exercised when one participates in these collective endeavors. 

Political imagination and the (im)possibility of social and political change

Avshalom M. Schwartz, Stanford University


Social and political scientists have long faced the problem of explaining the occurrence and nonoccurrence of social and political change. While formal theorists struggle to explain changes from one equilibrium state to another, empirical social scientists notoriously failed to predict significant social and political changes such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring. This paper argues that the imagination is not only an essential element in individual mental life but also has a central role in our social and political world. More specifically, it argues that the political imagination provides us with the principal explanation of both the occurrence and the nonoccurrence of social and political change. The first goal of this paper is to develop a tractable model of the political imagination, one that is applicable to a wide range of historical and contemporary situations. Based on a heterogeneous conception of the imagination, it develops a tripartite typology of its political elements: the constitutive, creative, and critical. Second, the paper argues that applying this tripartite definition of the political imagination to the study of politics allows us to better account for social and political change, and utilizes examples from the history of the ancient Greek world to demonstrate the role of political imagination in explaining the (im)possibility of social and political change.


The abolitionist imagination and social change

Timothy Skulstad-Brown, Queen’s University


As pronounced sites of harm and injustice in our contemporary world, prison systems demand continued analysis by social and political philosophers. One perspective on prisons is that they should be abolished. Abolitionists demand the complete elimination not only of prisons, but also the carceral dimensions of other social relationships, practices, and institutions. Prison abolitionists have articulated detailed descriptions of the structural and material changes necessary for a world beyond prisons, along with concrete practices and policy proposals that can bring such a world into being. Despite this specificity, prison abolitionists continue to speak of the significant challenge that confronts them in trying to imagine a world without prisons. This paper contributes to a theory of abolitionist imagination by bringing Angela Davis’ explication of abolition democracy and Thomas Mathieson’s account of the unfinished into conversation with international peace builder John Paul Lederach’s concept of moral imagination. Lederach provides a compelling theory of the unique and necessary contribution the imagination makes to social change. I argue that Lederach’s account of moral imagination offers productive guidance for the cultivation of an abolitionist imaginative praxis that is grounded in the daily challenges of structural and interpersonal harm, yet is capable of “bringing about possibilities that are not imaginable in current terms” (Babbit, 1996). Cultivating imagination is a fundamental abolitionist praxis that has the capacity to open paths to social transformation that remain invisible from the perspective of instrumental thinking and social engineering in a flat sense.