What Imagination Teaches

In John Schwenkler & Enoch Lambert (eds.), Becoming Someone New: Essays on Transformative Experience, Choice, and Change. (forthcoming)
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David Lewis has argued that “having an experience is the best way or perhaps the only way, of coming to know what that experience is like”; when an experience is of a sufficiently new sort, mere science lessons are not enough. Developing this Lewisian line, L.A. Paul has suggested that some experiences are epistemically transformative. Until an individual has such an experience it remains epistemically inaccessible to her. No amount of stories and theories and testimony from others can teach her what it is like to have it, nor is she able to achieve this knowledge by way of imaginative projection. It’s this last claim that is the focus of this paper. In particular, I explore the case for the claim that some experiences are in principle imaginatively inaccessible to someone who has not undergone the experience itself or one relevantly similar. As I will suggest, this case is not as strong as is often thought. Close attention to the mechanisms of imagination, and in particular, to cases of skilled imaginers, suggests how techniques of imaginative scaffolding can sometimes be used to give us epistemic access to experiences we have not had, even ones that are radically different from any that we have had before. As a result, considerably fewer experiences remain imaginatively out of reach than proponents of transformative experience would have us believe. Experience may well be the best teacher, but this paper aims to show that imagination comes in a close second.
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