On the Study of Imaginative Resistance

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)


In the introduction to his Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky claims that ‘the underground man’—the unreliable narrator and protagonist of his novella—is fictional.

Dostoevsky also says that somebody similar to this fictional character must have existed in the city and period that serve as the background to the story—that is, St. Petersburg in the middle of the nineteenth century. By developing and narrating the story of a fictional character, Dostoevsky proposes various ideas about individuals in the real world. This is not an isolated case; in fact, great authors often do not simply want their readers to imagine or suppose certain moral claims or to interpret these claims as being true only in a fictional world. Rather, what some authors intend to do through their fictional works is
frequently subtle, elusive, and complex. Unfortunately, the appreciation of this complexity is lost in the current approach to the study of the so‐called puzzle(s) of imaginative resistance.

In general, the contemporary debate on imaginative resistance involves the individuation and clarification of the reasons and causes of a series of cognitive failures related to the imagination, with special reference to fictional works perceived as dissonant with some of our beliefs. Such cases of imaginative dissonance may be due to the perceived immoral character of a work or because of other perceived contrasts with some of our beliefs—for instance, (perceived) logical and factual mistakes or other kinds of impossibilities (e.g., nomological, historical) contained in the fiction. The relevance and influence of such dissonances is claimed to be modulated by factors such as the genre in which the experienced fiction is categorised and perceived.

Interesting as these phenomena can be, some (praised) recent studies conducted by philosophers on these perceived dissonances are plagued by a reliance on a methodology dependent on mini stories as case studies (the mini‐story approach).

This essay is an attack on the mini‐story approach—I explain more in detail what this approach is in section 2—more specifically, an attack to its relevance and applicability to the study of the experiences of complex fictional works that belong to what we take to be (complex) artistic genres or categories. What I call ‘the mini‐story approach’ is my reconstruction of what seems that some scholars hold or simply presuppose. To be clear, I do not argue against the application of the mini‐story approach to cases that do not involve interesting/canonical forms of complex works of art; rather, I question the application of this approach to the study of only certain forms of imaginative resistance. In this essay, I use “works of art”, “complex literary works”, “fictional works of art” to refer to works such as films and novels—more on their complexity in what follows. Also, I will focus, although not exclusively, on cases related to imaginative experiences of alleged immoral works.
The general line of reasoning of this paper is:

1. The experimental or philosophical literature on the puzzle(s) of imaginative resistance is focused on mini stories—the mini‐story approach.2. Cases of appreciation and imaginative experience of complex, fictional, and literary works (or works of art) that belong to recognised, sophisticated, or artistically complex genres/categories are relevantly different from cases of appreciation and imaginative experience of mini stories (and their related episodes of imaginative resistance).
3. Most (but not all) of the interesting puzzle(s) related to the imaginative experience of art are generally those about our engagement with complex artworks that belong to specific genres or categories.
4. Hence, since most of the cases taken into consideration, i.e., mini stories and complex works of art that belong to certain artistic categories, are structurally different and generate structurally different imaginative experiences, results deriving from the study of simple mini stories should not be extended to cover interesting cases of imaginative resistance—cases of imaginative resistance allegedly generated by works of art that belong to specific and complex artistic categories—without further argument.

As a corollary, I also suggest that a different methodology should be devised to study (interesting) cases of imaginative resistance, in particular to study the influence of genre in alleged cases of imaginative resistance.

The paper is divided into five sections. In the first, I set the stage for what follows by briefly enumerating several problems that have been associated with episodes of imaginative resistance. In the second, I give examples of the methodology I intend to criticise; while in the third I show that the case studies used in the contemporary literature on imaginative resistance are structurally and significantly different from what I call “the more interesting cases”. In the fourth section, I defend the last point of the previous reasoning, and in the final section I clarify some of my main claims.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)164-178
JournalAnalytic Philosophy
Issue number2
Early online date27 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019


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