Preface: I capitalised all italics; the book only italicised.
Source: pp 141-142 , Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (1 ed, 1999) by Simon Blackburn

  But suppose instead I am not transporting ANYTHING in my imagination. All I am doing is representing to myself what IT WOULD BE LIKE to see the world from a different point of view, at a different time, or whatever. If there is no essence of Me transported to the different scenes, then the fact that I can imagine them gives no evidence that "I" might have experienced them, or might survive to experience them. By way of illustration, consider the first on the list: I might survive bodily death. What imaginings lie behind this? Well, perhaps I can imagine looking at the funeral, with my coffin, and the family mourning. Perhaps I am skulking at the back of the church. Perhaps I am miffed that the congregation does not seem all that upset. Perhaps I would like to tell them that it is not so bad after all. Perhaps being dead I have X-ray vision, so I give myself a glimpse of my body lying inside. All very sad. How old I look. But wait! Here are the pearly gates and there is grandmother waiting to greet me. . .
  In imagining all this, I rehearse for myself the experience of looking at my coffin and so on. And this I can surely do: I can understand what it would be like to see it, after all (not unlike seeing other coffins). I can understand what it would be like to glimpse inside it -- a gruesome sight.

[1.] But, and this is the crucial point, these exercises of understanding do not transport a "me" who is doing the seeing, whilst the human being Simon Blackburn is dead. It is I here and now who am doing the imagining, but there is NO I who is being imagined doing the viewing. The only relic of me in the scenario is the dead body.

  The point can be put like this. Kant's line of thought suggests that there is an equivalence between   [2.] "I can imagine seeing X"   and   [3.] "I can imagine myself seeing X".
[4.] But because this is a purely formal equivalence there is no substantive self, no soul of Me, involved in either imagining. Hence, it is wrong to take such imaginings as supporting any "real distinction" between you as subject, as self or soul, and the animal that in fact you are.
[5.] So the imaginings of X do not support the possibility that your biography MIGHT outrun the biography of that animal, just because X is something that the animal will not see.

  1. I do not understand 1. How can you imagine yourself in another state, without mentally transporting yourself to that imagined state?

2 & 3. Please compare and contrast these two sentences? How do they differ?

4 & 5. I am too confused even to conjecture their meanings. Please explain and simplify both?

2 Answers 2


First, explaining the whole point (introduction)

I actually think the thing Blackburn is insisting upon is that there is an equivocation going on between:  2. "I imagine looking at"   and   3. "I imagine myself looking at".

Ad [2.]: 'The self' that is meant by "I" in 2 is a body-mind unity that is actually needed to imagine, experience, look.

Ad [3.]: 'The self' that is meant by "myself" in 3, is not quite so. In 3, 'the self' is an instance of our thought, even if I - in this thought experiment - identify my self with 'the self', I cannot possibly be 'the self'. In addition, imagining 'the self' does not mean experiencing 'the self' in a substantial way.

Perhaps we can imagine a red book, but all we do is using our experiences and putting them together in a way that seems sufficient to get the picture. Imagine the flight with a F-22 in a dogfight with a SU-35S. Will it really be transporting yourself into the situation with all its aspects: the adrenaline, the fear, the struggling with blood pressure, the sensations, the goose bumps etc.? You're getting the point.

Ad [1.]

That is why we do not actually transport our selves in these thought experiments, we only imagine thinkable standpoints we as body-mind unifying selves could (or, in this case could not) take and how it could/would feel like. But we do not really feel it as the unity needed for a self. Therefore there is no "I" that is imagined doing the viewing in any substantial way a self is to be thought.

The author insists on differentiating between the uses of the word.

Ad [4.]

What should have become clear by now is in what sense Blackburn is rejecting the suggestion Kant is supposed to have made (adding the source he bases this on would be helpful). The substantial self (or "soul of ME") is a body-mind unity that is not involved in any imagining as this involvement can only be achieved if all aspects of ME are involved, not by sitting in my armchair and imagining something. Experience is a totally different thing.

Ad [5.]

Here the argument is used to reject the thought that our biography would be enriched by imagining something in comparison to animals, who cannot imagine themselves in other states. That is exactly because all we can do by imagination is using the experiences we as a substantial self have made, remembering and rearranging them. If you have not experienced the terror of war or the grief of being left all by yourself, you cannot imagine it in any meaningful sense that "outruns your biography".

About the philosophy of nature and anthropology

This problem, the human being as being corporal, bodily and having mind, is addressed in some philosophies of nature that tried to overcome the dualistic gap Kant has supposedly opened. Hegel was one of the first of them. The pragmatism of Williams and Dewey, as well as Hannah Arendt and the founders of Philosophic Anthropology, Scheler and Plessner: all tried to address the nature of human beings that is referring to here by Blackburn.

As an aside

In this context, a sentence of Wittgenstein about the philosopher William James comes to Mind:

That is what makes him a good philosopher; he was a real human being.

Writing about something that we did not experience with every fibre of our body is like trying to cross the ocean without ever having seen something floating on the water.


1.) The quoted piece seems to focus on proving that imagining X is not equivalent to actually doing/seeing X. I can imagine myself riding a dinosaur. This does not mean I have actually ridden a dinosaur (or even accurately imagined what riding a dinosaur would be like in 'reality').

4.) Based upon the previous statements, imagination is not the same as experiencing/doing something. There is no 'essence' or 'soul of Me' that leaves our mortal shell to go experience every imagined adventure. The imagination is just mentally generated images. A self-made movie playing in your head, with no real bearing on reality.

2, 3) To Blackburn, the distinction between "imagine seeing" vs "imagine myself seeing" is moot. There is no real difference, as he sees no compelling evidence for this 'soul' to which Kant refers. Kant is advocating an 'essence' of each person that isn't related to the flesh of our 'animal body' (e.g. a soul), and Blackburn denies that this 'essence' exists. Without the idea of this 'essence', Blackburn goes on to clarify that any such imagining takes place only within the flesh. Mental imagery created and processed by electrical signals within the brain, and nothing more than that.

5.) Returning to Blackburn's hypothetical example, there is no evidence that the part of him capable of imagining watching his own funeral will actually continue to exist after his body (e.g. 'that animal') dies.

So, in short this seems to be a refutation of the idea that imagining X may be used to imply X is true/exists. People often use such reasoning in attempting logical proofs of god.

  • 1
    Thanks, but does your answer 2) explain the difference between "I can imagine seeing X" and "I can imagine myself seeing X" (per the quote? You wrote instead imagination is not the same as experiencing/doing something, but [2.] does not discuss experiencing/doing something?`
    – NNOX Apps
    Feb 12, 2016 at 22:42
  • I've updated the answer a bit to address your question. Also, thanks for the grammatical assistance ;) Feb 15, 2016 at 20:38
  • +1. Thank you deeply. You are welcome, but you assisted me more with your knowledge of philosophy which is far more significant than correcting spelling.
    – NNOX Apps
    Feb 19, 2016 at 6:23

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