About this topic
Summary In Western philosophy the human capacity to conceive of or imagine various states of affairs has often been thought to be a good guide to whether the state of affairs is possible. For example, one might infer from the fact that they can conceive of a chair located at L in room R, that it is possible for the chair to be located at L in R. While it is natural to think that conceivability and imaginability provide some kind of evidence for believing that something is possible or impossible, it is often difficult to show why this should be the case. Often times we find something conceivable because we lack knowledge. For example, historically one might have found it possible for water to be something other than H2O because at the time the community did not know that water is H2O. If ignorance often explains conceivability and imaginability, how can we be certain at any given time that our conceptions are tracking the way the world is. Some of the main questions in the area of conceivability and imaginability are the following: does conceivability entail possibility or is it merely a good guide to possibility? Is conceivability more reliable or less reliable than inconceivability? What kind of possibility is conceivability linked to (physical, logical, metaphysical)?
Key works In contemporary work on the epistemology of modality Yablo 1993 sets up a lot of the main issues for discussions of conceivability. In particular it discusses the central problem that Kripkean a posteriori necessities pose for a priori accounts of how conceivability entails possibility. Chalmers 2002 is also a key work that addresses the problem of a posteriori necessities. Chalmers uses epistemic-two dimensionalism to provide a novel solution to the problem, and he argues for an account on which conceivability entails possibility, rather than one on which conceivability merely provides evidence.  
Introductions A key introductory article on conceivability is Vaidya 2007.
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  1. Nagel on Imagination and Physicalism.Torin Alter - 2002 - Journal of Philosophical Research 27:143-58.
    In "What is it Like to be a Bat?" Thomas Nagel argues that we cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat or presently understand how physicalism might be true. Both arguments have been seriously misunderstood. I defend them against various objections, point out a problem with the argument against physicalism, and show how the problem can be solved.
  2. Conceivability, Possibility and the Resurrection of Material Beings.Thomas Atkinson - 2016 - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 80 (2):115-132.
    In his 1998 postscript to ‘The Possibility of Resurrection’ Peter van Inwagen argues that the scenario he describes by which God might resurrect a human organism, even though probably not true, is still conceivable and, consequently, ‘serves to establish a possibility’, namely, the metaphysical possibility of the resurrection of material beings. Van Inwagen, however, has also argued in favour of ‘modal scepticism’ [van Inwagen in, God, knowledge and mystery: essays in philosophical theology, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1995b, pp. 11–12; van (...)
  3. The Unsoundness of Arguments From Conceivability.Andrew R. Bailey - manuscript
    It is widely suspected that arguments from conceivability, at least in some of their more notorious instances, are unsound. However, the reasons for the failure of conceivability arguments are less well agreed upon, and it remains unclear how to distinguish between sound and unsound instances of the form. In this paper I provide an analysis of the form of arguments from conceivability, and use this analysis to diagnose a systematic weakness in the argument form which reveals all its instances to (...)
  4. On the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence.John Robert Baker - 1983 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (2):313-320.
  5. Modal Fictionalism and the Imagination.T. Baldwin - 1998 - Analysis 58 (2):72-75.
  6. Conceivability, Explanation, and Defeat.Gerald W. Barnes - 2002 - Philosophical Studies 108 (3):327-338.
    Hill and Levine offer alternative explanations of these conceivabilities, concluding that these conceivabilities are thereby defeated as evidence. However, this strategy fails because their explanations generalize to all conceivability judgments concerning phenomenal states. Consequently, one could defend absolutely any theory of phenomenal states against conceivability arguments in just this way. This result conflicts with too many of our common sense beliefs about the evidential value of conceivability with respect to phenomenal states. The general moral is that the application of such (...)
  7. Conceivability, Explanation, and Defeat.Gordon Barnes - 2002 - Philosophical Studies 108 (3):327 - 338.
    Christopher Hill and Joseph Levine have argued that the conceivabilities involved in anti-materialist arguments are defeated as evidence of possibility. Their strategy assumes the following principle: the conceivability of a state of affairs S constitutes evidence for the possibility of S only if the possibility of S is the best explanation of the conceivability of S. So if there is a better explanation of the conceivability of S than its possibility, then the conceivability of S is thereby defeated as evidence (...)
  8. Necessity and Apriority.Gordon Prescott Barnes - 2007 - Philosophical Studies 132 (3):495-523.
    The classical view of the relationship between necessity and apriority, defended by Leibniz and Kant, is that all necessary truths are known a priori. The classical view is now almost universally rejected, ever since Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam discovered that there are necessary truths that are known only a posteriori. However, in recent years a new debate has emerged over the epistemology of these necessary a posteriori truths. According to one view – call it the neo-classical view – knowledge (...)
  9. Necessary Laws and Chemical Kinds.Nora Berenstain - 2014 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92 (4):631-647.
    Contingentism, generally contrasted with law necessitarianism, is the view that the laws of nature are contingent. It is often coupled with the claim that their contingency is knowable a priori. This paper considers Bird's [2001, 2002, 2005, 2007] arguments for the thesis that, necessarily, salt dissolves in water; and it defends his view against Beebee's [2001] and Psillos's [2002] contingentist objections. A new contingentist objection is offered and several reasons for scepticism about its success are raised. It is concluded that (...)
  10. Impossible Worlds and the Logic of Imagination.Francesco Berto - forthcoming - Erkenntnis:1-21.
    I want to model a finite, fallible cognitive agent who imagines that p in the sense of mentally representing a scenario—a configuration of objects and properties—correctly described by p. I propose to capture imagination, so understood, via variably strict world quantifiers, in a modal framework including both possible and so-called impossible worlds. The latter secure lack of classical logical closure for the relevant mental states, while the variability of strictness captures how the agent imports information from actuality in the imagined (...)
  11. On Conceiving the Inconsistent.Francesco Berto - 2014 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 114:103-21.
    I present an approach to our conceiving absolute impossibilities—things which obtain at no possible world—in terms of ceteris paribus intentional operators: variably restricted quantifiers on possible and impossible worlds based on world similarity. The explicit content of a representation plays a role similar in some respects to the one of a ceteris paribus conditional antecedent. I discuss how such operators invalidate logical closure for conceivability, and how similarity works when impossible worlds are around. Unlike what happens with ceteris paribus counterfactual (...)
  12. Conceivability and Possibility: Some Dilemmas for Humeans.Francesco Berto & Tom Schoonen - forthcoming - Synthese:1-19.
    The Humean view that conceivability entails possibility can be criticized via input from cognitive psychology. A mainstream view here has it that there are two candidate codings for mental representations (one of them being, according to some, reducible to the other): the linguistic and the pictorial, the difference between the two consisting in the degree of arbitrariness of the representation relation. If the conceivability of P at issue for Humeans involves the having of a linguistic mental representation, then it is (...)
  13. Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy.Ben Blumson - 2015 - Midwest Studies in Philosophy 39 (1):46-57.
    This paper argues: (1) All knowledge from fiction is from imagination (2) All knowledge from imagination is modal knowledge (3) So, all knowledge from fiction is modal knowledge Moreover, some knowledge is from fiction, so (1)-(3) are non-vacuously true.
  14. The Medieval Origins of Conceivability Arguments.Stephen Boulter - 2011 - Metaphilosophy 42 (5):617-641.
    The central recommendation of this article is that philosophers trained in the analytic tradition ought to add the sensibilities and skills of the historian to their methodological toolkit. The value of an historical approach to strictly philosophical matters is illustrated by a case study focussing on the medieval origin of conceivability arguments and contemporary views of modality. It is shown that common metaphilosophical views about the nature of the philosophical enterprise as well as certain inference patterns found in thinkers from (...)
  15. Philosophical Debates at Paris in the Early Fourteenth Century.Stephen F. Brown, Thomas Dewender & Theo Kobusch (eds.) - 2009 - Brill.
    Focusing on Meister Eckhart, John Duns Scotus, Hervaeus Natalis, Durandus of St.-PourAain, Walter Burley and Petrus Aureoli, this volume investigates the nature ...
  16. Chalmers' Conceivability Argument for Dualism.Anthony L. Brueckner - 2001 - Analysis 61 (3):187-193.
    In The Conscious Mind, D. Chalmers appeals to his semantic framework in order to show that conceivability, as employed in his "zombie" argument for dualism , is sufficient for genuine possibility. I criticize this attempt.
  17. From Conceivability to Possibility: The Normative Account.F. A. I. Buekens - 2004 - In E. Weber & T. DeMey (eds.), Modal Epistemology. Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie Vor Wetenschappen En Kunsten. pp. 23--32.
  18. Review: Ruth M. J. Byrne: The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. [REVIEW]Stephen Andrew Butterfill - 2008 - Mind 117 (468):1065-1069.
  19. Possibility and Imagination.Alex Byrne - 2007 - Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):125–144.
  20. The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality.Ruth M. J. Byrne - 2005 - MIT Press.
    A leading scholar in the psychology of thinking and reasoning argues that the counterfactual imagination—the creation of "if only" alternatives to ...
  21. Response to Dominic Gregory’s ‘Conceivability and Apparent Possibility’.Ross Cameron - manuscript
    forthcoming in a collection of papers (from OUP, edited by Bob Hale) given at the Arché modality conference, St Andrews University, 7th-9th June 2006.
  22. The Inconceivable Popularity of Conceivability Arguments.Douglas I. Campbell, Jack Copeland & Zhuo-Ran Deng - forthcoming - Philosophical Quarterly.
    Famous examples of conceivability arguments include (i) Descartes’ argument for mind-body dualism, (ii) Kripke's ‘modal argument’ against psychophysical identity theory, (iii) Chalmers’ ‘zombie argument’ against materialism, and (iv) modal versions of the ontological argument for theism. In this paper, we show that for any such conceivability argument, C, there is a corresponding ‘mirror argument’, M. M is deductively valid and has a conclusion that contradicts C's conclusion. Hence, a proponent of C—henceforth, a ‘conceivabilist’—can be warranted in holding that C's premises (...)
  23. European Review of Philosophy, Volume 3: Response-Dependence.Roberto Casati (ed.) - 1998 - Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  24. Knowledge and Modality.A. Casullo - 2010 - Synthese 172 (3):341 - 359.
    Kripke claims that there are necessary a posteriori truths and contingent a priori truths. These claims challenge the traditional Kantian view that (K) All knowledge of necessary truths is a priori and all a priori knowledge is of necessary truths. Kripke’s claims continue to be resisted, which indicates that the Kantian view remains attractive. My goal is to identify the most plausible principles linking the epistemic and the modal. My strategy for identifying the principles is to investigate two related questions. (...)
  25. Conceivability and Possibility.Albert Casullo - 1975 - Ratio 17 (1):118-121.
    The purpose of this article is to defend Hume's claim that whatever is conceivable is possible from a criticism by William Kneale. Kneale argues that although a mathematician can conceive of the falsehood of the Goldbach conjecture, he does not conclude that it is not necessarily true. The author suggests that by taking into account Hume's distinction between intuitive and demonstrative knowledge, a revised version of his claim can be offered which is not open to Kneale's criticism.
  26. Mind and Modality.David J. Chalmers - manuscript
    What follows are compressed versions of three lectures on the subject of "Mind and Modality", given at Princeton University the week of October 12-16, 1998. The first two form a series; the third stands alone to some extent. All are philosophically technical, and probably of interest mainly to philosophers. I hope that they make sense, at least to those familiar with my book _The Conscious Mind_ . Lecture 1 recapitulates some of the material in the book in a somewhat different (...)
  27. Epistemic Two-Dimensional Semantics.David J. Chalmers - 2004 - Philosophical Studies 118 (1-2):153-226.
  28. Imagination, Indexicality, and Intensions. [REVIEW]David J. Chalmers - 2004 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (1):182-90.
    John Perry's book Knowledge, Possibility, and Consciousness is a lucid and engaging defense of a physicalist view of consciousness against various anti-physicalist arguments. In what follows, I will address Perry's responses to the three main anti-physicalist arguments he discusses: the zombie argument , the knowledge argument , and the modal argument.
  29. Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?David J. Chalmers - 2002 - In Tamar S. Gendler & John Hawthorne (eds.), Conceivability and Possibility. Oxford University Press. pp. 145--200.
    There is a long tradition in philosophy of using a priori methods to draw conclusions about what is possible and what is necessary, and often in turn to draw conclusions about matters of substantive metaphysics. Arguments like this typically have three steps: first an epistemic claim , from there to a modal claim , and from there to a metaphysical claim.
  30. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.David J. Chalmers - 1996 - Oxford University Press.
    The book is an extended study of the problem of consciousness. After setting up the problem, I argue that reductive explanation of consciousness is impossible , and that if one takes consciousness seriously, one has to go beyond a strict materialist framework. In the second half of the book, I move toward a positive theory of consciousness with fundamental laws linking the physical and the experiential in a systematic way. Finally, I use the ideas and arguments developed earlier to defend (...)
  31. Beard on the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence.Bowman L. Clarke - 1980 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 18 (4):501-507.
  32. The Logic of Negative Conceivability.Daniel Cohnitz - manuscript
    Analytic epistemology is traditionally interested in rational reconstructions of cognitive pro- cesses. The purpose of these rational reconstructions is to make plain how a certain cognitive process might eventually result in knowledge or justi?ed beliefs, etc., if we pre-theoretically think that we have such knowledge or such justi?ed beliefs. Typically a rational reconstruction assumes some unproblematic basis of knowledge and some justi?cation-preserving inference pattern and then goes on to show how these two su ce to generate the explicandum.
  33. The Logic(s) of Modal Knowledge.Daniel Cohnitz - 2012 - In Greg Restall & Gillian Russell (eds.), New Waves in Philosophical Logic. MacMillan.
  34. Why Consistentism Won’T Work.Daniel Cohnitz - 2004 - In E. Weber & T. DeMey (eds.), Modal Epistemology. Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie vor Wetenschappen en Kunsten.
  35. Meta-Conceivability.Phil Corkum - 2012 - Essays in Philosophy 13 (1):12.
    In addition to conceiving of such imaginary scenarios as those involving philosophical zombies, we may conceive of such things being conceived. Call these higher order conceptions ‘meta-conceptions’. Sorensen (2006) holds that one can entertain a meta-conception without thereby conceiving of the embedded lower-order conception. So it seems that I can meta-conceive possibilities which I cannot conceive. If this is correct, then meta-conceptions provide a counter-example to the claim that possibility entails conceivability. Moreover, some of Sorensen’s discussion suggests the following argument: (...)
  36. The Principle of the Topological Localization of Symbols and the Meaning of the Ultimate-Meaning-a Contribution From the Human Behavioral and Social-Sciences.Paul F. Dhooghe & Guido Peeters - 1992 - Ultimate Reality and Meaning 15 (4):296-305.
    A topological model of elementary semiotic schemes is presented. Implications are discussed with respect to the establishment of abstract terms and the search for ultimate meaning.
  37. Review: Conceivability and Possibility. [REVIEW]John Divers - 2004 - Mind 113 (450):347-351.
  38. Hume on Knowledge of Metaphysical Modalities.Daniel Dohrn - 2010 - Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 13.
    I outline Hume’s views about conceivability evidence. Then I critically scrutinize two threats to conceivability-based modal epistemology. Both arise from Hume’s criticism of claims to knowing necessary causal relationships: Firstly, a sceptical stance towards causal necessity may carry over to necessity claims in general. Secondly, since – according to a sceptical realist reading – Hume grants the eventuality of causal powers grounded in essential features of objects, conceivability-based claims to comprehensive metaphysical possibilities seem endangered. I argue that although normal conceivability-based (...)
  39. Knowledge by Imagination - How Imaginative Experience Can Ground Knowledge.Fabian Dorsch - forthcoming - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy.
    In this article, I defend the view that we can acquire factual knowledge – that is, contingent propositional knowledge about certain (perceivable) aspects of reality – on the basis of imaginative experience. More specifically, I argue that, under suitable circumstances, imaginative experiences can rationally determine the propositional content of knowledge-constituting beliefs – though not their attitude of belief – in roughly the same way as perceptual experiences do in the case of perceptual knowledge. I also highlight some philosophical consequences of (...)
  40. Hume.Fabian Dorsch - 2016 - In Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. Routledge. pp. 40-54.
    This chapter overviews Hume’s thoughts on the nature and role of imagining and focusses primarily on three important distinctions that Hume draws among our conscious mental episodes: (i) between impressions and ideas; (ii) between ideas of the memory and ideas of the imagination; and (iii), among the ideas of the imagination, between ideas of the judgement and ideas of the fancy. In addition, the chapter considers Hume’s views on the imagination as a faculty of producing ideas, as well as on (...)
  41. Hume on the Imagination.Fabian Dorsch - 2015 - Rero Doc Digital Library:1-28.
    This is the original, longer draft for my entry on Hume in the 'The Routledge Hand- book of Philosophy of Imagination', edited by Amy Kind and published by Routledge in 2016 (see the separate entry). — Please always cite the Routledge version, unless there are passages concerned that did not make it into the Handbook for reasons of length. — -/- This chapter overviews Hume’s thoughts on the nature and the role of imagining, with an almost exclusive focus on the (...)
  42. How to Undercut Radical Skepticism.Santiago Echeverri - 2017 - Philosophical Studies 174 (5):1299-1321.
    Radical skepticism relies on the hypothesis that one could be completely cut off from the external world. In this paper, I argue that this hypothesis can be rationally motivated by means of a conceivability argument. Subsequently, I submit that this conceivability argument does not furnish a good reason to believe that one could be completely cut off from the external world. To this end, I show that we cannot adequately conceive scenarios that verify the radical skeptical hypothesis. Attempts to do (...)
  43. Hylas e Philonous dieci anni dopo.Maurizio Ferraris & Achille C. Varzi - 2013 - SpazioFilosofico 8 (2):219–227.
    This is a sequel to our dialogue "Che cosa c'è e che cos'è (2003), focusing on the interplay between what there is and what there could be—between actuality and possibility—from the perspective of Hylas (here: the realist philosopher) and from the perspective of Philonous (here: the conventionalist anti-realist).
  44. Conceivability and Epistemic Possibility.M. Oreste Fiocco - 2007 - Erkenntnis 67 (3):387-399.
    The notion of conceivability has traditionally been regarded as crucial to an account of modal knowledge. Despite its importance to modal epistemology, there is no received explication of conceivability. In recent discussions, some have attempted to explicate the notion in terms of epistemic possibility. There are, however, two notions of epistemic possibility, a more familiar one and a novel one. I argue that these two notions are independent of one another. Both are irrelevant to an account of modal knowledge on (...)
  45. Conceivability, Imagination and Modal Knowledge.M. Oreste Fiocco - 2007 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (2):364–380.
    The notion of conceivability has traditionally been regarded as crucial to an account of modal knowledge. Despite its importance to modal epistemology, there is no received explication of conceivability. One purpose of this paper is to argue that the notion is not fruitfully explicated in terms of the imagination. The most natural way of presenting a notion of conceivability qua imaginability is open to cogent criticism. In order to avoid such criticism, an advocate of the modal insightfulness of the imagination (...)
  46. Theory Selection in Modal Epistemology.Robert William Fischer - 2015 - American Philosophical Quarterly 52 (3):289-304.
    Accounts of modal knowledge are many and varied. How should we choose between them? I propose that we employ inference to the best explanation, and I suggest that there are three desiderata that we should use to rank hypotheses: conservatism, simplicity, and the ability to handle disagreement. After examining these desiderata, I contend that they can’t be used to justify belief in the modal epistemology that fares best, but that they can justify our accepting it in an epistemically significant sense. (...)
  47. The Modal-Knowno Problem.Robert William Fischer & Felipe Leon - 2016 - Southwest Philosophy Review 32 (1):225-232.
  48. 'Personal Identity and Imagination': One Objection.Antony Flew - 1985 - Philosophy 60 (231):123 - 126.
  49. Conceivability and the Infinite.George S. Fullerton - 1886 - Mind 11 (42):186-202.
  50. The Role of Intuition in Metaphysics.M. J. García-Encinas - 2015 - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34 (3):79-99.
    In this paper I consider the possibility of a kind of a priori cognition that serves the purposes of metaphysics, given that metaphysics involves the search for modal knowledge. Necessary or, better, modal knowledge is a priori; so metaphysical knowledge is likewise a priori. Here I argue that intuition is the route to modal knowledge in metaphysics, and I insist that conceivability or knowledge of conceptual truths does not lead towards the modal realm of metaphysics.
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