Philosophy of the Imagination

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Through particular modes of the imagination, an individual can respond to trials more effectively and ultimately reach success. In How We Hope, Adrienne Martin presents “active fantasies” as a way in which a person imagines a world where their hopeful outcome exists. While Martin describes both positive and negative forms of fantasizing, she does not speak at length about obstacles. If a person’s active fantasies consist only of “ideally [depicting] the positive future,” (Oettingen) they avoid the possibility of failure.

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By planning for inevitable challenges in this imaginative activity, we develop a self-knowledge that helps us become more prepared for the future. Through the application and cultivation of this self-knowledge, we can build resiliency and sustain hope in the face of obstacles.

In order to understand how a person sustains hope through obstacles, a definition of hope is necessary. Martin takes the orthodox view of hope by seeing it as the desire for a certain outcome and believing that this outcome is possible. But she expands this definition through an incorporation element. Martin thinks that we incorporate the desire for this particular outcome into our agency as a reason for hopeful activity (Stonestreet). As a result, the hopeful person has a reason to plan on reaching their goal and fantasizes about what to do to meet the outcome he or she desires. Martin thinks that the hopeful person is inclined to “imagine ways the outcome might actualize” (Martin 86) through the practice of fantasies. According to Martin, a person may engage in “active fantasies” or “passive fantasies” (86).

Yet, passive fantasies are ill-advised because the agent is not involved in producing the outcome. In passive fantasies, someone imagines the outcome as if they are the receiver and have already gotten what they hoped for without taking any action. Like Martin, I will be focusing on the concept of active fantasies. In these fantasies, people create imaginative representations of themselves in different situations through mental imagery. Martin feels that the active fantasies can lead to “more effective planning” (87) and goal-setting because they may bring about new attractions and commitments to an outcome while increasing one’s motivation during the process.

One example of active fantasizing that Martin offers is that of a young writer who is struggling to become pregnant. Martin first describes the woman imagining herself spending time with her baby on a front porch. While imagining this moment, the woman thinks about the “new range of emotions” (88) from motherhood that she could explore in her writing. The mother may interpret this event as a new attraction to motherhood when she connects the “worlds proposed by fantasies” and “the actual world” (89). In this way, she begins to believe that motherhood could exist in reality.

If she considers her fantasy as “a legitimate rational activity” (89), she may decide to try adoption or infertility treatment as she found another reason for commitment despite adversity. Because she imagined how motherhood could affect her writing, the woman has already become focused on her hoped-for outcome which may make it more difficult for her to adjust her plans while pursuing an opportunity at motherhood. Martin does not state whether the woman imagines herself waiting several years to be matched with an expectant mother in adoption. She will be able to more accurately bridge her fantasy with the real world by considering challenges she may have while trying to adopt or become pregnant, even if she eventually becomes a mother. Perhaps the young woman is determined to have a biological child and seeks specialists for infertility treatment. Then she will be more prepared to face whatever the future may bring.

After all, there are certain circumstances that cannot be controlled. If she becomes so committed to her active fantasy, a world where she could be a mother, she may not necessarily be thinking about side effects of infertility treatment such as hormone imbalance that could cause further pain. Depending on her financial status, she may not be able to afford adoption and infertility treatment. I am not arguing that the young woman should avoid actively fantasizing at all. However, she must imaginatively simulate herself encountering obstacles she faces before she even achieves her goal. Martin reveals that people may become more confident when they “[imagine] themselves surmounting an obstacle” (87), but I would like to suggest that you cannot truly tackle an obstacle without recognizing the difficulties you will have along the way. If she never becomes pregnant, she may look back and wish she had not thought about how it could have expanded her writing skills. She may become more discouraged and less willing to actively fantasize during another obstacle, which prevents her from sustaining hope.

Martin does indeed discuss how a “hopeful fantasy can generate an unmotivated attraction” (89) that may lead the person to abandon their commitments. She suggests that the young writer may also actively fantasize about the “emotional attachment” (90) between a mother and child. As she imagines this condition, the woman may realize that she does not actually want her writing to change. In addition, she could fear the responsibility that comes with this deep connection between she and her infant. By actively fantasizing, the young woman turned away from motherhood—something she had been striving for through hope. Martin, appearing to draw on Kant, explains that this problem may occur because fantasies are “narrative forms of imaginative free-play” (90) that could make known an unattractive feature about the outcome someone hoped for, making them give up their commitment.

Even though we may not be able to control all elements of our imagination, we should try to imagine specific challenges in overcoming trials before we fantasize negatively about results of the outcome. Otherwise, we jump to conclusions too quickly without thorough reflection and judgments. Since we too fantasize about challenges, we still may eventually let go of hoped-for outcomes, but we do so with a more practical and methodical approach. By making the practice of active fantasies more of a process, we become better at prioritizing which obstacles are truly worth confronting. I am not advocating for a negative outlook on life that requires excessive worrying over challenges that may never arise. But it is better for us to use our imaginative mental faculties to prepare for changes in plans that we hoped for change than to be left disappointed. I advocate for an approach to active fantasies that guide us in the long-term by fostering self-knowledge and resiliency.

Gabrielle Oettingen, a professor at NYU, provides powerful insights on the problems of fantasizing and introduces a useful technique to improve this imaginative exercise during a podcast interview. Through her research of people actively fantasizing across many situations, she found that they are less likely to reach their goals when their fantasies are too positive. To clarify what a positive fantasy entails, she describes the example of someone hoping to have a date with his or her crush. Oettingen and her researchers told participants a story about how they met this person that they like. The participants were required to finish the story and could take the liberty of giving it either a positive or negative ending.

Except she realized that “the more positively these people had been fantasizing about getting together with their crushee, the less likely it was that they actually got together with the person they were in love with” (Oettingen) because they did not take further steps to build a successful relationship. Since they imagined as though their ideal outcome had already been reached, they were convinced that their goal has been reached. Oettingen even shared that people’s blood pressure lowered when they were “induced” to positively fantasize, which decreases energy and makes us less productive than we could be. One may argue that Oettingen’s view of active fantasies seems self-defeating and warn us against hope. But she reminds us that positive fantasies can have a positive impact on our lives as long as we consider what personal challenges could block success.

In four simple steps, the hopeful person makes his or her positive fantasies more effective for fulfilling wishes and accomplishing goals. Formerly known as mental contrasting, Oettingen refers to this strategy as WOOP. The process begins by an individual identifying a wish that he or she presents challenges but can be fulfilled on their own. Then the person should identify the best outcome that would occur if the wish is fulfilled. In the case of two people going on their first date, the best outcome may be both parties feeling chemistry between the two of them. After this step, the person must imagine what it would be like to achieve their best outcome. People must next ask themselves what may personally prevent their wish from being fulfilled. Perhaps the young woman on the date is shy and will struggle to engage in conversation with her crush.

However, she should not abandon her hope based on this obstacle. The imagination takes on another role by enabling someone to actively fantasize about their response to his or her obstacle. Without imagining what it would be like to be rejected by her crush, the woman does not give herself a chance to grow overcome her obstacle. By imagining her behavior and thoughts, she can formulate plans to conquer her fear of rejection. Having imagined her obstacle, she may approach her crush and diminish her fear without even realizing it. The more we imagine these obstacles, the more comfortable we become in executing deliberate plans against them. One of the most important aspects of mental contrasting is recognizing obstacles based on internal factors than external factors through a self-knowledge of fears, desires, past mistakes, and more.

By focusing on “inner obstacles” (Oettingen) such as shyness, a person cannot come up with excuses for their wish not being fulfilled. Since it is up to the hopeful person to imagine and plan for responses to such obstacles, their energy increases too. As people use WOOP more often, the steps blend together, and the strategy becomes an unconscious habit. WOOP does not just encourage people to imagine their personal obstacles, but to take action to overcome them. Because of these characteristics, our ability to adapt to various forms of trials is strengthened, as I will discuss later.

As difficult as it is to admit, everyone experiences failure throughout their lives. Academics like Melanie Stefan recommend that people create failure résumés in addition to traditional ones that track our achievements. In his New York Times article on this practice, Tim Herrera shares Stefan’s thoughts as well as his own. Herrera points out that his failure résumé includes items such as a work presentation that went poorly. Even though he struggled, he realized that he should have prepared better and spent more time on the project. Meanwhile, Stefan lists rejections from graduate programs and orchestras, degrees she never finished or tried for, and criticism from an old boss.

But a failure resume also contains lessons for these failures because rejections and mistakes remind us that success takes time and we all have room to grow both personally and professionally. Failure résumés are a great tool to use in a new approach to active fantasies. A list of failures provides a person with clear examples of what obstacles they may encounter while working towards a goal and why it is valuable to confront them. The lessons described on the document provide people with the opportunity for introspection that is essential for long-term individual growth and success. Failure résumés are not supposed to discourage people from trying again, but to shift the “‘harsh internal monologue’” (Babur) that may prevent someone from responding to trials. As failure résumés enable people to see what they can improve on and show them of how far they have come, they clearly contribute to a person’s self-knowledge and resiliency. By creating failure résumés, we can imagine past obstacles and have the results right in front of us. They help us to change our understanding of failure, become better predicting future challenges, and sustain hope amidst rejections and mistakes.

While numerous factors have played a role trials, I have used my imagination both well and badly in response to them. In particular, a failure I had during a play in eighth grade stands out as one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. As I delivered a short monologue, I completely forgot my lines. I can still reimagine the concerned facial expressions my castmates, director, and family displayed. This event was troubling for me because I had been performing in plays for years by then and practiced my lines every day. Our director had taught us how to recover from moments like these through improvisation skills and other techniques. But I never expected myself to mess up an entire scene.

Even though I was nervous during most shows, my bouts of stage fright were minor. Only I was able to notice my heart racing or sweaty palms. Because of my fears, I did try to imagine what it would happen if I forgot a line or if castmates missed their cues. Yet, I did not use my active fantasies to present the worst-case scenario. I simply imagined a challenge and a quick recovery for myself and my peers. Since these pleasant active fantasies gave me confidence, I did not plan for specific obstacles as best I could. As a result, I severely struggled when I froze onstage that night. Because I did not effectively imagine and plan for this failure, I had a difficult time going back onstage and even imagining myself performing again. Looking back from this experience, I use try to actively fantasize in more detail and realize that I am not perfect. What matters is that I recognized my physical and mental failure while not closing the door on an activity I enjoy.

Like any high school student, I dreaded the competitive college admissions process. During my Junior year, I visited a popular school that I had thought about attending for a while. However, I knew that this university was a reach school for me. Obviously, my hoped-for outcome was acceptance to the school. Since I knew there was a strong enough chance that I would not get in, I took steps to stand out amongst other applicants. I revised my college essay multiple times, went to tutoring sessions, took challenging courses, went to extra open houses, visited admissions representatives at college fairs, and more. Because I was not sure that I would be accepted, I visited other universities in the past and continued to go on college tours for schools I loved as well. certainly hoped and imagined going to this school, but I also imagined challenges during the application process and how I would react if I was rejected. Knowing that my test scores were not strong and many girls in my grade had applied there, I assumed I would be at least waitlisted.

Unfortunately, I was right. At first, I was very upset to receive that notification and felt like I was the only person who did not get in. But I dealt with this failure better than I anticipated to which I credit my practical active fantasies. I submitted another essay and privately hoped my wish would be fulfilled, but I was prepared to encounter another rejection should it arise. A few months later I learned that I was ultimately rejected from Fordham University. I know that this rejection was a failure, but its lessons far outweigh initial disappointments. If I had been accepted to Fordham, I may not have come to Loyola which has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. At Loyola I have made friends that accept me for who I am, joined clubs that make me happy, and take classes that make me feel intellectually alive. I have also realized that it is not test scores and college application letters that define me, but my character and actions. Without using my imagination to directly respond to obstacles, I may not have been as productive in my planning or been able to move on from rejections like these.

One may argue that I am encouraging people to develop habits of excessive worrying by requiring people to address obstacles during every goal. Except someone who worries excessively may not pursue challenging goals, which is the opposite of what I support. Instead of thinking about the inevitability of obstacles with a negative attitude, the wise active fantasizer develops self-knowledge that they then apply to obstacles that may occur within different situations. In other words, they make decisions about their hopeful outcomes based on an understanding of the self. Our self-knowledge helps us to understand our own past experiences, values, attitudes, etc. However, the self is not static. Through the active fantasy processes, what we are capable of changes. In my own life, I have taken the self-knowledge I gained from my stage fright experience to better predict how successful I will be in class presentations whether I make a mistake or not. While I am more self-conscious about speaking in public now, my self-knowledge from that experience has helped me find ways to cope with my anxiety and overcome certain fears. The more we cultivate self-knowledge, the more effective we are at imagining our reactions to certain obstacles.

When the term resilience comes to mind, people may not necessarily associate it with the imagination. But the modes of imagination involved in the types of active fantasies I have discussed do incorporate resiliency because they guide us as we respond to obstacles. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the “process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” It is important to note that the resilient person is still subject to suffering. Psychologists recommend people develop skills in planning, problem-solving, and communication to become more resilient. These skills grow deeper when people imagine obstacles through active fantasies. For example, if I had not actively fantasized about standardized test preparation or how I would behave when my classmates got into Fordham, I may have had trouble accepting the fact that I would not be walking onto that campus this past fall. Without a doubt, active fantasies allow us to build resiliency. As we simulate difficult situations, we become more realistic fantasizers while holding onto our hope that something good can come from hardships.

Martin’s argument provides us with an understanding of the role of active fantasies in goal-setting, but I aim to expand the discussion to how we might effectively use them in trials. One cannot ignore that the imagination is susceptible to errors, but with different approaches we can use active fantasies to overcome inevitable obstacles instead of merely noticing them. Strategies like mental contrasting and tools like the failure résumé help us to identify specific obstacles and accurately predict how we might act during them. As these improvements are made, we cultivate an evolving self-knowledge that makes us better prepared for future situations. Through these processes, we become more capable of adapting to changes in our hoped-for outcomes. As long as we take measures to adjust it, the imagination can remain a powerful cognitive faculty that guides us greatly in the hardest of times.

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Philosophy of the Imagination. (2019, Nov 16). Retrieved from