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By John Kekes


The Montréal Review, June 2011


"The Enlargement of Life: Moral Imagination at Work" by John Kekes (Cornell University Press, 2010)


"In this beautifully written book, John Kekes works back and forth between rigorous analytic distinctions on the one hand and thought-provoking examinations of literary and historical figures on the other. This ensures that somewhat abstract claims are always back up by vividly described characterizations of concrete lives. Kekes is one of the most engaging and clear-headed writers on the philosophical scene today."

-George W. Harris, Chancellor Professor of Philosophy, College of William and Mary


The title comes from Santayana, writing in Three Philosophical Poets of "a steady contemplation of all things in their order and worth. Such a contemplation is imaginative. No one can reach it who has not enlarged his mind and tamed his heart." Wallace Stevens consciously echoes this in The Necessary Angel, where he says in the Introduction that imagination leads to "the enlargement of life." The book is about the importance of moral imagination, which is best revealed in works of literature.

To live is to act, and we act because we want to satisfy our desires and avoid their frustration. We thus aim at a future condition that we suppose would be an improvement over the present. Such activities are essential to living, and we are unavoidably engaged in them. Some, however, succeed better than others because they reflect better on their desires, frustrations, and aims, and form a more realistic view of their possibilities and limits. They show that we need not be passive subjects at the mercy of external forces, but active agents who at least sometimes decide what desires to satisfy, what frustrations to endure, and what aims to pursue. We can often make such decisions because in civilized circumstances we can reflect on the many available possibilities.

Moral imagination is one chief means by which this kind of reflection proceeds. Its moral component is concerned with living a good life, understood as combining responsibility and fulfillment. Responsibility has to do with how our actions affect others. Fulfillment is overall contentment with life. Good lives require both because a responsible life may leave many important desires and aims frustrated, and a fulfilling life may be detrimental to the desires and aims of others. Frustrated lives and those lived in indifference or hostility to others are wanting in significant respects, so they fail to be good in the full sense of the word. The imaginative component of moral imagination involves both the correction of the unrealistic views we form of our limits and possibilities and the exploration of what it would be like to live according to our various possibilities. It enables us to understand how we might think, feel, act, and how others might be affected by our actions if we were to change how we live by correcting our past mistakes and exploring particular possibilities. Moral imagination thus enlarges our understanding of the possibilities that are open to us and of the limits within which we should pursue them.

This kind of imagination must be concrete and particular because our limits and possibilities differ; beliefs, emotions, and desires vary; and so do the contexts in which we live. All of us are limited by having to conform to some requirements, but these constitute only a minimum. The possibilities of life are much richer than the unavoidable physiological, psychological, and social limits to which all members of our species must either conform or suffer the consequences. The abundance of possibilities and the concreteness and particularity of moral imagination make it impossible to formulate rules about how it should do its work. But that does not mean that we cannot be helped by learning from the lives of others. The richest source of lives from which we can learn is literature. There is, therefore, a special affinity between good lives, literature, and moral imagination. The chapters focus on literary works that show something important about the place of imagination in a good life: on Mill's Jeremy Bentham and Autobiography; Sophocles's Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus; Wharton's The Age of Innocence; James's The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors; Montaigne's Essays; a historical reconstruction of the life and death of Sir Thomas More; one of the remarkable stories in Herodotus's The Histories; and Koestler's virtually forgotten Arrival and Departure.

Moral imagination does its work by correction, exploration, and the disciplined combination of both. Corrective imagination is directed toward our past, first to discover why, as it is all too likely, we have made mistakes about the available possibilities, and then how we might correct them. These mistakes may have led us to treat as a possibility what in fact was not, or to fail to recognize what in fact was a possibility. We make these mistakes because some psychological tendency, self-deception, fear, or laziness, leads us to form a false view of our possibilities. Understanding and correcting these obstructing psychological tendencies will make it possible to form a more realistic view of our present and future possibilities. Corrective imagination, however, being backward-looking, is limited because it can at best only remove obstacles from the way, but it cannot help us to deliberate about what future possibilities we should pursue if self-inflicted falsifications no longer obscure our understanding.

Exploratory imagination enables us to look toward the future and to form a view of what it would be like to live according to various possibilities we recognize as open to us. This view includes not merely realistic beliefs about the possibilities, but also a realistic estimate of how we would feel if we lived trying to realize them and what effect living that way would have on our present and future motivation. Exploratory imagination, therefore, helps us understand both the possibilities and our likely psychologically complex attitude toward them, an attitude that is an unstable compound of cognitive, emotive, and volitional elements. Exploration can easily go wrong because our mixed motives and uncorrected falsifying tendencies often prevent us from forming a realistic view of our likely beliefs, feelings, and motives. The success of exploratory imagination, thus, depends on the work of corrective imagination having been done well.

Corrective and exploratory imagination are consequently interdependent: the point of correction is to make a better future possible, but the exploration of that future is reliable only if we avoid past falsifying tendencies. Each needs the other and they should work jointly. But when they do, the perspective of each is altered. The reason for looking backward becomes not just to correct past mistakes, but to correct them with an eye to the future. And the reason for looking forward is not merely to explore imaginatively yet untried possibilities, but to explore them as realistic possibilities for the person we believe we are on the basis of our corrected falsifying tendencies. The joint works and the altered perspectives of correction and exploration produce disciplined imagination. It is an improvement over the other two because it incorporates the correction and the exploration they make possible, while avoiding the limits each has.

A further reason why disciplined imagination should be distinguished from the other two is that their temporal orientations are different. Correction is oriented toward the past; exploration toward the future. Disciplined imagination, however, is focused on the present. Its concern is with present deliberation about our possibilities. This involves backward-looking correction and forward-looking exploration, but they are secondary and instrumental to the primary purpose, which is to deliberate well in the present. These three uses of imagination are normally indistinguishable because they are intermingled and tend to occur together. Their separation is only for the purpose of understanding better the work they do, the limits they have, and the mistakes to which they are liable.

These general remarks merely introduce the characteristics of moral imagination and gesture toward its aim of helping us approximate our ideal of a good life, but they do not show how moral imagination actually does it work. That can be done only by concentrating on concrete cases, and the best source of such cases is literature. Ideals of a good life, moral imagination, and literature, therefore, are intimately connected.


John Kekes is Research Professor at Union College, Schenectady, New York. Among his many books are The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton, 1993), The Roots of Evil, (Cornell, 2005), Enjoyment, (Oxford, 2008), and The Human Condition, (Oxford, 2010). He may be reached at jonkekes@nycap.rr.com



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