William James famously wrote,
“There are imaginations, not ‘The Imagination,’ and they must be studied in detail.” This pluralist declaration and imperative has been carried out to an increasing degree in philosophy and the social science in recent decades. Putting aside Sartre’s work and the phenomenological traditions’ mostly apolitical treatments of the imagination, the past three decades truly saw its renaissance with a large increase in articles and monographs treating this human power.
This increase in intellectual output took place in both analytic and continental circles, as the Philosopher’s Index attests to. Pragmatist scholarship itself reflects this trend as Thomas Alexander, Steven Fesmire, and Mark Johnson have provided a deeper articulation of the consequences of pragmatic philosophy and inquiry for our understanding of the central role of imagination in experience, ethics, and mental life generally speaking.
The social and political consequences of rethinking imagination are coming to the fore as well again as public intellectuals such as Henry Giroux are struggling to make sense of a political landscape in which state actors and agents engage in actions that are clearly divergent from the stated and real interests of individual groups, state actors and humanity generally speaking. Problematic situations such as the oligarchic capture of democratic processes, crumbling infrastructure and human development programs, and climate change are unable as of yet to motivate the powerful response they deserve. Skepticism on the part of the popular sovereign body as to the efficacy of representative government is also rising, if not at historical highs in the history of public polling data, It is here that a pragmatic understanding of the social texture of our deliberations and the constraints upon our ability to envision possible, practicable, and empowering futures requires a critical stance. By critical here I mean those approaches that have moved from a positivist understanding of the role of social inquiry to a pragmatic understanding. That is, a pragmatic understanding of inquiry into human problems that is irreducibly motivated by norms of emancipation. Emancipation from what? In the very least and the topic of this paper, those social forces that make democracy impossible to even envision due to what Dewey referred to as a ‘framework of imagination’.
Reading philosophy through a Deweyan lens as ‘imaginative reconstruction’ we can see that a key component of democratic struggle is over the framework of imagination or as Benedict Anderson referred to it the ‘imaginary’ in his classic work Imagined Communities. Perhaps among recent political theorists in a pragmatic vein, both Rorty and Unger have been the most focused on the key of imagination.
As we are looking for a diagnosis of the present, an elucidation of the obstacles and opportunities to realizing our interests in our communities, we must get a grip on the habitual parameters of interpretation and discourse about our common social life , both conceptually and institutionally,
I want in this paper to emphasize the latter form of strictures on our reflective experience and articulation of ideals. Specifically I take up Dewey’s thesis that the contract, the high mark of individual freedom and autonomy in the age of liberalism is actually a form of domination But, and I follow the path of Joseph Betz here, I want to explore alternatives to stockholder, neoliberal, managerial capitalism as they habituate the public’s imagination as to what is possible democratic action on a large variety of fronts. The case of the worker run co-op and the requisite architecture of this model of production will be explored, and in so doing, the severe limitations upon and exclusions from our practical reason under neoliberalism of this model will highlight our condition under our contemporary imaginary. As Dewey noted, to get the problem right is to be far along in inquiry.