The Normative Relations between Fiction, Imagination and Appreciation

  • Funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF), 2017 – 2020
  • Directed by Tom Kindt (University of Fribourg), Tilmann Köppe (University of Göttingen) and Fabian Dorsch (University of Fribourg)


(The detailed research plan can be found here.)

It is a commonplace that fictional texts invite and move us to imagine certain things concerning the characters and events described by the text. Reading ‘The Sound and the Fury’ prompts us to imagine various incidents in the history of the Compson family. It is equally undeniable that considerations about what fictional texts ask us to imagine are central to our aesthetic appreciation of them. We value Faulkner’s novel in part because it allows us to imagine these incidents from the very complex, diverse and subjective points of view of the three Compson brothers.

What these two truisms about the relationship between fiction, imagination and appreciation have in common is that they describe normative relations. Imagining is the appropriate basic response to fictional texts. If we fail to imagine in accordance with the text’s prescriptions to imagine, we fail to properly engage with it. Similarly, appreciation is the appropriate response to the power of fictional texts to captivate our imagination in rich and rewarding ways. Much of the aesthetic worth of fictional texts resides in the fact that they make specific fictional worlds accessible to our imagination. Hence, the aesthetic evaluation of fictional texts requires us to take into account what they ask us to imagine, and how they do this.

The aim of the research project is to investigate the nature of these two normative relations between fiction, imagination and appreciation, which may be characterized in the following way:

  • (NR1) Fictional texts direct us to imagine certain things.

  • (NR2) That fictional texts direct us to imagine certain things bears on whether we should aesthetically (dis)value them.

With respect to each fictional text, there are specific instances of (NR1) and (NR2) which tell us what to imagine when reading the text, and also how to aesthetically assess it in light of what it asks us to imagine. Although important aspects of (NR1) and (NR2) have already been discussed in the literature, many others have not. Thus there has so far been no systematic investigation of the normative role of imagining and its normative connections to fiction and appreciation – something that this research projects aims to remedy.

The neglected issues that we intend to address can be divided into factual, normative and foundational questions. The first subproject inquires into how specific instances of (NR1) and (NR2) are actually established in the practice of interpretation in literary studies, while the second subproject elucidates particular instances of (NR1) and (NR2) that should (or should not) guide our interpretation. The third subproject aims to identify the source of the normativity of the justified instances of (NR1) and (NR2). Together the three subprojects aim at providing a comprehensive account of the general normative relations between fiction, imagination and appreciation.