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Elaine Scarry on The Difficulty of Imagining Other People


Designing social institutions for off-world living is necessarily speculative. We must, by whatever methodology we pick, imagine what it will be like to live and exist under those circumstances.

But the capacity to imagine has its limits. Limits which are essential to understand if we want to effectively speculative about the future of off-world living, and to design social institutions which might govern that living.

To that end, while the prudent imagination is to ask, "what it is like to live under any proposed rules", we should add a further question:

“Can we, alone, effectively imagine what it would be like for everyone to live under these rules?”

At first glance, the concern might be addressed by having a sufficiently representative sample of inputs and imaginative capacity - or even to have a totally exhaustive sample, for each person living under these circumstances to report and disclose their thoughts. A process which may be entirely feasible for future off-world living given the small numbers in the beginning.

But the critique of imagination is not a critique of who is asked, but the fundamental limits of imaginative capability. What can it not do?

What about its most basic ability for many, to recall images from remembered observations. Consider an exercise as Sartre writes in The Imaginary

I want to remember the face of my friend Pierre. I make an effort and I produce a certain imaged consciousness of Pierre. The object is very imperfectly attained: some details are lacking, others are suspect, the whole is rather blurred. There is a certain feeling of sympathy and charm, which I wanted to resort to this face and which did not return. I do not renounce my project, I get up and take a photograph from a drawer. It is an excellent portrait of Pierre, it gives me all the details of his face, some of which had escaped me. But the photo lacks life: it gives perfectly the external characteristics of Pierre's face; it does not capture his expression. Fortunately I possess a caricature that a skilful artist made of him. This time the relations between the parts of the face are deliberately distorted, the nose is much too long, the cheeks are too prominent, etc. Nevertheless, something that was lacking in the photograph, life, expression, is clearly manifest in the drawing: I 'regain' Pierre.

Or consider a further exercise. Simply to sit close to a friend, a loved one, or a stranger and study their face. To trace the outline of their eyes and cheeks, their hair, their mouth. And then to close your eyes, for a minute, to try and imagine in their face in its fullness and reality. And then open your eyes, and ask honestly - what was missing in your imagined recreation.

Given the private nature of imagination, we are open to self-deception. But lets continue anyways.

Our inability to imagine details is one feature. But what about the ability to imagine another's pain. This is not merely to feel sympathy, or the sympathetic weakness and odd feeling of seeing someone in pain, the need to look away. This is to ask - do you when seeing someone in pain feel exactly as they do, is the feeling of physical pain transmitted. Sympathy is contagious, but thankfully physical pain is not.

For Elaine Scarry, opening her classic essay, The Difficulty of Imagining Other People, notes:

The way we act towards "others" is shaped by the way we imagine them.

Scarry continues later in the text,

the difficulty of impinging others is shown by the fact that one can be in the presence of another person who is in pain and not know that the person is in pain. the ease of remaining ignorance of another's pain even permits one to inflict it and amplify it in the body of the other person while remaining immune oneself

But what are the implications. If we accept this inability, and the implications it has for the ability to cause pain, should we trust institutions that rely on the ability of societies to "generously imagine" other groups in order to ensure governance?

Scarry's answer is a resounding no.

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