Conceivability and possibility: some dilemmas for Humeans

Francesco Berto*, Tom Schoonen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


The Humean view that conceivability entails possibility can be criticized via input from cognitive psychology. A mainstream view here has it that there are two candidate codings for mental representations (one of them being, according to some, reducible to the other): the linguistic and the pictorial, the difference between the two consisting in the degree of arbitrariness of the representation relation. If the conceivability of P at issue for Humeans involves the having of a linguistic mental representation, then it is easy to show that we can conceive the impossible, for impossibilities can be represented by meaningful bits of language. If the conceivability of P amounts to the pictorial imaginability of a situation verifying P, then the question is whether the imagination at issue works purely qualitatively, that is, only by phenomenological resemblance with the imagined scenario. If so, the range of situations imaginable in this way is too limited to have a significant role in modal epistemology. If not, imagination will involve some arbitrary labeling component, which turns out to be sufficient for imagining the impossible. And if the relevant imagination is neither linguistic nor pictorial, Humeans will appear to resort to some representational magic, until they come up with a theory of a ‘third code’ for mental representations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2697-2715
Number of pages19
Issue number6
Early online date24 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


  • Conceivability and possibility
  • Imagination
  • Mental imagery
  • Mental representation
  • Modal epistemology


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