Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action

The forthcoming article “Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action” by Avshalom M. Schwartz is summarized by the author below.

In recent years, growing levels of polarization and political tensions have raised concerns about the future of liberal democracies around the world and our capacity to act together as democratic citizens. In my paper, I turn to Aristotle in asking how, despite these challenges and the constant threat of conflict, we might be able to sustain a political partnership (what the ancient Greeks called koinonia) that would allow us to act together as fellow citizens of a democratic society.  

I argue that we can find important resources for answering this question by exploring Aristotle’s theory of imagination, phantasia, and its political implications. In Aristotle’s psychological work, phantasia appears crucial not only for our capacity to process various sensual inputs and produce “mental representations” but also for generating animal movement and action. Among other things, phantasia can make things appear to us as pleasant, painful, and above all as good or bad, and is thus essential for motivating and generating individual movements and action. 

Aristotle’s theory of phantasia is traditionally read and interpreted at the level of individual psychology. Yet, I show that phantasia is crucial for our understanding not only of individual movement but also of collective action more generally. In fact, I argue that it provides the psychological micro-foundations of collective action and thus helps explain how we can move from individual psychology to collective agency and action. To demonstrate this argument, I offer a reexamination of the famous Wisdom of the Multitude passage (Politics 3.11), showing that the capacity of many individuals to act together is tied to their ability to share in a single, collective phantasma: a mental representation of the practical end or goal of their collective effort as good and thus worthy of pursuit.   

My analysis of the Wisdom of the Multitude passage not only provides an analogy for the conditions under which collective action is possible but also reveals some of its challenges and limitations. Given the subjectivity of individual phantasiai, generating the kind of imaginative unity required for collective action might be hard. I show how certain instances of failure of collective action in Aristotle (stasis and radical democracy) are connected to the lack of a shared phantasma. I argue that since our phantasia is shaped by our character, a community may overcome these challenges by means of habituation and education.  

I conclude by generalizing these Aristotelian insights and applying them to our contemporary moment. While an attempt to control the imagination from above is incompatible with basic liberal values, I suggest that we view the Aristotelian collective phantasma as a product of collective effort, shaped by multiple individuals in their daily activities as citizens and in their relation to and interaction with one another. Thus, such Aristotelian collective phantasma may offer us the potential of a shared imagination that will guide our collective endeavors while maintaining a strong commitment to pluralism, multiple identities and communities, and the creativity of the individual imagination.   

About the Author: Avshalom M. Schwartz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Their research “Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.