Unhinged Frames: Assessing Thought Experiments in Normative Political Theory

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This paper develops a framework for assessing thought experiments in normative political theory. For thought experiments within the realm of practical - as opposed to theoretical - philosophy to gain any "imaginative grip" at all they must be action-guiding. This means hypotheticals ought to assist their addressees in making judgments about real-world dilemmas, even if they purposefully depict a possible world that is remote from reality. Against the widely held assumption that thought experiments are exempt from criticism because they only engage the readers' imagination, the paper argues that we should distinguish between relevant and irrelevant hypotheticals. This distinction is made according to a criterion of modality: while far-fetched, the former construct imaginary cases that are possible for us, here and now, the latter conjure up imaginary cases that are barely conceivable at all. To establish this claim, the paper interrogates, via a discussion of Susan Sontag and Judith Butler's accounts of representations of violence, the frames through which hypotheticals construct possible worlds, and concludes that some frames are better than others at sustaining a link with the world as we know it. Frames that disrupt this link can be charged with failing to offer action-guidance
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1119-1141
Number of pages23
JournalBritish journal of political science
Issue number4
Early online date17 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • framing
  • imagination
  • judgement
  • thought experiments
  • torture


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