O.P. Recommends: Five Approaches to Intellectual History, by Chris Cameron

I came across this excellently clear and succinct piece by Chris Cameron on intellectual history, which discipline I’m currently studying at the University of Edinburgh:

‘My view of what intellectual history, as I noted in the chat, is that it is the sub-discipline of history that deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this sub-discipline is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another assumption of intellectual historians is that human beings cannot live in the world without theories about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which again, depends upon symbols and language. So intellectual history is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought they were doing.

By nature, intellectual history is an interdisciplinary field, and there are many approaches that scholars take to studying the history of ideas. I would like to outline five of the most prominent of these approaches…’

Read the full essay here at the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

New Podcast Episode: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017

Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone National Park and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.

The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Is a Universal Basic Income too Utopian to Work?

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail), public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I recently listened to Jack Russell Weinstein’s interview of historian and author Rutger Bregman with a great deal of interest, and the discussion is so rich in detail I plan on listening to it again soon. The interview, available as a podcast, explores the question “Is a Universal Basic Income too Utopian to Work?” As you may know, I’m very interested in the topic of basic income, in the philosophical and in the practical justifications for providing at least a minimum living to everyone, regardless of perceived merit. I agree with Weinstein that Bregman makes a very convincing case that a basic income is not only economically feasible; it’s practical, it’s just, and it’s the right thing to do. I very much encourage you to listen, I think you’ll learn some very surprising things!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 2

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Illinois. The Museum is to the left, the Library is to the right

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued

After my visit to the Lincoln Tomb at the Oak Ridge Cemetery and a quick stop to drop off my luggage at the room where I’ll be staying, I continue my Springfield journey downtown at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, 112 N. Sixth St. It’s a large complex, the two public buildings each stretching the length of one city block along N. Sixth. It has a very late-1990’s – early 2000’s style, neither particularly handsome nor offensive in my view, just… generic. I associate it with municipal buildings such as city halls, libraries, and large post offices, perhaps because so many were built in this general style in my native California throughout my teens and my early adulthood.

I start with the Museum at the northeast corner of N. Sixth and E. Jefferson. After passing through the foyer and security entrance, I step into a large central room, with very tall ceilings and a life-size family grouping of the Lincoln family. I find I’ve neglected to take pictures of this, I think because I don’t like the sculptures much. For the most part, I don’t care for sculptures that attempt to recreate historical figures in a hyper-realistic way. These ones look like giant dolls: the hair looks like cheap wigs; the postures are stiff and slightly unnatural; and the face paint is a little off, like not-quite-successful funeral-parlor makeup. This one of those sorts of things like playing the bagpipe or the violin, I think: you need to get it just right or the result is unpleasant. The overall effect of these figures, to me, is a little creepy and more than a little campy.

‘Satire on Slavery’ exhibit featuring ‘Fragment on Pro-Slavery Theology’. In these 1858 notes, Abraham Lincoln mocked pro-slavery arguments. On exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Springfield

Still, overall, I like the museum well enough, and I do enjoy most of the life-size, walk-through dioramas of imagined scenes from Abraham Lincoln’s life. The figures within them look better in the low light and they are surrounded by original and recreated interiors, structures, and artifacts of interest, so they are properly illustrative and educational for a museum. They do also have something of an amusement park quality but, hearing the reactions of the visiting children and the discussions following their questions, they appear to be effective in sparking interest in Lincoln’s history.

‘President Abraham Lincoln is blamed for the Civil War’s huge human toll and for deflecting the issue with his notorious storytelling in this 1864 cartoon by Joseph E. Baker.’ – Image and its caption courtesy of the Library of Congress. I don’t remember that a reproduction of this particular cartoon is displayed in the ALPM, but it’s representative of the sort of cartoons on display in the Whispering Room exhibit. As you may know, or may remember from one of my earlier accounts, Lincoln was notorious, for good or ill, for his penchant for storytelling

Pocket compass and sundial which belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather of the same name. He was a Revolutionary War captain and moved from Virginia to Lincoln’s native Kentucky in 1782. ALPL&M, Springfield

There’s one exhibit hall which I find particularly creative and interesting: it’s covered with reproductions satirical political cartoons critical of Lincoln’s real and fabricated opinions and policies. It’s an effective way to reveal the political issues and contrasting beliefs of the time, and the ways in which our nation was so deeply divided, just as we are deeply divided now. Comedy and satire, then as now, are two of the most efficient ways of communicating the nuances of issues that otherwise can be difficult to clearly explain. I did hear one grandmother use this as a teaching moment to tell her grandchild that, see, it’s not nice to make fun of presidents, just like people are making fun of Donald Trump today! I think she may have missed the point of the exhibit a little.

I also find many of the original artifacts on exhibit particularly interesting and I wish there was more space dedicated to the exhibit of these than to dioramas. There’s a tiny and delicate looking pocket sundial and compass set belonging to Captain Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln’s grandfather. They must not have been so delicate, however, since they traveled with him from Virginia to Kentucky in 1782, quite a rugged trek in those days.

Original front door key and deed of sale of the Lincoln family home in Springfield, on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

An original plaster model by Gutzon Borglum for his 1908 marble bust of Lincoln is also on display. The bronze bust of Lincoln at the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield and the other smaller one in Peoria Heights are also derived from this plaster cast. As you can see, and as the accompanying placard in the museum describes, Borglum left the left side of Lincoln’s face unfinished and without an ear. He explained that he thought the right side of Lincoln’s face was fully developed and much more expressive while the left side was ‘immature.’ However, when he sculpted Lincoln into the Mt. Rushmore National Monument, Lincoln’s head is positioned so that the left side of his face is more readily seen. But there as here, his left ear is unsculpted. I wonder how long it took Borglum to decide where to place Lincoln’s head among the others on Mt. Rushmore, given that he preferred the right side of his face. In Borglum’s original model for Mt Rushmore, the left side of Lincoln’s face is fully sculpted, ear and all. But Mt. Rushmore is unfinished. It was even less finished when Borglum died, but his son, whom he named Lincoln, by the way, completed the sculpture to the point we see today. I also wonder if Lincoln Borglum decided not to finish carving the left side of Lincoln’s face based on this plaster cast and on his father’s remarks.

Plaster cast by Gutzon Borglum for 1908 marble bust now in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. On display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

After touring the Museum, I cross the street and step into the Library to see if there are any more interesting artifacts on exhibit. There are only a few, and none that I find that are directly linked to Lincoln. The Library’s soon to close, so I’ll return another time to explore it more fully and to get some writing done.

Old State Capitol Building at 6th and Adams Streets, Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln had many associations with this building and its predecessor, a brick courthouse in the center of the square which was torn down to make room for this one

I head south for one block, turn right, and enter the Greek Revival Old State House to my left. It’s a handsome, classical Doric-order building in natural, textured cream and pinkish-tan stone with a smoothly painted off-white tall, narrow, red-roofed dome that looks as if it’s been stuck on top without concern as to whether it will match or not. Nevertheless, the effect is good: it all works together, somehow. It was mainly built between 1837-1840, completed in 1851, and then reconstructed in the 1960’s. It stands by itself among a large grassy lawn and gardens in the public square bordered by E. Washington St, S. 6th St, E. Adams St, and S. 5th St.

Parts of the structure we see here today are original, but much of it had been changed drastically over the years: in 1899, the entire building was raised to insert a new ground floor underneath, and a new dome replaced the old to better harmonize with the building’s changed proportions. The building had quickly become too small to accommodate the staff and the public in this rapidly growing state capital. Even with the addition of another floor, the administrative needs of the city outgrew the old state house and it was moved to a grand new capital building. In 1876, this building became the Sangamon County Courthouse. In the subsequent years, the building survived every successive move in and out of the various county bodies that had been assigned to it. It was the scene of so many great historic moments, especially those associated with the life and death of Lincoln, that all motions to tear it down were firmly opposed and defeated. Finally, in the 1960’s, the historic value of the building was fully realized in a complete restoration. What I see here today is a faithful manifestation of the original design and decor; examinations of old photos reveal that both the interior and exteriors appear almost exactly as they did in Lincoln’s time.

Old State House, Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois, by Clark Bullard for the Historic American Buildings Survey, July 13, 1935. Public domain via the Library of Congress. Notice the ground floor and larger dome that had been added in 1899-1900.

Lincoln had many connections with this site, in the 1831 red-brick courthouse that stood in the middle of the square, and in the state house built here over its former location. In 1901, historian Henry Douglas Giger wrote:

‘The brick court house stood in the middle of the square, and was completed in 1831 at a cost of $6,841.00. It was a two‐story square, brick building, with a hip roof, and cupalo on top, similar to the court houses peculiar to the Mississippi valley at that period, and from the time it was built all the business of the town centered around the square, and the old town on Jefferson street began to decay. The row of small shops on the east end of the north side of the square was called “Chicken Row.” In the fall of 1835 a young man fresh from the prim and dignified courts of New York arrived in Springfield. He wandered into the brick building standing in the center of the square, and saw the judge on his bench with his chair tilted back, his heels higher than his head, a cob pipe in his mouth, his hair all awry, and before him stood a small dark man with long black hair pleading his case. Attentively listening sprawled a long sombre form on the low platform used for the judge’s rostrum. The room was filled with men laughing and smoking. The judge was Stephen T. Logan, acknowledged to be the greatest lawyer Illinois has ever produced. The little man was Stephen A. Douglas the “Little Giant,” and the form on the floor was that of Abraham Lincoln, destined in the years to come to be the two foremost characters in the most formidable crisis the Union ever knew.’

Six years after this scene that Giger described took place, Lincoln would become Logan’s law partner. More on that to come. And as you know, Lincoln’s public debates with the ‘Little Giant’ Douglas 19 and then again 23 years later would catapult him to the national stage. Lincoln attended many court sessions in the old brick courthouse that stood here while he was studying to become a lawyer in the mid-1830’s. After he earned his law license in September of 1836, Lincoln would have argued his early cases here, and then in the larger, grander brick courthouse that was built in 1845 across the street where the building at 104 N. 6th St stands now. That was the county courthouse until it moved back here to its original location in the public square in January of 1876. That second brick courthouse was torn down shortly after that.

Lincoln likely visited that first brick courthouse which stood on this site a few years before he heard Logan argue that 1835 case. On March 26th, 1832, there was a celebration for the successful voyage of the steamer Talisman up the Sangamon River, while Lincoln was running his first political campaign for state legislator when he was 23 years old (he lost that one). He was a shop clerk at the time, with less than one year of formal education, and he hopped on board to pilot the Talisman through this section of the river. Lincoln was an experienced boatman at this point and knew this river well.

Interior of the Hall of Representatives, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

On October 3rd and 4th, 1854, Lincoln and Douglas held their first debate here at the State House in the Hall of Representatives. It was not a scheduled debate. Douglas was on a cross country campaign to garner public support for his Kansas-Nebraska Act, co-drafted with President Franklin Pierce, which effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise. The 1820 Compromise prohibited slavery in all new territories and states north of the 36°30′ parallel except for Missouri. The 1854 Act would leave the issue up to the individual states and territories to decide for themselves. Douglas, as we’ve seen, defended the Act as an instantiation of popular sovereignty on the principle that people have the right to govern themselves. Lincoln, by his own account, was drawn back into politics by the passage of the Act and his opposition to Douglas’ arguments and tried many times to schedule a public debate with Douglas, but the proud Senator refused to share a stage with this homegrown lawyer and minor ex-politician.

Douglas was originally scheduled to speak outdoors at the Illinois County Fair on October 3rd, but the speech was moved indoors because of the rain. After he delivered his speech in the Hall of Representatives, Lincoln loudly announced that Douglas’ speech would be answered in this same hall the next day, and Douglas could respond if he chose to do so. Douglas apparently felt he had no choice this time, and he appeared on the stage the next day. Lincoln’s three-hour speech on October 4th covered most of the same ground as his Peoria speech delivered two weeks later. It was an effective speech on this occasion, and much more so when he delivered a refined version on the front portico of the old Peoria courthouse on October 16, 1854.

As I was growing up and even still today, I often heard that the Civil War was not really about slavery, it was about states’ rights. The South just wanted to stand up for the right of the people to govern themselves, it was said. It was not just Southern sympathizers and states’-rights proponents who perpetuated this idea, very many American historians did as well. As a child and a young adult, I accepted that received wisdom. But it’s quite clear from the texts of the Lincoln and Douglas debates and from the history of the public controversy surrounding the Dred Scott case, the Missouri Compromise, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, that this was not the case at all. It’s so clear that it’s not, in fact, that I still wonder why anyone believed it then or believes it now. Fortunately, most historians no longer accept that view.

Abraham Lincoln, September 1858, photographer unknown

A key reason why all of these compromises and acts failed to avert the Civil War was that Southern states were often in favor of allowing new territories and states to allow slavery if they chose, but they were not at all in favor of states deciding for themselves whether slaves taken into their territories automatically became free, or of states deciding for themselves whether to enforce federal fugitive slave laws. So, the Southern claim to be on the side of ‘states rights’ was selective, limited to allowing, protecting, and promoting slavery, and nothing else. Otherwise, they insisted that it was the duty of the federal government to protect slave-property rights of Southerners in all states and to enforce fugitive slave laws in free states as well. In short, it was all about slavery, and Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty came to be recognized as the non-solution it was. Lincoln’s election to the Presidency was the signal that the federal government was not going to enforce the right of slaveowners to own human beings against antislavery laws in free states. Therefore, most Southern states seceded from the Union.

Lincoln, having made a careful study and examination of the issues and history of race-based slavery in the United States, knew very well that no number of compromises and acts would effectively resolve the inevitable conflicts between free and slave states. The principles of liberty that the North and hypocritically, the South called upon to defend the rights of their states to defend or counteract slavery were incompatible with that institution. Since that same desire for liberty appears to be a constant in human nature, slaves would always escape to freedom in the North, inevitably leading to those same old fugitive-slave-law-conflicts between the states. And at that time, there was no reason to believe that slavery would just die out anytime soon, given the Dred Scott decision, the compromises that pleased no one for very long, and the constant expansion of the country that kept disrupting the balance of political power between slave and free states. So, at the State House, in the Hall of Representatives where he first confronted Douglas face to face, candidate-for-state-senator Lincoln delivered his famous ‘House Divided Speech‘ on June 16, 1858, in which he clearly and succinctly made that case. He lost the race for the Senate seat to Douglas, but in this case as it so often happened in his political career, Lincoln lost the battle but won the war. Douglas’ platform lost popularity as Lincoln’s reputation grew, and just two and a half years later, Lincoln was elected President of the United States.

Picture of Abraham Lincoln’s lying-in-state canopy in the Hall of Representatives, Old State House, Springfield

Lincoln’s Funeral at the Old State Capitol 1865. Springfield, Illinois. Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Almost seven years later, in 1865, Lincoln’s assassinated body lay in state here in the Hall of Representatives. He was no longer the fiery, energetic lawyer and politician seen in this Hall on so many occasions. Lincoln had guided the country through the most horrific war the States had ever seen, freed the slaves (at least on paper; race-based slavery de facto would not be ended until black codes, convict leasing, and other like practices were outlawed well into the twentieth century), saved the Union, and lost a beloved son. He had suffered much and therefore aged much in the few intervening years. I like to think he did not die in vain, but I’m not quite sure what that phrase means. Lincoln could have achieved what he did and not died, and therefore could have achieved much more, so his death was a great waste of potential as well as a great injustice. It’s true that he went from being a hero to many to being a martyr to even more, and many who were doubtful about his legacy became so no longer. The great Frederick Douglass was one of those. And it’s true that his perceived martyrdom went on to inspire many more people to do good in their own lives.

When researching this piece, I discover that our first black President, Barack Obama, chose to announce his candidacy for President here at the Old State Capitol building in February of 2007. I think it’s quite fitting.

To be continued…

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Abraham Lincoln Online: Lincoln Timelines and Highlights

Allen, Eric. ‘Creating Cartoons: Art and Controversy.’ Library of Congress Blog, June 2, 2015

Brink, McCormick & Co. ‘Springfield Township, Springfield City.‘ from Atlas of Sangamon County, 1874.

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Giger, Henry Douglas. ‘The Story of the Sangamon County Court House.’ Via the Sangamon County Circuit Clerk website, originally published Apr 29, 1901

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

History of Sangamon County, Illinois; Together with Sketches of its Cities, Villages and Townships … Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens. Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co.,  1881

Jackson, Nicholas. ‘Picture of the Day: Mount Rushmore as Originally Planned‘. The Atlantic, May 16, 2011

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. Website, National Park Service

Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites

Old State Capitol (Sangamon County Courthouse).’ Historic Sites Survey, prepared by Stephen Lissandrello for the National Park Service, Apr 28, 1975

MacLean, Maggie. ‘Elizabeth Todd Edwards: Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.’ Civil War Women blog, Jul 28, 2013

Sangamon County Courthouse (Old State Capitol).‘ National Park Service Historic Site nomination paper, prepared by Charles  Shedd, Sep 14, 1961

Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!

margaret-sangerMargaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large family with 11 surviving children, to a Catholic mother and an atheist father. Her mother died at about age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her tubercular mother died too early because she was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies.

She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw these women struggle with the toll that uncontrolled pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 after merging with another organization, which in turn became Planned Parenthood in 1942. She continued her activism right up to her death in 1966. Sanger was instrumental in the creation of the first birth control pill Enovid, first available to the public in 1957. She also lived to see the Supreme Court validate her beliefs in the basic human rights to openly talk about sex and to control their own fertility in the Griswold v. Connecticut decision of June 7, 1965.

Sanger remains a controversial figure today. An ardent feminist, human rights activist, and advocate of sex-positivity, Sanger was also a eugenicist, believing that birth control was at least as important a tool for limiting the production of ‘the unfit’ (her words) as it was for women’s liberation. Sanger agreed with many leading scientists and progressives of her day in ascribing to so-called Social Darwinism (a problematic term since it doesn’t reflect Darwin’s own views as he expressed them), which applied the principles of natural selection to human social practice.  She did not, however, support most compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control, such as that practiced by the Nazis or even by the United States government, who forcibly sterilized thousands of so-called ‘feebleminded’ women. Unfortunately, she did initially advocate forced sterilization of criminals and of those she believed could not make rational choices for themselves, such as the insane. Except in this awful instance of very poor judgment, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education. It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same.

Unlike many other eugenicists, however, Sanger was not a racist. She did her nursing and much of her social justice work in poor immigrant communities, and worked closely with many leading black civil rights figures, believing, as they did, that birth control would have the same liberating effect on the black community as would for women generally. By limiting the number of children according to how many they could afford to raise and when, parents could more readily pursue an education, start a business, or otherwise devote their time, energy, and health to improving their standard of living which, in turn, they could pass down to their children.

Aside from her human rights activism, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health most fascinating. To discover more about this complex and fascinating woman, please see my History of Ideas Travel Series following Sanger in the places she lived and worked in New York City.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. Accompanying blog to The Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

The Pill, People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)‘. From the American Experience website by PBS.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version by Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Tong, Ng Suat. Which Margaret Sanger?The Hooded Utilitarian blog, April 14, 2014.

Imagination is a Powerful Tool: Why is Philosophy Afraid of It? – By Amy Kind

Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Philosophers have a love-hate relationship with the imagination. René Descartes, for one, disparaged it as ‘more of a hindrance than a help’ in answering the most profound questions about the nature of existence. Trying to imagine one’s way towards metaphysical truth, he wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), is as foolish as falling asleep in the hope of obtaining a clearer picture of the world through dreams.

Yet Descartes also relied heavily on imagination in scientific and mathematical essays such as The World (1633), in which he tried to conjure up the details of the basic building blocks for structures such as humans, animals and machines. According to the philosopher Dennis Sepper at the University of Dallas, Descartes relied upon a kind of ‘biplanar’ imagination, pioneered by Plato, in which one level of reality could embody and display relations that existed on a different level, and vice versa.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was equally conflicted about the imagination – especially when compared with perception and memory. ‘When we remember any past event, the idea of it flows in upon the mind in a forcible manner,’ he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). But imagined images and sensations, he continued, are ‘faint and languid, and cannot without difficulty be preserved by the mind steady and uniform for any considerable time’. However, Hume also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’ Hume said.

What’s behind this apparent tension at the heart of the imagination? Hume put his finger on it when he talked about how our facility for fantasy helps us to move beyond and change our present reality. One need only think of how Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. But imagination is also restricted by the extent of our previous perceptions and experiences, Hume said. ‘Let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the Universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves,’ he wrote.

One way to resolve such ambivalence would be to divide the imagination into different kinds. Along these lines, towards the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive imagination and reproductive imagination. The productive faculty is what helps to synthesise and transform sensory content into a meaningful whole. So the identification of something with pointy ears and fur, which meows and rubs itself against your legs, is brought together via the productive imagination into the form of a cat. This unifying tendency is implanted in every human mind irrespective of experience. For Kant, our productive imagination is what makes perception possible.

By contrast, the reproductive imagination is largely about recollection. When a story comes on the radio about a long-lost cat who has found its way home, you draw from the many cats you’ve seen before to picture the heartwarming scene; this would be the reproductive imagination at work. Because the reproductive faculty works only with materials previously provided to someone’s senses, it is subject to the kind of limits Hume discussed.

Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. Perhaps the kind of imagination we despise is totally different from its more useful cousin. But in accepting this subdivision, we give up on the possibility of seeing the imagination as a unified mental faculty – which is perhaps more how we experience it.

When I think of all the wondrous things we can do with the imagination, I’m inclined towards a different way of unravelling its enigmatic duality. Rather than slicing up the imagination into distinct kinds, we might think about its distinct uses. I like to call these the transcendent and the instructive functions of the imagination. On the one hand, when we pretend, or fantasise, or escape into an engrossing work of literary fiction, imagination can take us beyond the here and now. On the other hand, when we imagine in an attempt to make sense of what other people are thinking, or to problem-solve or to make decisions, our speculations are used to help us understand the here and now. Whereas our transcendent uses of the imagination tend towards whimsy and fancy, its instructive functions point towards the practical and the concrete.

In both these modes, the secret to success seems to lie in the application of a kind of imaginative constraint. But what’s right for one use might not be fitting for the other. Perhaps the reason why philosophers have been conflicted about the imagination is that they haven’t grasped how limitations need to be tailored to circumstances. When we are writing fiction, or playing games of pretend, or making art, arguably we do our best imagining by setting the boundaries widely or removing the shackles entirely. In contrast, when we employ imagination in the context of scientific or technological discovery, or any other real-world problem-solving, we must allow our imaginations to be framed by the situation at hand.

Figuring out where to draw these lines isn’t easy. It can be extraordinarily tricky to know which factors should stay in play, and which should be eliminated. But by looking at how such constraints operate, not only can we see our way towards imaginative greatness – perhaps we can also purge philosophy of its anxiety about the idea. After all, as Hume observed, humans ‘are mightily govern’d by the imagination’.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Amy Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is the author of Persons and Personal Identity (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands

Entrance to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana. Merriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s expedition never visited these caves: they were not discovered (by whites, anyway) until the later 1800’s. But the expedition did pass nearby, a little further south along the Jefferson River, so the caverns were later named for these intrepid explorers

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Journal: Billings, Montana, Friday, July 21, 2017

In my idealistic early adulthood, I often lamented how a certain coffee chain, with its weirdly militarist logo of a two-tailed mermaid with a star on her head (the old logo was much better), seemed to crowd out much of the market for charming coffee shops serving Italian style preparations while playing quality music. The more I’ve traveled, however, the more I’ve come to appreciate their ubiquitous clean bathrooms, unlimited wifi, comfortable chairs and tables to write and read at, and dependable coffee.

Especially this morning. I woke up disheveled and a bit cramped: I camped out in the car last night on a pull-out near the road block at the very top of the pass on Beartooth Highway, which runs through the mountains of the Shoshone and Custer-Gallatin National Forests. There’s construction on the road and I made it there too late to get through; they close the top of the pass during the night so that the construction zone can be navigated safely, only in daylight hours. My decision as to where to spend the night, therefore, was made for me: every campground, lodge, and hotel I passed were full. It was too windy to set up my tent in the dark, so I re-made the nice cozy nest in the backseat that I had made the night before to spend the night in Yellowstone. I fell asleep to a spectacularly clear and starry night, and I woke up to this:… Read the written version here

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