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: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 4

Planned Parenthood Clinic at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

Planned Parenthood Clinic at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

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

Friday, October 21st, 2016

It’s cold and rainy, so I spend a long morning with my coffee as I do more research. Try as I might, I just can’t identify, with any certainty, the exact site of the Queens County Penitentiary, Long Island City, where Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for thirty days in 1917 for operating her Brownsville birth control clinic. Nor do I locate the site of the original White Plains Hospital where Sanger trained as a nurse. I had pored over the atlases of that town, from that time, in the New York Public Library map division, and I searched assiduously in their digitized records this morning. No luck.

So I finish my account of the first site I visited on Tuesday and publish it, then head out. It keeps raining, but oh well, it’s not a terribly long walk and besides, I welcome a walk in the rain, under my umbrella, of course. The drought back home had been mostly unrelenting for ages and it’s nice to experience a good rain again.

My first destination is Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center at Mott and Bleecker Streets… 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!

 

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 4

Planned Parenthood Clinic at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger Center at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

Friday, October 21st, 2016

It’s cold and rainy, so I spend a long morning with my coffee as I do more research. Try as I might, I just can’t identify, with any certainty, the exact site of the Queens County Penitentiary, Long Island City, where Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for thirty days in 1917 for operating her Brownsville birth control clinic. Nor do I locate the site of the original White Plains Hospital where Sanger trained as a nurse. I had pored over the atlases of that town, from that time, in the New York Public Library map division, and I searched assiduously in their digitized records this morning. No luck.

So I finish my account of the first site I visited on Tuesday and publish it, then head out. It keeps raining, but oh well, it’s not a terribly long walk and besides, I welcome a walk in the rain, under my umbrella, of course. The drought back home had been mostly unrelenting for ages and it’s nice to experience a good rain again.

My first destination is Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center at Mott and Bleecker Streets. The rain is really coming down and I’m fairly wet by the time I get here, so I hurriedly enter the lobby. Immediately, a man approaches me and asks what I’m looking for, while another man at the desk trains his eye on me. Not unfriendly, but alert. I explain my mission and present my driver’s license and business card. He makes a call upstairs to see if the director of the center has a moment to meet with me, but she’s heading out for a meeting. I ask if I can take a photo of the colorful mural on the lobby wall, but they say no: for security reasons, no photos are allowed inside the building. I express my understanding: after all, such establishments are under constant threats of terrorism and negative, often distorted and falsified media. I’m content with taking photos of the outside, and note the array of security cameras.

Advice to Married Ladies Madame Restell abortion ad in the New York Times, Nov 9th 1865

‘Advice to Married Ladies’, Madame Restell abortion ad in the New York Times, Nov 9th, 1865

New York City has a long history as a place where a woman can more readily obtain an abortion than just about anywhere else. In his detailed article on the subject, Robert Nizza wrote for New York magazine:

‘In many ways, the story of abortion in the United States is the story of abortion in New York. There were no laws against the procedure until the 1820s. Before that, British common law allowed abortions before “quickening,” or the moment when the fetus first moved. It was in New York in 1828 that America’s first real abortion law was passed. The debate of the day wasn’t driven by religious concerns about when life begins. Instead, as James C. Mohr’s classic history of the subject, Abortion in America, explains, Albany responded to pressure from doctors who were aghast at quacks’ butchering women and scamming them with phony abortifacient potions. The law was really about medical regulation, and, according to Mohr, it went completely unenforced.’

Sanger opposed abortion on the same health and safety grounds as the medical community Nizza refers to. We can only guess what her stance would be on abortion today, though based on her stated reasons for opposition to the practice as well as her refusal to condemn the women who sought abortions, I think her position would echo Bill Clinton’s: that abortion should be safe, legal, and through the ready availability of safe, legal, and affordable birth control, rare.

http://www.nyu.edu/pages/projects/sanger/articles/sanger_on_trial.php

The Pleasure Chest ‘Free Pleasure’ painted storefront window, New York City

I take the subway to my next destination, which is close enough so that I’d ordinarily walk but I don’t want to spend the day in soaking wet pants; I’m already very damp from my first long walk. On my way from the station, just around the corner from where I’m headed, I’m amused to see a sex shop storefront that’s vibrantly painted with the words ‘Free Pleasure’ surrounded by cartoon-like images of pleasure devices. It’s apropos to the birth control debate that I’ve been considering throughout this journey. Each side might find it illustrates their views: those who share Sanger’s view that sex and reproduction are not and should not be necessarily linked, and those that oppose all forms of artificial birth control on the grounds that they’re contrary to nature and to God’s will. The latter also find the idea of sex unmoored from reproduction repellent because they believe it will lead to irresponsible and extramarital sex, and corrode family values and ideals of sexual purity. They might interpret the colorful shop window as a negative demonstration of the cheapening of sex from permissive birth control laws and secular sexual mores. Sanger, like her fellow sex-positivists, believed instead that unmooring sex from reproduction leads to happier, more romantic and less stressful marriages, and to healthier and more prosperous families while providing a broader scope for women to enjoy and explore their sexual natures. They would likely interpret this painting as a positive demonstration of sexual freedom.

4 Perry St, Manhattan, New York City

4 Perry St, Manhattan, New York City

Just around the corner, I arrive at 4 Perry Street, where according to Robin Pokorski of NYU’s Mapping Margaret Sanger project, Sanger lived for a short while in 1914, between Waverly Place and Greenwich Ave in Greenwich Village. A couple of other sources mention this as well. Yet aside from brief statements of this fact in those secondary and tertiary sources, I’m unable to discover anything else about her time here with online research alone, including the exact stretch of time she lived here, but there’s plenty of readily available evidence that shows where Sanger lived elsewhere that same year. Sanger’s correspondence, both to and from, were addressed ’34 Post Ave’ from March to October of that year, and her journal The Woman Rebel directs all inquiries be sent there. She arrived in New York City from Paris in early January 1914. According to her autobiography, she rented the apartment on Post St ‘as soon as possible’ after she arrived, and she left New York for Europe again in late October to flee another obscenity trial for her Woman Rebel publications. That pretty much leaves January and February of 1914 as the time frame in which she could have lived here on Perry St. In these first two months of the year, she was reestablishing herself as an activist, now for birth control. As you many remember, she had just left her husband William behind in Paris to do so.

I duck into an inviting establishment right down the way on Greenwich Ave at Perry, lured by the promise of handmade meatballs and a tasty ale. This is my last day in NYC this trip, and I’m going to slow down and take it easier today. I write notes and linger over my meal, hoping the rain will stop. I like the rain, but it’s very difficult to take photos I require for this project since that requires both hands. I balance my umbrella over my head with the handle tucked under my arm, but it tends to flop over as I move to get the best shots. So I linger until the rainfall lightens, though it doesn’t really stop for awhile.

Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, New York City

Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, New York City

Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, Carnegie Hall, New York Times Jan 29th, 1917, p 1

Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, Carnegie Hall, The New York Times, Jan 29th, 1917, p 1. To see this article continued on p 3, click here

My next destination is another landmark I’ve been wanting to visit: Carnegie Hall. There are three particular Sanger-related occasions which bring me here to 881 Seventh Ave at 56th St.

On the afternoon of Jan 29th, 1917, there was a protest rally and mass meeting here at Carnegie Hall. Sanger’s sister Ethel Byrne had been sentenced to 30 days in jail the week before for running the Brownsville birth control clinic with Sanger. Sanger and nurse Fania Mandeil went on trial on the day of the Carnegie Hall protest; Sanger was certain she would be convicted and imprisoned, outcomes she did nothing to avoid. Byrne and Sanger were both determined to attract as much attention as possible to their cause, be it fame, notoriety, or otherwise. Byrne, tried, convicted, and imprisoned first, went on a hunger strike. She was forcibly fed after several days without food and water left her in terrible shape, even close to death. Sanger, initially supportive of her sister’s decision to hunger strike, changed her mind when she observed its awful toll on her health. She decided not to go on her own planned hunger strike after all, as she was determined to fight tirelessly for her cause. Instead, Sanger passed out copies of the first edition of the Birth Control Review to the attendees of the protest at Carnegie Hall, and announced to the press that there would be five hundred babies and their mothers present to demonstrate that their work was, in fact, pro-baby and pro-family. Sanger, Byrne, and Mandeil certainly had the support of very many mothers, as well as non-mothers, in the Brownsville community they served.

The New York Times published a transcript of the brief speech she delivered here that day. It goes:

‘I come to you tonight from a crowded courtroom, from a vortex of persecution. I come not from the stake at Salem, where women were burned for blasphemy, but from the shadow of Blackwell’s Island, where women are tortured for “obscenity.”

Birth control is the one means by which the working man shall find emancipation. I was one of eleven children. My mother died when I was 17 because she had had too many children and had worked herself to death. I became a nurse to help support my family, and I soon discovered that 75 per cent of the diseases of men and women are due to sex ignorance. I determined that when I was able I would do what I could to solve that problem. I found that the average person was as ignorant of sex matters as our most primitive ancestors. There has been progress in every department of our lives except in the most important–creation. So I came to the conclusion that the greatest good I could do was to help poor women to have fewer children to be brought up in want and poverty. I threw my nurse’s bag away and swore I would take it up no more. I went to Europe and studied the birth control clinics there and came back to America to do what I could.

Colonel Roosevelt goes all about the country telling people to have large families and he is neither arrested nor molested. But can he tell me why I got sixty-three letters in one week from poor mothers in Oyster Bay asking me for birth control information? No woman can call herself free until she can choose the time she will become a mother.

My purpose in life is to arouse sentiment for the repeal of the law, State and Federal. It is we women who have paid for the folly of this law, and it is up to us to repeal it. It is only by birth control that woman can prepare with man, her brother, for the emancipation of the race.’

Margaret Sanger and her son in Japan, 1922, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger and her son Grant in Japan, 1922, public domain via Library of Congress

Some years later, on October 11th, 1922, the American Birth Control League hosted a ‘Welcome Back’ event for Sanger here. She had returned in August from a tour of Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Yemen, and London that year. She commenced her journey in Japan, setting sail in late February and arriving on March 10th. The Japanese government initially denied her a visa on the grounds that her birth control message was contrary to their official position: strong population growth was necessary for the military and political strength of Japan. But Sanger, ever energetic, and persuasive, forceful, and charming as the circumstances called for, bought passage on a ship bound for China via Japan. During the voyage, she finagled a way in, prevailing upon Japanese officials she met on board to use their influence to get her a visa. Upon arrival, she was welcomed by a large crowd of citizens, reporters, police, and other government officials, many welcoming but some not. In the end, she was able to speak, travel, and tour Japan’s fledgling community of birth control providers as planned, and continued in like vein throughout Asia. While in Japan, she stayed with Shidzue Ishimoto, a fellow feminist, activist, and proponent of birth control, and they would work together throughout the years. While on this world tour, she also attended the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference at Kingsway Hall in London, from July 11th-14th.

Margaret Sanger, Dorothy Bocker, and Anne Kennedy

Margaret Sanger (center), Dorothy Bocker (right), and Anne Kennedy

Sanger also spoke at a birth control meeting held here at Carnegie Hall on December 6th, 1924, introducing many of her friends and fellow activists in the birth control movement. One of the speakers she introduced was her colleague Dr. Dorothy Bocker, who worked with her at the first iteration of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, founded almost two years before. As Sanger often pointed out, much of the opposition to birth control stemmed from ignorance, especially on the part of the medical and scientific community. Strange as it may seem today, this ignorance was mostly born of squeamishness and a fear of offending prevailing views of sexual propriety. Now, we’d think of a physician or scientist’s interest in sex and reproduction as worthy examples of proper scientific and humanitarian interest, but this was rarely the case in Sanger’s time. So she decided that her second birth control clinic needed to be staffed by a licensed physician and that this physician would gather clinical data so thoroughly and systematically that it could be accepted as evidence by the medical and scientific community. Over time, Bocker and Sanger differed in their methods of evidence gathering sufficiently that, according to Sanger, she and Dr. Bocker ‘agreed to part company in December of the second year’, which is the very month this conference was held here at Carnegie Hall. Sanger pushed for far more rigorous record keeping and longer-term patient follow-up than Bocker was willing to undertake. However much they were disagreeing at the time of this Carnegie Hall meeting, Sanger introduced Dr. Bocker warmly, if succinctly. Dr. Hannah Stone, who was rounded up in the raid on the 46 W. 15th Street location in 1929, replaced Dr. Bocker as medical director early the next year.

353 W. 57th Street, formerly the American Women's Association Clubhouse, NYC

353 W. 57th Street, formerly the American Women’s Association Clubhouse, NYC

Margaret Sanger with H.G. Wells (right), 1920

Margaret Sanger with H.G. Wells (right) and Otis Skinner, 1920

I have one site left on my list to visit for my Margaret Sanger journey here in NYC: the former location of the American Women’s Association Clubhouse. There are two occasions which bring me here. The first is an event on November 12, 1931, when Sanger received the Medal of Achievement from the American Women’s Association. According to Pokorski of the Mapping Margaret Sanger project, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at this event. Roosevelt was a supporter of birth control, and along with her husband Franklin, was a friend of Sanger’s. But when Franklin Roosevelt was running for the presidency and then, once he had won it, neither he nor Eleanor would publicly endorse birth control on the advice of his staff and political supporters. This AWA event was, then, was one of the last occasions where Eleanor would publicly endorse this movement until the Roosevelt presidency was far behind her.

Almost half a year later, on April 20, 1932, the AWA also gave a testimonial dinner here in Sanger’s honor. Sanger was deeply moved as so many of her friends and colleagues extolled her hard work and thanked her for it; her great friend and occasional lover H.G. Wells extolled her as ‘the greatest revolutionary bacteriologist the world has ever known.’

I have now completed this particular journey following the life and ideas of Margaret Sanger in New York City. But I am not done with her life and ideas by any means. Please stay tuned as I continued to explore her ideas and the ways in which they change the world! And thank you for accompanying me thus far…

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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: 

Advice to Married Ladies‘, Madame Restell abortion ad in The New York Times, Nov 9th, 1865, via Newspapers.com

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate*** and Plate***. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Buhle, Mari Jo. ‘Women & the Socialist PartyRadical America, Feb 1970, Vol, IV, 4F2, via National Progressive Review

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Engelman, Peter C., ““Dangerous Thoughts”? Margaret Sanger’s World Trip Journal, Japan, 1922” (2010). Documentary Editing: Journal of the Association for Documentary Editing (1979-2011). Paper 28.

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

Gray, Christopher. ‘Streetscapes/The Henry Hudson Hotel, 353 West 57th Street; From Women’s Clubhouse to WNET to $75 a Night.’ The New York Times, Jan. 4, 1998

Lizza, Ryan. ‘The Abortion Capital of America: As the Pro-Life Movement Intensifies Nationwide, New York Contemplates its History and Future as a Refuge‘. New York magazine, June 2014

Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Burden of Public Life‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #11 (Winter 1995)

Margaret Sanger On Trial – Will Hunger Strike‘. The Day Book, Chicago, Jan 29, 1917, last edition, Image 29, via LOC’s Chronicling America

Moran Hajo, Cathy. ‘What Happened Next? A Look at Birth Control Organizing in China Following Margaret Sanger’s 1922 visit’. Jan 9, 2014, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Mrs. Byrne to Have a Feeding Schedule‘, The New York Times, Jan 29th 1917, pp 1, 3, via Newspapers.com

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger on Trial: The Brownsville Clinic Testimony‘. Newsletter #25 (Fall 2000) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘American Women’s Association Testimonial Dinner Address,’ April 20th, 1932. Margaret Sanger Papers, L.O.C., LCM 128:0237B-243A, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Carnegie Hall Address,’ Jan 29, 1917. Source: Mrs. Sanger Defies Courts Before 3,0000, New York Times, Jan. 30, 1917, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Individual and Family Aspects of Birth Control‘, Report of the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, July 11-14, 1922. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Opening Remarks at Carnegie Hall Meeting‘, Dec 6th, 1924. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Microfilm 130:701, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

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

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

Samples from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project for the Model Editions Partnership, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

What Every Girl Should Know About Nursing‘. The Truth About Nursing, Oct 15, 2006