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!

Why Shouldn’t We Compel Them to Come In? Locke, the Enlightenment, and the Debate over Religious Toleration, by Nicholas Jolley

Religious Liberty, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, 1876

Most people in the West today unreflectively accept the need for religious toleration. Of course, if pressed, they will admit that toleration, like freedom of speech, can’t be absolute; there must be some limits. Suppose, for example, that my religion calls for human sacrifice every Sunday; no one will think that such a religion should be tolerated. Again, if pressed, people will agree that there are difficult cases: to take an issue that troubled John Locke, suppose that my religion demands allegiance to a foreign power. We may think that reasonable people can disagree over such cases. But the fact that there are these problem cases doesn’t shake people’s commitment to the principle of religious toleration.

We tend to be so wedded to this principle that we can easily forget how seductive the case for intolerance can be. Consider, for instance, a person who says with an authoritative air: “I know that my religion is the true one and that yours is completely false. I also know you will go to hell if you don’t convert to my religion.” Wouldn’t it be an act of charity on his part to convert you, by force if necessary, to the religion that will ensure your happiness in the afterlife? Here one might adapt an example given by that champion of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, for another purpose. A police officer sees a person trying to cross a bridge that he knows to be unsafe. According to Mill, it’s not an unwarranted interference with the person’s liberty for the officer to use force to prevent him or her from stepping on to the bridge; he knows, after all, that the bridge is unsafe and he knows that the person doesn’t want to fall into the river. One might take a similar line in the religious case: I know that John’s religion is leading him to hell, and I know that that’s not where he wishes to end up. Theologians in the Western tradition such as Augustine have argued for intolerance along these lines, and they have buttressed their argument by appealing to the biblical text: “Compel them to come in.”

Modern liberals are likely to respond that the appeal to Mill’s example is unfair, for the analogy is far from exact. For one thing, Mill builds into his example the assumption that there is no time to warn the person about the danger of the bridge; presumably, if there were time to warn him, then other things being equal, Mill would admit that there was no case for coercion. More importantly, one might argue that no one really knows, or can know, that the doctrines of revealed religion are true; acceptance of such doctrines depends on accepting the accounts of witnesses who may be unreliable or whose words may have been misinterpreted down the ages.

The idea that no one can know the claims of revealed religion are true is the basis for one of Locke’s main strategies of argument for religious toleration. The strategy is a powerful one, but it is open to a couple of objections. First, Locke sets the bar for knowledge very high: he allows little to count as knowledge that isn’t on a par with mathematical demonstration. By his lights, in the bridge example, even the policeman doesn’t strictly know that the bridge is unsafe. Further, even if the champion of intolerance concedes that he doesn’t strictly know his religion to be true, he may still say that he has very strong support for his beliefs, and that this level of support justifies him in coercing others. So the kind of case that Locke makes here may not be conclusive.

Fortunately, Locke has other strings to his bow. One intriguing argument turns on the nature of belief and its relation to the will. Suppose that the champion of intolerance says to the unbeliever: “You ought to believe the articles of my faith” (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity). It seems apt for the unbeliever to reply to such a claim by saying: “It’s not in my power to believe this doctrine. You misunderstand the nature of belief. Belief is not a voluntary action like switching on a light. Rather, belief is more like falling in love; it’s something that happens to you.” One might then plug in the Kantian principle implicitly accepted by Locke: ought implies can. If belief is not in my power, and ought implies can, then I can have no obligation to believe the proposition in question.

This can seem like a powerful reply to the advocate of intolerance, but again, unfortunately, it’s not conclusive. For the advocate may say: “I agree that belief is not directly under your voluntary control, but I maintain that it is indirectly so. True, you can’t just switch on belief, but it’s in your power to do things that will result, or are likely to result, in your coming to believe.” Pascal, for instance, thought that though we can’t just believe at will, we can do things such as going to Mass and mixing with the congregation of the faithful that will have the effect of producing belief; faith, he thought, is catching. And then the intolerant person is in a position to make a case for religious persecution on the part of the state: there should be penalties for non-attendance at church so that people are induced to attend and at least to give a hearing to the teachings of the state-approved religion. This was the argument put to Locke by his opponent, Jonas Proast. Locke seeks to reply to this argument by saying that sincere religious belief can’t be produced in this way, and that it’s only sincere religious belief that is acceptable to God. Whether this reply to Proast is successful is a controversial issue among philosophers who have studied the debate. And the issue isn’t a narrowly academic one: it should be of interest to all those who seek to defend the values of the Enlightenment today.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

~ Nicholas Jolley is Research Professor and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He has also taught at the University of California, San Diego, and Syracuse University. He is the author of a number of books for OUP, including Toleration and Understanding in Locke (2017), and Locke’s Touchy Subjects: Materialism and Immortality (2015).

~ 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!