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)

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O.P. Recommends: Arthur I. Miller on the Convergence of Science and Art

In this fascinating interview, Neil Denny talks to Arthur I. Miller, historian and philosopher of science, about the progress of science and art, how they merged in the 20th century and continue to do so today. As Miller says, ‘… at the beginning of the 20th century, scientists were beginning to think like artists and artists were beginning to think like scientists.’ But this was not a new development even then; as Miller points out, great creative minds like Leonardo da Vinci ‘thought there was no distinction between art, science, and technology.’

The idea that science and art share a close relationship makes sense to me: they’re both ways of interpreting the world so that it makes sense to us; they open up our imaginations to new ways of seeing and change our perspectives by revealing deeper worlds, from the subatomic to the galactic; and great breakthroughs in science happen not only as the result of painstaking observation and experiment, but in great flashes of creative, visionary brilliance. Listen to the podcast discussion here

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

From Venus of Willendorf to Leonardo da Vinci: In Praise of Art That’sLess About Concept and More About Story and Craft

I love to make things, as anyone will tell you who’s known me very long. My two favorite kinds of things to create are written pieces, be they argumentative, explanatory, illustrative, narrative, and so on, and are usually essays; and artworks, now usually picture quilts, but for many years drawings, paintings, and occasionally sculptures. Though I’ve long loved the written word, my oldest creative love is art.

I’m also a populist by instinct, in the sense that I care a lot about sharing my life with many kinds of people, and relatively little about fitting in with or impressing a small, select group. When I’m in a scene that feels too cliquish, too elite, too cool, too exclusionary, too, well… ‘scene-y’, then I’m out. Not to say I don’t care about community: I do, deeply. But when it comes to anything I think is wonderful and lovable, the more widely I want to share it. That’s what I’m all about as a writer and as an artist.

And that’s why I’m just not that into conceptual art, on the whole. By conceptual art, I mean that which is created more with the intention of referring to or hinting at abstract concepts, and less for purpose of telling a story or of being a thing of beauty. The more conceptual a piece is, the more it leaves me cold, because to me, conceptual art is exclusionary in nature. This type of art is really only meaningful to, and therefore meant for, an exclusive circle, people who spend a lot of time in that sort of art culture, or in a moneyed elite, or in certain academic circles. (I value and respect academia, but to me, it fulfills a very different function than art does.) It’s made for people in a position to ‘get it’. Conceptual art speaks in jargon, in secret handshakes, in code, in insider-ese, in the language of moneyed leisure. All well and good for those who enjoy this sort of club atmosphere. But of art, I want more.

I want art that’s more like music, or poetry, or architecture, or myth: even if it’s originally meant only to communicate within a culture, it can and does communicate across time, space, culture, socioeconomic status, and language. To me, the more soul-stirring the art is, the more comprehensively it tells a story (in both senses of the word ‘comprehensive’). It’s that sort of universal human communication, like tears, laughs, sighs, or smiles, that makes art transcendent, that bridges those gaps between each other and between ourselves and all that exists, which we all ache to cross. 

I love folk art, and I love craftsmanship. They are the two sides of art that I think communicate most universally. 

By folk art, I mean that which is meant to communicate a story: of a person or persons, of an event, of a myth, of belief, of history. It can be crude or it can be finely wrought, but what makes it good is its ability to communicate to anyone, from anywhere or at any time, what’s going on in the mind and heart of the artist. 

By craftsmanship, I mean the art of creation which requires a high level of dexterity and skill, and which demonstrates the countless hours of practice and of mastery that demonstrates the artist’s deep love of the creative process itself. We all make things, so we are all able to recognize and appreciate, on some level, whatever level of care and ability that went into making the thing we see. And as makers, we invariably encounter the limits of our abilities, and in doing so, we realize how difficult it is transcend our own limits and make something well. When an artist accomplishes this superbly, we’re impressed, and delighted.

On the whole, I think the world of conceptual art is suffering too many of the ill effects of its own excesses. Craftsmanship is not valued nearly enough; indeed, I’ve heard artworks rich in it dismissed time and time again as not really art, they’re ‘just crafts’. Representations of people, places, and ideas that are widely recognizable are dismissed as ‘too literal’. I really think that most people who walk through galleries these days are often jaded, or bored, or amused, or bemused, and, as a whole, tired of being talked down to by artists and gallery curators. The public is getting tired of the art world’s pretensions: it often looks as if just about anything can be fastened to the wall, demanding the public’s praise and appreciation so long as it’s accompanied by a description that sounds obscurely profound enough. Conceptual art, on the whole, has grown too elitist and too removed from the most fundamental emotional needs that art, at its best, can fulfill.

I grant that there are some things of value in conceptual art, too. For one thing, as my husband points out, when it was a new movement, it allowed artists to break down artistic boundaries, many of which should have been broken down since they placed too many restraints on innovation and creativity. (I can always count on Bryan to play an effective devil’s advocate, to find the weak and missing points in my arguments; thanks, as always, for keeping me honest, babe!) There are subtle points that conceptual artists can make that are of value and difficult to express fully or eloquently through other means of communication. Sometimes, the concepts explored are important or interesting ones, even if they are too obscurely or affectedly expressed. There are also accidents of beauty and visual interest that occur when an artist is playing freely with materials trying to express something else. And so on and so on.

But nonetheless, I feel that the conceptual art world needs more critics. It needs some competition, it needs some opposition, and I feel just fine in my overall feeling of antipathy to it as it is right now. Conceptual art (with its cousin, abstract art) has its defenders in plenty: namely, nearly every art gallery and museum and patron with deep pockets out there. The representational artists, the visual storytellers, the communicators in paint and clay and fabric and stone and wood trying to reach the widest audience, they’re not honored so much these days, except in the hearts of the grateful public who’s always happy to find artists who are direct and honest with them, who desire to satisfy their longing for beauty and love of a good story. In short, conceptuality in art has become the new paradigm, the new standard, the new orthodoxy. Conceptual art doesn’t suffer from one less champion; the rest of the art world could do with more.

So from the roughest cave painting of our earliest human ancestors to the most finely wrought work by Leonardo da Vinci, from the earthy Venus of Willendorf to the most exquisitely sculpted Michelangelo, from the doll’s dress of the youngest stitcher-in-training to the Parisian couture gown, and from the memory rag-quilt sewn in the half-light of a bayou shack to the most intricate, hand-stitched fine textile work fit for a queen you ever saw: I want to say, I love you the most. Thank you for the joy you bring me, the delight to my senses, and most of all, the communion with the wider world of things and people. Thank you for bridging the gaps.