Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become. Animators such as Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney and the people at Pixar Studios are masterful at imagination, but they’re only creating a public version of our everyday private lives. If you could see the fantastic mash-up inside the mind of the average five-year-old, then Star Wars and Harry Potter would seem sober and dull. So, why is there so little analysis of imagination, by philosophers, psychologists and scientists?
Apart from some cryptic passages in Aristotle and Kant, philosophy has said almost nothing about imagination, and what it says seems thoroughly disconnected from the creativity that artists and laypeople call ‘imaginative’.
Aristotle described the imagination as a faculty in humans (and most other animals) that produces, stores and recalls the images we use in a variety of mental activities. Even our sleep is energised by the dreams of our involuntary imagination. Immanuel Kant saw the imagination as a synthesiser of senses and understanding. Although there are many differences between Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophies, Kant agreed that the imagination is an unconscious synthesising faculty that pulls together sense perceptions and binds them into coherent representations with universal conceptual dimensions. The imagination is a mental faculty that mediates between the particulars of the senses – say, ‘luminous blue colours’ – and the universals of our conceptual understanding – say, the judgment that ‘Marc Chagall’s blue America Windows (1977) is beautiful.’ Imagination, according to these philosophers, is a kind of cognition, or more accurately a prerequisite ‘bundling process’ prior to cognition. Its work is unconscious and it paves the way for knowledge, but is not abstract or linguistic enough to stand as actual knowledge.
This rather mechanical approach to the imagination is echoed in more recent computational and modular theories of the mind, according to which human thinking is packaged by innate processors. The American philosopher Denis Dutton, for example, argued in The Art Instinct (2009) that landscape paintings are popular because they trigger an innate instinctual preference for distant scouting positions in our ancestors, who were evaluating the horizon for threats and resources. That view – dominant in contemporary evolutionary psychology – seems very far away from the artist’s or even the engineer’s view of creative imagination.
It is perhaps unsurprising that philosophers and cognitive theorists have a rather arid view of the imagination, but our everyday ideas about the imagination are not much better. Following the Greeks, we still think of our own creativity as a muse that descends upon us – a kind of spirit possession or miraculous madness that flooded through Vincent van Gogh and John Lennon, but only trickles in you and me. After the great Texas guitar improviser Stevie Ray Vaughan died, Eric Clapton paid tribute by describing him as ‘an open channel … music just flowed through him’.