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The idea of imagination is sometimes thought of as a product of the Enlightenment. However, although it only came to full flower in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, its roots are much more ancient.

Biblical Beginnings

Given the stern admonition of the second commandment of the Decalogue against the making of images of anything "in the heavens above, or the earth below, or the waters beneath the earth" (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), it is ironic that the idea of imagination probably found its earliest expression in the first chapter of Genesis. In the biblical accounts of creation, two different words are used: in the first account, bara, implying creatio ex nihilo (Genesis 1:27); in the second, yatsar, by which man is created from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). The first power is reserved to God alone; the secondthe power to reshape existing matteris shared with humankind. Thus the Hebrew word for imagination comes to be yetser, the ability to share in the divine creative power.

For humankind, however, yetser is not always used for good: "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8: 21; and see Genesis 6: 5). Thus the rabbinical tradition came to distinguish between the evil imagination (yetser hara ), often associated with sexual desire, and the good imagination (yetser hatov ), which "opens up history to an IThou dialogue between man and his Creator" (Kearney, p. 47).

Non-Western Traditions

The Sufi tradition of Islam offers an analogue of imagination in the concept of barzakh, referring to "the whole intermediate realm between the spiritual and the corporeal." Since this world of imagination is "closer to the World of Light" than the corporeal world (Chittick, p. 14), it can give valid knowledge of higher reality. In the Buddhist tradition there is no systematic view of imagination; the Sanskrit word for it is prtibha ("poetic genius"), but it is not given much emphasis in Buddhist thought. Hinduism, on the other hand, offers in the Vedic tradition a highly developed view of imagination as both the transcendent power by which the gods create and sustain the harmony of the universe, and the human faculty by which the human artist, priest, or sage recognizes and celebrates this harmony. It is, in short, the imagination that "joins the human spirit with ultimate reality itself" (Mahoney, p. 2).

Ancient Greece

In the ancient Greek tradition, too, the idea of imagination is closely bound up with divine power and prerogatives. In the pre-philosophical era it is most dramatically expressed in the myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire from heaven brought the creative energy of the gods to humankind. It is only in the work of Plato and Aristotle, however, that the idea is brought to some level of conceptual clarity. Although Plato's earliest dialogues espouse a firm idealism inherited from Parmenides, by the time of the Republic he has begun to see the need to bring together the material, phenomenal world and the world of ideas. The imagination (phantasia or eikasia ), if used in aid of reason can attain to, and even express, universal ideas. By the time of the Phaedrus and the Timaeus, Plato sees that imaginative representation "recalls to mind those eternal forms of Beauty which are the innate possessions of the soul and the objects of its contemplation" (Bundy, p. 58). Aristotle's more pragmatic approach shifts the focus from metaphysical foundations to form and function, from objective to subjective. Thus imitation (mimesis ) is for him an inductive and psychological process rather than a divinely inspired intuition. It was his emphasis rather than Plato's that was to predominate in the Western tradition until the eighteenth century.

Medieval and Renaissance Views

There are wide divergences in medieval views of imagination. Although one finds in such synthetic thinkers as St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274) (and later in the poetry of Dante [12651321]) attempts to reconcile the idealism of Plato and the Neoplatonists with the more psychological approach of Aristotle, it is the latter that generally finds favor among faculty-oriented Scholastic philosophers. For all this, though, a Platonic undercurrent often remainsas in Aquinas and in the Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 11351204)to explain the intrinsic relationship between the material world and the transcendent, the human and the divine. Arab philosophers of the period, notably Avicenna (Ibn Sina; 9801037), tend to give priority to imagination over intellect in achieving true knowledge, while the Western tradition invariably insists that imagination must remain under the control of intellect. However, imagination (imaginatio and phantasia are used synonymously in Aquinas) is crucial for most of the medieval Scholastics as a means of expressing the analogical relationship between the sensible world and transcendent reality.

In the Renaissance, the Vita nuova and Divina commedia of Dante and De imaginatione sive phantasia of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494) may fairly be taken as representative. All three draw heavily from Scholastic philosophy, and although Dante is, like his master Aquinas, an Aristotelian, both are more deeply interested in the possibilities of vision than in the epistemological process itself. Thus, in part through them, the Platonic tradition continues into succeeding generations, with such theorists as Sir Philip Sidney (15541586) in his Apology for Poetry. Even as he strongly emphasizes the teaching role of poetry in achieving "virtuous action," using Plato's ideas for a moral purpose, Sidney keeps alive the Platonic emphasis on imaginative vision.

The Enlightenment

If the European Enlightenment did not invent the idea of imagination, it certainly brought it to its fullest articulation, broadening its reach to include not only literature and the arts, along with philosophy and theology, but also political and social theory and even science. It became during the eighteenth century, in short, a crucial tool in virtually every area of intellectual life.

Until this time, intellectual inquiry had tended to focus on humankind's relationship with God, with nature, and with others. Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (15881679), however, began to look inward, to consider the processes of human perception, the psychological dimensions of human experience, bringing to bear the empirical method that was to become increasingly important throughout the eighteenth century. Imagination for Hobbes was an active, creative faculty, not a mere passive receiver of impressions; it is the power that shapes our thoughts and sense impressions into unity, even into a coherent view of the world. Even John Locke (16321704), however much he might deplore imagination as "illusory," emphasized the unifying activity of the mind; later, David Hume (17111776), for all his skepticism, viewed the imagination as the power that brought together thought and feeling. Clearly the way was being paved for later thinkers like Coleridge, who would see imagination as the unifying power in human perception and creativity.

Even as Hobbes pushed forward the "Aristotelian" dimensions of imagination, probing the processes of the mind, his contemporary Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, 16711713) emphasized the Platonic heritage. Standing in the line of sixteenth-century Cambridge Platonists like Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, he also returned to the works of Plato and his Neoplatonic successors. While Hobbes focused on empirical knowledge, Shaftesbury was interested in the human grasp of the ideal and of spiritual reality. The result, at least for British intellectual history, was a richly balanced legacy for the Romantic thinkers who followed.

But the influence of Hobbes and Shaftesbury, along with that of other English and Scottish philosophers, reached far beyond England. Shaftesbury was introduced into Germany by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) and remained a lasting influence there throughout the eighteenth century, while the empiricist psychology of Hobbes, Locke, and others was eagerly welcomed in the German universities.

The two great thinkers on imagination in Germany are Johannes Nikolaus Tetens (17361807) and Immanuel Kant (17241804), who "stand like two colossi in their concepts of imagination" (Engell, p. 118). The contribution of Tetens, under the influence of the Scottish philosopher Alexander Gerard (17281795), was to widen the scope of imagination to make it central in all human perception, from the immediacy of sense perception to the complex creative act of the artist, thus laying the groundwork for what would later become Coleridge's distinction between primary and secondary imagination. Tetens was also insistent, as later Romantic theorists would be, that imagination is as crucial for the scientist and the philosopher as for the poet or painter.

Kant's role in the development of the idea of imagination, under the influence of Tetens, was to synthesize two currents of thought, reflecting the ancient tension between Platonic and Aristotelian views of the world: an idealist strain deriving from such thinkers as Leibniz, Christian von Wolff (16791754), Shaftesbury, Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and Friedrich Jacobi (17431819), and the more empirical line of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and other British empiricists (see Engell, p. 12829). Although he never clarified his thought to his own (or indeed to anyone else's) satisfaction, Kant's more transcendentalist analysis of imagination in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason and later in the Critique of Judgment is centrally important for the emerging Romantic period, in that Kant never lost sight of the role of objective perception even as he emphasized the formative and productive power of the human mind. Although he will use different terms for it (Einbildungskraft, Phantasie ) and although the balance shifts throughout his life, imagination in Kant brings together with considerable success the sensible and the ideal worlds, the empirical and the transcendent.


Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854), looking back at Kant's work a generation later, judged that Kant, by failing to demonstrate the validity of human perception, had left a dichotomy between the human mind and external reality. His own Naturphilosophie was meant to heal that rupture, and imagination played a central role in his endeavor. It was crucial for Schelling that imagination was both human and divine. God possesses imagination in its fullness, and the divine imagination (die göttliche Einbildungskraft ) is "the generating power of the universe" (Engell, p. 304). The human imagination shares in this faculty, though on a lower level: ordinary mortals in the power to perceive unity in the multiplicity of our experience; the creative genius in the ability to create new unity out of existing things. Imagination is not apart from nature, it is present as a power in nature from the beginning of creation. Here the distinction between natura naturata and natura naturans, inherited from the medieval Scholastics, is important. Natura naturata is the created sensible object, whether it be a natural being or the product of a human creative acta poem or painting or piece of music. The natura naturans is the active power of imagination itself, a quickening spirit giving life and energy to all being, including the human mind; it is, in effect, God present as an active force in the world. Thus imagination, as the natura naturans, is the living link not only between the human mind and the external world but between the created world and the transcendent.

The Romantic poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834), although he wrote no single treatise on the imagination, is arguably the central figure in its modern development. He drew heavily on most of the major work that preceded him, including the biblical, classical, and medieval sources, as well as the most important thinkers of the century before him such as Leibniz, Tetens, and Kant and contemporaries like Schelling. Coleridge offered no system to support his view of imagination, but the insights and arguments scattered throughout his works finally yield a coherent and important perspective. His most influential work of literary theory and criticism is his Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he both acknowledges his debts to such thinkers as Kant and Schelling and at times diverges significantly from them. His locus classicus on imagination (chapter 13) distinguishes between primary and secondary imagination, and between imagination and fancy. Primary imagination is "the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." The secondary is "an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will"; it "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create." The lesser faculty of fancy is only a "mode of Memory," dealing with "fixities and definites," with sensible realities rather than with "ideas." This view of imagination is clearly similar to Schelling's: primary imagination is the faculty by which all human beings shape their experience of the world into meaningful perception; secondary imagination is the artist's ability to create new shapes and meaning out of existing material. It is also similar in its strong affirmation of the relationship between the human and divine imaginations: the human creative act participates in the infinite creative act of God, from which it derives its power.

Coleridge's view of imagination is intimately related to his conception of idea and symbol. An idea is a suprasensible reality incarnated in sense images; it is the product of all the human facultiesreason, understanding, senseworking under the unifying power of the imagination. An idea "cannot be conveyed but by a symbol" (chapter 9), which is a product of the imagination. As Coleridge writes in the Statesman's Manual (1816), symbols are "the living educts of the Imagination; of that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors." Coleridge's conception differs significantly from Kant's, in that the ideas thus incarnated, including such ideas as God and immortality, are not merely regulative (as in Kant) but are truly constitutive of reality.

Other important Romantic explorations of imagination include the prophetic poetry of William Blake (17571827) and the Defence of Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822), both of which affirm the transcendent reach of imagination, and so are generally congruent with Coleridge and William Hazlitt's (17781830) essays and the letters of John Keats (17951821), which offer a more secular view but still affirm the unifying power of imagination.

Twentieth Century

The transcendentalist view of imagination that came to full flower in the early nineteenth century was seriously questioned by existentialist philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard (18131855), Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), Martin Heidegger (18891971), and Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980). For them, the humanist values implicit in the Romantic idea of imagination as affirmative and redemptive were no longer tenable in a modern world of violence and inhumanity. Negation and angst replaced the affirmations of humanism. In their wake, postmodernist thinkers like Jacques Lacan (19011981), Michel Foucault (19261984), and Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) further undermined the Romantic idea of imagination by questioning or denying a valid relationship between image and reality. As Derrida put it, there is no "hors-texte. "

For all this, however, there have remained strong and serious countervailing voicesphilosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Emmanuel Levinas, theorists like Paul Riceour and Walter Ong, critics such as George Steiner and Geoffrey Hartman, who affirm (in Ong's phrase) the "presence of the Word" and the possibilities of transcendence. Most important of all, artists still create in poetry, in paint, in music, in drama, and in film, and there continue to be those who reflect on this creative work and affirm its human value and the unifying power of the imagination that shaped it. Given its long history and its continuing force, the idea of imagination seems likely to endure.

See also Creativity in the Arts and Sciences ; Existentialism ; Kantianism ; Metaphysics ; Naturphilosophie ; Neoplatonism ; Philosophy of Mind ; Platonism ; Romanticism in Literature and Politics ; Scholasticism .


Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Bantly, Francisca Cho. Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in The Dream of the Nine Clouds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Although there is no formal concept of imagination in Buddhism, chapter one articulates helpfully the Buddhist "ontology of illusion."

Barth, J. Robert. The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition. 2nd ed. Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2001.

Bate, Walter Jackson. From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1946.

Bundy, Murray Wright. The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Mediaeval Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1927.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. A clear and useful study of the imagination in Islam.

Engell, James. The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. The definitive study of imagination during the period of its fullest development.

Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1988. A comprehensive survey and analysis of the idea of imagination from the Hebrew scriptures to postmodernism.

Mahony, William K. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A thorough study of imagination in the Hindu tradition.

McFarland, Thomas. Originality and Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. Todorov, Tzvetan.

Theories of the Symbol. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Warnock, Mary. Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wellek, René. Immanuel Kant in England, 17931838. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1931.

J. Robert Barth

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Since Plato, thinkers have recognized human mental capacities for producing images and combining them in ways that do not copy experience. Philosophers have held many theories about the origin of images. One of the most original is expressed by the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist philosopher Hsuan-tsang in his interpretation of the Yogacara writings of the Indian thinker Vasubandhu (c. fifth century c.e.). Hsuan-tsang suggested that the mind has a great storehouse consciousness of images or "seeds" that are "perfumed" into consciousness (as smells incite otherwise hidden memories) by other conscious seeds that have an emotional vector. David Hume, the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, had a theory of imaginative association modeled on mechanical principles.

Synthesis and construction

Immanuel Kant, Hume's younger contemporary, revolutionized thought about imagination in the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). He claimed that imagination is a foundational capacity for synthesis in the mind whereby stimuli or impingements from the external world are organized into the basic structures of experience such as a spatiotemporal field and the applicability of concepts to sense data, as explained in Robert Cummings Neville's Reconstruction of Thinking (1981). Romantic philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson developed the view that the structures of imagination are more basic than the surface affirmations of conscious thought and reveal assumptions about reality that are presupposed by other forms of thought. Myths reveal truths more basic than science, for instance. The pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914) gave an evolutionary interpretation of imagination such that its deep structures are more likely to be true about basic issues, because corrected over a long evolutionary development, than the reasonings of philosophers. Ray L. Hart in the twentieth century argued that imagination is central to the constitution of human beings before God and is the very form of revelation, inspiring a movement of "theologies of imagination," as analyzed by Fritz Buri in his 1985 article "American Philosophy of Religion."

Imagination has been particularly important in science. For Plato the ideal scientific imagination was mathematical, as Robert Brumbaugh has shown in his Plato's Mathematical Imagination (1954) and for Aristotle imagination was the wit to hit upon the third term connecting two otherwise unrelated topics. Whereas some people in Western philosophy might have thought that science is merely a reading off of the lessons of nature, Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, argued that post-Copernican science forces nature to answer questions of our own imaginative devising. Peirce, at the beginning of the twentieth century, argued at length that all hypothesis construction in science begins with an imaginative guess at the answer and then proceeds by imagination to articulate the guess in theoretical terms that might be tested. Although certain positivistic trends in mid-twentieth century philosophy of science minimized imagination in the testing of hypotheses by focusing closely on the performance of controlled experiments, a counter-movement associated with Thomas S. Kuhn (19221995) has been extremely influential. Kuhn argued that the controlled testing of hypotheses, or "normal science," takes place within larger assumed paradigms of what is at stake in the tests, their assumptions and their interpretations as defined by the instruments involved. "Revolutionary science" is when the paradigms themselves are criticized and changed, and this involves much imagination in stepping outside of linear inference. Imagination plays a large role in contemporary thinking about scientific creativity.

In the last two centuries scholars have used the notion of imagination to describe the set of assumptions, thought patterns, and ways of seeing or sensing peculiar to an age or culture. For instance, the imagination of the Hellenistic world of antiquity, when rabbinic Judaism and Christianity arose, included the view that the cosmos is a stack of many spatial levels of which the Earth occupies one, with perhaps many heavens above and hells below. Each level has its characteristic agents, bodies, movements, and patterns of causation. Aristotle's theory that motion above the orbit of the moon is circular whereas that below is straight-line illustrates one version of the multilevel theory; when his theory or others became unquestioned assumptions they formed part of the age's imagination. Biblical references to angels are to be understood as to beings from certain higher levels crossing the boundaries into the earthly level. God often was imagined to occupy the highest level as a being within a spatiotemporal system that includes earthly life at a different place. God's nature might be very different from that of things on the earthly level, for instance that of a pure, immaterial, infinite spirit, but it is connected with the earthly plane by the geography of the cosmic levels. In Christianity (Phil. 2) God's "Son," who has the form of God when with God in the divine heaven, descends to Earth, taking on a nature proper to the earthly level (indeed that of a slave in earthly terms). When human beings make the reverse journey to God, they must take on natures appropriate to the divine heavenly level, for instance "celestial bodies" (1 Cor. 15).

The challenge of science

The challenge of modern science to the imaginative structures of the religions formed in the ancient world is that science itself shapes contemporary imagination to make it incompatible with them. Because of modern science, people know, and assume deep in their imaginations, that beneath the Earth's surface is a molten core, not hell, and that traveling upward leads to outer space, not one or more heavens with different causal structures. Indeed the imagination shaped by modern science assumes a uniformity of measure throughout the entire cosmos: An inch is always and everywhere an inch, a chemical reaction on Earth is the same as it would be in any part of the cosmos with the same conditions, and mathematics applies equally everywhere.

So, in the modern imagination there is no "proper heavenly place" for God if God is extremely different from earthly beings. Theologians have responded to this in various ways. Process theologians (e.g. Charles Hartshorne [18972000]) say that God is not so different and is part of the cosmos. They explain this by saying that the differences between God and humans can be expressed within a set of metaphysical measures that apply to the finite God and ordinary things alike. Other theologians (e.g. Paul Tillich [18861965]) deny that God is a being at all because to be a being requires having a place; God rather is the ground or creator of all beings and places. Yet other thinkers (pantheists) say that God is identical with the cosmos and differs from any particular finite thing by being all of the things together. Many thinkers reflecting on the differences between the ancient and the modern scientific imaginations say that belief in God is simply incompatible with science, and hence are atheists. Some religious people are able to divide their imagination into one structure for religious matters and another for engaging the world in other respects, although this makes the integrating intent of religion difficult.

The study of "science and religion" sometimes attempts to reconcile contemporary scientific imagination with the ancient imagination that forms the symbols and rhetoric of traditional religions. One approach, called demythologizing and associated with Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), is to treat the ancient imagination as metaphorical, searching for "religious meaning" distinct from "scientific meaning." Another is to treat the modern imagination and scientific conceptions as themselves open to the literal kinds of beings and causation depicted as heavenly in the ancient imagination. So it is argued that science still allows for miracles and divine agency without denying scientific causation, as discussed in Mark Richardson and Wesley Wildman's 1996 book Religion and Science (especially case study one). The problem for religious imagination is related to but not the same as the problem of reconciling ancient and modern theories: It is a problem of apparently conflicting imaginative presuppositions that affect how people perceive and act.

Contemporary scientific imagination poses a potentially more explosive problem for modern life. Until the mid-twentieth century the modern European scientific imagination could picture atoms interacting within the void, or fields of forces affecting material objects within them. Even quantum mechanics could picture the world as having particles that travel along a path but skipping some sections relative to observation. More recent physical science has moved into a mathematical imagination that is not picturable in terms of customary space-time models. Quarks are not like tiny spinning suns, as people had earlier imagined electrons, photons, and neutrons. Only highly sophisticated mathematicians are able to comprehend the relations that added together in bulk might give rise to picturable images. Popularized expressions of many fundamental ideas in microphysics and astrophysics we know to be just plain false to the sophisticated science. This is exactly like the situation regarding certain kinds of theology whose conceptions of God are not picturable in any way and that need to be understood in purely conceptual terms, like mathematics though perhaps with a different dialectical logic. Popular religious expressions, like popular expressions of certain scientific ideas, must be said to be "just plain false," or at least highly misleading, relative to some sophisticated theology that cannot be understood except by the sophisticated. The elitism common to the mathematical imagination in science and the dialectical imagination in theology is more problematic in the religious realm. Whereas technologists can deliver the results of science to a popular world that cannot picture its theory, religions no long have technological priesthoods to mediate unpicturable truths easily to people whose credulity requires traditional religious language.

See also Kant, Immanuel


brumbaugh, robert s. plato's mathematical imagination. bloomington: indiana university press, 1954

brumbaugh, robert s. platonic studies of greek philosophy. albany: state university of new york press, 1989

bultmann, rudolf. jesus christ and mythology. new york: scribners, 1958.

buri, fritz. "american philosophy of religion from a european perspective: the problem of meaning and being in the theologies of imagination and process," trans. harold h. oliver. journal of the american academy of religion 53, no. 4 (1985): 651673

chan, wing-tsit, trans. and ed. a source book in chinese philosophy. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1963.

hart, ray l. unfinished man and the imagination: toward an ontology and a rhetoric of revelation. new york: herder and herder, 1968

hartshorne, charles. the divine relativity: a social conception of god. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1948.

kuhn, thomas s. the structure of scientific revolutions. chicago: university of chicago press, 1962

neville, robert cummings. reconstruction of thinking. albany: state university of new york press, 1981

neville, robert cummings. the truth of broken symbols. albany: state university of new york press, 1996

richardson, w. mark, and wildman, wesley j., eds. religion and science: history, method, dialogue. new york and london: routledge, 1996.

tillich, paul. systematic theology, vol. 1. chicago: university of chicago press, 1951.

toulmin, stephen. human understanding: the collective use and evolution of concepts. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1972.

robert cummings neville

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A complex cognitive process of forming a mental scene that includes elements which are not, at the moment, being perceived by the senses.

Imagination involves the synthetic combining of aspects of memories or experiences into a mental construction that differs from past or present perceived reality, and may anticipate future reality. Generally regarded as one of the "higher mental functions," it is not thought to be present in animals. Imagination may be fantastic, fanciful, wishful, or problem-solving, and may differ from reality to a slight or great extent. Imagination is generally considered to be a foundation of artistic expression, and, within limits, to be a healthy, creative, higher mental function.

Observers as diverse as Plato and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have noted two contrasting types of imagination. One is largely imitative and concerned with mentally reconstructing past events or images. Among the imitative types of imagination is eidetic imagery, which consists of rich and vividly recalled images and is especially characteristic of children up to the age of six. Afterimages, such as the green image that appears after looking at the color red, are a type of imitative image and are produced by sense receptors. A synesthetic image is produced by the conjunction of two senses such as occurs when hearing a certain piece of music elicits a visual image with which it is associated in the mind of the listener. Hypnagogic images are unusually clear images produced in the state between sleep and waking. Hallucinations are vivid, detailed images produced in the absence of external stimuli and generally confused with real images. Dreams are images occurring in a sleeping state that are usually not confused with reality once the sleeper awakes.

In contrast to imitative images, creative imagination is associated with thought and involves the restructuring, rather than merely the retention, of sensory impressions. It was this faculty that Coleridge called "imagination" as opposed to "fancy," his name for imitative imagining. One common form of creative imagination is daydreaming . At one time, daydreaming and fantasies were regarded as compensatory activities that had the function of "letting off steam," but recent research has cast doubt on that theory. Creative imagination is the basis for achievements in the realms of both art and science, and students of behavior have analyzed the creative process in hopes of being able to encourage greater creativity through various types of training. New discoveries about the specialized functions of the right-and left-brain hemispheres have revealed that the right-brain hemisphere is the center for much of the mental functioning commonly regarded as creative: it is the side associated with intuitive leaps of insight and the ability to synthesize existing elements into new wholes. These findings have been applied by educators seeking to enhance individual creativity in areas including writing and drawing.

After falling into neglect as an area of inquiry during the period when behaviorism was preeminent, mental imagery has become a significant topic of study for cognitive psychologists. Researchers have found that imagery plays a significant role in emotion , motivation , sexual behavior, and many aspects of cognition , including learning, language acquisition, memory , problem-solving, and perception . Mental imagery has also been found to be a useful technique in clinical work. In addition to Gestalt therapy, which has traditionally involved the use of images, a number of image-based therapies have emerged in the United States and elsewhere. Mental images have also been used as a diagnostic tool to reveal feelings and attitudes not accessible through verbalization.

Further Reading

Bronowski, Jacob. The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

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im·ag·i·na·tion / iˌmajəˈnāshən/ • n. the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses: she'd never been blessed with a vivid imagination. ∎  the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful: technology gives workers the chance to use their imagination. ∎  the part of the mind that imagines things: a girl who existed only in my imagination.

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