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The Greek word phantasia is usually translated "imagination." However, in Greek thought the word always retains a connection with the verb phainomai, "I appear." It can be used to refer both to the psychological capacity to receive, interpret, and even produce appearances and to those appearances themselves.

Plato has little to say about phantasia as such, although in Sophist 264a he describes it as "a blend of perception and judgement (doxa )." Elsewhere, in Timaeus 70eff., in a strange passage that locates parts of the soul in particular parts of the body, he describes the liver as functioning like a mirror that reflects images coming from the rational part of the soul, suggesting a link between imagination, dreams, and inspired prophecy.

Aristotle gives phantasia a specific place in his psychology, between perception and thought. In De anima 3.3 he offers an account of phantasia that includes mental images, dreams, and hallucinations. For Aristotle phantasia is based on sense-perception and plays a crucial role in animal movement and desire, as he explains in De anima 3.9 and in the De motu animalium.

In Hellenistic philosophy the term phantasia is most commonly used to refer not to the capacity to receive or interpret appearances but to those appearances themselves. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics use the word to refer to the impressions we receive through our senses. The Stoics developed a distinctive theory of the katalēptikē phantasia or "cognitive impression," an impression that was self-evidently certain and therefore, they believed, offered, the criterion of truth and a secure basis for knowledge.

In later Greek thought the concept of phantasia is developed in a number of different ways. Literary critics, such as Longinus in On the Sublime 15.1, used it of a writer's capacity to visualize what he is describing and to recreate such visualization in the audience. In the second century CE, Philostratus, rather unusually, contrasts phantasia with mimesis, distinguishing between the ability of a sculptor like Phidias to portray gods he had never seen and the technique of copying, or imitation, employed by lesser artists. The link between imagination, dreams, and inspired prophecy suggested in Plato's Timaeus was developed by a number of later thinkers such as Plutarch (De Pythiae oraculis 397c, De defectu oraculorum 431bff.), Synesius (De insomniis chs. 4, 5, and 6) and Iamblichus (De mysteriis 3.2.3 and 3.14).

The Neoplatonists took over Aristotle's concept of phantasia along with the rest of his psychology but developed it in ways of their own. Plotinus in Ennead 4.3.3031 suggests that there are two "image-making powers," one that receives images from sense-perception, and one that receives images from the intellect. The idea that imagination can receive images from the intellect is used by later Neoplatonists in connection with mathematics. Proclus, for example, in his commentary on Euclid, expounds the idea that when we are doing geometry, the figures about which we are thinking are "projections" in the imagination of innate intelligible principles.

See also Aristotle; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Imagination; Plato; Plotinus; Proclus; Stoicism.


Blumenthal, H. J. Aristotle and Neoplatonism in Late Antiquity: Interpretations of the De anima. London: Duckworth, 1996. See especially chapter 10.

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

Cocking, J. M. Imagination A Study in the History of Ideas, edited by Penelope Murray. London: Routledge, 1991.

O'Meara, Dominic J. Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Watson, Gerard. Phantasia in Classical Thought. Galway: Galway University Press, 1988.

Anne Sheppard (2005)