In a broad sense the creativity of the imagination can be described according to its ability to combine and rearrange the different elements of the data gathered from sensory experience; this ability, an everyday phenomenon, has been noted by almost every philosopher. In discussing this function of the imagination, philosophers have tended to focus attention on the tricks that the imagination can play on man and on the danger of confusing the imaginary with the real that this ability poses. In short, speculation concerned with creative imagination in this sense has been chiefly concerned with mental chimeras, such as the illusion and the hallucination.
In a more restricted sense the creativity of the imagination relates to the unique function of the imagination in the production of a work of art, to the expression of the beautiful. Considered under this aspect, the creative imagination is of central importance to a philosophy of art, to a poetics. Philosophical speculation on this topic, although not entirely absent in ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophers, has been chiefly a topic of inquiry by contemporary philosophers.
Interrelation of Man's Powers. At times man is tempted to look on his varied powers and their acts—the imagination and its acts among them—as separate entities, almost as independent realities; and the work of analyzing these powers and distinguishing them one from the other perhaps fosters this temptation. To conceive them in this way is to rob them of their meaning as a living reality, for their nature and activities obey the laws of interiority, perfection, and self-construction, by which life is defined. The acts of powers are not exterior to the powers themselves, and the powers are not exterior to one another or to the person who is their source and end (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 77.5–7). The diversity of powers and acts within the human soul is not explained by the phenomenon of physical generation, but by a sort of emanation, of flowing from within, that has nothing to do with quantitative juxtaposition (ibid. 77.6 ad 3). Moreover, the more perfect powers emanate before the others, and in this procession one power or faculty proceeds from the essence of the soul through the medium or instrumentality of another that emanates beforehand. The more perfect powers, such as the intellect, are the principle, or source, of others, such as the imagination, both as being their end and as being their active or efficacious source. The sensory powers of the soul, among them the imagination, exist for the sake of intelligence inasmuch as they are a "certain defective participation of the intellect" (ibid. 77.7). Imagination proceeds or flows from the essence of the soul through the intellect and the central sense, both of which it serves, while the external senses, which exist to serve the imagination and intellect, proceed from the essence of the soul through the imagination. (see faculties of the soul; soul.)
The imagination, in short, is not to be considered as something "outside" the intellect, competing with it, as it were, but rather as a vital instrument of intelligence serving it both in the realm of speculation and in the work of artistic creation.
Maritain's Analysis. It is against this backdrop that Jacques maritain, a representative contemporary Thomist, presents his analysis of creative imagination. For Maritain, poetic intuition begins in the depths of the soul, "at the root of the soul's powers," where intellect, imagination, and external senses unite in the preconscious life of the spirit. According to Maritain, and here he is doubtlessly influenced by H. bergson, poetic intuition is born of the unconscious, not the Freudian unconscious of blood and flesh, instincts and complexes, but the spiritual unconscious that precedes rational discourse and conceptual thought. Moreover, poetic intuition has no conceptual expression but finds expression only in the artist's work, "in which the intellect exercises its activity at the single root of the soul's powers and conjointly with them."
In considering the imagination's role in the production of a work of art, Maritain first notes three possible states or existential conditions for the images born of the imagination. First, such images can be part of the "externals of the imagination," i.e., the images of daily life formed by the imagination as a response to sense perception and the needs of conscious daily life. Second, they can be part of what Maritain calls the "automatic or deaf unconscious." Here, cut off from intelligence, they lead a life more or less their own and give rise to dreams, illusions, hallucinations, etc. Third, they can be part of the "preconscious life of the intellect." Here, illumined by the intellect, they are used either in the genesis of concepts or by poetic intuition. In the production of works of art, images from the "preconceptual imagination" are used to make known and express what is totally singular and conceptually inexpressible. Such images Maritain terms "immediately illuminating images," illuminating because they are bathed in the light of intelligence and by poetic intuition. In this work, images are not compared with each other, but one thing that was unknown—contained only in the obscurity of an emotive intuition— is discovered and expressed through another already known. The ineffable, unique intuition of the poet is the reality that was previously unknown; and the poet, seizing an image already known but now elevated and transformed through the common activity of emotive intuition and the illuminating intellect, seeks to express what he has experienced through this transfigured image.
The use of images in creating works of art, thus, is no mechanical play. It is rather an act of transfiguring images present to the preconscious life of the intellect in order to express concretely what the artist has experienced in the depths of his being.
The creative work of the imagination has also been the subject of inquiry for philosophers such as B. croce,G. santayana, and J. P. Sartre. Maritain's position was chosen to illustrate the theme both because it is most consistent with a realistic philosophy wherein the paramount work of the intellect is recognized and because it reflects concretely how a philosopher in the tradition of thomism can bring to fruition the powerful insights of a Bergson, whose comments on the preconscious life of the spirit evidently contribute much to Maritain's own position.
See Also: art (philosophy); aesthetics; beauty; poetics (aristotelian).
Bibliography: t. gilby, The Poetic Experience (New York 1934). e. h. gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful (New York 1965). j. maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Bollingen Ser 35; New York 1953).
[w. e. may]