Inadequacies in current theories of imagination

Southern Journal of Philosophy 33 (3):313-333 (1995)
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Interest in imagination dates back to Plato and Aristotle, but full-length works have been devoted to it only relatively recently by Sartre, McKellar, Furlong, Casey, Johnson, Warnock, Brann, and others. Despite their length and variety, however, these current theories take overly narrow views of this complex phenomenon. Their definitions of “imagination” neglect the multiplicity of its meanings and tend to focus narrowly on the power of imaging alone. But imagination in the fullest, most encompassing sense centers instead on creativity, which involves both imaging and reasoning powers. Current accounts of the operations of imagination narrowly construe it in fixed, immutable terms. But it’s instead a dynamic, evolving synergy of its psychological roots and sociobiological roots. This synergy has transformed the roles of images and symbols in imagination. For example, in the shift from mytheopic to scientific imagination, literacy and formal education fostered abstract symbolic thinking, which differs from mytheopic thinking based on richly concrete associations. The result was “more than cool reason”, but experimental studies show that it’s also more than just dreamy imagery. It’s a dynamic synergy of the two that has transformed both. Current evaluations of imagination’s potentials are also narrow. They tend to focus on its role in mental life while ignoring social and political life. Also, they tend to follow romantic and existentialist customs of extolling imagination’s virtues without soberly critiquing its limitations. Again, they ignore the synergy of psychological, sociological and biological forces that shape mental and social evolution, and promote and constrain imagination in complex ways. For example, Sartre surreally asks us to choose our own nature with an imagination emancipated from institutional and instinctual strictures. Yet making intelligible choices depends on these strictures. In conclusion, current theories define imagination narrowly in terms of imaging, they describe its operations in fixed and immutable terms, and they evaluate its potentials without examining the full interplay of forces shaping it. These shortcomings are remedied by a broader perspective that defines imagination more adequately and comprehensively, and that recognizes it’s complex roots, dynamic operations, and evolving potentials. This paper is based on my 1994 work, The Roots of Imagination, which can be downloaded in full here in PhilPapers
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