Imagination is a powerful tool: why is philosophy afraid of it?

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

Why does philosophy have such a conflicted relationship with imagination? In the 17th century, Descartes wrote of imagination that it is “more of a hindrance than a help”, and in the following century, David Hume referred to imagination’s faintness and lanquidity in comparison to perception and memory. However, Hume conceded that imagination can be a path to liberation and, indeed, that “nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible.” One need only think of how da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. German philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive, which transforms sensory content into a meaningful whole; and the reproductive, which is largely about recollection. Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. We might also think about separating the imagination into different uses as opposed to different forms, perhaps considering both its transcendent and instructive functions. Whatever distinctions we make, it’s crucial to allow our imagination to be framed by the situation at hand and grasp how limitations need to be tailored to circumstance.

Source: Aeon

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