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Against Imagination


Against Imagination


Reidar Due

Does imagination create or distort our experience of the world? Oxford scholar Reidar Due turns to Spinoza, Deleuze and Kant, in order to establish imagination's relation to philosophy, the arts and science and ask: Does imagination liberate us or alienate us from reality, others and ourselves?

One often thinks that imagination is a good thing, that is, one thinks it is better to have imagination than not. Someone who is said to have no imagination is meant to be dull, erotically numb, politically astute etc. In this sense, to us moderns’, imagination is a placeholder for other positive values. It stands for freedom and receptivity, transcendence and innovation, excitement and inspiration. It is noteworthy that neither Ancient Greek philosophers nor Latin Medieval philosophers spent much time discussing imagination. The value of imagination is tied to the notion that truth and poetic creativity are dependent on novelty. It is against this background that Spinoza formulates a powerful critique of imagination along several axes. On the one hand, the imaginative psychological attitudes of hope and fear are ethically destructive, because they orient themselves towards that, which does not exist. On the other hand, ideas that we have about other people are often caused, not by an appreciation of them in their own right, but by an articulation of the effect that they have upon us. Hence we like and dislike people, because we imagine them, on the basis of our own vulnerable self-esteem, to be such and such, whereas they may be, in fact, very different. Finally, an intellectual grasp of reality, an adequate intellectual appropriation of nature, takes the form of conceptual or intuitive thinking, neither of which involves imagination. From Spinoza we thus get the view that imagination serves to imprison the subject within its own private thought and to bar the way towards an adequate appreciation of reality. The same perceptive is presented by the twentieth century philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

The value of imagination is tied to the notion that truth and poetic creativity are dependent on novelty

In the work he wrote with Guattari, Anti-Oedipus [1972], he opposes the workings of desire to the effects of imagination. The unconscious does not produce metaphors, that is, it does not produce objects of the imagination, but actual effects in society. A schizophrenic person may be isolated in his own delirium and society will contribute to this isolation by locking him up in an asylum, but in itself schizophrenia is a production of psychic and social effects that need not be thought of in isolation from the rest of social production. Thus the idea of isolation emerges as a trait of the imaginary or the non-real in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. Isolation is also a characteristic of the Romantic genius in English Romantic thought. Coleridge speaks of the imagination as a creative faculty of synthesis and he does so in the understanding that creation has to liberate itself from the constraints of material reality. In the legacy of Romanticism, a curious alliance has formed in aesthetic and perhaps political theory between poetry and positivism. Positivist philosophers and the defenders of the Romantic heritage would agree upon a particular division of conceptual labor. If meaning in positivist philosophy is thought of in very narrow terms, as the content of scientific propositions, for instance, there is an interest on the part of the positivist philosopher in having at his disposal an ancillary discourse, which can cover all the other meanings, and this will then be the discourse of poetry. Similarly, if the poet seeks to vindicate his powers of invention against the static nature of reality, it is not bad that there is a parallel discourse of science, which has covered that aspect of reality in dry and abstract words.  

Thus the idea of isolation emerges as a trait of the imaginary or the non-real in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari

This division of labor, which serves both parties, may be a particularly British phenomenon, but it highlights a danger of appeals to the imagination as a creative faculty. If this creative force, and the freedom it entails, is bought at the price of isolating the imaginative subject from reality, it is a rather lame freedom. The issue then is whether we can think of the imagination as a faculty that connects us with reality. But I think not. Other conceptions of mental life, such as emotion, desire and fantasy may be a source of involvement in the world, but the concept of the imagination is bound to isolate the subject. If we think of the very subtle discussions of imagination in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, we may see the difficulty of referring to the imagination as a source of involvement with the world. There are two main discussions of the imagination in Kant and both concern a notion of subjectivity. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant struggles to account for the synthesis in consciousness of sense impressions and concepts like number and identity. Sense impressions and general concepts are clearly very different mental representations and yet they conspire to form the complex experiences that we have of individual objects. Kant argues that we find a psychological route between sense impression and concept, in that we are able to produce schemata, midway between the two and this is the work of the imagination. The faculty of the imagination serves to make sense for the subject of otherwise disparate faculties. In The Critique of Judgment, Kant discusses experiences of phenomena that exceed the imagination. He thinks of experiences, which we perceive through reason as overwhelming, and when we perceive them we try, and fail, to provide for these external phenomena an adequate internal image. Reason spurs the imagination to provide an image that it cannot deliver. Thus in both cases, the imagination serves to allow the subject to make sense of experience for itself, but it does not help the subject to establish a connection with the outside.


Reidar Due teaches Film Aesthetics and is Fellow in French at Magdalen College, Oxford University. He has previously published on Jean-Paul Sartre and Gilles Deleuze, and his research centers on the ontology of modern art and the relationship between phenomenology and ethics.