IX. Imagination

Imagination, like memory, is a representational faculty of the mind in that it involves the retrieval and processing of information that was previously received through sensory perception. Imagination depends heavily upon memory for its material, as it works upon records of previous impressions - but unlike memory, it involves the intentional creation of new combinations and alters the material from the past.

Functionally, there is very little difference between imagination and memory other than intentionality. Memory may be distorted: gaps in recollection may be filled with fictional details, or multiple events may be amalgamated into a memory that is not an accurate record of any of the events. However, with memory the intent is to retrieve information that is believed to be accurate, at least for the most part, but with imagination the subject is conscious and intentional in his alterations.

Atkinson draws a distinction between reproductive imagination (which is limited to slight modifications to past experience) and constructive imagination (which, while drawing data from past experience, is entirely novel). Constructive imagination is considered a higher mental process, as it requires greater mental sophistication to create a though that is significantly different to memory.

There is some argument as to whether the products of imagination are completely original, or are merely combinations of the parts of past memories. Consider the heraldic griffin, a creature that combines the head, wings, and claws of an eagle with the hindquarters of a lion. While imaginative, the source material for the creature is clear (the lion and the eagle are combined together). The same is true of many other creatures of European mythology" the centaur, satyr, mermaid, devil, cockatrice, minotaur, and various other monstrosities are merely the combination of parts of various creatures.

It can likewise be argued that the various creations of imagination are merely combinations of the known - mashing together the physical or behavioral properties of things that have been experienced. However, the argument that supports this is based on the logical fallacy that because something cannot be disproven, it must be true: that is, those who suggest memory is simply a mash-up of experience defend their thesis by stating that something a person who believes an imagined thing is original simply must not be able to remember when he experienced one or more elements.

The work of artists and writers of fiction, particularly those whose works are closer to fantasy than mimesis, often depict scenes and circumstances that contain no element of experience. Works of "pure" fantasy derive from ideas that are understood only conceptually, and have been no part of sensory perception.

Developing Imagination

The first step in developing imagination is developing memory. If thoughts are the material upon which imagination works, it must be well supplied of this material to be imaginative.

The second step is developing visualization: the ability to envision or think upon things such as they are in memory, in both breadth and depth of detail, is also a memory skill that is prerequisite to imagination.

The third step, unique to imagination, is in deliberately altering this material: to change the properties of something that is remembered and to combine the properties of various things. This provides the simplest form of imagination, such as that represented by the mythological creatures that combine the parts of known animals.

The final step in developing imagination is to separate the characteristics and qualities from the things to which they were originally associated. In this step the mind begins to work upon concepts rather than objects or actions, and becomes capable of astounding levels of creativity.

Atkinson cautions, however, against the "waste of the powers of the imagination" by engaging in idle fancies and daydreams. The value in imagination is achieving a vision that may be achieved, but daydreaming involves creating an impractical vision that one cannot and often has no plans of achieving. This may provide some entertainment, but is of no value and often distracts from more practical uses of the mind.

Imagination and Ideals

Our ideals and aspirations are critical to the "making or marring" of our lives, our morality, and our character - and as such they are considered a critical component to our success. But ideals are merely a form of imagination.

Our ideas and aspirations are the things we seek to achieve, that do not already exist. And as they do not exist, we cannot have perceived them directly, but must conjure them from a process of imagination: we regard the way that things are, and imagine the way that we would prefer them to be by altering certain qualities, or creating them based on concepts.

The difference between a fantasy and an aspiration is that we mean to actually achieve the latter, and ideally take steps to bring our vision into reality. But again, the process of exploring a fantasy and developing an aspiration are exactly the same.

In terms of character, it is the imagination of certain qualities that have been isolated from the original perception. That is, even if we follow a role model and attempt to "be like" someone whom we respect, the process of defining the qualities of their character involves translating their behavior into characteristics (principles or virtues), and then projecting these characteristics onto ourselves as we attempt to practice them in the context of our own behavior.

In terms of plans, it is the imagination that projects a future state that we wish to achieve as well as the means by which we achieve it. Before we know what it is we want to accomplish or decide what actions to take, we must use imagination to depict an outcome that is not part of our experience - which may be transposed (we observed a successful person and attempt to imitate their behavior) or invented.

However, our imagination in this regard can also have a negative impact on our behavior. A man who commits an act that is imprudent, immoral, or even criminal had first exercised his imagination to envision himself engaging in that activity before he undertook to take action.

(EN: To which I would add that half-wittedness, which is the source of greater evil than poor character, is a failure of the imagination to depict the full breadth of an action - whether to fail to recognize what must be done or failure to consider the consequences.)

Imagination as Quality of Life

Aside of the benefit of being able to envision and achieve practical goals, imagination adds quality to life. While Atkinson earlier cautioned against the abuse of imagination for pure entertainment purposes, he now seems to suggest that the ability to imagine is a form of entertainment that adds richness to life: a person who is unable to dream or to fantasize is a dreary and sad fellow indeed.

The person with a clear imagination is a creator of his own world. He does not merely react to what exists, nor does he merely follow the orders handed down to him by others. He is able to conceive what he wishes to achieve and follow his own path in life, to improve rather than accept his circumstances.

Imagination is also the source of social connections: one cannot have sympathy for another person without imagining what they must perceive and how they must feel. So without imagination, human interactions are limited to the practical and detached interaction with other people as if they were mechanical objects, without minds or souls, and in turn to become mindless and soulless ourselves.

To connect with others means imagining their perspective, and to collaborate with others means sharing thoughts and aspirations to define a common goal. In that sense, imagination is critical to social coexistence.