Believing our Imagination

After I posted about whether we can choose to to believe something, my friend Eve Keneinan pointed out to me that I had left out the subject of imagination. In particular, that it is not merely a question of whether we close our eyes or look at reality, we can also choose to look at our imagination and mistake that for looking at reality. The phenomenon of falling in love with a theory is a subset of this practice.

Imagination is a very interesting subject and one remarked on probably less than it should be. Even the simple question of what is imagination is not asked very much. In broad terms, imagination appears to be the ability of the mind to take on the form of something with which it is not in contact. (This is in reference to the Aristotelian idea that knowledge consists of the mind taking on the form of the thing known; where form refers, very roughly, not to the physical shape of a thing but essentially to what makes it what it is.) The mind can take on the form of something not real, such as when one writes fiction, or it can take on the form of something real but simply not present, such as when one calls to mind the face of a friend.

There is a problem with the latter type of imagination, when it is derived from reality, because we are fallen creatures: we can call things to mind imperfectly. This immediately introduces problems, though it can largely (though rarely perfectly) be corrected by consulting other aspects of our memory to make sure that our reconstruction of our memory is in fact correct. Our imagination is notoriously misleading when it comes to eye-witness testimony, identifying a person we’ve never seen before, and other things courts of law rely on all too often, but that’s not the main point here.

In Immanuel Kant’s killing off of knowledge in the last days of Modern Philosophy being a living endeavor, he proposed imagination as a substitute for knowledge. Not pure imagination, of course, since that would be absurd to even a brilliant man, but imagination which is then checked against experience (where practical). If experience confirms it, then we continue to count our imagination as “knowledge”, if not, we must try to imagine something else which does conform to our experience. For a fuller explanation, check out Kant’s Version of Knowledge.

For many people this idea of “knowledge” has replaced actual knowledge, and interacting with the world becomes an almost solipsistic exercise in playing with the phantasms conjured up by our imaginations. Even where it hasn’t, it is a common practice to understand something by trying to imagine it from incomplete knowledge, very frequently supplying the gaps with pieces of ourselves. That a great many people assume that everyone else is just like them only makes this more misleading whenever it is applied to people or things which are not just like them.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, it is exceedingly easy to fool ourselves into thinking that by looking things as we imagine them, we are actually looking at the world. Not only do we go astray but we don’t even realize our own ignorance. Having applied ourselves with great effort to learn about things which exist nowhere else but our imaginations, we feel like we’ve tried. Worse, it is painful to realize all that effort was wasted, making admitting our mistake to ourselves very difficult indeed.

It is possible to be lazy and ignorant, by not trying. But it is also possible to be very industrious and still ignorant, by looking in the wrong place.


There is a saying that Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has roamed the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

One thought on “Believing our Imagination

  1. Kant very clearly marks a turning point or watershed in the history of Western thought. No philosophy after Kant was left untouched by Kant. And if you view the history of thought as having a kind of internal logic, as I do, you can state with assurance that Kant makes Nietzsche inevitable—an outcome which would have horrified Kant beyond all reason.

    In fact, my old teacher Stanley Rosen—one of the most brilliant thinkers I have ever known—used to say, only half-jokingly, that once you make the shift from Plato to Aristotle (in particular by introducing the Agent Intellect), you are on a course that inevitably leads to Descartes, thence to Kant, and at last to Hegel, whose titanic system collapses under its own weight, thus leaving us only with Nietzsche dancing gleefully amidst the ruins, singing hymns to Dionysus, art, unreason, and the Will to Power.

    Kant is a bit like Don Quijote (a character and a novel that along with Descartes, inaugurates modernity—as discussion for another time). You cannot _compromise_ with skepticism in the manner he attempted. Either we _can_ know reality or we _cannot_.

    The modern principle (articulated by Vico, but already implicit in Descartes and explicit in Kant) that “we can know only what we make” is at once collapses reality and knowledge of reality into fiction, art, narrative, storytelling. It undoes the distinction between mythos and logos, telling stories and giving rational accounts, it resolves the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” of which Socrates speaks by crowing the poets victorious. It—to say it again—leads to nowhere but Nietzsche.

    If “we can know only what we make” then all human knowledge is a mere _construction_.

    And “whatever can be constructed can be deconstructed.”

    Liked by 1 person

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