I’m still in the planning phase of my dissertation on the ontology of Imagination, and as such am working to ferret out the most interesting aspects of my chosen site of inquiry. My research is focused on the ontology of Imagination, since my guiding thesis is that any perception of or reflection upon reality depends upon the mediating function it [Imagination] provides and performs. Imagination mediates between the transcendence of the intelligible world and the immanence of the sensible world. It is an agency of soul, an angel relaying messages between the translucent light of spirit and the corporeal darkness of material surfaces. In describing the role of Imagination in such a way, I am following 20th century thinkers like Henry Corbin, Owen Barfield, and Carl Jung. Corbin built on the metaphysical works of Persian mystics, especially Ibn ‘Arabi. Barfield’s ideas emerge out of a careful study of Rudolf Steiner and the English Romantics, especially Coleridge, for whom the human imagination was an imitation of the Divine Imagination. Jung’s understanding of Imagination is perhaps the most experientially grounded of the three (even acknowledging Coleridge’s experiments with opium), both as a result of his own sanity-shaking descent into the imaginal matrix of what he called the “collective unconscious” during the composition of The Red Book (~1914), and owing to his diagnostic work with the dreams and visions of thousands of psychoanalytic patients during the course of his long career.
In this post, I want to zoom in on one aspect of Imagination in particular, namely its relation to ethics. I began to explore the ethical implications of Imagination in an earlier essay by contrasting an ethics of love based in moral imagination with Kant’s more austere, ascetic approach to morality based in laws of Reason and the denial of desire. Kant provides an apt example of what becomes of post-Cartesian moral philosophy (i.e., philosophy that ignores the reality of Imagination): it inevitably splits itself into the two equally matched and equally shortsighted positions of rationalism and psychologism (Kant took the former route, while thinkers like Hume and Bentham took the latter). Without a means of mediating between the freedom of the thinking mind and its instantiation by a feeling body, ethicists can only remain logically self-consistent by adopting either one or the other of the extremes of the dichotomy “idealism vs. emotivism” (i.e., either rationalism or psychologism). Only a philosophy that appreciates the integrative role of Imagination in all its construction and critique can heal the spiritual wound responsible for so drastically dividing the ethical philosophies of modern humanity.
Though Kant certainly recognized the power of Imagination (calling it the most mysterious of the soul’s faculties), he finally assigned it a merely epistemological–rather than ontological, cosmological, or ethical–role as that which synthesizes the sensory manifold and connects percepts with their appropriate concepts. His morality was without Imagination, built upon a belief in an individual’s freedom to will that which Reason dictates. Only if the source of my actions transcends the images of my soul and the feelings of my body, be they pleasurable or painful, are they to be considered moral. An action is moral only if I am able, in good conscience, to consider it a universal law applicable to everyone, everywhere, every time. The subjective stake my embodied soul has in the world must be bracketed entirely, since disinterested duty based in abstract universalizability is the sole basis of Kant’s moral philosophy. This follows directly from the chasm his transcendentalism constructs between phenomena and things themselves. The Good is considered by Kant to be an Idea of Reason existing beyond all sensory perception and imaginal production, and so no feeling rooted in the passions of the body or image generated by the creativity of the soul, even if they be genuinely compassionate and love-imbued, can provide the conscience with moral guidance. Emotion-laded imagery, he believed, could only lead the soul astray from its divinely decreed duties.
In contrast to this, an ethical theory based in moral imagination defines moral action not as that which disinterestedly obeys universal law (nor, for that matter, as that which is ruled by a utilitarian calculus of psychological pleasure), but as that which is motivated by unselfish love of the beauty in others. If Imagination is given its proper place in moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics can become wedded as aesthethics. To be fair to Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, he does at least approach a more integral account of the relationship between our judgment of the Beautiful and our conception of the Good. (It was this book that inspired Schelling’s attempt to overcome the duality between rational duty and sensual desire by transforming philosophical reflection into the poetry of Spirit.) Kant cautiously begins to suggest in this text that the apprehension of Beauty provides at least a symbol of Goodness, in that it reminds the self of that common sense (a.k.a., Imagination) actively harmonizing its own aesthetic judgments with those of others. Beauty points the soul to the profound sympathy hidden in the life of all things. Imagination, the sensus communis of the animate universe, helps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Love holding all things together in Goodness (the ancients knew this Love as the World-Soul; following Corbin, I would call it the mundus imaginalis). Moral imagination allows the self to place itself in the position–body and soul–of others, and indeed of all others. In other words, a redeemed Imagination can identify with any part of the universe and also with the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.
Nonetheless, the nature of this mysterious power, and of its proper organ of perception-production, was in the end deemed unknowable by Kant. He was finally forced to construe the genius of his last critique as productive of merely regulative principles of judgment, rather than constitutive aspects of reality. (Unlike Schelling, he could not accept that “art is the only true and eternal organon and document of philosophy.”) Kantian philosophy remained enclosed within the circularity of self-consciousness and the dizzying dialectic of the transcendental deconstruction of all experience.
So long as Kant’s thoughts remain the limit of thought, I cannot fully Love another person because I cannot truly Know them (or better, because I cannot truly Know with them) by way of Imagination, our common sense. Aesthethics is a moral philosophy openly informed by the Truth of Imagination. It posits the Love of Beauty as the origin and shepherd of the Good. True knowledge is understood to be entirely dependent on the feeling of the Beautiful and the willing of the Good. Truth is enacted, not merely reflected. As Coleridge put it in Biographia Literaria (p. 76, speaking specifically of Jakob Böhme’s thought), only an imaginative philosophy succeeds in “[keeping] alive the heart in the head” (and, I might add, the art).
“All the products of the merely reflective faculty,” Coleridge goes on to say, “[partake] of death, and [are] as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which the sap [is] yet to be propelled from some root to which I [have] not penetrated.”
Ethical theory and practice must draw their sap from this root, or continue to suffer the downward spiral into nihilism of so much modern moral philosophy. The most philosophy can provide in regard to the Good Life without the rigorous cultivation of Imagination is but a system of consistent maxims or a series of laudable sentiments. Without full participation, body and soul, in the communis sensus, moral thought and moral action dissolve into the thin air of solipsism and aesthethics remain impossible.