“[Imagination] is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.”
It should go without saying that there is more to reality than what at first meets the eye. There is always a deeper reason at work beneath the surface, discoverable even in a world overflowing with appearances. Somehow sensation is made intelligible, which is also to say that intelligence is made sensible. The nature of this synthesis was a mystery even to philosophical prophets like Hume and Kant
, but both of them knew it had something to do with imagination
. In book VI of The Republic
ranks the imagination (eikasia
) lowest on his scale of the soul’s faculties, complaining that it relates only to shadows and reflections—in short, to appearances. The intelligible realm is invisible, according to Plato, and thus accessible only to the more refined powers of understanding and reason
(or what Plato refers to as dianoia
, respectively). Earlier in The Republic
(book IV), Plato warns against the corrupting dangers of innovative poetry to the established order because of its power to quickly transform the values of entire societies.
Perhaps it was Plato’s longing for the stillness of eternity and the substance of ideas that made him suspicious of the poet’s dynamic and passionate imagination. The Idealism
born in Germany more than two millennia later, however, beginning with Kant’s transcendental version and progressively developing through Fichte’s and Schelling
’s systems to culminate in Hegel
’s Absolute Idealism, though still Platonic to their core, can be read as having nonetheless entirely re-evaluated the role imagination plays in the generation and renovation of ideas, be they concerned with Truth, Goodness, or Beauty.
This essay will trace the philosophical development of the imagination in the philosophies of Kant, Schelling, and Hegel. I will argue that philosophy, if it is to remain relevant to embodied minds such as ourselves, must transform experience of this
world, instead of focusing on abstract ideals, by reawakening what Jakob Boehme
called the “divine imagination.”
Hegel’s speculative system will be interpreted as having just such an aim, to produce “an actual experience of living in the light of the eternal day.”
The result of reawakening the divine imagination is that, as Wilber puts it, “the other world [of supersensible ideas becomes] this world rightly seen.”
“I am now convinced,” wrote Hegel in 1797,
“that the highest act of Reason, the one through which it encompasses all Ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness only become sisters in beauty—the philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet…Poetry gains thereby a higher dignity, she becomes at the end once more, what she was at the beginning—the teacher of mankind.”
Hegel here articulates, early in his career, his desire for a philosophy that unites what Plato had divided. Reason reaches its zenith not in the contemplation of invisible ideas, but through the creative power of imagination, giving imaginal concreteness to ideas that would otherwise remain hidden in a “realm of shades.”
Imagination not only allows us to express the ideas of reason in our artistic works and ethical lives, but to perceive their expression in nature, which rightly approached becomes “a volume of holy instruction, [leading] us into all the mysteries and secrets of eternity.”
Before exploring the systems of Schelling and Hegel, however, we must pay respect to the genius of Kant, whose three critiques have forever changed the way human consciousness understands its relation to God and the Cosmos.
Walter Kaufmann credits Kant with authoring the first major philosophical book written in German.
In this book, the Critique of Pure Reason
(published in 1781), Kant set himself the task of determining “how much we can hope to achieve by reason [i.e., the understanding], when all the material and assistance of experience are taken away.”
In other words, he hoped to determine what the understanding was capable of discovering about its own cognitive operations independent of what it receives from outside itself. He sought to establish the conditions for the possibility of all knowledge
as the forms of intuition and categories that structure, a priori
, all experience, whether of appearances within the soul or in external nature.
He lists three powers, or “…capacities of the soul…which cannot be any further derived from one common ground: the faculty of knowledge, the feeling of pleasure and pain, and the faculty of desire
These can be summarized as thinking, feeling, and willing, respectively.
These three powers of soul, along with the forms of intuition of space and time underlying all their content, constitute the whole of our phenomenal experience. In the Critique of Pure Reason
, Kant lists three different faculties, but claims, as he does above, that “they are original sources…and cannot themselves be derived from any [others]”; they are sense, imagination, and apperception
What is to be made of this apparent diversity in what Kant claims are the most basic of the soul’s powers? One possible answer is that there is a correspondence between the pairs of three, which will be explored below. Another possibility is that, while the soul can be divided abstractly into different faculties, in truth each is merely a moment within a more fundamental, unifying movement. Kant writes in the same critique that “there are two stems of human knowledge, namely, sensibility
, which perhaps spring from a common, but to us unknown root.”
I propose that the imagination
is this common root, and that it remains unknown only to the extent that we are unable to participate consciously in its activities. While still operating unconsciously, the imagination provides the understanding with a unified picture of the sensory world, without which its categories could never find their application. Consciously activated, imagination becomes not just the servant of the understanding, but Reason’s way of giving its otherwise unreachable ideas concrete expression. In other words, it is imagination that allows ideas like freedom, love, and beauty to be experienced concretely, thereby giving the human being the ability to actualize what would otherwise remain merely abstract logical possibility.
It’s now time to investigate how the imagination works to support knowing, feeling, and desiring. Kant. Because he stopped short of explicitly recognizing the central importance of imagination, Kant seems to artificially separate these three faculties. I hope to show, on the contrary, how they penetrate and work upon one another to form the human being and the universe into a living dynamic whole.
a. Knowledge, or Theoretical Reason: Truth
Kant’s transcendental analysis of theoretical knowledge functioned to reverse the psychological effects of the Copernican Revolution, which by removing the earth from the center of the universe had radically disturbed humanity’s sense of dignity and significance. The very possibility of cosmology, of coherently articulating the place of the human within the larger universe, had been made to seem untenable in light of this disorientation. Kant was able to reorient humanity, not by contradicting Copernicus’ empirical findings, but by discovering, through logic alone, that the subject does not conform to the structure of objects, but rather that objects must conform to the structure and activity of the subject. As he put it “…the order and regularity in appearances, which we entitle nature
, we ourselves introduce.”
It was as if the centrality of the physical Sun was replaced by an invisible Sun, or noumenon, hidden within the human soul, whose light radiated out to give phenomenal form to all the natural bodies revolving around it.
This reversal rests upon a different conception of subjectivity than that expounded by Hume, for whom nothing could be known with any certainty, whether it be the nature of the subject or of the objects to which it relates. For Hume, the subject is a bundle of impressions, the ‘I’ or ego being just another impression with no special significance.
For Kant, the faculty of knowledge depends upon apperception, “the abiding and unchanging ‘I’ [forming] the correlate of all our representations in so far as it is to be at all possible that we should become conscious of them.”
This abiding ‘I’ allows diverse experiences to be unified by and judged according to concepts of the understanding, which themselves apply universally because they constitute the very possibility of our having any experience at all. In order for the understanding to judge the manifold of sensory experience according to its categories, however, it depends upon the synthetic function of the imagination to draw together sensory intuitions into a sensus communis
, a coherent representation of the world no longer divided into the various modalities of the individual sense organs. The work of the imagination in drawing together the chaos of bare sensory experience happens unconsciously, which is why the world appears as always already ordered and coherent, and therefore amenable to conceptual analysis by the understanding.
Apperception, or self-consciousness, unifies our understanding of nature by the power of its own transcendental unity, according to Kant. But even here, the moral or practical function of imagination is necessary for the ‘I’ to know itself as so unified. Without moral imagination, the thinker,
in its attempt to know itself can only divide itself, becoming a dead thought
, which is precisely not-I, not the active thinker originally sought. Self-consciousness cannot establish itself without coming into relation with a thinker, an I, other than itself. In this sense, I do not belong only to myself.
To the extent that learning to speak a public language supports my thinking and self-conception, I am always already an inter-subject. Because my “I” is noumenal, it cannot be known through inward self-reflection alone—its light at first shines only outward. I can only imagine myself when reflected by the image of others. The other is always a constitutive element of my own identity, and it is here that knowing and willing, or the theoretical and practical attitudes coincide. My desire for self-identity is deeply related to my desire to recognize and be recognized by others. If apperception is always already intersubjective, then knowledge depends on the worlds we are able and willing to imagine in common.
In short, knowing the True depends first upon participation in the Good.
Much like its synthetic function in individual perception to bind the various senses into one inward common sense, imagination’s moral function allows for the completion of the act of individual apperception by wedding self to others in a commonly imaged world.
Kant’s more Cartesian notion of transcendental apperception—of an I that finds itself by doubting the existence of other people and the world—leads only to skepticism and solipsism. The ego remains a mere abstraction for Kant because of his failure to recognize the insubstantiality of its knowledge when understood in isolation from others.
Pure theoretical Reason is thus not actually separable from practical Reason. Theoretical knowledge based on the a priori categories of the understanding already presupposes a moral relation to others, as I cannot conceive of my own ‘I’ but by way of an imaginatively generated sense of commonality.
b. Desire, or Practical Reason: Goodness
Desire is defined by Kant as “a being’s faculty of becoming by means of its representations the cause of the actuality of the objects of these representations.”
Desire requires the work of the productive imagination, which conjures feeling-toned pictures within the soul of objects that are distant in time and space, thereby providing the will with a motivating lure. Desire (or will) and imagination are integral to Kant’s account of ethics as developed in the Critique of Practical Reason
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe,” wrote Kant, “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
According to Kaufmann, Kant’s entire philosophical project, more than anything else, was designed to reconcile science (i.e., natural order), and religion (i.e., moral law).
To do so, he was forced to divide our experience of sensory phenomena, of which scientific knowledge is possible, from supersensible noumena, of which nothing can be known except our practical experience of freedom. This division was necessary for Kant because the category of mechanical causality applying to nature contradicts the notion of free will. The possibility of freedom, therefore, cannot be proven theoretically, but it is nonetheless available to us through practical action. The will or desire is capable of being free, according to Kant, only so long as it aligns itself with principles of Reason over pleasures of the senses. If the will merely responds to feeling-toned pictures conjured by the imagination, it is acting out of self-interest instead of disinterested moral duty. However, without the imagination to tailor the universal idea of freedom to the specific situations in which it is summoned to serve, the moral agent can reason only abstractly. Furthermore, as was discussed above, the ipseity of the self is founded upon a pre-cognitive desire for (or love of) others, and so independent of the feelings arising by way of this relation the will remains entirely impotent.
Unconditional love, rather than disinterested duty, is the basis of morality.
Kant’s categorical imperative, because it remains at the level of abstract universal law, is ineffectual in the real world of interpersonal life, where every encounter presents complex and unique demands upon the individual conscience. Moral imagination is required to transform universal laws of Reason into particular acts of good will. Imagination allows ideas—in this case the ideal of freedom—to become reality. Without imagination’s creative capacity to reveal the universal in the unique by forming motivating representations for the will, freedom remains a mere abstract possibility incapable of embodied expression.
c. Feeling, or Judgment: Beauty
Kant says that, by way of feeling, “nothing in the object is signified,” because what is felt as regards pleasure or pain refers only to a state within the subject “as it is affected by the representation” of the object.
Nonetheless, Kant endeavors in the Critique of Judgment
to articulate how it is that such subjective feelings also open us to the experience of the Beautiful, and by analogy, the Good. Kant struggles to articulate how an object, whether natural or artificial, can be judged Beautiful universally, rather than merely because of the feelings of pleasure associated with it by a particular subject. It is in trying to formulate this possibility of the universality of feeling that Kant comes closest to bridging the gaps between subject and object, intelligence and nature, sensible and supersensible that run throughout his system.
Kant suggests that feeling serves as an intermediary between the faculties of knowledge and will. Properly critiqued, feeling allows for at least a reflective judgment of nature as purposeful, thereby opening a hypothetical economy between ideas of Reason and concepts of the understanding. The feeling of pleasure associated with the Beauty of certain natural forms, says Kant, is related to the imagination’s sense of their finality despite the understanding’s lacking any such concept. For Kant, the understanding cannot know nature as purposeful a priori, but it can nonetheless be judged purposeful through imagination’s power of generalization: particular experiences of finality (elicited by feelings of pleasure) can become applicable as rules for the judgment of nature in general.
Feelings by themselves are undoubtedly the sin qua non of human life; without them, though I may have some idea, I would have no sense of myself as a uniquely existing being. Nor would I have either an idea or sense of nature. I would become, as it were, a mind without a body. Such a disembodied mind would also be stripped of most of its desires, except, Kant would argue, the desire to realize the ideas of Reason, especially that of freedom. But what sort of freedom is it that leaves me senseless and without a relation to nature?
Feeling would seem to be contrary to freedom, in that feelings are determined from outside—they happen to me. Freedom, on the other hand, implies self-determination—I am responsible for what I do. It is perhaps here that Kant’s reasoning for the dualism between the sensory world, of which the understanding (with the aid of imagination) provides a priori knowledge, and the supersensible, of which conscience provides our only insight, becomes clearer. Freedom and the moral duty determining it is for Kant the most important ideal of human life—more important even than knowledge of nature, which can only be understood as mechanically determined unless one is willing to admit the testimony of feelings as regards its finality.
Kant was not so willing, and thus found it “necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
Feelings represent all that prevents a human being from realizing the ideal of freedom by leading the will astray into the pleasures of the flesh. So far as Kant was concerned, it would seem that embodied human life was therefore depraved, destined to remain at war with itself and nature.
2. Kant’s Inconsistency
Perhaps Kant simply lacked the imagination
that Schelling and Hegel would later use to develop his system into a life affirming, non-dualistic philosophy. But it would be premature to give up on him just yet.
As was stated at the beginning of section c, Kant saw in the Beautiful a “symbol of the morally Good,”
because in recognizing a thing as Beautiful, it is implied that other persons, too, due to their common sense, judge it in like manner. Feelings are thus intelligible, providing more than merely subjective judgments of what is Beautiful.
“Hence,” writes Kant, the faculty of feeling,
“both on account of this inner possibility in the subject [to judge an object as Beautiful in common with others] and of the external possibility of a nature that agrees with it, finds itself to be referred to something which is neither nature nor freedom, but which yet is connected with the supersensible ground of the latter.”
Kant goes on in the next sentence to suggest that, “in a way which though common is yet unknown,” the supersensible ground of freedom binds the theoretical faculty of knowledge to the practical faculty of desire. What would it mean to take seriously the insight provided by deep feelings shared with others in Goodness concerning the Beauty and finality of natural processes? Perhaps it would be possible to judge determinately of nature that it is purposeful, and in a fact an unconscious will, which, by growing toward ever-greater self-realization is finally beginning to awaken to itself in the reasonable animals we call human beings. Kant, though he lacked certainty, was nonetheless intrigued by the possibility of a similar a notion, that “…the history of the human race can be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature.”
Such judgment requires that we see nature with eyes aided by the mystical imagination, thereby being “enabled to understand the significance of the universe, to grasp its life and depth directly, as a felt experience.”
Both Schelling and Hegel were influenced by Boehme’s mystical Christian theosophy: Hegel devoted a special section in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy to him, and Schelling remarked that Boehme’s imaginative account of the birth of God set the precedent for all scientific systems of modern philosophy.
Coleridge wrote of Boehme that reading his works “contributed to keep alive the heart
in the head
,” and to reminding him that
“…all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of DEATH, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which the sap was yet to be propelled, from some root to which I had not penetrated…”
It is now time to see how Schelling and Hegel, influenced as they were by Boehme and Christian mysticism generally, transformed the Kantian from a merely reflective system offering lifeless knowledge of appearances through the lens of static categories into a dynamic speculative system uniting intelligence and nature.
3. Speculation as Imagination in Schelling and Hegel
Schelling and Hegel have more in common than would make it necessary, for the purposes of this essay, to take too much time in distinguishing their philosophies. But in light of Hegel’s infamous description of Schelling’s philosophy of identity as the “night in which all cows are black,” it would at least be appropriate to say a few words about where they did differ, especially considering that it was precisely on the significance of difference
in relation to the Absolute that they disagreed. For Schelling, the Absolute was described as resting in untroubled equality, in complete unity with itself. Hegel had a more complex image of the Absolute, as not only complete in-itself, a mere abstract universality, but as a dynamic living process of self-movement not content in-itself (as simple substance), but compelled to become for-itself (as subject).
Instead of the simple identity of difference, Hegel sought to articulate the higher identity of identity and difference
. However, in an essay written six years prior to his criticism of Schelling in the Phenomenology
(or at least the unworthy imitators of his system), Hegel defends Schelling’s approach by contrasting it with Fichte’s system. Fichte’s formulation of the identity of the Ego with itself by an act of will (“I am I,” or “A=A”) does not accomplish, according to Hegel, the absolute synthesis which it claims because it fails to do full justice to the movement of identity into its opposite, appearance and objectivity, or the manifoldness of nature. Fichte therefore established only the “subjective identity of subject and object.”
Schelling, in contrast, is credited with aspiring to a philosophy
“…that will recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered in Kant and Fichte’s systems, and set Reason itself in harmony with nature, not by having Reason renounce itself or become an insipid imitator of nature, but by Reason recasting itself into nature out of its own inner strength.”
It seems likely that the disagreement, if there be one, between Schelling and Hegel is more the result of Hegel’s need to make a name for himself as a philosophical genius in his own right. Regardless of this controversy, the remainder of the essay will proceed under the assumption that both of these thinkers were struggling to articulate the same speculative insights, differing only in their individual modes of expression and not in their essential ideas.
Both Schelling and Hegel were steeped since childhood in the pansophic mysticism of the Pietist tradition, especially as it gained expression through the writing of the Boehmean theosophist F.C. Oetinger.
This influence was life long for both Schelling and Hegel, and their philosophical science can be read as an attempt to justify conceptually the imaginative insights generated through the unconscious upsurging of religious symbolism so characteristic of mystical experiences. Indeed, Hegel often equated speculative philosophy with mysticism.
“Though philosophy must not allow herself to be overawed by religion,” writes Hegel, “…she cannot afford to neglect its popular tales and allegories.”
In the “System-Programme” quoted above, Hegel articulates his desire for a “mythology of Reason,” which would unite the common sense of all humanity with the highest truths of achieved by speculative philosophy. Common sense, or sensus communis
, here takes on even higher significance than that given it by Kant. According to Magee, the notion of sensus communis
was central to Oetinger’s theory of knowledge, opening every human being to an unmediated cognition of that which “lies beyond…the distinction between consciousness and the external world.”
For most people, this common sense goes unnoticed, but for those—whether through grace (as with Boehme
) or intentional imaginative recollection
(as with Schelling and Hegel)—who bring to consciousness what is normally taken for granted, an “unmediated, synoptic vision” is revealed, “in which the mind momentarily sees existence through the eyes of God.”
It only after such an experience that the essential insight of speculative philosophy, that “the truth is the whole,” becomes clear. It no longer matters where one starts, whether with religious symbolism or systematic philosophy: all roads lead inevitably to Wisdom.
But what exactly is the role of imagination in speculative philosophy? If it is true, as Hegel maintains, that religious symbolism is an unconscious revelation of Spirit struggling to reach consciousness as the Idea of itself, then the role of the philosopher is to participate fully in the remembrance, or recollection, of this Wisdom. Imagination is here not creative, but re-creative
, the power to resurrect and activate memories hidden in the depths of the human soul. Speculative philosophizing creates nothing new; the philosopher becomes a spectator recording the play of the Muse, whose songs recount the dialectical unfolding of Spirit through cosmic history. It is here that imagination again performs the magic of synthesis by uniting activity and passivity. Coleridge characterized this unity of the philosopher’s imagination as simultaneously knowing and feeling “that the potential
them, even as the actual works on
“We usually suppose,” writes Hegel,
“that the Absolute must lie far beyond; but it is precisely what is wholly present, what we, as thinkers, always carry with us and employ, even though we have no express consciousness of it.”
Contrary to Plato’s denial of the Muse’s Wisdom, Hegel describes Mnemosyne (Memory) as the “absolute Muse” inspiring the poet, artist, and philosopher alike. It is through memory, brought to life by imagination, that the philosopher attains the “complete speech” of the Absolute.
Plato, perhaps due only to the pressures of his historical moment, sharply distinguished Reason from popular myth and poetry; but his doctrine of anemnesis
is similar to Hegel’s speculative recollection.
Schelling placed great emphasis on the power of imagination to recollect, not just the hidden mysteries and potentialities of the soul, but the soul’s secret relationship to the actual world of nature. While Kant’s categories of the understanding were actively involved in the ordering of natural appearances, Schelling goes further by suggesting they actually create
this order, thereby closing the gap between the phenomenal appearance of nature and its true reality. The soul entertains ideas that exist in the living forms of nature itself.
“The objective world [nature],” writes Schelling, “is only the original, still unconscious poetry of the Spirit.”
The move from the notion of the soul as active in
to the soul as creative of
external order marks the difference between reflective (or Kantian) and speculative philosophy. The Latin root of each word provides an initial insight into this difference: reflectere
means “to bend back or reverse,” implying that the subject cannot hope to reach beyond its own interiority, and so can gain knowledge only of itself; specere
means “to spy out,” implying that the subject can reach beyond itself to see into
the inner life of its objects.
Such a speculative seeing into
nature is possible only if, as Hegel put it, “Reason is in the world: which means that Reason is its immanent principle, its most proper and inward nature.”
The imaginative seeing that reveals ideas at work in the cosmic process is Spirit coming to consciousness of itself by recognizing its mirror image in the living formation of matter. It is through an act of divine imagination that Spirit bodies forth into the manifold of nature, and it is through the embodied human imagination become divine that it recollects itself.
Both Schelling and Hegel described Reason as immanent and involved in the natural world, which is related to Boehme’s mystical insight into God’s desire for embodiment, or Geistleiblichkeit
. The entire evolution of the cosmos is conceived as the movement of Spirit towards “progressively more adequate expression through corporeality.”
It was precisely the importance of this incarnational symbolism that lead Schelling to break with Fichte, for whom nature was the mere background of practical human pursuits.
“The ultimate purpose,” writes Schelling,
“is that everything be brought to visible, material form; embodiment is…the endpoint of the way of God, who wants to reveal Himself as spatial and as temporal.”
It is as if Spirit was compelled to create the universe out of its desire to see, to imagine
, its own greatness and majesty. Hegel’s view on the matter is heretical, in that the God of much traditional theology is entirely transcendent and self-contained, and therefore created the universe “as an unnecessitated act of generosity.”
In contrast, Hegel detects in Spirit a need
to become the living cosmos.
The truth of God, according to Hegel, “is the positing of His other, the living process, the world, which is his Son when it is comprehended in its divine form.”
The aim of philosophy, then, is that the human being should recognize itself as Spirit, and that Spirit should recollect, in everything in heaven and on earth, the glory of its own image.
One of the difficulties of penetrating Hegel’s philosophy is that its dialectical truth can only be grasped in motion, which is to say that it cannot be grasped
, or understood, in the way the static Kantian categories may. Hegel’s is a dynamic logic, whose categories overcome and transform themselves as they spiral ever-nearer to the Absolute Idea. It is only by way of the “active imagination” that the human soul can, along with the magic of memory, participate in the dialectical self-development of the Idea. Imagination is usually associated with the production or reproduction of images, but it has a more fundamental power, what Magee describes as “a kind of ingenuity for giving form to something, sometimes to the truth.”
Kant’s reflective philosophy turned Reason into an object of reflection offering merely regulative principles of judgment. Schelling and Hegel freed Reason from the chains of the understanding, which “sets out only to separate [and] can never develop,”
by seeing into the soul and feeling into nature through the synthetic power of imagination.
“The imagination,” writes Schelling,
“long ago discovered the symbolic language, which one has only to construe in order to discover that nature speaks to us the more intelligibly the less we think of her in a merely reflective way.”
Without imagination, the human soul would fall to pieces, becoming but a sum of mechanical faculties, and its relationship to nature would seem merely accidental. Kant’s slavish devotion to the understanding and heartless conception of morality as disinterested duty blinded him to the imaginative power generated by feeling-imbued sight. The soul’s faculties of knowing, desiring, and feeling become whole by way of the power of imagination to both express and recognize Reason’s ideas. The human soul comes to know the Truth concerning things as they are only by loving them, by feeling their Beauty and desiring the Goodness of the essential unity underlying their apparent multeity.
What do you think?