150. John Dewey on Imagination

In his writings the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) presents some very interesting thoughts on the imagination that connect it to creativity, art, consciousness, perception, mind, and the projections of wholes that offer context for everything from navigating our local environment to understanding the universe. Consider some passages from Art as Experience (TarcherPerigree: 2005):

“Imagination shares with beauty the doubtful honor of being the chief theme in esthetic writings of enthusiastic ignorance. More perhaps than any other phase of human contribution, it has been treated as a special and self-contained faculty, differing from others in possession of mysterious potencies. Yet if we judge its nature from the creation of works of art, it designates a quality that animates and pervades all processes of making and observation. It is a way of seeing and feeling things as they compose an integral whole” (AE267).

This revolutionary passage challenges the traditional understanding of imagination as a synthetic faculty. Imagination is not something in us which has the power to connect, recollect, or forecast. Rather, imagination denotes a quality which is present when “varied materials of sense quality, emotion, and meaning come together in a union that marks a new birth in the world” (AE267). Obviously this notion of a new birth in the world applies to making art. But it is important to note that all acts of making have their share of the imagination: “Not even a useful object is produced except by the intervention of the imagination” (AE273). This makes sense since “the conscious adjustment of the new and the old is imagination” (AE272).

In Experience and Nature (Dover: 2000) Dewey connects this account of imagination to perception, consciousness, and mind. He writes: “Perception or consciousness is, literally, the difference in the process of making” (EN316). For consciousness is that phase of a system of meanings which at a given time is undergoing re-direction and transformation (EN308). For example, clouds mean rain and my idea to grab an umbrella is a conscious perception of that connection and an imaginative forecast of prevention or re-direction. From this we can imply that there is no creative consciousness at all without imagination: “Consciousness, so far as it is not dull ache and torpid comfort, is thing of the imagination” (EN81). He also asserts that the word ‘mind’ denotes the whole system of meanings as they are embodied in the workings of organic life (EN303). This system conditions consciousness and perception. All conscious beings will be able to draw upon such implicit meanings and creatively reshape them to some extent. But the extent to which they are able depends on imagination. If an entity can draw upon a large network of meaning and creatively adjust that meaning to new situations then that entity’s understanding of the world will be enlarged and more and more integrated.

Lastly, it is important to note that Dewey draws a helpful distinction between imagination and fantasy. In Reconstruction in Philosophy (Beacon: 1967) he writes: “As imagination becomes freer and less controlled by actualities, the idealizing tendency takes further flights unrestrained by the rein of the prosaic world. The things most emphasized in imagination as it reshapes experience are things which are absent in reality” (RP104). Here Dewey follows the tradition: imagination makes present that which is absent. A hard stone becomes a monument to a deceased ancestor; a hot flame becomes a hearth at which one worships and for which one fights (RP1). But this reshaping power can become a compensation where “what is difficulty and disappointment in real life becomes conspicuous achievement and triumph in reverie; what is negative in fact will be positive in the image drawn by fancy; what is vexation in conduct will be compensated for in high relief in the idealizing imagination” (RP105). Dewey also calls this idealizing imagination the imaginary. The imaginary differs from imagination insofar as the possibilities of the latter must undergo concrete embodiment. In the end it is this act of embodiment, rather than any argument, which gives us evidence regarding the true nature of the imagination: “Possibilities are embodied in works of art are not elsewhere actualized; this embodiment is the best evidence that can be found of the true nature of the imagination” (AE268). And what is the test that differentiates between embodied and disembodied possibilities?

“Time is the test that discriminates the imaginative from the imaginary. The latter passes because it is arbitrary. The imaginative endures because, while at first strange with respect to us, it is enduringly familiar with regard to the nature of things” (AE269).

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