In her insightful survey of Romantic philosophy’s concept of the imagination and the 20th Century critique of that concept, Mary Warnock arrives at the conclusion that, “Imagination is our means of interpreting the world, and it is also our means of forming images in the mind. The images themselves are not separate from our interpretations of the world; they are our way of thinking of the objects in the world.” (Warnock, 1976, p. 194) The journey with her throughout the study was full of realizations, but what I want to focus in on was a leap I made from her final conclusion to think more about these interpreted images that form in our memories and worldviews and ideas. At this point this is an intuitive jump that may be played out in more recent philosophy and science and it bears further investigation, but one of the processes of discovery is stating an idea and seeing if it remains true under further dialogue and observation.
Philosophers like Hume and Kant would point to the concept of imagination which allows us to realize that objects continue to exist and are indeed the same object when we encounter them at a later point, but this level of imagination is exhibited very early in life and by the time a child surpasses 12-18 months and has a sense of object permanence to use Jean Piaget’s language our imaginations have already become far more intricate than Hume and Kant would suggest. If imagination is involved in the ‘image making’ in our mind it is also responsible for the interpretation of these images, and these images are not like pictures, nor are they merely like ideas-perhaps a better word is they form interrelated constructs. When I encounter a person, for example, I don’t just take a mental picture of that person and store it in my memory, not even a three dimensional portrait, I take in much more information than that. I also am taking in the environment that I meet this person within, I am making value judgments about this individual, I am interpreting who they are within a web of relationships, I am interpreting their communication (not just spoken words, but also body language, tone and many other ways of interpreting the meaning of their communication) and I am placing them within a narrative or story. In even the simplest interaction there is far more data around me than my eyes and mind can possibly interpret so my mind has to know how to filter and pay attention to what is important. In a familiar environment we tend to pay less attention to the objects within that environment unless something changes, we filter out noise to be able to pay attention to a particular conversation and we decide what types of things from an interaction might be worth remembering. Yet with all this data we are not just passively acquiring information, but we are constantly interpreting and seeking meaning within the data. Even our most basic interpersonal interactions require a huge amount of creativity as we try to understand and interpret what another person is thinking and how they might interact with us next. For example, in the context of a job interview the person being interviewed is probably observing how the person conducting the interview is responding to the answer they are given since it will probably impact whether they are offered the job or not. At the same time this same person is attempting to make inferences about what it would be like to work with this person and make a value judgment if this is a job that they want. In interpersonal interactions this is what had been referred to as theory of mind (the realization that the other person has thoughts, feelings, intents and desires and that are distinct from one’s own thoughts, feelings, intents and desires, combined with the ability to interpret and predict those feelings).
Yet, while imagination is certainly involved in interpreting and giving meaning to the communications and the images or constructs within the appropriate environment, time, story, etc. it also must be involved in much more. For our imagination is able to take these communications and constructs which have been stored in our memory and continue to manipulate them. Sometimes this manipulation will be within a normal frame of reality and may be as simple as replaying an interaction either for further interpretation (did they really think this) or for continued learning (if this happens again I would do/say this) and sometimes we place or manipulate objects and transform them into new things in a different reality.
If we want to imagine an unreal creature or an unreal world we, by necessity, start with the world we know. For example if we were to imagine an imaginary creature like a dragon, we would in this case have many other people’s images of dragons in many media, but if we were to create a new dragon we would probably begin with creatures we are familiar with, like a lizard or a bird and continue to modify it in a way that fit that new reality. Or if you were to design a life-form for an imagined world, or the landscape for an imagined world you would start from the world you know and modify it based on some creative leaps. We can also imagine interactions with people that have never happened but are intelligent guesses based upon previous interactions.
I’ve quickly moved into the realm of speculation, but I wanted to get some of these thoughts down so that as I continue to encounter some more recent work on imagination and experience I can test some of these ideas.