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The Psychology and Philosophy of Imagination

With enough imagination, we would never have to work again.

Source: intographics/Pixabay

[Article updated on 17 June 2019]

Einstein held that imagination is more important than knowledge: 'I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.'

I define imagination as the faculty of the mind that forms and manipulates images, propositions, concepts, emotions, and sensations above and beyond, and sometimes independently, of incoming stimuli, to open up the realms of the abstract, the figurative, the possible, the hypothetical, and the paradigmatic or universal.

Imagination comes in many forms and by many degrees, ranging from scientific reasoning to musical appreciation; and overlaps with a number of other cognitive constructs including belief, desire, emotion, memory, supposition, and fantasy. Belief, like perception, aims at according with reality, while desire aims at altering reality. Like belief, emotion also aims at according with reality, but more particularly at reflecting the significance of its object, or class of object, for the subject—an aspect that it shares with many forms of imagination. Like imagination, memory can involve remote imagery. But unlike imagination, memory is (or aims to be) rooted in reality and serves primarily to frame belief and guide moment-by-moment action. Memories are often more vivid than imaginings, which are, in turn, more vivid that mere suppositions. Suppositions tend to be cold and cognitive, and lacking in the emotional and existential dimensions of imagination, and in its vividness. Finally, fantasy may be understood as a type of imagination, namely, imagination for the improbable.

I say the improbable rather than the impossible, because there is a theory that, just as perception justifies beliefs about actuality, so imagination justifies beliefs about possibility (or at least, metaphysical as opposed to natural possibility). To quote Hume, ‘it is an established maxim in metaphysics, that whatever the mind clearly conceives, includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible.’ Could ghosts, the devil, time travel, and other imaginary things really be possible? I think inconceivability may be a better guide to impossibility than conceivability to possibility. But what does it mean for something to be conceivable or inconceivable, and by whom? It is easy to conceive of something other than oxygen in the place of oxygen, if one does not know anything about oxygen. In that much, knowledge and science constrain imagination—although, no doubt, also help to focus it. The interplay between knowledge and imagination is most problematic when the ‘knowledge’ is wrong.

In any case, until very recently, most human societies did not mark a strict divide between imagination and belief, or fiction and reality, with each one informing and enriching the other. In fact, it could be argued that, in many important respects, the fiction primed over the reality—and even that this has been, and no doubt still is, one of the hallmarks of homo sapiens. Today, there are pills for people who confuse imaginings and beliefs, but back in the day no one ever thought that life, despite its much harder hardships, might be meaningless—which I think tells us quite a bit about imagination and its uses, and also, incidentally, about mental illness and its causes.

The uses of imagination are many, more than I can enumerate. Most children begin to develop pretend play at around 15 months of age. What are children doing when they pretend play? And why are they so absorbed in works of imagination? When I was seven years old, I would devour book after book and plead with my parents for those not already in the bookcase. By playing out scenarios and extending themselves beyond their limited experience, children seek to make sense of the world and find their place within it. This meaning-making is full of emotion—joy, excitement, awe—and finds an echo in every subsequent act of creation.

Whenever we look at an object such as the Mona Lisa, we see much more than just the frame and the brushstrokes. In fact, we barely see the brushstrokes at all. In imagination as in our dreams, we ascribe form, pattern, and significance to things, and then reflect them back onto those things. Without this work of interpreting and assimilating, the world would be no more than an endless stream of sense impressions, as it might sometimes seem to those who lack imagination, with no hope of escape or reprieve.

More than that, by imagination we are able to complete the world, or our world, by conjuring up the missing parts, and even to inhabit entirely other worlds such as Middle-earth or the Seven Kingdoms. Imagination remains highly active throughout adulthood, and what is chick lit or even pornography if not an aid to the adult imagination? In one year (2018), Pornhub recorded 33.5 billion visits, equivalent to more than four times the world population—and that’s just on the one site.

If imagination lets us feel at home in the world, it also enables us to get things done in the world. Science advances by hypothesis, which is a function of imagination, and philosophy makes frequent use of thought experiments such as the brain in the vat, the trolley problem, and Plato’s Republic. More than that, imagination enables us to form associations and connections, and thereby to apply our knowledge to real life situations. It opens up alternatives and possibilities and guides our decision-making by playing them out in our mind. So many of our failures—and, dare I say, a few of our successes—are in fact failures of the imagination.

Imagination also enables us to talk to one another, understand one another, and work together. Without it, there could be no metaphor, no irony, no humour, no past or future tense, and no conditional either. Indeed, there could be no language at all, for what are words if not symbols and representations? By imagination, we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, think what they think, feel what they feel, and project them and our relationship into the future. Problems in autism, which can be understood as a disorder of imagination, include abnormalities in patterns of communication, impairments in social interactions, and a restricted repertoire of behaviours, interests, and activities.

As I argue in my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, imagination is the highest form of thought, and almost divine in its reach. With enough imagination, we could identify and solve all of our problems. With enough imagination, we would never have to work again—or, at least, not for money. With enough imagination, we could win over, or defeat, anyone we wanted to. But our imagination is so poor that we haven’t even imagined what it would be like to have that kind of imagination.

I’m lucky to have received a decent education, but one thing it certainly didn’t do for me is cultivate my imagination. In fact, medical school in particular did everything to destroy it. In recent years, I’ve been trying to recover the bright and vivid imagination that I left behind in primary school. For that, I’ve been doing just three things, all of them very simple—or, at least, very simple to explain.

  • Being aware of the importance of imagination.
  • Making time for sleep and idleness.
  • Taking inspiration from the natural world.

I’ll conclude briefly with these few words from William Blake, which point to the significance of the natural world and the transcending power of imagination:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.


Albert Einstein, in an interview by George Sylvester Viereck for the Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929.

David Hume (1738), A Treatise of Human Nature, I.2.2.

Pornhub Insights, 2018 Year in Review. December 11, 2018.

William Blake (1799), Letter to Revd. Dr Trusler.

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