On Wisdom: Principles: Imagination

Music: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
By J.S. Bach. Sequenced by George Pollen.

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Nicholas Gordon

1. Imagination is inseparable from experience, since even what we experience as the immediate moment is only partially observed.

2. All experience is a mix of sense data, reason, and imagination, the proportions changing as we move from present to future or past, or from our own point of view to those of others. But every moment contains past, present, and future, and every thought and feeling is colored continuously by imaginative glimpses into the inner lives of others.

3. We even imagine ourselves, seeing ourselves in the mirror of others, so that without imagination we would have no sense of our own identity, just as, if we lived in a world without reflection, we would have no sense of what we looked like.

4. We also cannot live with others except imaginatively. All social relations require imagination, as we can love or befriend or dislike only the person we imagine within the body we see, and can know how to treat people with consideration only by imagining what we would want in their situation.

5. Imagination infuses perception with feeling, so that a landscape might fill us with wonder and awe, or, returned to after many years, with nostalgia, or, under moonlight, with serenity, and so on. All experience is charged by the imagination with feeling, so that life is accompanied by a music to which we listen only intermittently with care.

6. Some contrast imagination and reason, as though the two were opposite rather than complementary. But both are present in every moment of experience, as what we evaluate and categorize we imagine rather than sense directly. In fact, sense data would be incomprehensible if not shaped by reason and imagination working together as two aspects of a single process.

7. Some contrast imagination and truth. But if truth is taken to mean the thing-in-itself, outside of our experience of it, then the same contrast can be made of sense data and truth, or reason and truth, or experience and truth, for there is never any guarantee about the accuracy of our perceptions, which is why the greatest accuracy, and hence the greatest truth, is in experience tested rigorously over time. But if truth is taken to signify a correspondence between what we experience and what we say, then imagination is neither truthful nor untruthful. Only we can be truthful or untruthful, as, for example, when we say that we heard something that we only surmised.

8. When we manipulate experience to create a greater clarity or beauty, we are not being untruthful unless we misrepresent what we are doing. In fact, art serves truth by reshaping experience in ways that reveal what we would not otherwise see. Just as a scientist uses reason, an everyday tool of perception, to probe more deeply into the nature of experience, so the artist uses imagination, also an everyday tool of perception, to probe more deeply, albeit in a different manner.

9. Even though imagination, sense data, and reason are indispensable, they are also not dependable. This is because reality beyond experience, though unknowable, makes itself known, often in surprising or painful ways. So although we have no choice but to trust our perceptions, we must at the same time distrust them as well, always ready to be wrong.

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Previous: The Principles of Wisdom: Hope

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