Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg, he became fascinated by the cathedral which, for two centuries from its ‘completion’, had been the tallest building in the world. He would climb it as an opportunity to overcome vertigo (sic) and studied it in detail especially as it shifted its appearances in differing patterns of light. He became convinced that its tower was incomplete and before leaving the city sketched for his friends how it ought to look if it followed its ‘right form’. Unbeknownst to him, it had been left uncompleted and his drawing beautifully captured the architect’s original intention. Goethe’s practiced imagination had discerned the cathedral’s uncompleted potential.

Imagination in this compact, erudite and thoughtful book is not as the Merriam-Webster dictionary would have it, ‘the ability to imagine things that are not real’ but as the writer, Colin Wilson, put it, ‘the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present’ and as a way of deeper engagement with the world not an escape from it.

But how did this devaluation of imagination and its accompanying knowledge come to be?

It began, Lachman argues, with the Greek philosophers whose singular contribution to thought was to discover the power of abstraction and the ability to assess the world in terms of quantity and rule. This power was deeply amplified in the seventeenth century not only in terms of thought but now increasingly in the feedback loop created by the actual manipulation of the world. Descartes, for example, was helped to think in the way that he did precisely because he had new metaphors and analogies to hand in the machinery he handled in front of him. Ironically in a sense the fruits of imagination turned on their creators.

For knowledge became increasingly associated with the language of rationality that has been shaped for analysing into parts, creating rules and disembodying knowledge into the abstract and collective: the average rainfall that yet never falls. Imagination that deals in wholes and patterns of meaning cannot easily be translated into the abstract. It requires an embodying experience that can be shown, indicated, caught but not simply explained. Though both knowledges and their accompanying languages require to be learnt whilst the former is absorbed mainly by the linear application of a given intelligence, the former requires a transformation into lived experience- what you see, hear, embody - is conditioned by who you are.

No sooner had this split emerged than it attracted its critics. Most notably Pascal responded to Descartes by reasserting the reasons of the heart that reason cannot fathom, most essentially for him the nature of religious experience - the God of personal encounter - of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - not of the philosophers. He made a distinction between what he called ‘the spirit of geometry’ and ‘the spirit of finesse’. The former working with exact definitions, the latter with ideas or perceptions not capable of exact definition but recognized precisely nonetheless -  for example the beauty of a scene or knowing that I am in love.

But Pascal’s response is insufficient if we are to defend the place of the imagination in knowing because rather than heal a split, it accepts it, allowing for two types of knowing to part company and travel on parallel lines. To such a split was Pascal’s agonised consciousness bound. Reason needs to be enfolded back into the heart if the world is to be seen meaningfully. Geometry needs finesse if the dance of the world is to be seen whole. After all the world is a process not a thing.

Meanwhile, the more the world changed - for good as well as ill - the greater our attention was led outwards, the less purchase did we have on our inner, value setting, meaning-weaving world. Thus, we lose ourselves as isolated islands of flickering consciousness in a fundamentally inert world, stripped of any purpose other than the ones we confer on it. And, ironically, our world built on this ability to abstract becomes more and more divorced from any sustainable, habitable world we might want to live in.

Thus, we need alternative epistemologies to rebalance the way we perceive the world and what we value.

The possible elements of such an epistemology are deftly woven into Lachman’s discussion of key, post-seventieth century Western thinkers (and their older luminaries), who have defended and elaborated the place of imagination in how we come to see and understand the world.

It is a galaxy of fascinating thinkers, many familiar - like Coleridge, Goethe and Jung - less so like Ernst Junger, Erich Heller and Kathleen Raine. Nor are these thinkers ‘merely’ philosophers or poets. Goethe valued his science more than his art and Lachman too marshals more undisputed scientific giants, including Einstein and Heisenberg, in defense of the value of intuiting the imaginatively whole and discovering what you may then amplify with analysis.

What are some of these elements of an imaginative epistemology?

If we study the development of language, argued Owen Barfield, we notice that we have moved from poetic, participatory speech that sees ourselves as participating in a world to partakers in prose who see the world as ‘out there’ primarily as a place to be used. What we see is dependent on the evolution of our consciousness - our ancestors’ world was not our own - our descendants’ world might be different. Our present viewing is thus provisional; and, this separation from participation, though a wrench and fraught with risk, was a potential boon as we might find ourselves moving forward into at a more self-aware, conscious participation in the web of life.

If this is true, there must be a connection between what governs our ‘inner’ world and what rules our ‘outer’ world. The inner is not merely ‘subjective’ and the ‘outer’ is more subject to our states of consciousness than our normal, habitual mode of thought conceives. This possibility is one entertained by certain practitioners of phenomenology, including its modern founder, Husserl. Our apprehension of the world is influenced by our intentionality. We are the world’s co-creators rather than simply a passive mirror or recording camera.

Meanwhile, our manner of intentionally apprehending the world can be developed. We can step back out of our habits and attentively practise deeper forms of seeing. Goethe’s youthful encounter with Strasbourg cathedral led him to elaborate a whole approach to the natural sciences that placed emphasis on a careful, highly attentive approach to phenomena as they presented themselves in multiple conditions so that, slowly, you would identify the inherent forms framing their reality and imagine their unfolding potential states. Goethe claimed to have done this for the plant world - seen the ‘Urpflanze’ - the primal plant from which all actual and potential plants flow. This he saw - it was neither a Platonic form apprehended by intellect alone nor a sensory object but was held in an ‘imaginal’ space between idea and sense. This notion may seem remote from the actual practice of biology yet Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize winner for her work in plant morphology, first injunction to her students was the very Goethe like: “First learn to see”!

This ‘imaginal’ space can be elaborated upon by its dedicated explorers. It has many mansions and levels. Though as with the twelfth century Islamic philosopher and visionary, Suhrawadi, the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and mystic, Swedenborg, and the twentieth century psychotherapist, Jung, the content of your descriptions may be culturally preoccupied, their structure and patterning harmoniously resonate. Meanwhile, the deeper you go, paradoxically, the more you realise that this ‘inner’ space, in fact, may actually, enfold the outer. The outer world is a concretisation of imaginal form expressing that spaces multiple potentials. Everything in the ‘outer’ world corresponds to a form in the ‘inner’.

But, at the same time, you come to recognise that such an exploration is as rule bound as the practice of any other discipline lest you lose yourself. Imagination requires responsibility and practice in its exercise if we are not to lose our way; and, finding our way requires us to consistently link what we imagine with how we are in the world. The world must ‘answer’ our imagination in ways that resonate with the true, the good and the beautiful. The reasons of the heart are reasonable, orderly, available to canons of coherent truth telling.

Now I must confess these are my selected elements since I have a sneaking metaphysical commitment to idealism - that consciousness is the matrix from which the world is imaginatively fashioned - and to realism - that this fashioning is regular and law like.

But reading and learning from the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination does not require any such commitment - it was not Goethe’s for example - for the book is a more excellent and catholic compendium than my selection allows. Lachman’s gift is the intelligent suggestion of pathways to be considered rather than foreclosing on one metaphysical domain as his ‘own’.

Thus, there are, at least, four levels or types of imagination embodied in the text.

First, as one way in which the brain processes knowledge such as in Iain McGilchrist’s creative reinvention of the right/left brain conversation. Second as a way we can creatively adjust our perception of a world by projected meanings. See how the Romantic poets invented ‘wilderness’ and the ‘sublime’ such that we see the Alps differently from our eighteen century forebears. Third as a way of linking an inner and outer world that are different in their mode of operation yet linked. As in Goethe’s assumption that you can see the primal plant and sense how it unfolds its potential in the world yet being metaphysically agnostic about in what that linkage consists or as in Jung’s synchronicity as an acausal connector between inner and outer. Fourth, consciousness as fundamentally constitutive of the world and imagination as its primary faculty for embodying it as is implied by Coleridge’s assertion that our primary imagination is of the same kind, though more limited than, the imagination that created the world: “that eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Coleridge had read his Bishop Berkeley.

The great virtue of the book is that it allows you to explore all these possibilities and undoubtedly more and their related thinkers for which Lachman’s accounts are models of stimulating concision, and how they might connect both with each other and in correcting our current one sided (and debilitating) fantasy that the only knowledge that counts is the ‘language of geometry’.

This, when you consider it, is a peculiar imbalance for so much of what we actually value, in the very texture of daily life, is embodied imagining - the art of our gardening, the poetry of our loves, even the finesse of our working including, as Einstein attests, the intuitions of our discoveries.

All require knowledge of the rational kind but all transcend it, enfold it in the patterns that connect and the meanings that are revealed.


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