J Robert Barth. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Volume 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

The idea of imagination is sometimes thought of as a product of the Enlightenment. However, although it only came to full flower in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, its roots are much more ancient.

Biblical Beginnings

Given the stern admonition of the second commandment of the Decalogue against the making of images of anything “in the heavens above, or the earth below, or the waters beneath the earth” (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), it is ironic that the idea of imagination probably found its earliest expression in the first chapter of Genesis. In the biblical accounts of creation, two different words are used: in the first account, bara, implying creatio ex nihilo (Genesis 1:27); in the second, yatsar, by which man is created from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). The first power is reserved to God alone; the second—the power to reshape existing matter—is shared with humankind. Thus the Hebrew word for imagination comes to be yetser, the ability to share in the divine creative power.

For humankind, however, yetser is not always used for good: “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8: 21; and see Genesis 6: 5). Thus the rabbinical tradition came to distinguish between the evil imagination (yetser hara), often associated with sexual desire, and the good imagination (yetser hatov), which “opens up history to an IThou dialogue between man and his Creator” (Kearney, p. 47).

Non-Western Traditions

The Sufi tradition of Islam offers an analogue of imagination in the concept of barzakh, referring to “the whole intermediate realm between the spiritual and the corporeal.” Since this world of imagination is “closer to the World of Light” than the corporeal world (Chittick, p. 14), it can give valid knowledge of higher reality. In the Buddhist tradition there is no systematic view of imagination; the Sanskrit word for it is prtibha (“poetic genius”), but it is not given much emphasis in Buddhist thought. Hinduism, on the other hand, offers in the Vedic tradition a highly developed view of imagination as both the transcendent power by which the gods create and sustain the harmony of the universe, and the human faculty by which the human artist, priest, or sage recognizes and celebrates this harmony. It is, in short, the imagination that “joins the human spirit with ultimate reality itself” (Mahoney, p. 2).

Ancient Greece

In the ancient Greek tradition, too, the idea of imagination is closely bound up with divine power and prerogatives. In the pre-philosophical era it is most dramatically expressed in the myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire from heaven brought the creative energy of the gods to humankind. It is only in the work of Plato and Aristotle, however, that the idea is brought to some level of conceptual clarity. Although Plato’s earliest dialogues espouse a firm idealism inherited from Parmenides, by the time of the Republic he has begun to see the need to bring together the material, phenomenal world and the world of ideas. The imagination (phantasia or eikasia), if used in aid of reason can attain to, and even express, universal ideas. By the time of the Phaedrus and the Timaeus, Plato sees that imaginative representation “recalls to mind those eternal forms of Beauty which are the innate possessions of the soul and the objects of its contemplation” (Bundy, p. 58). Aristotle’s more pragmatic approach shifts the focus from metaphysical foundations to form and function, from objective to subjective. Thus imitation (mimesis) is for him an inductive and psychological process rather than a divinely inspired intuition. It was his emphasis rather than Plato’s that was to predominate in the Western tradition until the eighteenth century.

Medieval and Renaissance Views

There are wide divergences in medieval views of imagination. Although one finds in such synthetic thinkers as St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) (and later in the poetry of Dante [1265-1321]) attempts to reconcile the idealism of Plato and the Neoplatonists with the more psychological approach of Aristotle, it is the latter that generally finds favor among faculty-oriented Scholastic philosophers. For all this, though, a Platonic undercurrent often remains—as in Aquinas and in the Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135-1204)—to explain the intrinsic relationship between the material world and the transcendent, the human and the divine. Arab philosophers of the period, notably Avicenna (Ibn Sina; 980-1037), tend to give priority to imagination over intellect in achieving true knowledge, while the Western tradition invariably insists that imagination must remain under the control of intellect. However, imagination (imaginatio and phantasia are used synonymously in Aquinas) is crucial for most of the medieval Scholastics as a means of expressing the analogical relationship between the sensible world and transcendent reality.

In the Renaissance, the Vita nuova and Divina commedia of Dante and De imaginatione sive phantasia of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) may fairly be taken as representative. All three draw heavily from Scholastic philosophy, and although Dante is, like his master Aquinas, an Aristotelian, both are more deeply interested in the possibilities of vision than in the epistemological process itself. Thus, in part through them, the Platonic tradition continues into succeeding generations, with such theorists as Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) in his Apology for Poetry. Even as he strongly emphasizes the teaching role of poetry in achieving “virtuous action,” using Plato’s ideas for a moral purpose, Sidney keeps alive the Platonic emphasis on imaginative vision.

The Enlightenment

If the European Enlightenment did not invent the idea of imagination, it certainly brought it to its fullest articulation, broadening its reach to include not only literature and the arts, along with philosophy and theology, but also political and social theory and even science. It became during the eighteenth century, in short, a crucial tool in virtually every area of intellectual life.

Until this time, intellectual inquiry had tended to focus on humankind’s relationship with God, with nature, and with others. Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), however, began to look inward, to consider the processes of human perception, the psychological dimensions of human experience, bringing to bear the empirical method that was to become increasingly important throughout the eighteenth century. Imagination for Hobbes was an active, creative faculty, not a mere passive receiver of impressions; it is the power that shapes our thoughts and sense impressions into unity, even into a coherent view of the world. Even John Locke (1632-1704), however much he might deplore imagination as “illusory,” emphasized the unifying activity of the mind; later, David Hume (1711-1776), for all his skepticism, viewed the imagination as the power that brought together thought and feeling. Clearly the way was being paved for later thinkers like Coleridge, who would see imagination as the unifying power in human perception and creativity.

Even as Hobbes pushed forward the “Aristotelian” dimensions of imagination, probing the processes of the mind, his contemporary Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671-1713) emphasized the Platonic heritage. Standing in the line of sixteenth-century Cambridge Platonists like Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, he also returned to the works of Plato and his Neoplatonic successors. While Hobbes focused on empirical knowledge, Shaftesbury was interested in the human grasp of the ideal and of spiritual reality. The result, at least for British intellectual history, was a richly balanced legacy for the Romantic thinkers who followed.

But the influence of Hobbes and Shaftesbury, along with that of other English and Scottish philosophers, reached far beyond England. Shaftesbury was introduced into Germany by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) and remained a lasting influence there throughout the eighteenth century, while the empiricist psychology of Hobbes, Locke, and others was eagerly welcomed in the German universities.

The two great thinkers on imagination in Germany are Johannes Nikolaus Tetens (1736-1807) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who “stand like two colossi in their concepts of imagination” (Engell, p. 118). The contribution of Tetens, under the influence of the Scottish philosopher Alexander Gerard (1728-1795), was to widen the scope of imagination to make it central in all human perception, from the immediacy of sense perception to the complex creative act of the artist, thus laying the groundwork for what would later become Coleridge’s distinction between primary and secondary imagination. Tetens was also insistent, as later Romantic theorists would be, that imagination is as crucial for the scientist and the philosopher as for the poet or painter.

Kant’s role in the development of the idea of imagination, under the influence of Tetens, was to synthesize two currents of thought, reflecting the ancient tension between Platonic and Aristotelian views of the world: an idealist strain deriving from such thinkers as Leibniz, Christian von Wolff (1679-1754), Shaftesbury, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), and Friedrich Jacobi (1743-1819), and the more empirical line of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and other British empiricists (see Engell, p. 128-29). Although he never clarified his thought to his own (or indeed to anyone else’s) satisfaction, Kant’s more transcendentalist analysis of imagination in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason and later in the Critique of Judgment is centrally important for the emerging Romantic period, in that Kant never lost sight of the role of objective perception even as he emphasized the formative and productive power of the human mind. Although he will use different terms for it (Einbildungskraft, Phantasie) and although the balance shifts throughout his life, imagination in Kant brings together with considerable success the sensible and the ideal worlds, the empirical and the transcendent.


Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), looking back at Kant’s work a generation later, judged that Kant, by failing to demonstrate the validity of human perception, had left a dichotomy between the human mind and external reality. His own Naturphilosophie was meant to heal that rupture, and imagination played a central role in his endeavor. It was crucial for Schelling that imagination was both human and divine. God possesses imagination in its fullness, and the divine imagination (die göttliche Einbildungskraft) is “the generating power of the universe” (Engell, p. 304). The human imagination shares in this faculty, though on a lower level: ordinary mortals in the power to perceive unity in the multiplicity of our experience; the creative genius in the ability to create new unity out of existing things. Imagination is not apart from nature, it is present as a power in nature from the beginning of creation. Here the distinction between natura naturata and natura naturans, inherited from the medieval Scholastics, is important. Natura naturata is the created sensible object, whether it be a natural being or the product of a human creative act—a poem or painting or piece of music. The natura naturans is the active power of imagination itself, a quickening spirit giving life and energy to all being, including the human mind; it is, in effect, God present as an active force in the world. Thus imagination, as the natura naturans, is the living link not only between the human mind and the external world but between the created world and the transcendent.

The Romantic poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), although he wrote no single treatise on the imagination, is arguably the central figure in its modern development. He drew heavily on most of the major work that preceded him, including the biblical, classical, and medieval sources, as well as the most important thinkers of the century before him such as Leibniz, Tetens, and Kant and contemporaries like Schelling. Coleridge offered no system to support his view of imagination, but the insights and arguments scattered throughout his works finally yield a coherent and important perspective. His most influential work of literary theory and criticism is his Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he both acknowledges his debts to such thinkers as Kant and Schelling and at times diverges significantly from them. His locus classicus on imagination (chapter 13) distinguishes between primary and secondary imagination, and between imagination and fancy. Primary imagination is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” The secondary is “an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will”; it “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create.” The lesser faculty of fancy is only a “mode of Memory,” dealing with “fixities and definites,” with sensible realities rather than with “ideas.” This view of imagination is clearly similar to Schelling’s: primary imagination is the faculty by which all human beings shape their experience of the world into meaningful perception; secondary imagination is the artist’s ability to create new shapes and meaning out of existing material. It is also similar in its strong affirmation of the relationship between the human and divine imaginations: the human creative act participates in the infinite creative act of God, from which it derives its power.

Coleridge’s view of imagination is intimately related to his conception of idea and symbol. An idea is a suprasensible reality incarnated in sense images; it is the product of all the human faculties—reason, understanding, sense—working under the unifying power of the imagination. An idea “cannot be conveyed but by a symbol” (chapter 9), which is a product of the imagination. As Coleridge writes in the Statesman’s Manual (1816), symbols are “the living educts of the Imagination; of that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense … gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors.” Coleridge’s conception differs significantly from Kant’s, in that the ideas thus incarnated, including such ideas as God and immortality, are not merely regulative (as in Kant) but are truly constitutive of reality.

Other important Romantic explorations of imagination include the prophetic poetry of William Blake (1757-1827) and the Defence of Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), both of which affirm the transcendent reach of imagination, and so are generally congruent with Coleridge and William Hazlitt’s (1778-1830) essays and the letters of John Keats (1795-1821), which offer a more secular view but still affirm the unifying power of imagination.

Twentieth Century

The transcendentalist view of imagination that came to full flower in the early nineteenth century was seriously questioned by existentialist philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Martin Heidegger (1889-1971), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). For them, the humanist values implicit in the Romantic idea of imagination as affirmative and redemptive were no longer tenable in a modern world of violence and inhumanity. Negation and angst replaced the affirmations of humanism. In their wake, postmodernist thinkers like Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) further undermined the Romantic idea of imagination by questioning or denying a valid relationship between image and reality. As Derrida put it, there is no “hors-texte.

For all this, however, there have remained strong and serious countervailing voices—philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Emmanuel Levinas, theorists like Paul Riceour and Walter Ong, critics such as George Steiner and Geoffrey Hartman, who affirm (in Ong’s phrase) the “presence of the Word” and the possibilities of transcendence. Most important of all, artists still create in poetry, in paint, in music, in drama, and in film, and there continue to be those who reflect on this creative work and affirm its human value and the unifying power of the imagination that shaped it. Given its long history and its continuing force, the idea of imagination seems likely to endure.