Lots of people in my life (especially my wife Bouquet) are making some big sacrifices so that I can work on my doctorate in philosophy at the University of Dallas (even as a remain a full-time, active priest at Christ Church in Tyler), and that is deeply humbling. From time to time I look for ways to give them a little “taste” of the sorts of things I am doing, the sorts of things they are sacrificing for.
This is a paper I wrote this week in a class entitled “Philosophy of Imagination” about the early modern “projection of experience” and “construction of a new science of nature.”
Is the story of the modern imagination basically, or even largely, that of a transformation from passive imitation to active creation? Certainly much of the literature in the field posits such a transition. Douglas Hedley notes as much when he writes that many “histories of the imagination … present a shift from conceiving the imagination as essentially representing or mimetic to the productive or creative model of the imagination in the modern period.”
While, as I will argue, one does accurately perceive a shift in this direction, significant exceptions can be found: Plotinus’ construal of the imagination was fiercely creative, while that of Hobbes’ was notably passive. Further, one should note that Aristotle does put forth a kind of notion of productive imagination, hinted at in De Anima III.10 (though nowhere else). These exceptions notwithstanding, such a development can indeed be traced from the premodern to the modern period, specifically seen in the Enlightenment rationalism embodied by Descartes and Kant. (Plato, for whom the immortality or the reincarnation of the soul [eg, Meno 81b ff] is an assumption underlying his doctrines of anamnesis and maieutic education, conforms to this overall pattern, and is not an exception to it.)
However it is one thing to assert this claim, which I do, and something else to give an account of it. Before attempting to do so, I offer two brief caveats.
The first regards the approach of the British Empiricists (Hume, Berkeley, Hobbes) to the imagination and images. While I do admit that their construal of the imagination lacks the productive element of the rationalists (Descartes and Kant), at the same time I think that they are reacting to the same underlying shifts which “force” or prompt the rationalists to begin innovatively to impute to the imagination productive powers. Put rather simply, for both the rationalists and the empiricists the emerging modern world loses “the imitated” (or “the imitatable”). With the nascent rise of a new physics, seen most acutely in the displacement of Aristotelian form-in-substance by more mathematic and mechanistic conjectures of nature (I’m thinking of the trajectory from Copernicus to Kepler / Descartes), there is now no longer anything, so to speak, worthy of imitation, for machines and corpuscles and mathematical formula are not as compelling in their attractive sway as are their ancient and medieval predecessors. The Enlightenment rationalist tradition, beginning with Descartes and then bolstered by Kant’s reaction to Hume (ie, Kant’s need to “save the appearances”), responds to the emerging cosmological physics differently than does the empiricist tradition (for the representatives of whom it is simply the case that appearances alone remain); both parties, however, are reacting to the same developments. To suggest that the human person imitates a measureable machine is to suggest that she herself is something of a machine: the British empiricists show a willingness to embrace this conclusion; the continental rationalists react against it by rejecting it.
A second caveat, necessary for the first: it is understandably tempting to see Aristotle as more closely resembling or foreshadowing the modern loss of participatory imitatio than Plato, but this is not necessarily the case. It is true that, for Plato, the participated (or the participatable) lies “outside of” the soul more than for Aristotle. Hence it seems that for Plato one participates in something (this is true both in the Meno and in the Republic), whereas for Aristotle it is more accurate to speak of a mutual participation occurring between the knower and the thing known. This mutual participation for Aristotle works according the dynamic of identity qua form: the knowing mind and the object known are identical qua form. We will address the impact of the loss of form later in this essay. For now, however, suffice to say that while Aristotle’s gnoseology is more “imminent” in some ways than that of Plato, it nevertheless is equally as eclipsed by modern shifts in the metaphysics of nature as is Plato’s. “Form,” for each respective ancient thinker, might be quite different, but both are equally distant from the “universal mathematical physics” of Kepler, which seems to have played a key role in birthing the new perspective of the likes of Descartes and Newton.
With these caveats behind us, I will now do three things: I will demonstrate that the modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology as pre-modern thought does (here we take Descartes as representative); I will then elaborate on the ways in which Descartes and Kant project experience and construct a scientia of nature which innovates the received, antique tradition; finally, I will attempt more precisely to account for why this development took place historically in the way that it did.
First, we see that the emerging modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology (or “faculty theory”) as pre-modern thought does. For both approaches, it holds that:
- · The sensitive powers involve at least an awareness of aspects of things.
- · The intellectual powers proper operate at the level of universal concepts, abstractions, and generalizations, whereas the sensitive powers deal with sensory aspects of individual things.
- · The “thought-like” activity of animals (which seem to involve memory) such as a dog burying a bone, are (for medieval thinkers) closer to the external senses than to the intellect (locating them, hence, somewhere within the internal sensitive faculty).
- · Cognitive psychology is predicated on the division of sensibles into common sensibles (aesthesis koine, which can be communicated to more than one sense organ) and proper sensibles (certain things can be perceived only by the eye, for example).
- · Thinking about such behavior in nonrational animals provides an impetus for thinking more deeply (intus legere) about the internal sense powers of the animal, including of the rational animal.
- · The sense organs infallibly receive the proper sensibles, although the reasons for or the justification of this infallibility differ between, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.
- · Both have “an ontologically grounded epistemology.” This is so (among other reasons) because of “the remnants of corporeal magnitude” in the phantasm, for both, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.
With these areas of commonality in mind, one now must acknowledge that premodern psychology (that is, premodern “faculty theory” employed in order to account for how the mind can truly know objects) is incompatible with the emerging modern physics, particularly insofar as the latter gives measurement, mathematics, and discreet units a much larger and more constitive role in nature. Because of this, the major approaches to psychology must needs change. Two developments, in particular, now take place: the projection of experience and the construction of a new scientia of nature.
“Projection of experience” refers to a description of how our minds are connected to the things of the world. We see the beginnings of a kind of projection of experience in Descartes who, in Rule XII of the Regulae, posits that the only objects or realities which the sense organs receive are the “purely material natures” of shape, extension, and motion, a move which requires that that the ingenium supply other features, such as color, to the “objects” of our daily experience. Nevertheless this projection intensifies dramatically with Kant, who now internalizes his version of the Descartes’ perceived natures as structural features within the knower and transcendental functions of the imagination.
All of this is a far cry from Aristotle, for whom the communication of form metaphysically and mutually integrates the soul (including the imagination) and the things perceived. It is also a far cry from Plato, whose transcendent condition of possibility for knowledge (seen specifically in the sun analogy of the Republic) now becomes (for Kant) transcendental, for now knowledge is made possible not by that which transcends the mind (thus providing an excess of meaning in which the mind participates), but rather that which structures and conditions the mind and its powers and functions.
In contradistinction to “projection of experience,” I understand “the construction of a scientia of nature” to be more of an evaluative and recommended method of theory and practice by which we learn truths about nature. This development is seen more clearly in Descartes, given his intense focus on method, and so here I focus on him. In Descartes we see the transfiguration of an ancient approach into something similar-but-different, for Aristotilian form (that which is communicated to the intellect) becomes for Descartes a kind of abstracted “image” consisting of simple natures such as extension and shape.
At this point one must pause and mention Plato’s Meno, the text of which literally displays two-dimensional figures not totally unlike those found in Rule XII Descartes’ Regulae. The two sets of images, however, are fundamentally different. For in the Meno they serve as an imaginative work of creation employed to pedagogical purposes. In Descartes, however, they are his literal representation (albeit loosely affirmed) of the corporeal impression received by the sense organs.
While it is important to note that proportionality is included in the respective authors’ deployment of their respective sets of images, the additional salient point for the purposes of this paper is that Descartes’ representation is a kind of preliminary step toward his further developed mathematical rules which he lays out in subsequent works. Like the images of the Regulae (but unlike Socrates’s images in the Meno), these mathematical units are the actual constituents of reality, the actual stuff which of which nature is, for Descartes, composed. It follows, then, that if we are to understand, and indeed to master, nature, we must employ highly sophisticated, mathematical tools. These Descartes attempts to give us in his later works.
My final consideration in this paper is a remark about how this shift comes about historically. My suggestion is that it comes about because of a loss of confidence in the power of words to denominate things in the world. That is, the genealogy of this modern shift is inescapably connected with late medieval nominalism.
Aristotle says that “nature is what happens, or almost always happens” (De partibus animalium 663b 27ff). Notice the complete lack of concern, typically premodern, for whether we know things. Aristotle takes it for granted that we do … but why? He takes it for granted for a reason different than that of the medievals such as Thomas. For them the doctrine of creation, a theological doctrine rooted in divine revelation, is the guarantee that words have meaning. But Aristotle’s reason for indifference to skepticism has more to do with something like a kind of coherence theory. David Charles writes that for Aristotle,
Terms such as “man” or “gold” have their significance because they signify a distinct natural kind whenever they are coherently uttered. They could not retain their significance and apply to a different object or a different kind…. Aristotle developed his metaphysical theory of substance and essence to answer this question and thus to underwrite and legitimize his account of names.
What lies between Aristotle and Descartes historically is late medieval nominalism, frequently and correctly associated with William of Ockham. Thus begins a loss in the confidence that universals are real things. If this confidence begins to fade, then it becomes much easier to negate the older metaphysics. Indeed if Aristotle’s metaphysics are posited because words have meaning, then the emerging shift, rooted in skeptical mistrust of sense perception, approaches logical necessity.
In conclusion, I do think that, in terms of the construal of the imagination, a certain shift has taken place from a more imitative posture to a more productive stance, both in terms of the projection of experience and the construction of a science of nature. We can see this double development in Descartes and its extension and intensification (specifically with regard to the former) in Kant’s transcendental idealism. The primary driver in this shift has to do with emergent developments in physics, current at the time of these thinkers, especially insofar as these developments reconstitute nature and thereby eclipse the metaphysics of their antique predecessors.
Charles, David. “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).
Gaukroger, Stephen. “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).
Hedley, Douglas. Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008).
Feyerabend, Paul. “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).
Sepper, Dennis L. Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Turner, Denys. “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.
Stephenson, Bruce. Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).
 Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 16.
 Living Forms, 18, 51. In fact, as we shall see, the British Empiricism can be seen as a significant exception to this rule.
 I note that, as Sepper points out in a class lecture, that Aristotle’s approach here is far from a fully developed creative aesthetics of the imagination.
 I employ this term because some philosophers argue that Descartes was a “corpuscularist,” a claim the analysis of which lies beyond the scope of this paper. See Stephen Gaukroger’s entry “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 178.
 Hence, they are, in Aristotelian terms, “opposite sciences” which are really “one and the same” in terms of their common genus. Aristotle: “Eadem est scientia oppositorum,” Peri Hermeneias, 6, 17a 33–35. I am indebted to Denys Turner for this insight. Denys Turner, “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.
 This rejection, in turn, places the burden of proof, so to speak, upon the rationalists to account for how the mind can know the things of the world, which also entails the (now questionable) affirmation of the existence of such things (contra Berkeley).
 See Bruce Stephenson, Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).
 This material is taken from Dennis L. Sepper, Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 14ff.
 Cf Descartes’ Meditation IV in his Meditations on First Philosophy.
 Though I hasten to add that both this projection and this construction are imaginative acts of poiesis.
 To specify what is perhaps already obvious, I take this account to be genealogical in nature.
 Paul Feyerabend, “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 851.
 David Charles, “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 53.
 This metaphysics, it must be stated (though space prohibits elaboration), includes not just form-in-substance but also a four-fold (as opposed to the modern one-or-two-fold) account of causation.