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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——IMAGINATION AND REASON

My dear ——,

You suspect that I am “pushing the claims of the Imagination so far as to deprive the Reason or Understanding[3] of its rights;” and you ask me whether I dispute the universal belief that the former is an “illusive faculty.” As for your suspicion, I will endeavour to show that it is groundless. As for your question, I admit that the Imagination is “illusive,” but I must add that it also leads us to truth. It constructs the hypotheses, as well as the illusions, which, when tested by experience, guide us towards Knowledge.

Imagination is the “imaging” faculty of the mind. It does not, strictly speaking, create, any more than an artist, strictly speaking, creates. But as an artist combines lines, colours, shades, sounds, and thoughts, each one of which by itself is familiar to everybody, in such new combinations as to produce effects that impress us all as original and unprecedented, so does the Imagination out of old fragments make new existences and unities.

Attention impresses upon us the present; Memory recalls the past; but the Imagination is never content simply to reproduce the past or present. It sums up the 48past of Memory (sometimes perhaps also the present of Attention) and combines it with a conjectured future in such a way as to produce a whole. It is always seeking for likenesses, orderly connections, regular sequences, beautiful relations, suggestions of unity in some shape or other, so as to reduce many things into one and to obtain a satisfying picture.

For example, suppose a large mill-wheel at rest to be almost hidden from my eyes by intervening trees so that, even if it were moving, I could only see one spoke at a time; and at present I am not aware that it is close before me. Something begins to move. I look up. Attention tells me that I see before me, moving from left to right, something like a plank or pole: it passes and I see nothing; but then comes another similar object moving similarly; then a third, rather quicker; then a fourth, quicker still. The mind at once sets to work to find the cause. The Memory tells me that I have seen simply a number of poles or planks moving from left to right with quickened motion; the Attention tells me that I see one now; but the Imagination, taking in the isolated reports of Memory and Attention, includes them in a larger hypothesis of her own, in which, if I may so express it, the constituent elements, the spokes, are subordinated, and the explanatory unity, the wheel, is brought into prominence; and thus the motion from left to right, which explained nothing, is replaced, in my mind, by the motion of revolution, which explains everything.

It is on the basis of the Imagination, aided by Experience and Reason, that we establish our conviction of the permanence of the simplest Laws of Nature. This I have touched on in one of my previous letters. The Memory, recalling the sight of many stones falling to the ground, comes perhaps to the aid of Attention, as a child notes a particular stone falling to the ground, and suggests to the child’s imitative nature an experimental attempt to make a stone fall to the ground. The child does it once and again, as often as he likes. Then, as a result of this unvarying experience, there springs up in the child’s mind a picture in which he sees reproduced an apparently endless vista of his sensations as to stone-falling and its antecedents, a picture not confined, like the pictures of Memory, to past time, but including future as well as past and present; and thus the childish thought leaps upwards all at once to the conception of that sublime word “always,” and dares to promulgate its first universal proposition, and attains to the definite certainty of a Law of Nature.

But you say that the Imagination is “illusive.” It is; it rarely conducts us to truth without first leading us through error. Its business is to find likenesses and connections and to suggest explanations, not to point out differences, and make distinctions, and test explanations; these latter tasks are to be accomplished not by Imagination but by Reason with the aid of enlarged experience. The Imagination suggests to the child that every man is like his father, every woman like his mother; that the motion of the sea is like the motion of water in the washing basin; that the thunder is caused by the rolling of barrels or discharge of coals up above; that a clock goes on of itself for ever; and a multitude of other illusions all arising from the same healthy imaginative conviction in every young mind that “What has been will be,” and “The whole world is according to one pattern.” The conviction is based on a profound general truth, but the particular shapes which it assumes are often erroneous. It is only after a course, and sometimes a very long course, of experience and experiment, that the child, or perhaps the man, eliminates with the aid of Reason those ideas which will not work, and confirms those that will work, till the latter become at last strong and inherent and quasi-instinctive convictions. None the less, if the Imagination did not first suggest the ideas on which the Reason is to operate, we should never obtain anything worth calling knowledge.

We might express all this by saying that Imagination is the mother of working-hypotheses; and this is true of all working-hypotheses, those of the observatory and laboratory as well as those of the nursery. No one who grasps this truth will henceforth deny the debt of science to Imagination. Knowledge is not worth calling knowledge till it is reduced to Law; and Law, as I have shown you above, is a mere idea of the Imagination. I do not deny the subsequent value of Reason; but Imagination must come first. It was from the Imagination that there first flashed upon the mind of Newton the vision of the working-hypothesis by which the apple’s fall and the planet’s path might be simultaneously explained. Then came in Reason, with experiment, testing, comparing, prepared to detect discrepancies, unlikelihoods, and any want of harmony between the new theory and the old order of things. Finally, the once-no-more-than-working-hypothesis, having been found to harmonize with countless past and present phenomena and having enabled us to predict countless future phenomena, is now called a Law, and we are practically certain that it will act. The approval of this Law we owe to Reason, but for the suggestion of it we are indebted to Imagination. On the debt owed to Imagination by Mathematics—the foundation of all science—I will not add anything to what has been said in a recent letter.

Next as to the work of Imagination in art. Poets and artists, as well as astronomers, must be, so to speak, ex analogia Universi; that is to say, they must be in harmony with that order of things which they long to reveal to their fellow-men; they must see Law and Unity where others fail to see it; they must have inherited or received capacities and intuitions which give them an intense sympathy with the deep-down-hidden rhythms and abysmal motions which regulate atoms and sounds and hues and shapes, and the thoughts and feelings of men. An artist who wishes to paint a hill-side, or a wave, or a face, must have a vision of it. He must see it not only exactly as it is, but how it is: he sympathizes, as it were, with every cleft and runlet and hollow and projection of the hill, with every turn and fold and shade and hue of the ever-varying wave: he realizes the secret of Nature’s working. Shall we make a distinction between the secret in the one case and the other? Shall we say the “spirit” of the face, but the “law” of the hill and the “law” of the wave? Or will not the intuition into this complex combination of multitudinous forces, apparently free and conflicting yet all guided and controlled into one harmonious result, be better expressed by saying that he enters into the “spirit” in all cases, the “spirit” of the hill, the wave, and the face? In proportion as he has this power, a great artist will be less likely to speak about it, and less able to explain it: but have it he must; and it is a power really not dissimilar, though apparently most different, from the scientific Imagination. It is, in both cases, a power of recognizing Order and Unity. The test also of the artistic, is (roughly speaking) the same as that of the scientific Imagination. Those ideas are right which “work.” Does a scientific idea open, like a key, the secrets of Nature? Then it “works,” and is, so far, right. So in art: to imagine rightly is to imagine powerfully so as to sway the minds of men. Those artistic imaginations are wrong which fail to fit the wards of the complicated human lock and to stir the inmost thoughts. There are obvious objections to this definition of what is artistically right; what stirs the Athenian may not stir the Esquimaux. But, roughly speaking, we may say that the test has held good. What has stirred the Athenian has stirred the great civilising races of the world. There may be a better and a higher test hereafter; but, for the present at all events, prolonged experience of its “working” is the test of artistic Imagination.

But the Imagination plays, perhaps, its most important part in our conceptions of human emotions and human character. These things cannot be exactly defined, like triangles or circles; nor can they or their results be predicted like the results of chemical action or the instinctive motions of irrational animals. Yet the Imagination helps us, after a sympathetic contemplation of what a friend has done and said and wished, to complete the picture by taking as it were a bird’s-eye view of his past, present and future, so as to be able in some measure to realize and predict what he will do and say and wish. This mental “imagination,” “image,” or “idea” of our friend we might describe as the “law” of his being, so far as it was grasped by us: but so much more subtle and variable than any known “law” are the sequences of human thought and conduct, that we generally prefer the phrase which we just now used to describe the intuition of the artist; and so we speak of “entering into the spirit” of a man. It is usual to say that we do this by “sympathy;” but sympathy is only one form of Imagination tinged with love, the power of imagining the joys and sorrows of others and of realizing them as one’s own. Imagination, without love, might realize the sorrows of an enemy to gloat over them: love, if it could be without Imagination—which it cannot be, since love implies at least some imagination of what the beloved would wish—would be a poor lifeless sentiment doing nothing, or nothing to the purpose. But imaginative love, or sympathy, gives us the key to the knowledge of all human nature, and is the foundation of all domestic and social unity and order.

As to the test of Imagination when brought to bear upon human nature, you will remember, I dare say, that it was determined to be the success with which it “worked” human nature, or, in other words, made men do “what they are intended to do.” But I was then speaking of the way in which the great prophets, lawgivers, and founders of religions have influenced great masses of mankind, and in which almost every mother influences her children, by idealizing them. I might have added, and I will now add, a word on the manner in which an imaginary ideal of human nature proves its truth experimentally to the imaginer, by “working” him, that is, by making him capable of doing “the work he was intended to do.” It is the more necessary to do this because the illusions of Imagination are nowhere so strong and so lasting as in the study of human Nature; and there is a danger that we may be deterred by the thought of them from steadily pursuing the truth. The cynic tells us with a sneer that babies, and none but babies, think men and women better than they are, and that, the older one grows, the more one is disillusionised about the virtue of human nature. But that is not true, or only a half truth. If we, as children, imagine the men and women about us to be perfections of power, wisdom, and virtue, one reason is, that we have, as children, a most inadequate standard of physical, mental, and moral excellence. As our standard rises, our sense of inadequacy increases; but the reason why, as we grow older, we cease to think people perfect, is, very often, not that we think worse of human beings, but that we think better of human possibilities.

But in some minds defect of Imagination combines with other causes to induce the repeatedly disillusionised man to give up the search after the truth that lies beneath the illusion and to cast away all trust, all thought, of any ideal of humanity. Those who do this make shipwreck of their own lives. Their low ideal or no-ideal of conduct does not “work;” that is to say, it does not fit them to do the work they were intended to do. Even for the purposes of their own happiness their life is a failure. So far as the spiritual side of their nature is concerned, a dull and stagnant self-satisfaction is the highest prize they can hope to acquire: they have none of the keen joys of spiritual aspiration, of failures redeemed, of gradual progress, and of deeper insight into the glorious possibilities of human nature. But those who, while not rejecting the sobering admonitions of Experience and Reason, can nevertheless so far obey the promptings of Imagination as to retain in their hearts an ever fresh and expansive and healthful Ideal of life, find themselves led on by it from hope to nobler hope, from effort to more arduous effort, until life and effort end together.

Let this suffice as my protest against the popular fallacy that the Imagination is an abnormal faculty, limited to poets and painters and “artists,” mostly illusive, and always to be subordinated in the search after truth. I maintain, on the contrary, that it lies at the basis of all knowledge; that it is no less necessary for science, for morals, and for religion, than for artistic success; and that the illusions of Imagination are the stepping-stones to Truths.

Now to speak of Reason, or, as some would call it, Understanding. While dealing with Imagination, we recognized that the work of Reason is mostly negative and corrective: but let us come to detail. Reason is commonly said to proceed by two methods; (i) by Induction, wherein, by “inducing,” or introducing, a number of particular instances (e.g. “A, B, C, &c., are men and are mortal”), you establish a general conclusion (“all men are mortal”); (ii) by Deduction, wherein, from two previous statements called Premises, you deduce a third, called a Conclusion.

(i) As regards Induction, surely you must admit that the initial part of the task falls not upon the Reason but upon the Imagination; which sees likenesses and leaps to general conclusions, mostly premature or false, but all containing a truth from which the falsehood must be eliminated. Thus, a child imagines, by premature Induction, that all men are (1) like his father; (2) black haired; (3) between five and six feet high; (4) white-skinned, and so on. Then comes Reason afterwards, comparing and contrasting these imaginative premature conclusions with a wider and contradictory experience and widening the conclusion accordingly. Hence it is the part of Reason to suggest those varied experiments which are a necessary part of scientific Induction; and this is generally done by pointing out to us some neglected difference: “You say you had a Turkish bath three times, and each time caught a cold: but were the antecedents of these three colds quite alike? If not, how did they differ? Did you not on the first occasion sit in a draught at a public meeting? on the second, forget to put on your great coat? on the third, let the fire out though it was freezing? Consider therefore, not the single point of likeness, the Turkish bath, but the points of unlikeness also, in the antecedents of your three colds; and try the Turkish bath again, omitting these antecedents, before you say ‘A Turkish bath always gives me cold.’”

You see then that in Induction the positive and suggestive part of the work is done by the Imagination; the negative and eliminative part by Reason.

(ii) As regards Deduction, the business of Reason is to ascertain that the Premises are not only true but also 56connected in such a way that a conclusion can be drawn from them. But even here Imagination plays a part: for the conclusion of every syllogism (roughly speaking) depends upon the following axiom: “If a is included in b, and b is included in c, then a is included in c; in other words, if a watch is in a box, and the box is in a room, then the watch is in the room.” Now this general proposition, like all general propositions, is arrived at with the aid of the Imagination, so that we may fairly say that the Imagination, helps to lay the foundation of the Syllogism. When therefore you bear in mind that in every Syllogism the Premises are often the result of an Induction in which Imagination has played a part, and that the conclusion always depends upon an axiom of the Imagination, you must admit that even Deductive Reasoning by no means excludes the Imagination.

(iii) Practically, errors seldom arise, and truth is seldom discovered, from mere Deductive Reasoning. Any one can see his way through a logical Syllogism, and almost any one can lay his finger on the weak point in an illogical one. But the difficulty is to start the Reasoning in the right direction and to begin the Logical Chain with an appropriate Syllogism.

For example, suppose we wish to prove that “every triangle which has two angles equal, has two sides opposite to them equal”: how can our Reason, our discriminative faculty, help us here? At present, not at all. We must first call to our aid the Imagination, which says to us, “Imagine the triangle with two equal angles to have two unequal sides opposite to them, and see what follows.” And every one who has done a geometrical Deduction knows that we frequently start by “imagining” the conclusion to be already proved, or the problem to be already performed, and then endeavouring to realise, among the many consequences that would follow, which of those consequences would harmonize with, or be identical with, the data to which we are working back.

The same process is common in the reasoning that deals with what is called Circumstantial Evidence. Thus, it is asserted by A that he saw B commit a murder in the midst of a field, five minutes before midnight, on the first day of last month: how can we test the truth of A’s assertion? The negative faculty of Reason cannot answer the question. But once more Imagination steps in and says, “Imagine the story to be true; imagine yourself to be in A’s place; imagine the circumstances which would have surrounded him, the hidden place from which he saw the murder, the light which enabled him to see it, the precise sight that he saw, the voices or sounds that he heard, and, in a word, all the details of a likely and coherent narrative.” When the Imagination has done this and “imagined” the place—perhaps a hedge—the light—moonlight, and so on, Reason steps in, and corroborates or rejects, by shewing that there was, or was not, a hedge whence the deed could have been witnessed; that there was a full moon or no moon on the night in question; that, if there had been a moon, the place in question was open to the moonlight, or in deep shadow: and thus Imagination and Reason (aided by experience of the place and knowledge of the time) arrive at a conclusion, the former making a positive, the latter a negative contribution. Hence it appears that even in those questions which are called pre-eminently “practical”—for what can be more “practical” than a trial in a law-court for life or death?—the Imagination plays so great a part that without its aid the reason could effect little or nothing.

Here I must break off; but I hope I have said enough to satisfy you that the imaginative faculty, though it needs the constant test of Reason and Experience, is far more intimately connected with what we call knowledge, than is commonly supposed. But if this be so, we ought not (I think) to be surprised if a careful analysis of our profoundest religious convictions should reveal that for these also we are indebted, and intended by God to be indebted, to the Imagination far more than to the Reason.

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