May/June 2012

It’s all in the Imagination

Written by Michael Bulley

When he said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, Albert Einstein implied a contrast between fact and possibility. I should like to suggest that there no distinction in kind between the two, but that many people mistakenly accord too much importance to the idea of reality, that is, to what they think we can know for certain. Let us begin, then, with something that seems to combine the real and the unreal: fictional drama.

In discussing drama with students, I have found that many of them, to start with, invoke realism as the yardstick. The more like real life, they say, the better the play must be. You can sow doubts by suggesting that going to the theatre is therefore an unnecessary expense, as you can watch real life for nothing. You would also have to count The Tempest as inferior to Coronation Street. In the end you might agree that, even if you still preferred realistic drama, what you would want is not just a resemblance to real life but a better understanding of it, and that unrealistic drama could do that just as well.

Even so, most people in Western European culture put their trust in the concept of reality, believing that what you can know must be more important than what you can only imagine. For them the perceptible and verifiable things in life, like back gardens and bank balances, are the serious ones.

The relationship between thought and reality has been an abiding concern of philosophy. Even when philosophy and common sense agree that there is a physical reality independent of our thinking about it, the common-sense view equates it with our physical perception. Most philosophers and neurophysiologists, however, are pretty certain that our sense-experiences do not correspond with the reality that they relate to; that, for example, our experience of seeing something is not a pictorial or optical one and likewise for the other senses. That is to say, the brain does not see the image in the eye in the way that the eye sees the visible object. Rather, there is a neural activity that is no different in kind from those that occur with experiences we would describe as purely internal ones, such as logical reasoning or feeling delight.

Our rational experience of the world, however, tricks us into believing that what is only an internal feeling — a blind sensation, if you like — has a genuine correspondence with the outside world. And it seems that, in order to function in the everyday world, we are bound to behave as if holding to this false belief. If we acted otherwise, we would probably find ourselves bumping into solid objects more often than usual, so confident were we that our perception was merely an internal sensation. The more serious philosophical problem is whether to draw a distinction between the neural activity and our awareness of the world. Certainly, there is no correspondence between the neural events and our internal experience. Presented with an image or film of some neural events in my brain, I would not be able to say “Oh, yes, that is obviously my thoughts about the football match yesterday.”

Interpreting reality

In the modern world our knowledge comes in two ways: on the one hand, our everyday experiences and, on the other, logic, philosophy and the observation of scientific instruments. If human intelligence were no more than a conscious scientific instrument, we would have only an awareness of what we perceive. The reality of an railway engine would be for us no more than its size, sound, smell and so forth. The human situation is not like that, though: the engine affects different people differently. You only have to look at train-spotters.

What an object means to you, then, rather than your knowledge of what it is, is particularly telling when, unlike the railway engine, it is a medium of conceptual, rather than locomotive, communication. If a Frenchman says “Bonjour!”, you may know and be able to repeat what he has said, but to no purpose if, not understanding French, you have no idea what he meant. And when the communication is not principally factual, as when you listen to a poem or a piece of music, you can feel puzzled or frustrated that someone else has remained indifferent while you have been deeply moved, even though you both heard exactly the same words or notes. It would not be hard to explain what “Bonjour!” meant, if you understood it, but not being able to explain in words what a piece of music means to you does not mean it was meaningless: that was why it was music. Your understanding of a piece of music does not consist of a knowledge of its notes or sounds; it is the consequence of your experience of it.

Seas and sausages

In an age of scientific selfconsciousness the two ways of understanding the facts of the world — by instinct and reflection — can lead to a sort of double life. If you sail across the Atlantic, a calm sea may seem flat, but most of us, I think, would not be instinctively aware that we were travelling over a curve. We would need self-consciously to remind ourselves of the shape of the earth first. The philosopher, Wittgenstein, remarked that, if you told someone who had always thought that the sun circled the earth that the reverse was true, it would still be right for that person to continue thinking of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. As Wittgenstein put it in his Tractatus, “Ich bin meine Welt” (I am my world). There can be that sort of distinction, therefore, between fact and truth.

If I eat a sausage, the reality of that experience for me is usually one of ‘sausageness’, but if I were a biochemist, I might think about the protein-structure of the sausage or, if a physicist, its sub-atomic composition. What would our reality be like, I wonder, if we naturally perceived things at the sub-atomic level? The scientific approach is not limited to our natural experience of the world, but the quest of science to discover the basic constituents of the universe, that is, to gain ultimate factual knowledge, still would not qualify that knowledge as being more fundamental or more important than other types of understanding.

Political realism

In politics, the falseness of objectivity dehumanizes people. Political rivals prefer to argue with numbers, as if it would be embarrassing to think the future could be decided by a vision of human behaviour rather than by the lowering of interest rates. Politics, to be sure, needs realism. The system should offer citizens security, liberties that are not licences, and the possibility of a sophisticated culture. But, whereas the destination of human success should be people themselves, modern political discussion places it in the impersonal consequences of their actions and it is symbolized by objects or, even worse, by the abstraction of objects in statistics.

Art and other people

In the arts, factual knowledge has dominated arguments about what is socially desirable. This goes back at least to Plato, whose ideal society would have been free from the corrupting influence of the arts. Recent criteria have not been so stringent as Plato’s, but they still rest on the content of the work rather than its meaning. Nor could it be otherwise when it comes to censorship. You cannot produce any solid evidence for ‘artistic values’ or ‘cultural seriousness’, whereas you can say precisely what actions took place on the stage or what scene was depicted in the photograph.

Art and the individual

What place then, should we give imagination, if that is what matters in art? To return to the drama students I began with, most will have acquired the opinion that plays are fantasy and entertainment, desirable to distract us from the serious things in life, but not in themselves serious. Yet, if what I have said is true, then to define literature, music and the visual arts as part of the leisure industry, in which the industry is the serious part, is not a reasonable attitude. For if, as I have suggested, our individual reality consists of our imagination, then we can decide rationally what matters more and what matters less. There will be no distinction in kind between what we imagine and what we know. By this, I am not advocating a life based on fantasy: the imprisoned man is not living well if he persuades himself he is in fact free.

To exemplify this, let me take two works of drama, Bertolucci’s film La Luna and the television series The Cosby Show. The plot of La Luna includes teenagers’ addiction to heroin and incestuous lust, with no overt condemnation of either. I find it a beautiful and moving film. The Cosby Show portrays a secure family in which minor difficulties of teenage immaturity are resolved by the loving concern of the parents. Those who call for censorship in the arts would no doubt censure Bertolucci and commend The Cosby Show.

If I, like Plato, were imagining the conditions for the morally good society, it would be more likely one in which resided the values of Bertolucci’s film than one embalmed in the spirit of The Cosby Show. My decision rests on my attempt to share the imagination of the creator of the film, but if it rested solely on my knowledge of the content of the works, then, of course, a world of happy families is preferable to one with drugs and incest.

Art and the individual

What place then, should we give imagination, if that is what matters in art? To return to the drama students I began with, most will have acquired the opinion that plays are fantasy and entertainment, desirable to distract us from the serious things in life, but not in themselves serious. Yet, if what I have said is true, then to define literature, music and the visual arts as part of the leisure industry, in which the industry is the serious part, is not a reasonable attitude. For if, as I have suggested, our individual reality consists of our imagination, then we can decide rationally what matters more and what matters less. There will be no distinction in kind between what we imagine and what we know. By this, I am not advocating a life based on fantasy: the imprisoned man is not living well if he persuades himself he is in fact free.

“Ich bin meine Welt” — I am my world. And that world is all the influences on it and all you sense it to be, not only those things you could express as your knowledge of the facts of the world, but all the moral, aesthetic, emotional and inventive feelings you have, and there is no justification for setting one above the other as being more real: they are all in the imagination. What your world is and what your life is depends on how varied, intense and refined, those sensations are.

The work of art is an object and, when you perceive it, some intellectual consequences are produced, however slight. If the object is an egg-slicer, it might mean something to you, but it was intended rather to act upon the egg, not on your imagination. It changes your view of the world by changing the egg. Works of art, by contrast, are designed to act more directly on your imagination and seem likely, from what we can surmise about the labour and intentions of their authors, to add more ways of seeing the world, so that we can have more chance of discovering, even if only by indistinct intuition, what is important in it. The frequent mix of art and pleasure, even gloomy art, should induce us to guess that pleasure, unconnected with material gain, is serious too.

Many people nowadays, despite the historical evidence for the inconstancy of popular opinion, hold to a down-to-earth philosophy of knowledge. They pride themselves on living in a world of facts, in the ‘real world’. In that world, human nature is held to have unchanging limitations and anything that does not seem verifiable by tangible experience is dismissed as unrealistic. Feelings, which seem insubstantial and unsupported by the external world, even feelings for other people, are dismissed as less important. For art, the false security of that world is inhuman and the transition away from it has sometimes been the theme of art. In Michael Tippett’s opera The Knot Garden, the character Faber, who starts off as someone for whom factual knowledge and practical advantage are all that matters, is gradually transformed, and at the end he speaks the final words: “I am all imagination.”

(This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the journal Philosophy Now)

© Michael Bulley 2004
Michael Bulley studied Classics and linguistics at the universities of Edinburgh and London.