By Sam Zanger, Based On the Works of Frank Beddor & Lewis Carroll
In my previous entry into this series on the power of Imagination I remarked on the way this inspirational energy flows from Wonderland to other realms – including Earth. By virtue of this connection the land Through the Looking Glass can view us quite clearly in relation to Imagination. However, the same cannot be said from our own viewpoint.
Long have our best minds sought to understand “what is Imagination” – and I think this essay by Sam Zanger provides a remarkable exploration of this quest for understanding. Without further ado, please enjoy his good work.
“The sense of wonder is the mark of a philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.” — Plato
What is Imagination?
Dubbed phantasia by Plato: the process by which sensation presented itself to the intellect. He considered it a relative of deceit. Aristotle considered it one of the senses, akin to sight and touch, but a faculty for sensing what was absent. To Thomas Aquinas, it was the channel by which angels reached humanity, the visio imaginaria. Descartes saw Imagination as the space between body and mind, the sensus communis later adapted by Carl Jung into “collective unconscious.”
“Nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,” Hume said. He called it “the illusion of immanence,” a sentiment later echoed by Sartre, who called it “the consciousness of negation.” Kant called it “the hidden art in the depth of the soul.” Kierkegaard called it “the medium of infinity.”
Coleridge: “Memory emancipated from the order of time and space. Husserl, in the model of the German character that brought us World War One, called it “the neutrality modification of the positing of presentification.” Hegel called it aufheben, which is completely untranslatable.
“The sense of wonder is the prerogative of childhood…
It is an essential instrument in creative thinking.” — Edith Cobb
It’s where we spend most of our lives, yet no one is sure what it is or how we get there. Our documentary attempts to chart a roadmap.
Ideally, it would run as follows:
What is Imagination? For most of history, Imagination has been recognized by its agents, the innovators, trailblazers, and madmen, from Copernicus to Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Henry Ford to Hitler to Walt Disney who take an idea — for better or worse — and use it to change the world. Daniel Boorstin, author of “The Creators,” talks about the traits they had in common, how their imaginations manifested, and how they left the world a different place.
Knowing that Hamlet was inspired by the death of Shakespeare’s son, or that Bell invented the telephone to help his wife, who had lost her hearing, tells us about context. It tells us what psychology may have been in the background as the Imagination worked. But what is Imagination?
In no expression is Imagination more vivid than in the literature of fantasy. Though the repercussions of fantastic literature don’t match those of, say, inventing a way to manufacture the automobile, still, in no other vein is the ore of Imagination as rich, so it is in that vein we commence our inquiry. Alberto Manguel, co-author of “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places,” takes us on a tour of Phantasia, encompassing Wonderland, Narnia, Oz, Middle Earth, and so on. Additional comments, perhaps, from John Clute, editor of “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.”
“Inventing Wonderland” author Jackie Wullschlager gives the anthropology of Phantasia. Sheherazade, Milton, Blake, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, Jim Henson: masters of a kind of mental chess whose pieces breathed in our minds.
One of them can stand for all: Lewis Carroll, the imaginative benchmark, the master gamesman. Morton Cohen, author of “Lewis Carroll: A Biography” and editor of “Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Reflections,” gives an intimate view of the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson. “He was the shyest man I ever met,” said Mark Twain. Dodgson seemed to exist only as the vessel of his inner doppelganger, Lewis Carroll.
Martin Gardner, editor of “The Annotated Alice,” and Carolyn Sigler, editor of “Alternative Alices,” go into how Alice has transmogrified into an archetype— as Princess Alyss Heart so wholly exemplifies— symbolic of imagination (“the princess of imagination,” she might say).
Eva T.H. Brann, author of “Imagination: Sum and Substance,” discusses how Imagination has been assayed in the past, from Plato to Piaget. She gives a historical overview, bringing home the fact that, for most of history, the Imagination was examined by focusing on what it does; like describing a baby as “A thing that cries, eats, excretes, and sleeps.” We want to know what Imagination is specifically. Up until recently, no one had a credible answer. The technology to provide empirical evidence had not arrived. Our roadmap was hypothetical since most of its terrain was unexplored.
Then, seemingly all at once, the frontier opened.
Michael I. Posner, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, has the neurological facts (as they presently stand; it could all change tomorrow). He tells us what’s actually going on in our bodies when we’re pausing to think. Welcome to the secret world of ‘uhh…’.
Having laid out the machine, we go into what specifically it is doing. The Cognitive Process, the science of how we reason, is explained by Howard Gardner, professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. Gardner, author of 18 books and hundreds of articles, tells how the imagination activates childhood development — with demonstrations from Project Zero, his lab at Harvard — and goes into the social necessity of Imagination.
What is the medium of imagination? If a picture has canvas or paper, what does a mental image have? Roger Shepard, Stanford University professor of Psychology and recipient of the National Medal of Science, talks about the mind’s eye (and ear, etc.). He gives us the following exercise:
“Imagine an elephant and a chicken in correct proportion to each other. Describe the elephant. Now describe the chicken.” [Reaction time for the chicken is usually much longer than it is for the elephant, suggesting that imagination, like photo film, has “grain.”]”
He shows us how we’re not the only species to exhibit Imagination. Many mammals “play pretend” (lion cubs, for example, play-fighting). Pigeons (among others) demonstrate the ability to “see” things that aren’t really there; recognizing, for instance, that Ә and e are the same thing.
Can the process be replicated by a machine? Stephen Kosslyn, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, is a pioneering researcher on how the brain uses visual imagery, and author of “Wet Mind,” on the design of computers to perform visual perception and reasoning tasks. He talks about “imagination imaging” and goes into AI.
To go further into AI and the future of Imagination: Douglas Hofstadter, professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at the University of Indiana, whose Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” is required reading in the field of artificial intelligence. He’ll introduce us to MINSTREL, the computer that writes fantasy stories.
Creative computers are at the next off-ramp, but where does the road lead after that? Will we one day reach the end of Phantasia? Will we learn to expand it, becoming like the Wonderlander characters in “The Looking Glass Wars” with psychokinetic abilities?
For now, we can only imagine.