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  • Descartes and Modern Imagination
  • John D. Lyons

Most people “are so accustomed to think about everything by imagining, which is a special way of thinking for material things, that anything that is not imaginable seems to them unintelligible” 1 (6:37). Descartes thus implies that imagination is the most common way of thinking, and we may infer that imagining is therefore a bad way to think, a kind of mental immaturity. Even his polite disclaimer, at the outset of the Discourse, about his own mental abilities, seems to link imagination with common people: “I have often wished to have the quick thought, or the clear and distinct imagination, or the ample or ready memory of some people” (6:2). In demonstrating the importance of imagination in Descartes’s early work, a scholar who has much studied this question concludes that by the time of the Discourse and the Meditations, imagination was in “eclipse.” 2 We could easily conclude that Descartes was an opponent of the imagination or that he pushed it to the margins of his philosophy. However, Descartes is, in my view, a decisive proponent of imagination within modern European thought, one who recommends the active use of imagination, sees it as a quality of God, and demonstrates its necessity for practical action, action concerning and modifying the real world. While Descartes is probably not entirely responsible for the modern tendency to value imagination and to suppose it an important criterion of intelligence, he certainly wrote at a turning point in the history of imagination and formulated effective and memorable recommendations about the place of this way of thinking within a structure of mind. Amélie Rorty has best summed up this move by writing that “from Descartes to Rousseau, the mind changed. Its domain was redefined; its activities were redescribed; and its various powers were redistributed.” 3 The rise to prominence of imagination, though not often noted, is a major effect of that shift. [End Page 302]

It is worth stressing Descartes’s definition of imagination: “a special way of thinking for material things.” Most people, Descartes writes, do not raise their mind “beyond things of the senses” (6:37) and thus think exclusively by using imagination. Of course this is only a partial description of imagination—and a very traditional one—that Descartes adopts, but it is important to recognize his consistency in telling us that we imagine, strictly speaking, only when we think about material things, things that we perceive, seem to perceive, or could perceive with our senses. The very fact that we find it difficult to avoid the broader, more modern use of the verb “to imagine”—meaning to speculate or to contemplate alternative possibilities—may be a result of Descartes’s own success in rehabilitating imagination. He writes in the second meditation that “imagining is nothing other than contemplating the figure or image of a bodily thing” (9:22). This statement follows the traditional view of the act of imagining, by which the mind registers and combines sense data, received from the senses through the “common sense,” though these sense impressions, as we know, appear to Descartes to be unreliable. Another way Descartes describes imagination is to say that it is one of the ways of conceiving (the idea of) a thing—it is a façon de concevoir (9:22). Every time we focus on anything we want to know—in other words, any time we think of something—we are “conceiving” that thing in our mind, and to imagine something is simply to conceive it by means of the kind of ideas we attribute to our senses: spatial and temporal qualities, physical qualities of all kinds, appearance. Conception and imagination are not antagonistic means of knowing, but instead differ by their generality. Imagination is only the name for one kind of conception. Some things can be imagined and can also, alternatively, be thought (conceived) without being imagined: a triangle, for instance, which can simply be thought in terms of its definition as a figure containing three angles or can be imagined as a physical thing.

It is very difficult to observe carefully the limits between Descartes’s use and our own...

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pp. 302-312
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