- Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition by John Kaag
John Kaag. New York: Fordham UP, 2014.
John Kaag’s Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition is an eminently readable work that traces the rehabilitation of the imagination through Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Peirce’s logic of inquiry and evolutionary cosmology, and elements of contemporary neuroscience. In taking this path, Kaag aims to show that “human cognition, on the whole, thinks through the imagination” (22). He believes that many have failed to appreciate this Kantian/Peircean lesson, even among those who strongly identify with these figures. Furthermore, we see this continuation of the Platonic/Cartesian denigration of the imagination in the relative neglect of aesthetics as a central philosophical topic. By highlighting the role of the aesthetic and imaginative, Kaag regrounds the pragmatic (not solely pragmatist) quest to understand human life in continuity with nature through our embodied practices, a nature marked by creativity and growth rather than sterile obedience to perfectly determinate laws.
Kaag’s book combines clear exposition of technical issues in philosophy and science with autobiographical illustrations of the importance of imaginative play. It is a remarkable book, but here I want to make suggestions for further inquiry rather than direct criticisms. Fortunately, this places my review within the spirit of Kaag’s work: “The claim set out in this book should be regarded as a plan of action, vague enough to permit latitude in what action to take, definite enough to motivate further research” (189). Accordingly, several of my remarks will involve thinking around the focus of this book by looking more closely at some of the fringes. The first set of remarks includes a few historical notes concerning conceptions of the imagination prior to Kant, while the second set is a more critical investigation of the role of diagrams in Peirce’s philosophy.
Kaag begins his account of Kant and the imagination with a brief excursus into ancient philosophy. Here, he notes one origin for the sort of dualism that Kant seeks to overcome in The Critique of Judgement in the contrast between Platonic and Aristotelian accounts of the imagination:
On the one hand, imagination was defined in terms of inspired artistic expression, outside of the realm of explanation and description. On the [End Page 111] other, it was described as a mysterious mental faculty that somehow accomplished the impossible, bridging the divide between the world of sensation and the world of thought.(33)
Regarding the former, Platonic, definition, Kaag references passages in the Ion and Republic, where the creative imagination is a theia mania, literally a divine madness. As such, the poet is left unable to give an account (logos) of his poetry. Furthermore, for Plato, this ecstatic state is identified with phantasia, which means that poets “merely produced images and appearances that led individuals away from the truth” (33). This is why Plato famously banished poets from the ideal state. In contrast, Aristotle conceives of phantasia as a faculty that is essential to cognition, claiming in De Anima III.7 that “[t]o the thinking soul images serve as if they were contents of perception (and when it asserts or denies them to be good or bad it avoids or pursues them). That is why the soul never thinks without an image.” As images derive from our sensitive faculty, this leads Aristotle to the claim approvingly quoted by Peirce, as well as Kaag: “Hence, no one can learn or understand anything in the absence of sense, and when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images are like sensuous contents except in that they contain no matter” (De Anima III.8). Imagination mediates between sensation and deliberation, differing from the former in that it is (largely) within our control, and differing from the latter in that it does not (essentially) involve judgment. However, even Aristotle is perhaps uncomfortable with imagination’s mediating role, for he asserts that there are two types:
Sensitive imagination, as we have said, is found in all animals, deliberative imagination only...