There is in our world a strong strain of relentless reductionism and blind rationalism whose inevitable complements are mechanical creativity-mongering and thoughtless image-proliferation. One antidote would be a revivified attention to the reason of images.

Understanding Imagination, by Dennis L. Sepper (546 pages, Springer, 2013)

When Professor Rosemann invited me to this colloquium—small in scale, but to my mind great in significance—I told him that I conceived my talk on Dennis Sepper’s newly published Understanding Imagination as a sort of book review, which earned me a wonderful possession, a copy of this magnum opus, as he called it, rightly.

There cannot be even the hint of a wink in this appellation. It is indeed a magnum opus, magnificent, powerful, and copious. I want to address this last feature first, since it colors the reading of the book.

This work takes its time. Since, to describe its thesis in a first approximation, there is no activity homo sapiens sapiens engages in as such that is not imaginative, Dr. Sepper ventures into all sorts of intellectual territory and calls on a variety of theories and concepts. The point is that instead of dropping names allusively and naming notions abbreviatedly he takes his time in explaining what he uses, and he does it so that a reader can follow. He needs the idea of a field. Do we all know off-hand what a field, formally speaking, is?

Well, now we know. Is everyone interested in the imagination familiar with Saussurian linguistic theory? Well, a lucid exposition is given. Does that sane remainder among us who is convinced that opining without some grounding in the tradition of thought is like Chanticleer standing on top of a middenheap crowing, know exactly why, and how, to study texts of the past? Well, though I come from a school that deliberately resorts to that tradition as a treasury of texts, yet on reading Dr. Sepper’s first introductory chapter I felt better armed in what looks at the moment like a rear-guard action in its defense. Let me quickly inject here that I think this is a sufficiently winnable battle, that the last shall soon enough be first, and that books like this one will belong to the special forces of this fight. One element in its effectiveness is precisely that its generalities are highly and acutely specified. What I mean by that I’ll say before long, and I’ll even express some misgivings. But they are the queries and doubts of a reader who has been made to think hard.

So let me begin my review of the content of Understanding Imagination by saying that the plenitude of notions introduced is lucidly organized. This book knows exactly where it’s going. The title announces the comprehensive topic of the book. (Topic, topos, topology, topography, I should say, are not casual but carefully expounded terms of the work.) This overarching topic is the imagination and its two aspects: the activity of imagining, and its product, images. First, the imagination is to be understood, that is, subjected to thinking. And anyone who has ever developed an interest in this topic will know that this endeavor opens a can of worms—particularly the problematic idea that one mental function can be applied to another, and the implied pseudo-traditional notion that the imagination is in fact a separable faculty. (I’ll explain “pseudo-traditional” in a moment.) The subtitle, then, implies that this understanding will yield the “reason of images.” Now believe it or not, the book itself contains an explication, applicable to this phrase, of genitives, objective and subjective. Thus “the reason of images” means both “what is the reason we have images, how and for what purpose they come about” (objective) and “the rationality belonging to images themselves, how images and logoi (reasons and ratios) are identical” (subjective). The main title has a similar double meaning. The book will make good on both parts of the promise, to elucidate both the activity and the product of images—and, of course, these expositions will raise questions.

The organization of so large a number of mental motions must, as I said, be lucid, and it is. I’ll first set it out summarily, then permit myself to pick out the particular aspects that got to me, and finally formulate some of the aforesaid queries. That’s as much as to say that this is a personal take on the book, but that way of proceeding needs no excuse in respect to this work. For the author himself has some keen observations bearing on the strenuous self-denial of the impersonal approach, with which I have my own experience: Academic treatments of the inner life, driven by some misguided notion of objectivity (I don’t want to say, individual inadequacy) quite often read as if the scholar had mislaid his soul and excised his personal experience while writing on, say, the passions, the will, or the imagination. In these matters, our author might agree, taking it personally gains something even more valuable than objectivity—call it verity.

I must say at this point what “taking it personally” shouldn’t mean. Dennis gives the most generous praise and acknowledgment to my own book, The World of the Imagination, which he clearly regards as a worthy predecessor to be worthily superseded. There’s no cause for grief in that. What better chance for an afterlife than to find a delimited place in the next, more global treatment? At the end, I’ll indicate briefly how the picture-making view of the imagination preferred in my book both accommodates itself and is recalcitrant to Dennis’s topology.

Chapter 1 begins by giving shape to the questions that matter about the imagination: How do we come by the idea? Why is it important? And it promises answers. It then goes on to a critique of what Dr. Sepper calls “the occluded-occulted tradition” of sapient imagining. He mounts a fair attack on what one might call the canned version of the tradition, the “pseudo-tradition,” which is divorced from the subtleties of the actual texts and thus set up to miss the meaning. Here he produces a pointed answer to two questions: One, what killed the tradition? Answer: survey-type, textless textbook accounts. And two, what have the original texts to give us? Answer: fresh, unstereotyped approaches to truth.

Chapter 2 offers a five-line definition of the imagination, which is deliberately comprehensive and incidentally shows that good books are written back to front. My students tend to think, wrongly, I believe, that philosophy is about and ends in definitions. Yet it is a part of the intelligent plan of this book that it begins by focusing the mind on the topic by means of this definition. It is a risky and arresting strategy. Risky because, unlike the Socratic initiation of a search by means of a definition that is at once popular and self-refuting, Dr. Sepper’s definition is at once demanding and conclusive; arresting because you can tell that it is new-old, not one of the going formulas, yet rooted in the intellectual tradition.

His ultimate aim is, as I said, comprehensiveness, initiated by actually practicing imagining, by attending to the act. There are guided exercises asking you to determine such aspects as how much of imaginative remembering is reproduction, how much detail is present, etc. There is a first engagement with various approaches, such as psychologism, which regards knowledge as “what people in fact think” rather than “what objects actually are,” and works on the supposition that we have similar, naturally given, minds which have before them mental objects, and also posits that both the mind’s thinking and its objects are accessible to introspection. One can see that “having images”—pictures held in or before the mind—goes well with this school of thought. It is, however, afflicted with many quandaries. Its opponent, anti-psychologism, argues that it is not from mental, thus subjective, objects that knowledge comes but from objective public objects, from logic, mathematics, the world. Internal objects are denied in favor of overt behavior; mental images, at least the claim that there are well-formed, stable mental pictures, are obvious targets of anti-psychologism. It, too, has its difficulties.

Dr. Sepper gives notice that he will sail between these Clashing Rocks: A mental image must be somehow based both in its situation and its forming activity—must be both public and private. To escape falsifying fixations, we must reradicalize imagination, recover its roots, its ontology. Dr. Sepper proposes a guiding idea that will avoid getting caught in the conventional commonplaces: a “topology” of the imagination.

Chapter 3 could be said to set out the methodology of the book, but that would be falsifying Dr. Sepper’s enterprise, which is pre-methodological. I might describe it as putting to work, for all it’s worth, a well-found metaphor. Topos, the Greek word for “place,” has many spaces—physical territories supporting settled locales; reversely, mathematical fields constituted from the relations among its elements, its sites; topological space in which expansible shapes undergo transformations without tearing; and the index in which rhetorical “common-places,” in Greek, topoi, can be looked up. These are all versions of a “conceptual topology.” This rich notion is the notable discovery, or I should say, rediscovery of the book. Dr. Sepper finds that certain philosophers’ writings about imagination, when directly approached, in fact employed a conceptual topology all along.

Here is a very preliminary description of the topological approach, as exercised by people who have some preparation:

They have not acquired just a greater quantity of discrete ideas and their associations. They have cultivated new fields of imagination as such, as whole fields; they have learned to mark out special positions in the field; they have come to isolate (or section out) subfields and sometimes they learn how to relate the various fields to one another in a new entity or a new field. (94)

This much is already evident about a topological understanding of the imagination: It will see imagining as holistic, fluid, multi-levelled—and all that to the second degree. I mean that the above is not only a description of the imagination but also of the understanding of imagination. For if the imagination is a “topography,” a placing-in-fields activity, so much the more must its understanding be a “topology,” an account of a topography. And conversely, if the approach is adequate in its metaphoricity—for “place” as primarily used and defined by Aristotle, is a phenomenon of extension—then so must the imagination be a power of metaphorical placing. But this is not Dr. Sepper’s explicit vocabulary; it is perhaps more an expression of my misgivings, which I’ll articulate at the end.

Chapters 4 through 7 then do what is obviously next: give a reradicalized reading of the deepest philosophical texts bearing on the subject—Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant.

Chapter 8, on post-Kantian treatments, displays what happens sooner or later to anyone who tries to trace the tradition of a topic chronologically. Eventually things fall apart into multifariousness; one is obliged to choose a few authors out of a multitude. Dr. Sepper concentrates on those, namely Wittgenstein (in his Tractatus) and Saussure, who exemplify an important consequence of his own heuristic, his topological device: that logos, far from being the antithesis of an image, is an image.

To explain the assertion that the overlapping of language with imaging is implied in the topological approach, I must return to Chapter 3 to introduce Dr. Sepper’s notion of “biplanarity.” It refers to a sort of double sight by which one imaginative plane is simultaneously present with another, and the imaginer sees one in terms of the other. It is first mentioned as a sort of dissociation, such as happens when one distances oneself from the sense-filled experience of the world in order to see it as reason-resistant appearance, opposed to intelligible being, if one is Socratically inclined. Or reversely, if one tends to Husserlian phenomenology, then it is real existence that is “bracketed,” so that one may see the world as an analyzable phenomenon. Later this relation between the planes is called a projection. “Seeing-as” has in fact become a topos.

So logos or reason and image or picture can live simultaneously on two planes while being, moreover, somehow projectible—that is, in some aspect isomorphic. I have some misgivings about this rather broad application of the notion of projection that I will offer later on.

Now before going to those central chapters that revive the tradition and reradicalize the problem, let me just complete the sketch of the book’s organization.

Chapter 9, the last chapter, presents the initial definition, now endowed with enough mental material to shed the term definition and to become a delimitation—a kinder, gentler, more inclusive-sounding term. Like any thoughtful philosopher (there is, after all, the other kind), Dr. Sepper does not in fact highly value definitions, because they are too bare, and he says that they never deliver an unpackable essence. Nonetheless his now much amplified delimitation does invite an analytic reading. I will sketch out what this reading yields, since that is the crux of the book, yet I know full well that I’m reversing Dr. Sepper’s deliberate expansion. But what else to do? Let me call it whetting your appetites.

So, the imagination is an activity; one might say that the imagination is nothing but imagining. This identification does an end run around the “mental modularity” debate, which is concerned with the problem hinted at before: whether the mind has a multiplicity of distinct faculties or is a global activity. The imagination is neither a separate faculty nor an undiscriminable activity. This imagining is a third something, quite positive, quite specific. It acts evocatively, calls something forth, and that in a dual way: “abstractional” and “concretional.” Its evocative work produces on the one hand something drawn away from, abstracted from, detached from the original. But on the other hand, the emergent imaginative phenomenon has—this is my term now, (Sepper avoids it)—quasi-sensory characteristics, reminiscent of the embodied original insofar as that it is a concretion, a thickening, of features. The definition then goes on to specify this activity of imagining. First, it envisions imaginative fields of concern with a basically potential nature, in which the fixities of the sensory world become fluid. Second, it exploits this potentiality to allow the projection of field upon field, that is, of biplanarity. I have, of course, truncated this concluding exposition and so robbed it of its subtlety.

The chapter then gathers in the topics that give the potential features form, actualize them, as it were, and so shape the field into a topography, an expression of the field’s potentials. Recall that these topoi or topics are figurative places, mental foci.

Here are some examples: Imagining begins with “the emergence of appearance as appearance,” a formulation that implies “not as appearance of a stably real thing,” and which is, by reason of this divorce from reality, both initially placeable in the imaginative field and essentially evanescent. Fixing this appearance, giving it firmer shape is a further work of the imagination.

A second topic is the image as inchoate, labile, and contextual. Contextuality in particular is a recurrent and crucial topic, since in its shiftiness it partly explains the mobile character of images, but even more because context is placing, and placement is the necessary correlative of place. Further on, a topic zeroes in on imagining as abstracting from perception. One might say “abstraction from perception” is the preliminary activity that yields appearances as appearances, since perception is the sensing of things as things. But one can regard this abstraction from perception also in an opposite way: When the imagination strips the thing of its perceptual accidents it produces a rationalized image, one having the lucidity of reason—reason in image-shape. I think of diagrams and blueprints in connection with this.

Nine such topoi are mentioned, features both of and in the field that have now become topics, subject-areas for future study and theorizing, and with these “areas” the book concludes. One stems from Dr. Sepper’s unapologetic acknowledgment that he has “cognitivized” the imagination and omitted the human depths of affectivity. He regards the future incorporation of these factors as plausible and predicts a complex inquiry.

Another concern is the anthropological positioning of the imagination: How does the imagination fit into our humanity? Dr. Sepper suggests that Heidegger’s Being and Time might be translated into a more conventional philosophical anthropology, in which terms like attunement (Stimmung) might be put to use. Here, I am driven to an aside: I would applaud this outcome, because if such a normalized derivation had been plausibly accomplished, that would imply what some of us suspect—that Heidegger’s original existential analytic is, after all, an ordinary ontic anthropology ratcheted up by fiat into an extraordinary ontology.

Ontology is indeed another concern. Dr. Sepper’s envisions ontological explanations that are imaginative in the sense of being field-to-field projections, one field being the explanatory, the other the explained field. A bonus is that this duality avoids destructive reductionism, since in the imaginative mode the field elucidated is not collapsed into the explaining field. Simultaneity of levels is maintained, and the object explained survives in its plane, unreduced to its explanatory elements in the underlying parallel plane. Finally an ethics of imagination is adumbrated. Dr. Sepper speaks of an ethos of imagination as the “inhabitable place of imagination”—how we live in its fields. Such a way of life will develop an ethics that requires this way of life to be good. His book has shown that thinking and imagining are inseparable. The obsession with formal and procedural rationality and the relegation of imagination to the arts is disastrous in children’s education and, by implication, to adult practice:

The only adequate way of developing rationality is to develop our ability to imagine comprehensively; we must start with ourselves, or we will inevitably fail our children and the future world (524).

In leaping from the first three chapters to the last, I have hollowed out the nourishing marrow of Understanding Imagination, the “reradicalized” readings of imagination’s great philosophical texts. I would keep you here past lunch, dinner, and nightcap, if I attempted to fill the gap. Those interpretations are based on close and acute textual analyses, and they take their time.

Instead I will try to say, briefly, in gist, what in each of the four philosophers to which Dr. Sepper gives a chapter is particularly germane to the delineation of the imagination just outlined. In this sketchy review, I shall have to omit entirely the history-of-ideas glue that holds these philosophers steady in the context of a—putatively—coherent development.

It is, incidentally, not clear to me what the actual order of discovery was: Did Dr. Sepper formulate his understanding of the imagination first and then discover previously occulted corroboration in the textual tradition, or was it the other way around, or both simultaneously? Maybe he will tell us later.

I’m not sure whether this attempt to pinpoint the intention of an extended exposition, to find the crux of a highly textured lay-out, amounts to a subversion or a highlighting of Dr. Sepper’s work. Anyhow, I mean it for the latter and will try not to miss the point, but if he says I did, I will gladly yield to correction. So, then:

Chapter 4: Plato. The chapter intends a major correction of standard interpretations that downplay images in the dialogues. In fact, “for Plato reality is mimetic,” meaning that the levels of being are seen as a cascade of images along which the viewer rises and descends in inquiry. Moreover the image-beings produced by what I might call “ontological imaging” are analogically connected, that is, by proportions constituted of logoi, ratios—as in the Divided Line of the Republic. So they can be said to be logos-involved (though I’m not sure that ratio-logos so readily translates into reason-logos). I also want to add that Plato calls the lowest human thought capacity eikasia, “image-recognition,” but then puts it to work throughout the realm of knowing, for the ascent of knowing is through recognizing images as images.

Chapter 5: Aristotle. Next, the imagination is retrieved from a truncated conventional account of Aristotle’s On the Soul which suppresses two aspects—that imagination seems to be a sort of motion and that it is one aspect of intellection. The imagination’s motion is that of abstracting from the matter of the sensory object and locating the resulting appearance in the thinking, noetic part of the soul. There, as “intellectualized imagination” (Sepper’s term), it functions freely over a field of shifting conformations and contexts, over a topography. Here, I want to add that Aristotle calls even the Divine Intellect a topos eidōn, a “place of forms,” and the very fact that this description is figurative (since the Intellect is beyond all place) may strengthen Dr. Sepper’s claim: thoughts and images are “concreted” in the highest reaches.

Chapter 6: Descartes. Now the topological view of the imagination is re-founded in modernity, though again conventional imagination-suppressing selectivity has obscured this fact. Descartes is a persistent practitioner of the imagination, particularly in the mathematization of physical nature. Imagination, however, is identified as an activity of the intellect, which is capable of “remotion,” of stepping back from its imagined figures to rethink them as purely intellectual existences. Thus, intellect exceeds imagination so as to become, from beyond it, the source of its directed mobility, that is, the source of its biplanarity and field-topography.

Chapter 7: Kant. Dr. Sepper precedes his exposition with an account of the post-Cartesian occultation of the imagination by rationalism and its revival within a new science of sensibility, aesthetics. To these developments Kant responds with a radical epistemology—an account, called “transcendental,” as yielding knowledge going beyond the only conscious material knowledge possible, an account that traces experience to its root. This root is dual, a passively receptive sensibility “looked at” by intuition, and an actively constructive conceptuality “functioning” by understanding. The sensibility is again dual, consisting of transcendental, that is, hypersensory space and time. Spatiality and temporality are thus with us from the first, a priori. Into these notional receptacles flows—from somewhere—a sensory manifold, an unstructured matter. The imagination is a synthesizing power, a power of “placing together” disparate elements, both at the very origin and on several higher knowledge-producing levels of the soul. Thus imagination is, for the first time in philosophy, productive before it is reproductive. It is now knowledge-shaping rather than knowledge-aiding, as it was for Aristotle, for whom it presented to thought the sensible world without its matter. The first work of Kant’s transcendental imagination is that of informing the sense-manifold spatially and temporally, so that all sensation of the world comes to our consciousness “in” space and “in” time, extendedly and sequentially. Mathematics, then, is a product of another imaginative synthesis, which directs thinking to invoke, to inscribe, in space particular geometric figures, and also calls on time to develop them progressively. Of the several syntheses, the highest and deepest, most original, hence most mysterious, work of the imagination is done by a procedure that is called a schematism. It “puts together,” or rather infuses, the functions of the understanding, which is a rational power, with the space and time, the pure intuitions of the sensibility, which is a receptive mode. On the face of it, their disparateness would seem to preclude this miracle of involvement. But the imagination provides the ground of their union. One example: “Substance,” as a mere rational notion, is an empty concept. When time-informed, it becomes the more concrete category of that which persists in time, a locus of underlying stability.

There are further syntheses, those that produce the ascending ways consciousness deals with the representations before it: first, an “apprehension,” a mere awareness of a representation as an item; then, a “reproduction” of the representation as a memory-image; finally, a “recognition” that by coming under concepts the representation is now stably settled in consciousness and fully acquired by self-consciousness.

So the Kantian imagination is an activity responsible for the togetherness of analytically disparate factors. It works at the roots of consciousness, to give it its basic constitution, and then over multiple and layered fields of knowing, by projections from the level of mere awareness to full self-consciousness. Dr. Sepper says that Kant, as the most consequential representative of the eclipsed tradition, “brought the… intelligible dynamism of imagining to a high point that was not exceeded even by the romantics”—which is saying a lot, and rightly.

To summarize my summary: Plato introduces an ontological imagination, whose places are held together in a bond of logoi, ratios. Aristotle adds a psychological activity working at the crux of human knowing, between thing and soul. Descartes conceives an intellect that contains and directs the imagination; hence the dynamism of images—their mobility, responsiveness to context, and biplanarity—is not intrinsic to images but is the inspiriting work of the intellect. And Kant discovers a synthetic power merging sensibility and understanding, the two aspects of cognitive consciousness; this power originates at its unknowable root of the human subject and works at all its levels.

These four philosophers anticipate, in various degrees of prominence, the two chief elements of Dr. Sepper’s analysis: the close link-age of reason with imagination and the shifting field-topography notion of mobile imagining. And they corroborate his respect for the tradition as a source of illumination.

Now, to do my job as reviewer, I should subjoin some misgivings—and I do mean misgivings and queries, not criticisms and condemnations.

First, then, I’ll articulate a sort of global unease about explanatory delineations like Dr. Sepper’s efforts that make the—surely heroic—attempt to capture the mobile multifariousness and close-up complexity of embodied beings, and particularly, of their mental life. In one of his many helpful footnotes he explains the mental motions of “abstracting” and “prescinding” (drawing off and cutting away), both of which are a kind of simplifying fixative; the imagination itself, as a cooperating power of understanding works with these devices. If the project is to understand understanding imagination through a descriptive analysis that preserves the flexible richness of a participating power, a certain swampy double-talk is the penalty. So for example, a key word, topos, carries, as I pointed out, the dual meaning of a given subject of inquiry fitted into a topology and of a placing function of the imagination producing a topography. And the imagination itself appears—indeed early Descartes is the predecessor here—in two forms. On the one hand, it is a general power of figurative reconception—whence its relation to human “creativity.” This human power is, of course, nothing like the divine creation of the Bible that makes a world out of chaos; it is rather a new perspective on an old situation or its reconfiguration. This general imagination is a Protean power. On the other hand, there is also the narrower power of producing and manipulating images; it is a rather specialized capability. I wonder if prescinding, cutting away, containing, would not be an authorial virtue here. But then again, if something, the imagination par excellence, is by nature duplicitous, perhaps its account must display intentional ambiguities and homonymous doublings—never mind Occam’s Razor and its injunction not to multiply explanatory entities.

The second item is only a specification of the first. Certain notions don’t seem to lend themselves to clarity—for example, contextualization and fusion. A context, as Dr. Sepper fully appreciates, is logically definable by what is sometimes called an infinite judgment, as the indefinitely large negativity surrounding a place. So “contextualization” means putting a small island in a large ocean and calling that a placement. This misgiving, incidentally, reaches to all those unhelpful politico-socio-economico-psychological explanations: You can’t zero in on an apprehended “this” by means of too-big-to-know “that.” Something analogous goes for fusion, the togetherness of word and thought or thing and image. It doesn’t, incidentally, matter whether the cognitive union is to be of thought with a material object or with its matter-stripped image; their mutuality is, by the very reason of being a fact, a mystery, and it might be most incisive to call it that.

Third, this mutuality or reciprocity of intellect and imagination seems to me the mystery of mysteries, one attested to by the very variety of grappling devices proposed for their union, precisely because of their structural dissimilarity. All of Dr. Sepper’s four philosophers, however they may assimilate the intellect to its object—as, for example, when Aristotle analogizes sensing and intellection—at the end of their ruminations admit, either explicitly or implicitly, the existence of a non-sensing, imageless power of intellect. This shows, I think, that in those high reaches the intellect itself is an imageless power. How does a power which at its purest is placeless come to govern placements?

These considerations make me wonder about the biplanar, field-to-field-projecting imagination. It is, to begin with, a very congenial notion to me, this double-sight (for which Dennis kindly gives me credit), in which an image over- or underlies worldly events, lending them a resonance from other world-venues. Such are the Homeric similes of the Iliad that alleviate the excruciating concentration of the battlefield by overlaying it with a bonding analogy to the rest of the world, from the heavens to the household.

But that template notion presupposes some articulated similarity, some isomorphism, and I have not quite understood on what basis Dr. Sepper’s fields are actually projectable onto one another, how they are homologous. For example, he says that there is something perverse in the claim that geometry is left behind in analytic, that is algebraic, geometry. And yet there is a powerful notion, set out recently in Burt Hopkins’s extended commentary on Jacob Klein’s work on the origin of algebra,[2] that just this is the case. Symbolic mathematics casts loose from image-mathematics and thereby founds the very modernity Dr. Sepper is trying to reform, the world of abstract reckoning that has suppressed concrete imagining and has no structural relation to it and is simply not homologous with it.

Another example is word-painting, the power of language to arouse mental images. No one knows just how words intend toward and reach the world, nor, therefore, how they instigate its images. So, it seems to me, the field of thinking and its articulation in words, this field of logos, is not, at least not obviously, in the field-to-field relation to the imagination that the notion of a reasoning image requires—and yet I know that language often delineates pictures and passion usually infuses words.

That brings me to a fourth and final query. Dr. Sepper quite intentionally barely touches the relation of imagining to phantasy, to painting, and to the passions. Might it not be that in relation to these the understanding of imagination requires different rubrics and emphases from those in Understanding Imagination? I’ll post brief surmises.

Cognitively useful imaging is fed from the outside face, so to speak, of consciousness by the sensed world. Phantasy, by which I mean fiction, presents what-is-not, and so offers a re-presentation of no worldly original. No receptive taker-in of a fiction thinks of it as a re-arranged reality, a reality-collage. Should one not consider that there might be a conduit from the inside, for which the term “unconscious” is just an evasive makeshift? Although I am here in the company of soberly sane thinkers, I am nevertheless suggesting that one might seriously consider what the practitioners of poetry meant by the Muses, who live on Olympus and not in neuronal networks. The question here is, Whence comes imagining in its most life-enhancing aspect?

When the visual arts are drawn into the inquiry, painting is apt to come front and center, because, if a painting is (as we pre-post- moderns tend to think) an externalization of a mental image (of course modified in its passage from quasi- to real space), then the embodied product might in turn throw light on that immaterial image. It might be that we are drawn to flat-medium imagery because it reminds us of our soul’s imagining—in its plane dimension (that is, lacking volume), in its immobility (or virtual mobility), and in what I’ll call its momentousness (its excerpting from the banal spatial and temporal context a moment of intensified significance). The question here is, Whence issues the imagination’s most poignant work? Even to ask that question is, to be sure, a surreptitious bit of special pleading on my part, since the answers I’ve just suggested are the ones given in my book.

And finally, when the imagination is properly related to the passions, from the devastating storms of erotic desire to the delicate atmospheres of esthetic feeling, might the imagination not appear in yet another capacity than that of abstracting from the round reality outside, or of receiving influxes from a ghostly source beyond? I mean the capacity to transmogrify the blind shapelessness of our most intimate psychic condition, our affectivity, into formed feeling—a phrase that surely describes some of our internal imagery. The question here would be whether the image as an effluvium of feeling is the same as or different from the cognitive, the art-producing, the Muse-inspired image. Thus the question of questions: Is the imagination—be it activity, capacity, power, faculty—one or many? Almost two and a half millennia, and we are still in medias res. Well, I seem to have talked myself into acknowledging that Dennis’s multiplication of entities may mirror the way things are.

Thus Understanding Imagination is a wonderfully anticipatory waystation. So here, in conclusion, are my wishes for the book: First, that it gain influence enough to encourage a new round of broadly conceived image-inquiries aided by fresh, close attention to the great predecessors and perhaps some new, ingeniously devised, imagination-informed image-research. And then, that its call be heeded for a reform which I’ll put in my own words: There is in our world a strong strain of relentless reductionism and blind rationalism whose inevitable complements are mechanical creativity-mongering and thoughtless image-proliferation. One antidote, perhaps only topically applicable—but then positive good usually is local—would be a revivified attention to the reason of images.

This essay was originally published here in October 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 55, No. 2, Spring 2014) and is republished here with gracious permission.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] New York: Springer, This review-lecture was written for a colloquium held on October 30, 2013 in honor of the book by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Dallas, Irving, Texas, where Dr. Sepper teaches. Eva Brann, tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis, was invited to be the main speaker because Dr. Sepper has had close relations to St. John’s, and because her book The World of the Imagination (Savage, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1991), is cited in Understanding Imagination as a sort of predecessor in the attempt to treat the imagination somewhat comprehensively and with due regard to the reflective tradition.

[2] Burt Hopkins, The Origin of the Logic of Symbolic Mathematics: Edmund Husserl and Jacob Klein (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011). Jacob Klein was the third Dean of the New Program at John’s.

Editor’s note: The featured image is an illustration from “The Fairy Tale of Kings” by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email