5 Holding Images Lightly: Philosophy’s Appreciation of the Imagination 

Fr. Thomas Gricoski, OSB

Philosophers since Plato have expressed a variety of opinions on the imagination, ranging from enthusiastic endorsement to critical refutation. In modern culture, imagination remains associated with fantasy and frivolity.[1] Such whimsical associations make the imagination seem unsuited to serious intellectual life. If the imagination were unfit for strictly rational philosophy, then it would also be unfit for strictly orthodox theology.

In this context, a call for the faithful to develop broader and deeper imaginations may sound like a concession to critics of the faith. The connection between theology and imagination needs to be qualified, lest it lend support to critical ideologies that would dismiss dogma as opinion, scripture as myth, spirituality as psychotherapy, liturgy as formality, hierarchy as patriarchy, morality as repression, and faith as weakness.

This image of a counterfeit imagination works as a kind of “reality distortion field,” within which everything fantastical is true, while the cold world of scientific fact stands outside. The world of faith and the “real world” diametrically oppose each other, and the only way for a sane person to live in both worlds is to adopt a cartoonish suspension of disbelief while they are in church, so says the critique of imaginative theology.

In the face of these critiques, the question arises of whether the imagination can be trusted. It is one thing to exercise the imagination while reading fiction or while daydreaming; few would seriously object to these activities. It is quite another thing, however, to make use of the imagination, by way of metaphors, analogies, myths, etc., in the practice of philosophy and theology. It is necessary, then, to form a philosophical rationale for the positive appropriation of imagination in the life of faith and reason.

While imagination is popularly linked with error, fantasy, deception and madness, a philosophical account of the imagination recognizes that there are more nuanced exercises of imagination. This chapter explores the delicate interplay between truth and fancy in the imagination, with the help of brief sketches of the concept’s meaning in the history of philosophy.

The goal is to work toward a hermeneutic of imagination in the life of faith and reason that offers qualified appreciation. A study of the imagination reveals that its importance for priesthood and faith in general can hardly be overstated. Philosophy and reason cannot support themselves without the aid of rich and deep imaginations, cultural critiques notwithstanding.

Richard Kearney’s excellent work on the imagination[2] serves as the primary source for the brief notes on the history of the philosophy of imagination in this chapter. The ancient philosophers were generally ambivalent toward imagination. A brief recounting of Plato and Aristotle in this regard will highlight this basic trust and mistrust of images throughout the history of Western thought. As an attempt to synthesize ancient Greek thinking and the revealed truths of the Christian dispensation, medieval philosophy shed new light on the role of imagination as a mediator between sensible and invisible reality.

This middle position both celebrates imagination as helpful and, likewise, relegates imagination to an instrumental and temporary role on the ascent to truth. With the emergence of modern thought, and its newfound ambivalence toward religious faith, an exaggerated position emerges. Spurred on by the philosophy of Kant, modern romantic and existentialist thinkers celebrated the imagination to such an extent that objectivity and reason became suspect in the light of superior creativity. Post modern philosophies have inherited the problem of imagination, and with Western culture’s relativized stance on truth and objectivity, the interest in imagination almost disappears, along with every other claim to truth or falsity.

Western philosophy was founded as a reaction against the highly imaginative claims of ancient myth. The first Western philosophers, like Thales and Anaximander, were well aware of, but unimpressed by, the mythical accounts of the world’s order and constitution, consisting of divine explanations for natural and human phenomena. Myths were communicated through the arts and religion, through drama and mystery religions, as well as being employed as persuasive evidence by rhetors and sophists. Myths in the ancient world were likely not believed with the same credulity their enlightened opponents often imagine.

Even if recognized not to be literally true, the teachers and purveyors of myth likely found their stories to be apt vehicles for communicating truth and teaching wisdom. Philosophers wanted to arrive at the truth through different means, through rational rather than mythical discourse. Mythos became opposed to logos. Despite this opposition at the start of philosophy, Socrates and Plato took recourse to myths in their educational efforts. The value of myth, and of the imagination overall, was too great to be completely set aside.


Philosophers are not immune to ironic self-contradiction, a point that Plato apparently demonstrates in his great dialogue, The Republic. This work contains both indictments and pardons for the alleged crimes of the imagination. On the one hand, Plato assigns the imagination the lowest place on the divided line of truth, while (imageless) reason holds the highest place.

Imagination, or the images on which it relies, are merely copies of sensible things. A painted image of a dog is only a facsimile of the reality that it represents, and is thus “less real” than an actual dog. Plato’s metaphysical theory of forms, moreover, would also place the living dog at some distance from the “most real” dog, the ideal “dog.” The idea or form of “dogginess” has its place in the “realm of the forms,” and the actual hounds in the world are mere copies of the ideal.

An image has the disadvantage of being a copy of a copy, and thus stands rather far removed from the fullness of reality and truth. Plato illustrates the lowly position of images in the hierarchy of being by recounting the myth of the cave.[3] In this extended metaphor, the imagination may be likened to silhouettes on a cave wall, which chained prisoners on the cave floor mistake for reality, since these images are all the prisoners are permitted to see.

These wall-images, however, are only shadows (a rather poor copy) of “human statuettes, and animal models carved in stone and wood,” paraded about by deceptive puppeteers.[4] These wooden and stone figures are, likewise, only poor imitations of actual persons and animals that live outside the cave, in the world illuminated by the sun.

What is ironic about this myth is that Plato relies on his readers’ creative powers of imagination to condemn the use of images. The fantastic myth, however, is perhaps more memorable and better known than the abstract notions of form and mimesis that the myth communicates. In the same dialogue, Plato goes on to concede that teachers often make good use of students’ imaginations to communicate abstract concepts. He offers the example of a geometer who draws squares and angles to illustrate the ideal concepts of square and angle.[5] The decisive difference between the deceptive puppeteers in the cave and the instructive geometers is that the latter indicate that their images are only approximations of the reality they represent. Plato makes allowances for the positive use of images, as long as the chief threat, i.e. deception, is curtailed.

Whatever we do not know can only be taught to us through what we already know. This axiom of education suggests that all learning relies on the imagination, using metaphors, analogies and similes. Imagine that a computer programmer enrolls in an introductory psychology course. The programmer is likely to assimilate the new knowledge of the mind in terms of her prior knowledge of computers. When the psychologist speaks of sensory input, the programmer may think of input devices, like a keyboard. When the psychologist speaks of thoughts and memories, the programmer may think of electronic files and folders.

The shared task of student and teacher is to make use of the student’s prior knowledge and expand it, perhaps through the explicit use of metaphors and analogies. The comparison of the human mind to a computer system opens up an interesting metaphorical world, which holds certain benefits and limitations. Every metaphor only goes so far before it is “stretched too thin” and “breaks.” The metaphor may prove too thin if the programmer declares that the human mind may be “copied” from one host machine to another, arguing that one’s mind may be in two places at the same time.

Testing the limits of metaphors proves to be a helpful imaginative exercise for student and teacher. As the metaphor “stretches,” it can be said that the imagination itself also stretches. The imagination can be called narrow or wide, according to how “far apart” the members of a metaphor stand.[6] As education proceeds and more and more knowledge accumulates, the imagination finds new creative possibilities.[7]


Aristotle, with his “realist” metaphysical commitments, offers a renewed appreciation of the imagination. Whereas Plato denounces the “mimetic,” or “copy,” quality of images as moving further away from the ideal essence of reality, Aristotle has a more positive view on the truth-revealing potential of images. Aristotle’s view of reality differs from Plato’s, primarily in the question of where the essence of an object has its locus. For Platonic philosophy, the truth of reality resides in the transcendent realm of the forms. Aristotle’s realist metaphysics, however, places the essence “within” the physical, sensible object.

An image, for Aristotle, has the capacity to outline and reveal the essence or truth of something, rather than only obscure the radiance of a transcendent idea. Images may thus reveal truth, rather than simply conceal it. Aristotle also repositions the locus of images and the imagination, shifting it away from the external aspect of image as art, toward the interior and psychological understanding of imagination as a faculty of the mind. The psychological imagination still reflects external reality, but it does so now as a kind of mental representation, rather than as a statue or spoken myth.

A mental picture is more fluid and dynamic than the images of the plastic arts. This added dimension of activity and dynamism leads Aristotle to place imagination on a continuum between the “outer” world of sensible things and the “inner” world of reason. This train of thought will continue in the Middle Ages, viewing imagination as a mediator between the material and the spiritual. Aristotle gave broader permissions to trust the workings of the imagination. His focus on the psychological aspect of images, however, reveals new avenues of suspicion.

Some of philosophy’s ambivalence toward imagination stems from the ambiguity of what the term “imagination” means. Whether considered in its Greek (phantasy) or Latin (imaginatio) roots, the word “imagination” can refer to the mind’s ability to “see” mental pictures (images) or to knit together new images in acts of creativity.[8] The first sense is primarily “psychological,” related to the mental operations of remembering a scene from earlier in the day, picturing the consequences of my actions and perceiving objects with the eyes.

These images may be more or less accurate, and errors of imagination are common. It may be that I remember the wrong face for the wrong name, as when meeting several new people at once. In this case, my imagination seems to have failed me, by handing me a false image when I had requested a true one. Such mistakes of imagination are common enough that we easily learn not to trust imagination as an infallible source of information.

Mental images may be true or false, depending on their relation to the concrete, extra-mental realities to which they refer. Our memories are not picture-perfect representations of the past, and when attempting to recall details of a previously witnessed event, imagination assists the memory to “fill in” the missing gaps of an image.

As a psychological, interior faculty, the imagination plays a formative role in the world of dreams. Memories and bodily sensations during sleep feed the imagination with the raw data it needs to construct a clever dream narrative. This creative capacity of the imagination is also at work while reading fiction or appreciating art, when our imaginations help us to become absorbed in the artistic reality.

These latter examples of imagination show the inherent ambiguity of the faculty of imagination. Both aesthetic experience and dreams combine the dual senses of imagination, as simultaneous instances of mental imagery and creative thought. The possibility for falsity in the second, creative sense of imagination is more evident.

Whether imagining fantastic myths of the gods and their dramas, or enjoying the plainer prose of historical fiction, the use of creative imagination entails a rupture between image and reality. This rupture between what I see with my mind’s eye and what I see with my body’s eyes is at the root of many suspicions of imagination’s reliability. In the first case, falsity meant innocent errors of memory, while in the second case, the imagination actively breaks away from reality to posit a new, imaginary reality.


Calling the imagination “false” when it appreciates a work  of fiction may be too strong an accusation; the mind of an imaginative reader does not suffer from any epistemological deficiency. Imagination may be called properly false in cases of hallucination, but only if the sufferer of a false image mistakes the hallucination for reality. Despite the various grades of “falsity,” from the innocuous to the dangerous, the imagination always entails a difference between image and reality.

This difference does not negate the insight that some images may be “more true” than the bare reality that it seems to contradict. The paradox of imagination is the linking of presence and absence, such that the image may communicate and make present some reality that otherwise would be, or seem, absent. The case of fiction and emotions illustrates the point; readers of poetry or emotionally charged prose may “imagine” emotional responses to events that did not actually occur to them. These emotional reactions may feel quite “real,” whether by virtue of their intensity or the potential they hold for educating the heart.

Young people who read about love may be more wise and “experienced” in matters of the heart than their peers who do not invest themselves so deeply in an imaginary world. Readers must maintain the difference between imagined and real emotion, however, since fictional romance is not a substitute for personal relationships. The “danger” of imagination in this case, as above, is to mistake the image for the reality, as if it were an adequate substitute for reality. If the reader keeps a safe distance between imagination and reality, however, s/he may reap the rewards of literary emotional education later in life.

Plausible historical fiction and impossible fantasy myth share the common feature of picturing reality as it is not, at least not as it is right now, not factually or literally. The danger of creative imagination rests, ironically, not on “letting the imagination have its sway,” but rather on not giving the imagination enough space. One may deny the imagination adequate “space” by making unimaginative, literalistic interpretations of images, i.e., taking the images as real.

The less-imaginative readers are more likely to confuse reality with fantasy, while the highly imaginative readers may have minds broad enough to hold several (contradictory) positions at once. If memories may be proven false, the danger is not in having memories, but in trusting all memories as if they were infallible. A person who cannot accept the limitations of memory might easily succumb to all sorts of error without realizing it.

The same is more evident in the case of one who cannot distinguish between an imagined world and the objective world as shared by his companions. Hallucinations are possible, even if they are not common occurrences for every mind; the danger of these false mental images, likewise, rests on a person’s inability or refusal to distinguish mental imagery from verifiable sense perception. One of Plato’s great problems with imagination in the Republic rests on the artist’s ability to fool some people into believing that artistic representations are, in fact, the reality they represent.[9]

At a distance, it may be possible for someone to mistake a sculpture for an actual person, and this type of illusion suggests to Plato that images are generally unreliable. With such evidence bearing against the faculty of imagination, it would seem that philosophy would have easily discarded it from the repertoire of truth-seeking tools. Plato and Aristotle, however, could neither wholeheartedly reject nor endorse imagination, in either its recollective or productive senses.

The truth-value of creative imagery does not rest so much on the image’s correspondence to “actual reality,” but on another set of criteria. As indicated above, every metaphor has a “breaking point,” beyond which it is unhelpful and untruthful; however, within the tenable bounds of the image, there are creative, imaginative truths. It should be noted that metaphors, analogies and other literary or rhetorical devices do not necessarily require “mental images” to operate.

The simile, “my love is like a red red rose,” surely relies on mental images, but this is not required by the nature of simile. The modified simile, “my love is like a melody,” conjures not so much a specific image, but more likely either an “imagined” sound, or more abstractly, a mental concept of melody in general, which has no sound. To understand any of these more abstract or “imageless” literary devices, we need to expand our notion of what counts as image and imagination.

Metaphors and analogies are common and necessary in everyday language. Even when not engaged in the enjoyment of fiction, the mind is occupied with other, creative uses of imagination. The philosophy of language has studied this property of metaphor, analogy and simile rather fruitfully.[10]

A mental image such as a memory may be judged as more or less accurate, depending on its degree of correspondence to reality. The same type of measure proves inadequate in judging the truth or falsity of creative works of art or fiction, and their imaginative enjoyment. Poetry and novels may be true in a different sense than memories or sense impressions, despite their apparent incongruity with objective states of affairs.

The truth of art is an example of the truth of the creative imagination, whether it is employed to create paintings and sculptures or metaphors and analogies. It is perhaps difficult to locate the appropriate method of judging the truth of a creative imagination, although persons regularly and readily judge that this piece of art is “true,” or that metaphor is “revealing.” The ability to judge a metaphor’s truth seems to rest on the image’s correspondence to the hidden, or absent, reality it is meant to illuminate.

Metaphors about spiritual matters can be judged as true or false only if there is some form of contact with the hidden side of the metaphor. The metaphor may be judged on how well it mediates this hidden reality, and makes it present and “visible” to the mind; a metaphor lends its earthly clothing to other-worldly realities. The truth of imagination depends, according to this metaphor, on how well the clothes “fit” the ghost.


Both priest and philosopher stand between two worlds as mediators and communicators between ordinary life and transcendental reality. The priest celebrates the sacraments, those mysterious moments when the marriage of heaven and earth is glimpsed, as when bread becomes flesh. The philosopher, even if s/he resists being compared to a priest, likewise stands apart to announce that ordinary reality is anything but ordinary.[11]

There are many ways of being priest and philosopher, and many practitioners of each craft would minimize these romantic and imaginative portrayals. Priests who identify more strongly with servant-leader images than cultic-mediator models of priesthood, nonetheless, proclaim by their actions with equal poetry that the homeless and the poor are members of the Body of Christ, thereby employing a spiritual metaphor with social consequences.

The majority method of philosophy in the English-speaking world is traditionally more pragmatic and scientific than its continental counterpart, which might more readily identify itself with the romantic description. American philosophers of science and politics, however, also rely on a notion of the world as far more complex and nuanced than they would allow popular culture to imagine. Without a positive appreciation of the faculty of imagination, none of this is possible.

The medieval theories of imagination rely on the classical dualisms between flesh and spirit, placing imagination in the middle, as mediator between interior reason and exterior sensation. An apt symbol of this role is found in a text of Richard of St. Victor, in which the imagination is portrayed as the handmaid that travels back and forth between the inner chamber (of reason and contemplation) where the mistress lives and the outside world (of body and sensation).[12]

The mistress is occupied with the higher and purer realities of contemplative prayer, intent on gazing upon the invisible God. The mistress, however, requires the assistance of her handmaid, even though she is often disturbed by her ministrations, since she chatters and interrupts her prayers with reports from the outside world of sensation. The imagination performs a mediating function, going back and forth between sense and reason, while not being either fully sensible or rational. The paradox of the imagination rests on this in-between status.

This in-between notion of the imagination fuels the basic premise of the imagination’s important function in faith and reason. Using a faith metaphor, the imagination is a kind of bridge between flesh and spirit, and as such, the imagination is incarnational and Christological. To use a rational metaphor, the imagination stands between disembodied pure concepts, which are timeless and unchanging, and the sensible world of becoming, without which reason would have nothing on which to reflect. It is appropriate, therefore, to consider the imagination as a tool shared between priests and philosophers.

Both priest and philosopher need a vast and flexible imagination to learn and practice their vocations. From its first instance, faith formation relies on the imagination of both the proclaimer and the hearer of the Good News. Sacred Scripture begins and ends with fantastic accounts of the creation and re creation of the world, as exemplified in the image-rich books of Genesis and Revelation.

Philosophy, too, has its images and stories. Apart from the contradictory use of myths in philosophy, which was said to transcend mythos in favor of logos, myth in favor of rational discourse, philosophy nonetheless demands the operation of the imagination.[13] Although ideas may be imagined as purely “ideal,” the human thinker is nonetheless undeniably enmeshed in the physical world. The imagination works as a kind of arbiter or mediator between two worlds, linking the material (an image) with the immaterial (a meaning). Without their imaginations, neither teachers nor students of philosophy or theology would travel far on the road to truth and wisdom.


The question of imagination’s truth-value rests largely on the epistemological and metaphysical commitments of the various philosophies in question. The ancient and medieval philosophies of imagination, whether tending toward idealism or realism, shared the common view that the imagination was a kind of mirror, and images were a reflection of reality. Even in the case of creative or metaphorical images, the raw materials of these imaginings came from “outside” the self and were understood as representations and products of external objects.

The shift in thinking from medieval to modern philosophy brought about radical differences in metaphysics and epistemology. With Descartes’ systematic doubt of all sense perception, all received opinions and the reality of any appearance beyond the thinking self of the cogito, reality was, methodically and albeit temporarily, reduced to the internal musings of the individual. It took rigorous logic and reliance on a truthful God to bring Descartes out of solipsism and dream-reality into the broader world again.[14]

One cannot help but wonder if some traces of methodical doubt remain in modern philosophy, and in our present culture, such that at any moment the world may collapse again into the mental confines of the individual thinker. The epistemological development of methodical doubt that uncovers the bedrock of the individual’s mind brought with it a lingering metaphysical suspicion of external reality in general. The imagination can no longer be conceived strictly as a “mirror” of external reality, if perhaps that external reality is nothing more than my own mental projection.

Kant typifies the modern development by raising human imagination from reality’s counterfeit to reality’s author. Whereas the imagination in ancient and medieval philosophy was subsequent to the prior givenness of the sensible world, and acted as a “storehouse” of mental images already received, in Kant’s system, “transcendental” imagination becomes the pre-condition for all knowledge.

Rather than the imagination or the mind in general being formed and shaped by the external world, Kant’s reflection on the operations of pure reason lead him to conclude that human subjectivity pre-conditions all sensory impressions. All knowledge of the external world is first mental and, in some sense, “imaginary.” The Kantian revolution placed the human mind at the center of reality, even as the creator of reality and meaning. Subsequent modern philosophers will take these ideas to their logical conclusions.

Kant himself seemed ambivalent about granting the imagination such authority over all reality; he attempted to check the fancy of imagination with the dictates of reason. His followers in German idealism and, later, romanticism and existentialism seemingly felt no such constraint. The modern imagination begins to take on the qualities of a deity; imagination is omnipotent to create the world as it sees fit; imagination is omniscient and capable of revealing all truth, for it is the source of truth; and imagination is omnipresent in that it occupies and illuminates every corner of the world that the human mind would want to know.


Despite the grand apotheosis of the imagination in modern philosophy, the adjective “imaginary” remains synonymous with “illusory” in contemporary culture. The humanist, romantic promise of imagination creating utopian systems of government has fallen woefully short. The existentialist promise of the imagination’s ability to negate a false-self and create a new world of freedom has likewise proven ineffectual. The post-modern fascination with “deconstruction” undermines the modern notion of the imagination as a productive and “original” source of meaning and truth. Whereas modern philosophy undermined the potential of the imagination to faithfully mirror reality, post modern philosophy prevents the imagination from positing any original reality.

The post-modern imagination is more removed from reality than even Plato’s cave shadows. The shadows on the cave wall at least had a definite pedigree, and some family resemblance could be discerned between divine idea, natural object and human image. Imagination, for post-moderns, has become again a kind of mirror, but instead of mirroring objective reality, imagination mirrors another mirror. There is no longer any discernible origin; everything is a copy of a copy, and there is no original by which to judge and compare an image as true or false.

In such a worldview, the imagination is neither reliable to reveal reality nor free to posit an arbitrary reality. The imagination, as such, begins to disappear and the question of its truth-value is rendered moot; without any criterion to judge truth, the paradox of the imagination as straddling two poles of a dualism likewise evaporates.

The post-modern worldview is not the final word, nor is it the only model available to contemporary thinkers. It is possible to maintain modern, medieval and ancient philosophical positions as perennially valid, even in a broader post-modern context. The community of the faithful operates according to a number of possible philosophies and wide variations of theology; there is no single ultimate philosophy or any single theological pronouncement that could exhaust the mystery of Trinity, Christ and Church. The task of theology and philosophy continues ad infinitum. The question remains for contemporary thinkers, in light of the long history of thought: how can the imagination be helpful and trustworthy in the life of faith and reason?

Despite the lingering possibility of modern doubt and post-modern deconstruction of all truth-claims, there remains an inner sense that guides us toward helpful and instructive imagining. At the risk of employing circular logic, the ability to judge the imagination depends on the ability to employ and broaden the imagination; the imagination assists in its own defense.

For situations that require literal-mindedness, the imagination retreats into the background, even while the mind is always calling on it in various ways. As problems that are more abstract arise in the developing mind, such as the questions of the meaning of life and the nature of being, the imagination becomes more and more responsible.


The problem of biblical interpretation serves as an illustrative case study on the development of the imagination. As a familiar and oversimplified example, the account of the six days of the world’s creation in Genesis, Chapter 1, bears a multitude of interpretations. Here it is helpful to concentrate only on the detail of the six days and their duration in time. If the story is taken to be literally true, then one may argue that the world was indeed created in six days, or 144 hours. This interpretation requires little by way of imagination, since there is a simple 1:1 correspondence between the facts of the story and the facts of reality. The literal interpretation creates a fantastic imagined scene of creation.

Despite the wonder of this imaginative exercise, the mind can be stretched further. When pressed to reconsider this interpretation, scholars and laymen alike have stretched their minds to imagine that perhaps one day in the story represents 1,000 years in reality, as suggested by the poetry of Psalm 90, verse 4, where “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past” (NRSV). The interpreter has stretched his/her imagination from 1:1 to 1:1,000.

The imagination may be stretched further, as in the interpretation that “day” in Genesis 1 need not refer to a period of time at all, but may refer instead to God’s orderly intentions, with the rubric of days standing in for every other kind of orderly system. In this instance, the imagination has been stretched from 1:1 to 1:X; or, in other words, “day” may mean almost anything that represents the idea of orderly creation.

At this point, a wonderful and disturbing event may occur in the mind of the previously literal-minded exegete. The basic laws of reason and logic may appear to bend and break before the power of the imagination, whereas once “A is A,” to state the principle of identity, for the more imaginative, now “A is B,” and even “A is A, and A is B, and A is C.” This stretching of the imagination has disturbed the previously logical and rational rules of reason and truth, even while it may wonderfully expose the mind to deeper and richer deposits of truth.

The danger of such a disturbance is allayed, however, not by denying the imagination its space, but by expanding the imagination even more, although within certain bounds. The expanded mind of the increasingly imaginative thinker should be able to accommodate not only the metaphorical truths on the order of “A is B,” but also the literal and rational truths of “A is A” (the principle of identity) and “A is not B” (the principle of non-contradiction).

A restricted mind might only accept what was logically true, while the imaginative mind may accept both literal and poetic truth as equally valid.[15] There are certain helpful boundaries for the imagination, however; one should learn not to mistake the poetic for the logical, but rather to recognize each type of truth according to its own internal meaning.[16]

The imagination has many sides, and each of the philosophies sketched here has focused on one or more of these facets. No definitive image has captured the imagination in its essence. Several images have been suggested: mirror, storehouse of images, intermediary handmaid, producer of worlds, etc. Many images are necessary to grasp the imagination, and more metaphors are always possible.

It is possible from this vantage point to suggest a helpful hermeneutic for the responsible exercise of the imagination. From Plato, we learn that images should not be confused with the objects they represent. The risk of exercising the imagination is that the line between fact and fantasy may be blurred. This risk is perhaps overstated for those who are in little danger of succumbing to delusion. A more subtle, but likewise dangerous, risk is present, however, whenever someone rigidly holds onto a single image, as if this single image were perfectly adequate to represent another reality.

The nature of the imagination as both present and absent, both concealing and revealing, means that every flight of imagination is only partial. No single image can capture either an abstract concept or a mysterious transcendence. Philosophers make us a multitude of images to explore even the simplest abstract concepts. When the mind is fixed on a single image, then the deficiencies of that image become more and more problematic. Since every metaphor has a “breaking point” beyond which the image should not be stretched, a mind fixed on a single image will likely transgress this boundary.

As the mind seeks to explore more and more aspects of a hidden reality, it needs a multitude of tools and images to be convincingly successful. Any single image taken as if it were whole and complete in itself becomes no longer an icon into the hidden world, but an idol that disfigures the very reality it was meant to convey.[17]

By holding images lightly, and always seeking new images, the seeker of truth, the seeker of God, may use the imagination fruitfully. A responsible imagination does not mistake the image for the reality, even when that reality has no other clothes than imagination’s wardrobe.

  1. Common idioms reveal this bias against the imagination: “I must have imagined it,” meaning that I made a mistake; “Just a myth,” meaning that imaginative explanations are only placeholders for truly scientific explanations of reality; “A mere metaphor,” meaning that imaginative analogies are only rhetorical devices that do not reveal essential truths.
  2. Kearney, Richard, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).
  3. Plato, The Republic, 514a-517a.
  4. Plato, The Republic, 514c.
  5. Plato, The Republic, 510d-510e, as quoted in Kearney, Wake, 100.
  6. It is perhaps less of a stretch to compare the human mind to a computer than to imagine that the body is a ship, and the mind is its captain (this was one of Descartes’ imaginative descriptions of the soul/body relationship).
  7. This is one of the hallmarks of a “liberal arts” education, since science, history, philosophy, the arts and mathematics are all studied in tandem, allowing and encouraging a variety of imaginative connections.
  8. See Roger Scruton, “Imagination,” in A Companion to Aesthetics, 2nd ed., ed. Stephen Davies and others (Chichester, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 346.
  9. Plato, The Republic, 598b.
  10. See for example, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  11. On the comparison of philosophers and priests, see William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 39ff.
  12. Kearney, Wake, 119.
  13. The philosophical science of symbolic logic, with its mathematical formulae, requires of its students the ability to imagine concrete meanings underlying abstract ciphers. More familiarly, philosophers of mind and philosophers of science ask their readers to join them in imaginative “thought experiments,” such as the “brain in a vat” or “evil genius” images. Since philosophy tends to deal in abstractions and otherwise intangible matters, metaphors and analogies become indispensable tools.
  14. It may be argued that Descartes, and all of modern philosophy, remains somehow trapped inside the thinking subject.
  15. It is possible, however, to err on the side of the imagination, by disallowing logical truth in favor of poetic truth. This error of the imagination, again, is mitigated by expanding the imagination to include rational truth, rather than applying a kind of limitation on the imagination.
  16. The Christian belief in the compatibility of faith and reason suggests, a fortiori, that poetry and logic are also ultimately reconcilable. Advances in contemporary science make this argument rather compelling, although that discussion is beyond the scope of this present study.
  17. This distinction between icon and idol is inspired by the work of Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance: Five Studies (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001).


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Catholic Imagination by Fr. Thomas Gricoski, OSB is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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