In philosophy, the imagination has traditionally been likened to a faculty or agent, but these metaphors fail to capture the pure activity of imagination, which is the simple generation of images. The imagination is perfectly indistinguishable from the movement of images ‘within’ it. Instead of asking what the imagination is, then, we should ask what the imagination does, which is to say we should consider the dynamics implicit in every act of imagining (or imaging) as it unfolds through experience.
Images allow the body to make sense of its life-world, which is both contextually situated and continually in transformation. Imagining in this way relates us to our environment, which is co-constituted by this very same image-making capacity of the body. Imaginative acts are therefore both creative and ecological.
Now let us fold this dual aspect of imagination back upon itself by asking what kinds of ecologies have contributed to our “commonsense” image of creativity. Let us explore how this image of creativity has evolved in response to perturbations across shifting social, cultural and historical contingencies.
When philosophers of science debate the nature of Nature, they ask: is there purpose in her creativity, or is it all simply blind elaboration caught on the wings of time, a blithering mechanistic meander along the tracks of cosmological law?
Naturalists argue that the universe came into existence ‘by accident’ and was certainly not created or designed. As for life on Earth, it is merely the product of natural selection, survival of the fittest, and the only function or ‘purpose’ of biological processes is in terms of their capacity to increase reproductive success. Teleological views on the other hand attribute various degrees of purpose to the forms of nature, ranging from Aristotle’s belief in the innate thrust of an organism to achieve its own potential (its entelechy) to contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel’s speculations on the inevitability of consciousness in an ever-evolving cosmos.
While natural scientists explain everything that happens in the present by relating it back to the past, teleological thinkers hang their hat on a pre-existing tendency in the universe to explain why events occur in the way they do. For the scientist, states of affairs in the world are the effect of a long chain of past causes – present events are ‘causally contingent’ on events that pre-determine them. But for the teleologist, the evolving universe is drawn towards an inevitable future by pre-ordained, inviolable, and perhaps unknowable laws.
On closer examination, both images weave a subtle thread of fatalism which denies not just nature’s invention, but also the human freedom to will and, de facto, to create. There is no room for ingenuity in either view, if by ‘ingenuity’ we mean the introduction into the world of genuinely unforeseeable novelty. There is ‘nothing new under the sun’, as the Biblical saying goes, ‘free will’ is but an illusion, and so-called creativity is merely a very complicated game of imitation, as Plato adamantly believed.
Plato’s slight against artists and artistic creativity was predicated on his theory of Ideas – a realm of unchanging, abstract Forms said to exist beyond the senses which allowed the philosopher to explain the relations between things and solve ‘the problem of Universals’. Under this image, worldly appearances are imperfect copies of the eternal Forms and therefore subject to decay, placing the truth-seeking artist at a faraway second remove, forever doomed to make copies of copies.
Plato’s reliance on the concept of imitation was not unprecedented. Personal claims to originality were almost unheard of before the reality of the senses had fallen under suspicion among ancient thinkers. For the pre-Socratics, the only ‘creator’ of sorts was the poet (poietes means ‘maker’) in the sense that poetry (poiesis) unveiled something about the world by directing one’s attention towards it.
Prior to 200BC, the concept of the private ownership of images had yet to be established; poetic images weren’t created out of nought to be declared intellectual property, but ‘discovered’ as objective parts of the cosmos, just as divine constellations could be traced with a finger in the night sky. ‘Artistic inspiration’ simply descended from feminine Muses as divine gifts from the gods, an image that Plato disliked on political grounds but which nevertheless persisted in theistic form right through the Judaeo-Christian era and which finds its modern equivalent in personal attribution and the symbol of copyright: ©. How, then, did the idea of divine inspiration transform into the more contemporary notion of authentic self-expression?