Descartes and imagination

Annie asked:

How does Descartes distinguish imagination from intellection?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question, especially for our present-day environment, which tends to overstress the virtues of imagination while ignoring that imagination without discipline is not worth a crumb.

For us, this is a legacy of the post-Enlightenment era, which associated imagination with creative genius. But in Descartes’ day, imagination carried denotations like “unreliable fancies”, “sloppy/ lazy thinking”, “featherbrained ideas” etc. For example, Bacon castigates the role of imagination in what he called “idols of the mind”; Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels constantly uses the word alternatively for “fancy”; Samuel Johnson copulates imagination with a “fancy way of thinking”; for Pope it manifested the idealisations of fancies vs the humdrum of public affairs; for Dryden fancy, imagination and wit are synonyms of each other.

Descartes shared this downgraded view and says that “[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” (Discourse 6:37). He goes on to say that he himself used to suffer from this tendency to sloppy or lazy thinking before he established his Rules for the direction of the mind and discarded this negative thinking behaviour.

Having identified sensation and emotion as the energisers of imagination, the next logical step for him was to exalt the res cogitans to the status of a purely intellectual, hence emotionless and imaginationless faculty that handles only such matters as are “clear and distinct perceptions (to thinking)” and in every way “indubitable”. These are in the main mathematical, methodical, measurable features of the world (e.g. an object can only be verified to exist if it exhibits geometrical features like length, depth and breadth). He also includes some matters of his faith, like God; but we have to take these on board, since he was after all a willing subject of the catholic religion.

For more depth on this question, I urge you to read the Discourse on Method. It is a wonderful little book, less than 100 pages, so you can read in a day. And he explains all these issues in far superior prose to mine, therefore a pleasure rather than a chore.

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