Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.09

Thomas Dewender, Thomas Welt, Imagination - Fiktion - Kreation. Das kulturschaffende Vermögen der Phantasie.   München-Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2003.  Pp. 407.  ISBN 3-598-73010-1.  €98.00.  

Contributors: Burkhard Mojsisch, Hubertus Busche, Irmgard Männlein-Robert, Thomas Welt, Dirk Cürsgen, Rüdiger Arnzen, Thomas Dewender, Christel Meier, Franz Lebsanft, Stefanie Zaun, John P. Doyle, Daniela Watzke, Christophe Losfeld, Jörn Steigerwald, Orrin F. Summerell, Egbert Witte, Holger Wille, Ralf Hinz

Reviewed by Dionysios Chalkomatas, University of Heidelberg (
Word count: 3282 words

This is a collection of essays of the multidisciplinary research team "Imagination und Kultur" at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. The contributors to the volume are either members of the team or invited contributors. The interdisciplinary potential is impressive: Classics, Romance Philology, Ancient, Medieval and Modern Philosophy, History of Medicine, History of Education, German History and Philology, Cultural History, Anthropology, Sociology, Geometry, Physics. It should be noted that the subtitle of the book ("The culture-creating craft of Imagination") does not correspond wholly to its contents, since, as explained later, this is only the first phase of the research project, the main focus of which is the investigation of the conceptual complexity of imagination. The orientation towards the history of the German terms "Phantasie" (engl. "fantasy") and "Imagination" (engl. "imagination") follows the historical, cultural and scientific paths, through which both terms were transferred from antiquity to modern times. The reader gets a well-balanced overview of the development of the concept of imagination -- a word signifying anything from the result of perceptional activity, to the reproductive function of the human mind, to an inspiring, reality-creating force, independent of all perception. Though some papers may appear to a non-specialist reader frustrating due to their very special interests, there is much to be gained e.g. from the contributions to ancient philosophy, and this is certainly a book that will find its (surely not only German) appreciating readers.

The first paper by Burkhard Mojsisch explores the relationship between doxa and phantasia in Plato's Sophistes and Theaetetus according to the Philosophy of Language. Doxa no longer defines an illusory or unreal opinion, as Parmenides believed, but an "unexpressed statement in its isolatedness"; judgement is an inner assertion and an idea of something (Theaet. 190a 4). Each such assertion is to be questioned as being true or false on the dialectic basis of the six kinds or formal elements of being (Soph. 255e 8-257a 12 and 263e 3ff for "dialogue"): rest, motion, sameness, otherness, being and dialogue. "Dialogue" is to be understood as "dianoia", that is, as thinking both in rest (as inner) and in motion (as thinking expressed in concrete terms): this has to mean that the accomplishment of thinking is thinking itself or that thinking, in order to perform and to achieve itself, has to assume nothing else than itself. M. speaks rightfully at this point about the "Unhintergehbarkeit", the No-going-back-beyond of all thinking dependent of language, that is of thinking altogether. The dialectic examination, which the six kinds impose, leads to a perspectivic conception of reality as being and potentially non-being and finds its reasonable outcome in operating with "signs" (Plato ibid. 261e 5 and 262a 6 calls them δηλώματα and σημεῖα), while producing sentences. Thus it opens the way for "possibility" ("Möglichkeit") as a characteristic of thinking (but M. is careful enough to note that Plato did not speak explicitly on the matter).

The paper of Hubertus Busche "Die Aufgaben der phantasia nach Aristoteles" is one of the most lucidly written essays of the volume. After a clarification of the middle position of phantasia between perception (αἴσθησις) and thought (νόησις), B. challenges the viewpoints of W. D. Ross (Aristotle, London 1923) and M. C. Nussbaum (Aristotle's De motu animalium, Princeton 1978) that phantasia acts as an interpretation, as if it were a noetic purification of the crude and low perceptions of the "passive" senses. B. emphasizes the role of the "common-sense" (κοινὸν αἰσθητήριον) and the unity of perceptional awareness: the senses do not act mechanically or in a passive way but in collaboration with the inner "common-sense", which brings into consciousness the time and space differences between two percepted objects of high similarity. The close connection of perception to phantasia is most clearly depicted in the five grades of imagination, of which the first two are called "spontaneous", while the other three are subjected directly to human will: reproduction of perceptions, combination of perceptions, reconstruction of perceptions, concrete imagination, abstract imagination.

Irmgard Männlein-Robert deals with Phidias as the model of the original and creative artist, a model familiar in the Hellenistic, Roman and Late Antiquity aesthetic theories of art production. The author bases her well-researched treatment on a number of ancient texts, starting with Callimachus and ending with Plotinus. Central importance is given naturally to Philostratus VA 6, 19, 256 and Cicero orat. 8-10. Although one may find no harm in the opinion that Cicero's text appears more strictly philosophical in its diction than Philostratus' (though Cicero also speaks here very personally and as usual informally), one may be prone to reject the author's conclusion that the Ciceronian mimesis is the mimesis of a transcendental idea (in contrast to Philostratus, whose mimesis imitates only earthly objects) and therefore a "positive" and a "higher" one; this is problematic because mimesis in general presupposes a perceptible object, which is not the case in Cicero's text, where the artist through acquired experience (cf. "imago", "formae", "figurae" etc -- the half-Stoic art-theoretical terminology, which M.-R. in her Platonizing exegesis leaves uncommented) possesses the object already totally in his mind. The concept of "negative" mimesis, which is really not "negative" but only insufficient for high art and to be superseded by imagination, exists not only in Philostratus, as M.-R. asserts, but also in Cicero (cf. "nec vero ille artifex ... contemplabatur aliquem e quo similitudinem duceret"). But these observations cannot diminish the importance of this contribution, which is endowed with many brilliant and learned points.

In an excellent essay Thomas Welt shows how in late Neoplatonism the close interrelation between perception and fantasy represented by Aristotle was interpreted and developed in such a way, as to disconnect fantasy in its receptive role from perception and bring it close to imagination as production of thought. The beginnings of this process are to be discerned already in Aristotle's "De anima" and include the spontaneity and fallibility of fantasy, its automatic capacity to give things dimensions of space and time, as well as its central role in the formation of memory. Alexander of Aphrodisias brings forth the self-reflexivity of perception and the Stoic conception of thought-"remnants" of perception-activity as the basis of productive fantasy. Plotinus represents a Platonic-Stoic-Aristotelian model, which gives priority to soul as a perceptive organ; fantasy becomes a perceptor and store-keeper no longer of sense-perceptions but of thoughts. Ps.-Philoponus ("De anima") locates the "common-sense" in the spirit (πνεῦμα) and subjects the five senses to it; fantasy is defined as νοῦς παθητικός, in which a receptive and a productive moment are combined. Fantasy can lead through anagogical process to the Divine. Finally for Ps.-Simplicius fantasy is much more "active" than perception and thus an indispensable function of the soul.

Dirk Cürsgen presents Damascius' henological conception of fantasy. For this Neoplatonic commentator, fantasy is gnosiological and psychological, i.e., noetic, function which comes only after perception is rejected. On the contrary, as image-scanner of dianoia and as operating primarily with forms and symbols, fantasy can link sensory with non-sensory, being and becoming ("Sein und Werden"). In the second part of his paper, C. makes some insightful remarks on the φανταζόμενον ἕν, the Imaginary One, which by virtue of its ontological capacity and intermittency between being and non-being brings in identification with one-another such diverse productions of the mind as perceptions, imaginings and opinions. C. meets here Mojsisch's "possibility".

With Rüdiger Arnzen's essay on the concept of imagination in the mathematical and geometrical theories of Proclus and the Arab commentators of Euclid Al-Farabi and Ibn Al-Haytham we move from antiquity to the Middle Ages. Do geometrical shapes or figures represent concrete objects of knowledge or do they exist ontologically abstract and independent from the empirical world? Kant observed that whereas philosophical cognition proceeds inductively, that is with the help of separate thoughts, mathematical cognition goes the deductive way, as it always starts from one synthetic judgement a priori, which A. calls "transcendental scheme". The essay is largely an attempt to prove that this way of thinking is deeply rooted in (late) antiquity. Already Plato had assumed that in order to grasp geometrical intellegibilia it is necessary to study dialectically the presuppositions of geometrical sensibilia; on his part Aristotle had tried to solve the problem (not in a very satisfactory way, as A. persuasively argues) through the assumption of the parameter of dimensionality for his concept of geometry. Proclus adopts the Platonic differentiation and develops it by giving fantasy an aprioric critical position in judgements concerning the relation between transcendental and material objects. This was analyzed further by the medieval Arabs.

Thomas Dewender concentrates his research interest on the medieval reception of Aristotle's concept of phantasia. Aristotle's "common-sense" κοινὴ αἴσθησις is developed via Galen and the Neoplatonics to Augustine's concept of the "interior sense" ("sensus interior"), a concept which has left its traces in the theories of Boethius and Scotus Eriugena. Avicenna's model of five senses -- fantasy or common-sense, storing imagination, combining imagination, assessing imagination and reminiscent imagination -- was most important and most influential in the development of Aristotle's theory of post-perceptive noetic functions into an autonomous theory of imagination. The additions and innovations to this model by Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, John of Jandun, John Buridan and Francisco Suárez give a lot of cultural information about late Middle Ages and the early modern era.

Christel Meier is concerned with the same historical and cultural milieu. In her precise but dense paper, she treats the theories of imagination developed by encyclopedists such as Constantinus Africanus, Honorius Augustodunensis, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Vincentius of Beauvais, and Johann Heinrich Alsted.

Franz Lebsanft explores the role of imagination as a spiritual issue in fifteenth century Spain with the help of the religious treatise "Oracional a Fernán Pérez", written by Alonso de Cartagena (1454-1456). In this work imagination represents the intellectual and spiritual path from the material to the transcendental world. This is largely illustrated with what appears to be a sort of allegory (called "metaphor" by L.): the material world is a kind of wall-tapestry or a text on which hunting scenes are depicted; hunting stands for the intellectual search in the higher world of the spirit.

Stefanie Zaun writes about the influence of current theories of imagination on the medical treatises "Practica dicta Lilium medicinae" and "Liber Prognosticorum" by the medieval author Bernardus Gordonius (ca. 1258-1318/20). After some remarks on the author and the structure of the treatises Z. gives an introduction to the complicated imagination theory of Gordonius. Surely of much more interest are the second and third parts of Z.'s study which concern causes, symptoms and therapy of illnesses related to the imagination. One may be excited to learn why the first cell of the brain, which contained the perceptive faculties of the mind, was considered as "hot and damp" and was thought responsible for such phenomens as sleepwalking, nightmares, or bed-wetting, but surprisingly not for lovesickness, which was associated with disruptions of judgement.

John P. Doyle deals with the relationship of fantastic objects ("Gedankendinge"), such as chimeras, centaurs, goat-stags and golden mountains to imagination in the Jesuitic theories of the seventeenth century. Beginning with Aristotle, many ancient and medieval authors (including Thomas Aquinas) referred to them as something that can be thought and imagined but not considered as really being. Averroes was the first to note that despite their imaginary character, chimeras and goat-stags fell within the category of "veritable being" ("ens veridicans"), as they consist of two existing intellectual objects. Francisco Suárez pointed to the fact that fantastic objects come as a result of accumulated perceptions. The later Jesuit teachers, logicians and theologians Pedro Hurtado de Mendoza, Martin Smiglecki, Rodrigo de Arriaga, Francisco de Oviedo, Bartolomeo d'Amici, Thomas Compton Carleton, Georges de Rhodes, Jan Morawski, and others are briefly discussed in the later part of the paper.

Daniela Watzke describes the history of a concept of imagination which was influential over centuries: imagination as a process of the mind that can possibly affect body parts or functions such as the spinal marrow, the central nervous system and pregnancy. While in antiquity imaginative activity was taken into account as a positive factor (e.g., looking at beautiful statues and pictures during copulation or pregnancy was considered to increase the possibilities for eugenesis), imagination in the Middle Ages and early modern era was thought responsible for causing pestilence and monstrous births. Following these remarks, the author dedicates the larger part of her essay to the theories of three brain-anatomists, Thomas Willis (1621-1675), Ernst Anton Nicolai (1722-1802) and Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813). Willis drew attention to the interaction between brain and nervous system during sleep, while Nicolai by the same means tried to show that offspring inherit some of their mothers' disposition through blood circulation; Nicolai accepted imagination as a therapeutic method as well. Reil rejected the idea that nerves were fluid-transporting and discovered their stimulus-structure; after him imagination was associated no more with physiology but with psychology.

Christophe Losfeld concentrates on the role of imagination in the development of modern theories of education in France from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. In the first part of his paper L. gives an account of the opinions on imagination of two influential theological groups, the Jesuits and the Jansenists. A short treatment is also given to the so-called Rhetoricians ("Oratorianer"). Under the influence of Cartesian rationalism all three of these groups reject imagination as a source of errors and passions. In the works of Condillac and Diderot imagination recovers its former status as a reproductive and abstractive faculty of the mind. However in his theory of education Diderot preferred mathematics and physics, that is, subjects that cultivate rational thinking, to rhetoric and poetics, subjects that operate directly with intuitive thinking. It is amazing to read in the later part of the essay how this rationalistic bias against imaginings was further developed by Rousseau, who believed that children should learn not to let "false" imaginations meddle with their perceptions. Children should not learn history either, because it politicizes them too early and keeps them away from nature.

Jörn Steigerwald indicates in his prolog that in respect of modern concepts of imagination it is always better to differentiate between diverse cultural fields, such as medicine, anthropology and ethics. His paper, suggestively entitled "Phantasia in utero", concerns the part that imagination has played in the cultural and anthropological change from the "one-sex-model" to the "two-sex-model", that is, in the constitution of modern femininity. He begins with Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis's "Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme" (1802), which uses the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Pierre Roussel about the social role of women, that is, the superiority of men over them based on intellectual (feminine imagination was then widely mistrusted) and social reasons. Roussel's "Système physique et morale de la femme" (1775), an important work in the history of modern anthropology, owes its decisive reflections to three earlier thinkers and scientists, Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734) and his idea of woman as "sanguinic beauty", Théophile de Bordeu (1722-1776) and his theory of body as cell-tissue, and Buffon's "degénération", which claims that female imagination is fed so much on natural "coquetterie" and passive vanity that it renders its owners incapable of social engagement. The last part of the essay is dedicated to D. T. Bienville's "La Nymphomanie" (1771).

In one of the most learned and interesting essays of the volume Orrin F. Summerell introduces us to young Schelling's commentary on the Platonic "Timaeus" (1794). The first part ("Phantasie als Versinnlichung der Idee") serves to explain Schelling's concept of imagination as the faculty of the mind which, through deployment of mythical readings of the world, "historicizes" in some way the philosophical contents of the cosmological principle of Idea and helps make it accessible to perception ("Versinnlichung der Idee"). In the second part of the paper S. gives a precise picture of the concepts of imagination in German Enlightenment (the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the Kantian thinkers Karl Leonhard Reinhold and Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann are especially considered). While Kant had separated sensuousness ("Sinnlichkeit") and reasonable thinking ("Verstand"), there was a strong tendency to regard soul as an intellectual entity. Schelling for his part was particularly influenced by Tennemann's (and, I would argue, Hamann's) theory of the "spontaneous and freely productive imagination" as evidence for the unity of soul. With the help of Platonic and Middle-Platonic texts Schelling came to believe that the Ideas ultimately possessed a rational structure: no Idea can exist that cannot be mentally comprehended. According to Schelling, a subject projects itself necessarily always on an object, so that there can be no objective thoughts and "the rational soul subjectively generates the Idea of the World" ("die Vernunft die Idee der Welt subjektiv erzeugt").

Egbert Witte discusses the interrelation between education ("Bildung") and imagination ("Imagination") in modern times. He marks out five cultural "fields of discourse": (a) the medieval theory of education "ad imaginem Dei" in Meister Eckhart and others, whereby W. finds a basically ontological conception of education as self-deification and attunement to nature (known also to such modern philosophers as Max Scheler); (b) the medical (Paracelsus), later mental (J. F. Blumenbach, Kant, W. von Humboldt), theory of education as a physical or intellectual impulse towards self-organization; (c) Herder's position that education should always be as far as possible individualized and G. Forster's and Schiller's demand for an "aesthetical" education -- I must say I could not see what these two opinions have in common; (d) Humboldt's declaration for "general education of man" and Schleiermacher's "citizen education"; (e) the critique (from a sociological point of view -- Marx, Veblen, Weber, Bourdieu, Adorno) of "Bildung", owing to class-economical reasons has become a "Halbbildung". W. treats his chosen theme only in the last part of his essay (in five of the twenty-three pages) and then only perfunctorily (a passing mention of Castoriadis does not help much), while he recognizes that all this should be treated in another paper (!).

Holger Wille examines the question whether imagination has anything to offer to such an empirical natural science as physics. W. points out that as a scientific observation should be verifiable not according to some empirical universals of undisputed certainty but according to logical principles, the "possible" is an inherent aspect of every scientific observation. What cannot be perceived through the senses must be formed in the mind with the help of imagination. The author shows that the "possible" plays a vital role in quantum and relativity theory. In the latter part of the essay, W. holds that empirical perception, which the physicists are so proud of, can only sketch a phenomenology of the natural world; it cannot really lead to its knowledge.

In the last essay of the volume Ralf Hinz presents the theoretical guidelines and scopes of his own research team project "'Phantasie an die Macht' -- Literatur und Popkultur um 1968". The project is to investigate the cultural and political conditions under which the concept of imagination acquired such great popularity as a "vitalistic term" during the student revolution of May 68 and also in the late sixties and early seventies and was instrumentalized as a cultural, political, aesthetical and philosophical weapon -- most of all in the famous wall-slogan "Power to the imagination". Although the project is concerned mainly with German society and culture of the past forty years, its cultural historical aims and claims reach beyond Germany into the heart of modern global culture. This sounds very promising.

In sum, despite the narrow focus of some of the contributions, this is a valuable book not only for anyone doing work on imagination but surely also for the general reader. The book has a fine look, hardly any misprints, and is rounded off with a thorough index of names.

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