From 1770 until his death in 1804, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to unify his theories concerning the nature of human reasoning into a critical study, spanning his three famous Critiques (of Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Judgement). Kant's theory of imagination is spread across these volumes and represents a radical departure from the classical notion.Kant was the first philosopher to elevate imagination to a respectable place within human cognition, and in so doing, gave creativity its rightful place within the arts. Before Kant, the prevailing belief stemmed from the Platonic tradition: that imagination was a faculty that was not to be trusted; that the vivid images it conjures up at the hand of the artist, though they may foment our passions, are not the product of a rational faculty but rather borne in the throes of the artist's possession by the daimon of his creativity. This we glean from Ion, Plato's closing dialogue in the Symposium, where he concludes that it is "[not] by art, then, they make their poetry with all those fine things about all sorts of matters—like your speeches about Homer—not by art, but by divine dispensation." Aristotle, would later recast Plato's abstract notion of imagination in his empirical and practical light as a recollection of previous sensual experiences that are made available from memory, as images representing our knowledge of the physical world. For Aristotle, imagination is a physical and external reenactment of sensual knowledge and the sense images, phantasmata, are corporeal, not "mental." This view lent no more credence to imagination than that of Plato’s, and is the view that persisted right up to the period of enlightenment in the eighteenth century—evinced by interchangeability of "imagination" and "fancy" in popular culture.
Kant was the first to formulate a working theory of the mechanism of thought. In his construction, knowledge is still gained through the senses, but it is our concepts that structure the raw sense data into what we perceive, the organisation taking place in both space and in time. A concept is an abstraction: a rule by which the representations gained from perception may be structured in a more meaningful way to us. Kant further speculates that concepts are shared because nature is characterised by certain immutable natural laws, and we can largely agree upon convergent realities. So (he deduces), our consciousness itself shares a common structure—a collective human consciousness. This objective structure he calls a transcendental unity of consciousness. Kant termed this peculiar objective correlative, productive imagination, which is nothing other than the universally harmonising conceptual structures by which any object allows itself to be experienced in the human mind. Subtleties and nuances tinge our productive imagination, but these do not, in most cases, distort the near-public apperception. We use our judgement to fit the content from our senses into our conceptions; for, as Susanne Langer says, "just as quickly as the concept is symbolised to us, our own imagination dresses it up in a private, personal conception, which we can distinguish from the communicable public concept only by a process of abstraction."
The vitalities and energies of the imagination do not operate at will; they are fountains, not machinery.
—D.G. James, Skepticism and Poetry
Kant's theory of imagination gives us a much more accessible path towards understanding and utilising imagination. Imagination plays a central role in formulating and moving towards our goals. Imagination is a spontaneity that may only be directed by reflection. When we reflect, we recall past images, sensations, perceptions, and conceptions so that we may shape them up into a coherent whole, an object, or an end. We use our judgement to recognise novel representations from the conceptions that we already have available to us. Imagination is also what propels us towards the object or end it conjures up for us, for it is process of doing and an inner, abstract enactment.
There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in or in which he would like to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.
The process of visualisation is integral to imagination. Creative people are able to generate a vivid image of the object of their imagination and then hold it at the front of their mind, where they may scrutinise every aspect of its design and every detail of its construction, rearranging their characteristics and directing the mise en scène to represent the particular spiritual or emotional state they seek. For our purposes, we can explore the ramifications of each element in the image and check it against the feeling and the sense of rightness within the scene desired. Usually we construct our goals to counter and overcome problems in our world, so visualising a solution activates the cognitive circuits involved in those knowledge-centres of the brain and calls forth latent memories conducive to a solution. We have such extraneous data in the recesses of the mind because our visual system doesn't operate like a camera; that is, we don't imprint to memory a true representation of an experience through our senses, with all the actors and artefacts in vivid detail. Rather, we only register the finer details at the centre of our visual field, which stand out in marked relief to a mostly superfluous background. This visual field is the portion at the apex of the retina which truncates into the fovea—an area of the eye that contains a dense array of closely-packed cone receptors that are capable of detecting colour and visual detail with great acuity. Tangentially, we sample our periphery by rapid eye movement which sporadically captures elements of the peripheral space surrounding the object of our interest. The fovea always settles only on those details that catch our attention. The rest of our mental picture is constructed from a partial view of the objects that make up a scene, based on their perceived fundamental properties (light level, wavelength, spatial position, and so on).
When we imagine a solution to a problem or a more favourable situation, the wealth of subconscious knowledge is called forth by the mind, which always demonstrates remarkable sagacity in the choice of means it employs in moving us swiftly towards our destination. It's almost as if there is a chorus of life which goes on in the wings instead of the stage, ceaselessly teeming with vigorous activity and ready to spring forth into the limelight in response to right stage cue. The more you practice this skill of imagining, the better you will become at directing your intentions towards desirable outcomes. How skilled you become at this art is contingent upon your positivity, energy, and discipline. Imagination doesn't take the conventional route of ordinary causality in realising itself, but seems to translate into its own language and cast in its own mould the perceptions incident from the outside. Suggestions and solicitations may act upon the imagination from the outside and these things influence it only in the condition in which they find us. To make a novel or radical change in our circumstances, we must notice their influence upon us and alter our conception of them in ways that align with our goals. We analyse the impressions we receive from them and see them for what they really are, we then use our judgement to reassess their validity or lack thereof, but this time we do it deliberately. For, what is impressed on us from outside is less of a force than a question to which we are required to answer in equal measure.
Things influence him far more through the situation in which they find him than through their own nature... [E]ach of their impressions upon him depends far more, for his happiness or his misery, upon the condition in which they find him, than upon the sensation they produce or the accidental change in him they cause. Thus, in each separate moment of his life, to be what he ought to be, is of the highest importance to man.
—Étienne Pivert de Senancour