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Category Archives: imagination

As I continue taking opportunities, I am finding more and more the passions hidden within this art project. I got a chance to speak to a couple high school classes while back in the Black Hills. Doing so has strongly reinforced my belief that people are starving! for philosophy. The piece of my talk that students appeared to resonate fully with was a memory from my own childhood:

I believe I was about nine years old. My good friend, Annie, lived down the street that crossed the top of the small hill where I lived at the base. She and I were at the peak of the hill saying good-bye after hours of play outside. It was summer coming into fall. The twilight was fading and the lighting was surreal. The air felt warm and crisp simultaneously. As I waved good-bye, my own hand caught my eye. And it seemed strangely alien. As I brought it down, that feeling intensified and I called out to Annie. She turned back toward me and saw me staring at my hand. As she came up to me, I asked, “Does life ever feel weird to you? Like, what is this? What are we? What is going on?” And I explained how odd it felt to look at my hand and know it was “my hand”. She started to look at hers, too, and the same sensation came over her. We stood there staring at our own hands as the dusk gathered around us. Eventually, as we stood there wondering, the peculiar feeling began to fade. She and I parted ways, but that memory never has left me.

We are all thrust into existence and structures of living before we even have a consistent self-awareness. These structures of living are gifts from previous peoples; however, if all we are taught to perceive are the structures themselves, certain abilities of ours are neglected and suffering. These abilities never die, they are intrinsic to being human, but they can grow weak and we can begin to feel sluggish about life itself due to their neglect.

The first ability is our ability to reflect on the stunning act of being alive. The second is our ability to reflect on ourselves beneath our experiences and social and psychological shapings. We are life itself, each of us is a fingerprint of the universe, unique and sublime in our very existence. The third is our ability to sense the synergistic dynamic of everything that is. We are a perpetual spiral of webbing, everything is connected, nothing exists apart from the whole. My self-reflection thus can morph into a meditation on self as this one big Self that we are together, along with everything else on this planet.

Fourth, and I’ll make it my final, we may lose the ability to recognize that those structures into which we are thrust are not the real. The real is the canvas behind them, or the space, that allows them to take form in the first place. The real is what makes it possible to create, to shift, to change, to demolish and reconstruct. And this always is.

Imagination is our direct access to this space. Reason is one of the greatest sets of tinker toys we’ve ever devised to place our maps, our structures on this space. However, without the value of imagination, reason just might be mistaken to be the real. Seeing the world and ourselves through the lens of rational explanation necessarily makes an image, a picture, a symbol. If taken only in the literal, its greater potency is shut out from our awareness.

Philosophy and art help us to recognize and to exercise our ability to reflect beyond reason, to the hidden messages we are telling ourselves with our rational stories. They tell us how we feel, what we fear, and how we are coping with those fears. If we forget that our stories speak to us symbolically, even our rational stories, we blindly face crises when those rational stories change.

Why else would new stories such as Copernicus’ notion that the earth moved around the sun, not vice versa, or Darwin’s story that humans could trace our lineage as an evolution over time, sharing ancestry with other primates cause such outrage and call for such great adjustment as they did? Our daily lives weren’t directly impacted from these changes in belief. It’s not like suddenly other primates appeared at our family gatherings, or that we suddenly couldn’t walk a straight line due to the traveling earth. . .

These stories, all four, had spoken to us (and do speak to us) imaginatively. The stories carried (as all stories do!) symbolic significance that secretly informed us of ourselves, our fears, and how we were coping with those fears. Without recognition of the power of the symbolic knowledge that is carried along with literal, rational explanation, we simply fought the new stories. We could not believe them. We had lost connection to the role of imagination inherent within any creation, even the creation of our “truths”.

This art project begins where you are, where we all are, as children of the age of reason. We have learned how to use language literally, and how to explain rationally. But this art project is meant to move its viewers into the realm of imagination and symbol as well. It breaks language into pieces, sometimes in the middle of words, it makes it stutter, it repeats itself maniacally to make us all more aware of that which lies behind the structure of language and the structure of logical thought. May its viewers feel the rush of the fresh air released from the illusory lock-down from the perception that our current structures and maps are everything. Rather, they are images of ourselves, laden with secret knowledges that we are equipped to harvest and that will serve us as we continue to navigate the ever- swirl of existence. Promise.

 

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Last month, our story finished with a demonstration of how imagination is already quite active in how we create knowledge. However, these days, its participation is overshadowed by its dominant sibling, reason. Rational examination receives the lion’s share of recognition in how we humans “know” anything. However, this was not always the case.

Human knowledge began as an oral tradition. This tradition was rich with metaphor, myth and symbol – all are used to help the listener receive a certain “knowing” about what it is to be alive and a part of this world. As I demonstrated in the last post, it is the imagination that enables us to extract knowledge from myth, metaphor and symbol. We did not lose this system of “knowing” with the written word; however, as we will see by the end of this post, with time, especially here in the West, it does eventually get squeezed out.

Imagination is effective with symbol, metaphor and myth because they all rely on the mystical as their center. There is an “unknowing” inherent with each of them. There is not a “certain” truth within any of them, but a living relationship between the words (or design) and the listener/reader. The mystical is the pure mystery –that which exceeds all our categories of thought, in other words, the purely Unknowable. Imagination, myth, metaphor and symbol all radiate from this unknowing – they are all trying to express that which cannot be said directly. Imagination is the ability to draw knowledge from a recognition of this mystical core.

Reason is often seen as the exact opposite. People generally assume that reason is not based on this purely Unknowable, but instead is situated on sure and solid ground. (The last two posts went into detail in order to show that this is not the case. Reason has no sure footing.) Here is the surprise. We did not always view reason this way. It, too, aligned with imagination, was seen to have a mystical center. Even as late as the birth of this nation, reason was seen as having a mystical core.

How did that change?

One key factor comes from the change in our concept God. “God” once upon a time signified pure mystery. Now, the dominant concept God is something that can be known, “I know God, he is that perfect human, a loving father, a man with a plan, maybe even an old guy with a long white beard. That’s what God is.”

This shift in the concept of God has altered our sense of reason. The phrase “God is the eye of reason” common in the 1700s (just look at your dollar bill and see the top eye at the top of the pyramid) delivers a very different message if “God” is a knowable concept, than it delivers if “God” is the symbol for divine mystery. God as a knowable concept covers over that mystery is at the core of reason , it covers over that the heart of reason is a leap of faith, not certainty.

So now, not only is reason seen as the opposite of imagination, but reason is misunderstood and regarded as some sort of antidote to pure mystery. We take the findings from our rational inquiries and we build “the truth” and we hold up the banner of truth (I know what is going on here!) to cover over the much more challenging and possibly more enriching aspect of being alive as humans: We don’t know what the heck is going on here! ALL ways of knowing depend upon pure mystery in order to generate any story, any “truth”. Underneath all our “truths” remains the Unknowable. The Mystery. The Mystical.

This post is an invitation to no longer misunderstand reason. Reasoning and rational inquiry and beautiful! But they do not and cannot deliver any “knowledge” without relying on the mystical. Reason, in itself, acknowledges the mystical. It is our misperception of it that has buried the mystical from our sight. It is our misperception of reason that has pitted it against imagination. It is our misperception of reason that has led to a devaluation of imagination. It is our misperception of reason that has drained our world of much of the beauty and “juice” that comes from acknowledging the pure mystery of being alive as these weird reflective creatures.

So, now you’re probably wondering, “Kjirsten, what do I do? I don’t want my life dried and devoid of the juiciness that acknowledging the mystical can bring me. A little help here?

Here you go!

  • Remind yourself that all your knowledge has no sure base. Be kind, aim to see how other people’s points of view developed. Allow yourself to feel their path.

 

  • Don’t take everything so literally. Let your imagination exercise itself. All our stories (academic, religious, pop cultural, etc.) are expressions that can be taken as metaphors, as symbols, as myths – stories that deliver “truths” about the human experience hidden in the words, not from the claims of the words themselves.

 

  • Come to Visage, 1046 NW Johnson, on Monday, August 10th. Doors open at 7:30pm. At 8pm or so, I’ll be talking about the magic of words beyond their logical, rational, and literal functions. And there will be about five or six new pieces hanging on the walls! I’d love some company!

In last month’s post, we traced the circular relationship between experience and the first principles of logic (the fundamental principles of rational thinking that define its scope and provide the foundation from which all its further truths are formed).

In short, in our tracing, we discovered that we use reason to create knowledge about and from our experiences, but experience provides the first principles of logic which govern reasoning. We can see there is a closed, self-perpetuating “loop” within this story, limited to these variables. Rather than find this revelation to be disconcerting, I find it to be a powerful discovery:

Our awareness of this circular relationship shows us that the “truth” of our intellectual and sensual perceptions is dependent on what I make of it all, dependent on what you make of it all, dependent on what each person makes of it all . . . in other words, our intellectual and empirical “truths” are dependent upon what we imagine to be happening.

It shows us that imagination is necessarily a part of human understandings, truths, beliefs, perceptions and sensations. And for me this means that my imagination is a powerful contributor to the “reality” I live and to the world I co-create. My experiences are not “purely” themselves – they belong to me, and I am a rich field. My experiences are laden with what I make of them, sometimes before they even occur. Simply put by Ruth Benedict’s quote from last month, they are mostly imagination.

Imagination functions by reading symbols. Think of a child playing dolls. It doesn’t matter if these are GI Joe dolls or Barbie dolls. The child plays “stories” with these dolls. These stories are not perfect replications of the child’s own experiences, or even of experiences that children have witnessed on TV or in film. They are fabrications based on the symbolism found within their experiences/observations of a soldier, of a mother, of a teenager, of friendship, and so on. Children draw on those symbols via their imaginations and create experiences for their dolls in a story.

A more academic example could be our past discussion of taking our particular experiences and creating universal rules of guidance. We discussed how experience is necessarily “smaller” than a universal principle or rule. Yet, we are able to generate something greater from that meager piece of information. It is imagination that steps in and fills the gap. My experience becomes a symbol, becoming “bigger” than the experience. Or in a survey study, the selected participants become a symbol for an entire group. It is our imagination that allows them to become symbols (since never could a portion of the group represent the whole group with perfect accuracy).

Imagination is already at play in how we create knowledge, we simply don’t acknowledge it. This post is an invitation to engage in an active practice of how we are imagining. The first step is to acknowledge its presence. I’ve given two examples above from our everyday lives in the context of our current culture. However, we can see that our current culture doesn’t readily acknowledge the role of imagination in “knowing”. As a result, I must ask, in what other manners does our current “cultural perception” hide the activities of symbol and imagination from our awareness?

But, this post is already quite long! Which means, yes, you know it, there will be a Part III to Knowing and Imagination! In that entry we will take a time-traveling journey to see how imagination was once a heavily recognized and valued aspect of knowledge and watch as it becomes overshadowed to the point of dismissal. . . stay tuned!

Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.

-Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

 

I found the above quote in the opening pages to Euphoria by Lily King. It inspired me to tell a story, too. But this story is too long to tell in one shot, so here is the first installment.

Any “big” story found in philosophy most likely needs an introduction to the terms, rationalism and empiricism. These terms are present in philosophy and in science. Empirical science (how most of us use the word “science”) has developed stringent methods to ensure that its sampling, surveying, questioning, observations, record-keeping , interpretations and applications are done well enough so its findings can be trusted.

At the other end of science, and in the broader sense of the term, science (systematic and formulated knowledge), are the sciences that deal only with ideas, not with any observation or experience, such as mathematics and the disciplines that use math to develop knowledge beyond our ability to observe. No matter who you are, when you are, or where you are, 2+3=5. This is an example of rationalist science.

In philosophy, rationalism is defined as the school of thought that believes true knowledge and understanding come from discerning pure principles of mind, and combining those pure principles (rules, equations, laws, etc.) in order to reveal further true knowledge and understanding.

Empiricism, in philosophy, is the school that believes we can create knowledge and understanding by carefully observing our experiences. We use those experiences to reveal principles, laws and formulas.

Hopefully you’ve noticed, that both rationalism and empiricism (whether in philosophy or science) must depend upon some sort of standard of truth against which we can measure our mind’s actions and the links it makes between principles, between experiences, and between them both. There is one science whose job it is to reveal that standard: the science of logic, one of the fundamental divisions of study in philosophy.

Logic studies “the correct principles of rational thinking”. It is considered a pure science, a science of formulae, and it is normally considered the heart of rationalism. Like mathematics, logic is a body of pure ideas, principles, laws and equations. From it we derive an understanding of what can be said and still be logically supported. And thus from it, we gain our categorizations of rational versus irrational. Sane versus crazy. True versus false. Real versus hallucination.

And yes, logic is the standard that empiricists use to determine how to survey, study, question, collect, interpret and apply their observations, in other words, what they can learn from their experiences. If, in our writings, our words, our statements, our claims and our conclusions do not hold together logically when reporting our experiences, then they are flawed and the knowledge they present is considered weak. This system of using logic to derive a standard of truthfulness is fabulously useful and has given us much. However, as we’ll see below, with our recklessness, we often take more than is given.

Briefly explained, experience is what we call “particular” information. It is small – and we use it to try to make “bigger” information or universal principles (or rules) that we can trust, or in other words, that are “true” and “right”. But, experience only ever comes from a sample, or a portion of the universal. And yet we use it to try to make universal statements. We’ve learned through the study of logic that such claims of absolute truths from empirical inquiry cannot be logically supported as a sure truth. “Stretching” a small piece into a larger piece, thins its strength. The particular experience(s) cannot logically stretch into something as big as a universal law, yet I (and most likely you, too) often speak as if they can.

At most, we can make “probable” conclusions from them. And if we are careful in our inquiry, we can hope that our conclusions are “highly probable”. But, according to the universal principles of logic, never are they or will they be absolute. Never will they contain absolute certitude.

And that’s the first part of what is going to turn out to look like a catch-22.

Here is the second. Like all sciences, logic is based on a set of “first principles” – statements that define its realm and also act as the foundation from which all its further findings (truths) are built. The trick behind “first principles,” though, is that they themselves cannot be proven with absolute certitude. They are considered “self-evident” or in other words, so evident, that no one can deny them. Logic has four first principles:

  1. Identity – A thing is what it is, and not something else.
  2. The Excluded Middle – Between being and non-being, there is no middle state. It either is, or it isn’t.
  3. Sufficient Reason – Everything can be rationally explained. . . eventually.
  4. Contradiction – A thing cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time and in the same respect. Logic cannot contain contradiction.

 

How is it that these statements are considered “self-evident”? So obvious, so consistent that no one can deny them? They were determined as self-evident through the experiences of those that chose them and were accepted by their peers. Which shows us that for as much as both rationalism and empiricism depend upon the standard of truth provided by logic, logic depends upon experience and thus contains the uncertainty of experience. Our standard is not absolute. And we frequently have treated it as if it is. And we frequently have treated our rational and empirical “truths” as if they were absolute as well.

Now is time to begin meditating on our quote, “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination” and await for next month’s post!

Images, imagination and imago

Our Western philosophical view often includes a hierarchal perspective. One such hierarchy includes our understanding of the different components of “mind”. Both imagination and intellect have received attention, typically with “intellect” being placed in a higher position than imagination. Imagination was fundamentally understood by the highly influential philosopher, Plato, (400ish BCE) as that part of the mind that communes with images and draws information from them in order to create a low level knowing or knowledge (we can see this in the root of the word “imagination” – it comes from “images”). Intellect came to be understood as the aspect of mind that can deal with pure ideas without any experience necessary.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) gives us an example. He asks us to imagine a triangle. Close your eyes and see if you can picture, in your “mind’s eye” (your imagination) an image of a triangle. . . Done?

Good. Most likely you experienced success. Descartes suggests we can see an image of a triangle because we have seen triangles previously. Now, he asks that you close your eyes and imagine, in your mind’s eye, a 1,000 sided figure (a chiliagon). Give it a whirl. . . Done?

Well, most likely your image was funky and unclear. Again, Descartes would suggest we cannot picture, or imagine, a chiliagon since we do not see chiliagons in our everyday living. He then attempts to demonstrate, though, that we intellectually understand a chiliagon quite precisely. Without ever having experienced a 1,000 sided figure, we still know that a chiliagon is not a 999 sided figure, we know it is not a 1,001 sided figure – we understand the pure idea that it is exactly a 1,000 sided figure. We intellectually understand it in spite of our inability to picture it. Descartes uses the above example to show us that our intellect “exceeds” or is greater than our imagination.

On the other hand we have an even later philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) who suggests that imagination is our “ability to think of what is not”. With this different angle of imagination, we can see that it may be empowered to generate change in a way that intellect may not be. Intellect demands that we stay within the realm of the rationally logical. Very useful. However, at times we may wish to imagine the world or the life we want to create, rather the one that we understand to exist. Perhaps, we have been heavy-handed as of late, with the intellectual, and a little light with the imaginative. I’m here to set a balance between the two. I’d like to offer another added angle to our current communion with the word “imagination” to do so.

Imagination, as pointed out earlier, comes from the word “image”. The word “image” comes from the Latin root word “imago” which means “an imitation, a copy, an image”. Imago also gains the scientific meaning of “the final, adult, reproductive stage in the development of an insect”. Keeping our original notion of image as a copy or an imitation that gives rise to a certain knowing (such as being able to picture a triangle without an actual triangle present) and wedding it to Sartre’s “ability to think of what is not” and then adding in this notion of an imago as an adult stage, I believe we have a powerful potion to augment beauty in our experiences of being human:

Imagination may be seen as a web of super highways, an aura of your inner-world going out and greeting your external presence in the world we share and vice versa. I drink in my experiences as a body-observer-experiencer in this external world (your house, the coffee shop, work, the sidewalk, the street). My imagination helps me to turn those experiences into nutrients to enrich my being (my being a body with a sense of self, and also my being a human in the world-hive of other humans, plants, animals, insects, things).

Likewise, my inner-world is delivered into the external world via my imagination. My imagination helps me shape that world into morsels that I believe may nourish and enrich that external world (you, the social institutions, the infrastructure, the technology) which we have a vested interested in nurturing since we drink in our environment daily.

Children are potent seeds in that environment. Children soak in their environment as their little bodyminds are crazy hungry for nourishment. They are growing. And they are tomorrow’s planet. I suggest it is through our imaginations that we can become the adults that children need us to be. I appreciate the world we’ve inherited – the infrastructure, the services, the community and the technology. I also know it comes with many sharp edges and blunt objects which cause harm to little bodyminds born into it. I believe balancing our rational edges with our imagination can bring a world that is consciously designed to nurture children’s development, emotional, spiritual and rational.

Imagination must have blank canvas in order to play. When we tightly construct “the world as it is” in our minds (and bodies and lives), we give ourselves very little wiggle room for imaginative play. This art project attempts to illuminate the blank canvas that is necessarily behind all of our constructions. Thus we always-already have access to the blank canvas required for imagination to come into greater action. All that is required is a willingness to believe that behind all our constructions (language, societal institutions, facts) there is canvas, an eternal stretch of canvas that invites us to play in, around, behind, beyond those constructions. With this tool, we can invite children into the world “as it is” with much more creative ability – an ability that will enrich how they experience their lives. We can “play” with a wisdom to be mindful that above all, we are guardians of children’s experiences.

Post note: Here, I have been talking about actual children-children, though I do see all of us as children, simply in different stages of development. However, as a 45 year old child, I am asking myself to acknowledge that I have access to this imago stage where I am empowered to step up and create a bridge for other “children” to be nourished by my presence, my words, my play. I believe exercising my imagination in order to create that bridge is the greatest tool I have found since embarking on this quest. I invite you, no matter your stage in child-imago-adult becoming, to step into your “adult” shoes, and to feel the honor of being entrusted with the development and nourishment of other children.