William Oxley: The Human Imagination

My concern here is simply to describe what I understand, in human terms, by that mental faculty, the IMAGINATION, so often set in opposition to 'the reason'. In order to attain some sort of precision in what I seek to describe, I will define this latter, supposedly contradictory force of reason, thus: the operation of all that part of the human thinking faculty which involves quantitive mensuration or ratiocination. And I will leave it at that, except to say that the so-called 'power of reasoning' is a concept and structure which, I believe, from the beginning of human thinking life has been nourished and informed, even built-up, by the operation of the imagination - be the latter viewed as human or divine, as I've said.

In order to understand at all any faculty of the human mind or, indeed, that mind itself, it is necessary to 'job backwards', to borrow a financial cliché. Which is to say one has to construct, by a kind of reverse extrapolation, a sort of brief history of the mind. Sooner or later - and no matter the degree of learning or scholarship which such an exercise might invite - it becomes obvious that just about everything we can be said to know was probably once unknown to us: and by 'us' I mean any of us, i.e. the whole human race. The implication of which discovery, or hypothesis, is that there must have been a time and a condition for what we term 'the mind' when it knew nothing; or, at any rate, knew nothing we can now conceive of. But knowing that 'nature abhors a vacuum' and having to agree with Aristotle that 'nothing can come of nothing': which is to say that an absolute no-thing (void and empty of being and significance) is a logical impossibility, then pristine mind must have been something. Had it not been so, then it could not have developed to its present or, indeed, to any state. So what was there present in the beginning: even before the logos of St.John? What preceded the meaningful mind? I think we can answer this, even now, by watching carefully how our minds function.

Think of one of those moments - and they occur quite frequently - when the mind encounters something it cannot identify sufficiently to play the Adam and slap a label of meaning (a name) on it. In such a moment when something mysterious and, for the nonce, unknown, swims into view, the first thing that occurs is that, through the aid of the five physical senses, certain formal information is transmitted to the mind: information like 'shape', 'density', 'odour', 'colour', etc. This data, having entered the mind, it is subject to a process of comparison with anything the mind already knows of which it may be similar to; or, after all that has been done, it is deemed so dissimilar to anything the mind has ever been familiar with, as to be considered still unknown and, even, permanently or temporarily unknown. But, in fact, once the mind has become convinced of the irreducible in-being of something, it continues to seek to make it conformable to its own complex 'test of reason' which ends in that final delimiting ceremony of semantics called 'naming' or giving it a word-identity, which word seeks - as far as a word ever can - to state as much as possible (in a verbal flash, as it were) of the nature of the thing identified. But this process of bringing the unknown being into that wide circle of reason's light is effected in all cases by the interposing agency of that primary dynamic 'other faculty' of the mind: the imagination.

Human consciousness has all been built up in this way - by transforming the active unknown into the passive known with the aid of the imagination - but because it has taken many millennia to get to its present stage: which stage is cluttered with established facts and interpretations of fact: the process tends to get forgotten. As the contents and lineaments of the Kingdom of Reason become ever greater and more imposing, ever more powerful in fact, we less and less have recourse to first principles of mentation, until we even tend to downgrade the imagination, thinking it merely the fiction-making faculty which has been called 'the fancy' in earlier times. In part this is understandable in that the power of reason having become so great it is possible for reason to content itself with making fresh permutations of the known and calling them 'the new'. But, in truth, no new thing is ever known or discovered without the interposition of the one genuine enabling faculty of the mind: the imagination. For the imagination being dynamic, as opposed to the passive reason (which latter is all-to-prone to rest on the laurels of what it already knows), is the only mental faculty capable to making the necessary 'leap in the dark': which leap alone can cast light upon the unknown.

The whole of human consciousness, then, is made up of such imaginative leaps: each leap of which ends in a naming or 'idea': and this applies equally to ideas with, or without, concrete referents - as Plato perceived. Reason itself is a vast data bank of memories which is being constantly sorted and classified by a computer operated by the human will. But, as I said at the beginning, it is possible to take two views - not one - of all this mental functioning (of all existential functioning, in fact). One can either say that the operation of thinking is, in all its parts, wholly human-driven; or one can divide the process into part human, part divine. For this reason, when we extrapolate backwards to what I hope I may be forgiven for terming 'the pristine mind', one can assume (or believe) that there was ab initio a basic piece of software provided by divinity, which software St. John called 'the Logos'; or one can assume something else. But for my purposes, and after much meditation on the way the mind operates now - and by implication thousands of years ago - I would say that 'in the beginning - whether or not there was the Logos present - there was feeling'.

Feeling is the basic plasma of all beings. For without feeling there can not be that initial detection of things unknown via the physical or psychical senses. Even to a consciousness such as ours which is now so cluttered with things known, nothing genuinely new can be drawn towards the mind, without feeling. Feeling is the basic radar of all being; and in the case of the human it provides the amorphous data on which the imagination works. And this, incidentally, is why the imagination is so much more nearly allied to feeling, and things of feeling, matters of feeling, than the more conservative and passive faculty we call 'reason'. Indeed, given the history of the word reason which, for example, in Milton's day was scarcely distinguishable from what we now term 'imagination', it is probable that reason itself was an invention of the imagination. But for our preponderantly scientific era I will content myself by reducing the matter to a sort of Einsteinian equation thus: F plus I = R ... in which F stands for feeling, I for imagination and R for reason.

In art, in science, in life, the imaginative faculty has primacy of place, for we are too conscious now to go back to being creatures of pure feeling sans intellect. The imagination - which Swift in literature called 'the power of invention', as do many scientists - for me is the transforming power of intellectual being which makes the unknown known. Its lower faculty or part is simply associational; its higher part transcendent. In its primary function it reveals; in its secondary it can be used for many other purposes such as the non-revelatory function of making fictions (i.e. making fanciful not truthful connections). But it remains the sole source of ultimate enlightenment we possess.