Who Killed The Faculty?

 Nick Wiltsher will soon be a philosophy postdoc in Antwerp, and recently was a philosophy instructor in Auburn, AL. He's also worked and studied in Porto Alegre, Leeds, Miami, and Sheffield.

Nick Wiltsher will soon be a philosophy postdoc in Antwerp, and recently was a philosophy instructor in Auburn, AL. He's also worked and studied in Porto Alegre, Leeds, Miami, and Sheffield.

A post by Nick Wiltsher.

Contemporary philosophers of mind tend to deprecate faculty psychology, by which I mean the tidy division of mental states into a small number of faculties, each typified by a certain power, and the description and explanation of aspects of the mental in terms of the expression and interaction of those powers. (Many such philosophers find the tidy division of mental states into a large number of modules, each typified by a certain function, and the explanation of aspects of the mental in terms of the interaction of those functions, much more edifying.) In some domains, faculty talk nonetheless enjoys some kind of afterlife. Most obviously, perception is often discussed as if some states share a certain essential capacity, and thus form a small and exclusive club. In other domains, however, the faculty is dead. When it comes to imagination, few philosophers seem keen, even implicitly, to suppose that the motley selection of acts commonly called “imaginative” are united as a kind by some common power. One might wonder what’s lost by abandoning this way of thinking, but here I just want to ask the ostensibly simpler question of who killed the imaginative faculty.

The faculty was venerable when it died. Discourse on the mental in western philosophy was predominantly conducted in terms of faculties from ancient times right up to the late 19th century. No doubt the connotations of “faculty” aren’t entirely continuous over that long life. But speaking broadly, anyone who tends to speak as if the stuff of the mental is best described, categorised, and explained in terms of the exercise or expression of a small number of powers counts as a faculty fan. Speaking more broadly, the main difference between this way of thinking and the intentionalist approach that succeeded it is that, on the latter, you’re supposed to typify mental acts according to (phenomenological) features of the intentional attitude that they constitutively involve. So to think of imagination as a faculty is to think of it as a group of mental states that exercise a certain power, rather than as a group of states that share certain intentional characteristics.

I’ll illustrate the imaginative faculty’s longevity with a cavalier trot through history, starting with a convenient medieval example. Bartholomæus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum (1240) was the closest thing the 13th century had to Wikipedia, an intermittently reliable summation of the stock of fairly common knowledge (although Bartholomæus was sedulous about citations). Therein, we’re told that the soul has several distinct faculties that allow it to do various things. These include feeling, which allows it to desire and despise; reason, which allows it to distinguish between good and evil, and between true and false; bodily wit, which allows it to be aware of material things while they’re present; and, as John Trevisa’s 1398 translation has it, “imagination, whereby the soul beholds the likeness of bodily things that are absent”.[1] Here, then, imagination seems specifically to be a mental means of calling forth sensuous representations of physical objects.

Skipping quickly over several centuries, and arriving at the Enlightenment, we find the imaginative faculty in rude health, though with rather different powers than those Bartholomæus gave it. Hume and Kant share an understanding of imagination’s essential power.[2] Both think that imagination takes what's given via sensation, processes it somehow or other, and offers up material for use by an intellectual faculty. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, imagination is allocated the job of applying schemata to intuitions of sensibility, such that an intelligible manifold of perceptual objects is presented to the understanding. On Hume’s account, meanwhile, imagination's fundamental role is to refine and synthesise particular impressions, and so deliver general ideas that can be used in thought. Here again, then, imagination is identified primarily by the exercise of a power, and a broadly similar power at that.

Again leaping forward in the chronology, the imaginative faculty is still going strong in Collingwood’s book The Principles of Art (1938), but by the time we get to 1949, we find Ryle declaring flatly: “there is no special Faculty of Imagination”.[3] Now, Ryle is denying here the claim that imagination is limited to “the special class of fancied perceptions” (p. 258). He doesn’t deny that “operations of imagining are . . .  exercises of mental powers” (p. 245). Ryle’s assertion, therefore, seems to be that there’s no single mental power common to all imaginative acts, and thus no imaginative faculty to speak of. Indeed, Ryle’s work reads well as an exploration of the variety of imaginative acts, intended as a corrective to the idea that a single power could possibly underlie them.

But did Ryle kill the faculty, or just nail down the coffin lid? Despite the fact that Collingwood was keeping it alive in 1938, I suspect that the poison was administered earlier. The real culprits, I allege, are the Romantic poets, and in particular Coleridge and (to a lesser extent) Wordsworth. In among their confused appropriations of Kantian ideas, one finds for perhaps the first time the division of imagination into various types, with quite different powers; most notoriously, these include “primary” imagination, which we all have, and “secondary” imagination, which only blessed individuals such as Coleridge himself enjoy.[4] While primary imagination is just that which allows us to successfully perceive the world, the secondary imagination facilitates a sort of creative spelunking of the caverns of the poet’s psyche, or affords access to an ineffable realm of knowledge of some sort.

So I suggest that the Romantics killed the imaginative faculty, and that they did so by popularising the idea that there are different kinds of imagination, involving the exercise of different powers. If that’s right, there can’t be an imaginative faculty, typified by the exercise of a common power. But here’s the thing: whatever their merits as poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth were bad philosophers, and worse interpreters of their sources. So if they’re to blame for killing the faculty, is it worth considering the possibility of reanimating the corpse?


[1]    I’ve modernised the spelling, orthography, and some words in the quotation. The original reads: “þe þridde hatte ymaginacioun, þerby þe soule biholdeþ þe liknes of bodiliche þinges þat beþ absent.”  Bartholomæus Anglicus (1240). On the Properties of Things(De Proprietatibus Rerum). Ed. by M.C. Seymour (1975). Trans. by John Trevisa (1398). Vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 95, lines 7-17.

[2]    You might think it wildly tendentious and heterodox to claim that Hume and Kant shared a conception of imagination, but if you can’t be tendentious and heterodox in a blog post, when can you be?

[3]    Ryle, Gilbert (1949). The Concept of Mind. New York: Barnes and Noble, p. 257.

[4]    The principal text for the Romantic conception of imagination isColeridge, Samuel Taylor (1817). Biographia Literaria. Edited by George Watson (1965). London: Dent, ch. XIII. However,  the secondary literature is better than the primary: good guides through the thicket include Abrams, M. H. (1953). The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Warnock, Mary (1976). Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, pt. III.