Imagination and neo-Aristotelian epistemology

Dennis Sepper is the chairman of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Dallas (Irving, TX) and Professor of Philosophy in its Institute of Philosophic Studies. His research foci are Descartes, imagination, and philosophical anthropology.

Dennis Sepper is the chairman of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Dallas (Irving, TX) and Professor of Philosophy in its Institute of Philosophic Studies. His research foci are Descartes, imagination, and philosophical anthropology.

A post by Dennis Sepper.

Conceptual labels—like ‘empiricism’, ‘rationalism’, ‘idealism’, and so forth—too often substitute historiographical conventions for thinking. I will nevertheless begin by saying that I favor a basically Aristotelian approach to the imagination. As a resolutely psychophysiological thinker, he avoided separating body from psyche. The definition of soul he offers in the first chapter of book 2 of On the Soul presents it as the first activity of a body organized for the sake of life. Without active bodies there are no souls. When in book 3, chapter 7, at a crucial juncture in his examination of the nature of thought, he remarks that the soul does no thinking without phantasms, he is confirming the importance of the body. Phantasms (what we call images) are appearances that originate from the forms of sensation conveyed to our sense organs (not just the eyes) by physical and physiological processes. Rationality itself is the thinking of the forms in the images.

“There is no thinking without phantasms” became a slogan in the middle ages of both the Arabic/Persian and Western lands. The only question was how coherently the sloganeers understood the radical physicalism of Aristotle’s claim. The overriding theological commitment to the separate existence of soul in Islam and Christianity meant that very few medieval “Aristotelians” fully adhered to it.

In Understanding Imagination (Springer, 2013) I argued that Aristotle represents a major step in a tradition of imagination that was lost as later thinkers began treating images as fixed units for mental manipulation and trafficking. This is evident enough in the epistemologies of modern empiricists, but also in the ancient Stoics and, much later, in Hegel, whose representation of the imagination as a pit or well of images swirling around like leaves caught randomly in a cyclone bears the same imprint.

Aristotle was not committed to the fixity of phantasms/images. Rather—and this is in part the heritage of Plato, especially Plato’s treatment of images in the Sophist and in the sixth and seventh books of Republic—he conceived them as principles of formation in a field of possible (and similar) forms. To refer only to vision: sensed colors, whatever their hue or brightness, are differentiated motion-activities of the visual field. The momentary determination of a part of that field to a particular brightness and hue is due to the activating principles and their proportions in sensation. (In fact, among the ancients, most natural philosophers conceived sensation as a kind of proportion.) The motion-activities in the organ are, in turn, proportionally related to the corresponding principles in the perceived physical object that are communicated to the eye through the visual medium (usually air). For Aristotle the original ground of all colors having basic resemblance to one another is that they share a field of appearance and are systematically related to corresponding physical and physiological fields. A particular color is an activation of the visual field, not an isolated unit whose relation to a different color is determined after the fact. The processes of the physics, physiology, and psychology of seeing, therefore, are joined in a network of proportional relations and (partial) isomorphisms.

Understanding Imagination also argued that Descartes’s early use of a method of imagining proportions respected the Aristotelian conception of an image-field. In fact the French thinker exploited this field character to invent analytic geometry and develop his method of physical explanation. (Just look at what he says about imaginative representation right after the four rules of method in part 2 of the Discourse.). In particular, analytic geometry explored the fundamental isomorphisms between the continuities of geometry and the discrete enumerations of generalized arithmetic (viz., algebra). In that sense analytic geometry adumbrated the ever more powerful and exacting imaginative-symbolic methods of higher mathematics invented ever since. Kant then further generalized (and transcendentalized) the imaginative-field bases of the human mind. Imagination “in its transcendental function” gives rise to spatial and temporal fields as a priori conditions of experience. So the field character of phantasms and imagining is no mere quirk of Aristotelian philosophy but a fundamental principle of some of the profoundest reflections on imagination in Western (and not just Western) traditions.

What I refer to as neo-Aristotelian epistemology requires a modern reconstruction and reconstrual of the tradition of proportionally-interrelated sensory and imaginative fields I have sketched. Its basis would be an empiricism of the human knowing power that apprehends sensory forms in situ—meaning that the major features of sensorily experienced things are situated in the places of the perceptual world. For higher-order knowing, however, even more important would be the human ability to hold on to and to vary earlier appearances in contexts of all kinds, both simple (a particular shade of carmine dye) and complex (a petunia with a mottled carmine trumpet). This ability is both imaginative and memorative.

In such a neo-Aristotelianism, coming to knowledge would be a twofold process that starts by releasing the variational-formative principles of the images of experience within their respective fields and continues by bringing those form-varied field into comparative relation with other fields. The other fields might serve in some cases as background or foil, but in other cases (as in analytic geometry or with physical objects conceived mathematically) would re-configure the situational possibilities of the original field. The forms in the first field would thereby be grasped more determinately by being imaginatively projected into the features and forms of a second field. In turn—the term might be taken literally as well as figuratively—the manipulations and reconfigurations in the second field could be projected back into the first. Knowledge would thus be in the first instance a becoming aware of the various fields of experience and then learning to connect them in productive ways.

There are plenty of homely as well as scientific examples of this sort of process. It happens when a farmer plans how he will plow and plant a field; when a realtor sees the field platted into a housing development; when a scientist conceives of gridding it for the sake of a census of local flora and fauna; when a painter notices the textured planes of light and shading and thinks of Cezanne’s landscapes.

In this scheme, the human being’s cognitive powers largely depend on her ability to take possession of the sensory forms as such by re-presenting them variationally (the hyphen here is essential) in their proper field and by newly incepting them in other fields to which they have been added or projected. Re-presentation would then be less about the exact recall (perhaps with diminished vivacity) of a previous sensory experience than a recontextualizing of the formative powers native to imagining. This would be a comparative and productive capacity that amounts to at least a proto-rationality. Modern empiricism’s principles of association would be displaced by more fundamental, psycho-physiological principles that intrinsically organize the manifold fields of appearance.