The power of imagination, for good or bad, is immense.
For good, imagination is what allows us to empathize with other people. Indeed, for Adam Smith, in his “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” imagination constituted the whole of man’s moral sense. As Anthony Shaftsbury wrote, “All things sympathize” (i.e., sympathize with all things).
We can only empathize with others by imagining what it’s like to be in their place. Affection, the Gold Rule, benevolence – all would be impossible with imagination and therefore the ability to empathize.
Even Samuel Johnson, usually wary of imagination as a guide, wrote, “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event… by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate; so we feel…whatever emotions would be excited by the same good or evil happening to us.”
The philosopher Tommaso Campanella, “got inside” people by imitating their every gesture in face and body and then carefully observing what thoughts and feelings he acquired by this change. This may have been a rare case back then, but is this not what modern actors do?
Since imagination is the basis of empathy, it is also the basis of literary and aesthetic pleasure. Only by the use of our imaginations can we read something, identity with the characters and therefore feel what they feel. This applies to not only fiction and non-fiction,, but also to the visual arts, such as paintings, television and movies. Indeed, it’s the main reason people watch TV and movies – to empathize with the characters and the stories of their lives.
In a sense all imagination is creative. Those who read or enjoy any of the visual arts are creating in themselves an identification with the characters. Then there are those who create the characters – those who create the fiction, the non-fiction, the paintings, the drawings, the TV, the movies. Both sides have to use their imaginations to create and sympathize with the characters.
James Arbuckle, writing on imagination, empathy and creativity, said that imagination has a free play that can turn anywhere and permit us to feel for others. This “free play” is also that very quality used for the creation of artistic compositions. He called this free play “castle-building.”
As an example of this “castle-building” I am reminded of Albert Einstein, who imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. This was the same Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Imagination, then, is a form of play. It is responsible for our moral sense – our ability to empathize with others, whether real of fictional -- and the basis of our creativity. It is how we create and discover.
This imaginative, empathic play allows us, as Samuel Coleridge wrote, to a union of the “perceiver” and the “perceived.” “Both sympathy and empathy dissolve the boundary between the objective outside world, and the subjective self,” writes James Engell. “The imagination can, by a process of identification, extend the self out into the world and into other people. The result is neither strictly subjective nor objective, but a fusing of the two.”
This “fusing of the two” (the subjective and the objective) is similar to the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, a “process in which we gradually expand our self-concept and recognize larger and larger parts of the whole as ‘ours,’” writes philosopher Scott Ryan.
“The self and the world meet most completely through not through the senses but through an imaginative process,” writes Engell. What this means is that there is not us “in here” and the world “out there,” and we that only perceive it, empirically, through our senses. Instead, there is a relationship between the perceiver and the perceived.
These relationships are the nature of reality and as such means our “selves” are only created in imaginative, creative and empathic relationships with what we perceive.
This empathic and creative imagination is also rational. “Reason” I define as “the making of necessary connections to discover the laws of reality.” This is also the purpose of imagination. In effect, since everything is a relationship, there is an inescapable relationship between reason and imagination: ultimately the purpose of both is to discover what laws govern reality.
One of those “laws,” as both imagination and reason tell us, is that the relationships between people are just that – relationships. Since people’s “selves” are created by these relationships, in essence there is no split between egoism and altruism.
As Walter Goodnow Everett put it, “It is because the self is capable of including in its own interests the interests of others that altruism is possible. Some degree of it, indeed, may said to be inevitable. Once it is seen that the self is a social [i.e., created by relationship] self, the sharp opposition between egoism and altruism breaks down.”
Most people, on some level, understand these things, even if they cannot articulate them. For them it is implicit, not explicit knowledge. You could call it “subconscious” knowledge instead of “conscious” knowledge. Of course, it’s always better for these concepts to be conscious and known instead of subconscious and unknown. It’s better that way, for people and society.