This is a summary I provided to a grad student who was starting to get into this area. It’s very introductory and far from complete in its coverage, but since there’s so little out there on this topic, I thought it would be useful to post it. It’s also a bit biased towards literature that’s relevant to religion and religious experience (since this is what the student was working on). Comments are welcome.

The topic of the imagination had been out of fashion for a while in the humanities, especially as textual and semiotic approaches (structuralism, poststructuralism et al) came to dominate cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Gradually it’s been coming back, but without any consensus on what it means or how it should be dealt with. The following are some of the threads of thinking that, to my mind, need to be drawn together in a coherent way in order to make contemporary sense of ‘the imagination’ or, as I prefer to call it, the imaginal. They are pieces of a much larger puzzle that is far from being solved.


1) Continental philosophy (i.e. European philosophy and its North American followers, as distinct from Anglo-American ‘analytical philosophy’)

This is where imagination has remained a topic of discussion all along, to some extent. Most of this work is rooted in the phenomenological and hermeneutic legacies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, though neither of those two philosophers wrote a great deal directly on the topic. Among those who have are Gaston Bachelard, especially in The Poetics of Space and On Poetic Imagination & Reverie; Edward Casey, who wrote on imagination back in the 1970s, though his more recent work on space/place and art is both more philosophically ‘mature’ and more widely influential (the 2000 re-edition of Imagining contains a useful preface that updates his thinking on the topic); Richard Kearney, whose Wake of Imagination and Poetics of Imagining are most directly relevant, though imagination has been a central theme in all of his writing (e.g. Strangers, Gods, and Monsters); John Sallis, in several books including Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental; and James Steeves’ Imagining Bodies: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Imagination. I would consider Casey’s and Sallis’ recent writing to be ‘cutting-edge’ within this tradition, though somewhat difficult to apply to empirical work. Looking at the two Kearney books is a good start for beginners. Phillips’ & Morley’s Imagination and Its Pathologies also includes some useful essays, including ones by Casey, Kearney, and Morley on a Merleau-Pontian approach to imagination.

2) The Jungian tradition and its relatives (archetypal psychology, transpersonal psychology, etc.)

Jung is not very popular in the academic humanities today and Jungian work remains somewhat disconnected from the main paradigms, but imagination is a HUGE topic among those influenced by his work. The most useful starting point here is the work of James Hillman, founder of ‘archetypal psychology.’ (Archetypal psychology is best thought of as a branch of ‘analytical’ or ‘depth psychology,’ which are common terms used to indicate a Jungian line of descent. These all differ from Freudian psychoanalysis and other post-Freudian traditions, e.g. object-relations theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, ego psychology, Kleinian and Eriksonian theories, et al. Each of these emphasizes something different and/or takes a different approach to analytical/clinical practice. Jung emphasized the development (‘individuation’) of the self through the overcoming of psychological complexes by working with archetypal symbols and images.) Hillman’s theoretical writings, including Re-Visioning Psychology, date from the 1970s & 1980s; that one and Archetypal Psychology are good places to start with his thinking. Others who may be useful are Robert Romanyshyn (Technology as Symptom and Dream) and Christopher Hauke, whose Jung & the Postmodern usefully attempts to bring this tradition into dialogue with more current cultural theory. A lot of popular authors like Thomas More (Care of the Soul, Re-Enchantment of the World) and Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Women who Run with the Wolves) are rooted in this tradition, and some of the phenomenological/Continental philosophers, such as Casey, draw from it heavily. An important influence in Jungian and post-Jungian thinking on the imagination, and a crossing-point between Jungians and some of the Continental philosophers noted above, is phenomenologist of religion Henry Corbin‘s work on the “imaginal faculty”; see his important essay “Mundus imaginalis, or, the Imaginary and the Imaginal.” A more recent, post-countercultural relative to Jungian psychology is transpersonal psychology, some of which draws on Jungian and archetypal work. See especially Michael Washburn’s (The Ego & the Dynamic Ground, Transpersonal Psychology in Psychoanalytic Perspective) and Jorge Ferrer’s (Revisioning Transpersonal Theory) work. Unfortunately, transpersonal psychology doesn’t seem to have a lot of cultural capital in academe these days, though it deserves better.

3) Cognitive and neuropsychological/neurophysiological work on human perception

Here’s where the cultural capital is (at least within academe as a whole)! The intersection of cognitive neuropsychology and the other traditions (e.g. phenomenology, Deleuzian work – see below) is where I think the really interesting work should be occurring, but it’s not there yet. Two very interesting early attempts to bring this work to the topic of ritual, religion, and the imagination were: (1) D’Aquili, McManus & Laughlin, Brain, Symbol, and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness (from the early 1990s). Unfortunately their work hasn’t left much of a direct legacy, though Laughlin continues to do some very interesting work. And (2) Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. The late Francesco Varela was one of the founding theorists of autopoietic systems theory and of ‘enactive cognition,’ which refers to the study of mind/body as it occurs through living, embodied in-the-world encounters. Varela was a respected biologist and a practicing Buddhist, influenced also by phenomenology. His work with Thompson and Rosch attempted a ‘neurophenomenology’, i.e. an approach that combines studying the human nervous system with studying human experience ‘from the inside’ – which is exactly what D’Aquili et al. were trying to do. Enactive cognitivism has been slowly permeating into cognitive science and phenomenological work and remains a viable & interesting research program. It might be accurate to say that it’s a strong minority tradition within cognitive science (which is a huge & very active field) – not the mainstream, but influential. (See Randall Whitaker’s web page for some starting points on autopoietic theory and enactive cognitivism; Kevin McGee’s 2-part article is also useful.) Varela died about six years ago, but Evan Thompson and others are continuing in this vein. Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Harvard/Belknap, 2007) can be considered a current state-of-the-art statement of enactive biology of mind. Since Varela’s death, Thompson has moved into an embrace of Husserlian phenomenology, which seems a little counter-intuitive to those who’ve been following Continental philosophy (which has shifted ever farther away from Husserl).

The topic of imagination is increasingly addressed in current neurophysiological work. Neo-Spinozian Antonio Damasio (see Looking for Spinoza) has been important in this trend, though his interest is more in developing a post-Cartesian understanding of the place of emotions in mental activity. Neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, working with Giolio Tononi (see A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination), has taken a stab at it. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s more linguistic and philosophical approach to the ‘embodied mind’ (see Philosophy in the Flesh) is useful to look at. And O’Connor and Aardema‘s article ‘The imagination: Cognitive, pre-cognitive, and meta-cognitive aspects’ provides a valuable overview of psychological understandings of imagination, including recent neuropsychology. O’Connor and Aardema draw on phenomenology and cognitive research to develop a model in which imagination and perception are understood to support each other, working jointly to define ‘sense of reality’ according to a range of possibilities within any ‘intentional space’ or context and a range of degrees of cognitive, pre-cognitive, and meta-cognitive ‘absorption’ within these, including detached, metaphorical (‘believed-in’ imaginings including the temporary suspension of disbelief involved in reading fiction or watching films), and ‘living-as’ (which includes not only everyday waking beliefs about reality but dreaming, hypnotic, and other altered states of consciousness). Philosophers Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft‘s Recreative Minds (Oxford, 2003) also apply current neuropsychology to our udnerstanding of imagination.

4) Deleuzian work in philosophy, politics, affect, psychoanalysis, etc.

Gilles Deleuze was the French poststructuralist big name philosopher (alongside Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) whose influence has been slowest in creeping westward yet, perhaps, deepest in what it’s been doing now that it’s gotten here. It’s complex, daunting, extremely interdisciplinary, drawing on science as well as the social sciences and humanities, and ahead of its time. While Deleuze comes out of the Continental philosophical tradition, he is hardly reducible to it and is sufficiently different from the more phenomenologically-oriented thinkers as to warrant a separate category here. Deleuze almost singlehandedly brought the earlier philosophical work of Baruch Spinoza (early modern) and Henri Bergson (turn of the last century) to many people’s attention. His thinking is monist, ‘immanentist’, processual, nonlinear – i.e. he tries to get rid of the idea that nature and culture are different things (dualism) and that life is guided from outside of living things themselves (by God or by genes or genetic programs, etc.) – to him, everything is natural, everything is in process, thoughts and images work together to faciliate the opening up of experience and action. Among the Deleuzians who deal with imagination (and whose writing tends to be fairly abstruse and difficult), Brian Massumi (Parables for the Virtual), Elizabeth Grosz (Chaos, Territory, Art), Ronald Bogue, Mark Bonta, and John Protevi are highly recommended.

Among the interdisciplinary thinkers who draw on Deleuze very strongly but whose work is somewhat broader in its range of influences and in its influence outside typically ‘Deleuzian’ currents, political theorist William Connolly deserves mention. In particular, his Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed. draws on neurophysiology (esp. Damasio) and Spinozian-Deleuzian thought and brings these to questions of identity, politics, imagination, pluralism, religion vs. secularism, etc.

5) A growing literature in the social sciences on enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment

This represents a paradigm shift that’s taken place among sociologists of religion from thinking that as the world modernizes it gets progressively more ‘disenchanted’ (religion & spirituality get marginalized, etc.) to thinking that, in fact, the world remains full of ‘enchantments’ – just in different ways than in the past. Religion, for instance, has certainly not gone away, but material goods as well as ideas (identities, nations, ethnicities, etc.) can be powerfully alluring, too – they cast their enchantments in ways that have hardly been adequately theorized. Some of the work in this category is by historians, some by sociologists and anthropologists. Good places to start include Michael Saler’s article “Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review,” Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics , and, more specific to religious studies, Randall Styers’s Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World and Alex Owen’s The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. The seminal influence of Bruno Latour is also important here (We Have Never Been Modern; Iconoclash) if only as a provocative prod to thinking.

6) Visual studies, cultural studies, science studies, critical affect studies

Some of these categories overlap with each other and with others already mentioned. Within visual studies, see W. J. T. Mitchell’s What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images and James Elkins’ and David Morgan’s collection Re-Enchantment (The Art Seminar), which also fits in the previous category. Within science studies, Latour (mentioned above) has been a significant influence (see his Iconoclash). Historians of science have also been addressing issues of imagery and imagination; see, e.g., Jones’ and Galison’s Picturing Science, Producing Art. I haven’t mentioned Lacanian work on imagination, which has been extremely influential in film studies and cultural studies more broadly, nor have I touched on all the recent work on affect, which I intend to do in an upcoming blog posting. These are related, and I’ll leave them aside for the moment.

7) Analytical philosophy

I’ve mentioned a few analytical philosophers already (e.g., Greg Currie, Mark Johnson). The most relevant sub-fields here are probably philosophy of mind and philosophy of aesthetics. Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to say much about either area, but I haven’t seen a lot that deals with imagination directly. Colin McGinn’s Mindsight book is certainly of interest, as is Kieran’s and Lopes’ collection Imagination, Philosophy, and the Arts. There seems little dialogue between these thinkers and the Continental tradition (Bachelard/Casey/Kearney, et al), which, needless to say, is symptomatic and should be addressed by somebody (!).

8) Attempts to put the puzzle together

Finally, probably the best single overview on the topic of ‘imagination’ in Western thought – which deserves a category of its own given its interdisciplinary breadth and its singularity (even in relation to her other work) – is Eva Brann’s mammoth study The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance. It’s not quite up to date (1991) and has its biases and serious omissions, particularly regarding some of the traditions I’ve been focusing on above, but it’s certainly useful.

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