Imagination and experience

After the initial basis of a rational life, with a civilized language, has been laid, all productive thought has proceeded either by the poetic insight of artists, or by the imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought capable of utilization as logical premises. In some measure or other, progress is always a transcendence of what is obvious.

— Whitehead (1929, 9)

‘Productive thought’ then is bound to be imaginative. But it is an imaginative response to (or reading of) actual experience – not imaginary experience – that is most productive, in science, art and religion.

Our conceptual imagination, like its artistic counterpart, draws inspiration from contacts with experience. And like the works of imaginative art, the constructions of mathematics will tend therefore to disclose those hidden principles of the experienced world of which some scattered traces had first stimulated the imaginative process by which these constructions were conceived.

— Polanyi (1962, 46)

… a fact or datum, by itself, is essentially meaningless; it is only the interpretation assigned to it that has significance. Thus, for example, one can literally see the rotation of the earth on any starry night; it has always been patently visible, but for millennia human beings did not know how to understand or interpret what they were seeing. Examples of such misinterpretation, which have retarded the development of science by centuries, can be multiplied without end in the history of science; in all these cases, it was the absence, not of data, but of imagination that created difficulty.

— Rosen (1991, 17)

Robert Rosen’s point is clear: neither science nor understanding in general can proceed without the element of imagination, or interpretation. It is part of the loop (cycle, recursive process, hermeneutic circle, ….. ) which constitutes practice as opposed to undirected activity: perception guides imagination, imagination guides modeling, modelling guides expectation, expectation guides movement, movement guides perception, and the closure of the whole loop guides the bodymind on its way in the world.

Action can be guided by a much shorter circuit, such as a reflex arc, but we don’t generally speak of such actions as guided, or even as acts. The attempt to reduce all mentality to ‘reflexes,’ and the behaviorist campaign to banish mind and consciousness from our models of ourselves, appear ludicrous to us now – yet it dominated psychology (at least in the US) through most of the 20th century (see Baars 2003).

But Rosen’s comments (above) also invite some questions. In what sense can you ‘literally see the rotation of the earth’ on a starry night? What you can detect visually on a single night – if you are more patient than most people, and far enough from urban light pollution to see the stars at all – is that the whole field of stars revolves around a central point, which in the northern hemisphere is approximately Polaris, the North Star. You could infer from this that you are standing on a planet which is revolving – and then the apparent motion of the stars is visible as the rotation of the earth. If you make a different inference – like the one implied by the words sunrise and sunset, that the sun is moving around your standpoint – then what you ‘literally’ see at night is the turning of the stars, not the rotation of the earth. Even this turning is much too slow for human vision to track in ‘real time’; we have to call upon memory in order to ‘see’ the movement of the stars. Between literal and figurative, or between reading and interpretation, the line is often difficult to draw.

And what of the ‘difficulty’ which Rosen blames on the absence of imagination? Was the development of science really ‘retarded’ before science confirmed for us all that we stood upon a turning planet? Or is this like saying that the development of a human embryo is ‘retarded’ before the eyes are functional or the fingers articulated? Perhaps we cannot say; all we can do is live the time by our tacit models, and meanwhile carry them forward through constant renovation.

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