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Imagination

The imagination has always been a central concern in the modern academic study of esotericism. Much of the original inspiration for that focus can be traced to the writings of the French scholar of Islamic esotericism Henry Corbin (1903-1978), whose article "Mundus imaginalis ou l'imaginaire et l'imaginal" (1964) became a classic in the so-called religionist school of esoteric studies linked to the tradition of Eranos. Since the early 199os, Corbin's friend and colleague Antoine Faivre adopted his concept of imagination as one of the four "intrinsic characteristics" of Western esotericism in his famous definition of what the field was all about. Neither Corbin nor Faivre were representatives of the 1960s generation that aspired to transforming society by bringing l'imagination au pouvoir; but as the study of religion along religionist lines had become a mainstream perspective in the academy and even more in popular culture, with the enormously influential work of Eranos luminaries such as Carl Gustav Jung and Mircea Eliade, it was only natural that the imagination would come to be perceived by the new generation as somehow central to the study of esotericism. As an attractive alternative to cold rationality on the one hand and religious dogmatism on the other, the imagination could be seen as a powerful noetic capacity that allowed the human mind to gain access to "intermediary levels" of reality between the "lower" realm of pure matter and the "higher" abstractions of pure thought. In a metaphysical framework on broadly Platonic foundations, for Corbin the imagination was a subtle realm of upwardly spiritualised bodies whereas Faivre saw it rather in terms of a downward incarnation or embodiment of pure spirit. 

Over time, the imagination has become ever more central to my own work too, but on different foundations. Whereas religionist scholarship rests on metaphysical assumptions about the true nature of reality, my empirical-historical perspective is less concerned with ontology and more with epistemology. Accordingly, and broadly in line with the empiricist tradition from Hume through Kant, I see the imagination primarily in psychological terms (or if one prefers, in terms of how our mind works). An eye-opener for me was the discussion of Kant and the imagination by Hartmut and Gernot Böhme in their study Das Andere der Vernunft (1983), and I found their conclusions confirmed by other specialists such as Mary Warnock and Helen Kneller. Building on an earlier analysis by Heidegger, these scholars show that in the first edition of his ground-breaking Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant gave a remarkably central role to the imagination as an indispensable mediator between the intellect and the senses. Without it, we would simply be unable to apprehend reality and bring order to the chaos of sense impressions. However, in his second edition (1787), Kant drew back from these conclusions. He now tried to play down the importance of the imagination and make it radically subservient to the dominance of Reason. What worried him was that if the imagination is so central to our capacity for gaining knowledge, this means that fantasy and madness can no longer be excluded as irrational delusion but must somehow be integrated into what thinking is all about. Such a conclusion threatened the core aspirations of Enlightenment rationalism, and therefore the spectre of the imagination had to be exorcized at all costs. However, it seems evident to me that Kant's original insight was much more accurate; he changed his mind not because the argument was incorrect, but because its implications were too worrisome. Accepting the centrality of the imagination to our mental functioning is much more reasonable, in my opinion, than denying it because we don't like the implications.

Cognitive scholars such as Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (the pioneers of "conceptual blending" theory) have begun to rediscover the truth of what Kant did not wish to acknowledge: that far from being marginal, the imagination is in fact central to our very capacity of understanding reality in all its dimensions. I see the imagination as a core component of the "radical empiricism" defended by philosophers/psychologists such as William James, and to which I feel close myself; and of course this focus fits easily within my general interest in consciousness and consciousness alteration. Furthermore, against the background of my interest in Jan Assmann's concept of mnemohistory and my own work on historiography and rejected knowledge, I see the historical imagination as a tragically neglected key phenomenon, because more than anything else it determines how human beings (including professional historians) give meaning to history by turning strings of events into stories or narratives. The irony is that if the imagination remains woefully neglected in academic theory, this is for a reason that demonstrates the very point: it happens because we imagine (!) Enlightenment and science as concerned with reason and empiricism - with things that are "not just imaginary but real" - as opposed to all those "irrational" fantasies that we consider typical of such things as Romanticism, poetry, magic or the occult. We seldom ever realise that this very opposition has no existence in reality "out there" but only in the realm of our intellectual imagination, both individual and collective! Thus what we most need to see remains hidden from our gaze, whereas what we take to be self-evidently real is in fact a figment of our... imagination.