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Francis Garden - 1878 - Table of contents

Diccionario filosófico
Complete edition

Diccionario de Filosofía
Brief definition of the most important concepts of philosophy.


A Dictionary of English Philosophical Terms Francis Garden

Vocabulary of Philosophy, Psychological, Ethical, Metaphysical
William Fleming

Biografías y semblanzas Biographical references and lives of philosophers

Brief introduction to the thought of Ortega y Gasset

History of Philosophy Summaries

Historia de la Filosofía
Explanation of the thought of the great philosophers; summaries, exercises...

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Jaime Balmes

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Zeferino González

Vidas, opiniones y sentencias de los filósofos más ilustres
Complete digital edition of the work of Diogenes Laertius

Compendio de las vidas de los filósofos antiguos

A brief history of Greek Philosophy
B. C. Burt


A Short History of Philosophy





Imagination. The faculty of producing images of that which is not present. There is no man not an idiot who is quite devoid of this, and none who does not frequently exercise the power. But we seldom speak of imagination as characteristic of any man, except where it exists and acts in an unusual degree, and where it gives power more than ordinary to present to other minds the images which it creates.

We connect both the exercise and the aim of this faculty mainly with poetry, with the fine arts in general, and with works of fiction. But its uses are not limited to these. A defect of imagination is a calamity not merely as depriving a man of the pleasure to be derived and rendering him unsusceptible of the valuable influences to be gained from them, not as producing an unsympathetic character, but because it impedes much mental effort with which people do not ordinarily associate the faculty. A little consideration will show that imagination is needful for the historian as well as the poet. He too has occasion to throw himself into that which is not present, and to enable his readers to do the same.


Even in science I suspect that imagination is required in order to catch and detain the anticipations whereby great results have dawned on the mind of the votary. To turn to morals, selfishness will be found to deaden the imagination even in those who possess naturally a large share of the faculty, and who still exercise it abundantly in matters of mere taste. But they cannot throw themselves into the situation, or enter into the feelings, of others.

In the sphere with which we habitually connect the word, that of poetry and aesthetics, a distinction has of late been recognised and insisted on between imagination and fancy. (See Fancy.) By our older writers, as I observed under that head, the words were for the most part used synonymously. So in the celebrated passage in the "Midsummer Night's Dream" Theseus employs the one word (1) and Hippolita the other, obviously meaning the same thing.

Milton as we have already seen means imagination by fancy (see Fancy), and in addition to the passage already quoted I may refer to his
               "Sweetest Shakespear, Fancy's child."

Still, the distinction between them has been much insisted on of late. Etymologically considered, the word fancy is no doubt as well adapted to denote the higher as the lower faculty, but as imagination could not be employed to designate the latter, it has now claimed the office of denoting the other, and excluded fancy from that honour.

Leaving, however, the question of names, it is beyond dispute that there are two faculties between which there exists a great distinction. One is the power of associating and combining things which are quite dissociated in ordinary minds, and thus shedding clear and lively illustration on the matters with which it deals. The other instead of combining unites, gathers into a whole, gives that whole form and aspect, and is well spoken of by Coleridge as
             "The shaping spirit of Imagination."

It is obvious that this creative power is something distinct from the mere ingenuity of combining with which it has been often confounded, and being so is entitled to have a different name.

These two faculties, however, though distinct, are not unallied, and the exercise of the higher does not preclude the use of the lower as a subordinate instrument. In this respect the case corresponds with that of the reason and the understanding. The most imaginative poet may have to use a lively fancy, as the most genial humorist may possess a ready wit. Usually, however, a marked development of the imagination will throw into the background the exercise of fancy, which will not show itself prominently either in the great poet, or the great humorist, though there may be happy analogies in the works of the one which are tinged with a beauty making them poetical, and sparkling point in the felicities of the other, which have enough of the ludicrous to bring them within the sphere of humour.

Similes and metaphors are natural exercises both of fancy and imagination. But the similes and metaphors produced by the one will be mainly analogies, those produced by the other will be imagery. Thus Waller's
   "The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
     Lets in new lights through chinks that time has made,"
gives us a very happy analogy between the light that is admitted by a decaying wall and the increased illumination of a mind over which the body through growing decrepitude is losing its ascendency. But it. cannot rank much higher than as an exercise of the fancy. It presents no picture, creates no image. So, too, Campbell's well-known
       "Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,
        And coming events cast their shadows before,"
is perhaps more fanciful than imaginative, though there is a touch of the latter quality in the second line, and though there is a beauty both of thought and expression which certainly brings the whole within the sphere of poetry. On the other hand,
       "The dews of the evening most carefully shun
        Those tears of the sky for the loss of the sun,"
is merely fanciful, and not in the least poetical. It is a conceit, and fancy by itself dwells in the region of conceits. I have said that it is not poetical, and the word poetical when etymologically viewed illustrates the whole question. But compare these with the similes of the Prophets, of Homer, of Dante, and we at once feel that we are dealing with different matter, with the exercises of different faculties, and the production of different results. Still more does the impotence of the fancy appear when leaving metaphors and similes we come to the grand creations of imaginative power, the vivid presentation of scenes, delineation of actions, and exhibitions of character.

To sum up. Wit is the exercise of fancy, humour of imagination. Sculpture and painting must be imaginative to be good for anything. Poetry too must be imaginative, but in the universality both of its range and its materials may give subordinate employment to the fancy as well.

The distinction between fancy and imagination is handled by Wordsworth(2) and by Coleridge.(3)


(1) How curiously this passage has been misunderstood! I have seen it quoted thus, "the imagination all compact," compact being obviously supposed to agree with imagination, and to describe a particular kind or mode of the faculty characteristic of "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet," whereas it is plainly they who

              "Are of imagination all compact,"
i e. compacted.

(2) Preface.

(3) Biographia Literaria, pp. 65 et seq., ed. 1847.



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