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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In his novel Si le grain ne meurt, André Gide clearly
pinpoints one recurrent source of metaphysical think-
ing. He writes there of a vague, ill-defined belief that
“something else exists alongside the acknowledged,
aboveboard reality of everyday life.” This “desire to
give life more thickness,” he suggests, elicits “a sort
of propensity to imagine a clandestine side to things.”
Gide's notion of giving life more “thickness” is remi-
niscent of a celebrated definition of metaphysics: “the
effort to comprehend the universe not simply piece-
meal or by fragments, but somehow as a whole”
(Bradley, Introduction); and perhaps one could say the
“propensity” Gide so graphically describes affords as
good an indication as any of what could be meant by
“metaphysical imagination.” At any rate, in everyday
language the phrase could hardly be used more
vaguely. If it certainly makes sense today to talk of
the “metaphysical imagination” of Plato or of Schopen-
hauer, of William Blake or of Franz Kafka, and it is
not quite unheard of to find critics and others employ-
ing the expression when discussing the paintings of
Braque or attempting to characterize the music of Bach
or of Webern, the slightest reflection shows how very
little specific meaning accrues to the phrase in such
contexts. Nor has it been given any special meaning
by scholars.

Wilhelm Dilthey, for example, speaks not of “meta-
physical imagination” but of “metaphysical conscious-
ness” (das metaphysische Bewusstsein), by which he
means an awareness of “the riddle of life.” According
to Dilthey, a thinker's or an artist's Weltanschauung
is not really his imaginative “vision of the world”; it
is his comprehensive answer to the question “What
is the meaning of life?” Dilthey thinks that every
Weltanschauung has three constituents: factual beliefs,
value-judgments, and a set of ultimate goals. And in
line with his general psychological theory, Dilthey
directly relates these constituents not to any special
uses of imagination but rather to what he takes to be
the three more basic attitudes or aspects of personality:
thought, feeling, and will. “In the typical Weltan-
of philosophy,” he writes, “a powerful phil-
osophical personality makes one of the general atti-
tudes toward the world dominant over the others, and
its categories over theirs” (Dilthey p. 66). So Dilthey
takes his main task to be the construction of a system-
atic theory of philosophical outlooks (a Weltanschau-
) which will analyze the “metaphysical con-
sciousness” and the way different philosophical out-
looks arise from it, classifying them under their most
frequent types. In this way, he thinks, it will be possi-
ble, first, to expose the conceptual “illusions” on which
metaphysicians rely in attempting to give rational
support to their outlooks, and ultimately to display the
true significance these outlooks have as historically
conditioned “interpretations of life.” In fact, Dilthey
was particularly interested in the concept of imagina-
tion and he returned to it again and again throughout
his career. Yet he nowhere devoted attention to some-
thing that could very precisely be called “metaphysical
imagination.” This is equally true of most other impor-
tant writers on the nature of metaphysics, many of
whom have been influenced by Dilthey, such as E.
Spranger, K. Jaspers, R. G. Collingwood, and E. Cas-
sirer. The phrase scarcely occurs in the relevant
scholarly literature.

This is one reason why we shall not attempt here
to provide a panoramic review of the various types
of “metaphysical imagination” that might loosely be
said to have existed from Parmenides to Jean-Paul
Sartre, or even, perhaps, from Aeschylus to Luigi
Pirandello. And there is also another reason. Under
different headings, such monolithic accounts are often
produced today. But practically all of them suffer from
a methodological defect which seriously detracts from
any claims they may have to be genuine contributions
to the history of ideas.


One of the more distinguished performances in this
genre is Jean Wahl's recent L'Expérience métaphysique,
a work on a topic nominally very close to our own.
Wahl owes much to Dilthey's approach to metaphysics
and also to Bergson's belief that every philosophy
results from a more fundamental, nondiscursive “intui-
tion.” For Wahl, as for Dilthey, the logic of the meta-
physician's argument is not his essential characteristic;
what is essential is his particular “interrogative experi-
ence.” All great philosophy is “founded on intuitions,
on experiences” of a deeply questioning kind. As a
modern example, Wahl quotes André Breton: “There
exists a point where life and death, the real and the
imaginary, the past and the future, the knowable and
unknowable, the high and the low, coincide” (Wahl,
p. 86). To discover if this point can be attained is, says
Wahl, une interrogation vraiment métaphysique. Wahl
thinks there is in fact a multitude of “metaphysical
experiences” and he tries to locate some of the more
fundamental ones through a selective survey of the
history of philosophy. Yet near the end of his book
Wahl makes a telling revelation about his overall
method of enquiry. He still insists that metaphysics is,
above all else, a form of “questioning and interro-
gation,” but by now his own survey forces him to go
on to say that “the particular form given to the inter-
rogation is, in the last resort, unimportant.” For, after
all, despite the great variety of “experiences” Wahl
has detected even in the history of philosophy alone,
his basic program has really committed him to the view
that metaphysics is not confined to metaphysicians in
the narrow sense.

If one studies Van Gogh's Letters, if one reads Les
by Rimbaud, Blake's Songs of Innocence
and Experience,
or the English “metaphysical” poets
of the seventeenth century, then also, Wahl hastens to
explain, one will find oneself confronted by efforts
in so far as metaphysics is a deeply
interrogative experience dealing in analogies and anti-
theses, fusion and coincidence. Now in a sense, of
course, this is all perfectly true. It is difficult indeed
to think of a great metaphysician of whom it could
not be safely said that he is profoundly questioning,
or even a little more concretely, that he is concerned,
somehow or other, with the “reconciliation of oppo-
sites.” That such a view could be maintained about
the works (and even the personalities) of many creative
artists also, need hardly be questioned. The main criti-
cism one is bound to level at Wahl's book, however,
serves very well to underline the problem that would
be involved in writing about metaphysical imagination
in analogous fashion. Taken as they are, these highly
general categories of experience, interrogation, co-
incidence, and so forth are far too imprecise for the
more empirically-minded historian to operate with. By
a rhetorically persuasive use of them, a writer as bril-
liant as Jean Wahl could make almost any thesis seem
plausible. And in this we shall not try to imitate him.
A history of metaphysical imagination cannot be writ-
ten in the same way as a history of classical mechanics
or a history of post-Kantian idealism. For the concept
of metaphysical imagination does not even begin to
have any comparably circumscribed boundaries; if
anything, its extension is broader, its horizon more
widely and perplexingly fluctuating, than that of phi-
losophy or of metaphysics out court.

We are confronted with two highly complex words.
In modern times “metaphysics” has come to mean very
different things to different writers; while throughout
its long history the term “imagination” (φαντασία ,
imaginatio, immaginazione, Phantasie, Einbildungs-
etc.) has rarely retained for long one simple,
easily identifiable use. This last point alone is, however,
of considerable historical interest. One of the most
significant linguistic events since the second half of the
eighteenth century is precisely the manner in which
“imagination” has increasingly come to be used in ways
far removed from its root etymological sense of re-
calling or rearranging sense-data. Today, even for phi-
losophers, to “imagine” is no longer just to “see” in-
wardly, to entertain mental “images,” either of the
“productive” or of the “reproductive” kinds, as Aris-
totle and even J. S. Mill ostensibly taught. It is not
necessarily a process of “visualization” at all. To
“imagine” can be to think in the sense of to suppose
or believe; to simulate, make-believe, pretend; to in-
vent or create; not least, to anticipate. For some con-
temporary writers it may be any combination of these
things and even something more.

“Imagination,” according to Gaston Bachelard, “is
not the faculty of forming images of reality, it is the
faculty of forming images which go beyond reality,
which turn reality into song. It is a superhuman qual-
ity” (Bachelard, p. 43). Then is imagination perhaps
essentially “metaphysical”? Bachelard, for one, would
not shy from this formulation; nor, it seems, would
Sartre. In his influential phenomenological study
L'Imaginaire, Sartre attributes to imagination the truly
herculean task of a “nihilation of the world in its
essential structure.” The basic function of consciousness
is the creation of a substitute world, a “world of un-
realities,” “the imaginary”; and to imagine, says Sartre,
is to exercise that uniquely human power which over-
comes the nauseating disgust inseparable from all con-
sciousness of physical reality (of the en-soi, in the
terminology of L'Etre et le néant). In effect, Sartre
relates imagination to the “negating function of con-
sciousness” which, in turn, he equates with man's es-


sential “freedom.” The distancing power of imagina-
tion demonstrates that the true nature of human
consciousness (of the pour-soi) is not to be solely in-
the-midst-of-the-world; and conversely, “it is because
he is transcendentally free that man can imagine.”
Outside the somewhat narrow confines of the English-
speaking philosophical orthodoxies, pronouncements
like these of Bachelard and Sartre can by no means
be regarded as wildly eccentric. Leaving aside for a
moment the high assessments of imagination still made
by many contemporary poets and critics, one need only
remember that unquestionably sober philosophers like
Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer have also argued
that the use of imagination can be seen to be man's
distinguishing characteristic. Moreover, while no one
seems to have developed any specific concept or theory
of metaphysical imagination as such, many thinkers
have held important views not only about what might
be called the “metaphysical” (or “anthropological”)
significance of imagination, but also about the role of
imagination in metaphysical thinking.
It is with these
latter views that this article will be primarily con-
cerned. We shall treat the concept of “metaphysical
imagination” in a piecemeal and historical fashion by
examining what in fact it actually meant, or could have
meant, to some of the main thinkers in the Western
tradition. This will involve a review of what these
thinkers understood by “imagination,” and of what
they took the role of imagination in metaphysics to be.

The attempt to understand philosophy in what
J. H. Randall has called its “imaginative and poetic as
distinguished from its critical function” (Randall, p.
100) has become a widespread scholarly preoccupation
only in the twentieth century. Of course, all the mani-
fold cultural and intellectual forces that made this
attempt possible have their own history, some of the
bare outlines of which will be sketched here. But we
must take as our starting point the striking fact that
before the Renaissance no serious scholar would have
thought it even particularly intelligible, let alone valu-
able, to characterize the work of a great metaphysician
by reference to some peculiar exercise of “imagination”
on that metaphysician's part. In the Greek of Plato
and Aristotle, in the Latin of Augustine or Aquinas
an attempted translation of our richly evocative con-
temporary phrase “metaphysical imagination” would
result in a virtually meaningless expression, lacking as
much in connotation as in denotation, and amounting
almost to a contradictio in adjecto. How did this change
in terminology, and the very different understanding
of the nature and function of metaphysics which it
reflects, come about?

Plato would have found the expression “meta-
physical imagination” deeply puzzling. He did not, of
course, possess the word “metaphysics,” which was
later fabricated from the Greek τὰ μετὰ τὰ ψυσικά, i.e.,
“the [books of Aristotle] after the Physics,” but if
someone had suggested to him that there was a form
of ultimate philosophical insight to be gained primarily
through “imagination” (φαντασία, or more commonly
in Plato, εἰκασία), he would have dismissed such a
suggestion with scorn. For imagining (εἰκασία) is, ac-
cording to Plato's celebrated simile of the Line, simply
a kind of conjecturing; its objects are shadows, reflec-
tions, or “likenesses,” i.e., those images (εἰκόνεσ) of
visible things which Socrates firmly places at the lowest
level of being in the world of appearances. The recom-
mended path of philosophical thinking is a linear pro-
gression away from this shadowy level of apprehension,
through common-sense belief (πίστισ), to mathematical
and conceptual thinking(διάνοια); and finally to a
knowledge (νόησις or επιστήμη) of the ideal Forms.
Furthermore, Plato is so far from taking εἰκασία to be
the special faculty of the philosopher that he attributes
it, with the clearest of derogatory intentions, to the
pseudo-philosopher, the sophist, whose essential char-
acteristic is shown to be the “art of image making,”
consisting of the making of likenesses (εἰκασία) and
the making of appearances (φανταστική; Sophist 236f.).
Plato similarly reprimands the artist because he pro-
duces a representation twice removed from the reality
of the Forms, a mere μίμησισ φαντάσματος, which be-
cause of its origin in the sensible world may well work
on the emotions, but can scarcely be considered a
source of philosophical knowledge.

So, on the face of it, this would be Plato's opinion
about the cognitive significance of imagination: for
him, as in one way or another, for the greater part
of ancient and medieval thought, and even for most
thinkers up to the middle of the eighteenth century,
imagining is a mental reproduction or rearranging of
sensible appearances, “a movement [in the mind],” said
Aristotle, “which results upon an actual sensation” (De
III. 3. 429a 1); at best, imagination (φαντασία ,
phantasia, imaginatio) acts as a kind of intermediary
between sensation and thought, and to this extent its
exercise is a necessary condition of our gaining ordinary
empirical knowledge. But for Plato, as for the main
Western metaphysical tradition that followed him, this
kind of knowledge relates only to the “visible” or
phenomenal, as opposed to the “intelligible,” real
world; and the philosophic apprehension of the latter
is considered to be the function, not of imagination,
but, in some sense of the word, of reason. To this extent
therefore, those scholars seem to be right who see Plato
as the initiator of that long tradition of philosophic
distrust of imagination that can be clearly traced from
Aristotle and the Stoics, through the Church Fathers


and Schoolmen, to thinkers like Hobbes, the seven-
teenth-century rationalists, and beyond. Yet, as any
close acquaintance with the Platonic Dialogues would
immediately suggest, this view of Plato's assessment
of imagination must be regarded as only superficially
correct. In fact, it depends on too narrow a preoccupa-
tion with verbal equivalences; and it well illustrates
the difficulties presented by the term “imagination”
as a concept in the history of thought. For when one
turns from Plato's specific pronouncements on the
nature of εἰκασία and φαντασία to certain more per-
vasive features of his philosophy, it soon becomes ap-
parent that historically he also provided a powerful
impetus in a direction very different, almost diamet-
rically opposed, to that most often attributed to him.

The English romantic poet William Blake was un-
doubtedly thinking as a Platonist, or at any rate a
Neo-Platonist, when he wrote in 1809: “Vision, or
Imagination, is a Representation of what Eternally
Exists Really, and Unchangeably” (Blake, p. 145). And
Blake's use of “Imagination” in this somewhat mystical
sense was, as we shall see, by no means a personal
idiosyncrasy, devoid of historical precedent. The cru-
cial point is that Plato himself simply did not possess
a word (or a single concept) containing the very wide
complex of connotations we have found to be inherent
in the modern term “imagination.” By examining solely
his use of, say, εἰκασία, therefore, we cannot hope to
discover whether he thought imagination, in one or
more of its richer modern senses, could legitimately
be used to name a cognitive faculty or mode of meta-
physical insight. And in fact a broader look at Plato's
thought strongly suggests that Plato would have taken
no exception to Blake's use of “Imagination” could it
have been translated for him. For “insight” in the sense
of an “intellectual vision”—something certainly cov-
ered by the modern word “imagination” as its meaning
was modified and handed down to us by the roman-
tics—is central to Plato's whole conception of philo-
sophical knowledge. A movement from darkness to
light is everywhere used by him to convey the true
path from ignorance to wisdom, unconsciousness to
consciousness, from error and illusion to truth and
reality; it recurs not only in his use of myth and symbol,
but even permeates his technical vocabulary. A famil-
iar instance is Plato's word for the ideal Forms (εἰ̑δος)
which is related to a verb (εἴδω) meaning “to see,” so
that it becomes natural for Plato to speak of the world
of Forms, or ultimate reality, as something essentially
intellectually “perceptible,” seen, suffused with light,
like the sun in the visible world. What is more, accord-
ing to the famous passage in the Seventh Letter (341C
ff.), philosophic knowledge is not to be achieved solely
by discursive, dialectical means but by a kind of vision.
There the ascending path towards wisdom moves from
the name or word (ὄνομα) and definition (λόγοσ), to
intellectual “image, views, and perceptions” (εἴδωλον
ὄψεις τε καὶ αἰσθήσεισ
) through which, after many repe-
titions, the highest form of knowledge is experienced
as a sudden “spark transmitted” and “fire kindled” in
the disciple's soul, whereupon he is overwhelmed with
a feeling of blessedness and fulfillment (εὐδαιμονία).

We cannot enter here into the details of how this
conception of the highest form of philosophical
knowledge was adapted from Plato by the classical
Neo-Platonists during the second to the fifth centuries
A.D.; nor how similar views about the significance of
imagination reappear in the elaborate doctrines of
“illumination” and ecstasy propounded by very many
Neo-Platonic and Christian writers throughout the
Middle Ages. Perhaps it will be sufficient to note that
Plotinus' theory of emanations led him explicitly to
single out φαντασία, in its highest sense, as a function
of the rational soul and capable of reflecting Forms
or Ideas (see Bundy, Ch. 6); and, to mention only one
later instance, that Dante's conception of poetico-
mystical vision as a form of alta fantasia, a sensuous
intuition of spiritual reality made possible through the
medium of divine grace (see, e.g., Purgatorio, Canto
xvii, 13-18; Paradiso, Canto xxxiii), can be traced back,
in part, to Plotinus' use of φαντασία, and hence to
Plato's final statements about the nature of ultimate
philosophical insight. Instead, we must move directly
to the Renaissance. For it is really only then that the
relation between imagination and metaphysical think-
ing was expressly singled out as a topic for detailed
investigation and first began to be considered, along
with so many other things, in a genuinely empirical

From the time of the founding of the Platonic Acad-
emy at Florence in 1462 to the appearance of Bacon's
Novum Organum (1620) almost every major thinker
discussed the question of the function of imagination
in philosophical, theological, and magical knowledge.
The variety and complexity of these views is truly
remarkable and cannot be reproduced in a short space.
(Material suggestive of this complexity, together with
a preliminary bibliography, may be found in the fasci-
nating chapter on imagination in Burton's Anatomy
of Melancholy
[1652], Part I, Sec. 2, ii.) Still, the views
of Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno, on the one hand,
and those of Francis Bacon, on the other, deserve
special mention because of their very divergent but
highly important impact on later thought.

In their assessment of imagination, both Paracelsus
and Bruno strikingly dissent from the main stream of
Aristotelian scholasticism. They develop ideas derived
from hermeticism and Neo-Platonism, from, for exam-


ple, the Alexandrian Neo-Platonist Synesius of Cyrene,
whose treatise De somniis contained a defense of
imagination on the grounds that it was used by divine
powers to communicate with man in dreams. Para-
celsus sometimes seems to write as if he thinks magia
and imaginatio are etymologically related terms. Ac-
cording to him, it is through use of imagination, “the
inner sense of the soul,” that things inaccessible to the
physical senses can be perceived. Sense perception and
reason are the cognitive organs of the physical body;
imagination that of the sidereal body. Through imagi-
nation the soul intuits the inner powers and virtues
of physical things, recognizing their signature or seal
(signatum). Like Paracelsus, Bruno is deeply impressed
by the ancient idea of a correspondence between the
macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of man.
He believes that cosmic effects pass through us by
means of an imaginative force (vis imaginativa) which
has its foundation in man's imaginative soul (spiritus
). Although Bruno distinguishes four grades
of knowing on a Neo-Platonic model—sense, imagina-
tion, reason, intellect—he refuses to see these as com-
partmentalized, and tries to envisage the whole process
of cognition as somehow governed by imagination.
Thus, for him, imagination is not merely reproductive
and combinatory, as it is for the scholastics, but the
living source of original forms, what he otherwise calls
the sinus inexplebilis formarum et specierum. In his
theory of mnemonics, he claims that the practiced
confrontation of the mind with significant images can
magically excite the imagination in such a way as to
bring to consciousness the forms of an intelligible world
beyond the world of the senses; whereupon the mind
recovers, so to speak, its fundamental organization and
unity with the cosmos. In this sense he calls the magi-
cally activated imaginatio “the sole gate to all internal
affections and the link of links.” (For a discussion of
these views of Paracelsus and Bruno see Pagel, pp.
121-25; Yates [1964], passim., [1966], pp. 228f., 257.)

Such ideas are not easy to state with any convincing
show of conceptual precision, and they still remain for
the most part unassimilated by the main tradition of
Western philosophical thought as this is understood in
the English-speaking world. Nevertheless their cultural,
and even their philosophical, impact has been very
great. As Jean Starobinski points out, from Paracelsus
to van Helmont, to Fludd and Digby, to Böhme, to
Stahl and Mesmer, right through to the romantic poets
and philosophers (via the medical school of Mont-
pellier), such ideas about the cognitive—and spiritually
therapeutic—significance of imagination continue un-
abated. If one were to extend this list to the present
day, it would have to further include the symbolist
poets in France (thus Baudelaire's panegyrics on imag
ination in his Salon de 1859, where he calls it the
“queen of all faculties” which “creates a new world,”
something “intimately related to the infinite,” etc.,
repeats many of the Neo-Platonic and hermetic for-
mulae), and hence a large part of modern poetic the-
ory. It would also have to include surrealism, the
pronouncements of writers like Carl Jung, Bachelard,
and Sartre, and, as we shall see, the epistemologies of
major Continental philosophers, such as Bergson,
Heidegger, and Jaspers—many of whom, thinkers and
artists alike, have found it necessary to return to the
sources of these ideas in the original writings of Para-
celsus and Bruno. Such is one, doubtless the predomi-
nant, facet of Renaissance thought about the signifi-
cance of imagination for metaphysics. It was revived,
elaborated, and applied more specifically to the proc-
esses of artistic creation at the time of the romantic
movement. The Renaissance closed, however, with one
of the most devastating attacks upon this whole way
of thinking.

Francis Bacon is particularly interesting because in
him we first find an extremely clear and surprisingly
well-developed account of the role of imagination in
metaphysics which has since become something like
received doctrine amongst certain kinds of empiricist
philosophers. Bacon is fully aware that imagination
operates, perfectly legitimately, not only in rhetoric
and poetry but in many other areas of human life. As
a means of gaining knowledge, however, he considers
that the use of imagination is strictly limited. While
it may be true that in religious experience “our imagi-
nation raises itself above our reason” this is not because
“divine illumination” resides in imagination; knowledge
of God can only exist in the understanding. What can
happen in religious experiences is that “divine grace
uses the motions of the imagination as an instrument
of illumination... which is the reason why religion
ever sought access to the mind by similitudes, types,
parables, visions, dreams” (De augmentis, Book IV, Chs.
1-3; Book V, Ch. 1). Bacon's recognition of the sugges-
tive and metaphorical power of imagination, its close
association with visions, dreams, and with what we
would today call “fantasies,” is carried over into his
influential account of the idola mentis.

The “idols of the mind” are those deeply-rooted
psychological (and linguistic) “habits” through which
are produced premature “anticipations” of nature as
opposed to truly scientific “interpretations.” Nature
will be properly understood and controlled only when
the natural but distorting tendencies of the unaided
human mind itself are held in check. A radical humili-
of the intellect is needed; a new, regular, system-
atic (even, Bacon seems to suggest, a mechanical)
method of induction must take the place of the hitherto


arbitrary, subjective methodologies of philosophers and
natural scientists alike. In Book I of the Novum Or-
Bacon distinguishes four principal types of idola
each of which he then proceeds to attack. Here we
need only note the close connection he makes between
speculative thinking in both philosophy and science
and the uses of imagination.

Anticipations of nature “being deduced from a few
instances, and these principally of familiar occurrence,
immediately strike the understanding and satisfy the
imagination”; while genuinely scientific interpretations,
being more complex and less familiarly derived, do not
(ibid., Sec. 28). “The human mind,” he says in a char-
acteristic image, “resembles those uneven mirrors,
which impart their own properties to different objects,
from which rays are emitted, and distort and disfigure
them” (Sec. 41). Indeed “all the systems of philosophy
hitherto received” are both imaginary and imaginative
products: “so many plays brought out and performed,
creating fictitious and theatrical worlds.” And like
actual plots invented for the stage, these philosophical
productions “are more consistent, elegant, and pleasur-
able than those taken from real history” (Secs. 44 and
42). Instead of employing what has come to be known
today as a method of “falsification,” where “in estab-
lishing any true axiom [theory, hypothesis], the nega-
tive instance is the most powerful,” the human mind,
left to itself, naturally takes a different course. The
speculative philosopher “forces everything to add fresh
support and confirmation” to his theory, or rejects clear
counter-instances “with violent and injurious prejudice,
rather than sacrifice the authority of his first conclu-
sion.” A dominant reason for this is that the mind “is
most excited by whatever strikes and enters it at once
and suddenly, and by which imagination is immediately
filled and inflated” (Secs. 46 and 47). An excessive
reliance on imagination is also evident in the way
philosophers elaborate closed systems of thought ac-
cording to which the whole nature of the universe is
hastily conceived in terms of a single principle, or on
the analogy of a small group of phenomena. Gilbert's
attempt to erect a complete system of natural philoso-
phy on the basis of his magnetic studies is one of
Bacon's favorite whipping horses in this respect.
Thinkers of this sort suffer from a kind of idée fixe
which precipitates them into seeking imaginary “shad-
ows of resemblance” even in the face of the most
manifest differences and distinctions (Secs. 53f.). Bacon
lays special emphasis on the fact that such “fictions,”
“preconceived fancies,” or “fantastical” philosophies
are not infrequently the result of a thinker's subjective
desires. A philosopher's feelings often “imbue and cor-
rupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes
imperceptible ways.” For “the human understanding
resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the
will and passions,” and a man “always believes more
readily that which he prefers.” Hence the typically
metaphysical search for formal and final causes, the
latter being clearly “more allied to man's own nature”
(Secs. 49 and 48; cf., e.g., Advancement of Learning,
Book I, Part 5, Sec. 11, and Book II, Part 7, Sec. 5).

It is then, according to Bacon, through following the
natural, undirected propensities of his mind that the
metaphysician falls into error. Not least his imagina-
tion—that “Janus-like” faculty which has equal relation
to “will, appetite and affection” as to “understanding
and reason” (Advancement, II, 12, 1)—leads him to
construe the nature of things a priori and anthropo-
morphically, ex analogia hominis, rather than empiri-
cally and objectively, ex analogia universi.

The originality and historical importance of Bacon's
Novum Organum does not depend on his having pro-
duced any new logical refutation of the arguments
metaphysicians use to defend their theories; nor does
it rest on his own positive recommendations about the
logic of scientific discovery, which proved in the event
to be of little practical value. It would, of course, be
possible to trace all the ingredients of Bacon's analysis
of metaphysical thinking to earlier writers. Here, as
elsewhere, he owes much to contemporaries and near
contemporaries like Machiavelli, Telesio, and Mon-
taigne. He has learned from the materialistic realism
of the ancient atomists, Democritus and Lucretius. One
of his favorite quotations is from Fragment 2 of Hera-
clitus, which might be read as a prefiguration of
Bacon's whole skeptical approach to speculative phi-
losophy: “Although the Logos is common, the many
live as if they had a private understanding.” Never-
theless, in terms of synthesis and unsurpassed virtuosity
of expression, Bacon marks a turning point in the
history of antimetaphysical thinking. He is the first
great pathologist of philosophical thought. It is not so
much the logic, but the psychological origin and utility
of ideas that concerns him: the hidden motives, subjec-
tive dispositions, and emotional needs out of which so
many “specious meditations, speculations, and theories
of mankind” have been engendered, collectively con-
stituting, he says, “a kind of insanity” (op. cit., Sec. 10).

Outside England, Bacon's critique of speculative
thinking did not at first have any great effect upon
philosophers. It is true that the great Continental
thinkers in the seventeenth century were all pre-
occupied with the problem of finding, as Descartes put
it, a “new method of rightly conducting the reason
and seeking for truth in the sciences,” and nominally,
at any rate, this problem might seem to be the very
one that preoccupied Bacon. Like Bacon also, Des-
cartes and Malebranche, for example, often show un-


mitigated contempt for the philosophical methods of
the scholastics; while, again, on the face of it they share
with Bacon the conviction that in metaphysics and
natural philosophy “the entire labour of the under-
standing [must] be commenced afresh, and the mind
itself be... not left to take its own course, but guided
at every step” (Novum Organum, Preface). Compare,
and contrast, the program of Descartes' Regulae ad
directionem ingenii
(apparently written in 1628). But
in fact Bacon's strictures on metaphysics are very much
more radical than the intellectus emendatio demanded
by the Continental rationalists.

When Descartes said a set of rules was needed to
help the human mind arrive at truth in the sciences,
he did not mean to imply that the mind was, as it were,
intrinsically at odds with the real world and in need
of external aids to achieve knowledge. Descartes cer-
tainly thought observation and experiment played a
crucial role in science, but his conception of this role
differed significantly from Bacon's. For, like Plato,
Descartes believed that the human mind and whatever
else was real outside it were essentially commensurate,
that they were, perhaps one could say, of the same
order of being. It is true that he considered mind and
matter to be different “substances,” the essence of mind
being “thinking” and the essence of matter geometrical
“extension.” And this celebrated dualism having been
set up, it became one of the great problems of seven-
teenth-century thought to provide a coherent account
of psychophysical interaction.

Yet for all this the Cartesian dualism was in no way
designed to create an insoluble problem about how the
mind could know the real world. For, according to
Descartes, not only is the essence of mind “thinking,”
but the most perfect sort of thinking is the kind that
goes on in logic and mathematics. Moreover, the crite-
rion of truth in logic and mathematics is “that which
can be clearly and distinctly conceived,” and this is
also the criterion of truth that must be appealed to,
Descartes believed, when one comes to establish the
fundamental principles of the natural sciences. The
crucial point is that with Descartes, very much as with
Plato, a criterion for determining truth (above all,
mathematical truth) is made to serve as the criterion
for determining what is real. The more clearly and
distinctly conceivable something is, in particular the
more its nature can be expressed in the formal language
of mathematics, the more it is a part of “reality” as
opposed to appearance or illusion. Simple observation
may suggest otherwise, but reflection puts it beyond
all doubt that the true world consists of mathematical
forms. Hence by its own most innate capacities and
natural light, the human mind is perfectly fitted to
comprehend reality. Only because this clear intellec
tual vision is so often clouded by the senses—and by
passion, prejudice, the influence of bad education, and
so on, all of which distorting factors issue from, or act
upon us via, the senses—do misapprehension and error
occur. If only the mind can be cleansed of all sensuous
distortions the intelligible, mathematical order of God's
creation will be revealed. One of these distorting fac-
tors is the imagination, which Descartes conceives as
a sensuous power of visualization.

In fact, Descartes is not quite so scathing about the
philosophical dangers of imagination as Malebranche
or Spinoza were and he would probably have con-
sidered Pascal's famous diatribe against imagination as
cette partie décevante dans l'homme, cette maîtresse
d'erreur et de fausseté
(Pascal, 562-63) to be an ex-
aggeration. Descartes saw that imagination can some-
times be an aid even in mathematics, for instance, in
geometrical representations of relations between
quantities. But true to the Platonico-Augustinian tradi-
tion, Descartes thought of such sensuous repre-
sentations as only an imperfect aid for finite human
understanding. Above all, the sensuous origin of imagi-
nation, its close relation to the body, is what worries
Descartes. This is why imagination is to be banished
from metaphysics and reason, a process of clear and
distinct conception and deduction, put in its place. For
it was from his mathematical studies, Descartes de-
clared in the Discourse on Method (1637), that he had
been led to believe that all the possible objects of
human knowledge were linked together like the series
of propositions in an Euclidean demonstration, and that
if, in our empirical as well as our conceptual inquiries,
we accepted nothing as true that was not self-evidently
so “and kept to the right order in deducing one truth
from the other,” then “there was nothing so remote
that it could not be reached, nothing so hidden that
it could not be discovered” (op. cit., Part II). What
are needed are certain simple “rules for the direction
of the mind” which lay down what this “right order”
of thinking shall be, how the impediments presented,
not by the mind itself in its own inner purity, but by
the senses, are to be overcome. Here, imagination is
worse than useless. Insofar as it is an affection of the
body, imagination “is more of a hindrance than a help
in metaphysical speculations” (Descartes, II, 622). The
upshot of all this is that Descartes—and on this funda-
mental point he was followed by Malebranche, Spi-
noza, and Leibniz—believed reality to be a rational,
interconnected, intelligible whole, the general struc-
ture of which corresponds very closely to some of the
most characteristic forms of human cognition.

Now it was precisely this assumption, that there
exists a kind of pre-established harmony between the
mind's innermost, a priori modes of conception and


reasoning and the true structure of the world, that
Bacon called in question. Bacon's suspicions about
attempts to construe nature on models derived from
mathematics run exactly parallel with his skepticism
about the use of models derived from Aristotelian logic.
The true interpreter of nature begins, not with self-
evident truths, “clear and distinct ideas,” but with the
collection of observed instances, from which he pro-
ceeds, by a strict method of empirical inference, to
make whatever inductions are possible. This is how
laws of nature are established. No doubt mathematics
will often be used in the practical process of induction,
for instance, in weighing, measuring lengths, and so
on. And the scientist may sometimes be able to hit
upon a mathematical equation which would exhibit the
Form of the phenomena he is investigating. But laws
of nature need not necessarily be expressed, nor be
expressible, mathematically. There is no sufficient rea-
son to believe, as the Pythagoreans did, that “the na-
ture of things consists of numbers” (De augmentis, Book
III, Ch. 5). Pythagoras was “a mystic,” and those mod-
ern thinkers who, like Copernicus, follow Pythagoras
in approaching nature with preconceived notions of
its harmonious mathematical structure commit the
cardinal sin of “anticipation.” Their theories are little
more than “the speculations of one who cares not what
fictions he introduces into nature, provided his calcula-
tions answer” (Bacon, Descriptio globi intellectualis,
Ch. 6).

Thus despite their superficial similarities of aim in
producing new methods of enquiry, in both philosophy
and science, there is in fact a crucial disagreement
between Bacon and Descartes, a disagreement which
was to be of great significance in the subsequent history
of metaphysics. As a guide to the true understanding
of nature, Bacon distrusts not so much the senses (or
the “sensuous” imagination) but the human mind itself.
And really, for him, the role of “reason” is just as
suspect as the role of “imagination” in metaphysics.
Three of the four general types of idols Bacon enumer-
ates he describes as ratio humana nativa, inherent in
human reason. Unlike Descartes' Regulae then, the
Novum Organum was not meant to expound a method
through which the mind could be cleansed of the
allegedly obfuscating influences of the senses, and so
be led to apprehend an intelligible world which some-
how corresponds to the a priori structures of logical
and mathematical thought. Rather, Bacon's intention
was to provide a method which, if adopted, would lead
to a proper use of the senses, and hence to “a true
model of the world, such as it is in fact, not such as
a man's own reason would have it to be” (Novum
I, Sec. 74). Here “reason” (ratio) or “under-
standing” (intellectus) is meant to cover also the
vagaries of philosophic imagination. Both reason
and imagination are seen to be equally culpable,
equally productive of spurious anthropomorphic fan-
tasies which stand in the way of genuine knowledge.
“For the world is not to be narrowed down until it
will go into the understanding... but the understand-
ing is to be expanded and opened up until it can take
in the image of the world, as it actually is” (Parasceve,
Sec. 4).

The full significance of Bacon's perspective on
metaphysical thinking was first appreciated on a Euro-
pean scale only during the Enlightenment. For our
purposes, however, the most important fact about the
eighteenth century is the way Bacon's position under-
went an important series of modifications. Most nota-
bly, it was first of all much further elaborated by the
Abbé de Condillac, and then dramatically transformed
and surpassed in the writings of Denis Diderot and
Immanuel Kant.

Consciously following Bacon, Condillac gave a psy-
chological analysis of the préjugés at the root of what
he called l'esprit des systèmes (Condillac, Traité des
1749; revised 1771). An overactive imagina-
tion is responsible, says Condillac, for most of the errors
of philosophers. Whatever they imagine they believe
to have a counterpart in reality, and their systems are
elaborated accordingly. No doubt we can admire the
architectonic structure of these systems aesthetically,
as we would un chef-d'oeuvre de l'art. But we are
bound to feel the artist himself was suffering from
mental derangement (la plus insigne folie) in producing
it. For how else would he have come to place so superb
an edifice on such epistemologically feeble founda-
tions? The truth is that through the demands of their
particular temperaments and, more generally, in order
to make external reality seem concordant with human
desires, metaphysicians donnent leurs rêves pour des
interprétations de la nature.
In metaphysics as else-
where the order of our ideas ultimately depends on
some need or interest. Consequently the surest means
of being on guard against metaphysical systems is to
study the needs that led them to be created. “Such
is the touchstone of error and truth: go back to the
origin of both, see how they entered the mind and you
will distinguish them perfectly. It is a method with
which the philosophers I condemn are little ac-
quainted” (Condillac, op. cit., Chs. 1-3, 19; Traité des
Chs. 1-2; La Logique, II, Sec. 1; and compare
further on the role of imagination Condillac's first
major work, Essai sur l'origine des connaissances hu-

Condillac's argument may need more careful han-
dling than he managed to give it, but needless to say,
with the widespread adoption of Locke's sensationalist


theory of knowledge, such a genetic psychological
method had come to be applied to the whole field of
the “science of human nature” in the eighteenth cen-
tury. The specific criticism of metaphysics, however,
originated with Bacon. And one may say that from
Bacon and Condillac to the idéologues Destutt de Tracy
and Cabanis, from early nineteenth-century positivism
to writers like F. A. Lange and, above all, Friederich
Nietzsche—whose Götzen-Dämmerung (1889) was so
styled with an intentional reference to Bacon's
idola—this particular psychological weapon became
directed against all forms of speculative thought with
increasing severity and sophistication. Freud himself
was writing firmly within the Baconian tradition when
he described religion as a “universal neurosis,” lacking
all rational foundation, and largely resulting from
“wish-fulfillment” (The Future of an Illusion, 1927). As
we shall see, due largely to the prestige of science and
to the persistence of certain views about the nature
of science, the Baconian perspective on metaphysical
imagination has reappeared, in one form or another,
right down to the present day. Yet already during the
Enlightenment its limitations were becoming apparent.

Diderot's Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature
(1753-54) was undoubtedly inspired by Bacon; in style
and polemical intention it was partly modelled on the
Novum Organum. And it is impossible to miss the
analogy between Diderot's central distinction between
la philosophie rationnelle and la philosophie expéri-
and Bacon's distinction between the “antici-
patory” and “interpretive” approaches to nature. But,
despite many such points of connection, Diderot's
Pensées marks a critical stage of transition in Enlighten-
ment thinking about the nature of science, a stage after
which there could be little belief left in Bacon's theory
of induction. In the history of modern thought current
evaluations of metaphysics have frequently been linked
to prevailing ideas about the nature of science. Since
the time of Bacon, scientific knowledge has increasingly
been taken as the paradigm for all knowledge, and it
is generally understood that scientific knowledge can
be obtained only if certain methodological procedures
are adhered to. Opinions about just what these proce-
dures are, or should be, vary significantly from period
to period. But at times when there is thought to exist
an unbridgeable gulf between genuine scientific inves-
tigation, on the one hand, and metaphysical specula-
tion, on the other, the metaphysician's cognitive pre-
tensions may well seem to be wholly illusory. However,
at other times the contrast between science and meta-
physics is drawn far less sharply or at least in ways
far less damaging to metaphysics. Then it is easier for
metaphysics to be viewed in a more favorable light.
Compared with Bacon's Novum Organum, Diderot's
Pensées represents just such a change of outlook.

For all his warnings about the “anticipatory” nature
of la philosophie rationnelle, Diderot lays strong and
very un-Baconian emphasis on the use of “conjecture”
in science. He doubts whether scientific theories are
ever arrived at by any kind of rational inference from
phenomena and laws; rather, he thinks they are the
result of intuition. In effect, Diderot substitutes this
notion of scientific intuition for Bacon's methods of
induction. It is not methodic induction, but an inspired
conjecture that enables the scientist to relate a given
body of facts or elementary laws in such a way as to
lead to the progress of knowledge. The greatest exper-
imenters eventually come to possess, as Newton did,
says Diderot, “a facility for supposing or perceiving
oppositions or analogies.” Their close familiarity with
nature leads to their developing a sort of pressentiment
qui a le caractère d'inspiration
—an “instinct,” “feel-
ing,” or Esprit de divination for the fruitful conjecture.
So there is, according to Diderot, an important (and
hitherto largely neglected) place for imagination and
genius in science (Diderot, op. cit., Secs. 30-31, 14-15).
But on this issue Diderot had to conduct a long debate
with some of his contemporaries.

Helvétius, in his De l'homme (1773), maintained that
theory must always advance behind experimentation
and never precede it. He cited Descartes as a classic
violator of this empiricist maxim. In his Réfutation
(1773-74), Diderot reaffirmed his own
convictions. “Are experiments made haphazardly?,” he
asks. “Is not experimentation often preceded by a
supposition, an analogy, a systematic idea which ex-
periment will either confirm or destroy? I pardon
Descartes for having imagined his laws of motion, but
what I do not excuse him for is his failure to verify
by experiment whether or not they were, in nature,
such as he had supposed them to be” (Oeuvres philos-
p. 598). The position of Helvétius on scien-
tific method was, of course, nominally the official posi-
tion of the Newtonian school in eighteenth-century
France. Newton's proclamation, hypotheses non fingo
“hypotheses whether metaphysical or physical...
have no place in experimental philosophy”—had been
taken very literally by Helvétius, Condillac, Voltaire,
and by the majority of practicing scientists. “Particular
propositions are [to be] inferr'd from the phenomena,
and afterwards render'd general by induction,” Newton
had insisted, with no reference to the role of imagina-
tion in science (Newton, II, 547). Il faut se conduire,
wrote Voltaire, Newton's most powerful protagonist
in France, comme les Boyle, les Galilée, les Newton;
examiner, peser, calculer et mesurer, mais jamais
(Voltaire, XLVI, 202). And in this article on
“Imagination,” written for Diderot's Encyclopédie,
Voltaire had refrained from giving imagination any
constructive place in scientific thought. Needless to say,


Diderot himself recommends divination in science only
at a certain point, only after facts have been collected
and when interprétation of nature begins. But here
imagination is vital, as it is, according to Diderot, in
so many other areas of human endeavor. For, indeed,
“imagination is the quality without which one is nei-
ther a poet, a philosopher, a wit, a rational being, nor
a man” (Oeuvres esthétiques, p. 218).

What were the intellectual origins of this stress on
imagination in Diderot's theory of science? Leaving
aside the promptings of his own extraordinarily crea-
tive personality, there seem to have been two major
influences. First, both as editor of the great Encyclo-
and as a speculative biologist in his own right,
Diderot had become thoroughly acquainted with con-
temporary scientific work. In particular, Diderot knew
the views about scientific method expounded by a series
of eminent Dutch physicists, from Christiaan Huygens
to s'Gravesande, who authoritatively drew attention
to the heuristic and pragmatic nature of scientific
principles and theories, and who could find little use
for Baconian induction (see Cassirer [1951], pp. 60f.;
and for a broader historical discussion Medawar [1967],
pp. 131-55, and idem [1969], pp. 42f.). Secondly, these
new perspectives on scientific method became fused
in Diderot's mind with certain ideas about the nature
of creativity in the fine arts. Diderot's enthusiasm for
science was at least equalled by his knowledge of the
advances in aesthetic theory that had occurred since
the beginning of the eighteenth century, and to which
he himself had made important contributions. In his
Encyclopédie article “Beau” (1752), where he surveys
some of these ideas, and elsewhere, Diderot developed
a concept of genius which was meant to apply to
scientific theorizing as well as to creation in the arts.
Whether artist, scientist, or philosopher, Diderot's man
of genius possesses l'esprit observateur. Yet there is also
a sense in which he “imagines rather than sees; pro-
duces rather than finds; seduces rather than guides”
(Oeuvres esthétiques, p. 15). And like the fictional
D'Alembert in Diderot's dramatic dialogue, Le Rêve de
(written in 1769), the scientific genius may
well suffer from a délire philosophique, the dream being
for Diderot a suitable medium for the intuitive act of
biological speculation. Hence, in the Pensées sur l'inter-
prétation de la nature,
Diderot's own fascination for
the evolutionary hypotheses of Maupertuis and Buffon.
Theories of this kind, he believes, depend on a close
acquaintance with the known facts of experience. But
they do not issue from the rigorous application of
“method,” inductive or deductive, Baconian or Car-
tesian. They spring from the free insight of genius
which imaginatively seizes upon les liaisons singulières,
délicates, fugitives de quelques idées voisines, ou leur
opposition et leur contraste
(ibid., p. 13).

Thus Diderot exposed the arbitrariness of certain
current attempts to keep “reason” and “imagination”
in separate compartments. It seems appropriate that
the work where Diderot most fully unfolds his idea
of genius, Le Neveu de Rameau, should have been first
published by Goethe in 1805, just in time for Hegel
to make substantial use of it in the Phänomenologie
des Geistes
(see, e.g., pp. 516 and 534f. in Baillie's
translation). At any rate, after Diderot especially, it
became clear that the distinction between science and
metaphysics had often been drawn too sharply, and
hardly even in the right place. This problem pre-
occupied Kant.

Kant characterized all traditional metaphysical
thinking as “transcendent,” in the sense that it at-
tempted, he thought, to pass beyond the limits of
possible experience. By means of rational argument,
the metaphysician tries to come to a conclusion about
the totality of things and events; unlike the specialized
natural scientist, he seeks a complete explanation of
the whole of reality. Conceived in this way, however,
the metaphysician's task is always bound to fail. Not
only is this suggested by the history of metaphysics
where, from the time of the Greeks onwards, one
system has given way to another without any con-
vincing sign of the sort of progress we have come to
expect in the natural sciences, but there are also deci-
sive conceptual reasons for regarding the metaphysi-
cian as inevitably doomed to frustration. For, even in
principle, we can have knowledge only about the lim-
ited and conditioned objects of actual and possible
experience. If we attempt to transcend these limita-
tions, if we seek to ask whether, for example, the
Universe as a whole is finite or infinite, or whether
there is a First Cause, or some overall cosmic plan
within which our own role might possibly be dis-
cerned—if, more generally, we wish to know whether
there exist such things as God, Freedom, and Immor-
tality—then in all these and similar characteristically
metaphysical questions, we are raising issues whose
solution lies outside the field of possible experience.
Answers to such questions may be, and indeed often
are, given. But, even in principle, Kant argued, none
of these answers can be demonstrated to be true any
more than they can conclusively be shown to be false.
Hence metaphysics as a science (Wissenschaft), in the
sense of an established body of systematically ordered
and certain knowledge, is impossible. At best meta-
physical beliefs can only be dogmatically, rather than
demonstratively, maintained, as were in fact, Kant
held, the beliefs of his immediate rationalist prede-
cessors of the Wolffian school in Germany. Yet having
thus exposed the cognitive pretensions of (at any rate
much) traditional metaphysics, Kant did not simply go
on to reject all metaphysical thinking, and propose,


like Bacon and modern positivism, that philosophical
speculation should be dismissed in favor of scientific
empiricism. For Kant firmly believed that the “natural
and inevitable illusion” of metaphysics could never be
eradicated from the human mind. Even when men are
in fact convinced they cannot obtain genuine knowl-
edge through metaphysics, they will still be “impetu-
ously driven on by an inward need to questions such
as cannot be answered by any empirical employment
of reason, or by principles thence derived.” In all men
“as soon as their reason has become ripe for specula-
tion, there has always existed and will always continue
to exist some kind of metaphysics” (Kritik der reinen
B 21). And this leads Kant to consider the
question “How is metaphysics, as a natural disposition,
possible?” It is here, in his diagnosis of man's natural
urge towards metaphysics, that we meet some of Kant's
most characteristic and historically important ideas;
here also, the radical shift in general epistemological
perspective that had taken place since the time of
Bacon becomes very obvious.

In the Preface to the second edition of the Critique
of Pure Reason
Kant praises Bacon's call for controlled
experimentation in the sciences. But he considers
Bacon's account of the nature of scientific discovery
to be fundamentally mistaken. It was not the philoso-
pher Bacon, but, says Kant, practicing scientists, men
like Galileo, Torricelli, and Stahl, who realized “that
reason has insight only into that which it produces after
a plan of its own.” The actual founders of modern
science developed theoretical procedures and con-
structs by means of which nature was effectively con-
strained “to answer questions of reason's own deter-
mining,” and to that extent these scientists exhibited
a much greater degree of creativity than was ever
allowed for in Bacon's mechanical methods of induc-
tion. Kant agrees with Bacon that the mind “must
approach nature [empirically] in order to be taught
by her,” yet he thinks the sort of approach made has
not only never in fact been, but cannot in principle
ever be, so humble and childlike as Bacon's favorite
images suggest. For, according to Kant, in scientific
investigation the mind can never confront nature “in
the character of a pupil who listens to everything the
teacher chooses to say,” but only “in that of an ap-
pointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer
questions he has himself formulated” (B, xiii). Bacon
wrote as if he thought the structure of reality was
something existing in an external world independently
of the human mind. As we saw, the object of the
critique of idols was to effect a “purification” of the
mind, a removal of all internal obstacles to unpreju-
diced vision, so that the real external, and inde-
pendently existing structure (forma) of nature can be
perceived. Baconian induction is simply a methodic
instrument with which to free the human mind of its
natural obscuring tendencies, of the wayward exercise
of both “imagination” and “reason.” Kant's whole
theory of knowledge was specifically directed against
this form of realism.

This is not the place to discuss Kant's intellectual
development, but it is worth noting that it had one
thing in common with Diderot's. In arriving at the
details of his own concept of mind Kant was affected,
in clearly traceable ways, on the one hand by eight-
eenth-century discussions about the nature of scientific
discovery (above all by certain accounts given by nat-
ural scientists themselves), and on the other hand, by
those aestheticians, from Shaftesbury to the Scottish
philosophers, and also Diderot himself, who had broken
new ground in their analysis of concepts like beauty,
taste, genius, and, of course, imagination. Kant's spe-
cific discussions of imagination (Einbildungskraft)
occur in fairly narrow epistemological contexts and he
never uses a phrase corresponding to “metaphysical
imagination.” Yet for our purpose, Kant's uses of
Einbildungskraft is not the most important thing. What
is important is that Kant's conception of the mind's
essentially active cognitive powers, his conception, that
is, of Understanding (Verstand), of Judgment (Urteils-
), and of Reason (Vernunft)—particularly of the
latter in its transcendent, or metaphysical, use—was
developed in the context of current discussions about
imagination and about creative activity in general.
Thus Hume, for example, had assigned a crucial role
to imagination in his account of the foundations of
empirical knowledge, and he had even found it possible
to refer to “the Understanding” as “the general and
more established properties of the imagination” (Trea-
[1739], Book I, Part IV, Sec. 7); while Kant's con-
temporary, J. N. Tetens, himself a student of the Scot-
tish psychological school, had given an analysis of
Dichtkraft, or “productive imagination,” which helped
Kant to determine the part the mind's own synthetic
activity plays in the constitution of objective knowl-
edge (on Tetens and Kant see Vleeschauwer, pp. 82f.).

For Kant, the very possibility of human knowledge
could be explained only on the supposition that the
mind makes an essential contribution to our experience
of the external world. Space and time, cause and effect,
substance and accident, unity and plurality, indeed all
the general formal concepts and categories we tacitly
employ in describing our ordinary experience are,
according to Kant, “constitutive” of that experience.
There can be no experience and no “nature” without
them. Far from our being able to discover a ready-
made structure in the universe, in order to experience
nature at all the human mind is impelled to prescribe


a structure to it. Thus, while Kant agreed that in the
natural sciences we must approach nature empirically
and not “fictitiously ascribe to it” (in any of the more
blatant ways of Bacon's “anticipations”), nevertheless
he argued that we must inevitably be guided in our
research by something we have ourselves “put into
nature.” And, according to Kant, the mind prescribes
to nature at two levels of conceptual organization. The
fundamental “forms of sensibility,” space and time, and
the “categories of the understanding,” such as the
causal relation, are “constituents” of our very concept
of nature in general and we cannot think of nature
without them. But in order to make any overall sense
of the empirical world we need a further set of orga-
nizing concepts.

For example, our study of living things seems to
demand that we introduce a new principle in order
to understand organic phenomena. Here the concepts
of Newtonian mechanics need supplementing by a
teleological principle, i.e., by the idea that “an orga-
nized product of nature is one in which everything
is reciprocally end and means.” Ideas of this kind Kant
called “principles of reflective judgment.” And in cer-
tain respects these “principles” are similar to what he
calls, in a different context, “transcendental Ideas.”
Kant considered the principles of reflective judgment
and the transcendental Ideas as playing a rather special
role in human knowledge. He thought of them not like
the “forms of sensibility” and “categories of the Un-
derstanding,” as “constitutive” of experience, but
rather as having a “regulative” function. We cannot
prove that any objects actually correspond to these
Ideas and principles; indeed, the basic error of tradi-
tional metaphysics was precisely the futile attempt to
provide such proofs. Nevertheless the “transcendental
Ideas are just as natural to Reason (Vernunft) as are
the categories to the Understanding (Verstand)” (B670).
Not only are they natural to the human mind, but,
in one form or another, their use is necessary if we
are to achieve systematic order among our cognitions.
Thus the Idea of Freedom is something we need in
order to make sense of our moral experience; while
principles of reflective judgment often serve as indis-
pensable heuristic devices in the sciences, indefinitely
urging us to seek wider unifications among empirical
phenomena. So principles like that of the purposiveness
in nature are not, according to Kant, inductive general-
izations; rather, they are “rules” or “maxims” for gain-
ing knowledge, “prescriptive” means of taking cog-
nizance of nature which, as a matter of fact, we find
nature “favors.” In the use of all such principles our
reflective judgment follows the natural unificatory
tendency of the mind and acts, says Kant, “with art.
(See First Introduction to the Critique of Judgment).

Kant saw that there are fundamental differences
between the activities of the scientist, the metaphysi-
cian, and the poet. But in a much more epistemologi-
cally sophisticated manner than any thinker before
him, Kant also saw that these activities have something
in common. They all result from the mind's natural
synthetic power, a power which typically creates, says
Kant (echoing Shaftesbury), “another nature, as it were,
out of the material that actual nature gives it.” For,
just as the poet's imagination “emulates the play of
Reason in its quest for a maximum,” so the meta-
physician—and in certain respects even the scien-
tist—goes beyond the limits of experience in his search
for “a completeness of which there is no example in
nature” (op. cit., Sec. 49). Whether exhibited in art,
in science, in moral and religious aspiration, or in
metaphysics, this creation of form, totality, structural
completeness is the characteristic function of the
human mind; it can never be eliminated but only, at
best, held in check through rational criticism and em-
pirical verification.

At the level of conceptual analysis, Kant's contri-
bution to our modern understanding of the nature of
metaphysics is still the most outstanding. But these
historical notes would be radically incomplete if we
failed to mention one further contribution. This came
from those historians and proto-sociologists, from Vico
and Herder in the eighteenth century, to Dilthey and
Meinecke in the early twentieth century, whose work
is now usually considered under the ambiguous label
of Historismus or “Historicism.” We have already
mentioned the aims of Dilthey's Weltanschauungslehre;
and Dilthey may be taken as the culmination of this
line of thinkers, insofar as they have specifically con-
cerned themselves with the nature of metaphysics.
Considered as a series of perspectives on historical
method, historicism is important from our point of
view because of its emphasis on the affective and social
functions of speculative thought. In other words, be-
cause of its stress on the way different styles of philos-
ophizing issue, not from intellectual considerations
alone, but from different styles of life (or of Erlebnisse,
“lived experiences,” as Dilthey would say); and because
of its tendency to see metaphysics as a more con-
ceptualized form of what Herder had already called
a nation's imaginative “mythology”: “a philosophical
attempt of the human mind [to understand its place
in nature], which dreams ere it awakes, and willingly
retains its infant state” (Herder, pp. 47f.). Such views,
conjoined with a basically Kantian notion of the mind's
“synthetic” propensities, were employed with great
power by Hegel in the first notable attempt to write
a history of philosophy. Not unlike Herder, Hegel
retained the uncritical belief that each philosophy


forms “a link in the whole chain” of allegedly purpose-
ful historical development. But Hegel's Lectures on the
History of Philosophy
(first delivered in Jena in 1805)
were important for the way they repudiated the idea
that the history of philosophy is largely a history of
intellectual errors. “Every philosophy is the philosophy
of its own day,” said Hegel, “and thus can only find
satisfaction for the interests belonging to its own par-
ticular time” (op. cit., I, 45).

In our own time few thinkers would deny that the
practice of metaphysics is, in some sense, an essentially
imaginative activity. But there is far from a consensus
about what is to be meant here either by “metaphysics”
or by “imagination.” Even a philosopher so basically
ill-disposed towards metaphysics as Rudolf Carnap
admits that imagination plays a large part in meta-
physical thinking. From one point of view indeed, this
is precisely why he and thinkers like him have wished
to exclude “metaphysics” from the serious concerns of
“philosophy” properly so-called. For as they see it
metaphysics is a pretentious, conceptually misguided
form of myth-making, a “pseudo-science” masquer-
ading as a genuine source of knowledge. The meta-
physician seems neither to have contributed to the
stock of empirical knowledge provided by the particu-
lar sciences, nor has he, at any rate typically and
exclusively, concerned himself with the logical analysis
of concepts at a formal level. Instead, the perennial
efforts of metaphysicians to answer large-scale ques-
tions about the “nature of reality as a whole” or about
the “meaning of life” have for the most part issued
in seemingly arbitrary, empirically untestable visions
of the world removed from any close relation with
ordinary experience. No doubt these metaphysical vi-
sions are often remarkable for the ingenious webs of
rationalization with which they are accompanied;
sometimes metaphysical theories historically prefigure,
or stimulate the growth of, genuine scientific theories.
But apart from this, metaphysical thinking possesses
little cognitive value or “theoretical content,” to use
Carnap's phrase. The products of the metaphysician
must therefore be seen to be “imaginary” first and
foremost in a pejorative sense. For all its show of
logical and empirical justification, a metaphysical vi-
sion is not a replica of true, objective reality—which,
Carnap implies, can be obtained only through some
combination of science and common sense—but a
fictitious supposition, a subjective fabrication or waking
dream whose significance lies outside the verifiable
realm of public experience.

Yet there is a second and less objectionable sense
in which metaphysicians can be said to exercise imagi-
nation. They are imaginative simply in being creative.
Metaphysical utterances possess no “theoretical con
tent” (or “representative function”) because they are
primarily “expressive.” And to this extent a meta-
physician may be compared to a lyric poet or musician.
His utterances “lie completely outside the field of
knowledge,” yet they frequently have positive value
as expressions of feeling, especially as expressions of
“permanent emotional or volitional dispositions.” So,
according to Carnap, a metaphysical system of monism
may be an expression of an even and harmonious mode
of life; a dualistic system may result from a personal
experience of the world as a place of eternal struggle;
ethical rigorism may be indicative of an over-
developed sense of duty; perhaps realism springs from
the type of disposition psychologists call “extroverted,”
idealism from “introversion,” and so on (Carnap, esp.
Ch. 1). Carnap's interests do not lead him to develop
further this somewhat crude typology of philosophical
outlooks, and he seems unaware of the very much more
sophisticated accounts given, notably, by Dilthey and
K. Jaspers (whose Psychologie der Weltanschauungen
had already appeared in 1919).

Nevertheless, the idea that certain general kinds of
metaphysical outlook can be directly related to sup-
posed psychological—more often allegedly patholog-
ical—dispositions of the metaphysicians themselves, is
a belief that has appeared again and again in the
English-speaking world in recent decades. Particular
versions of it figure prominently in both the early and
the later Wittgenstein, in influential works like John
Wisdom's Philosophy and Psycho-analysis, and in the
writings of a host of other Anglo-Saxon philosophers
who have discussed the nature of metaphysics. Among
these writers hardly ever has this belief been accom-
panied by even the most rudimentary display of bio-
graphical evidence or other necessary psychological,
sociological, and historical data which would be essen-
tial for such a diagnosis of the metaphysician's predic-
ament to attain some semblance of plausibility.

But however that may be, psychological consid-
erations of the sort clearly hinted at by Carnap and
elaborated by others have given rise, in the English-
speaking world, to a particular perspective on the role
of imagination in metaphysical thinking, and to what
one might call a further specific nuance in our current
use of “metaphysical imagination.” Insofar as the
metaphysician can be considered to have typically
turned away from the “reality principle” inherent in
science, in naive realism, in “ordinary language,” or
in some combination of these, the philosophical outlook
expressed in his works is often said to constitute a
fantasy in a more or less technical psychoanalytical
sense. Like the paranoic whose delusive fears can never
be subdued by contrary evidence, however strong, so
the metaphysician's theory is phrased in such a way


as to be compatible with any possible state of affairs;
like the advanced neurotic who fails to adjust to ob-
jective social reality and lives instead in a compensa-
tory inner world of fantasy, so the metaphysician's
atavistic distinctions between appearance and reality,
phenomena and noumena, becoming and being, con-
tingency and necessity, and so on, are symptomatic of
his own maladjustments. Partly under the influence of
the species of logical empiricism disseminated by
Carnap and his disciples, and partly, no doubt, through
the tremendous impact of Freud's own writings in the
1920's and 1930's, views of this kind, though rarely
adequately supported, have become so common as to
be almost taken for granted in a large number of
articles and books on metaphysics written in English.
On the European continent, however, the situation has
been very different.

Bergson, Jaspers, and Heidegger, for example, have
all written at length on the nature of metaphysics, and
they unanimously regard the metaphysician as fulfilling
a vital, even a humanly indispensable, role. They are
aware that there are connections between metaphysical
outlooks and personal temperament and feelings, but,
unlike Carnap, they refuse to regard the function of
metaphysics as “expressive” in any purely emotive or
subjectivist sense. Moreover, they make no critical
distinction between metaphysics and philosophy. For
them metaphysical or philosophical enquiry leads to
knowledge of a fundamentally important kind: either
the metaphysician attempts to formulate and answer
certain basic ontological questions—such as the
Heideggerian question “Why is there something and
not nothing?”—or, in a less exclusively discursive
manner, he seeks to disclose profound orders of experi-
ence (Bergson's durée, Jaspers' das Umgreifende). Nei-
ther of these tasks can be accomplished, they believe,
through the methods of the empirical sciences, nor
through “logical analysis” in any of the ways this is
understood in Anglo-Saxon countries. Far from philos-
ophy (or metaphysics) being parasitic upon science, or
simply serving as a clarificatory tool for solving con-
ceptual problems in the sciences and in everyday life,
it is in fact concerned, says Martin Heidegger, with a
quite different level of experience. “Philosophy and its
[mode of] thinking,” he asserts, “belong to the same
order as poetry” (Heidegger [1953], p. 20). With this
statement both Bergson and Jaspers are in substantial
agreement; and, of course, as we have seen, Carnap
would also have agreed, provided Heidegger had been
speaking of “metaphysics” rather than of “philosophy.”
But here the extraordinary gulf between contemporary
philosophical traditions widens far beyond any purely
terminological dispute. With his poeticizing of philos-
ophy, it is not surprising to find in Heidegger a corre
sponding upgrading of imagination almost to the level
of a faculty of metaphysical cognition (this is best seen
in his discussion of Kant und das Problem der Meta-
and in his interpretations of the lyric poet
Hölderlin). Similarly in the works of Bergson and Jas-
pers, imagination often appears as the primary orga-
of philosophical insight. Phantasie, for Jaspers,
ist die positive Bedingung für die Verwirklichung der
(Philosophie, II, 282-84); while Bergson's in-
that sympathetic dilatation de l'esprit through
which alone the metaphysician is able “to investigate
what is essential and unique... to attain to fluid
concepts” and so follow reality “in all its sinuosities,”
might just as well have been called “imagination,” as
Bergson himself virtually admits (Bergson, IV and VI).

So here, in the discussions of recent philosophers who
may fairly be said to represent between them a wide
range of contemporary opinion, we have found, in
effect, four closely related ways in which imagination
is commonly considered in relation to metaphysics.
Metaphysicians are often said to characteristically
produce imaginary worlds; and in doing so they are
no doubt imaginative, in the sense of inventive, like
other creators; but perhaps like the products of artists
also, metaphysical creations are substitutes for reality,
serving a similar function to the fantasies of which
psychoanalysts speak; finally, for those thinkers who
see imagination as a special source of knowledge, or,
like Sartre, as a means of reconstituting the world,
metaphysical imagination would be understood as the
highest form of intuition into the true nature of being
or reality.
The most obvious and historically immediate
source of this last perspective on the importance of
imagination for metaphysics is romanticism; but, as we
saw, this position is in fact very much older and is
quite explicit in the Neo-Platonism and hermeticism
of the Renaissance. And, broadly speaking, one may
say that the apparently bewildering variety of recent
opinion about the place of imagination, not only in
metaphysical thinking, but also in artistic creation, in
historical understanding, and in scientific discovery,
basically reflects—and often tries to combine in a
variety of uneasy ways—two quite distinct conceptions
about the cognitive significance of imagination. On the
one hand, there is what we have identified as the
Baconian position. This takes a moderate, sometimes
pessimistic, and at any rate always a cautionary view,
and considers the use of imagination to be a necessary
condition for the growth of human knowledge, but also
a customary source of illusion and wish-fulfillment
when not held in check by objective criticism. And
then, on the other hand, there is a more extreme posi-
tion which has re-emerged in many forms since the
end of the eighteenth century. According to this,


imagination—though it is sometimes called by another
name: intuition by Schelling and Bergson; Vernunft,
in its allegedly synthesizing, “concrete” role, by Hegel,
F. Schlegel, and Coleridge; the process of Nacherleben,
i.e., the historian's “reliving of past experience,” by
Dilthey—is conceived to be the primary faculty
through which alone nature or God or ultimate reality
can be truly located and understood.

The epistemological gulf between these two per-
spectives on imagination is still very wide. Just as
during the Renaissance, with Paracelsus and Bruno on
one side, and Francis Bacon on the other, so for the
most part the modern proponents of these very differ-
ent standpoints are hardly on speaking terms, let alone
about to effect a reconciliation. But largely through
the medium of Kant's theory of knowledge, some de-
gree of rapprochement has in fact occurred. As re-
gards a better understanding of metaphysics, probably
Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Die
Philosophie der symbolischen Formen,
1923-29) is the
most significant work in this respect.

Cassirer sees the activity of the metaphysician as
“symbolic” in a special sense. Metaphysics is one of
the typical and recurrent ways in which the human
mind attempts by means of symbols, linguistic and
nonlinguistic, to stabilize the chaos of sensory impres-
sions by shaping these impressions into an intelligible
enduring unity. Metaphysics is, therefore, in effect,
what Cassirer calls a “symbolic form,” like the struc-
tures presented by language, myth, art, religion, the
study of history, and science. Taken together these
constructions make up the human world. For man is
not so much an animal rationale, as classical thought
would have it, but an animal symbolicum: he builds
up a cultural world of his own, an “ideal” world over
and against the purely natural, stimulus-response world
of animal life. Each symbolic form is autonomous in
the sense that each has its own distinctive mode of
synthetic construction; and it is a serious mistake to
believe that one form can be reduced to another with-
out loss (as, for instance, positivists of all periods have
attempted to reduce mythology, and metaphysics con-
ceived as a species of mythology, to the level of pre-
or pseudo-scientific thought). Cassirer believes that our
awareness of physical reality as such has in fact receded
as man's imaginative, symbolic activity has advanced.
“Instead of dealing [solely] with the things themselves,
man... has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms,
in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites
that he cannot see or know anything except by the
interposition of this artificial medium” (Cassirer [1944],
p. 25).

But this does not mean that the constructions of
mythology, art, religion, and speculative philosophy,
any more than those of science itself, are pure fabrica-
tions without cognitive significance. On a very much
more ambitious scale than Kant himself ever envisaged,
Cassirer reasserts the Kantian doctrine that the very
nature of human consciousness is to seek for “unity
in the manifold,” to identify the “parts” of experience
as elements of a “whole” of which the mind is already
in possession as a “regulative Idea.” So, for Cassirer,
while symbolic forms other than science may not func-
tion in the same cognitive way that science does, nev-
ertheless, insofar as they perform a definite task in the
construction and organization of experience, they may
be said to provide for knowledge. For they offer
equally indispensable universes of discourse through
which the world of experience may be articulated and
revealed, and “our perspectives widen, if we consider
that [scientific] cognition... is only one of the forms
in which the mind can apprehend and interpret being”
(Cassirer [1953-57], I, 77; compare, e.g., idem [1944]
pp. 169-70). Cassirer considers man's symbolic render-
ing of experience in the various cultural forms to be
essentially an imaginative process. He emphasizes the
fact that imagination is not only reproductive and pro-
but also anticipatory: it enables us to shape
future expectations which may or may not be con-
firmed by events, but may sometimes influence the
course of events. From the making of simple tools to
the construction of philosophical utopias this “pre-
presentation” of the future underlies all human action.
“We must set before ourselves in 'images' something
not yet existing, in order, then, to proceed from this
'possibility' to the 'reality', from potency to act”
(Cassirer [1960], pp. 75-76). Whether in science, art,
or metaphysics, this is one of the most important ways
in which the stimulus-response world of animal life is
transformed in the “image-world” (Bildwelt) of man.


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[See also Baconianism; Cosmic Images; Enlightenment;
Existentialism; Myth; Platonism; Positivism; Romanticism.]