It is often said that without the rule of law humanity would descend into chaos. This is perhaps true, but it is not laws themselves that keep people from such chaos. More fundamental to cohesive humanity are hope and empathy. Hope for our future and empathy for others are the main reasons we obey the law – they are the real glue that holds societies together. Hope and empathy are both born of imagination. Alfred Adler, who founded the school of individual psychology, said: “We cannot think, feel, will or act without the perception of a goal.” Before one can hope, one must imagine something worth hoping for. Before one can empathise, one must imagine what another feels. Before we can create a better world, we must first imagine one.
The word ‘imagine’ comes from the Latin imaginare: to form an image of. Essentially, imagination is the ability to form mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses. Imagination helps us create meaning from experience and understanding from knowledge. It is the fundamental faculty by which humans make sense of the world and construct a purposeful existence.
But the word ‘imagine’ also comes from the Latin imaginari: to picture oneself.This second component provides another glimpse into the elementary relevance of imagination. Through it, we create unique personal realms in our mind, made up of elements derived from our sensory perceptions of the shared world. In effect, we create our own version of reality, our own world. People spend much of their lives wondering, imagining, who they really are – many make their greatest contributions to the shared world as a by-product of this search.
So in imagining, we discover our self – we become more aware of who we are. But it is also necessary to compare that constructed self with our impressions formed of others, as the point of departure for the dynamic of empathy to emerge.
Imagination is instinctive, but it is also a learnt and practised skill. This is not a contradiction. William James, for example, argued that we have an instinct for learning, and that one component of that process is the imagination. We understand its importance to children and use story-telling as basic training for the imagination, evoking real and created worlds via description, using words, actions and images. It seems less importance is placed on exercising the imagination as we approach adulthood. ‘Growing up’ often entails giving up such childish past times.
Could it be that our modern lifestyles, which allow us to increasingly outsource our imagination via a plethora of devices, from big-screen televisions to smart phones, are causing us to stop using and unlearn this essential ability? And if so, are we permitting a distortion of some of the most elemental parts of our lives: from sex and relationships, to our perceptions of the worlds of others; from shared culture, to our memory, personal identity and sense of being?
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From James’ book Essays from Near and Far