Imagination (and Time-Travel)

Not long ago I declared a moratorium on posts about mental time-travel (a third post on the topic seemed like enough). Then I decided to go to hear and give a lecture at Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education, and a new post came to mind.
      There will be a video of the lecture here soon; at the time of writing, it’s just the abstract. They blog about their shared project here. You can find them doing a TED talk about wordless communication here.
      Their talk at the ICE centred on the imagination (or what they called the ‘imagination system’ as opposed to the ‘knowledge system’) and its role in memory and prediction. I was struck by their very broad idea of the imagination. Sometimes, as I understand it, scientists and philosophers talk about mental ‘imagery’ to denote inward pictures of pasts or futures or elsewheres or could-bes, to avoid friction with popular ideas of fancy and fiction; Clayton and Wilkins used the more loaded term to draw in a huge range of thinking outside the immediate context. I liked having my narrower but (I realise) problematically under-formed idea of imagination tested by the feeling that something particular and specific could be merged into a much larger category.


… And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown …
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1)

This seems familiar: it is with the imagination that literature reaches things that have never been seen before, or never could be seen. ‘Unknown’, though, could be less adventurous. It might just mean ‘never actually witnessed’.
      A few years before A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed Edmund Spenser included a figure representing the imagination in The Faerie Queene. Phantastes can see ‘things to come’, and his chamber has ‘Infinite shapes of things dispersed ; / Some such as in the world were neuer , / can deuized be of mortall wit’.
      Again, this seems familiar: imagination is how we conjure up the impossible. But Spenser doesn’t actually tell us about these unseen things. Instead, there is detail about other shapes in Phantastes’ chamber, ‘daily seene, and knowen by their names…’, such as ‘hags, centaurs… lions, owles, fooles’. Owls? Well, I have seen a number of owls. And centaurs? I’ve never seen one of those, but a centaur is composed out of two .


Perhaps Shakespeare and Spenser are hinting at the Clayton / Wilkins version of imagination, which stretches rather than breaks with the known. We look in vain for the truly impossible in Phantastes’ chamber. As I thought about the continuity between predicting possible futures and imagining impossible ones, I thought of chess (I often think of chess). Is a chessplayer’s ability to remember variations seen before, and to calculate variations that would follow from decisions made over the board, a kind of imagination?
      I want to say no: in chess the parameters are finite, all the necessary information is present. There are far, far too many possibilities to calculate – they are as good as infinite really – but projections of outcomes are bounded by possibles and probables. They can never truly be ‘unknown’.
      Incidentally, if you have any interest in chess there’s a nice relic on Youtube: a of classic BBC series The Master Game. I like the one that features Byrne and Korchnoi. Both players tell us their thinking in retrospect, but it feels authentic enough. It isn’t the most creative of games – no dazzling sacrifices – but even here it begins to feel OK to think of some of the processes as imaginative. Korchnoi believes, on the basis of memory and prediction, that he will be alright, but he cannot know this. Byrne, deep down, knows he won’t. Even so, to call these acts of imagination sits a bit uneasily.


There are some developed taxonomies of imagination. Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft have simulation (i.e. the ability for mental activity to happen ‘off-line’, separately from the world) as the mechanism by which imagination is defined. They distinguish between creative imagination and recreative imagination. The former is what I am gesturing after here, and they set it aside pretty quickly after noting that Hume called it . They focus on the latter, which denotes the ability to see the world from a different perspective.
      These categories may be helpful in organising particulars about the subject, but they don’t get closer to pinning down the art-centric idea of imagination that I was worrying about in the Clayton / Wilkins talk. I am not even sure whether I prefer the artistic imagination to be a special case. I do think, though, that the resonant load the term carries from its artistic contexts across history shouldn’t be discarded too readily.

Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge; she had cameo roles in two of the earlier time-travel posts.
Artist and writer; his blog is at
i.e. thinly – these are unsubstantial forms
i.e. yet
i.e. Nor
to be precise: a human person and a horse animal
There used to be more but someone claimed copyright and you can buy them on DVD. It’s good watching if you like that kind of thing. Tony Miles, Walter Browne, a very young Nigel Short, and especially (in my opinion) Miguel Quinteros, play their parts very well.
The book in question is Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Recreative Minds, p. 11; quoting Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. It’s pretty clear that Currie and Ravenscroft don’t think it’s magical or inexplicable.
e-mail me at rtrl100[AT]

1 thought on “Imagination (and Time-Travel)

  1. Sean Geddes

    Perhaps one reason why “imagination” should keep its resonant load – or why the trimming should be minimal, perhaps only ad hoc – is because what we mean by taxonomies of the term always seems to involve distinguishing processes that can be extremely subtle, and that seem, at least at times, to feed into each other.

    The statue scene in The Winter’s Tale is a good case in point: there is a statue of Hermione, who is supposed long dead, and her husband and daughter come to view it; Paulina tells them that they must “awake their faith,” hinting at the miraculous, and that she will then bring the statue to life. And in a wondrous moment, she does so. So far, these are all instances of what Currie and Ravenscroft would probably call creative imagination. But of course, the statue was only fixed in place by imagination, and there is a great, resultant sense of irony in that the feeling of the “miraculous” (the “faith” in question turns out to be in effect a kind of poetic or imaginative faith) should proceed so strongly from perception of the ordinary. Simple moving and speaking become marvels in the context of the play, and they even tend to stretch that context a bit so to hint at or allow in some implied ratio of the “real” and imaginative worlds (as the statue is to the play, so the play might be, in some ways, to us). The sense of irony is further modified by Leontes’ last, metatheatrical words – “Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely / Each one demand and answer to his part / Performed in this wide gap of time” (5.3.153-55) – in that we are made even more aware of such a ratio. The imaginative whole thus includes our quotidian world, with no real sense of disruption. And yet this whole now seems to imply elements of “recreative” imagination: the world has been subsumed by imagination, but has also been skillfully referred to such that we see it in a different way. There is a lifting of the complacency with which it is so easy to view the ordinary but vitally important things in life, and there is even a sense of the potential of imagination for bringing this effect about. Part of the creative-imaginative effect, at least in this example, seems then to rely on the utilization of the recreative, and the new-perspective-making ability of the recreative on the imaginative structure that engendered it.

    The Winter’s Tale is only one example of this mutuality of the two “kinds” of Currie and Ravenscroft’s imagination; many more could be found in literature, and irony is not always the switch (to put it crudely) that activates the recreative. I don’t want to throw away categories here – and of course, there tends to be a more cut-and-dried feel to most taxonomic schemas than is always implied – but imagination does seem to be a term in which any distinctions especially demand to be considered together.

    (As an afterthought, it might be interesting to consider Einstein’s well-known technique of making highly picture-based thought experiments. In his teens, he imagined the strange consequences (which later helped along the Special Relativity) implied by the situation wherein you look into a mirror while both you and the mirror travelled parallel at the speed of light: evidently, the light from the mirror would never reach your face; something curious arises from the idea of bodies moving at the speed of light. This seems to be a case in which at least some elements of the creative or artistic imagination are employed solely to bring about a recreative shift.)


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