Imagination and Reason

When Christians speak of revelation they point to history not as this can be known by external observers but as it is remembered by participating selves. Yet revelation does not simply mean inner history as a whole nor any arbitrarily chosen part of it.

There are many obscure elements in remembered history which are neither intelligible in themselves nor illuminative of other elements. Among these none are more obscure than the fateful facts of personal and communal self-conscious existence. We do not know why we are ourselves in our particular time and place. Though from an external point of view explanations can be offered which account for the physical conditions of personal and social life, these give no answer to the questions about the origin, the meaning and the destiny of the self. The question why I am I, in this here and now, conditioned by and dependent on this body, and the equally difficult questions communities must raise about themselves indicate obscurities which reveal nothing. They must be illuminated themselves if there is to be anything that can be called revelation.

Our evil deeds are also obscure though they are well-remembered parts of our history as selves. Peter's denials and Judas' betrayal, together with a long succession of like events, are in the story of the Christian community as much as conversions and transfigurations are. These also are neither self-explanatory nor by themselves helpful toward the understanding of other experiences. This is true of pain endured as well as of suffering inflicted on others by our fault. There is no mystery of evil in history or nature regarded from without; in fact no evil of any sort is visible to the spectator who sees only impersonal necessity reigning among things. From the objective point of view betrayals and denials, pains and sufferings are merely facts; they occur without the participation of selves, call for no explanation differing in kind from explanations of other natural facts; they are as worthy of attention and as significant as the heroism and loyalty of men. Events can be evil only as they occur in the history of selves, as they are related to persons who cause them or who suffer their effects. But the why and wherefore of evil in this context is a mystery and not a revelation.

Further, we may remember in our past some moments of intense feeling when the sense of the numinous was strong, when majestic and awe-inspiring experience called forth strange emotions. But the emotion by itself revealed nothing and later experience often indicated that it was an inadequate response to the situation, perhaps no more than a sense of frustration. It is not to any of these obscurities in our inner history that we point when we speak of revelation.

Revelation means for us that part of our inner history which illuminates the rest of it and which is itself intelligible. Sometimes when we read a difficult book, seeking to follow a complicated argument, we come across a luminous sentence from which we can go forward and backward and so attain some understanding of the whole. Revelation is like that. In his Religion in the Making Professor Whitehead has written such illuminating sentences and one of them is this: "Rational religion appeals to the direct intuition of special occasions, and to the elucidatory power of its concepts for all occasions." The special occasion to which we appeal in the Christian church is called Jesus Christ, in whom we see the righteousness of God, his power and wisdom. But from that special occasion we also derive the concepts which make possible the elucidation of all the events in our history. Revelation means this intelligible event which makes all other events intelligible.

Such a revelation, rather than being contrary to reason in our life, is the discovery of rational pattern in it. Revelation means the point at which we can begin to think and act as members of an intelligible and intelligent world of persons. The pattern, to be sure, is discovered in our personal and communal history; it is applicable to events as these are known by participating selves and never primarily or directly applicable to events as seen by non-participants. The obscurities which it explains are not those which bother us as observers of life but those which distress moral agents and sufferers. To use Pascal's phrase here, it is the heart and not the head which finds its reason in revelation. This does not mean that the reason of the heart is in conflict with the reason of the head or that the relations between the two are not very close. It does mean that the reason which is correlate with revelation is practical reason, or the reason of a self rather than of impersonal mind; it implies that the conflict of practical reason is with practical irrationality as pure reason is at war with irrationality in the head and not with reason in the heart. When we use revelation as the basis of our reasoning we seek to conquer the evil imaginations of the heart and not the adequate images of an observing mind.

Reflection on the relations of reason and imagination may assist us at this point in understanding how revelation is a rational principle, so that when we speak of it we point to that occasion in our history which enables us to understand. We make a false distinction when we so separate reason and imagination as to make the former the arbiter in our knowledge of the external world while we regard the inner life as the sphere of the latter. Under the influence of this distinction we are likely to regard the stories of our inner life as poetic in character, the product of fancy; so we call them myths, contrasting them with the surer knowledge of fact which we believe ourselves to possess as rational observers of external events. Then Christianity is classified with poetry not only in the true sense, as dealing with selves, values and enduring time, but also in the wrong sense as permitting poetic license and the use of fictions in its explanation of history. This allocation of reason and imagination to separate spheres is doubly false, for in our knowledge of the external world we must employ imagination and in our interpretation of inner history we cannot get along without reason. Reason and imagination are both necessary in both spheres.

The role which imagination plays in the natural sciences is so great that some notable practitioners of the scientific method are inclined to believe that their pictures of the world are wholly poetic. In our ordinary lay knowledge of nature we find it necessary to use imagination constantly in order that we may interpret the bits of sensation which come to us. The jostling mob of confused, unintelligible, meaningless, visual and auditory sensations is made to march in order by a mind which approaches and apprehends them with some total image. We hasten to meet the sensations that come to us with anticipations of our own. We do not hear isolated ejaculations, separate and therefore meaningless words but apprehend each sound in a context that we in part supply. By means of ideas we interpret as we sense, and sense as we interpret. We anticipate connections between sensations before they are given and through imagination supply what is lacking in the immediate datum. So we may apprehend the meaning of a brown, rough texture of certain size and shape as the bark of a tree, or as a tree, or even as an experience of the adaptation of life to its environment. In such knowing of things everything depends upon the continuous conversation between sensation and imagination. We are not easily deceived by sensation but are fooled by a false imagination which interprets some sense-datum as part of a whole context to which it does not belong according to repeated, critical and common experience. By using concepts, images, patterns -be they visual images or the refined symbols of language and mathematics -- which do not apply to the experience at hand we are led to false expectations and to inept reactions. In the darkness a perverse imagination interprets the visual impression of one side and section of the tree trunk so as to make a ghost out of the whole; in a moment of inattention I accept the word "bark" as part of a sentence about a dog rather than about a tree. In these cases it is not sensation but imagination which has been in error. Reason does not dispense with imagination but seeks to employ apt images and patterns whereby an otherwise inscrutable sensation becomes a true symbol of a reality whose other aspects, as anticipated in the image, are available to common experience. The main sources of error in such knowledge of nature seem to be the use of false images, the purely reflective combination of images and patterns in the mind without constant reference to sensation in which mental expectations are fulfilled or denied, and such an absolute identification of images with things that all criticism of the former is made impossible and all response to the latter is channeled in customary ways. In our external knowledge reason is right imagination; far from ruling out imagination reason depends upon its development, so that those most ethereal of poets, the pure mathematicians, become the spies of man's intelligence service and the pioneers of his dominion over nature.

In the internal knowledge of ourselves in our own history reason and imagination are similarly combined. Here the brute data which compare with sensations in external knowledge are the affections of the self. Pain and pleasure here are not physical states primarily; what is important about them is that they are ours; they occur in our bodies, directly or sympathetically, and so become joys and sorrows of the self; they are states of the soul. Nothing happens without the participation of our bodies, but the affections of the soul come to us through and in our social body almost as much as in our individual structure. We suffer with and in our community and there we also rejoice. With joys and sorrows, fears, hopes, loves, hates, pride, humility, and anger combine. And none of these affections remains uninterpreted. We meet each one with an imagination whereby we supply what is lacking in the immediate datum and are enabled to respond, rightly or wrongly, to a whole of reality of which this affection is for us a symbol and a part. In this realm all our images seem to be personal. We cannot think here with the aid of impersonal ideas; we cannot use machines as our models or mathematical formulae as our patterns. Inevitably, though we be disciplined in our external knowledge never to use the images of persons, when we interpret affections of the soul we use subjects for our ideas. This use of imagination is something quite different from mythology, which is the employment of personal images in objective knowledge where it is always deceptive, leading to unfulfillable expectations and to inept actions on external objects. The question which is relevant for the life of the self among selves is not whether personal images should be employed but only what personal images are right and adequate and which are evil imaginations of the heart.

Evil imaginations in this realm are shown to be evil by their consequences to selves and communities just as erroneous concepts and hypotheses in external knowledge are shown to be fallacious by their results. Some instances of evil imaginations of the heart will assist toward the clarification of the relationship between imagination and reason in this sphere. In various forms of insanity imagination and reason are not lacking but wrong images are employed by reason. The deluded person interprets all that happens to him but does so by means of inept patterns. His fears are real but he regards them as symbols of a great persecution directed against him; his hopes are signs of his greatness; his emotions of love may be indications to him of a mythical marriage. The images are false; his interpretations are unsupported by what other members of his community experience; hence he cuts himself off and is cut off from commerce with others and retires at last into the frustration of utter solitude. The case is similar with all those feelings of superiority and inferiority which blight the lives of men. An evil imagination of the heart interprets every sorrow as due to the pride of others or the inadequacy of the self; imagination deepens the sense of injury while responses are of a sort that increases the alienation of the person from his companions. In the social sphere the prevalence of such images is all too apparent to our time. The sorrows of the poor -- no matter how much an external analysis accounts for their poverty by reference to economic movements and dislocations -- are personal sorrows which require a personal explanation and this is offered in the image of willfully selfish capitalists against whom emotions of personal anger are aroused. No less do the rich with their own woes -- so poorly based to the external view on physical pain -- imagine foreign agitators, trade unionists, statesmen and politicians to be responsible for their discontent and act accordingly. Again the image of the depraved race, now in the form of a Semitic, now of a Germanic, now of a Black American, now of a Japanese people, is used for the interpretation of social and individual sorrow. These are evil imaginations, resulting in continued conflict, in the impoverishment and destruction of selves both as agents and as sufferers. They present us with a world of confused personal agencies; these pluralistic patterns refuse to be combined into an integrated system. The images vary from day to day, from person to person. Arbitrariness and isolated subjectivity are the characteristic features of the world of selves understood by means of these imaginations of the heart. The animism of primitive life has its counterpart in every period of human history.

The image which the heart or the practical reason employs above all others in apprehending and understanding its affections is that of a dramatic action in which the self is the protagonist. Egotism is not only a characteristic of the will but also of the imagination, and appears in the tendency of the person to impute to all other selves the same interest in itself which it feels. In religion the joys and sorrows of the soul are referred to God as their source but God is thought to cause joy and sorrow purely because of his pleasure or displeasure in the self. Every pain raises the question, "How have I displeased him?" and every joy is thought to be based on a favor which is due to the self's meritorious action. The group also thinks of itself as in the center. So all nations tend to regard themselves as chosen peoples. Defeated or victorious they only become more aware of themselves, using both pain and pleasure to fortify themselves in the conviction that all the world is centered in their destiny. Such imagination can never enter into the knowledge of another self; it is always the "I" that is known and never the "Thou." The self lives in a real isolation in which others serve only as mirrors in which the ego is reflected. Moreover the picture of the self which this imagination uses is likely to be a wholly fanciful one, since it is not subject to the criticism of other selves.

These images of an animistic and self-centered world, whether in ancient or modern forms, are unable to make sense out of our history and our fate. Though they be applicable within narrow limits when they are subordinate to grander hypotheses, they leave great areas of life unexplained and xvhen they are the ultimate images of the heart they lead to confusion and disaster. When we reason with their aid most sufferings and joys remain unintelligible. Evil and selfhood are left as mysteries. Solipsism in thought and action or irrational pluralism in theory and practice are the consequences. The impoverishment and alienation of the self, as well as the destruction of others, issues from a reasoning of the heart that uses evil imaginations.

This seems to be our situation in the world of selves apart from revelation. We have some patterns which we can employ in understanding our joys and sorrows but for the most part they are not only inadequate, leaving us ignorant, but evil, tending to lead to destruction.

When we see the errors in animistic and self-centered reasoning we are tempted to turn away entirely from conceptions which make use of the idea of selves. We try to employ in the understanding of personal relations the images which we have learned to use with some success in our external, non-participating knowledge of things. We seek to understand ourselves and others as beings without selves -- things that are to be understood in a context of things. So we interpret the criminal as the necessary end-product of a series of hereditary and environmental causes. We speak of those who cause us pain as maladjusted persons and use the same figure of speech in explaining our own sins and sorrows. The word is significant, for adjustments and maladjustments are primarily operations carried out on things without their consent or participation. We interpret the conflict between rich and poor as the consequence of economic evolution in which impersonal factors are decisive; machines and markets, conditions of production and distribution rather than the good or evil wills of men account for the miseries of the proletariat and the fears of the bourgeoisie. Nations are understood as geographic, biological and economic units that cannot help being what they are and doing what they do. They are to be dealt with, therefore, without praise and blame as one deals with undernourished bodies or with maladjusted carburetors. Vie use similar images to understand the history of our religion or of our church. So the heart reasons with ideas borrowed from the head; the participant in life uses the images of an observer of life's external aspects. When we think in this way it is unnecessary to refer to revelation as the intuition of a special occasion; the concepts we employ are related to no particular occasion but are impersonal, quantitative and non-historical.

The intimate relations which obtain between the pure and the practical reasons, between the contemplative and the participating lives, doubtless make such impersonal reasoning necessary and fruitful. Physiological, economic and psychological interpretations of men, races and nations are an inescapable element in all responsible dealing with persons and communities. But that the mechanical or at least impersonal model of the observer is a myth when used primarily or exclusively in understanding and responding to selves two considerations indicate quite clearly. The first is that no man in the situation of a participant in life actually succeeds in interpreting and dealing with other human beings on this level; the second is that the impersonal account leaves large areas of our experience unrationalized and uncontrolled.

Many illustrations of the first point may be found in history. The inconsistency which is an element in every great philosophy that begins with observation and ends with action bears testimony to the inadequacy of the impersonal point of view. When Plato turns seriously from philosophy to politics, as in the Laws, the forms or ideas yield their preeminent place to God and the soul. When Spinoza makes his transition from metaphysics to ethics and seeks to show men a way of salvation he does not succeed in keeping his images of man and God on the impersonal plane. The so-called scientific socialism of Marx abandons the impersonal images of the social process as soon as it moves to action. As active revolutionaries, communists do not regard the might of the proletariat as the historically relative product of economic evolution and the basis of their right; rather they believe that this might has a right to be mighty because it will establish universal equality, freedom and happiness. Moving to action they abandon the position of spectators for whom capitalists must simply be what they are and now blame them for being unjust. Valency is transformed into value for persons, and instead of impersonal processes personal motives are analyzed when the transition is made from external knowledge to participation. Scientific humanism, also, must actually give up the interpretation of human relations in impersonal terms when it proceeds to action, no matter how much it denies in words the fact that it does so. A psychologist choosing his vocation or promising to love and cherish a life-partner cannot act on the hypothesis that there is no consciousness of self and no self but only an impersonal process of mind or matter. In decision and action the images used in observation are inept and must actually give way to ideas of selves and of values for selves. Positivists who affirm that terms of praise and blame are meaningless yet tend in times of dispute with those whom they call obscurantists to praise and blame as if there were persons before them and as if there were a value in their own view, as if truth made a difference to persons. A strange blindness often afflicts those who believe that they employ the strictly impersonal and descriptive method in all affairs of life; they do not see how they abandon this method themselves in every decision to publish their ideas and in all their identification of themselves with their thoughts. The participant in life simply cannot escape thinking in terms of persons and of values. It would be possible to do so only if he could depersonalize the self, become a body without an inner life, without joys and sorrows, loves and hates, without neighbors, without hope or fear -- a thing in a world of things. But in such a world no truth would ever need to be uttered; existence without worth or unworthiness would be all in all. The images of the observational method are so out of place in the life of participation that they must be abandoned in favor of other ideas or surreptitiously modified when employed by moral agents in moments of decisive action.

The alternative to inconsistency in this transition from the method of observation to personal participation, while employing the impersonal patterns of thought relevant to the former, is the abandonment of the practical, moral life to the irrationality of passion or of custom. Some positivists dismiss all judgments about value, all religious affirmations, all references to selves as meaningless because they cannot be translated into words referring to sense-experience or because they cannot be understood by means of the impersonal images of natural science. Morality, politics, religion are simply unintelligible and irrational, they say. But the actuality of value-judgments, of religious devotion, of self-consciousness and consciousness of other selves, of the world of relations between selves, cannot be dismissed with the statement that these things are unintelligible. The consequence of declaring any part of human experience and action to be beyond reason is not to eliminate it from existence but to leave it subject to unregulated passion, to uncriticized custom, or to the evil imaginations of the heart. Anyone who affirms the irrationality of the moral and religious life simply abandons the effort to discipline this life, to find right images by means of which to understand himself, his sorrows and joys. Such positivism leaves the door of human moral life wide open to the appearance of anarchy and the sway of primitive emotion accompanied by primitive mythology. The way out of the dilemma which many exponents of this way of thinking adopt is to accept and to advise their disciples to follow the customary morality of the group in which they live. Thereby they acknowledge the reality of the moral, practical life and the limitation of their rational method to the world of things; but they allow custom to pursue its uncriticized way, surrendering the effort to discover and to extend the power of rational principles in it.

These considerations, among others, indicate not that the life of personal selves is beyond reason but that the patterns which pure or scientific reason employs in understanding the behavior of things are inapplicable to the personal sphere. If ethics, politics, religion -- the whole complex of personal relations -- are to be understood and rescued from the rule of chance imagination, if they are to be made "scientific," it must be by some other method than through the transfer to them of images and patterns employed by contemplative reason observing a world of things. The errors and superstitions fostered by bad imagination in this realm cannot be overcome by eliminating ideas of self and of value for selves but only by more adequate images of the same order.

The heart must reason; the participating self cannot escape the necessity of looking for pattern and meaning in its life and relations. It cannot make a choice between reason and imagination but only between reasoning on the basis of adequate images and thinking with the aid of evil imaginations. Neither the primitive images of animism nor the impersonal patterns of modern scientific, or indeed of any kind of purely contemplative, thought supply a basis for the rational understanding of the self in its community and history. But there is an image neither evil nor inadequate which enables the heart to understand and the event through which that image is given them Christians call their revelation.

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