Affirming the truth of imagination

The alternative tradition

It is of course to the Romantic movement that we owe the recovery—even the discovery—of the imagination in its modern sense. But Romantic imagination swung to excess and Kierkegaard was among those who was wary of its more extravagant claims, while ultimately vindicating its vital role. Gouwens sums up the 'apotheosis' of imagination in Romanticism:

'Imagination' in Romantic thought had become a central category, complex and subtle in its permutations. It was not only the heart of poetic creativity, but also the central human faculty and the locus of the Romantic quest for wholeness, a wholeness in which the world is poeticized and redeemed, and in which the individual is even able to find union with the infinite.

Kierkegaard mounted an attack on the absolutising of the imagination and the aesthetic by the Romantics to the detriment of the ethical, but he combined this with a refutation of idealist (Hegelian) disparagement of images or mere representation as inferior to pure conceptual truth. Kierkegaard ultimately vindicated the imagination as necessary to the ethical disposition which was superior to the aesthetic and a stage on the way to true religion. Kierkegaard calls imagination 'the capacity instar omnium'—the capacity of all capacities (op. cit.). To speak of the truth of the imagination is not to fall for the excesses of Romanticism, but to make a critical and discriminating appropriation of that tradition. Let us now begin to try to do this.

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