The Primacy of Imagination

Chaired by Victor Suchar

Dr Richard Ogle

Author & co-convenor, Camden Philosophical Society

11 October 2005

I want to talk about an ancient quarrel in philosophy, the quarrel between reason and imagination. Ever since Greek times there has existed a strong tradition claiming primacy for reason as representing the core of the mind’s cognitive faculties. This tradition has correspondingly been responsibly for a centuries-old neglect of the imagination, alternating with open disparagement of its powers as positively dangerous to those who seek to find Truth.

To generalize at the risk of oversimplifying, this privileging of reason over imagination is of a piece with the broad tendency in western philosophy to favor epistemology (the study of how we acquire and validate knowledge) over ontology (the study of being, or as Quine liked to put it, What There Is); and correspondingly to favour the mind’s analytical powers over its creative ones.

As Heidegger might have said, this treatment of the imagination by philosophy is by now something of a scandal. How can the philosophy of mind, lying at the very center of philosophical inquiry, be taken seriously while virtually ignoring or invalidating one of the human mind’s most powerful and mysterious faculties? In this talk, I want to look at a recent revival of interest in the imagination on the part of philosophers, particularly in Colin McGinn’s new book, Mindsight, and to explore some ideas of my own I’ve been developing in a book on breakthrough creativity.

I was sharply reminded the other day of how powerful the imagination is while walking along the shore in Rockland with my 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Upon spying some interesting looking sea-glass, she delightedly proclaimed there must have been a wreck of a pirate ship nearby, the glass being part of its treasure. As we walked along, whatever caught her attention became incorporated into this pirate-world: a piece of wood was part of the mast, an iron tube half buried in the sand a cannon; a curved piece of flotsam the cover of a sword; soon she was off on speculating about what pirates did with their booty. In effect, Elizabeth had imaginatively immersed herself in the pirate world, and everything was now ‘seen as’ part of it (to use Wittgenstein’s term).

This incident reveals several aspects of the imagination that have made philosophers suspicious of it: for example, that the imagination conjures up whole worlds which we tend to respond to holistically rather than analytically; that frequently what is imagined is not real; that judgment (disbelief, if you will) is suspended; and that our emotions are often strongly involved.

Surely, at least for our children’s sake, we need to take up once again the study of the imagination, including from a philosophical perspective. And not for their sake only. The business press has recently declared that the so-called Knowledge Economy with its reliance on rational analysis of everything from quality to productive efficiency, is now over. Or rather, it’s been outsourced! From now on, China and India will take the lead in keeping the great capitalist corporations lean and mean. Its place has been taken by the so-called Creative Economy. According to the August 1 issue of Business Week, invention, innovation and creativity are the new economic drivers. Prime among the qualities corporate leaders will now require is—Yes—imagination!

A Brief Historical Survey

Before plunging into McGinn, let’s briefly survey the prior treatment of the imagination by philosophers, psychologists, and literary theorists. The trouble begins, as it usually does, with Plato. Plato’s deep suspicion of any form of image, his expulsion of poets from the Republic as deceivers, and his derisive characterization of painters as merely imitating an imitation, created a hostile attitude to the imagination that has persisted among rationalists to this day, while correspondingly exalting the role of reason in the acquisition of knowledge and pursuit of truth.

Shakespeare’s lines from A Midsummer-Night’s Dream associating imagination with ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet’ have hardly helped bolster the imagination’s cognitive role. The ultra-rationalist Descartes had little use for the imagination. Bacon recognized its role in art and poetry, but on those same grounds saw imagination as dangerous to reason, claiming he could find no science in it. Locke denigrated the imagination as something largely illusory, fit for little more than recreative entertainment. Hume recognized that without the imagination’s power of associating ideas, reason could not operate at all. Yet he still claimed the imagination to be "‘a principle so inconstant and fallacious’ that if we follow it we doom ourselves to false reason as often as not." (Engell 1981: 55) Samuel Johnson, hewing to the neo-classical line in criticism, exclaimed that ‘All power of fancy [another name for imagination] over reason is a degree of insanity.’ (ibid: 60)

As we’ll see, this tradition of alternately neglecting and invalidating the power of the imagination has persisted down into our own day. At the same time, we must acknowledge the existence of a very different tradition. For roughly 175 years, from the middle of the 17th until the first quarter of the 19th century, an extraordinary outpouring of thought from philosophers, psychologists, and literary theorists essentially created our modern idea of the imagination. In the space of this talk, I cannot possibly do justice to the full depth and range of this movement, so I’ll simply give you the headlines as it were.

Two overriding themes emerge from this period. First, that the imagination is the intermediary between the senses and reason, so that it plays a crucial role in understanding. And second that the imagination is the fount of genius and creativity. Hobbes, the father of modern ideas of the imagination, saw it as actively forming our conception of the world, connecting up disparate elements of experience into meaningful wholes. This line of thought initiates a long tradition of regarding imagination as the partner, rather than the opponent, of reason. Shaftsbury, Addison, and Akenside, moving ever further away from Cartesian mechanism, begin to transfer to the imagination the intuitive powers once accorded to reason. Leibniz picks up the theme of the creative powers of the imagination, seeing it as a vis activa or active force unifying human experience and serving to produce harmony between the mind and nature.

During the late Enlightenment, as the continental and English traditions begin to merge, a fully fledged view of the imagination emerged as the central component of an essentially organic conception of mind. This found its fullest flowering among the Romantics, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, who identify the imagination with genius and the very highest cognitive and creative powers of mind.

Kant, of course, played a crucial role in this shift from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. In some ways, Kant is emblematic of our frustration with even those philosophers who seem to champion the imagination. In the second (1786) edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues for a transcendental view of the imagination characterized by a priori rules based on laws of geometry, logic, and theoretical science. Out of these the imagination creates schema that permit formal intuition to both connect with and render intelligible the infinite particulars of the sensory world. Without this power of the imagination, reason would have no contact with the material world.

The problem with this is twofold. First, Kant never gives us the details of what these all-important formal schema are. Second, he comes dangerously close to giving us a conception so abstract as to lose all contact with any commonsense notion of imagination. Kant regards the imagination as "the key and pivotal power to understanding the mind, nature, and the mind’s understanding of nature." At the same time he admits that the imagination seems to be a ‘blind power hidden in the depths of the soul, of whose operation we are hardly ever aware.’ (Engell 1981, pp. 133-134)

After the imagination reached its apotheosis with the Romantics, its status went into a serious decline, for reasons that are not hard to figure out. The Romantic identification of imagination with genius and even geist or spirit, only served to reinforce the metaphysical status with which Kant had endowed it. With the decline of metaphysics at the hands of Mach, and later the logical positivists, the status of the imagination was bound to suffer. The rise in the prestige of science in the first decades of the twentieth century restored analytical reasoning to its place of pre-eminence, not merely among philosophers but the culture at large. C.P. Snow may have been a novelist as well as a scientist, but he leaves us in little doubt which of the two cultures—science and the humanities—he thinks has more going for it. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was postmodernism’s deep distrust of images as copies of originals that themselves lack authentic status.

Nor was this decline in regard for the work of the imagination limited to philosophy and science. Other signs in the culture at large pointed to it as well. When Kenneth Grahame, a clerk at the Bank of England and writer of children’s stories, first approached publishers with his latest manuscript, he was repeatedly rejected. The book was about a group of talking animals, something that was regarded as just too fantastic. Victorian educators believed in discouraging children from pretending and daydreaming, and a lot of fairytale nonsense about a friendship between a rat and a mole could only be detrimental to their mental and social development. Grahame’s book was finally saved by the intervention of Teddy Roosevelt, an avid fan of his earlier stories. The Wind in the Willows still sells about 80,000 copies a year, which just goes to show that children know a thing or two about the power of the imagination that still eludes most philosophers! (Keillor, 2005)

Freud, true Victorian that he was, distinguished between what he termed primary and secondary process thinking, the first being associated with impulses and fantasies arising from the unconscious, the second with planning and rational control. Taking their cue from this, psychologists now distinguish between so-called autistic and realistic thinking. Autistic thinking is characterized by when a person "imagines, fantasizes, dreams, hallucinates, or has delusions," as opposed to judging, conceptualizing, and problem solving (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). We’re back with the Midsummer Night’s Dream version of imagination that associates imagination with lunacy.

Summing up how the imagination has been treated in Western thought, the psychologist E.L. Murray observed that:

meaning, respectable meaning, was identified with the logical thinking of humankind, while human imaginative thought was identified with the animistic, the irrational, the illogical, the instinctual, the repressible, and ultimately the dangerous.

In the current cultural discourse in both the hard sciences and the social sciences, the term imaginative is hardly a valued quality, the preferred epithets for research being rational, objective, predictive, and explanatory. To a large extent, the same holds true in management and business. Realism and rationality rule. Most recently, Steven Pinker has managed to produce a 600-page book entitled How the Mind Works without even mentioning imagination in the index, choosing instead to focus on imaging, a very different thing. We’re a long way from the grand vision of Leibniz, Kant, and the Romantics.

McGinn’s Mindsight

This loss of status suffered by the imagination, bordering at times on systematic neglect, has fortunately been rectified by the appearance late last year of Colin McGinn’s Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning (Harvard). McGinn, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, confirms that there is "little current interest" among philosophers in the topic of the imagination. This is the situation McGinn sets out to rectify. He nails his colors to the mast from the outset:

We need imagination to have mental images, to dream, to believe, to represent possibilities, and to mean…. [the imagination] is a far more pervasive aspect of the human mind than recent philosophy might suggest…. I would suggest regarding the mind as centrally a device for imagining…. We are Homo imaginans. It is the mental image and its various elaborations that sums up what the human mind most characteristically is…. the imagination is a faculty that needs to be accorded a seat of highest honor in any account of human mental nature. (pp 5-6)

This represents an astonishing turning point in analytic philosophy of mind. To put it simply, McGinn has announced the primacy of the imagination, and that is going to have repercussions for a long time to come, in both philosophy itself and more broadly in the mind sciences.

Much of the book is taken up with a carefully argued set of distinctions for differentiating images—that is, mental pictures arising in the absence of an objective stimulus—from percepts representing genuine visual stimulation by an object. In Ch. 10, however, he finally turns to the cognitive imagination, or in other words, imagination that operates primarily with conceptual rather than sensory elements as inputs. The cognitive imagination is, quite simply, a type of thought.

Returning to the British empiricist tradition of the association of ideas initiated by Hobbes and Hume, McGinn attributes to the imagination a creative combinatorial power. It thus produces propositions, just as reason does. The key difference is that the imagination entertains a possibility without necessarily believing it to be so. Thus I can imagine that I am in Paris, standing on top of the Eiffel Tower, without believing that this is the case. So a crucial distinction McGinn draws is between entertaining a possibility—something the imagination is extremely good at—and asserting a possibility. As McGinn puts it, imagining-that something is not a type of belief. To entertain a thought does not entail taking a stand as to its modal status.

Evidence, the very stuff rational empirical reasoning trades in, is irrelevant to the imagination. Paradoxically, herein lies imagination’s great strength, and the very basis of its primacy. McGinn’s point here is of fundamental importance, I believe, and warrants close attention. Basically, his argument goes like this.

When I imagine some state of affairs, I am simply contemplating it, holding it in the mind’s eye. In doing so, I am indifferent to how things really are. Now of course this is precisely the source of most philosophers’ suspicion of the imagination: that way madness lies, as the delusions of Don Quijote made abundantly clear. For most philosophers the primary function of mind is precisely to determine as accurately as possible what is the case, or in other words, what is true and not true.

However, McGinn argues that while the imagination is emphatically not a truth-determining faculty, paradoxically the very possibility of finding truth, indeed of making sense of the world at all, is dependent on the imagination. How can this be? How can the faculty which is potentially the source of human delusion, the thing that unites the lover, poet, and madman, and that had my daughter Elizabeth off transforming the flotsam of Rockland beach into a pirate shipwreck, be the source of truth and meaning? Well, it’s a neat trick…

McGinn, as we’ve noted, claims thinking has two species: believing and entertaining. This much is hardly new. However, McGinn claims, contrary to the central philosophical tradition of most of the last 2,500 years, that imagination is not the poor cousin of belief. Belief, of course, when validated by reason combined with empirical evidence, gives us most of what we take to be the major fruits of cognitive life: our rational way of making sense of things; and by extension, politics, morality, science, education, economics, and so forth. Belief itself, however, and hence all that it makes possible, is itself fully dependent on the powers of mind to entertain things, primarily in this case propositions that could be the case.

The imagination is the master of the world of the possible and the hypothetical, the world of conjuring up, of What if? This is where thinking begins. The very question What if? shifts us into the realm of the possible, leading to a train of thought that says, Suppose such and such were so, what would follow?, thus invoking the imagination. The kind of quintessential rational thought scientists use is thus both dependent on the imagination and exploits what it offers up.

First we entertain the possibility, then we assent to it, or in others words believe it, then we if possible validate what we believe to arrive at the truth. As Michael Polanyi so elegantly put it, "We must imagine and believe before we can know."

McGinn’s point, then, is this: the propositional attitude of imagining is more fundamental than the propositional attitude of believing, because the latter necessarily presupposes the former, but not vice versa. In other words, I can imagine I’m an excellent cook without believing it, but I cannot believe it without first having imagined it, along with other possibilities.

This brings us to McGinn’s claim about meaning itself as a function of the imagination. To understand the meaning of a sentence is to grasp the possibilities it represents. If I say, "I shall go to Rome next Wednesday by train," understanding the meaning of the sentence partly involves understanding the possibilities that it excludes. These include: going to Rome on Tuesday, or by car, or heading out for Naples instead. This view of meaning is as old as philosophy itself. "Without winter there is no summer, no health without sickness," Heraclitus wrote a hundred years before Plato’s time. Wittgenstein echoes the same idea when he suggests that a railway signal that has only one possible position—say down—cannot mean. Meaning depends on the relationship of words and sentences to alternate possibilities, and possibilities are the home domain of the imagination.

I believe McGinn has made a major contribution to the philosophy of the imagination. He has clearly demonstrated the crucial role the imagination plays in meaning and cognitive thinking, and in the process established the primacy of the imagination in the sense that reason itself is dependent on it. Thus he has restored the imagination to its rightful place at the very center of the philosophy of mind, a place Kant seemed to give it without supplying the details. His book creates a firm foundation on which others can build. In the remainder of this talk I want to do just that, in two areas where McGinn holds back: higher creativity, and the question of whether there are laws, analogous to those governing reason, that constrain the operation of the imagination.

Science, entrepreneurship, imagination & intelligence

Even in McGinn’s account, the imagination still seems to play second fiddle to reason in the following sense. First, truth and insight still appear to be the strict preserve of our rational faculties, with the imagination simply preparing the way by supplying lists of alternatives to choose from. In other words, the imagination is kept largely separate from the operation of intelligence, which I take to mean the capacity to insightfully solve novel problems. Second, we still appear to lack any very coherent way of talking about the imagination. We still lack any delineation of laws the imagination may obey, as compared to our two-millennia-old knowledge of the laws of analytical reason. As McGinn himself says at one point, Where’s the science?

I want to address these issues in the following way. To keep things manageable, I’ll focus on two aspects of the imaginative faculties—insight, and intuition. I shall argue that a clearer understanding of how these operate will demonstrate both the imagination’s powers of intelligence and provide a first glimpse of the laws that govern it. My first example is drawn from science, the second from entrepreneurship.

Great scientists have never made the mistake of underestimating the imagination. Einstein asserted that in examining his methods of thought, "the gift of imagination has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing absolute knowledge." (Calaprice, 2000, p. 22) "For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." (ibid., p. 10) Similarly, Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the structure of DNA, believed that "The most important requirements in theoretical work are a combination of accurate thinking and imaginative ideas." (Judson 1978/III, p. 184) In Crick’s opinion, part of what held Rosalind Franklin back from making the breakthrough herself was that while she was an adequate theoretician—i.e., accurate thinker—she wasn’t sufficiently imaginative.

Why should scientists, those most rational of creatures, have to rely on the imagination in order to make major breakthroughs? Crick’s answer is that scientific discoveries are hard because

you’ve got to take a series of steps, three or four steps, and if you don’t take them you won’t get there, and if you go wrong in any one of them you won’t get there. It isn’t a matter of one jump—that would be easy. You’ve got to make several successive jumps. And usually the pennies drop one after another until eventually it all clicks. (ibid., p. 181)

Let’s take a brief look at precisely what Crick is talking about. By the time Crick and Watson submitted their famous 800-word paper to Nature, they were at the end of a very long chain of theoretical inferences supported by a dangerously thin layer of actual evidence drawn from an array of disciplines, as the chart you have in front of you indicates:

Feature of DNA Molecule



DNA as genetic material



DNA’S 4 types of bases could encode genetic variation



DNA molecule is helix

Pauling, mathematics, Franklin’s X-ray picture

Molecular biology/mathematics/ X-ray crystallography

Backbones outside

Franklin’s data re water content

X-ray crystallography

Number of backbones 2

Franklin’s data re face-centered monoclitic structure plus angles

X-ray crystallography

Backbones reversed

Franklin’s data re face-centered monoclitic structure plus angles

X-ray crystallography

Complementary linking of bases

Griffith’s hypothesis re complementary linking; Chargaff’s ratios; old idea of complementary replication

Physical chemistry; biochemistry; genetics

Base bonding possible

Donohoe’s argument re bonding

Physical chemistry

I won’t attempt to go through this chart in detail. The essential points to note are the following. First, as you can see from the right-hand column, Crick and Watson were synthesizing results drawn from at least seven different fields. Second, at this stage the results were far from well established and in some cases quite controversial. Many biologists continued to believe, for example, that proteins, not DNA, were the genetic material. Rosalind Franklin repeatedly questioned whether DNA was helical in structure. Linus Pauling, who came quite close to making the discovery himself, accepted that the backbones were helical, but argued that there were three, not two, and that they were on the inside, not the outside.

And then there was Irwin Chargaff, who made the key discovery that the four bases in the DNA molecule, adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine (A, T, C, and G) formed pairs, so that in any sample of DNA, the total proportion of A = T, and C = G. Chargaff, along with practically everyone else involved, failed to see any significance in this fact. Only Crick immediately made the leap to the all-important conclusion: that DNA replication was complementary, with the order of the bases on each of the two strands mirroring each other in reverse.

The point I’m making in this somewhat compressed analysis is that, as Crick claims, the discovery of DNA’s structure resulted from a whole series of conjectural leaps, every one of which had to be correct. A single wrong turn would have been fatal.

It’s useful to think of discovery as a form of navigation problem. Suppose we regard the steps in the chart as nodes in a network, linked by a series of inferences. Competing hypotheses would represent further nodes and links. Altogether, the network comprising all the plausibly possible set of nodes and links (i.e., hypotheses and inferences) would represent a very large network indeed—a positive maze of possibilities in fact. Discovering the correct structure of DNA meant finding just the right set of nodes and linking them in just the right way. As Crick put it, you had to make a series of jumps, getting each one right, until it all clicked.

This is what Crick meant by imaginative thinking, so let’s press a little harder here. Two ideas stand out: jumping and clicking. These have to do, respectively, with intuition and insight, the two aspects of imagination we’re especially interested in.

Intuition in this context means following a hunch about the right path to take at each turn—in other words, navigating a maze successfully. So how did Crick and Watson do it? How did they know which way to go? Of course the answer is, sometimes they didn’t—like everyone else they took wrong turns which led them down a series of blind alleys. But mostly they got it right, solving the puzzle in a remarkably short time.

So far, what I’m suggesting here on the surface doesn’t look all that different from McGinn’s concept: the imagination makes available a set of possibilities, and reason then figures out which one is right. But there’s more to it than that. Crick uses the term jump because that’s in most cases what it took to get from one node or set of nodes to the next in the network of possibilities. You had to jump because at the time there was no straightforward set of logical inferences applied to empirical data that would get you there.

To take the most notorious example, Chargaff, a brilliant biological researcher and highly analytical thinker, couldn’t see destiny staring up at him from his lab bench. Yet Crick grasped the point of the A/T, C/G ratios immediately, an astounding feat of both intuition and insight. Here if ever, imagination trumped analytical reasoning.

I want to suggest the following explanation for this. Chargaff, in keeping with the conventional biology of his day, was extremely methodical in sticking close to the data, Crick fully embraced the new physics-based paradigm that Schrödinger had introduced with his ground-breaking book, What Is Life? This wasn’t just a matter of doing biological research at the molecular level. It also entailed engaging in bold conjecture, often in the face of both contrary evidence and strictly analytical reasoning. This mode of speculative thinking was fully of a piece with Einstein’s gedankenexperiments, such as imagining running alongside a light-beam. Crick learned it from Pauling and from Bragg, head of the Cavendish Laboratory, and it gave him a style of thought that positively encouraged daring leaps of the imagination.

But still, leaps to where? Boldness is of little use if you wind up jumping to the wrong conclusion. This is where Crick’s intuition would serve him well. Mendelian genetics was inherently statistical. If, for example, a black and a white animal mate, their offspring could well be all gray. However, if these now mate, the second generation will on average be half gray, and one quarter black and white respectively. The genes themselves don’t blend, thus preserving variation in future generations, though (as the gray animals show), their effects may blend.

Figuring out genetics at the molecular level, however, is crucially a matter of geometry, since the physical chemistry of molecules has to do with the exact spatial configurations of atoms relative to one another. Even while he was a graduate student, Crick and had begun to speculate about this baffling problem of genetic geometry.

Oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, there is a paradox at the heart of genetic replication. On the one hand, the genetic code needs to have some mechanism for reproducing the infinite variability of living organisms. On the other hand, replication has to be exact—identical copies of the code somehow have to be generated over and over again. Put simply, it required a form of identity in the midst of vast difference. Crick confesses in his memoirs that he had little idea what kind of geometry could possibly pull this off.

Chargaff’s published work showed quite clearly that the endless strings of bases, of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s, could in principle take care of the infinite variability part of the replication conundrum. What Crick saw that Chargaff didn’t was that the 1-to-1 ratios revealed an identity in the midst of difference exactly where you’d hope to find one. Crick was able to make the crucial leap—to complementary replication as the two identical helical backbones split apart—because his capacity for imaginative thinking was enriched by the twin paradigms of physics-based speculative model-building and the geometry of molecular genetics.

Bringing these paradigms to bear on the problem, together with various other plausible conjectures, allowed Crick to successfully navigate his way in a maze of possibilities. His intuition guided him, because as Crick speculated against the background of all he knew, understood, and guessed, a pattern gradually began to emerge and grow, making more and more sense as it did so.

The parts of the pattern—essentially the 8 inferences listed above—were holistically rather than analytically determined. They made sense in relation to one another rather than independently. Getting the navigation right meant holding all of them, together with what each implied for the others, in the imagination, until the pattern finally completed itself. In other words, until the insight suddenly happened, everything clicked and a new and meaningful gestalt emerged.

We can account for the two imaginative phenomena on display here—intuition and insight—in network terms. Network science, pioneered by Albert-László Barabási, is beginning to elaborate a series of universal laws accounting for how principles of self-organization permit networks to dynamically reconfigure themselves. The law of the fit get rich suggests that an emerging pattern of coherence feeds on itself, resisting other forces of disintegration, and allowing a new coherent unity to emerge.

An example of this is the way a series of footpaths between several sites in open terrain will gradually coalesce as people progressively agree on the one that works best. The same emergent phenomenon has been observed in ants, who begin by randomly foraging for food, but quickly converge on a good source. I believe that an important part of the complex phenomenon of human intuition can be captured by this same law. As a pattern begins to emerge, it guides inquiry, progressively building on itself until a new gestalt emerges, as in the case of DNA.

What about insight? We can describe such moments as a sudden qualitative shift from complex to simple: suddenly, to use Crick’s word again, everything clicks as a single possibility emerges as the most plausible out of a much larger set. In network theory terms, this is known as a phase transition, or more popularly a tipping point. A series of cases of a disease suddenly tip into a full-scale epidemic; a sand-pile suddenly collapses into a cone shape; or, as in Crick’s case, everything suddenly fits together and makes sense.

My point here is this. The cognitive imagination deals mainly in ideas, and it’s straightforward to represent ideas as networks. Human intuition represents navigation in a network—finding our way to something new in a maze of possibilities. Correspondingly, insight may be interpreted as a sudden simplifying shift in the configuration of a network that produces a qualitative change. Thus network science appears for the first time to hold out a genuine hope of discovering laws governing the operation of imagination akin to the laws governing analytical reasoning. The more we learn about laws such as the fit get rich, and tipping points, the more intuition and insight—those mysterious but crucially important aspects of imaginative thinking—are likely to become comprehensible to us.

Let me finish with a brief example of imaginative thinking from a completely different domain—entrepreneurship. One day back in the mid-50s, Ruth Handler, one of the founders of the toy company Mattel, observed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls. Two things struck Handler. First, Barbara had no interest in the chubby-faced plastic baby dolls that then dominated the market; the paper dolls represented adult figures such as nurses, teachers, brides, and so forth. Second, part of what fascinated her was being able to change clothes on the doll. Clearly, Barbara and her friends were using the dolls to fantasize about their future lives as teenagers and adults. Then Handler had a brainwave: Why not have Mattel market a young adult doll whose clothes could be changed.

Mattel’s mostly male executives strongly resisted, apparently because the idea of selling young girls a doll with breasts was quite shocking to them. Handler shelved the idea. Then, on vacation in Switzerland, Barbara spotted precisely such a doll figure in a tobacconist’s window in Lucerne. Handler bought it for her, triumphantly showed it to Mattel executives, and Barbie was born. It’s easy to make fun of Barbie, but Mattel has laughed all the way to the bank. The diminutive doll is now a $4 billion global business.

The invention of Barbie was a tremendous act of imagination on Ruth Handler’s part, and once again, intuition and insight played a key role. Let’s focus briefly on what happened when she saw the doll in Lucerne and brought it back with her. What she had actually purchased was a so-called Lilli doll, based on a cartoon character with distinctly dubious morals.

I think what leapt out at Handler was not adulthood or breasts per se, but sex, and the glamour that goes with it. Barbie, with her extraordinary figure and revealing outfits, has traded on that ever since. Handler’s moment of insight came with the realization that the power that sexual attractiveness implies exactly balanced the innocence of girlhood, still embodied in Barbie’s sweet, almost naïve face.

The concept of Barbie suddenly gelled: she would represent the two culturally conventional poles of the feminine: power and innocence, good and "bad," naughty and nice. The sheer force of this insight and the excitement it generated produced the tipping point Handler was looking for.

I think intuitively Handler instantly knew there was something right about her idea of Barbie. But it’s more interesting to look at how she and her development and marketing teams gradually created Barbie’s look and characteristics over the few years. Once again, we are facing a navigation problem, one familiar to every entrepreneur: how to find just the right product in a maze of possibilities. The problem was far from trivial. Barbie became extremely successful, but many of Mattel’s competitors tried and failed to get the formula right. Who now remembers Tammy, Tressy, Dawn, or Bizzie Lizzie?

Just as Crick’s intuition was guided by what I term the idea-spaces of speculative physics and genetic geometry, so Handler and her team were guided by the idea-space of a myth: the myth of Aphrodite, who like Barbie incorporates the power/innocence polarity western culture conventionally ascribes to the feminine. As the chart demonstrates, there is an astonishing set of parallels between Aphrodite and Barbie: starting with the fact that both are icons of beauty, and continuing on down through the fact that neither had parents, the dorkiness of their main escorts (the crippled Hephaestus and the hapless Ken), and their possession of a girdle. (I’ll be happy to elaborate on that one during the Q/A period!)



Positive qualities

Positive qualities

Goddess of beauty, love, desire

Icon of beauty, desirability

Promotes transformation

Role model for girls to have choices, pursue their dreams

Generous heart

Helps her friends

Free, independent

Free, independent

Alluring, charismatic, adored by men and women

Little girls adore her


Negative qualities


Negative qualities

Goddess of sacred harlotry

Modeled on a sluttish German cartoon figure/doll

Seen as frivolous, changeable, unfaithful, promiscuous

Seen as frivolous, changeable, shallow

Constantly changes

Addicted to variety, constantly changes outfits, shops for new ones






Parentless (famously has no navel; no parent doll figures)

Combines female qualities with male ones (independent, free, bold, born of castrated male genitalia); has an androgynous child with Hermes

Seems to embody male, as well as female, characteristics: bold, independent, "her own person," free

Husband is a cripple, weak

Main squeeze is dorky, emasculated

Lover is Ares, god of war

Has a serious flirtation with G.I. Joe

Has a magic girdle

Has a girdle


I don’t mean to suggest that Handler and her team simply looked up the Aphrodite myth in a classical dictionary and slavishly copied what they found. Rather, I think they put their marketing intuition in touch with the myth as it is embodied in multiple ways in ideas of the feminine in modern culture. Once again, the law of the fit get rich seems to have been operative. As various features were added, some being chosen while others were quickly discarded, a pattern emerged that progressively led to the full-blown embodiment of the myth we now have.

What I’ve been trying to show with these examples is this. Intuition and insight are crucial components of the imagination. Imagination without intuition would be blind, and without insight would be chaotic. Philosophy, even when it has taken the imagination seriously, has largely denied it a role in intelligence. Kant is the great exception here, granting the imagination the function of rendering reality intelligible. I have been trying to show, in a strictly non-transcendental way, that we can indeed connect the three i’s—imagination, intuition, and insight—with the fourth, intelligence. As both Crick and Handler showed, the imagination really can solve problems for us. Furthermore, network science is finally beginning to reveal a way to account for this capability in law-governed terms.

‘Imagination,’ Emerson proclaimed, ‘is not a talent of some men, but is the health of every man.’ By declaring human beings to be the species Homo imaginans, Colin McGinn has begun to reclaim the imagination for philosophy, reasserting its central role in the life of the mind, and laying a sound foundation on which to build. We are only just beginning to lift the veil on this most mysterious of human attributes, and we still have a long way to go in our understanding, but the journey is surely one we must undertake, for our own as well as for our children’s sake.


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