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Its nature

Imagination is the faculty of representing to oneself sensible objects independently of an actual impression of those objects on our senses. It is, according to scholastic psychology, one of the four internal senses, distinct, on the one hand, from the sensus intimus, the sensus aestimativus, and the memory, and, on the other hand, distinct from the spiritual intellect. The last distinction is to be specially noted on account of the similarity between the operations of the imagination and certain acts of the intellect. We acquire knowledge of our different faculties only from a study of their operations, and the nature of image is the object of endless controversy. Is it psychologically identical with perception, being differentiated only by lesser intensity? Or, on the contrary, has it a specific nature of its own? It would be hard to say. The problem is very complex and perhaps insoluble. The analogy and the points of contact between the image and the perceptive representation are evident, but they hardly seem to justify an identification of the image with the complete perception, and the opinion which regards them as distinct still seems to us the more probable. The imagination is a psycho-physical faculty. To think it can be reduced to the physiological functioning of the brain is an unwarranted and misleading assumption, though it is quite clear that its operations postulate a material basis. Cerebral fatigue, mental disease, and the necessarily quantitative character of its objects leave no room for doubt on this point.


Although the imagination is independent of actual impression by sensible objects, yet it can represent only what has in some way passed through the senses. There is in this regard however, a very marked difference between the different external senses. In the case of normal subjects visual images are the most numerous and the most perfect. Those derived from the sense of hearing are also very common; but the images arising from the senses of taste, smell, and touch are much rarer, and many persons, normally constituted, declare that they never have them unless perhaps in almost imperceptible degree. There has been much discussion of late in regard to "affective" images. Ribot believes we can unhesitatingly assert their existence; they are constituted he claims, by the revival of an affective state, independent of the mental representation of the object which first occasioned it. But the question is not settled, many persons emphatically deny the existence of such images, and the question may be raised whether the so-called "affective image" is not the mere imaginative representation of a past affection, or the actual affective re-echo of an unusually impressive image.


Imagination is twofold, retentive (reproductive) and creative (productive). The object of the first is a sensible reality, which we have previously perceived as such. The creative forms its object by combining elements which were separately perceived. The analysis of the creative imagination is of considerable importance for the psychology of invention, and of artistic and intellectual initiative. It brings us in contact with that as yet mysterious region, which is designated by the very indefinite and certainly collective name of "subconsciousness". Judged by their relative perfection, images are complete or incomplete, generic or schematic. The complete image approaches, in richness and precision, objective perception. It occurs most frequently among the passive images which will be discussed farther on. The incomplete image, as its name indicates, is less rich, less precise. Certain details of the object escape consciousness, but what is represented is still sufficient to characterize an individual object. Of course, its complete or incomplete character is relative and, consequently, susceptible of innumerable gradations. The generic image results from the fusion of several more or less analogous images, with the incompatible differences eliminated. It corresponds to the ensemble of all the individual objects of one kind that the subject has ever perceived. This is why materialists and even persons incapable of psychological observation confound it with an abstract idea, from which, however, it is absolutely distinct. The generic image is evidently very incomplete. The schematic image is still more summary It is hardly ever sought for its own sake; it gives only the schema of the object that is to say certain characteristic outlines sufficient to support the intellect in its proper functions. As a rule the schematic image alone would be insufficient for this purpose; it is, for instance, impossible to imagine a multitude of 40,000 objects, in a manner sufficiently precise to supply the intellect with the sensible factors, indispensable for the mathematical operations to which this number lends itself. Hence the irresistible tendency to complete the schematic image by the verbal image, and the part which the word thus comes to play in the process of thought has given rise to serious errors. Not a few psychologists have mistaken the verbal image, which adds precision to the schematic image, for the idea itself, and it is evident that such a psychological error leads directly to nominalism.

As regards genesis, images are either voluntary or spontaneous. Voluntary images are produced freely. We will to imagine our home, our parents, or some familiar place we have left. These images are usually incomplete, vague, and dull, we render them somewhat more definite by fixing the attention on each part in turn, the grouping of all the parts into a unit being the work of memory. Spontaneous, or passive images are entirely different. Without the slightest impulse or direction of our will, they spring up suddenly in consciousness, representing at times an object which has no apparent connexion with the trend of our thoughts. Images occurring in a dream are a good example, but sleep is by no means necessary for their production; anyone who is accustomed to introspection will readily acknowledge that there are constantly arising from the depths of the soul passive images which often become the starting point of new associations. However, they are best observed in the state of reverie. When this is brought on by fatigue, the most surprising images appear, and they are so well defined and so perfect that they might well pass for pseudo-hallucinations.

The externalizing of images

The relation existing between the image and the "consciousness of presence" is highly complex. The main point is to determine whether the image tends naturally to externalize itself, i.e. whether the image if left to itself would picture its object as existing outside the mind. This has been denied at times, on account of the probable distinction between the perception and the image, and also because a complete image is a rare occurrence. Are we to admit that a generic or schematic image could externalize itself? To admit this would not settle the question, it is, rather, probable that every image would project itself were it not inhibited by some other influence. It is, indeed, difficult to recognize in a dream anything else than the play of images. For the animal as well as for man, a dream manifestly runs its course in exterior space, and provokes acts, which, if the externalizing of images be denied, are quite incomprehensible. This theory is supported by the characteristics of hallucination which also throw some light on the mechanism of inhibition. In the case of hallucination the image, even though corrected by reason, represents its object as existing in exterior space. We must remark, further, that hallucination takes place in cases of extreme fatigue or when certain cerebral centres appear to be paralyzed by poison. It is possible, of course, to refer the phenomenon not to paralysis but to toxic stimulation. But such a solution seems to be excluded by the manner in which we seize on the subconscious elements and by the circumstances in which these elements come to the surface. Pseudo-hallucination offers a form intermediate between the totally inhibited image and hallucination. At times the objects appear with wonderful clearness making us almost feel their presence; but the space they occupy does not correspond with external space, nor have they any spatial relation with the objects which we perceive by our senses. They occur most naturally when one is dreaming or in a half-awakened state, and it is well-known that they are due to fatigue or to the suspension of critical reason and voluntary intellectual activity. It is consequently when the image is most intense and when another function, especially critical reason, is in abeyance, that images display a tendency to externalize themselves, and, sometimes, are actually externalized. It seems therefore that, normally, the image would be projected, if no other factor intervened. An analysis of normal perception leads to the same conclusion. This, we know, is the outcome both of sensory impressions and of the images that we externalize. What the latter contribute is, it seems to us, just as objective as what is contributed by the sensory impressions. There may be another way of interpreting the phenomenon; but when we consider it in conjunction with the facts just mentioned, it seems necessary to admit that, normally, the image externalizes itself.

Psychologists often raise the question why certain states of consciousness, such as perception, give us the impression of the external presence of an object. Probably this impression is a primordial characteristic and, from a psychological point of view, it would be more natural to enquire why images, in certain cases are devoid of that characteristic. Of course, that is no solution of the philosophical problem concerning the objective value of our faculties; but the fact is of considerable importance in the domain of experimental psychology. The only possible answer to the question seems to be as follows: the image is inhibited and appears as subjective whenever its externalization would produce incoherence in the things perceived. It is quite certain that children, possessing less of the critical sense and fewer acquired associations, readily believe "whatever comes into their heads" and again great fatigue, drunkenness, and other states of the sort which are evidently obstacles to the action of reason are precisely the conditions in which images have the greatest tendency to externalize themselves.

In normal circumstances there is always some special note in the image or in the thing perceived which prevents them from corresponding exactly. Disagreements therefore appear which force us to place images in a category distinct from that of perceptions, and our acquired associations convince us that they belong to the unreal, or at least less real, world of the conscious subject. This view is corroborated by the phenomenon of normal perception. The data of sense stir up through association images that complete them; the latter, then, must be in perfect accord with the former, and, as a matter of fact, we know that we externalize them spontaneously. In dreams we project into outer space incoherent images, but frequent observation shows that we coordinate and complete them, arranging them in a logical whole. It would seem then most likely that along with this coherence we produce their illusory externalization. It is well known how suddenly fantastic images disappear as soon as we recognize their absurdity. There seems to be no doubt then that images of their own nature tend to externalize themselves, and they do so as long as no conflict results therefrom. It will be urged, perhaps that we are not conscious of this rational criticism demonstrating the logical impossibility of externalizing the images; to this we rejoin that analytic reason intervenes in exceptional cases only, and that it is nearly always a question of simple acquired associations. Dogs and cats, without an inkling of the principle of causality, seek the cause of sensible phenomena. In like spontaneous fashion we inhibit or suppress our subjective images when they differ too widely from reality.

The motive force of images

It is well known that an image inclines to action, and Ribot has formulated the general law that "every image tends to its own realization". If external action does not always reveal all the images that arise in consciousness the reason is that many of them are neutralized by antagonistic images, which, owing to the character of their object, tend to issue in actions of an opposite sort. This motive force of images makes itself felt at every moment of our lives; but it should be observed that ordinarily it acts only through an emotional state and perhaps, as scholastic philosophers maintain, by means of a special "locomotive" faculty. Be that as it may, it seems to be proved that, in order to influence action and movements, images need not necessarily be in consciousness, much less at its focus. "Marginal" images, or even totally subconscious images, can act on our members and produce at times very complex movements. It would be an error to think that this occurs only exceptionally and in abnormal conditions; nevertheless it is through the practices of spiritism, table turning, automatic writing, etc., that special attention has been drawn to it and the most striking examples of it offered to the psychologist. The "motive force" of images is only a particular instance of a law so general that it dominates the whole psychic life. Each psychic state, wherever it may occur in the human person, tends to spread over adjacent areas and thereby produce equilibrium, i.e. the harmonious condition of the whole personality. An image causing a muscular contraction illustrates this diffusion in a very striking way, and that is why it has been observed sooner and formulated in a more precise manner than any other.

Elaboration of images by the intellect

The image is the starting point and in some measure the immediate matter of all our intellectual operations. It is certain that any cessation of imaginative activity puts an end at once to intellectual function; and since these two faculties, imagination and intelligence, are subjectively distinct, this dependence must be of an objective sort, i.e. the intellect borrows from the imagination. An analysis of our higher knowledge even the most abstract, gives this explanation all the corroboration that immediate experience can furnish. The ideas of the most spiritual things, such as God or virtue, yield through analysis just those elements which are taken from the purely sensible order, and are presented by the imagination. Consequently there can be no doubt as to the objective cooperation of the imaginative faculty in the phenomenon of ideation. But certain dangerous errors in this matter must be guarded against. Hitherto we have insisted on the distinction to be observed between the schematic image and the idea. It would be a serious mistake to admit that any combination of images, however summary and refined, can furnish the object of the idea. Abstraction is often explained as though its initial process, the leaving aside of the individualizing notes, applied to the image itself, and as though the residue of that operation were the intellectual determinant, the species impressa, which starts the intellect itself into action. This is clearly an illusion. The image in its own essence is, and remains, individual; no separation of parts can bring to view the universal, the non-quantitive, in it. We must consider the role of the image in ideation as something quite different. It determines, not the intellectus agens, which would be inconceivable, but the conscious subject, to produce the intellectual object. There is no proportion, so far as the nature of the processes goes, between the image and the object of the intellect. Only a spiritual faculty (the intellectus agens) is proportioned to such an object; but the image is, as it were, a bait, which, in accordance with the nature of its own object, draws out the superior powers of the conscious subject. Hence, although everything in our intellectual knowledge is derived from the images, everything in it transcends them. These two aspects of the question the essential dependence of the intellect on the images, and its transcendency in respect to them, must always be considered if we are to understand accurately the part played by the image in the process of ideation. There result therefrom important consequences the study, of which pertains to the psychology of intelligence.

To conclude: we conceive the higher realities only by analogy with sensible things, but it in no way follows that we conceive nothing but what is material. Images play a very important part in all the activities of the intellectual order; but they do not constitute that order itself. The very spirituality of the human soul depends on this latter truth.

About this page

APA citation. Munnynck, M.M. (1910). Imagination. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Munnynck, Mark Mary de. "Imagination." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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