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Law Of The Development Of The Imagination

Is imagination, so often called "a capricious faculty," subject to some
law? The question thus asked is too simple, and we must make it more

As the direct cause of invention, great or small, the imagination acts
without assignable determination; in this sense it is what is known as
"spontaneity"--a vague term, which we have attempted to make clear. Its
appearance is irreducible to any law; it results from the often
fortuitous convergence of various factors previously studied.

Leaving aside the moment of origin, does the inventive power, considered
in its individual and specific development, seem to follow any law, or,
if this term appear too ambitious, does it present, in the course of its
evolution, any perceptible regularity? Observation separates out an
empirical law; that is, extracts directly an abridged formula that is
only a condensation of facts. We may enunciate it thus: The creative
imagination in its complete development passes through two periods
separated by a critical phase: a period of autonomy or efflorescence, a
critical moment, a period of definitive constitution presenting several

This formula, being only a summary of experience, should be justified
and explained by the latter. For this purpose we can borrow facts from
two distinct sources: (a) individual development, which is the safest,
clearest, and easiest to observe; (b) the development of the species, or
historical development, according to the accepted principle that
phylogenesis and ontogenesis follow the same general line.


First Period. We are already acquainted with it: it is the imaginative
age. In normal man, it begins at about the age of three, and embraces
infancy, adolescence, youth: sometimes a longer, sometimes a shorter
period. Play, romantic invention, mythic and fantastic conceptions of
the world sum it up first; after that, in most, imagination is dependent
on the influence of the passions, and especially sexual love. For a long
time it remains without any rational element.

Nevertheless, little by little, the latter wins a place.
Reflection--including under the term the working of the
intelligence--begins very late, grows slowly, and the proportion as it
asserts itself, gains an influence over the imaginative activity and
tends to reduce it. This growing antagonism is represented in the
following figure.

The curve IM is that of the imagination during this first period. It
rises at first very slowly, then attains a rapid ascent and keeps at a
height that marks its greatest attainment in this earliest form. The
dotted line RX represents the rational development that begins later,
advances much more slowly, but progressively, and reaches at X the level
of the imaginative curve. The two intellectual forms are present like
two rivals. The position MX on the ordinate marks the beginning of the
second period.

Second Period. This is a critical period of indeterminate length, in
any case, always much briefer than the other two. This critical moment
can be characterized only by its causes and results. Its causes are, in
the physiological sphere, the formation of an organism and a fully
developed brain; in the psychologic order, the antagonism between the
pure subjectivity of the imagination and the objectivity of
ratiocinative processes; in other words, between mental instability and
stability. As for the results, they appear only in the third period, the
resultant of this obscure, metamorphic stage.

Third Period. It is definite: in some way or another and in some
degree the imagination has become rationalized, but this change is not
reducible to a single formula.

(1) The creative imagination falls, as is indicated in the figure, where
the imagination curve MN' descends rapidly toward the line of abcissas
without ever reaching it. This is the most general case; only truly
imaginative minds are exceptions. One falls little by little into the
prose of practical life--such is the downfall of love which is treated
as a phantom, the burial of the dreams of youth, etc. This is a
regression, not an end; for the creative imagination disappears
completely in no man; it only becomes accessory.

(2) It keeps up but becomes transformed; it adapts itself to the
conditions of rational thought; it is no longer pure imagination, but
becomes a mixed form--the fact is indicated in the diagram by the union
of the two lines, MN, the imagination, and XO, the rational. This is the
case with truly imaginative beings, in whom inventive power long remains
young and fresh.

This period of preservation, of definitive constitution with rational
transformation, presents several varieties. First, and simplest,
transformation into logical form. The creative power manifested in the
first stage remains true to itself, and always follows the same trend.
Such are the precocious inventors, those whose vocation appeared early
and never changed direction. Invention loses its childish or juvenile
character in becoming virile; there are no other changes. Compare
Schiller's Robbers, written in his teens, with his Wallenstein,
dating from his fortieth year; or the vague sketches of the adolescent
James Watt with his inventions as a man.

Another case is the metamorphosis or deviation of creative power. We
know what numbers of men who have left a great name in science,
politics, mechanical or industrial invention started out with mediocre
efforts in music, painting, and especially poetry, the drama, and
fiction. The imaginative impulse did not discover its true direction at
the outset; it imitated while trying to invent. What has been said above
concerning the chronological development of the imagination would be
tiresome repetition. The need of creating followed from the first the
line of least resistance, where it found certain materials ready to
hand. But in order to arrive to full consciousness of itself it needed
more time, more knowledge, more accumulated experience.

We might here ask whether the contrary case is also met with; i.e.,
where the imagination, in this third period, would return to the
inclinations of the first period. This regressive metamorphosis--for I
cannot style it otherwise--is rare but not without examples. Ordinarily
the creative imagination, when it has passed its adult stage, becomes
attenuated by slow atrophy without undergoing serious change of form.
Nevertheless, I am able to cite the case of a well-known scholar who
began with a taste for art, especially plastic art, went over rapidly
to literature, devoted his life to biologic studies, in which he gained
a very deserved reputation; then, in turn, became totally disgusted with
scientific research, came back to literature and finally to the arts,
which have entirely monopolized him.

Finally--for there are very many forms--in some the imagination, though
strong, scarcely passes beyond the first stage, always retains its
youthful, almost childish form, hardly modified by a minimum of
rationality. Let us note that it is not a question here of the
characteristic ingenuousness of some inventors, which has caused them to
be called "grown-up children," but of the candor and inherent simplicity
of the imagination itself. This exceptional form is hardly reconcilable
except with esthetic creation. Let us add the mystic imagination. It
could furnish examples, less in its religious conceptions, which are
without control, than in its reveries of a scientific turn. Contemporary
mystics have invented adaptations of the world that take us back to the
mythology of early times. This prolonged childhood of the imagination,
which is, in a word, an anomaly, produces curiosities rather than
lasting works.

At this third period in the development of the imagination appears a
second, subsidiary law, that of increasing complexity; it follows a
progressive line from the simple to the complex. Indeed, it is not,
strictly speaking, a law of the imagination but of the rational
development exerting an influence on it by a counter-action. It is a
law of the mind that knows, not of one that imagines.

It is needless to show that theoretical and practical intelligence
develops as an increasing complex. But from the time that the mind
distinguishes clearly between the possible and the impossible, between
the fancied and the real--which is a capacity wanting in primitive
man--as soon as man has formed rational habits and has undergone
experience the impress of which is ineffaceable, the creative
imagination is subject, nolens volens, to new conditions; it is no
longer absolute mistress of itself, it has lost the assurance of its
infancy, and is under the rules of logical thought, which draws it along
in its train. Aside from the exceptions given above--and even they are
partial exceptions only--creative power depends on the ability to
understand, which imposes upon it its form and developmental law. In
literature and in the arts comparison between the simplicity of
primitive creations and the complexity of advanced civilizations has
become commonplace. In the practical, technical, scientific and social
worlds the higher up we go the more we have to know in order to create,
and in default of this condition we merely repeat when we think we are


Historically considered, in the species, the development of the
imagination follows the same line of progress as in the individual. We
will not repeat it; it would be mere reiteration in a vaguer form of
what we have just said. A few brief notes will suffice.

Vico--whose name deserves to be mentioned here because he was the first
to see the good that we can get from myths for the study of the
imagination--divided the course of humanity into three successive ages:
divine or theocratic, heroic or fabulous, human or historic, after which
the cycle begins over again. Although this too hypothetic conception is
now forgotten, it is sufficient for our purposes. What, indeed, are
those first two stages that have everywhere and always been the
harbingers and preparers of civilization, if not the triumphant period
of the imagination? It has produced myths, religions, legends, epics and
martial narratives, and imposing monuments erected in honor of gods and
heroes. Many nations whose evolution has been incomplete have not gone
beyond this stage.

Let us now consider this question under a more definite, more limited,
better known form--the history of intellectual development in Europe
since the fall of the Roman Empire. It shows very distinctly our three

No one will question the preponderance of the imagination during the
middle Ages: intensity of religious feeling, ceaselessly repeated
epidemics of superstition; the institution of chivalry, with all its
accessories; heroic poetry, chivalric romances; courts of love,
efflorescence of Gothic art, the beginning of modern music, etc. On the
other hand, the quantity of imagination applied during this epoch to
practical, industrial, commercial invention is very small. Their
scientific culture, buried in Latin jargon, is made up partly of antique
traditions, partly of fancies; what the ten centuries added to positive
science is almost nil. Our figure, with its two curves, one
imaginative, the other rational, thus applies just as well to historical
development as to individual development during this first period.

No more will anyone question that the Renaissance is a critical moment,
a transition period, and a transformation analogous to that which we
have noted in the individual, when there rises, opposed to imagination,
a rival power.

Finally, it will be admitted without dissent that during the modern
period social imagination has become partly decayed, partly
rationalized, under the influence of two principal factors--one
scientific, the other economic. On the one hand the development of
science, on the other hand the great maritime discoveries, by
stimulating industrial and commercial inventions, have given the
imagination a new field of activity. There have arisen points of
attraction that have drawn it into other paths, have imposed upon it
other forms of creation that have often been neglected or misunderstood
and that we shall study in the Third Part.

Next: Preliminary

Previous: The Higher Forms Of Invention

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