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The Commercial Imagination

Taking the word "commercial" in its broadest signification, I understand
by this expression all those forms of the constructive imagination that
have for their chief aim the production and distribution of wealth, all
inventions making for individual or collective enrichment. Even less
studied than the form preceding, this imaginative manifestation reveals
as much ingenuity as any other. The human mind is largely busied in that
way. There are inventors of all kinds--the great among these equal those
whom general opinion ranks as highest. Here, as elsewhere, the great
body invent nothing, live according to tradition, in routine and

Invention in the commercial or financial field is subject to various
conditions with which we are not concerned:

(1) External conditions:--Geographical, political, economic, social,
etc., varying according to time, place, and people. Such is its external
determinism--human and social here in place of cosmic, physical, as in
mechanical invention.

(2) Internal, psychological conditions, most of which are foreign to the
primary and essential inventive act:--on one hand, foresight,
calculation, strength of reasoning;--in a word, capacity for reflection;
on the other hand, assurance, recklessness, soaring into the unknown--in
a word, strong capacity for action. Whence arise, if we leave out the
mixed forms, two principal types--the calculating, the venturesome. In
the former the rational element is first. They are cautious,
calculating, selfish exploiters, with no great moral or social
preoccupations. In the latter, the active and emotional element
predominates. They have a broader sweep. Of this sort were the
merchant-sailors of Tyre, Carthage, and Greece; the merchant-travelers
of the Middle Ages, the mercantile and gain-hungry explorers of the
fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries; later, in a changed
form, the organizers of great companies, the inventors of monopolies,
American "trusts," etc. These are the great imaginative minds.

Eliminating, then, from our subject, what is not the purely imaginative
element in order to study it alone, I see only two points for us to
treat, if we would avoid repetition--at the initial moment of invention,
the intuitive act that is its germ; during the period of development and
organization, the necessary and exclusive role of schematic images.


By "intuition" we generally understand a practical, immediate judgment
that goes straight to the goal. Tact, wisdom, scent, divination, are
synonymous or equivalent expressions. First let us note that intuition
does not belong exclusively to this part of our subject, for it is found
in parvo throughout; but in commercial invention it is preponderating
on account of the necessity of perceiving quickly and surely, and of
grasping chances. "Genius for business," someone has said, "consists in
making exact hypotheses regarding the fluctuations of values." To
characterize the mental state is easy, if it is a matter merely of
giving examples; very difficult, if one attempts to discover its

The physician who in a trice diagnoses a disease, who, on a higher
level, groups symptoms in order to deduce a new disease from them, like
Duchenne de Boulogne; the politician who knows human nature, the
merchant who scents a good venture, etc., furnish examples of intuition.
It does not depend on the degree of culture;--not to mention women,
whose insight into practical matters is well known, there are ignorant
people--peasants, even savages--who, in their limited sphere, are the
equals of fine diplomats.

But all these facts teach us nothing concerning its psychological
nature. Intuition presupposes acquired experience of a special nature
that gives the judgment its validity and turns it in a particular
direction. Nevertheless, this accumulated knowledge of itself gives no
evidence as to the future. Now, every intuition is an anticipation of
the future, resulting from only two processes:--inductive or deductive
reasoning, e.g., the chemist foreseeing a reaction; imagination, i.e.,
a representative construction. Which is the chief process here?
Evidently the former, because it is not a matter of fancied hypothesis,
but of adaptation of former experience to a new case. Intuition
resembles logical operations much more than it does imaginative
combinations. We may liken it to unconscious reasoning, if we are not
afraid of the seeming contradiction of this expression which supposes a
logical operation without consciousness of the middle term. Although
questionable, it is perhaps to be preferred to other proposed
explanations--such as automatism, habit, "instinct," "nervous
connections." Carpenter, who as promoter of "unconscious cerebration,"
deserves to be consulted, likens this state to reflection. In ending, he
reprints a letter that John Stuart Mill wrote to him on the subject, in
which he says in substance that this capacity is found in persons who
have experience and lean toward practical things, but attach little
importance to theory.

Every intuition, then, becomes concrete as a judgment, equivalent to a
conclusion. But what seems obscure and even mysterious in it is the fact
that, from among many possible solutions, it finds at the first shot the
proper one. In my opinion this difficulty arises largely from a partial
comprehension of the problem. By "intuition" people mean only cases in
which the divination is correct; they forget the other, far more
numerous, cases that are failures. The act by which one reaches a
conclusion is a special case of it. What constitutes the originality of
the operation is not its accuracy, but its rapidity--the latter is the
essential character, the former accessory.

Further, it must be acknowledged that the gift of seeing correctly is an
inborn quality, vouchsafed to one, denied to another:--people are born
with it, just as they are born right-or left-handed: experience does not
give it--only permits it to be put to use. As for knowing why the
intuitive act now succeeds and at another time fails, that is a question
that comes down to the natural distinction between accurate and
erroneous minds, which we do not need to examine here.

Without dwelling longer on this initial stage, let us return to the
commercial imagination, and follow it in its development.


The human race passed through a pre-commercial age. The Australians,
Fuegians, and their class seem to have had no idea whatever of exchange.
This primitive period, which was long, corresponds to the age of the
horde or large clan. Commercial invention, arising like the other forms
from needs,--simple and indispensable at first, artificial and
superfluous later,--could not arise in that dim period when the groups
had almost their sole relations with one another as war. Nothing called
it to arise. But at a higher stage the rudimentary form of commerce,
exchange in kind or truck, appeared early and almost everywhere. Then
this long, cumbersome, inconvenient method gave place to a more
ingenious invention--the employment of "standard values," beings or
material objects serving as a common measure for all the rest:--their
choice varied with the time, place, and people--e.g., certain shells,
salt, cocoa-seeds, cloth, straw-matting, cattle, slaves, etc.; but this
innovation held all the remainder in the germ, for it was the first
attempt at substitution. But during the earliest period of commercial
evolution the chief effort at invention consisted of finding
increasingly more simple methods in the mechanism of exchange. Thus,
there succeeded to these disparate values, the precious metals, in the
form of powder and ingots, subject to theft and the inconveniences of
weighing. Then, money of fixed denomination, struck under the authority
of a chief or of a social group. Finally, gold and silver are replaced
by the letter of credit, the bank check, and the numerous forms of
fiduciary money.

Every one of these forward steps is due to inventors. I say inventors,
in the plural, because it is proven that every change in the means of
exchange has been imagined several times, in several ages--though in the
same way--on the surface of our earth.

Summing up--the inventive labor of this period is reduced to creating
increasingly more simple and more rapid methods of substitution in the
commercial mechanism.

The appearance of commerce on a large scale has depended on the state of
agriculture, industry, ways of communication, social and economic
conditions and political extension. It came into being toward the end of
the Roman Republic. After the interruption of the Middle Ages the
activity is taken up again by the Italian cities, the Hanseatic League,
etc.; in the fifteenth century with the great maritime discoveries; in
the sixteenth century by the Conquistadores, hungering for adventure
and wealth; later on, by the mixed expeditions, whose expenses are
defrayed by merchants in common, and which are often accompanied by
armed bands that fight for them; lastly comes the incorporation of great
companies that have been wittily dubbed "Conquistadores of the

We now come to the moment when commercial invention attains its complex
form and must move great masses. Taken as a whole, its psychological
mechanism is the same as that of any other creative work. In the first
instance, the idea arises, from inspiration, from reflection, or by
chance. Then comes a period of fermenting during which the inventor
sketches his construction in images, represents to himself the material
to be worked upon, the grouping of stockholders, the making up of a
capital, the mechanism of buying and selling, etc. All this differs from
the genesis of an esthetic or mechanical work only in the end, or in the
nature of the images. In the second phase it is necessary to proceed to
execution--a castle in the air must be made a solid structure. Then
appear a thousand obstructions in the details that must be overcome. As
everywhere else, minor inventions become grafted on the principal
invention; the author lets us see the poverty or richness in resource of
his mind. Finally, the work is triumphant, fails, or is only

Did it keep only to these general traits, commercial imagination would
be merely the reiteration, with slight changes, of forms already
studied; but it has characteristics all its own that must be

(1) It is a combining or tactical imagination. Heretofore, we have met
nothing like it. This special mark is derived from the very nature of
its determinism, which is very different from that limiting the
scientific or mechanical imagination. Every commercial project, in order
to emerge from the internal, purely imaginative phase, and become a
reality, requires "coming to a head," very exact calculation of
frequently numerous, divergent, even contrary elements. The American
dealer speculating in grain is under the absolute necessity of being
quickly and surely informed regarding the agricultural situation in all
countries of the world that are rich in grain, that export or import; in
regard to the probable chances of rain or drouth; the tariff duties of
the various countries, etc. Lacking that, he buys and sells haphazard.
Moreover, as he deals in enormous quantities, the least error means
great losses, the smallest profit on a unit is of account, and is
multiplied and increased into a noticeable gain.

Besides that initial intuition that shows opportune business and
moments, commercial imagination presupposes a well-studied, detailed
campaign for attack and defense, a rapid and reliable glance at every
moment of execution in order to incessantly modify this plan--it is a
kind of war. All this totality of special conditions results from a
general condition,--namely, competition, strife. We shall come back to
this point at the end of the chapter.

Let us follow to the end the working of this creative imagination. Like
the other forms, this kind of invention arises from a need, a
desire--that of the spreading of "self-feeling," of the expansion of the
individual under the form of enrichment. But this tendency, and with it
the resulting imaginative creation, can undergo changes.

It is a well-known law of the emotional life that what is at first
sought as a means may become an end and be desired for itself. A very
sensual passion may at length undergo a sort of idealization; people
study a science at first because it is useful, and later because of its
fascination; and we may desire money in order to spend it, and later in
order to hoard it. Here it is the same: the financial inventor is often
possessed with a kind of intoxication--he no longer labors for lucre,
but for art; he becomes, in his own way, an author of romance. His
imagination, set at the beginning toward gain, now seeks only its
complete expansion, the assertion and eruption of its creative power,
the pleasure of inventing for invention's sake, daring the
extraordinary, the unheard-of--it is the victory of pure construction.
The natural equilibrium between the three necessary elements of
creation--mobility, combination of images, calculation--is destroyed.
The rational element gives way, is obliterated, and the speculator is
launched into adventure with the possibility of a dazzling success or
astounding catastrophe. But let us note well that the primary and sole
cause of this change is in the affective and motor element, in an
hypertrophy of the lust for power, in an unmeasured and morbid want of
expansion of self. Here, as everywhere, the source of invention is the
emotional nature of the inventor.

(2) A second special character of commercial imagination is the
exclusive employment of schematic representations. Although this process
is also met with in the sciences and especially in social inventions,
the imaginative type that we are now considering has the privilege of
using them without exception. This, then, is the proper moment for a

By "schematic images" I mean those that are, by their very nature,
intermediate between the concrete image and the pure concept, but
approach more nearly the concept. We have already pointed out very
different kinds of representations--concrete images, material pertaining
to plastic and mechanical imagination; the emotional abstractions of the
diffluent imagination; affective images, the type of which is found in
musicians; symbolic images, familiar in mystics. It may seem improper to
add another class to this list, but it is not a meaningless subtlety.
Indeed, there are no images in general that, according to the ordinary
conception, would be copies of reality. Even their separation into
visual, auditory, motor, etc., is not sufficient, because it
distinguishes them only with regard to their origin. There are other
differences. We have seen that the image, like everything living,
undergoes corrosions, damages, twisting, and transformation: whence it
comes about that this remainder of former impressions varies according
to its composition, i.e., in simplicity, complexity, grouping of its
constitutive elements, etc., and takes on many aspects. On the other
hand, as the difference between the chief types of creative imagination
depends in part on the materials employed--on the nature of the images
that serve in mental building--a precise determination of the nature of
the images belonging to each type is not an idle operation.

In order to clearly explain what we mean by schematic images, let us
represent by a line, PC, the scale of images according to the degree
of complexity, from the percept, P, to the concept, C.


As far as I am aware, this determination of all the degrees has never
been made. The work would be delicate; I do not regard it as impossible.
I have no intention to undertake it, even as I do not pretend that I
have given above the complete list of the various forms of images.

If, then, we consider the foregoing figure merely as a means of
representing the gradation to the eye, the image in moving, by
hypothesis, from the moment of perception, P, is less and less in
contact with reality, becomes simplified, impoverished, and loses some
of its constitutive elements. At X it crosses the middle threshold to
approach nearer and nearer to the concept. At G let us locate generic
images, primitive forms of generalization, whose nature and process of
becoming are well-known; we should place farther along, at S,
schematic images, which require a higher function of mind. Indeed, the
generic image results from a spontaneous fusion of like or very
analogous images--such as the vague representation of the oak, the
horse, the negro, etc.; it belongs to only one class of objects. The
schematic image results from a voluntary act; it is not limited to exact
resemblances--it rises into abstraction; so it is scarcely accompanied
by a fleeting representation of concrete objects--it is almost reduced
to the word. At a higher level, it is freed from all sensuous elements
or pictures, and is reduced, in the present instance, to the mere notion
of value--it is not different from a pure concept. While the artist and
the mechanic build with concrete images, the commercial imagination can
act directly neither on things nor on their immediate representations,
because from the time that it goes beyond the primitive age it requires
a substitution of increasing generality; materials become values that
are in turn reducible to symbols. Consequently, it proceeds as in the
stating and solving of abstract problems in which, after having
substituted for things and their relations figures and letters,
calculation works with signs, and indirectly with things.

Aside from the first moment of invention, the finding of the idea--an
invariable psychological state--it must be recognized that in its
development and detailed construction the commercial imagination is made
up chiefly of calculations and combinations that hardly permit concrete
images. If we admit, then,--and this is unquestionable--that these are
the materials par excellence of the creative imagination, we shall be
disposed to hold that the imaginative type we are now studying is a kind
of involution, a case of impoverishment--an unacceptable thesis as
regards the invention itself, but strictly acceptable as regards the
conditions that necessity imposes upon it.

In closing, let us note that financial imagination does not always have
as its goal the enriching of an individual or of a closely limited group
of associates: it can aim higher, act on greater masses, address itself
strenuously to a problem as complex as the reformation of the finances
of a powerful state. All the civilized nations count in their history
men who imagined a financial system and succeeded, with various
fortunes, in making it prevail. The word "system," consecrated by usage,
makes unnecessary any comment, and relates this form of imagination to
that of scientists and philosophers. Every system rests on a
master-conception, on an ideal, a center about which there is assembled
the mental construction made up of imagination and calculation which, if
circumstances permit, must take shape, must show that it can live.

Let us call to mind the author of the first, or at least, of the most
notorious of these "systems." Law claimed that he was applying "the
methods of philosophy, the principles of Descartes, to social economy,
abandoned hitherto to chance and empiricism." His ideal was the
institution of credit by the state. Commerce, said he, was during its
first stage the exchange of merchandise in kind; in a second stage,
exchange by means of another, more manageable, commodity or universal
value, security equivalent to the object it represented; it must enter
a third stage when exchange will be made by a purely conventional sign
having no value of its own. Paper represents money, just as the latter
represents goods, "with the difference that the paper is not security,
but a simple promise, constituting credit." The state must do
systematically what individuals have done instinctively; but it must
also do what individuals cannot do--create currency by printing on the
paper of exchange the seal of public authority. We know the history of
the downfall of this system, the eulogies and criticisms it has
received:--but because of the originality and boldness of his views, the
inexhaustible fecundity of his lesser inventions, Law holds an
undisputed place among the great imaginative minds.


We said above that commerce, in its higher manifestations, is a kind of
war. Here, then, would be the place to study the military
imagination. The subject cannot be treated save by a man of the
profession, so I shall limit myself to a few brief remarks based on
personal information, or gleaned from authorities.

Between the various types of imagination hitherto studied we have shown
great differences as regards their external conditions. While the
so-called forms of pure imagination, whence esthetic, mythic, religious,
mystic creations arise, can realize themselves by submitting to material
conditions that are simple and not very exacting, the others can become
embodied only when they satisfy an ensemble of numerous, inevitable,
rigorously determined conditions; the goal is fixed, the materials are
rigid, there is little choice of the appropriate means. If there be
added to the inflexible laws of nature unforeseen human passions and
determinations, as in political or social invention, or the offensive
combination of opponents, as in commerce and war; then the imaginative
construction is confronted with problems of constantly growing
complexity. The most ingenious inventor cannot invent an object as a
whole, letting his work develop through an immanent logic:--the early
plan must be continually modified and readapted; and the difficulty
arises not merely from the multiple elements of the problem to be
solved, but from ceaseless changes in their positions. So one can
advance only step by step, and go forward by calculations and strict
examination of possibilities. Hence it results that underneath this
thick covering of material and intellectual conditions (calculation,
reasoning), spontaneity (the aptness for finding new combinations, "that
art of inventing without which we hardly advance") reveals itself
to few clear-sighted persons; but, in spite of everything, this creative
power is everywhere, flowing like subterranean streams, a vivifying

These general remarks, although not applicable exclusively to the
military imagination, find their justification in it, because of its
extreme complexity. Let us rapidly enumerate, proceeding from without
inwards, the enormous mass of representations that it has to move and
combine in order to make its construction adequate to reality, able at a
precise moment to cease being a dream:--(1) Arms, engines, instruments
of destruction and supply, varying according to time, place, richness of
the country, etc. (2) The equally variable human element--mercenaries, a
national army; strong, tried troops or weak and new. (3) The general
principles of war, acquired by the study of the masters. (4) More
personal is the power of reflection, the habitual solving of tactical
and strategic problems. "Battles," said Napoleon, "are thought out at
length, and in order to be successful it is necessary that we think
several times in regard to what may happen." All the foregoing should be
headed "science." Advancing more and more within the secret psychology
of the individual, we come to art, the characteristic work of pure
imagination. (5) Let us note the exact, rapid intuition at the
commencement of the opportune moments. (6) Lastly, the creative element,
the conception, a natural gift bearing the hall-mark of each inventor.
Thus "the Napoleonic esthetics was always derived from a single concept,
based on a principle that may be summed up thus:--Strict economy
wherever it can be done; expenditure without limit on the decisive
point. This principle inspires the strategy of the master; it directs
everything, especially his battle-tactics, in which it is synthetized
and summed up."

Such, in analytical terms, appears the hidden spring that makes
everything move, and it is to be attributed neither to experience nor to
reasoning, nor to wise combinations, for it arises from the innermost
depths of the inventor. "The principle exists in him in a latent state,
i.e., in the depths of the unconscious, and unconsciously it is that he
applies it, when the shock of the circumstances, of goal and means,
causes to flash from his brain the spark stimulating the artistic
solution par excellence, one that reaches the limits of human

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Previous: The Practical And Mechanical Imagination

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