The Principle Of Unity

The psychological nature of the imagination would be very imperfectly

known were we limited to the foregoing analytical study. Indeed, all

creation whatever, great or small, shows an organic character; it

implies a unifying, synthetic principle. Every one of the three

factors--intellectual, emotional, unconscious--works not as an isolated

fact on its own account; they have no worth save through their union,

and no signification save through their common bearing. This principle

of unity, which all invention demands and requires, is at one time

intellectual in nature, i.e., as a fixed idea; at another time

emotional, i.e., as a fixed emotion or passion. These terms--fixed

idea, fixed emotion--are somewhat absolute and require restrictions and

reservations, which will be made in what follows.

The distinction between the two is not at all absolute. Every fixed idea

is supported and maintained by a need, a tendency, a desire; i.e., by

an affective element. For it is idle fancy to believe in the

persistence of an idea which, by hypothesis, would be a purely

intellectual state, cold and dry. The principle of unity in this form

naturally predominates in certain kinds of creation: in the practical

imagination wherein the end is clear, where images are direct

substitutes for things, where invention is subjected to strict

conditions under penalty of visible and palpable check; in the

scientific and metaphysical imagination, which works with concepts and

is subject to the laws of rational logic.

Every fixed emotion should realize itself in an idea or image that gives

it body and systematizes it, without which it remains diffuse; and all

affective states can take on this permanent form which makes a unified

principle of them. The simple emotions (fear, love, joy, sorrow, etc.),

the complex or derived emotions (religious, esthetic, intellectual

ideas) may equally monopolize consciousness in their own interests.

We thus see that these two terms--fixed idea, fixed emotion--are almost

equivalent, for they both imply inseparable elements, and serve only to

indicate the preponderance of one or the other element.

This principle of unity, center of attraction and support of all the

working of the creative imagination--that is, a subjective principle

tending to become objectified--is the ideal. In the complete sense of

the word--not restrained merely to esthetic creation or made synonymous

with perfection as in ethics--the ideal is a construction in images that

should become a reality. If we liken imaginative creation to

physiological generation, the ideal is the ovum awaiting fertilization

in order to begin its development.

We could, to be more exact, make a distinction between the synthetic

principle and the ideal conception which is a higher form of it. The

fixation of an end and the discovery of appropriate means are the

necessary and sufficient conditions for all invention. A creation,

whatever it be, that looks only to present success, can satisfy itself

with a unifying principle that renders it viable and organized, but we

can look higher than the merely necessary and sufficient.

The ideal is the principle of unity in motion in its historic evolution;

like all development, it advances or recedes according to the times.

Nothing is less justified than the conception of a fixed archetype (an

undisguised survival of the Platonic Ideas), illuminating the inventor,

who reproduces it as best he can. The ideal is a nonentity; it arises in

the inventor and through him; its life is a becoming.

Psychologically, it is a construction in images belonging to the merely

sketched or outlined type. It results from a double activity,

negative and positive, or dissociation and association, the first cause

and origin of which is found in a will that it shall be so; it is the

motor tendency of images in the nascent state engendering the ideal.

The inventor cuts out, suppresses, sifts, according to his temperament,

character, taste, prejudices, sympathies and antipathies--in short, his

interest. In this separation, already studied, let us note one

important particular. "We know nothing of the complex psychic production

that may simply be the sum of component elements and in which they would

remain with their own characters, with no modification. The nature of

the components disappears in order to give birth to a novel phenomenon

that has its own and particular features. The construction of the ideal

is not a mere grouping of past experiences; in its totality it has its

own individual characteristics, among which we no more see the composing

lines than we see the components, oxygen and hydrogen, in water. In no

scientific or artistic production, says Wundt, does the whole appear as

made up of its parts, like a mosaic." In other words, it is a case

of mental chemistry. The exactness of this expression, which is due, I

believe, to J. Stuart Mill, has been questioned. Still it answers to

positive facts; for example, in perception, to the phenomena of contrast

and their analogues; juxtaposition or rapid succession of two different

colors, two different sounds, of tactile, olfactory, gustatory

impressions different in quality, produces a particular state of

consciousness, similar to a combination. Harmony or discord does not,

indeed, exist in each separate sound, but only in the relations and

sequence of sounds--it is a tertium quid. We have heretofore, in the

discussion of association of ideas, very frequently represented the

states of consciousness as fixed elements that approach one another,

cohere, separate, come together anew, but always unalterable, like

atoms. It is not so at all. Consciousness, says Titchener, resembles a

fresco in which the transition between colors is made through all kinds

of intermediate stages of light and shade.... The idea of a pen or of an

inkwell is not a stable thing clearly pictured like the pen or inkwell

itself. More than any one else, William James has insisted on this point

in his theory of "fringes" of states of consciousness. Outside of the

given instances we could find many others among the various

manifestations of the mental life. It is not, then, at all chimerical to

assume in psychology an equivalent of chemical combination. In a complex

state there is, in addition to the component elements, the result of

their reciprocal influences, of their varying relations. Too often we

forget this resultant.

At bottom the ideal is an individual concept. If objection is offered

that an ideal common to a large mass of men is a fact of common

experience (e.g., idealists and realists in the fine arts, and even

more so religious, moral, social and political concepts, etc.), the

answer is easy: There are families of minds. They have a common ideal

because, in certain matters, they have the same way of feeling and

thinking. It is not a transcendental idea that unites them; but this

result occurs because from their common aspirations the collective ideal

becomes disengaged; it is, in scholastic terminology, a universale post


The ideal conception is the first moment of the creative act, which is

not yet battling with the conditions of the actual. It is only the

internal vision of an individual mind that has not yet been projected

externally with a form and body. We know how the passage from the

internal to the external life has given rise among inventors to

deceptions and complaints. Such was the imaginative construction that

could not, unchanged, enter into its mould and become a reality.

Let us now examine the various forms of this coagulating principle

in advancing from the lowest to the highest, from the unity vaguely

anticipated to the absolute and tyrannical masterful unity. Following a

method that seems to me best adapted for these ill-explained questions I

shall single out only the principal forms, which I have reduced to

three--the unstable, the organic or middle, and the extreme or

semi-morbid unity.

(1) The unstable form has its starting point directly and immediately in

the reproductive imagination without creation. It assembles its

elements somewhat by chance and stitches together the bits of our life;

it ends only in beginnings, in attempts. The unity-principle is a

momentary disposition, vacillating and changing without cessation

according to the external impressions or modifications of our vital

conditions and of our humor. By way of example let us recall the state

of the day-dreamer building castles in the air; the delirious

constructions of the insane, the inventions of the child following all

the fluctuations of chance, of its caprice; the half-coherent dreams

that seem to the dreamer to contain a creative germ. In consequence of

the extreme frailty of the synthetic principle the creative imagination

does not succeed in accomplishing its task and remains in a condition

intermediate between simple association of ideas and creation proper.

(2) The organic or middle form may be given as the type of the unifying

power. Ultimately it reduces itself to attention and presupposes nothing

more, because, thanks to the process of "localization," which is the

essential mark of attention, it makes itself a center of attraction,

grouping about the leading idea the images, associations, judgments,

tendencies and voluntary efforts. "Inspiration," the poet Grillparzer

used to say, "is a concentration of all the forces and capacities upon a

single point which, for the time being, should represent the world

rather than enclose it. The reinforcement of the state of the mind comes

from the fact that its several powers, instead of spreading themselves

over the whole world, are contained within the bounds of a single

object, touch one another, reciprocally help and reinforce each

other." What the poet here maintains as regards esthetics only is

applicable to all the organic forms of creation--that is to those

ruled by an immanent logic, and, like them, resembling works of Nature.

In order to leave no doubt as to the identity of attention and

imaginative synthesis, and in order to show that it is normally the true

unifying principle, we offer the following remarks:

Attention is at times spontaneous, natural, without effort, simply

dependent on the interest that a thing excites in us--lasting as long as

it holds us in subjection, then ceasing entirely. Again, it is

voluntary, artificial, an imitation of the other, precarious and

intermittent, maintained with effort--in a word, laborious. The same is

true of the imagination. The moment of inspiration is ruled by a perfect

and spontaneous unity; its impersonality approaches that of the forces

of Nature. Then appears the personal moment, the detailed working and

long, painful, intermittent resumptions, the miserable turns of which so

many inventors have described. The analogy between the two cases seems

to me incontestable.

Next let us note that psychologists always adduce the same examples when

they wish to illustrate on the one hand, the processes of the

persistent, tenacious attention, and, on the other hand, the

developmental labor without which creative work does not come to pass:

"Genius is only long patience," the saying of Newton; "always thinking

of it," and like expressions of d'Alembert, Helmholtz and others,

because in the one case as in the other the fundamental condition is the

existence of a fixed, ever-active idea, notwithstanding its relaxations

and its incessant disappearances into the unconscious with return to


(3) The extreme form, which from its nature is semi-morbid, becomes in

its highest degree plainly pathological; the unifying principle changes

to a condition of obsession.

The normal state of our mind is a plurality of states of consciousness

(polyideism). Through association there is a radiation in every

direction. In this totality of coexisting images no one long occupies

first place; it is driven away by others, which are displaced in turn by

still others emerging from the penumbra. On the contrary, in attention

(relative monoideism) a single image retains first place for a long time

and tends to have the same importance again. Finally, in a condition of

obsession (absolute monoideism) the fixed idea defies all rivalry and

rules despotically. Many inventors have suffered painfully this tyranny

and have vainly struggled to break it. The fixed idea, once settled,

does not permit anything to dislodge it save for the moment and with

much pain. Even then it is displaced only apparently, for it persists in

the unconscious life where it has thrust its deep roots.

At this stage the unifying principle, although it can act as a stimulus

for creation, is no longer normal. Consequently, a natural question

arises: Wherein is there a difference between the obsession of the

inventor and the obsession of the insane, who most generally destroys in

place of creating?

The nature of fixed ideas has greatly occupied contemporary alienists.

For other reasons and in their own way they, too, have been led to

divide obsession into two classes, the intellectual and emotional,

according as the idea or the affective state predominates. Then they

have been led to ask: Which of these two elements is the primitive one?

For some it is the idea. For others, and it seems that these are the

more numerous, the affective state is in general the primary fact; the

obsession always rests on a basis of morbid emotion and in a retention

of impressions.

But whatever opinion we may hold on this point, the difficulty of

establishing a dividing line between the two forms of obsession above

mentioned remains the same. Are there characters peculiar to each one?

It has been said: "The physiologically fixed idea is normally longed

for, often sought, in all cases accepted, and it does not break the

unity of the self." It does not impose itself fatally on consciousness;

the individual knows the value thereof, knows where it leads him, and

adapts his conduct to its requirements. For example, Christopher


The pathological fixed idea is "parasitic," automatic, discordant,

irresistible. Obsession is only a special case of psychic

disintegration, a kind of doubling of consciousness. The individual

becomes a person "possessed," whose self has been confiscated for the

sake of the fixed idea, and whose submission to his situation is wrought

with pain.

In spite of this parallel the distinguishing criterion between the two

is very vague, because from the sane to the delirious idea the

transitions are very numerous. We are obliged to recognize "that with

certain workers--who are rather taken up with the elaboration of their

work, and not masters directing it, quitting it, and resuming it at

their pleasure--an artistic, scientific, or mechanical conception

succeeds in haunting the mind, imposing itself upon it even to the

extent of causing suffering." In reality, pure psychology is unable to

discover a positive difference between obsession leading to creative

work and the other forms, because in both cases the mental mechanism is,

at bottom, the same. The criterion must be sought elsewhere. For that we

must go out of the internal world and proceed objectively. We must judge

the fixed idea not in itself but by its effects. What does it produce in

the practical, esthetic, scientific, moral, social, religious field? It

is of value according to its fruits. If objection be made to this change

of front we may, in order to stick to a strictly psychological point of

view, state that it is certain that as soon as it passes beyond a middle

point, which it is difficult to determine, the fixed idea profoundly

troubles the mechanism of the mind. In imaginative persons this is not

rare, which partly explains why the pathological theory of genius (of

which we shall speak later) has been able to rally so many to its

support and to allege so many facts in its favor.

The Practical And Mechanical Imagination The Scientific Imagination facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail