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 res
lts 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.