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