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The Intellectual Factor

Considered under its intellectual aspect, that is, in so far as it
borrows its elements from the understanding, the imagination presupposes
two fundamental operations--the one, negative and preparatory,
dissociation; the other, positive and constitutive, association.

Dissociation is the "abstraction" of the older psychologists, who well
understood its importance for the subject with which we are now
concerned. Nevertheless, the term "dissociation" seems to me preferable,
because it is more comprehensive. It designates a genus of which the
other is a species. It is a spontaneous operation and of a more radical
nature than the other. Abstraction, strictly so-called, acts only on
isolated states of consciousness; dissociation acts, further, on series
of states of consciousness, which it sorts out, breaks up, dissolves,
and through this preparatory work makes suitable for entering into new

Perception is a synthetic process, but dissociation (or abstraction) is
already present in embryo in perception, just because the latter is a
complex state. Everyone perceives after an individual fashion, according
to his constitution and the impression of the moment. A painter, a
sportsman, a dealer, and an uninterested spectator do not see a given
horse in the same manner: the qualities that interest one are unnoticed
by another.

The image being a simplification of sensory data, and its nature
dependent on that of previous perceptions, it is inevitable that the
work of dissociation should go on in it. But this is far too mild a
statement. Observation and experiment show us that in the majority of
cases the process grows wonderfully. In order to follow the progressive
development of this dissolution, we may roughly differentiate images
into three categories--complete, incomplete, and schematic--and study
them in order.

The group of images here termed complete comprises first, objects
repeatedly presented in daily experience--my wife's face, my inkstand,
the sound of a church bell or of a neighboring clock, etc. In this class
are also included the images of things that we have perceived but a few
times, but which, for additional reasons, have remained clean-cut in our
memory. Are these images complete, in the strict sense of the word? They
cannot be; and the contrary belief is a delusion of consciousness that,
however, disappears when one confronts it with the reality. The mental
image can contain all the qualities of an object in even less degree
than the perception; the image is the result of selection, varying with
every case. The painter Fromentin, who was proud that he found after two
or three years "an exact recollection" of things he had barely noticed
on a journey, makes elsewhere, however, the following confession: "My
memory of things, although very faithful, has never the certainty
admissible as documentary evidence. The weaker it grows, the more is it
changed in becoming the property of my memory and the more valuable is
it for the work that I intend for it. In proportion as the exact form
becomes altered, another form, partly real, partly imaginary, which I
believe preferable, takes its place." Note that the person speaking thus
is a painter endowed with an unusual visual memory; but recent
investigations have shown that among men generally the so-called
complete and exact images undergo change and warping. One sees the truth
of this statement when, after a lapse of some time, one is placed in the
presence of the original object, so that comparison between the real
object and its image becomes possible. Let us note that in this group
the image always corresponds to certain individual objects; it is not
the same with the other two groups.

The group of incomplete images, according to the testimony of
consciousness itself, comes from two distinct sources--first, from
perceptions insufficiently or ill-fixed; and again, from impressions of
like objects which, when too often repeated, end by becoming confused.
The latter case has been well described by Taine. A man, says he, who,
having gone through an avenue of poplars wants to picture a poplar; or,
having looked into a poultry-yard, wishes to call up a picture of a hen,
experiences a difficulty--his different memories rise up. The experiment
becomes a cause of effacement; the images canceling one another decline
to a state of imperceptible tendencies which their likeness and
unlikeness prevent from predominating. Images become blunted by their
collision just as do bodies by friction.

This group leads us to that of schematic images, or those entirely
without mark--the indefinite image of a rosebush, of a pin, of a
cigarette, etc. This is the greatest degree of impoverishment; the
image, deprived little by little of its own characteristics, is nothing
more than a shadow. It has become that transitional form between image
and pure concept that we now term "generic image," or one that at least
resembles the latter.

The image, then, is subject to an unending process of change, of
suppression and addition, of dissociation and corrosion. This means
that it is not a dead thing; it is not at all like a photographic plate
with which one may reproduce copies indefinitely. Being dependent on the
state of the brain, the image undergoes change like all living
substance,--it is subject to gains and losses, especially losses. But
each of the foregoing three classes has its use for the inventor. They
serve as material for different kinds of imagination--in their concrete
form, for the mechanic and the artist; in their schematic form, for the
scientist and for others.

Thus far we have seen only a part of the work of dissociation and,
taking it all in all, the smallest part. We have, seemingly, considered
images as isolated facts, as psychic atoms; but that is a purely
theoretic position. Images are not solitary in actual life; they form
part of a chain, or rather of a woof or net, since, by reason of their
manifold relations they may radiate in all directions, through all the
senses. Dissociation, then, works also upon series, cuts them up,
mangles them, breaks them, and reduces them to ruins.

The ideal law of the recurrence of images is that known since Hamilton's
time under the name of "law of redintegration," which consists in the
passing from a part to the whole, each element tending to reproduce the
complete state, each member of a series the whole of that series. If
this law existed alone, invention would be forever forbidden to us; we
could not emerge from repetition; we should be condemned to monotony.
But there is an opposite power that frees us--it is dissociation.

It is very strange that, while psychologists have for so long a time
studied the laws of association, no one has investigated whether the
inverse process, dissociation, also has not laws of its own. We can not
here attempt such a task, which would be outside of our province; it
will suffice to indicate in passing two general conditions determining
the association of series.

First, there are the internal or subjective causes. The revived image of
a face, a monument, a landscape, an occurrence, is, most often, only
partial. It depends on various conditions that revive the essential part
and drop the minor details, and this "essential" which survives
dissociation depends on subjective causes, the principal ones of which
are at first practical, utilitarian reasons. It is the tendency already
mentioned to ignore what is of no value, to exclude that from
consciousness. Helmholtz has shown that in the act of seeing, various
details remain unnoticed because they are immaterial in the concerns of
life; and there are many other like instances. Then, too, emotional
reasons governing the attention orientate it exclusively in one
direction--these will be studied in the course of this work. Lastly,
there are logical or intellectual reasons, if we understand by this term
the law of mental inertia or the law of least resistance by means of
which the mind tends toward the simplification and lightening of its

Secondly, there are external or objective causes which are variations in
experience. When two or more qualities or events are given as constantly
associated in experience we do not dissociate them. The uniformity of
nature's laws is the great opponent of dissociation. Many truths (for
example, the existence of the antipodes) are established with
difficulty, because it is necessary to break up closely knit
associations. The oriental king whom Sully mentions, who had never seen
ice, refused to credit the existence of solid water. A total impression,
the elements of which had never been given us separately in experience,
would be unanalyzable. If all cold objects were moist, and all moist
objects cold; if all liquids were transparent and all non-liquids
opaque, we should find it difficult to distinguish cold from moisture
and liquidity from transparency. On his part, James adds further that
what has been associated sometimes with one thing and sometimes with
another tends to become dissociated from both. This might be called a
law of association by concomitant variations.

In order to thoroughly comprehend the absolute necessity for
dissociation, let us note that total redintegration is per se a
hindrance to creation. Examples are given of people who can easily
remember twenty or thirty pages of a book, but if they want a particular
passage they are unable to pick it out--they must begin at the beginning
and continue down to the required place. Excessive ease of retention
thus becomes a serious inconvenience. Besides these rare cases, we know
that ignorant people, those intellectually limited, give the same
invariable story of every occurrence, in which all the parts--the
important and the accessory, the useful and the useless--are on a dead
level. They omit no detail, they cannot select. Minds of this kind are
inapt at invention. In short, we may say that there are two kinds of
memory: one is completely systematized, e.g., habits, routine, poetry
or prose learned by heart, faultless musical rendering, etc. The
acquisition forms a compact whole and cannot enter into new
combinations. The other is not systematized; it is composed of small,
more or less coherent groups. This kind of memory is plastic and capable
of becoming combined in new ways.

We have enumerated the spontaneous, natural causes of association,
omitting the voluntary and artificial causes, which are but their
imitations. As a result of these various causes, images are taken to
pieces, shattered, broken up, but made all the readier as materials for
the inventor. This is a process analogous to that which, in geologic
time, produces new strata through the wearing away of old rocks.


Association is one of the big questions of psychology; but as it does
not especially concern our subject, it will be discussed in strict
proportion to its use here. Nothing is easier than limiting ourselves.
Our task is reducible to a very clear and very brief question: What are
the forms of association that give rise to new combinations and under
what influences do they arise? All other forms of association, those
that are only repetitions, should be eliminated. Consequently, this
subject can not be treated in one single effort; it must be studied, in
turn, in its relations to our three factors--intellectual, emotional,

It is generally admitted that the expression "association of ideas" is
faulty. It is not comprehensive enough, association being active also
in psychic states other than ideas. It seems indicative rather of mere
juxtaposition, whereas associated states modify one another by the very
fact of their being connected. But, as it has been confirmed by long
usage, it would be difficult to eliminate the phrase.

On the other hand, psychologists are not at all agreed as regards the
determination of the principal laws or forms of association. Without
taking sides in the debate, I adopt the most generally accepted
classification, the one most suitable for our subject--the one that
reduces everything to the two fundamental laws of contiguity and
resemblance. In recent years various attempts have been made to reduce
these two laws to one, some reducing resemblance to contiguity; others,
contiguity to resemblance. Putting aside the ground of this discussion,
which seems to me very useless, and which perhaps is due to excessive
zeal for unity, we must nevertheless recognize that this discussion is
not without interest for the study of the creative imagination, because
it has well shown that each of the two fundamental laws has a
characteristic mechanism.

Association by contiguity (or continuity), which Wundt calls external,
is simple and homogeneous. It reproduces the order and connection of
things; it reduces itself to habits contracted by our nervous system.

Is association by resemblance, which Wundt calls internal, strictly
speaking, an elementary law? Many doubt it. Without entering into the
long and frequently confused discussions to which this subject has given
rise, we may sum up their results as follows: In so-called association
by resemblance it is necessary to distinguish three moments--(a) That of
the presentation; a state A is given in perception or
association-by-contiguity, and forms the starting point. (b) That of the
work of assimilation; A is recognized as more or less like a state a
previously experienced. (c) As a consequence of the coexistence of A
and a in consciousness, they can later be recalled reciprocally,
although the two original occurrences A and a have previously never
existed together, and sometimes, indeed, may not possibly have existed
together. It is evident that the crucial moment is the second, and that
it consists of an act of active assimilation. Thus James maintains that
"it is a relation that the mind perceives after the fact, just as it may
perceive the relations of superiority, of distance, of causality, of
container and content, of substance and accident, or of contrast between
an object, and some second object which the associative machinery calls

Association by resemblance presupposes a joint labor of association and
dissociation--it is an active form. Consequently it is the principal
source of the material of the creative imagination, as the sequel of
this work will sufficiently show.

After this rather long but necessary preface, we come to the
intellectual factor rightly so termed, which we have been little by
little approaching. The essential, fundamental element of the creative
imagination in the intellectual sphere is the capacity of thinking by
analogy; that is, by partial and often accidental resemblance. By
analogy we mean an imperfect kind of resemblance: like is a genus of
which analogue is a species.

Let us examine in some detail the mechanism of this mode of thought in
order that we may understand how analogy is, by its very nature, an
almost inexhaustible instrument of creation.

1. Analogy may be based solely on the number of attributes compared.
Let a b c d e f and r s t u d v be two beings or objects, each
letter representing symbolically one of the constitutive attributes. It
is evident that the analogy between the two is very weak, since there is
only one common element, d. If the number of the elements common to
both increases, the analogy will grow in the same proportion. But the
agreement represented above is not infrequent among minds unused to a
somewhat severe discipline. A child sees in the moon and stars a mother
surrounded by her daughters. The aborigines of Australia called a book
"mussel," merely because it opens and shuts like the valves of a

2. Analogy may have for its basis the quality or value of the
compound attributes. It rests on a variable element, which oscillates
from the essential to the accidental, from the reality to the
appearance. To the layman, the likeness between cetacians and fishes are
great; to the scientist, slight. Here, again, numerous agreements are
possible, provided one take no account either of their solidity or their

3. Lastly, in minds without power, there occurs a semi-unconscious
operation that we may call a transfer through the omission of the middle
term. There is analogy between a b c d e and g h a i f through the
common letter a; between g h a i f and x y f z q through the
common letter f; and finally an analogy becomes established between a
b c d e and x y f z q for no other reason than that of their common
analogy with g h a i f. In the realm of the affective states,
transfers of this sort are not at all rare.

Analogy, an unstable process, undulating and multiform, gives rise to
the most unforeseen and novel groupings. Through its pliability, which
is almost unlimited, it produces in equal measure absurd comparisons and
very original inventions.

After these remarks on the mechanism of thinking by analogy, let us
glance at the processes it employs in its creative work. The problem is,
apparently, inextricable. Analogies are so numerous, so various, so
arbitrary, that we may despair of finding any regularity whatever in
creative work. Despite this it seems, however, reducible to two
principal types or processes, which are personification, and
transformation or metamorphosis.

Personification is the earlier process. It is radical, always identical
with itself, but transitory. It goes out from ourselves toward other
things. It consists in attributing life to everything, in supposing in
everything that shows signs of life--and even in inanimate
objects--desires, passions, and acts of will analogous to ours, acting
like ourselves in view of definite ends. This state of mind is
incomprehensible to an adult civilized man; but it must be admitted,
since there are facts without number that show its existence. We do not
need to cite them--they are too well known. They fill the works of
ethnologists, of travelers in savage lands, of books of mythology.
Besides, all of us, at the commencement of our lives, during our
earliest childhood, have passed through this inevitable stage of
universal animism. Works on child-psychology abound in observations that
leave no possible room for doubt on this point. The child endows
everything with life, and he does so the more in proportion as he is
more imaginative. But this stage, which among civilized people lasts
only a brief period, remains in the primitive man a permanent
disposition and one that is always active. This process of
personification is the perennial fount whence have gushed the greater
number of myths, an enormous mass of superstitions, and a large number
of esthetic productions. To sum up in a word, all things that have been
invented ex analogia hominis.

Transformation or metamorphosis is a general, permanent process under
many forms, proceeding not from the thinking subject towards objects,
but from one object to another, from one thing to another. It consists
of a transfer through partial resemblance. This operation rests on two
fundamental bases--depending at one time on vague resemblances (a cloud
becomes a mountain, or a mountain a fantastic animal; the sound of the
wind a plaintive cry, etc.), or again, on a resemblance with a
predominating emotional element: A perception provokes a feeling, and
becomes the mark, sign, or plastic form thereof (the lion represents
courage; the cat, artifice; the cypress, sorrow; and so on). All this,
doubtless, is erroneous or arbitrary; but the function of the
imagination is to invent, not to perceive. All know that this process
creates metaphors, allegories, symbols; it should not, however, be
believed on that account that it remains restricted to the realm of art
or of the development of language. We meet it every moment in practical
life, in mechanical, industrial, commercial, and scientific invention,
and we shall, later, give a large number of examples in support of this

Let us note, briefly, that analogy, as an imperfect form of
resemblance--as was said above, if we assume among the objects compared a
totality of likenesses and differences in varying proportions--necessarily
allows all degrees. At one end of the scale, the comparison is made
between valueless or exaggerated likenesses. At the other end, analogy is
restricted to exact resemblance; it approaches cognition, strictly so
called; for example, in mechanical and scientific invention. Hence it is
not at all surprising that the imagination is often a substitute for, and
as Goethe expressed it, "a forerunner of," reason. Between the creative
imagination and rational investigation there is a community of
nature--both presuppose the ability of seizing upon likenesses. On the
other hand, the predominance of the exact process establishes from the
outset a difference between "thinkers" and imaginative dreamers

Next: The Emotional Factor

Previous: The Motor Nature Of The Constructive Imagination

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