Historically, reason and imagination have played varying roles in the areas of knowledge. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a rationalist who strongly believed that the role played by imagination was insignificant in the acquisition of knowledge due to its confusing and tentative nature. He believed that the world was deterministic, that cause and effect held true for all events and that a priori (prior to experience) or rational thought were the sources of much knowledge.
However, a theory proposed by Kant (Critique of Pure Reason) contrasts to Bacon’s view. Kant explained that in the areas of knowledge imagination is used to propose a theory in the metaphysical world based on either abstract or empirical evidence in the real world. Then to validate this proposed theory in the real world, deductive or inductive reasoning is used. In this essay I will attempt to show why Kant’s idealistic view, that both reason and imagination have distinct and varying roles are more suitable than Bacon’s narrow minded view of pure reason in the areas of mathematics, the arts and the human sciences (using the example of economics).
Firstly, we must define imagination and reason. Kant (Critique of Pure Reason) establishes imagination as a mediator between sense perception and concepts, something between sense and thought. On the other hand, reason refers to the higher cognitive faculties of the human mind which describes thought, aspects of thought and the ability to think abstractly.
As such, both reason and imagination have significant roles in the areas of knowledge, particularly mathematics.
In the area of mathematics, Kant believed that imagination and reason were both equally important in order to develop necessary foundations for human knowledge. Although the Baconian ideology refutes the use of imagination, two modern scientists, Lakoff and Nunez, proposed that a cognitive science of mathematics is required (‘Where Mathematics comes from: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into being’). For example: The founding of Imaginary numbers required the use of imagination with the aid of background knowledge. Then in order to acquire a generalised theory reasoning was applied so it had some significance to the real world.
The expression is as follows:
x = (-b ï¿½ V (b2 – 4ac)) / 2a
As can be seen, when 4ac > b2 the equation has a negative square root. In junior mathematics we were always told that the square root of a negative is undefined. However after using the power of imagination mathematicians realised that the number system had holes in it and there could be a number defined as the square root of a negative. By using inductive reasoning (reasoning with prior experience of mathematical functions), mathematicians plugged in values for -1 in quadratic equations, to verify their findings. The results found were solutions outside the conventional number system. Thus, they called this number i, which has applications in the real world even though it is said to be ‘imaginary’. It is used in electronics for oscillators, in engineering for periods of cranks and simple harmonic motion, to say the least.
The concepts of space and time in mathematics further supports that the uses of imagination along with reason are necessary conditions for acquiring knowledge. Kant states that we must have an a priori imagination of space because ‘geometry is a science which determines the properties of space synthetically and yet a priori’ (Critique of pure reason, the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’). Consider, for example, our knowledge that one plus three is equal to four and that the interior angles of any triangle add up to a straight line. These truths of mathematics are synthetic judgments which Kant held since they contribute significantly to our reasoning of the world. However, the sum of the interior angles is not contained in the concept of a triangle in the natural world. However, such truths are known as a priori, since they apply with universal necessity to all of the objects of our experience, without having been derived from that experience itself.
In another area of knowledge, Art, Hume, a follower of Bacon, thought that art was not created due to imagination but the renegotiation of reason and sensibility of thought and taste. Hume divides taste into categories and positions himself sceptically. He believes that sentiment is existent in the mind so no responses to works of art are superior to another. Reasoning, which Hume will defend, holds that evaluative responses are neither true nor false to a work of art yet some are better than others. Thus, according to Hume, we cannot help but dismiss the taste of anyone who prefers a minor artist such as the Australian artist Brett Whiteley to the famous French artist, Matisse. Hume also suggests that if a work of art converges many taste this signifies a work of genius. Thus, this would give us a set of rules on the composition of good art and hence there is a certain standard behind every art work that artists must reason with.
Kant, on the other hand does not dismiss the role of reason as a form of reflective judgement in art. However he believes that imagination plays a greater role in the creation of art. In the critique of pure reason Kant argues that the mind is not a passive ‘mirror’ of the world, but that the world comes to us in a manifestation of sensations. Through the joint activities of imagination and reason we actively interpret the matter in terms of objects with predictable behaviours. For example: When one may hear the sound of a jet we can feel its vibration.
Reason helps to understand the concept of a Jet, but it is through sensations brought on by our imagination that attributes to the unseen Jet passing overhead. Hence, we divide the manifold of sensations into various objects by grouping them under empirical concepts. Similarly, these empirical concepts could be transformed into abstract ideas, like in surrealism, which follows no specific rule but conveys feelings and emotions differently than artwork which follows convention.
The human sciences are another area of knowledge in which imagination and reason play a significant role. However, conversely to art, reason plays a greater role than imagination in this case, although imagination should not be ignored. Kant’s laws on economics are based on ‘reflective judgements’: types of judgements that do not aim in describing what is the case in nature, but tries to understand how we humans think and imagine things about nature and the things in nature, such as people.
Thus, in the natural sciences, Kant proposes that a greater sense of meaning and interpretation is required, as unlike science, we are dealing with humans instead of natural phenomena. Thus, we cannot do experiments on people as there are issues regarding morality, however, imagination, although not used as often in the human sciences, is the prime founder of theories that are applied, like in economics. For example: In Ron Howard’s movie, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, John Nash uses his imagination for experimentation in a social context to develop his ‘Game Theory’. He proposes a theory in his mind, ‘Governing Dynamics’, to motivate an analysis of equilibria in a non-cooperative game.
When in the bar, Nash says “If we all go for the blonde, we block each other and not a single one of us is gonna get her”. He suggests that “no one goes for the blonde” and the visual shows his four friends pairing up with the other women, the best result achievable. The details of this game illustrates that the best result may be achieved by doing what is best for yourself and the group. This theory, using modern reasoning has been applied to modern day economics in the forms of oligopolies, auctions, voting systems, and bargaining. Thus Kant’s transcendental approach secures the starting point for human experimentation.
However, reasoning takes over imagination thereafter. This is because economics is predominantly a science of human action, cause and effect, the Baconian principle. An example of cause and effect in economics would be: In an economy a cause of concern would be when consumers are spending too much money on goods and services. The effect would be The Reserve Bank of Australia increasing interest rates. This will have the effect of inflation (rising prices) and consumer demand will lessen. Thus, by using reason from economic theory, governments can sustain the economy.
In conclusion, although reason is highly regarded and used regularly in society, people underestimate the role imagination plays in the areas of knowledge. In the areas of mathematics, art and economics, reason and imagination both play important roles; however, either one or the other has a greater role in particular subjects. Imagination is used more in art, reason is used more in the human sciences and in mathematics both reason and imagination play an equal role. Still, in all areas of knowledge imagination is used to propose a theory in the metaphysical world and reason is used to verify it in the real world, an irrefutable fact.