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What is Imagination? Three Perspectives

When I think of what may precede a big idea, imagination comes to mind. Imagination is the fulcrum of big ideation, it’s the creation of worlds, visions, or ideas beyond the visible. Creative potential beyond the constructs we often accept in day-to-day life. What is imagination? It’s the architect who asked, why do buildings have to be square? The poet who asked, why do words need to line up on a page? The activist who asked, why are we not all free? The scientist who asked, when was the universe born?

We know what imagination looks like, but what does it mean? Read on to explore three different views on the nature and function of imagination.

What is Imagination?

Paraphrasing Merriam Webster, imagination means:

  1. The act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality
  2. A creative ability or the ability to confront and deal with a problem

However, the abstract definition, origination, and nature of imagination are widely debated, a perennial ponderance in the same league as concepts like love and creativity. Considered by Aristotle, Plato, and Kant, imagination is widely connected to creativity.

Here are different takes on the meaning and nature of imagination by a few great minds:

Albert Einstein: Knowledge Versus Imagination

Imagination is often likened to creativity and contrasted with knowledge. Einstein famously called out the limitations of knowledge in relation to the expansiveness of the imagination. He poses an interesting polarity and begs the question, what is knowledge without imagination? Indeed, imaginative thought experiments are integral to the knowledge-based fields of study.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” -Albert Einstein

In a Saturday Evening Post interview that features the quote above, Einstein also said, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination.” It seems that Einstein saw imagination as a place of play, a place for questioning minds—and he wanted to encourage that in a society that focused on knowledge. Perhaps, imagination is the catalyst and knowledge is the refinement or anchoring of an idea.

How do you value imagination alongside knowledge? How does each play a role in your life? How do you think your peers or society values them?

Joseph Campbell: Mythic Imagination

There is a long history linking mythology with imagination, especially through storytelling. Simply put, humans used their abilities of imagination to make sense of the senseless, the other, and a changing world. Through imaginative storytelling, humans shared creation myths and passed on warnings to future generations through folklore, such as in the stories of Anansi. Joseph Cambell, a Jungian psychologist, saw mythology and symbolism as vehicles to activate the imagination and tune into the collective unconscious.

 “There are mythologies that are scattered, broken up, all around us. We stand on what I call a terminal moraine of shattered mythic systems that once structured society. They can be detected all around us. You can select any of these fragments that activate your imagination for your own use. Let it help shape your own relationship to the unconscious system out of which these symbols have come.” – Joseph Campbell

The earliest accounts of human imagination are through imaginative and symbolic folklore. In The Power of Myth, an interview of Campbell by Bill Moyers, Campbell states that in the period of hunting man and woman, “there is this burst of magnificent art and all the evidence you need of a mythic imagination in full career.” Through myth, imagination became a time-honored way of understanding the world.

Campbell posited that stories, myths, and the imagination stemmed from the collective unconscious. He stated, “since imagination comes out of one biological ground, it is bound to produce certain themes.” He believed humans shared access to collective imagination through theme and story. Actually, there is evidence that imagination might have preceded language.

What myths or symbols activate your imagination? Do you think that imagination stems from the unconscious (yours or the collective)?

Toni Morrison: Imagination as Freedom

Actualized imagination is a hard-fought-for experience that requires time and money. How many of the world’s most “imaginative” minds were supported by slaves, underpaid labor from Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), and womxn? A prolific and creative writer, Toni Morrison excavated imagination from an overlay of whiteness in Literature (she wrote an entire book called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination) and powerfully questioned the limitations and distractions placed on creativity by white dominance.
For the reader with unearned privilege based on gender or race, your freedom to imagine may have never been quelled. Yet, consider for a moment the perseverance required in order to overcome all the things you may have been told are inconceivable, let alone what you (or your race or gender) have been punished for doing or physically prevented from doing.

“The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.” – Toni Morrison

Imagination doesn’t have to be out there or speculative; it can be a questioning of the status quo or even naming things as they truly are. Indeed, Morrison levied a much-needed and deep shift in the American white psyche in her works. Though Morrison’s work is art and not a “token of progressivism,” Morrison told The New Yorker, “I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”

Imagination brought to life requires some degree of freedom from oppression.

What beliefs or systems define your understanding of imagination? Do you feel free to imagine? What distracts you (or others) from exploring your (or their) imagination?

Imagine TEDxMileHigh: An Invitation

There is unmapped territory in all of us – in our inner lives, in the things we create, in the spaces we inhabit, and in the possibilities of our social contracts. Ingenuity often stems from a spark of curiosity and evolves into powerful change.

Slip away from the predictable to imagine what could be because what we imagine becomes our world.

We invite you to join TEDxMileHigh: Imagine this fall. We will consider what imagination is and participate in—as Einstein describes imagination—a preview of life’s coming attractions. Learn more about the speakers and find event details here.

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