Imagination, imaginaire, imaginal

Three concepts for defining creative fantasy 

~Corin Braga

In this paper I wish to comparatively present three notions related to the concept of creative fantasy: ”imagination”, ”imaginaire” and ”imaginal” or mundus imaginalis. The first term is a venerable one, it has its roots in the Latin words ”imago” and ”imaginatio”, and is well established in the English language. The last two terms, ”imaginaire” and ”imaginal” have been developed by the French school of research on imagination (“recherches sur L’imaginaire”), which is little known in the Anglo-Saxon academic field. 

As such, they don’t even have convenient translations and linguistic equivalents in English. Possible translations for ”L’imaginaire” could be imagining (suggesting that imagination is a dynamic process, as in Richard Kearney’s Poetics of Imagining, 1998) and the imaginary (trying to transform an adjective into a noun, as in Wolfgang Iser’s The Fictive and the Imaginary, 1993), but neither is sufficiently precise or specific. As for the last term, ”l’imaginal”, it has been coined by Henry Corbin in its Latin form ”mundus imaginalis” (Corbin, 1958), and so it should be used in English too. Nowadays images and phantasms, fantasy and imagination, fiction and fictionality tend to become cognitive and investigative instruments meant to supplement reason and logics, not only in the field of arts and culture, but also in the hard sciences. This is why an analysis of the three terms would significantly enrich the concept of creative work.

1. Imagination is the traditional term that designates the function of the spirit the Greeks called phantasia and eikasia. Phantasia or eikasia is the ability to produce mental images, phantasmata, eikones, eidola. 

The problem with these representations is that, however useful they might be for human cognition, they are not the real thing itself, they are only a copy of it. Investigating the foundations of non-existing things, Plato, in his dialogue The Sophist , made a seminal distinction between two species of the art of images: the technique of creating correct and adequate images of things, that is eikones, and the technique of creating invented images of things that may even not exist, that is phantasmata (The Sophist, 236a-c). In the first instance, this distinction would seem to
solve the problem, by assigning eikones to being and phantasmata to non-being. Eikones would be reliable images, able to tell the truth, and phantasmata false images, producing errors.

However, the questioning of the Stranger from Elea, Plato’s character in the Sophist, about the nature of sophistic allegations raises new troubles. In order to reproduce the real dimensions of things, images must sometimes lie (as in the case of the craftsman willingly distorting the dimensions of the higher parts of huge statues, so that people from the ground could perceive them adequately and harmoniously). So the problem is not that images can be at some times correct and at other times incorrect, but that images can generally represent non-existing things. In Plato’s terms, this would lead to the paradoxical conclusion that non-being exists. Images would then be something real representing something unreal, and phantasia the capacity of creating non-existing illusions (The Sophist, 240b)