Visiting Scholar Series: Imagination and Reason

Imagination and reason: how do they relate to each other?

Working in the field of cultural apologetics, and specifically in imaginative and literary apologetics, I am beginning to see a growing interest in the role of the imagination in communicating truth. Much of the time, though, the attention goes only to the end product – the book, film, or work or art – as if ‘imaginative’ were an adjective describing an idea’s mode of expression. Thus, one could say that an idea can be presented in either an ‘imaginative’ or a ‘rational’ way. One could say that, but I would argue that such a distinction would be incorrect. If we are considering an idea’s mode of expression, a better distinction would be between ‘creative’ and ‘propositional.’ Although there is a genuine difference between, say, a poem and a philosophy text, the difference is not in fact that one is ‘imaginative’ and the other ‘rational’ – in fact, following C.S. Lewis, I would argue that both the poet and the philosopher are making use of imagination and reason.

There are different ways of defining ‘imagination,’ but one way is that the imagination is the cognitive function that assimilates sensory data into images. In a certain sense, imagination is at work in everyone, whether they realize it or not. It is not possible to have even a minimal grasp of propositional knowledge without the effective working of the faculty of imagination.

Imagine you are at the airport waiting for a friend. You see someone coming toward you, and for a moment, you have the sensory data available to your eyes, but you are unsure if is this really the person you’re looking for, or a stranger. A moment later, the data resolves into meaning, and you are able to identify the person either as not the person you’re collecting at the airport, or yes, this is your friend. The senses bring the data – clothing, hair, height, movement – and the imagination that converts the data into something meaningful upon which the reason can then act, to perform the mental act of recognition.

In Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield argues that “the mind is never aware of an idea until the imagination has been at work on the bare material given by the senses.”[1] Nor is science exempt from the necessity of the imagination; science “insists on dealing with ‘data’, but there shall no data be given, save the bare percept. The rest is imagination. Only by imagination therefore can the world be known.”[2]

Seeing imagination as a fundamental cognitive faculty may seem strange to us, but only because in our modern, post-Enlightenment way of viewing the world, we have by and large abandoned an older, richer view of human cognition. For Aristotle, for St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates “between sense and intellect”[3] by conveying “data to the intellect.”[4] Notably, the medieval perspective holds that Christ is active in all of our experiences of knowing.

C.S. Lewis, who was first and foremost a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, draws on this more robust understanding of the imagination. Lewis writes that “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”[5] Imagination, then, is necessary for the philosopher as much as for the poet – and I would suggest that it is particularly vital today that we recognize and harness the meaning-making power of the imagination. The world is flooded with data, and it is fatally easy to be overwhelmed by it; and it may be that the last cry of those drowning in nonsense is ‘What does it all mean?’


[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 26-27.
[2] Ibid., 28.
[3] Michelle Karnes, Imagination, Meditation, and Cognition in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 31.
[4] Ibid., 33.
[5] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalanspheres: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 265.

Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. She blogs at Hieropraxis.

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