The role of imagination in creativity
It is perhaps an uncontroversial truth that the imagination is important for creative thought. The terms ‘creative’ and ‘imaginative’ are often used interchangeably, at least in popular contexts. And volumes have been written on the imaginations of creative artists, not to mention poems, films, paintings, and other depictions of the same phenomenon. Kant recognized a connection between imagination and creativity.
‘So the mental powers whose combination (in a certain relation) constitutes genius are imagination and understanding. One qualification is needed, however. When the imagination is used for cognition, then it is under the constraint of the understanding and is subject to the restriction of adequacy to the understanding’s concept. But when the aim is aesthetic, then the imagination is free, so that, over and above that harmony with the concept, it may supply, in an unstudied way, a wealth of undeveloped material for the understanding which the latter disregarded in its concept’ – Kant
Kant intimates two features of imagination endorsed today. First, imagination provides a kind of cognitive freedom important for creative thought and action. Second, imagination can be used in more or less constrained ways.
Imagination for Kant was, by most interpretations, something different than it is for philosophers and psychologists today. The Kantian imagination was the activity of both apprehending and reproducing the ideas and percepts from the manifold of experience. So ‘imagination’ for Kant, it seems, denoted what today we would probably call understanding and perceptual belief, in addition to imagery and propositional imagination.
Kant was right: imagination, when used to aesthetic ends, provides a free play of ideas, a “wealth of undeveloped material for the understanding.” And contrary to Kant, imagination has this feature whether or not it is used for aesthetic ends. With respect to the range of contents that one can take a certain cognitive attitude towards, imagination enjoys a freedom that most (perhaps all) other attitudes or capacities lack. One can imagine situations that have not and will never happen. One can imagine the truth of propositions of which one is uncertain. One can imagine consequences to an action before performing it. And so on. This cognitive play is important if not essential to creative art making. This is for the simple reason that creative things are, in part, new things. And new things are, sometimes, new combinations of old things, combinations of concepts, ideas, skills, knowledge, and so on. Or stronger, creativity may involve thoughts or actions that are radically novel, not merely conceptual combinations of existing materials. It may involve a radical transformation of a conceptual space.