Below, a very old post that I never got around to publishing. Archive fever, I guess.
It is a commonplace that the imagination, in Western philosophy, plays a mediating function. What does the imagination mediate? According to Plato, the imagination was a distorted and distorting form of cognition, from which reason held itself completely apart. Reason untainted by imagination was the sufficient and necessary condition for contemplation of the Eternal Forms, which he thought of as eternal and separate from the world of perceptible reality, the latter being reflections and distortions at second and third hand of the Forms. Plato devalues the imagination by ascribing to it the function of distortion and deception at the level of the image, which makes up our experience of perceptible reality. This understanding of the imagination presupposes a breach between a ‘real’ ontology and a symbolic or perceptible one. Reason discovers the former, and imagination makes the perception of the latter possible. For Plato, memory plays the motive force in the cognition of the real and eternal Forms: one ‘unforgets’ the distortions interposed between us and reality through the process of anamnesis. What one is remembering, according to Plato, is the eternal forms with which we co-existed in a previous life.
Aristotle, from whose work On the Soul, the imagination mediates between the real experiential world and the Universals. Unlike Plato, Aristotle denies the separate existence of reality. Instead, for Plato, the Universals are those universal characteristics which inhere in particular cases. So, Redness is the quality of red that shows up in all the various cases. For Aristotle, cognition of reality is performed through the crucial combination of imagination, memory, and reason: imagination is the precondition for perception, since it is the faculty which allows for the representation of percepts to consciousness. Memory allows for the stabilization of these representations to consciousness. As for Plato, the practice of reason is instrumentally predicated on the action of memory. But where for Plato memory’s action of ‘unforgetting’ is what allows for reason, for Aristotle what renders the Universals amenable to the practice of reason is the ‘forgetting’ of all the unshared differences between the different expressions of the Universals. So, we forget the differences in all the expressions of Redness (red coat, red ball, red blood) and remember only the Redness itself.
To recap, for Plato imagination mediates between the Forms and perceived reality, creating experience and a world of distortion. Reason can encounter the forms by remembering (or unforgetting) their existence and through the practice of denying the objects of the imagination. For Aristotle imagination also mediates between the Universals and perceived reality, creating knowledge and the possibility of reason through abstraction-through-forgetting. Despite their differences, both insist that Reality is somehow different from that which is perceived, and that reason and memory are required to gain access to Reality. They posit an initial and dualistic ontology in which everyday perception is negatively related to reality, and imagination is that which mediates Reality and Perception. Imagination for both thinkers mediates Reality and Perception by providing the field in which the action of memory and reason perform their functions. For Plato, imagination is distorting of reality, and hence one must unforget the prior knowledge of reality and render it accessible to reason. For Aristotle, imagination is necessary to render percepts amenable to the action of memory and reason, through first stabilizing representations and then forgettting their differences, thus gaining access to Universals.
What I find most significant among these two representations is the fact that for both of them, Imagination mediates between two already-divided poles: Reality and Perception. One of my undergraduate professors of Buddhism used to say that the difference between Western and Eastern Philosophy was that Western philosophy started with Ontology, whereas Eastern philosophy started with Epistemology. He was himself aware of the oversimplifications of such a characterization – he’s a good philosopher. But the statement nevertheless gestures toward a certain truth. For Plato and Aristotle, imagination covers up reality, and comes into existence after the split between reality and perception is already assumed. For a great deal of nonWestern Philosophy however, and many strains of Buddhist Philosophy in particular, this is not true. Characterized logically, we can say that the Greeks required the mediating function of the imagination because they had already asserted a division between Reality and Perception. For them, the question of epistemology comes out of a pre-existing ontology.
There are many debates and arguments in Buddhism over the primacy of perception; one school, the Yogacara, went so far as to assert that the world itself was ‘mind-only.’ However, for Buddhism the major argument is to establish an epistemology through which one might know Reality. As for the Greeks, Buddhism assumes that our everyday experience is not, or at least is not experienced as (for most Chan/Zen schools), reality. In approaching the question in this way, we can see that for the Buddhists imagination is the faculty which renders experience and identity possible, but is itself caught in the cycles of becoming. Reality, or Nirvana, is that which one arrives at, metaphorically speaking, when one has eliminated the ignorance and found one’s way out of the traps presented through the imagination. The imagination is prior to experience and existence, but Nirvana is a state without imagination. There are strange aspects of both Aristotelianism and Platonism here. The notion of Nirvana as eternal, because unconditioned, resembles that of Plato’s Forms. But unlike Plato, for most Buddhist philosophers, Nirvana is not granted a separate or conditioned existence. As for Aristotle, Buddhist Philosophy emphasizes the clarification of reason through observation and stabilization (which can be correlated to vipassana and samattha meditation, respectively). But as with Plato, the experience of Nirvana represents an absolute break with perception, not the gradual forgetting of differences.