Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Academic Imagination

It is spring. And since 1923, when the American poet William Carlos Williams published Spring and All, this has been a time for celebrations of the imagination. This month I will be devoting both of my blogs to this task. On my other blog, I'll be writing about philosophical and poetic imagination (imagination "as such", if you will). But here at RSL I will be writing about how imagination is situated in our universities.

It's been dawning on me, too slowly I fear, that this is really what all of my efforts have been about. "Efforts" might be the wrong word. Williams talks about "a time when [he] was trying to remain firm at great cost", but "moved chaotically about refusing or rejecting most things" (SA, p. 43, 42). I hope I can one day, like him, declare that "Something very definite has come of it" (43).

Academic imagination is not a distinct "faculty" of the mind. It's just ordinary imagination put to a particular kind of use, guided by a particular set of social and material forces. (Imagination is itself a force.) Roughly speaking, imagination is that which allows us to "make pictures" of "the facts". But Williams is right to reject the idea that these pictures are somehow "copies" of the facts, or that such pictures is all the imagination makes (30). What the imagination actually does is to instantiate a "reality" that brings the facts into meaningful contact with each other (70).

In the university, the relevant reality arises in conversation, and much of the conversation takes place in writing. So academic imagination is very much a kind of textual imagination. It is, or at least should be, highly disciplined. It should be trained to be "assertive", which is to say, it should be able to make claims or state facts. While this may not at first pass seem very "imaginative", it is important to keep in mind that part of making a claim is defending it, and in order to do this one must be able to imagine alternatives. As an academic you are not channelling truth from some infallible source. You are saying that something happens to be one way even though we can quite well imagine it to be otherwise.

The particular dynamic of academic writing lies the social nature of this "otherwise". When you are writing for scholarly publication you are positing a reality as it can be imagined (and therefore critiqued) by your peers. You have easy access to the workings of this collectively imagined reality through the writing that those peers themselves publish. In your own writing, you are training yourself to imagine what they imagine. In your reading, you are learning, in part, how to write.

This sounds somewhat "conformist", I suppose. But surely the value of a social institution like a university is to foster a shared understanding of our world and of our history. This does not have to mean that the institution merely "indoctrinates" us. Rather, it means that the free development of our imaginations is undertaken in a social context. That is, we expose our own ability to imagine the facts to that of others and develop our ability to think "freely" within this constraint.

Williams, who was often very critical of the university, says he took "recourse to the expedient of letting life go completely in order to live in the world of [his] choice. [He] let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself" (43). That's the way of a poet. The scholar takes another approach. The scholar proposes to hold onto life throughout the process, to make a life (a career, even a family) alongside the work of imagining the reality we study. That's certainly the approach I recommend here at RSL.


Andrew Shields said...

The idea that the university "indoctrinates" reminds me of the Texas School Board's campaign against teaching "critical thinking," which they saw (rightly?) as an attempt to undermine religious faith.


I wonder about the role of Williams's "day job" in all of this. He was critical of the university, as you point out, but he went to university and received his professional training there (in Germany, too, if I remember correctly). The poet may have been critical, but what did the doctor think about it? (A separation that Williams himself would surely have rejected, of course.)

Thomas said...

Unfortunately, the struggle for the hearts and minds of Texas school children is carried out on both sides by people who think that schools should indoctrinate students. Many of those who talk about "inspiring" students to "pursue lives in science" etc. could just as well be talking about devotion to some exotic deity.

Those who think that the classroom should offer a social environment in which ideas are discussed freely and openly, in a dialogue between people who actually hold them (on the bases on which they actually developed them), are attacked from both sides. The result is that the schools become an intellectual wasteland. Teachers and students don't speak their minds, but mouth official truths.

"Critical thinking" can be as much a "doctrine" as a faith can be. After Dawkins and Harris, I'm no longer comfortable with "science" or "rationality" as banners under which to fight the the good fight.

To whom am I addressed, then?
To the imagination, of course!


Williams' remarks about the university were probably directed mainly at the humanities. (Though perhaps, inspired by Pound, also at history, economics, and the still-nascent social sciences of his day.) As for his profession, there's that line about the "contagious hospital" in Spring and All (11), which suggests his kookiness. (As always, and as my above comments probably suggest, I don't use "kook" pejoratively but descriptively.) I think Williams probably had a basic respect for medical science, with a small s. I don't think he would like the Big Science/Big Pharma complex we have today. And I think he would see the universities as Pound's "obstructors of knowledge" in this area too. As Williams puts it in Paterson: "The outward masks of the special interests that perpetuate the stasis and make it profitable."

Presskorn said...

Thinking along:

What brings unconnected facts into meaningful contact with each other is a Welt-bild. But if imagination is a way of making such pictures of facts, imagination is not itself a Welt-bild, it is a Welt-anschauung. Not a mere world-picture, but a world-“view”, a way of seeing things in a certain way. But as we know from Kant, the field of anschauung is also the proper domain of judgment. That is to say, (academic) imagination is what is connects a vision of world with judgments about it, i.e. what connects vision with making claims and defending them. As Goethe said, the foundation of science, the academy, is Anschauende Urteilskraft.

Thomas said...

There are definitely connections between "world view", "world picture", and imagination. But I wouldn't identity the imagination with a world view. The world view is, perhaps, the imagination directed in a general way towards the facts. It guides (and sometimes dominates) the imagination in its work. It is probably much more accurate, as you suggest, to say that our world-view guides the way we pass from images to judgments. There is a difference between Urteilskraft and Einbildungskraft. Even scholars need to keep their imaginations "free" of judgment, at least for a time.

As Gide said, "Please don't understand me too quickly." He might have meant: do not rush to judgment.

Presskorn said...

Could we say the following?

The facts are as they are, independent of the imagination. Academic imagination provides pictures of the way in which they can be meaningfully joined up. A scientific model, say, is imaginative. And a model is not a mere bundle of facts, it is also a particular arrangement of these facts, which connects them and thus makes them visible, i.e. anschaulich, open to intuition, anskuelige.

Thomas said...

Well, I may be a bit more a constructivist (or even idealist) than you. The facts are as they, but all facts are imaginable. (If it cannot be imagined it is not a fact. The fact is that which can be imagined.)

There are lots of interesting issues about the relationship of intuition to imagination. Intuition is the immediate presence of a fact in experience. In a sense, it's the imposition of a fact on the imagination, the way the facts can sometimes dominate imagination (making their denial impossible. Descartes, we might say, correctly intuited the fact of his own existence, but not, apparently, the existence of his own body, which he imagined he could do without.)

Concepts govern our ability to imagine facts in various ways. A theory is a system of concepts and such a system will condition both intuition and judgment.

It's more or less, as you note, Kantian. And, like Kant, these kinds of considerations might not really solve any deep philosophical issues. They just set up a system of definitions between what Wittgenstein called "super-concepts". It's fun, though.

Andrew Shields said...

I'm beginning to associate another modernist poem iwth this discussion: Stevens, "The Man with the Blue Guitar."