Fictions in Berkeley:: From Epistemology to Morality

Berkeley Studies:13-21 (2009)

In the classical era, imagination garnered poor press: fooling the senses, perverting judgment, subverting reason, skewing social relations, and generally providing wrong ideas about the way things are; it was a faculty of which to beware. Occasionally it was recognized as not being entirely without value—Descartes, for example, insisted on its great usefulness as a figurational function in simplifying the work of the understanding in geometry. The traditional tendency in philosophy, though, was to denigrate imagination for its misleading nature and negative effects and to dwell on its limits as a faculty bound to the body. Indeed, its first function is to represent to the mind things previously perceived by the senses as images in their likeness. But as imagination has neither the same vividness nor the same order as sensation, it is potentially misleading, since in fact images look only approximately the same as their models. Above all, however, imagination was reproached to be potentially misleading for its second function, the creation of images or entire fictions bearing no relation whatsoever to reality, which made it dangerously capable of nourishing all manner of superstition and fantasy. Within such a context, Berkeley’s conception of the imagination hardly seems original at first glance. But as I will propose, in its creative guidance of reason, imagination plays an important and distinctive role in Berkeley’s scientific, moral, and religious discussions. Rather than focusing solely on the representational character of imagination, then, I suggest that we attend also to the way in which Berkeley appeals to the imaginative aspects of reason itself. In this way, we can better appreciate the educational presuppositions of human freedom
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