Rethinking the History of the Productive Imagination in Relation to Common Sense

In Suzi Adams & Jeremy Smith (eds.), Social Imaginaries: Critical Interventions. London: Rowman & Littlefield, International. pp. 45-75 (2019)

John Krummel
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
The imagination—Einbildung—as its German makes clear is the faculty of formation. But this formative activity in various ways through the history of its concept has been intimately related to the concept of common sense, whether understood as the sense that gathers, orders, and makes coherent the various sense, or as the sensibility of the community. This contribution seeks to unfold that history of the concept of the creative or productive imagination while also tracing the parallel history of the concept of common sense (sensus communis) and their relationship that begins with their inception in Aristotle, a connection that has been retained implicitly in one way or another, intentionally or not, at different times—but also often forgotten—in their history and that seems again to manifest with the recent conceptions of the social imaginary. I will trace this history in the Western philosophical tradition while also making use of a couple of Japanese philosophers who take part in this intellectual history. We shall follow the history of the imagination from Aristotle through Kant’s epistemology in his first Critique—when its productive function becomes positively, rather than negatively, evaluated—and on to the post-Kantians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Post-Kantians like Schelling and Heidegger ontologize that productivity of the imagination beyond the epistemic sphere and, in a parallel fashion, broaden its significance beyond the individual and onto the collective. Common sense also has a long and parallel history within the West that involves a variety of meanings starting with the Aristotelian faculty for integrating the various senses (as koinē aisthēsis) that was closely associated with the imagination (phantasia), and ending with two contrasting notions of a communal or social sensibility (as sensus communis)—the vulgar “commonplace” notion of common sense as habituated custom and the healthy sense of common sense as prudential, contextual, ethical judgment. Both senses of common sense together with the faculty of the imagination are found in Kant’s third Critique but the imagination’s creativity expressed in genius comes into tension with the latter communal sense of common sense (Gemeinsinn) that attempts to order and fetter that creativity with the judgment of taste. The contemporary notion of the social imaginary, for example, in Castoriadis, certainly recalls the close connection between the imagination and common sense in Aristotle but also seems to encompass both the vulgar and the healthy senses of common sense along with their tension in Kant. Although Kant wanted to argue for a transcendental basis of common sense as such that would fit with his theory of the imagination from the first Critique, the imagination itself has been broadened in the third Critique, making way for post-Kantian developments, such as in its ontologization, expanding it beyond the merely epistemic as noted above. At the same time this also broadens the significance of the faculty beyond the cognizing mind of the individual and onto the social sphere to unfold what was implicit in Kant’s third Critique. In Japan Miki Kiyoshi develops that ontology of the imagination even though he still affirms its transcendental status. Nonetheless he explicates its formative creativity as involving the human collective producing not only ideal forms for thought but also institutions and technics of human culture. Likewise, Castoriadis understands the creativity of the imagination in socio-collective terms. But in addition, he underscores—in contrast to Miki—its temporal contingency or historicity and non-transcendental status. At the same time, the tension between unbounded creativity and communal responsibility found in Kant’s third Critique—together with the form-formlessness dynamic found in Miki—in a certain sense reappears in Castoriadis’ theory of the social imaginary and the creative imagination. We might say that in general the notion of Gemeinsinn in Kant in that sense provides a bridge between the idea of a creative or productive imagination and the idea of the social imaginary, while harking back to the original relationship between koinē aisthēsis and phantasia in Aristotle. This connection is implicitly assumed, perhaps unintentionally, by many of the relevant thinkers who discuss either concept. It is made explicit in contemporary Japanese philosopher Nakamura Yūjirō’s discussions of common sense, but can also be extracted out of Hannah Arendt’s discussions of the imagination, judgment, and sensus communis. Conceptually the two converge in Castoriadis’ and Ricoeur’s notions of the social imagination/imaginary. I thus plan to trace the parallel history of these two concepts (imagination and common sense). This is a chapter in the book 'Social Imaginaries: Critical Interventions' edited by Suzi Adams and Jeremy Smith
Keywords imagination  Kant  Heidegger  Castoriadis  Ricoeur  common sense  Aristotle  Miki Kiyoshi  sensus communis  Arendt
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