Yes, I know that bullets are flying and bombs falling in Ukraine as I type these words. Plenty of people are catching the latest variants of Covid-19; curiously enough, people who got vaccinated for that virus are catching it at a much higher rate than those that didn’t get the jab, but we don’t have to talk about that now. Shortages of food, fertilizer, and a hundred other things are putting lives and livelihoods at risk, drought tightens its grip on the western half of North America, and equally unwelcome climate shifts hit other parts of the world. We live in interesting times and there’s no reason to think that they’ll get less interesting any time soon.
Under the circumstances, it may seem pointless to return to the theme I’ve developed in recent posts here and talk more about the care and feeding of the imagination. Appearances deceive, however, and rarely as much as here. It’s precisely because so many people these days have lost the ability to reflect on why they’re doing the things they’re doing that we lurch so reliably from one crisis to another. Einstein’s famous dictum is relevant here: we cannot solve our problems using the same kind of thinking that created them. Nor, it might be added, does it help any to insist, in angry or plaintive tones, that the problems shouldn’t exist in the first place.
I was thinking of this a few days ago while reading comments on the Russo-Ukraine war on a British site. Most of the comments insisted heatedly that Vladimir Putin or the Russian people as a whole must be insane. None of the people who wrote this were clinical psychologists; the basis for their diagnosis, if we can call it that, was simply that they didn’t want to think about the reasons for the war. It’s an odd sort of logic. Politicians and pundits in the NATO countries make no secret of the fact that they want to see Russia disarmed, dismembered, and “integrated into the global economy”—that is, stripped to the bare walls to prop up the sclerotic economies of the Eurozone and line the pockets of Western oligarchs. It really isn’t hard to see that Russians might reasonably object to that project, even to the extent of seizing the opportunity to fight a proxy war with NATO they think they have a good chance of winning.
Now of course the comments I mentioned above are far from unique. A century and a half ago, you’d find the identical rhetoric directed by British politicians and pundits at the Irish, who surely could have no valid reason to object to Britain’s fair and enlightened rule over Ireland. The mere fact that Ireland was being plundered so rapaciously by British landowners that most of its people lived in desperate poverty never made it into these discussions. Fast forward a little, and you’d find the same language being directed against the nascent movement for Indian independence. England seems to be unusually prone to this sort of harrumphing, but you can see the same thing elsewhere: I’m thinking here especially of the white Southern physicians before the Civil War who claimed that black slaves suffered from a mental illness called drapetomania, which made them run away from plantations for no reason at all.
If you want to understand why something is happening, insisting angrily that there can be no possible reason for it to happen is not a useful way to start. This is why the catastrophic failure of imagination among the Western world’s comfortable classes I’ve discussed in earlier posts has to be addressed if we are to have any hope of extracting ourselves from the present mess. It’s because so many of the people tasked with making decisions in today’s world literally can’t imagine the possibility that they might be wrong, that people might reasonably disagree with them, and that events might not go the way they want, that they’ve blundered from one self-inflicted disaster to the next, without learning the obvious lessons of their failures or even noticing that there are lessons to be learned.
With this in mind, I want to circle back to the post three months ago in which I started talking about the role of imagination in the creation of the future. I noted then that the imagination is one mode of the basic human mental activity of figuration, the process we use to assemble a world out of the fragmentary messages of the senses. When we figurate based on what the senses are telling us right now, that’s called perception. When we figurate based on what the senses told us at some earlier time, that’s memory, and when we figurate by taking remembered sensations and putting them together in a new pattern, that’s imagination.
We all use imagination all the time, and by “we” here I don’t mean human beings alone. When your cat stands on top of you at five in the morning, exhaling fetid breath into your face and jabbing you with an improbably hard paw, her walnut-sized brain is working overtime imagining a full food dish. Every life form with a central nervous system seems to be able to do the same thing; it’s one of the things that distinguishes us from insects, with their diffuse neural net and their (to us) weirdly mechanical way of doing things. Parasitic wasps, for example, have hardwired instinctive routines for finding, stunning, and stashing away the insects on which they lay their eggs; interrupt the routine partway through, and all they can do is go back to the beginning and start over again. Vertebrates can adapt more flexibly, because they can picture the goal they’re seeking and use imagination to envision alternate routes to the same goal.
The people who insist that Putin and the large majority of Russians who support him can’t have a reason to refuse the future NATO has in mind for their country are using their imaginations, too. They’re just using them dysfunctionally. Instead of imagining themselves in the same situation—facing, let’s say, a hostile foreign alliance that wants to strip their nation of its independence and wealth, cratering their standards of living in the process—all they can imagine is that everyone in the world who isn’t clinically insane must share their values and support policies that benefit the well-to-do of a few Western countries at everyone else’s expense. That’s a spectacular leap of the imagination, and it lands them in a fantasy world as unique as anything Lewis Carroll could have envisioned. The only problem with this mighty creative effort is that they forget that most other people notice the difference between their fantasy world and the place the rest of us live.
That is to say, imagination has its pitfalls. What I want to talk about now is how to make constructive use of imagination and avoid falling into the usual traps.
There’s a mordant twofold irony in the guiding lamp I intend to use here, though you have to know your way around German intellectual culture to really savor it. The German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explained how to avoid the downsides of the human imagination in a brilliant 1793 essay, “The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject.” The first irony is that Goethe himself didn’t realize that he was talking about the imagination in this essay; he had no capacity for philosophical abstraction—his considerable genius was always rooted in concrete experience, and derived its strength and vividness from sensory details—and when poor Friedrich Schiller tried to point out to him just how much of a contribution his own imagination was making to his research, Goethe’s response wasn’t much more than a blank look. The second irony is that the followers of Rudolf Steiner, who have done more than anyone else to draw attention to this essay in recent times, consistently refuse to put it into practice when they’re dealing with the products of Steiner’s imagination.
Goethe’s supreme achievement as a scientist was the recognition of the power of comparative morphology. He’s the one who pointed out that every bone in a mammal’s skeleton corresponds to an equivalent bone in the skeletons of other mammals—that a whale’s flipper, a bat’s wing, the feline paw that jabs you awake at five in the morning, and the hand you use to open the can of cat food and stop the owner of the paw from meowing at you, all have the same structure. He showed that every part of a plant is a mutated leaf and the bones of your skull are mutated vertebrae. He laid the foundations of Darwin’s theory of evolution by making it impossible not to see the traces of ancient life forms in the bodies of their current descendants.
He did all this by using the method set out in the essay cited above. The first and most crucial step in that method was to assemble as many variations on the subject of your inquiry as you possibly can. If an experiment is called for, ring as many changes on the experiment as you can think of, taking each variable through its whole range while holding the others steady, and then varying more than one at a time to watch for synergisms; if you’re studying existing phenomena, leaves or stars or civilizations, gather the data and line them up side by side—and do all of this without an initial hypothesis.
This last point is crucial. Nothing is easier than to devise some hypothesis and come up with an experiment that you think will prove it. If the experiment turns out the way you want it, you can then claim that you’ve proved the hypothesis and go from there. That’s the way science was too often done in Goethe’s time, and that’s the way it’s too often done today, which is why so much of science has become a brittle conventional wisdom of jerry-rigged hypotheses and ad hoc assumptions, waiting for the Copernican shove that will send the whole mess toppling into the dumpster of discarded ideas. The awkward fact few scientists let themselves think about is that any given set of experimental results can be used to “prove” an infinite number of competing hypotheses. Only a sufficiently large and varied body of initial data can place a check on the inveterate human tendency to interpret the inkblot patterns of existence in overfamiliar ways.
So the Goethean investigator starts by gathering examples of the phenomena to be studied, and pays close attention to how they vary, without imposing any preconception on them. If his name is Oswald Spengler, he gathers as much data as he can on every known civilization and lines the details up side by side, and by careful study of the variations, he comes to understand the underlying patterns of rise and fall, as well as the factors that make the rise and fall of each civilization subtly different from any other. If his name is Stephen Wolfram, he tinkers with the odd and interesting computer programs called “cellular automata,” seeing what differences result from subtle changes in their programming, until he realizes that he’s just invented a system of models for understanding nature that’s as powerful and flexible as mathematics itself. There are plenty of other names and plenty of other discoveries along these same lines.
This, in turn, is what has to be done with the products of the imagination in order to keep them from leading you into stupidity. There are at least three ways to use Goethe’s method on the world of the imagination, and all three of them are crucial. The first of these is to make sure that you can imagine the world in more than one way. Here as elsewhere, starting from a hypothesis and looking for ways to test it guarantees that you’ll be chasing your own tail. Start by observing whatever it is you want to observe, and imagining it in as many ways as you can. Let’s say two countries have just gone to war. If you only let yourself imagine the causes and consequences of that event in one way, you’ve just commited mental suicide. What might be motivating the two sides of the conflict? What might be motivating your government and the media to spin the conflict in one particular way? Let yourself explore the possibilities.
While you’re at it, you can add the second way, keeping in mind that your imagination is just as insistent on being fed regularly as the cat we discussed earlier. How do you feed your imagination? By giving it fresh raw material to use in its figurations. In the case of the two countries at war, you might start by finding out what’s been happening between them for the last decade or so. Have there been agreements between the countries? Have they been kept, and if not, who broke them? If there are ethnic groups with roots in one country living in the other, how have they been treated? Has one side been lobbing cannon fire across the border, unnoted by your country’s official media? The two countries doubtless have allies; how have those behaved toward the other country? All this is food for your imagination, and will help keep you from being suddenly prodded awake by something far more unwelcome than a hungry cat.
Of course you can also start looking for parallel events elsewhere in history, and this is where we pass to the third way. Just as Goethe lined up plants side by side and learned to recognize the underlying patterns, you can line up wars side by side and do the same thing. Nothing is more common, or more self-defeating, than insisting that one and only one historical parallel can be applied to whatever events are under discussion. If your country’s media insists on always comparing the war in question to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and references nothing else in all of human history, that has the same effect on your understanding as picking a hypothesis in advance and looking for an experiment to prove it.
Instead, look into a dozen other wars. Start with the last half dozen times when your nation attacked someone, just to add spice. Get a sense of how and why wars start, and see what this does to your sense of how and why the current one started. Examine the recent wars (and other military actions) of both combatants, and of their allies, and see how this shapes your sense of what is happening in the war right now. Line up wars like leaves, grasp the underlying patterns that determine their shapes, and your attempts to imagine the future will be much more likely to pan out—and much less likely to leave you blinking in dismay as the world goes whizzing past you at an angle you never anticipated.
That is to say, the imagination isn’t self-correcting. You can imagine a future as vividly as all get-out, and still have it flop—ask anyone who expected the world to end on December 21, 2012, or for that matter anyone who used to insist that by now we’d certainly have fusion power, sentient supercomputers, and cities on the Moon.
That doesn’t mean the imagination is useless—far from it. To begin with, the imagination is our one reliable source of new ideas. Every invention, every story or painting or sculpture, every new business or nation or grand collective dream started out in someone’s imagination and went from there. There are also stranger dimensions to the imagination, for it’s sometimes possible to use it to catch glimpses of things at a distance or events that haven’t happened yet. In his cryptic Red Book, Carl Jung described the harrowing visions that warned him of the coming of the First World War, and it was his sensitivity to the movements of the collective imagination that made him warn the world of the implications of German National Socialism in 1936, and get most of the details right, at a time when reasonable people insisted that Hitler was a third-rate Mussolini imitator who couldn’t possibly hold onto power for more than another year or two.
Yet Jung could gauge the meaning of his visions precisely because he used Goethe’s trick and lined up the products of his own imagination alongside those of many other people, his patients among them. Most visionaries won’t do that, and their followers are by and large even less fond of that exercise. Rudolf Steiner, whom I mentioned earlier in this post, is a case in point. He saw the “imaginative consciousness” toward which human beings were supposedly evolving as a way to get past the limits of human awareness and gain direct access to objective truth. His own imaginative experiences, however, were a mix of geniune insights and embarrassing failures.
His visions, for example, convinced him that the Earth had come into being as a mass of matter flung out of the Sun, and the Moon was later flung out of the Earth in the same way. That was a popular scientific theory in his time, but it turned out to be wrong. The elaborate cosmology he built up around that claim thus bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a family tree beginning with Piltdown Man. I’m sorry to say that most of Steiner’s followers these days respond to this and Steiner’s other mistakes with a fundamentalism of the “Steiner said it, I believe it, that settles it” type: another dysfunctional use of imagination, another mode of mental suicide.
The constructive response to this kind of misstep is the one Goethe pointed out: line up all the examples you can find and see what patterns emerge as you study them. In Steiner’s case, the first step would require looking over his achievements, his failures, and everything in between with an eye toward shared patterns. The second step would require comparing his teachings to other sources of information about the world, and see what kind of sense emerges from the relationships thus revealed. The third step would require comparing his visions to those of other visionaries of the same era—Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, Geoffrey Hodson, Max Heindel, and more, each of whom had their own successes and failures—and then to a wider range of visionaries across space and time. Out of that might come a clearer sense not only of Steiner’s contributions but of the strengths, weaknesses, powers, and uses of the visionary imagination.
The imagination, again, is not self-correcting. It falls all too easily into the rigor mortis that William Blake called “single vision,” in which the world is obsessively interpreted according to a single narrative and all other possibilities are ruled out in advance. It’s crucial to stretch beyond those suffocating limits, to recognize that there are many different ways to imagine the world, and that the ones we may not want to think about can still guide the actions of other people and reflect realities from which too many people these days are trying to hide.
That’s important at any point in history, but it’s especially important right now. It’s five o’clock in the morning of the long dark night of the soul, and the future is standing on top of us, exhaling its fetid breath into our faces, jabbing us with a very hard paw and making increasingly loud noises to wake us up. It’s not going to let us roll over and go back to sleep, either, because there’s much more than an empty food dish at stake.