Imagination

“We make ourselves pictures of the facts.”
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

I want to end this series of posts where we started, with the peculiar human faculty of imagination. I have lamented its marginalization in scholarly writing before, and I often daydream about its return to the center of our attention. Without imagination, there can be no understanding; without understanding, there can be no believing; and without belief, there can be no knowledge. In this sense, it would be correct to say that the faculty of imagination sets a “transcendental” limit to our knowledge of things. We can’t know something we can’t imagine. So you do well to find out if you can.

Remember what Ezra Pound said about artists: “The serious artist is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference. The more precise his record the more lasting and unassailable his work of art” (Literary Essays, p. 46). These images are what he called “the data of ethics,” and it is my assertion that they also constitute the data of epistemology. They are produced by the artful exercise of imagination and are then given to the intellect for analysis. In fact, we can say that serious scientists are artistic, presenting us with images of their (justified, true) beliefs. (Vladimir Nabokov once recommended his own “rain-sparkling crystograms” to “serious psychologists” for study.) In their writing, scientists “build us their worlds” in our imaginations.

“Beauty is difficult,” said Aubrey Beardsley to Pound. But in a certain sense the image is easy — you just peel it off the appearances. It is, in any case, easier to believe something than it is to know it; it is easier to understand something than it is to believe it; and it is easier to imagine a thing than it is to understand it. The beauty of imagination lies in the way it lets us bring elements together that we don’t yet understand, so that they can shed light on each other. That is how we learn things. Of course, they also cast shadows, and it is probably more accurate to say that we arrange things in our imaginations in order to adjust the light. When we get it right, we understand them. It is a thing of beauty to behold.

I hope I’m not coming off as too much of a “romantic” about this. But I am indeed trying to emphasize that research has an “aesthetic” dimension. The beauty of your research should come across in your writing; there should be a feeling associated with what you know. And you should share that feeling with your reader.

We are conditioned to think that, beyond getting your theories and methods right, academic writing is all about referencing conventions and rules of grammar. There are dark moments, when we suspect that the only relevant feeling is boredom. But we should never forget, as Borges warned us long ago, that “a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory” (“A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw”, Labyrinths, p. 213). As you struggle with the “formality” and “correctness” of your research paper, don’t forget that you are engaging with the reader’s imagination. They should see a picture. They should hear a voice.

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