Reason and Imagination: Why We Need Bodies and Metaphors in order to Know Stuff

Like any great story, this one begins with a Fall from grace. But it is not forbidden fruit that precipitates the protagonists’ fall—it is Plato’s Gorgias. This is the Platonic dialogue Martha Nussbaum, in Love’s Knowledge, identifies as the moment of great schism between philosophy and poetry, and quickly following, between aesthetics and truth, reason and emotion. It is here, one could contend, that Western thinking began to go wrong in its assertions about human rationality, partitioning off narrative from syllogism and desire from knowledge.

To place the blame for compartmentalization solely on Plato’s shoulders is to caricature him, though it is not hard to see that what begin as intimations of these dichotomies in ancient philosophy crystallize through the history of ideas, for example, in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and most markedly in the post-Kantian analytic-continental divide, where the distinction between syllogism and poetry has never been more stark. In short, regardless of where we choose to locate the dismembering of the poet-philosopher who embodies imaginative reason, we can survey the landscape of contemporary humanities departments and observe that this dismembering did at some point occur.

It is why folks like Jerome Shaffer, no doubt an astute philosopher of mind, can get away with saying that emotion is an encumbrance to reason and ordinary life without anyone batting a lash. We’ve bought into the anthropology that says to “know” is to reflect, absent the bias of desire or imagination, on the propositions of syllogisms interpreted through the pre-conscious Kantian categories of the mind, and we’ve bought into a schema of values that says this kind of knowing is the highest human activity.

Well people, Jamie Smith and I are here to tell you IT AIN’T SO. We are not the first and will not be the last to tell you this brain-in-a-vat proposition grinder is not necessarily what constitutes ‘knowing’—continental philosophy from Husserl onward asserts precisely this point from various angles. It is from the deep well of their thought as well as recent cognitive science (and, of course, the Christian tradition) that Jamie, in his new title Imagining the Kingdom, crafts his compelling case for the way in which reason is not only insufficient without imagination, metaphor, and embodiment, but that reason, of the propositional/syllogistic sort, is in fact premised upon these three things.

How is this case, you ask? Because it turns out, says Jamie, that the way we acquire understanding of anything begins as kinesthetic and aesthetic—that is, through bodies, and with a kind of pre-conscious, affective imagination. As far as the kinesthetic is concerned, Merleau-Ponty did the phenomenological leg work to help us arrive at an account of the ineluctably incarnate, body-based nature of ‘meaning’ or ‘knowledge’. The current science on neural plasticity confirms this body-centrism. The routine experiences of our bodies in actual space and time, their habituation, generates the neural maps that chart our perception, as a study with eye glasses and the adaptive eyesight of a parliament of owls confirms. Our sensorimotor experiences are the scaffolding of our perception. That scaffolding is rearrange-able, not fixed. It is, as we so often say in theology, ‘context sensitive’, and it needs a body in order to exist.

Before you get skeptical, let’s talk about what Mark Johnson identified years ago as the conceptual primacy of metaphor. Metaphor has incredible kinesthetic and aesthetic potency. It turns out that almost all of our controlling metaphors correspond to bodily movement in space. We ‘climb up’ the corporate ladder. We ‘dive into’ a good book. We speak about psychological intimacy as if it were physical proximity. “We used to be so close. Now she’s distant and we’re drifting apart”. The fundamentality of spatial metaphor, says Johnson, confirms that in fact “the logic of our bodily experience provides all the logic we need in order to perform every rational inference, even with the most abstract concepts”. We acquire abstract reasoning through our bodily experiences themselves as they are refracted through metaphor. There is no such thing as disembodied abstract reason.

The aesthetic consequences of this, as we can imagine, are huge. Reason is fundamentally aesthetic because of its reliance not on discursive propositions but on the surplus of meaning offered by metaphor, where networks of associations are forever set off by the comparison of two unlike things. It is imagination, which is preconscious and pre-desire, that facilitates the comparison of opposing metaphorical terms. This is part of why narrative is also so fundamental to human understanding. It too is predicated upon imagination and embodiment, and it too can be true even if not syllogistically so.

That narrative requires imagination is in fact something that 12th century mystic Richard of St. Victor, the subject of my next post, understands extremely well. He understands it both implicitly and explicitly, in both form and content. Not only does he write explicitly about the relationship between reason and imagination, but he does so by means of the spiritual interpretation of scripture, that is, by means of biblical narrative (rather than by means of, say, a treatise on the nature of contemplation). Assigning Rachel as Reason and Leah as Imagination, Richard uses Genesis as a leaping-off point for schematizing the faculties of the mind in the ascent to the knowledge of God. His writing defies genre categorization to an extent.

Now that I’ve whetted your appetite for medieval mystics and allegorical readings of scripture, let me conclude with a qualification.

What the primacy of metaphor and aesthetics prescribes as an ideal genre for humanities scholarship I’m not exactly sure. As a recovering analytic philosopher who still prizes clarity of thought among the highest virtues, I’m reticent to advocate too hasty a marriage between poetry and philosophy. Surely translating Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into metered rhyming verse would accomplish little besides the invention of the world’s best drinking game, as would mining A.A. Milne’s cherished Winnie the Pooh stories for a lucid treatment of France’s 20th century political industrial complex. What I’m saying is that poetry and philosophy have to a certain extent rightly occupied separate literary spaces, because they ultimately are not the same thing, even if more closely related than we may have thought. The implications of this fact ought to be teased out by any and all who can do that kind of thinking.


3 thoughts on “Reason and Imagination: Why We Need Bodies and Metaphors in order to Know Stuff

  1. Just wanted to leave a quick comment that said thanks for the great post and the exhortation not to so divide reason and imagination. Perhaps you’re right, translating Kant into metrical poetry or searching for ‘a lucid treatment of France’s 20th century political industrial complex’ in Milne is inappropriate. This shouldn’t mean, however, that one cannot recast Kant into poetry or find something relevant applicable to 20 century France in Winnie the Pooh. Just a thought. Also, if one cannot translate a certain kind of reason or philosophy into poetry, perhaps that says more about the reason/philosophy than the genre of poetry.

  2. Eva, have you read Jacques Rancière? His work on aesthetics and politics might be helpful for working through your conundrum at the end. The tension, as David alludes to, is that once we start saying, “Well I’m open to the poetics of knowledge, but surely THAT shouldn’t count,” we’ve already slipped back into categories of judgment. At the same time, such a position is not also saying “anything goes.” It’s saying everything has potential.

    What people like Adorno and Deleuze say is that the experience of aesthetic or poetic singularity breaks free from those categories and reorients the way we see things–i.e. gives us new framework by which we perceive the world. In “traditional” (scientific?) knowledge, understanding something is demonstrated by being able to restate the knowledge in various ways while maintaining the exact meaning. In aesthetic knowledge (according to Adorno), understanding is realizing that to restate the aesthetic proposition (the painting, the line of poetry) would be to LOSE some or all of the meaning of the original. So it may be that a recasting of Kant as poetry actually causes us to lose some of the original meaning–but it also may be that it says something radically new that the original could not say. For Adorno, the aesthetic radically negates the social (the accepted status quo). For Deleuze, the aesthetic object gives us the supersensible in the sensible.

    I’ve been digging deep into aesthetic theory and phenomenology this quarter, so it’s exciting to see someone else wrestling with this stuff–especially someone with a background in analytic philosophy!

  3. Great post, and fascinating. I do think your/Jamie’s point that imagination, emotion, etc. contributes to our knowing is absolutely correct. I do think, however, that your Neo-Kantian, let’s call him Paul Churchland (for no discernible reason whatsoever :P) might also agree, but think that a flaw we need to transcend.

    The Neo-Kantian Naturalist thinkers aren’t good ole’ Platonic dualists who think we need to transcend embodiment in order to free our soul from the constraints of matter, but they have a very parallel line of reasoning. “Evolution gave us emotions because, in a pre-rational state, these emotions allowed us to respond to our environment and survive, but then we developed Reason! and Reason! allows us to think more clearly, get beyond the limits of our pre-theoretical worldview and build a new framework of perception based on science and logic that would make Spock proud.

    In other words, now that we have this near-noetic rational capacity, all that other stuff evolution afforded us with is just bad baggage we ought to try and transcend. We think with our imaginations and feelings, they would say, and that’s a bad thing.

    P.S. For all its flaws, I do commend clarity of thought and speech, so long as we don’t let it lead us into silly illusions about our capacities. There is good analytic philosophy out there about the way we live in the world. I’d recommend this for a start:

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