Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Imagination in Renaissance Philosophy

  • Anna CorriasEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1053-1


In the Renaissance, the imagination was considered a crucial mental power which played a key role in the building of knowledge as well as in the individual’s relationship with external reality. It was believed to act on the data of sense perception by unifying them into a single representation. This, in turn, would enable the work of reason and, as a result, the mind’s procession of the objects of knowledge. Because of its intermediate position, the imagination was also thought to convey the influence of the soul to the body and vice-versa and to account for many psycho-physiological processes, such as falling ill and recovering. It was also thought to be able to act at a distance, a concept that posed no little challenges to many philosophers of the time, from Marsilio Ficino to Francis Bacon.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

The Renaissance understanding of the imagination is informed and inspired by the Platonic and the Aristotelian traditions. Platonism strongly advocated the ontological difference between the intelligible and the material worlds, the latter being a mere reflection of the former. According to this metaphysical premise, the embodied soul finds itself in a world of “images” and its epistemological approach must necessarily involve a wide use of the imagination. Aristotle’s view that the imagination is a movement which results from an actual exercise of the power of sense (De anima, III.3.429a1) and continues when sensation has ceased, as in sleep (De somno et vigilia, III.461a), remained a key point of reference in the debate about the powers and limits of the imagination throughout the period. Likewise, his famous claim that the soul never thinks without an image (De anima, III.7.431a and III.8.432a) played a chief role in linking the imagination with cognitive activities. Plotinus’s reinterpretation of Aristotle’s position in a Platonic context, which became available indirectly through many of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499)‘s works as well as directly with the publication of his Latin translation of the Enneads in 1492, contributed to consolidate the belief in the cognitive power of the imagination. Plotinus made an important distinction – which will prove highly influential in the Renaissance – between a higher and a lower level of operation of the imagination, the former reaching up to a pre-intellectual level and the latter immediately following sense-perception. Avicenna’s Liber de anima, which had been widely discussed in the Middle Ages, was fundamental for the belief that images were able to affect external objects (Liber de anima, 65). The transitive power of images is a key feature of Renaissance discussions on the imagination. Up to the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century, images were thought to have the power to modify bodies, causing harm (or good) to them and even reshaping their material structure (Giglioni 2011, 28). Renaissance authors, moreover, emphasized the ontological and epistemological prominence of the imagination, which they saw as a faculty which mediated between different levels of knowledge and reality, enabling the interaction between the body and the intellect, as well as between man and higher beings.

Innovative and Original Aspects

The imagination’s transitive power and its ability to bridge different levels of life and knowledge are key aspects of the Renaissance understanding of this faculty, of which Marsilio Ficino gives a representative account. For him, the imagination is the faculty which first enables the de-materialization of the objects of sense-perception by producing an image of them, which will then be processed by reason. He divides the hierarchy of cognitive moments into sensation, imagination, reason, and intellect and claims that the imagination “rises above matter higher than sensation, both because in order to think about bodies it does not need their presence, and also because as one faculty it can do whatever all the five senses do” (Ficino 2002, VIII.1, 263). Following Plotinus, Ficino distinguishes between a lower and a higher imagination, which he calls imaginatio confusa and imaginatio discreta (or phantasia). Imaginatio, he says, joins the data individually received by the five external senses into a single representation but is not able to identify its object as a specific substance. It produces only simulacra, i.e., confused images of things. Phantasia, by contrast, works on the images put together by imaginatio and translates them into mental entities (Kristeller 1943, 234–236; Heitzman 1935). In doing so, it already operates on a pre-intellectual level, in the sense that it is able to produce particular concepts, which “are called, as it were, the incorporeal intentions of bodies” (Ficino 2002, VIII.1, 265). To explain this difference, he gives the following example: when Plato is absent, Socrates thinks about him through his inner imagination: the color and shape which he had seen, the gentle voice he had heard and everything else he had perceived through the five senses. Imaginatio, therefore, recreates the visual and auditory representation of Plato when he is not there, but knows nothing about the person to whom the color, shape, and voice belong. When phantasia comes into play, Socrates realizes that the colors, shape, and voice belong to Plato, “a fine-looking, good man, and a most cherished disciple” (Ficino 2002, VIII.1, 265; Heitzman 1935). Ficino also convincingly subscribes to the belief in the transitive action of the imagination, which, he says, can become a pernicious instrument, especially if used against children and others of an impressionable age (Ficino 2004, XIII.1.1, 110). The imagination of a sorcerer, for example, can cause a fever in the tender body of a child (Ficino 2004, XIII.4.8, 193), because “the image of the fever arouses the child’s febrile spirits, just as imagining intercourse arouses our seminal spirits and genitalia” (Ficino 2004, XIII.4.8, 193). Likewise, the evil eye can harm and even kill people (Ficino 1989, III.16, 325) and the imagination of a pregnant woman can easily affect the tender body of the fetus with the stamp of what is in her mind (Ficino 2004, XIII.4.1, 111). In lovesickness, the image of the object of love was thought to become impressed in the spiritus, the pneumatic substance which was thought to be the organic seat of the imagination, originating in the brain from the heat of the heart and from there flowing throughout the body. From the spiritus, the image is transmitted to the blood which “painted with a certain likeness draws the same image in the limbs” (Ficino 1987, 202; Giglioni 2011, 46). The imagination, for Ficino, has also important demonological implications and he provides a complex account of the relationship between this faculty and various types of demonic intervention (See Corrias 2013; Giglioni 2010a, 2011; Allen 1989, and 1992). Intriguingly, he also claimed that after death the unrestrained force of the imagination could cause the soul of the wicked man to see “the heavens crashing on his head or himself being swallowed up in the deep fissures of the earth” (Ficino 2006, VI.18.10, 197). Using the same arguments, he also tried to justify the heterodox belief in the soul’s transmigration into animal bodies, advocated by authoritative philosophies such as Pythagoreanism and Platonism (Corrias 2012; Hankins 2005). He argued that when ancient philosophers described human souls being implanted in the body of animals, they were just referring to the contents of their distorted imagination. Taking this position to the extreme, Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) claimed that hell exists only for those souls who produce imaginary pains out of the fear of the tortures which are traditionally promised to the sinners. If during earthly existence the imagination is deeply influenced by the belief in infernal punishments, after death these faculties will cause the soul to experience excruciating sufferings (Klein 1970). In Bruno’s theories of bonds (vincula), i.e., spiritual influences which enchain and manipulate the soul, the imagination is described as an important gateway for these influences, “the only entrance for all internal feelings,” “the bonds of bonds” (Bruno 2004, 141) through which belief is created. Indeed, bonds do not need to be real, i.e., “found in things” (Bruno 2004, 164). In fact, they can be even stronger if they rely on deceptions: “For the imagination of what is not true can truly bind, and by means of such an imagination, that which can be bound can be truly bound” (Bruno 2004, 164–16). The imagination, however, was not only important in theories of knowledge. It had a significant part also in religious experiences, as it could help the soul to visualize some aspects of the divine, which lay beyond the reach of thought. Giovan Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1470–1533) claimed that “the imagination is for the most part vain and wandering” (Giovan Francesco Pico della Mirandola 1930, 29), but it can also provide support to faith. By contemplating the image of Christ on the cross, for example, we can gain a certain knowledge of divine nature which can induce in us a natural disposition (habitus) to religious life (Giovan Francesco Pico della Mirandola 1497, 36; Mucillo 2007, 19). On the Aristotelian side, the relationship between imagination and belief was widely discussed by Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), who believed that the force of the imagination, when joined with belief, could modify the spiritus in such a way that this could evaporate and transmit to the outside world the images which were impressed on it. These mechanism, for him, could explain complex phenomena such as miracles, omens, and apparitions. In a well-known passage from De incantationibus (1556), he discusses the apparition of Saint Celestine to a group of worshippers in the Italian City of Aquila, after these had prayed intensely for days in the hope to dispel a devastating hailstorm. This apparently miraculous vision, he says, was caused by the spiritus of the worshippers which, evaporating from their bodies, impressed the image of the saint in the air (Pomponazzi 1567, 239; Walker 2000, 108). Pomponazzi’s focus is both on the physiology of the imagination, which involved bodily processes such as the modification of the blood and of the spiritus, and the on psychological aspects, such as faith and credulity, which put into motion these processes. For him the imagination, inflamed by faith and belief, did not only project its potent effects on the outside, as in the case of apparitions, or on other people’s bodies, as with the evil eye. Through a complex mechanism of autosuggestion, the imagination could also affect the believer’s own body, as in the case of Saint Francis’s stigmata (Pomponazzi 1567, 67). In the Sylva Silvarum (1626), Francis Bacon (1561–1626) explores the degree of truth of the idea of a transitive power of the imagination and confirms Pomponazzi’s view that imagination and belief, when mutually influenced, can cause autosuggestion and have significant psychosomatic effects. He recounts the story of a juggler – whose imagination was disbelieving and therefore not strong enough to act on other people’s imagination – claimed that he could guess the card somebody else was thinking of without seeing it. However, rather than telling the card himself, he whispered it in the ear of an observer, who later repeated it out loud. The reason for this complex system of interactions between the juggler, the participant in the card trick and the observer is to be found in the subtle interplay of imagination, belief, and disbelief which made the trick possible. The juggler was aware of being an impostor and had no belief in his own mind-reading powers but knew that the observer had a strong faith in his alleged competence and ability as a juggler. This faith fed the observer’s imagination which grew stronger and became able to bind the other man’s imagination, inducing him to reproduce in his mind the image of the same card (Bacon 1857-1874, II, 655; Giglioni 2010b; Yates 1966, 359). In his Discourse of the Power of Sympathy, first published in 1658, Kenelm Digby (1603–1665) describes the human body in terms of a kingdom, in which the animal spirits, or spiritus, are the sentinels and the imagination is the general. The spiritus brings the information deriving from the sense organs to the imagination, “whereby a man may know and understand what is done without the kingdom, within the great world” (Digby 1664, 89). However, in Digby we find an attempt to give a scientific explanation of the workings of the imagination (Lobis 2011) and he explains birthmarks with the joint action of the imagination and atoms coming from the outside world (Digby 1664, 84 and ff.). This position anticipates the approach which became dominant at the end of the seventeenth century. With the emergence of modern science, philosophers sought to identify natural causes for those portents traditionally ascribed to the power of the imagination, which was gradually dethroned from being the queen of mental faculties, banished from theories of knowledge and exiled to the field of aesthetics.



Primary Literature

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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History DepartmentUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.The University of QueenslandSchool of Historical and Philosophical InquiryBrisbaneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marco Sgarbi
    • 1
  • Peter Mack
    • 2
  1. 1.University Ca' Foscari VeniceVeniceItaly
  2. 2.The Warburg Institute, School of Advanced StudyUniversity of LondonLondonUK