The eschatological importance of imagination

In the very first chapter of De Anima, Aristotle argues that the nature of the imagination is of decisive eschatological importance. While considering the powers that living beings have, he asks:

[I]s there any one among them peculiar to the soul by itself? To determine this is indispensable but difficult. If we consider the majority of them, there seems to be no case in which the soul can act or be acted upon without involving the body; e.g. anger, courage, appetite, and sensation generally. Thinking seems the most probable exception; but if this too proves to be a form of imagination or to be impossible without imagination, it too requires a body as a condition of its existence. If there is any way of acting or being acted upon proper to soul, soul will be capable of separate existence; if there is none,its separate existence is impossible. In the latter case, it will be like what is straight, which has many properties arising from the straightness in it, e.g. that of touching a bronze sphere at a point, though straightness divorced from the other constituents of the straight thing cannot touch it in this way; it cannot be so divorced at all, since it is always found in a body.

The question of whether any cognitive power survives death is seen as turning on ones account of imagination and its relation to thought.


  1. April 1, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Is the question you are asking whether separated souls, while lacking sense organs, can still picture things in their minds? Can a soul imagine a cube and see it in its mind’s eye and rotate it around? Can it understand, in a moment of a synthetic a priori epiphany, that what is colored is extended by imagining things with a surface? Are there mental activities that do not require imagination? What’s the correct answer?

  2. April 1, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    I didn’t see myself as asking these questions, or even asking a question: I was making the claim that the extent of the knowing powers of imagination is decisive concerning the question of whether the soul is survives death. Death, among other things, involves total organ failure. The question of whether that destroys everything, as Aristotle sees it, resolves to a question of the role of imagination’s relation to thought.

    Aristotle never gets around to resolving these questions, but I see STA’s response as the most faithful: man needs the phantasm (the content of the imagination) to understand as embodied, and therefore the loss of the body removes the condition for our needing the imagination. Qua metaphysician, I’m looking forward to death, since metaphysics consists in a separation of objects from the imagination by removal, perfection, or causality. Metaphysics, if you will, is a “little death” or a “rehearsal for death” in the sense that the act that constitutes the object of metaphysics is most perfectly performed by dying.

  3. April 6, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Does it mean that angels and souls in heaven (and even God) do not, for example, “know cars”? I think you were blogging earlier on the relation of understanding causality and imagination. Is it possible to know how an engine works without imagining it moving?

  4. April 6, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Imagination is only necessary for our knowing (as we exist now) because we must take knowledge from sensible things. Said another way, it is necessary because our mind is posterior to the things it knows. Knowledge as such does not require anything material on the part of the knower, since materiality is contrary to the to the nature of a knower.

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