Feed The Imagination



Hans-Georg Gadamer once remarked that when in his student days he first met Martin Heidegger, he could tell from Heidegger’s eyes that he had a great imagination. Coming from Gadamer, this was high praise. Great philosophers, including Gadamer, all have this along with a set of intangible sensibilities—a sense of life, a sense of due measure, a sense of what makes sense and of what matters—that far transcend an ability to formulate and critique arguments. When a philosopher assesses another philosopher’s ideas, sometimes they are inspecting the logic of an argument but often they are doing something rather different from this: seeing how an idea sits with them, whether it makes sense to them, or rings true. That idea needs not only to convince your reason but to be tested against your existing knowledge and also your experience, the things that you have seen and lived through, and there’s no method for it. A philosopher isn’t a computer but a particular, embodied human being. That individual has lived a particular life, and the life they’ve lived does more than a little to inform their philosophical position. It informs their philosophical instincts—and don’t imagine that philosophers don’t have instincts. We have them and we tend to trust them, also our sense of life, our sense of justice, and our other sensibilities. When I read a philosopher’s work, one question that’s always foremost in my mind is whether they have an imagination. If they don’t, I’m not interested. Philosophers are many things—disinterested reasoners yes, but also storytellers, rhetoricians, observers, and writers of a certain kind. Where does an imaginative sensibility come from, and how does one go about developing or feeding it?

There are many ways to feed the imagination. In my own case, I’ve always found certain kinds of physical activity to be conducive to this. I spent the better part of the last few days in my vegetable garden, mostly picking weeds. Between the rows you can use a hoe, but within the rows you really need to get down on your hands and knees, carefully separating a thousand fragile seedlings from the weeds that surround them. Weeds always grow faster than anything else in your garden, so you need to do this correctly. Many thoughts flow through your mind when doing this sort of thing; one thing I was reminded of is something my doctoral advisor once said to me. His name was Gary Madison. Gary was a very hardworking individual, and I can remember him talking about opportunity costs. I could hear him whispering in my ear, you should be working on your book. Why are you picking weeds? You can buy vegetables. If you insist on growing your own, you can pay someone to pick the weeds. (Actually, you probably can’t; this is the kind of work that Canadians and Americans won’t do.) I can’t disagree with Gary about opportunity costs, but the point of this and a lot of other physical activities far transcends the vegetables themselves and the exercise that gardening brings. It has to do with imagination.

How does a philosopher or anyone else acquire an imagination? In my own case my main influences were not so much philosophers as musicians, many of them, and also my mother. This is a woman who still cuts her own one-acre lawn with a push mower and has done so for decades. She’s 86. Occasionally now she asks my father to help. He’s 90. For years my siblings and I would ask her, why don’t you buy a ride-on lawnmower? Even I have one of those. Her answer is that she loves it; it’s good for the soul. She takes pride in her lawn and her property, in much the way that she took pride in raising six kids. Maybe there’s a bit of ancestral memory involved here; she is a fourth-generation Canadian, descended from early nineteenth-century Scottish immigrants. Those Scots were a tough bunch. So were my father’s ancestors, French-Canadian habitants who landed in Montreal in the middle of the seventeenth century. They were not allergic to work. Expressions like “put your back into it,” “keep your nose to the grindstone,” and “leave no stone unturned” were meant literally. When you grow up doing work like this, it forms you—your work habits certainly, but also your imagination, maybe your soul. When you live certain metaphors or narratives, they become yours, part of the larger sensibility that you might later bring to bear in any abstract reasoning. They belong in an immediate and fundamental way to our experience of life. That experience is saturated with symbols, meanings, and threads of narrative which are cultural and often intergenerational, and which make it possible to understand both the world and our existence within it. We think within not only a conceptual framework but an imaginative one. Many of our concepts—maybe all of them—are “dead metaphors,” or metaphors that over time have hardened into categories that we begin to take literally. A living metaphor or narrative makes it possible to see the world in new and surprising ways, to perceive one thing in light of another, to carry meaning from one region of our experience to another, to see connections and to grasp together things that had seemed unrelated. It was the French hermeneutical philosopher Paul Ricoeur who perhaps most effectively brought this to our attention.

While tending my garden I was reminded of an old saying: don’t let your reach exceed your grasp. The person who first said this was probably picking weeds. There’s truth in this adage, but it has another side to it: reach far and learn to grasp better. You need to get the root too. If you don’t have the root, you don’t have the thing, and it will grow back in a week. This is the literal meaning of radicality—going to the root, and it applies to radical thinking as well. Radical thinking is not finding ever new ways of saying smash the system without a thought in the world as to what might replace it. If I were to set out to teach someone the art of radical thinking, I’d tell them to put down their Zizek and their Badiou and go pick weeds for a few hours, as I learned to do as a boy. I still think of this whenever I read a philosopher: where is the root? I need to get to the root, maybe admire the achievement and maybe pull it out. Whenever I read a self-described radical, the thought I can never get out of mind is, who grows your food? Does Zizek? I’d really like to know.

Nietzsche was a real radical. He didn’t grow his own food, but he also didn’t have a permanent address. Instead he was a walker. Despite severe health problems, he had a habit throughout his life of taking very long walks—often for several hours at a time. He would think about ideas while he was walking and either write them down in a notebook or go back to his boarding room and write there or, when his health was failing, dictate his notes to someone. He didn’t do most of his thinking at a desk, at least in his later years when he wrote his most important books. If he had done all his thinking at a desk, I wonder if he would have come up with all of that. Heidegger would later say that we don’t think; thoughts come to us. They come to us when they will, but also, and importantly, only when we are receptive to them. One of his biographers writes, “Hermann Heidegger, his son, confirms this impression. His father, he reports, would sometimes say to him: ‘It thinks in me. I cannot resist it.’” A mind that can’t resist it needs to be wide open, and it’s no coincidence that radical openness was a major theme in his writings. When thoughts come to you, where are you and what are you doing? I’m usually doing something physical and preferably something that’s very difficult. Sometimes I’m at the gym, sometimes sitting at a desk or in an armchair, but very rarely am I inside of an institution, including a university. Philosopher Mortimer Adler once said that ideas came to him when he was what he called idling, as in idling at a red light. It looks to all the world like you’re doing nothing, just waiting. But if you’re doing it right, you’re doing it with your eyes wide open. You’re receptive, open to seeing something in some new way. Most of these thoughts you’ll throw out, but every now and then a thought will come to you that seems to come out of nowhere, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes in the way that those vegetables in your garden grow—of their own but also after you’ve done the work of creating the conditions that make their appearance possible.

Many now grow up in an environment that is hyper-rationalized, utilitarian, calculated, sanitized, and safe. We want our kids to be safe. I want mine to have an imagination. No school will teach that. I’m hoping that learning to play guitar and to sing might, so she has been taking lessons in both for a couple of years. When she’s a little older, she’ll be in the garden with me, pulling weeds. She’ll probably enjoy it about as much as I did when as a kid on countless Saturday mornings my father would tell us we needed to go to the farm, to tend to the cattle, take in the hay, mend a fence, shovel manure, or a hundred other tasks that kids love doing on a Saturday. I learned a lot on that farm, not just how to do things like this but some things about life. The metaphors and narratives that we live prepare us to live a certain kind of life, and to think in certain ways. When all of this is calculated in advance, planned by institutions and experts, it seems to me what results is an unfortunate standardization of thought, a kind of intellectual conformity which for me is about the worst thing there is. Every student of philosophy needs to find a way of thinking that is not only rational but their own. They need to get an imagination, and if their formal education has done little to foster this, they need to do it as I did—on their own, but also from watching individuals who probably aren’t teachers or professors.

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