Imagination as a Way of Knowing

Imagination as a Way of Knowing          

“What,” it will be Questioned, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

“I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.”—William Blake from “The Last Judgment”

 “I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty of both body & mind to exercise the Divine Art of Imagination” (Jerusalem, 77).

Blake newton
Newton by William Blake

It may seem odd to begin discussing Imagination as a way of knowing by presenting a copy of William Blake’s Newton. Isaac Newton is shown sitting at the bottom of the sea, naked and crouched on a rocky outcropping covered with algae that, suspiciously, appears to be shaped like a toilet bowl or urinal. Newton’s attention is focused on mathematical diagrams he draws with a compass upon a scroll that first appears as cloth and then seems to unravel from over his left shoulder and then seems to turn to paper once it is grounded upon the sea-bed. He ignores the nature that is behind him and his attitude towards it is somewhat comparable to that which we have towards that which goes into our toilet bowls: it is placed there to be disposed of. A jellyfish or Polypus swims by toward the rocks upon which Newton is sitting. The compass in Newton’s left hand is a smaller version of that held by Urizen in Blake’s The Ancient of Days as well as the compasses or tongs (that which grasps things) which the mythical figure of Los holds in Blake’s other paintings. What is grasped with the left hand and what is grasped with the right hand are significant for Blake and more will be said later about this significance.

The imagination as a way of knowing is not “fantasy” and must be distinguished from fantasy. For many of us, we have such a difficult time distinguishing between what is and what is not reality. We must, if we are to live, have a conception of reality. Our conception of what reality is is prior to our experience of that reality. The conception determines ahead of time how we experience reality: what we see when we see a road, a flower, a child, or a computer; and this conception of reality comes to define what reality is for us. It provides us with our “understanding” of what we believe reality to be.The purpose behind this beginning is to show what the imagination as a way of knowing is not firstly, and then to proceed to try to identify what exactly the imagination is when we speak of it as a way of knowing. William Blake will be used to identify what the imagination is since he is the greatest example of its use that we English speaking peoples have. When finished, some will view Blake’s idea of the imagination as “madness”, which is what many of his contemporaries did. But in contrast to Blake’s “madness”, we shall have to look at, and question, what we have chosen in its place as our ways of viewing and knowing the world.

For most of us, the world of Newton is the world of “reality”; but is this really the case? Is the “truth” revealed by our mathematics and calculations the only possible “truth” and is it the “ultimate truth”, what we sometimes call “objective truth”?

Please do not misunderstand that what is being proposed here is a “subjective” idea of truth. This is not the case. Fantasies are indeed subjective; truth is not. And imagination as a way of knowing is not the generation of fantasies; it is, in a way, the generation of truth brought about through truth’s apprehension in the human soul; the logos gives and the soul responds. Imagination as a way of knowing is the artist or poet or scientist as “mid-wife” (the Greek philosopher, Socrates, saw himself as a ‘midwife’) assisting and nurturing the birth of the truth that had been given. Blake called this nurturing and abetting “the Divine Humanity”.


Blake’s conception of the Divine Humanity arose out of a conviction that “man is divine because he participates in the life of God through the faculty of the imagination.” The imagination is the realm of supreme reality in which the divine-human theosis is actualized. Theosis or deification is a transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God.  According to Eastern Christian teaching, theosis is very much the purpose of human life.

When the imagination is viewed as a generator of fantasies, the imagination has no ground upon which to stand except that of “the box” of rationalism, and this “box” or conception of the logos is prior to the fantasies that emerge from within it. The literary genre of science fiction is an example of this use of fantasy, and this use of fantasy accounts for much of what we consider the imagination to be.

Newton’s Sleep: The Single Vision

“Now I a fourfold vision see/ And a fourfold vision is given to me/ Tis fourfold in my supreme delight/ And three fold in soft Beulahs night/ And twofold Always. May God us keep/ From Single vision & Newtons sleep.”— Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake (1956)

How does the imagination as a way of knowing reflect the poetizing of a poet like Blake and the thinking of a thinker? Imagination may be said to be the way of knowing that is the mediation that opens up the realms in the areas of knowledge and the questioning that occurs in those realms or domains. It can be a dominant way of knowing in the open region of our personal and shared knowledge.

The world of Newton emphasizes reason as a way of knowing through the principle of reason. This “reason” has come to us in the form of judgment in our assertions about the way things are and what things are. It is the correspondence theory of truth. We have inherited, in our shared knowledge, the belief that “judgment is the seat of truth” (Kant). This is because we are able to hear. Our judgments arise from language as a way of knowing: the book is on the table; 1+1= 2; etc. As we have said elsewhere, language is more than words. It can be numbers, images, words, symbols (such as the mathematical equation above) or anything that establishes a relationship or a relation between ourselves and what is outside ourselves.

It is through language as logos that we establish our relationship with our world. Logos means “relation” and “a gathering together”, a “laying down” and the establishment of a “ground” or a foundation. It is the logos that “gathers together” our individual sense perceptions, our seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and allows us to arrive at the word that identifies something as the thing it is for us. It is the logos that establishes and “grounds” our concepts, our “first principles” and, thus, determines the direction of our further thinking.

Logos became translated as ratio by the Latins and from this translation came our “reason” or “rationality” as a way of knowing and as assertion about the nature of things. This understanding has come to dominate our relation to the world since, within it, there was our understanding of what the essence of things are and our understanding of what we are as human beings, the animal rationale.

With the arrival and within the tradition of Christianity, with its emphasis on the salvation of the “soul” and the rejection of the material world, came the final separation of “soul” from the body and from the corporeal or material world; and from this separation came the development of the subject/object distinction. Blake’s rejection of Newton’s “single vision” is that in Newton’s vision, objects cease to be objects or to become objects and become, rather, abstract mathematical constructions of, and within, the mind. (See the writing on the historical background of The Natural Sciences). The “ob-” or the “against” towards which the mind in its activity is the “jacio” or “the thrown forward” is no longer present. The “ob-“, the outside world, becomes a shadow, an abstraction. This relation is much more complex than what is presented here, but to go into it in depth would take us too further afield from that which we wish to discuss here and one can find a greater depth of discussion in Reason as a way of knowing and in the Arts as an Area of Knowledge.

Blake’s Rejection of Logos as Reason

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe/ And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire/ Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth/ In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works/ Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic/ Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which/ Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.” (Jerusalem 15.14–20, E159)

The overcoming of the subject/object distinction was the motivation for all of Blake’s efforts in his lifetime. For Blake, the understanding of logos as “the Word” became the definition of the imagination. It is through words that we establish our concepts and our understanding of the concepts or universals that are given to us. From these universals we come to sight all the particulars that exist in the external reality that we call the Being of our world. For Blake, the Word is Christ (Gospel of John I.i.) ( If one changes the tense of the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, one can capture the essential meaning of Blake’s efforts and work as a whole: “Firstly, there is the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) is with God and the Word (Logos) is God. The Logos is, first, with God. All things come into Being through Him (the Logos), and apart from Him, nothing can come into Being that has come into Being. In the Logos is life, and the Life is the light of humanity”. For Blake, the imagination is human existence or the Life itself. It is essential not to confuse Logos here with the principle of reason understood as “causation”.)

But this concept of the Word takes on many more meanings within the work of Blake, not the least of which is his inclusion of Christ as the Being of our world both in the corporeal and spiritual sense (“The Lamb slain from the foundation of the World” Rev. 13:8) . For Blake, the human soul united with the logos understood as the divine imagination comes to see the world as it is: it is the logos that reveals the reality of the world; and for Blake, like those he rejected such as Aristotle, Bacon, Locke and Newton, the reality of the world rests in the intellect. But the things of the world as we currently perceive them through the intellect in the work of Newton, Locke and Aristotle are but shadows to Blake. There is a great difference from Blake’s understanding of the intellect and that which has traditionally come down to us; so what is the difference in this understanding of the intellect?

The artist and poet William Blake rejected the understanding of the logos as merely reason only. With the emphasis of the logos understood as reason, too much weight was given to the mind or intellect and too much stress was placed on reason, understood as a certain type of reason. With the view of truth as revealed through reason understood as “logic”, Blake felt that the seeing or viewing of the god (Christ) and the looking back upon the god by human beings was withdrawn from the world. What replaced it came to be understood as Law, whether religious laws or scientific laws. No longer could the living God be sighted, he felt, and it required a great ‘cleansing of the doors of perception’ in order for human beings to see the world of the God once again. Blake’s understanding occurred early in his life, and this understanding never changed throughout the whole of Blake’s life.

( In his text “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” begun in 1789 and completed in 1790, Blake describes the world that results from viewing the logos as Reason:                            “Here, said I! is your lot, in this space, if space it may be call’d. Soon we saw the stable and the church, & I took him to the altar and open’d the Bible, and lo! it was a deep pit, into which I descended driving the Angel before me; soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we enter’d; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, & all of that species, chain’d by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but witheld by the shortness of their chains; however I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect, first coupled with & then devour’d, by plucking off first one limb and then another till the body was left a helpless trunk; this after grinning & kissing it with seeming fondness they devour’d too; and here & there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off of his own tail; as the stench terribly annoy’d us both we went into the mill, & I in my hand brought the skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle’s Analytics.

So the Angel said: thy phantasy has imposed upon me & thou oughtest to be ashamed.                                                    

I answer’d: we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.”

It is in the Analytics that Aristotle makes explicit the correspondence theory of truth through syllogisms and mathematics. Notice the irony that it is not the Angel that, like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, leads the poet down into the depths of Hell, but it is the poet Blake who “drives the Angel before”. It is Blake who is the guide, not the Angel.)

His rejection of logos as reason provided the foundation and grounding for his view of reality, the role of the imagination in that reality, and of his view of the world itself for the rest of his life. He saw, as no one else did, the consequences of the type of rationality that began with Aristotle in his Analytics as well as its revelation and extrapolation in the rest of the corpus of Aristotle’s works. How this rationalism became understood through the filtering influence of traditional Christianity in Medieval times and was inherited by Bacon, Locke and Newton became, for Blake, the figure of Urizen in his art and poetry. In the opening hymn of his book Milton, the well-known “dark Satanic Mills” are not merely the enormous mills of the Industrial Revolution as they are traditionally interpreted. They are the inevitable outcomes of the thinking and seeing that finds its roots in Aristotle’s Analytics.

Blake Book of Urizen
The Book of Urizen

If we look at the painting of Urizen provided here, we can see the figure of an old man (Blake’s Urizen or, perhaps, King Jehovah, or Nobodaddy) sitting on top of a book which is under his foot which, like our own feet, provides the contact with the “grounding” or the “ground”, while he writes into two books behind him which have the shape of an altar. The two books could be the Old and New Testaments of the Bible or they could be the works of Newton and of John Locke, or they could be a combination of both: the arts and sciences. In Urizen’s right hand is a quill; and in his left, a pen. Tears flow from his eyes. The movement in the painting is from our left to right and the colors grow darker as they move to the right. Behind the figure of Urizen are two stones which have the traditional appearance of the Ten Commandments. The two stones serve as a door or a gate barring the way behind them or providing an entrance. For Blake, this would be our “shared knowledge”. It is the limitations placed on the imagination by the use of reason in what we have inherited from our past in reason’s interpretation of what reality is. It is captured in our second tier questioning beginning “To what extent…”, that ask us to reason and compare.

For Blake, it is the Divine Imagination which originates the movement or the action of knowing and making, not the artist or poet. The Divine Imagination is the logos which, through intuition (not understood as “instinctive feeling” but as an a priori givenness of time and space, of Being i.e. ordinary perception), is grasped and then comes to stand and is preserved in the ‘work’ that is the poem or the painting. The poet or artist is not primary in this process for Blake. The poet or artist actively/ receptively receives the “visions” that are given to her by the Divine Imagination, the logos, and these visions, through the artist’s techniques and skills are given birth in the works that are the result of the visions. A poet or artist has the choice to either receive the visions or ignore them. These visions are not to be understood as abstractions, but are the realities (the “whatness” or the essence) of the things that are. The visions are, in themselves, the real beings while the corporeality of the material world is but ‘shadows’.

Modern science deals with formulas and abstractions. It denies this intuitive “looking” and receiving of the imagination. ( Blake in his poem Jerusalem states: “And this is the manner of the Sons of Albion in their strength/ They take the Two Contraries which are call’d Qualities, with which/ Every Substance is clothed, they name them Good and Evil/ From them they make an Abstract, which is a Negation/ Not only of the Substance from which it is derived/ A murderer of its own Body: but also a murderer/ Of every Divine Member: it is the Reasoning Power/ An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing/ This is the Spectre of Man; the Holy Reasoning Power/ And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation”).

For Blake, the Ideas of the imagination are not abstractions; they are beings, realities that must be apprehended, seen in the souls and minds of human beings. Modern science, on the other hand, must have recourse to the abstractions that are mathematics as its logos because, as is seen in Blake’s painting of Newton, mathematics serves a viewing that sees nature as a collection of disposables. If we as human beings see nature as having no end or purpose in and of itself then the scientist’s (Newton’s) recourse to mathematics, to formulas, to the calculation and quantification of things as matter in motion necessarily abstracts from the things as they really are and does not allow those things to stand as ‘objects’ in their own right. Science can never renounce this gathering or understanding of the world as calculable because the calculations provide a view of nature that is secure in its predictability; but as is seen in the painting of Newton, this predictability of nature is at the cost of ignorance of nature. It is our mastering, commandeering disposition towards the things that are that determines what their being is; and what the things are is determined by our own reasoning or what we have come to understand as the “design” of our own reasoning (“What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry”—Blake, “The Tyger”).

Modern physics provides a picture of nature that is coherent in that its picture of nature is dependable, predictable and calculable. Modern science constrains nature to present itself in a certain way, frames it, so that it will respond to the questions that arise from a specific design or understanding of reason (logos), as the philosopher Kant, a contemporary of Blake’s, notes. Blake (as does Plato because both have an understanding of the Ideas) would reject Kant’s view that ‘reason’ is higher than understanding. Science unlocks nature’s secrets by creating its own phenomenon (light observed through a cloud chamber, for instance) and by recording the results through its own measuring instruments which of themselves produce the contents that science is meant to see. As the scientist Werner Heisenberg has noted, science has abandoned its goal of knowing the contents or things of nature as such in favor of gaining knowledge of the order of the contents or things, the frame in which the contents or things appear. Science records which contents will regularly appear together and which will succeed one another whether in physics, chemistry or biology. The predictability of the results is key and this predictability must be rendered in the logos of mathematical, calculative reasoning.

Science is able to guarantee the order of appearances but can claim no insight into exactly what is appearing. The connections in the causality of modern science are customary ones, not essential ones because modern science can claim no knowledge of the “essence”, and would indeed claim that there is no such thing as the “essence” of some thing. Heisenberg’s own indeterminacy principle is the realization of this. This realization presents a crisis for science: that this crisis for science goes unnoticed by many scientists indicates that they themselves are more “fundamentalist” in their faith than the religious fanatics that some of them rail against. Science knows only the results of the causality it examines and it knows these results with certainty, but it has no understanding of what is causally connected or what that causal connection is or might be. Science, as a predicate of the subject technology, is a manifestation of technology as the highest form of will to power.

Today’s scientists can be compared to the prisoners in Plato’s cave. If we will recall, the prisoners in Plato’s cave have been in their situation since childhood and they are ignorant of the nature of that which they see. They are unaware that the shadows which they are seeing are shadows. The cave-dwellers develop, as is said in Republic 516:  “the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were sharpest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of the shadows went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to their future appearances”, or the predictability of the shadows that would appear. The prisoners are those who are basically content with their condition.  Plato’s allegory appears to be prescient with regard to the “Nobel Prize-itis” that grips many in today’s scientific community.

That the prisoners would do violence to anyone who would challenge their understanding of their shadow reality is but another example of Plato’s prescience. This “violence”, which sometimes covers itself over under the banner of “free speech”, is the proneness of the dispositions of those who claim to be in possession of the truth even if it is the claim that there is no truth. The “violence” that is done to nature in our imposing on nature to give an account for its being the way it is, is done in our “posing” towards nature. It is in this “posing” towards nature that the determination that nature will show itself as “dis-posable”: nature is so “posed” as to be “dis-posable”, and nature shows itself as such. This viewing of nature is then trans-posed into how we relate to each other as human beings when we see each other as “resources” or “disposables”.

We call the sciences of today the “positive” sciences: Positive > ponere > to “posit”, “lay”; positurn > “what has been laid down”, what already lies there. Positive sciences are those sciences that deal with what already lies there as a result of the “posing”. Numbers are already there, spatial relations exist, nature is at hand, language is present, and so is the literature that is “re-searched”. All this is positurn and it is what is laid down beforehand, our “shared knowledge”.

The mastery of the shadows is all that counts to the cave dwellers. The resignation of today’s scientists appears to correspond to the contentment of the prisoners in Plato’s cave. The lack of insight or understanding into nature, the object of mastery, is compensated for by the dependability and predictability of the results that can be applied in order to make nature disposable to human ends. Not only Plato but also Blake was prescient to these ultimate consequences of seeing nature as a “shadow” and as “disposable”.

Blake in “There is no Natural Religion” provides the following insights into the logos as ratio.

  • Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
  • The bounded is loathed by its possessor. the same dull round, even of the universe, would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
  • If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.

Blake continues:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.

He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

What Blake is saying here is that what we understand as “essence” is not what is grasped by the science of Newton or modern science. The “essence” will change once we know something more, something new, when a new paradigm shift comes about. Historically, it was believed that reason grasped “essences” in the “looking” of the theory, but for Blake, this is not the case. Our framing ratiocination of nature is, in fact, “loathed” by us for it is merely an eternal recurrence of the same, a “mill with complicated wheels”, the nihilism that realizes itself in the viewing of nature as disposable. Blake’s writings are filled with his rage against the nihilism that is the modern sciences.

For Aristotle, the end of sophia is the ‘looking’ which is knowledge of the first things (the “essences”) and of the whole. It has those things which do not change as its theme, the necessary, the essences of the things, so that for Aristotle the highest end is the Being or existence of the theoretical man, the scientific man. This Being, end for man, has priority over the practical man, practical action. It is important to note that this view required Aristotle to coin the term the “theoretikos”: the theoretical man, since it was not a view present in Greek philosophy prior to Aristotle. The bios theoretikos replaces the bios philosophos as the highest disposition of human being. The life of theory, the “seeing” for itself as an end in itself, is given a higher priority than the “love” or “friendship” (philo), the logos, the relation with that wisdom that is found in the two-way “looking” and the “looking back” that is the understanding of the philosopher. This removal of the love for wisdom and this love of wisdom is, or was, the first step in the concealment or withdrawal of the gods and the withdrawal of the Good, for Aristotle’s bios theoretikos was a denial of that gulf which separates the necessary from the Good. It lead to the life absorbed in abstractions rather than the concrete reality of human existence.

Reason and the Imagination in Blake

“Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

“The eye altering, alters all”.

Blake Los

Blake’s life and work was a reaction to the traditional views of rationality as understood in the mathematical sciences, and he sought for some way of bringing the contraries of imagination and reason together into one imaginative figure who could provide his understanding of what both the imagination and reason are. This figure became the mythic or daemonic character of Los for Blake, an anagram of Sol or the Sun. (By daemonic I do not mean “demon” or what is commonly associated with that word, but rather the daemonic in its original sense as an intermediary between the world as we experience it and the world of the Divine Imagination or the spiritual world, the world of essences. The angels, too, are daemons). The use of anagrams in Blake implies a “mirror image” of things or a ‘fearful symmetry’ of things, if you like. Through the figure of Los, Blake’s view of the imagination, art, poetry and truth came together and determined all of his artistic efforts and all of his poetry. For Blake, poetry and philosophy are one and emanate from the Divine Imagination. This attempt to hold together the poetry of the Word and the techne of the “know how” of artistic making and creativity (technology) was something Blake struggled with for most of his life for both are of a kindred essence (Los and Urizen are of a kindred essence: the logos). This struggle can be seen most clearly in his poem “The Tyger” which is not a poem about the conflict of good and evil (as it is traditionally understood), but is a poem about the conflict of ‘knowing’ (the first two stanzas), ‘making’ (the second two stanzas), and the daring to find and frame the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the two (the final two stanzas). In Blake’s poetry and art, “The Book of Los” is in fearful symmetry with “The Book of Urizen” as both, in a way, mirror each other. Blake’s use of capitalization indicates the “essence” of something prior to its “fall” into the material universe, so the “immortal hand or eye” of the maker of the “Tyger” is the fallen Los depicted in “The Book of Los”, the Los overwhelmed by consciousness of self as ‘maker’ and by the ‘experimentation’ of ‘making’ that is driven by the looking and the seeing that is technology.

As an anagram of Sol or the sun, Los is associated with the traditional understanding of light as the revealer of truth. The Sun as a representation of light becomes Reason or Intellect as revealer of truth and is primarily given in the figure of the Greek god Apollo who is Urizen in Blake’s work. Los and Urizen are continually in conflict in Blake’s work, but they are also bound to each other through this conflict.

Reason has always been understood as a ‘revealer’ of the things that are hidden. For Blake, coming as he does from within the Christian tradition, Reason is associated with Lucifer, who is also associated with light, for Lucifer’s name derives from both the Old English and from the Latin and means the ‘light-bringing, morning star’, from luxluc- ‘light’ + -fer ‘bearing’. Lucifer is by association the ‘son of the morning’ (Isa. 14:12), believed by Christian interpreters to be a reference to Satan. In Blake’s work, both Christ and Lucifer are united as contraries in a binary relationship in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, a poem written at the beginning of Blake’s career as a poet and artist. Los becomes a Christ-figure in his later poem “Jerusalem”.

Blake Los Spectre
Los and his Spectre

For Blake, the human soul is composed of four parts: Humanity, Emanation, Spectre and Shadow. In Blake’s painting, we see Los dealing with his Spectre, which was for Blake Reason as it was and is traditionally understood. Spectre’s wings are black and he has his hands to his ears. He does not wish, or cannot wish, to hear. Spectre is much like the prisoners in Plato’s cave. Spectre is associated with the Shadow in Blake. Shadow, in Blake’s mythology, is associated with everything that blocks imaginative redemption. Our seeing of the world through our understanding of reason blocks the “cleansing of the doors of perception” that Blake sees as necessary to humanity’s redemption, the ‘eye altering’ which removes delusions. Redemption here is not to be understood as “redemption from” sin as it is traditionally understood, but redemption to the full essence of our humanity and to the things of the world as they truly are.

For Blake, “The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated/ From Imagination. and closing itself as in steel. in a Ratio/ Of the Things of Memory. It thence frames Laws & Moralities/ To destroy Imagination! the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars”. (J 74: 11-14)

The Difficulty of Classifying Blake within the Tradition: Art as Aesthetics

“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create.”

It is difficult to speak of the imagination as a way of knowing without relating it to the arts in general. Our understanding of art is as “aesthetics”. Aesthetics today is, emphatically, the philosophy of art. Art is understood today in aesthetic terms, humanistic (humanism) terms, and we examine and explore art’s effects on human sense experience (aesthesis). We believe that Art is given to us in the worlds we inhabit for the sake of deepening our experiences. “We” are the centre of this world view and understanding of art. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is an assertion to which one will get an almost universal response in the affirmative. This humanistic view and aesthetic approach to art is the flowering of the technological outlook of art where art is viewed as a “disposable”. (  See Blake’s Preface to Milton:

“Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[i]onable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying.” )

The artists among us place artworks at our disposal, and we experience their creations for precisely what we can get out of them. Blake’s art, however, went in the opposite direction.

This view of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is not how or what Blake viewed as beauty in art. For Blake, art is the bringing forth of the true into the beautiful. For the Greeks, this was called techne. Beauty is not a “subjective” response to art in our human beholding as it was not for Blake and the Greeks. Aesthetics arises when the Divine Imagination is supplanted and overcome by human subjectivity. The original Greek attitude to art was not a matter of aesthetics. They did not surround themselves with their art for “subjective reasons” or to elevate their experiences. The Greeks did not “value” art for that which it brings “in return”: art was not something that brought returns. We call this return “appreciation” of art. Art had a higher function or purpose than human creativity or “appreciation”, or human refinement or to make humans more “cultured”. For the Greeks, the attitude toward art was one of “piety”; an examination of the piety of Greek theatre will quickly illustrate this: they were not the beholders but the beheld. If the purpose of art is simply for art to be appreciated then art is debased; the bringing of art down to the subjective level, as is done in the aesthetic view of art, debases art. In the aesthetic view of art, we see art as an expression of culture. Art programs are instituted in the schools to “enrich” the culture; art museums are considered the containers of our “culture”. Life without art is seen as mere bestiality.

In the aesthetic view of art, what is highlighted is the artistic ability or creativity of the individual artist. An artist’s skill, dexterity, originality or ingenuity is what is focused upon. This techne of the artist or of a human being, the subject, the human genius, was not the source of art for the Greeks, nor for Blake. The soul of the poet or artist was assimilated in the Poetic Genius or the Divine Imagination, the theosis; the logos was given forth and its shining was beheld in visions (inspiration). This beholding of the artist led to the bringing forth of the work, through the artist’s techne, into the sensuous or material realm. Artworks were not, principally, human creations; but, of course, humans have to participate in the bringing forth of truth into beauty through their techne. But their role is secondary.

Aesthetics is the view of art that only relates art to humanity; it is the flourishing of that growth that we call humanism. With the withdrawal of the gods, humanity comes to supplant and fill the vacuum left by them and their absence. One may find this filling of the vacuum in the works of a modern playwright like Arthur Miller. The role or place that was once held by the gods in the works of the Greek tragedians and Shakespeare is supplanted by the role or place of the social or society in the playwright Miller’s work. In Platonic terminology, it becomes worship of the Great Beast.

Blake’s work was an attempt to overcome this vacuum, what he called “Newton’s sleep”, “the single vision”. This “single vision” of the Newtonian sleep is a destiny for modern human beings for in the “single vision”, a kind of truth is revealed which determines what we are and what we think the world is outside of ourselves. Our misunderstanding and thoughtlessness towards this destiny, this mistaking of our “single vision” as the only vision and disregarding the possibility of seeing with a “whole” vision in Blake’s sense, creates “blindness” in all the actions that are determined from this prior manner of “seeing”. Our pride in the accomplishments and achievements of our technology and sciences is Oedipus’ pride in resolving the riddle of the Sphinx: he does so and is able to do so because he is “destined” to do so. This pride “blinds” him to who he really is, to his essence, and the price for this blindness is his sight.

For ourselves, we pose as “masters of the earth”, but our self-blindness makes us slaves to the institutions that we have constructed from our “disposable” viewing. The illusion spreads that everything human beings encounter exists only insofar as it is their construct and that everywhere human beings only encounter themselves. The great physicist Heisenberg has pointed out that reality must present itself to human beings in this way in our modern age. If we are heedless of our essence and misconstrue ourselves as the authors of the disposables around us, including nature, then we will come to see all things as entirely human constructs. Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle states that we have no access to an independent nature; nature is an abstract reduced to scientific formulas of our own doing and making. What exactly the formulas apply to is unknown to us. All things, both the natural ones and the man-made ones, are our own creations; they are the mirrors in which we see ourselves and only ourselves. We are as Newton sitting upon a rock at the bottom of the sea.

For Blake, we have lost sight of who and what we really are as human beings as we move forward in our Newtonian sleep; and certainly this is the case much more now than 200 years ago when Blake first gained this insight into human existence. Or as Blake says:

God Appears & God is Light/ To those poor Souls who dwell in Night;/ But does a Human Form Display/ To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

 Blake’s work is grounded in the view of art as an ontology, a way of being in the world, rather than a humanism which is a metaphysical grounding of human being and its subsequent consequence, the aesthetic view of art. Blake’s is a mythopoeic art rather than a representational art. It is an art where poetry and philosophy are one, and where reason and the imagination are one.

Exactly where Blake belongs in the canon of art and in the history of art has been a problem for the classifiers of art when they try to put Blake somewhere in the traditional schools of art. This should not come as a surprise since the classification of art and art history arose simultaneously with Cartesianism, but it has its roots in Aristotle’s categories which are the application of the logos to beings, what can be said about things. Blake’s whole enterprise was to overcome the view of art that arose with the Cartesian separation of the “subjective/objective” worlds and the worlds of human making which he had inherited (‘the Satanic mills’, a reference not only to industrialization which Blake saw all about him, but also to the thinking and seeing which brought that ‘Satanic’ world view about).

Imagination and Love

“The Imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself/ Affection or Love becomes a state when divided from imagination.”– Blake, “Milton”

“…the milk of the joy of eternity must be more substantially present, if the ravages of fate are to be looked on, and one is not to be turned to stone.”– George Grant, The George Grant Reader, p. 368

For Blake, the Self is the innate selfishness with which we are born; it is opposed to our central Humanity or our “essence”, “what we are fitted for” as human beings. It appears in his paintings as a polypus or jellyfish.  The Polypus is organized and motivated by materialism and traditional religion (Mil: 34: 24-31). In Blake, assimilation and communication in and through the logos creates the human body and prevents it from being merely formless  jelly or the human being of “Mortal & Vegetable” birth; in other words, the logos is what makes us truly human and allows us to reach beyond ourselves as merely “bodies”.

As our Self develops, it becomes the Spectre (J 33:19) and is one’s Satan (Mil 14:50). The Self is protean in its development and appearances (J 17-24), but its chief appearance in Blake’s art is as a jellyfish or squid (Polypus), such as is seen in the painting of Newton. For Blake, human beings are enjoined by “invisible hatreds” from which they form the “worldly society”, which is the opposite of his conception of the Brotherhood of Man.

Blake Orc
Orc Son of Los and Enitharmon

They are represented by the figure of Orc: the hatred men bear each other. In the painting, the child Orc is seen with his parents Enitharmon and Los, and it is quite clear that the relationship between Orc and Enitharmon is one with Oedipal complexities. For Blake, revolution is the opium of the masses and it is from the spirit of Orc. In his poems America and Europe, Blake looked at the outcomes of those revolutions, the American and French Revolutions, and saw the turning wheels to be those of oppression and tyranny. Mass political movements are not the solution to man’s ills, according to Blake. We must all individually be the change we wish to see in the world and this change must first come through knowledge of ourselves which can only come about through the ‘cleansing of the doors of perception’.

Blake unites the imagination with human affection and love and sees these as “human existence” itself, a way of being in the world for human beings that is both temporal and atemporal. A “state”, understood as a noun, is the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time. As a verb, to state is to make an assertion about something, about its being what it is. “State”, both as noun and verb, are related to logos and are indicators of representational thinking. Representational thinking is contrary to love and imagination.

How are we to understand love and the imagination as the logos that is contrary to representational thought? “Love” is attention to otherness, receptivity to otherness, and consent to otherness whether that “other” be other human beings, nature, or Being itself. Such an account of love might sound somewhat abstract until it is given content through all the occasions of life, from elementary human relations to the love of the truth of Being itself. The attention and receptivity to otherness is not a passive acceptance. When we love other human beings, we know those human beings because we have paid attention to them, have received something of what they are, and consented to what they are as good.

Our paying attention is not a passive onlooking; it is an active loving which nurtures and abets the other as is the case in all true friendships. True attention to otherness is the freedom and dignity of human being; it is what we are fitted for.  Love is only love in so far as it has passed through the flesh by means of actions, movements, attitudes which correspond to it as an active giving of itself (Weil). If this has not happened, it is not love, but a phantasy in which we pamper ourselves. We are all capable of this attention: when I am absorbed in watching a football match and I hear the cries of my child, I attend to my child and forget myself and my own pleasures. Such attention and giving is elementary and easy. Such attention requires a thoughtful, imaginative choice and response. But most of life’s requirements for our attentiveness to otherness are, obviously, not as easy nor as simple as this example. Love that is a denial of the Self in our day-to-day being in the world is a redemption that is not cheaply bought.

The Imagination in other Traditions

What is said about the imagination in other traditions? “The Sufi tradition of Islam offers an analogue of imagination in the concept of barzakh, referring to “the whole intermediate realm between the spiritual and the corporeal.” Since this world of imagination is “closer to the World of Light” than the corporeal world (Chittick, p. 14), it can give valid knowledge of higher reality.

In the Buddhist tradition there is no systematic view of imagination; the Sanskrit word for it is prtibha (“poetic genius”), but it is not given much emphasis in Buddhist thought.

Hinduism, on the other hand, offers in the Vedic tradition a highly developed view of imagination as both the transcendent power by which the gods create and sustain the harmony of the universe, and the human faculty by which the human artist, priest, or sage recognizes and celebrates this harmony. It is, in short, the imagination that “joins the human spirit with ultimate reality itself” (Mahoney, p. 2). One can see here that Blake’s concept of the imagination closely resembles that of the Sufi and Vedantic traditions. ( Imagination – Non-western Traditions – World, Human, Harmony, and Reality – JRank Articles )

There is no Natural Religion


The Argument. Man has no notion of moral fitness but from Education. Naturally he is only a natural organ subject to Sense.

  1. Man cannot naturally perceive but through his natural or bodily organs.
  2. Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perceiv’d.
  3. From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.
  4. None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions.
  5. Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions; none can desire what he has not perceiv’d.
  6. The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by anything but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.


  1. Man’s perceptions are not bound by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
  2. Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
  3. [This proposition is missing.]
  4. The bounded is loathed by its possessor. the same dull round, even of the universe, would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
  5. If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
  6. If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
  7. The desire of Man being infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

 Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.                                                                                                                                  


In Blake, the imagination is the essence of both God and Human Being; the two are indistinguishable. “The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination; that is, God Himself, the Divine Body, Jesus: we are his Members.” (Laocoon, K. 776) “Man is all Imagination. God is man and exists in us & we in him.” (On Berkeley, K 775) For Blake, the logos exists as the relationship between two unequal members, a friendship among unequals, the relation between the Divine and the Mortal.

Imagination is the “Divine Humanity” (Jerusalem 20:19); imagination is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus (the Word made flesh). (Milton 5:3; Jerusalem 5:58, 24:23, 60:57, 74:13; Laocoon K776) It is the gift of the Holy Ghost (“the gift of tongues”); it is the Holy Ghost himself.

For Blake, the imagination is existence: Being: “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination”. (Jerusalem 9:25) “All Animals & Vegetations, the Earth & Heaven are contained in the All Glorious Imagination”. (Jerusalem 19:10) “In your own Bosom you bear your Heaven and Earth & all you behold; tho’ it appears without, it is within, in your Imagination, of which the World of Mortality is but a Shadow.” (Jerusalem 71:19)

The Imagination is the basis of all art. “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination: The Divine Vision (On Wordsworth, K782). “Nature has no Outline, but Imagination has: Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has. Nature has no Supernatural & dissolves: Imagination is Eternity”.

In the creative act, the Imagination is the completest liberty of the spirit. “Imagination is surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration, who in the aggregate are called Jerusalem”. “I know of no other Christianity and no other Gospel than the liberty of both body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination” (Jerusalem 79). It is the exploring “inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.” (Jerusalem 5:19)

“Abstract Philosophy” (metaphysics) is the enemy of the Imagination (Jerusalem 5:58; 70:19; 74:26) and is the Reasoning Spectre (Jerusalem 36:24; 74:7; 11). The Daughters of Memory (tradition, “shared knowledge”) are contrasted with the Daughters of Inspiration: “Imagination has nothing to do with memory”.

The Self or Selfhood: For Blake, the Self is the innate selfishness with which we are born; it is opposed to our central Humanity or our “essence”, what we are fitted for as human beings. As our self develops, it becomes the Spectre (Jerusalem 33:19) and is one’s Satan (Milton 14:30). It is protean in its development and appearances (Jerusalem 17-24), but its chief appearance is as a jellyfish or squid, such as is seen in the painting of Newton. For Blake, human beings are enjoined by “invisible hatreds” and they form the “worldly society” which is the opposite to his conception of the Brotherhood of Man. They are represented by the figure of Orc: the hatred men bear each other.

The polypus or the Self is organized and motivated by materialism and traditional religion (Milton 34: 24-31). In Blake, assimilation and communication in and through the logos creates the Human body and prevents it from being merely formless jelly or a man of “Mortal & Vegetable” birth such as a human being is when dominated by materialism and traditional religion.

For Blake, the Spectre is “the Great Selfhood Satan, Worship’d as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth” (Jerusalem 33: 17-34). “The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated/ from Imagination and closing itself as in steel in a Ratio of Things of Memory/ It thence frames Laws and Moralities to destroy Imagination! The Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars” (Jerusalem 74:11-14).

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


4 thoughts on “Imagination as a Way of Knowing”

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