Classical and Imaginative Reason

draft © by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page slightly revised 21 October 2005

The idea of reason in the West and the idea of logical thinking that goes with it have been dominated by a particular model of reason, which I shall call Classical Reason. Although this model has occasionally been criticized by philosophers as inadequate in one respect or another, most philosophers and academics continue to use it and to teach it to undergraduates as if it does not have serious limitations. Partial critiques of it are not difficult to find, but they do not seem to have been effective in dislodging it from its privileged position.

It may now be possible to understand what is at stake here, thanks to empirical research on thinking by second-generation cognitive scientists, in particular cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff, seconded by his occasional co-author, philosopher Mark Johnson. Out of this research has emerged an alternative, more complex theory of human reason, which one might call Imaginative Reason.

The Model of Classical Reason

  • Classical Reason operates with what may be called Classical Categories.
    All (or at least most) things are thought of as belonging to such categories. A (basic) classical category is like a single container without division into subcompartments. A thing is either in the category or not. Aristotelians are accustomed to calling these categories species.
    Once you know what basic category something belongs to, you can use your knowledge of the more general categories (Aristotelian genera) to which that category belongs in order to reach conclusions about the thing that belongs to the basic category. Knowing which categories include which other categories is like knowing what physical containers are nested in what other physical containers. If item X belongs to category A, and A belongs to category B, then X belongs to category B.

    For instance, consider this argument from a conservative natural-law position:

    X is an act of Abortion
    Acts of Abortion are Attacks on Human Life
    Attacks on Human Life are Attacks on a basic Good
    Attacks on Basic Goods are Morally Wrong.
    :. X is morally wrong
    According to this argument, the category Act of Abortion is nested inside the category Attack on Human Life, which is contained in the category Attack on a Basic Good, which is in turn contained in the category Things that are Morally Wrong.

  • Classical reason assumes that concepts (the ideas of the categories) are literal and not metaphorical.
    If we first talk about some things metaphorically, say, we describe the morally admirable person as strong, we are not yet thinking clearly. Our task then is to purify our confused language and reach the strictly literal concepts to which our confused language vaguely points. We must purify ideas of their imaginative and metaphorical approximations and rise to the level of pure, non-metaphorical thought.
  • Classical reason assumes that the concepts we have are not necessarily affected by the fact that we are embodied beings, with particular interests and cognitive limitations as a result of that embodiment.
    Thus emerges the ideal of "pure" reason "untainted" by feelings connected to the body.
  • Classical reason assumes that propositions or statements (normally expressed by declarative sentences as in the argument on abortion given above) are intelligible in isolation from one another.
    On this view, all we have to do is to turn our mental gaze upon the meaning of the concepts (expressed by words or phrases in those statements) and the grammatical rules that link them. If we do this, classical reason assumes, we will be able to grasp the meaning of the statement. The apparent obviousness of simple examples makes this claim plausible (although it may turn out to be wrong).
    The ideal of pure reason is partly motivated by the plausible belief that moral vices such as greed and lust and cowardice are closely connected with our bodily needs and desires.

    Because imagination has historically been associated with the body (it works with images that come in through the senses and appears to be functioning even while we are asleep, i.e., when we are dreaming), imagination has been regarded as deeply problematic from the perspective of the Classical ideal of pure reason.

    Those who celebrate Classical Reason are well aware that human beings often fail to think as Classical Reason says we should, but advocates of Classical Reason regard that as a defect that can and should be avoided with intellectual work, training and self-discipline.

    The perspective of Classical Reason regards imagination chiefly as a capacity for retrieving images stored in memory as copies or traces of sensory experience and rearranging their elements into new combinations. By contrast, the perspective of Imaginative Reason regards imagination chiefly in terms of other mental operations (described to some extent below), the use of radial categories, conceptual metaphors, framing, and the role of narrative (stories) in human thinking, even abstract thinking.

    The Model of Imaginative Reason

    Those who propose that we pay more attention to imaginative reason argue that much of our abstract thinking is necessarily done not with classical categories but what is technically called radial categories. Radial categories are not internally uniform as classical categories are supposed to be. They contain diverse elements, including prototypical and non-prototypical members.

    An often used example of radial category is Mother. The prototype for Mother is the person who is the source of half your genetic material, in whose womb you were generated until you were born, who is married to your father, who took care of you when you were growing up. But there are non-prototypical mothers in the radial category too: surrogate mothers, birth mothers, foster mothers, step-mothers, etc.

    From the perspective of those who emphasize the existence and importance of imaginative reason, we cannot determine the meaning of concepts or propositions all by themselves. Concepts and propositions gain their meaning from the way in which they are placed into a context by an operation known as framing or by the way in which they are included in a more or less complex narrative.

    Lakoff illustrates the operation called framing by discussing the way in which conservative strategists promote reduction of taxes. They talk about "tax relief." That phrase frames taxation as a disease, i.e., places it into a context in which we think of it in the same way we think of disease. Once we start to think of taxation that way, we cannot help but think of it as something from which we want to escape. But tax reduction might also be framed differently, as depriving the government of resources to do its function. To call it "government starvation" would lead us to think of taxes as providing government the tools to protect us from the actions of violent, negligent, greedy, and unscrupulous persons.

    A different framing also calls to mind a different narrative or story. Tax reduction as government starvation calls to mind a story of government as public servants, who try to protect the people against their less than honest members. Tax reduction as tax relief calls to mind the story of government as a parasite sucking the life blood of the citizens.

    Cognitive linguists tell us that reason cannot be totally separated from embodiment. The structures of our brains and our bodies set limits on the set of literal concepts that we can form. (Most literal concepts we form are rooted in primary experience, the sort of experience a child has, directly perceiving, relating to, and interacting with, material objects and persons in a hands on or person-to-person way.) However, these can be used as the basis of creating abstract concepts through the (largely unconscious) use of metaphor. Thus metaphors are unavoidable in abstract conceptual thought.

    Cognitive linguists point out that our concept of Classical Reason itself is rooted in metaphor, among others, the metaphor of a category as a container.

    However, they grant the usefulness, in specific areas and at specific times, of Classical Reason. The latter can help us avoid inconsistencies and invalid inferences, including fallacies that produce harmful conclusions.

    But Classical Reason is not the only (or even the chief) resource against selfish partiality. The fairness and "objectivity" important to reason requires development and use of imagination, in particular the capacity for empathy, which gives us the ability to reframe "data" from a variety of perspectives. This in turn enhances our abilities to understand possibilities and options that might not be obvious to individuals with weak imaginative skills. Imagination is not an enemy of fairness and the "objectivity" associated with it, but a necessary aid in the achievement of objectivity.

    More Reading

    For links to materials on Philosophy, Cognitive Linguistics, the work of Lakoff and Johnson, etc., see Embodied Reason.