Imagining Imagination: Some Eighteenth-century Ideas
Kant made the imagination the core notion of aesthetic theory with his argument that the free play between imagination and understanding is the basis of aesthetic pleasure and of the intersubjective validity of judgments of taste. But Kant’s characterization of this “free play” is highly metaphorical, and has to be interpreted in light of both his general theory of cognition and the examples of free play that he develops in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Once we flesh out his metaphors, we can see that he identifies at least four aesthetically significant uses of the imagination, in the experience of form, aesthetically experienced functionality, the creation of archetypes, and the introduction of intellectual content into art. But Kant’s account of the aesthetic possibilities of imagination can be supplemented with Adam Smith’s account of the imaginative relation between medium and message (content) in art and Moses Mendelssohn’s account of aesthetic distance. Putting all these together, we see that the eighteenth century offers us a rich, non-reductive account of the multiple functions of imagination in aesthetic experience that continues to be exemplary.