In what ways are imagination and creativity distinct?

We often use “imagination” and “creativity” interchangeably when we argue for the importance of engaging or developing students’ imagination (or creativity; and we may include such capacities as “intuition” and “critical thinking” here as well). But is it good enough to use these concepts more or less the same way to suggest a general idea, or do we need to be more precise by identifying the conceptual core of, say, imagination?”

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21 replies
  1. Kevin Byron
    Kevin Byron says:

    If we agree that Creativity is concerned with original thinking that is characterised by combining two or more ideas, things, people, concepts, processes etc then Creativity is just one capability of the Imagination. There are many other capabilities of the Imagination that don’t fit that definition. for example day-dreaming, fantasizing, visualising, abstracting etc. There’s a big problem with this though in current times because there is a growing tendency to trivialise Creativity so that both originality and combining are ignored. This means for example just taking a photograph of dog doing a back-flip is considered Creative. In my view it isn’t and indeed neither is it a product of the imagination. This trivialisation does however mean that other capabilities of the imagination are now being regarded as Creative. So if I visualise something and then try to draw it on paper, that would now count as Creative. I think this is problematic, and the only way to restore the original meaning of creativity is to develop some means of assessing Creativity with regard to the original definition as a benchmark. This is not difficult, but it is strongly opposed by many people who have an agenda for more creativity in education. The reason they oppose assessment is a weak one that goes: Creativity is associated with freedom from the tyranny of rote learning and command and control in the classroom, assessment is an essential component of that tyranny therefore let’s get rid of them both. Fundamentally it’s an over-politicised liberal view of education. In my view this will be a disaster for education and the ultimate outcome will be that someone will one day get a Nobel Prize for designing a collage of their pet rabbit’s antics!

    • Keiichi
      Keiichi says:

      Thanks Istabraq,

      Just for clarification. Do you think there are active imagination and passive imagination, and only the active imagination would (or may or may not) lead to creativity?

  2. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Kevin for your comment.

    I wonder if a major distinction between imagination and creativity is that the latter is inseparable from the idea of product. It is possible, and some actually do, to argue the same for the idea of imagination, as Robin Barrow does in his criteria of imaginativeness being both “unusual and effective”(“Some Observations on the Concept of Imagination,” in Kieran Egan and Dan Nadaner, Eds. Imagination and Education, Teachers College Press, 1988, p.84), but I think the idea of imagination is relatively free from the ideas of product, originality, etc. Talking about the idea of creativity without some sense of the product (and by extension the idea of evaluation or of originality) seems to dilute its conceptual coherence and significance.

    I do not mean to say that children’s activities or the resulting products cannot be considered creative unless they are absolutely original, i.e. heretofore unknown or unprecedented. I am thinking of Jerome Bruner’s point, “There is no difference in kind between the man at the frontier and the young student at his own frontier, each attempting to understand” (On Knowing, Belknap Press, 1979); here Bruner’s emphasis is not exclusively on the product of children’s activity, but still there is room for some sort of evaluation the quality.

    • Kevin Byron
      Kevin Byron says:

      I agree the imagination is free from originality though the source of creativity must be in the imagination. But do we have any clue what the imagination is? In fact we should be discussing the Default Mode Network because this is an even bigger system of neural connectivity of which the imagination is merely a part.

      • Keiichi
        Keiichi says:


        I think the way to investigate imagination is rather different from the way we engage in investigations in natural sciences.

        Imagination is a capacity of our mind, but it is a capacity that comes to the fore, or takes shape, according to a particular perspective. Depending on the way we look at things, imagination may be considered no more than a part of perception, but it may also be considered as a distinctive capacity that overlaps with, say, perception, but is more than mere perception.

        So, in the case of imagination, what we need to do is to define imagination. The definition may not be a water-tight, analytic style definition, perhaps, but at least we need to identify and clarify what we are looking at. And this, I believe, we can. Of course, we may try to locate the neural foundations of imagination, but that is a different level of inquiry. The clue to what imagination is is, in my view, how people have talked about the nature and significance of imagination in various contexts — a story/history of the idea of imagination.

  3. Simon Rae
    Simon Rae says:

    One way that I think about the difference between Creativity and Imagination is to use the simile that Imagination is to Creativity as Theory is to Practice. Imagination produces nothing physical or tangible, whereas Creativity does.

    Imagination is a brain based activity and Creativity is the reification of the Imagination. But it’s not just a single one-way process from Imagination to Creativity. Creativity, the process of making, can spark the Imagination. The process becomes a feedback loop with both Creativity and the Imagination feeding back and stimulating the other.

    While the Imagination is a solo, personal activity (we haven’t yet reached the AI nirvana of people jacking into each other’s brain!), Creativity, while often a personal activity, can be a collective, communal activity. And the intertwining of Imagination and Creativity can often be a very lengthy process.

    A theatre director may have the Imagination to conceive of a particular staging of a play, but they are dependent on a whole crew of people to realise that vision on the stage … and if it’s a new version of, say Romeo and Juliet, who is to say where the imagination of William Shakespeare sits in the final version of West Side Story?

    Something, a dream of a person say, may start in the imagination and then lead to a creative writing class which produces a book that starts a reader off in imagining that same dream person for themselves albeit in their own terms, which the reader then describes to others in a story-telling session at their book club which causes someone else to go home and paint a picture of the scene. What is the Imagination and Creativity trail here? What layers of Imagination and Creativity are involved here?

    To reiterate: Imagination produces nothing physical or tangible, whereas Creativity does. Imagination needs Creativity to produce the evidence. Creativity needs Imagination to produce novelty. Imagination is personal, whereas Creativity can be a solo act or a communal, collaborative act. Imagination and Creativity feed off each other.

    • Gillian Judson
      Gillian Judson says:

      Thanks for weighing in Simon–I love your example near the end where there is ongoing imagination (solo) contributing to a communal creative experience which then will evoke imagination which then…and so on. Would you say, too, that the imagination piece encompasses (maybe not best word) in the sense of precedes and follows (maybe) the act of creation?

  4. Norman Jackson
    Norman Jackson says:

    Thanks Keiichi Takaya this is a really exciting conversation. I adopted an extreme position to try to make my point and provoke more discussion so thank you for some really interesting perspectives.

    I agree there is no certainty where creativity is concerned. Boundaries are blurred and thought and action are so integrated in real world practice that it is often impossible to separate imagination and action involving creativity. Which is why I think we have great difficulty in explaining and agreeing on what creativity is. I believe it is so embedded and integrated in thinking and practice that it is often impossible to say what is creative and what is not creative and actually separating these things misses the point of what practice actually is.

    It’s a pity we can’t annotate the posts in a different colour.

    KT – The distinction that creativity necessarily involves action whereas imagination only thought seems neat, but I am not sure if this can hold through various uses of these terms, and particularly when we mention the educational significance of creativity or imagination.

    NJ What I meant was that imagination can exist without action not that it is only thought. Of course imagination is often part and parcel of action and I really like the concept of pragmatic imagination in the service of doing.

    KT It may be the case that creativity cannot be separated from process, but I do not think that the concept of creativity makes much sense unless it is tied with the notion product.

    NJ I guess it then comes down to what you mean by product which we usually associate product with an object. I would prefer a word like effect to get away from the idea that creativity always results in a tangible product. Making something happen is a result of actions containing creativity but most people would not see it as a product. Similarly, a fantastic performance by an actor or musician would not necessarily be viewed as a product of intense preparation and rehearsal involving much imagination and creativity of actors and director.

    I like your perspective on imagination as a disposition and orientation – being imaginative – a way of weaving ourselves through the world and the world into us as we interact with it. This is a dynamic notion of imagination entangled with and motivating action. This comes close to the concept of pragmatic imagination I outlined in my earlier post about the way a geologist works.

    KT Granted, for the moment, that creativity cannot be separated from action, can we really be justified to say that imagination can be.

    NJ I gave the examples of how we suddenly become aware of an imaginative idea that is relevant to some problem we are tackling for example when we are in the shower. In the great scheme of an ecological life where everything is connected we can say of course that imaginative idea is connected to our problem but it is not directly connected to the activities and actions we are involved in to tackle that problem. That is what I meant when I said imagination can be detached from action [that is related to tackling a problem].

    KT Assuming that creativity always involves action, the idea of creativity makes little sense unless it involves some notion of criteria to assess the quality of the action or its product. Otherwise, any action or any product, e.g. a piece of writing, painting, photograph, etc., as long as it is done or produced, can be considered creative. That’s why I think creativity has a strong connection with the notion of the quality of the product.

    NJ Yes this is the 1000 dollar question who judges and by what criteria that something is creative? There must be two sorts of evaluation going on – our own and the evaluations of others. The big issue for me is to say that anything is purely ‘creative’. For me, any complex artefact, like the geological map I keep talking about (see our facebook page), is the result of a process that involves, at times, creative thought and action… but there are lots of other things happening in its production that one would not claim to be creative. It’s this entanglement that causes all of us real problems in making judgements about creativity and it’s the primary source of confusion. So we end up using criteria like ‘originality’ because it’s relatively easy to say well that product did not exist before.

    My preferred criteria is ‘transformation’, transforming ideas, materials, circumstances whatever from their original state into something completely different and that would focus attention on process and the decisions and actions that were made to convert something into something else. But I have yet work through the implications of this idea. What I do believe is that the experience of transforming also transforms us in the way that John Dewey talks about ‘undergoing’. This is definitely an important concept for education and it is completely omitted from definitions of creativity that celebrate only product. Which is why my definition of creativity in action is the one developed by Carl Rogers ‘the emergence in action of a novel relational product[effect] growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, or circumstances of their life’ (Rogers 1961: 350). This definition recognises the transformational nature of a process involving creativity.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts which are making me formulate my own understandings.

    Rogers, C.R. (1960) On becoming a person, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


  5. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts. As Gillian wrote, the discussion goes on on the facebook page as well.

    I posted this question because many people seem to use imagination and creativity interchangeably or without any sense of conceptual distinctions. I believe that anyone who writes on imagination or creativity should at least indicate what she or he means by the term; each writer can to some extent make his or her own definition, but the definition cannot be completely arbitrary; the writer must pick up on a particular thread of the historical discussion concerning an aspect or some aspects of the concept (just as Mary Warnock did in her book, Imagination).

    When the historical evolution of these concepts are taken into account, it becomes difficult to make clear-cult distinctions.

    James Engell in The Creative Imagination: from Enlightenment to Romanticism (Harvard University Press, 1981) writes, “Like a coral reef, the idea [of imagination] spread from various centers, then merged to cover a vast area” (p.3), or Brian Sutton-Smith in Egan and Nadaner’s Imagination and Education (Teachers College Press, 1988) writes, “I will suggest that our current view of
    the imagination is a patchwork of historically derived textures.”

    Engell and Sutton-Smith are talking about imagination, and my observation is that the evolution of the concept of imagination is a lot more complicated than that of creativity, but a similar point can be made about creativity. And I also observe in such coral-reef type of development, imagination and creativity have some overlap.

    One of the centers of imagination can be creativity, but this could be the other way around; one of the centers of creativity may be imagination.

  6. Kieran Egan
    Kieran Egan says:

    I’m not sure how much space one can create between these two, given normal usage, and there’s no point trying to legislate distinctions if they are ignored in normal usage. My sense has been that normally people distinguish, when they do, by suggesting that imagination is a psychological matter and creativity is the practical result of imagination acting in the world.

  7. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Kieran,

    From Friedrich Froebel to Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, my observation is that, when they refer to creativity and discuss the importance of releasing children’s (and sometimes adults’) creativity in education, they seem, first, to be meaning something like a psychological matter or perhaps an aspect of human nature (in this case, not much different imagination), and second, to be pointing out what appears to be unnatural or unhealthy state of education, particularly of schooling. So it’s not exactly results, but a potential or a will to develop the potential to fruition that seems to count as creativity. The term creativity in this sense serves rather as a catchword than as an exact concept. But it will be difficult to distinguish creativity from imagination if conceived of this way. The way you (and others on the thread) have put it may be the best we could do if we want to distinguish the two.

  8. Holly Warren
    Holly Warren says:

    I am fascinated by all the responses and would like to possibly express my inspiration grown from the above comments.
    A whole needs parts to function, plants need soil to grow, our body needs nutrients to keep alive. Imagination; the faculty to create images which can be considered a perceptual process needs memories, creativity needs imagination to fire connections and originate a product.
    Working both in the early and primary years as well as with adults I witness the different journeys that imagination and creativity take at different stages of life. Creating was once seen as producing from nothing and has evolved to making something innovative either little or grand. If you are new and open you are in awe of what can come together by investigating the environment as you build layer over layer of notions you either become numb or you can find outlets and new pathways. Daemons and Geniuses were INspiations and are now ASpirations. You are not a genius but you have a genius.
    These are only considerations of an aspiring and emerging artist and teacher that is searching and researching.

  9. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Holly,

    I particularly like the point that you have a genius though you are not a genius (and I like the other points and images as well). Then, a question; do you think the teacher ought to encourage her students to develop their geniuses even when they are not particularly willing to do so, or let them notice when they fail to notice their geniuses? Or, the teacher should step back and wait? In other words, what might the teacher’s role be?

    • Holly Warren
      Holly Warren says:

      Thanks for your questions Keiichi,
      I think.that students should be aware that they “have” a genius and how it is integral to our nature. It happens that we have contoured the word or rather have made different use of it.
      I love the way M. Resnick pictures and describes the teacher as; collaborator, consultant,catalyst, connector and I would add co -producer.
      Sometimes we need to be the eyes others don’t have.

  10. Jim Davies
    Jim Davies says:

    Imagination is creating scenarios in your head. They might or might not be creative. If you imagine your bedroom, and you’re trying to do it realistically, you are not doing a particularly creative act. But it’s still imagination.

    Imagination is important for creativity, but is not necessary. Improvisation, for example, is very creative, but using your imagination too much can interfere with your ability to do it–good improvisation requires rapid reacting to your environment, and using your imagination to image the final product can interfere with the quality of what you’re doing. This is true for theatrical as well as musical improv, where having an “agenda” in mind makes the whole thing worse.

    We can look at rapping for examples. Kanye West never wrote down the lyrics for his first few albums. An incredible act of imagination. Eminem can “Freestyle” and create rhymes on the fly, only using imagination to plan ahead only a line or two. So we can see creative acts with higher or lower levels of imagination in use.

    I discuss this at length in my 2019 book “Imagination.”

    • Keiichi
      Keiichi says:

      Thanks Jim,

      I wonder whether imagination is not sufficient for creativity, rather than it is not necessary, because I think that our thinking is fundamentally imaginative. Creativity works for the good or the bad; there are evil creativity as well as valuable creativity; but is there any creativity without imagination?

      Improvisation is your example of creativity without imagination. I wonder, however, even improvisation can be done without imagination. Your point of telling the difference whether or not a creative act involves imagination, in the case of improvisation, seems to be time; whether it takes a certain length of time or it is done instantly. But I think it is rather a matter of degree and not whether or not; and I find it a bit hard to tell improvisation from the example of Eminem’s free-style rhyme creating, which, though minimum or significantly instantaneous, seems to involve imaginative planning ahead or scripting.

      But that’s my thought and I might be wrong. Thanks for letting us know about your book; I will read it.

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