Philosophical Conversations (January 2020)

“No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us. Only the arts and sciences can do that, and of these, only literature gives us the whole sweep and range of human imagination as it sees itself.”
(Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination, Indiana University Press, 1964, p.101)

For your consideration:

Is the study of literature a particularly good way to cultivate our imagination?  Better than other areas, such as social studies?

Please join the conversation below. (This page provides links to previous topics and discussion.)
6 replies
  1. Dr Tim Waddington
    Dr Tim Waddington says:

    An interesting prompt here. While one in no ways wants to deny the power and importance of literature in transporting us far beyond the here and now, indeed in stimulating the heart and mind to grand questions and feats of imaginative flourish, I must confess a rather significant unease with any claim beginning with “only”, let alone one like the prompt above that doubles down with a second, even more exclusive, “only” as well.

    Whether coming from literature or history, social sciences or their ’harder’ empirical cousins, art or philosophy, or most any other field of human endeavour, the range of human creativity and expression is equal parts impressive and staggering. It is the surrounding culture, writ large, in relation to which we negotiate, understand and more fully come to ourselves.

    As a not terribly scientifically literate individual (a strange sort of qualification for the argument I’m putting forward here), I will confess that the two most imaginatively stimulating books I have read in the past two years were Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and Kuhn’s “The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions”, both of which I sat down to read cover to cover over two successive summer breaks (next year Joyce’s “Ulysseys”) and both of which both bent and then stimulated my mind towards, to me, amazing realizations and fantastic possibilities.

    Literature plays a profound role in the stimulation of human imagination and futurity, no question. The question as to why why Sam so hated Green Eggs and Ham is as instructive now for a happy life as it ever was. However, whether literature is even the ‘best’ of all the disciplines in the promotion of imaginative thought and wonder seems as much a matter of brain chemistry and sheer preference as much as any statement of fact.

    Given the absolute double qualifier of ‘only’ in the original prompt, surely it must be rejected, for “all absolutes are wrong”, … or at least likely to be wrong-minded.

    Submitted with respect and friendship for your continued consideration.

  2. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Tim,

    I would rather take “only” to mean “distinctively,” though I suspect he really meant it when he said “only.”

    But as a person who is rather illiterate in literature, my question as to Frye’s words concerns “the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us.” What is the distinctive dimension that the study of literature can give us in cultivating our imagination? Does reading, say, a literary work on a war produce significant difference in cultivating our imagination from reading newspaper and research articles on the same war?

  3. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Kieran,

    Frye wrote somewhere in his book that imaginative experiences we gain from reading literary works teach us tolerance by enabling us to detach ourselves from our beliefs and actions. He is, then, saying that the imagination educated in literature is transferrable to social and moral imaginations. This seems to resonate with Maxine Greene’s point in the earlier post, that exposure to art, though it needs training in how to see or read works of art, is the best means to educate social and moral imagination. I doubt the “best” part, but if, though this is a big “if” particularly after reading your post, art can teach us something beyond simple appreciation of works of art, do you think exposure to art, including literature, makes us more sensitive to what’s not apparent to, perhaps, what Howard Gardner calls the law professor type of mind, that is, logical and discursive thinking?

  4. Karen M Effa
    Karen M Effa says:

    I also have concerns with considering literature the best subject with which to cultivate imagination, although it is most likely the most common and easy-to-use tool teachers depend on to promote it.
    To personally engage with literature, the majority of readers need to visualize the narrative. Our imagination brings to dynamic life the black and white text, but most people do this without effort or specific intentionality. It is the subconscious reflex of the imagination in this context that causes me to pause regarding this representing it at its most potent potential.
    I think that gaps which need filling, mysteries that need solving, or challenges that need unravelling, regardless of the subject, are significantly more profound ways to engage and develop the imagination, primarily, because of the personal effort involved.

  5. Robin Carter
    Robin Carter says:


    In C.S Lewis’ words:
    “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog. Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality… in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

    What is more, the cultivated imagination can then be put to good use developing hypotheses, models and explanations for the Sciences – which are in dire need of rich and varied imaginative input. In “Beyond Weird”, Philip Ball puts our failure to explain Quantum Theory to our inadequate language and imaginative tools, rather than the inadequacies of our experiments or Mathematics.

  6. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks for the comments. So, literature may not be the all-encompassing medium of cultivating imagination, but still, a curriculum that lacks literature would leave quite a gap.

    This may be happening elsewhere in the world, a prime example of which is in the U.S., but the increasing importance placed on high-stakes exams tends to deprive language arts classes of time for reading literary works and make them spare more on reading pragmatic materials like manuals, legal documents, and newspaper articles under the name of improving students’ reading “skills.” That’s worrying.

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