Monday, August 14, 2006

The imaginative faculty – Best supporting actor.

There is a non-physical element to a person’s activities. We call it personality, soul or Nefesh, Neshamah and Ruach in Hebrew. Rambam in the beginning of his introduction to Avot, the Eight Chapters, discusses the “soul” or “Nefesh”. As opposed to other philosophers, including the Mekubalim who have identified up to five different “souls”, Rambam insists that there is only one “soul” with a variety of functions.

He explains that as a living organism, man is part of the animal kingdom. All other living things have “souls” too with comparable though intrinsically different functions. They however do not have the ability for abstract thought which includes self-awareness, ethics and scientific knowledge which is unique to man. It is an important part of Rambam’s understanding of what makes a human being into what he is and how it relates to his religious self. Rambam divides the functions of the “soul” into five categories:

1. One part of the “soul” controls the digestive system and other automatic bodily functions.
2. Another provides man with the sensory faculties which includes sight, smell and touch.
3. Another part of the “soul” is behind the emotional faculties such as fear, courage, appetite, anger and so on.
4. The imaginative faculty is another part of the “soul”. Rambam has an interesting way of describing that faculty. Imagination is the result of a memory of an experience after it happened. A person combines various experiences in his mind, making the impossible possible. Rambam uses a famous example – a metal ship flying through air.

5. Finally the rational faculty is another part of the “soul”. All the other functions are found in other living things besides man though different and particular to each species. This function though is unique to man and therefore defines what differentiates man from other living things. The rational has the ability to apprehend both concrete things as well as abstract concepts. It can acquire knowledge and also distinguish between right and wrong. (There is much to say about Rambam’s differentiation between knowledge and right and wrong but I want to stay on subject).

Using the concept of form and matter, Rambam explains that the rational faculty is comparable to the form of an object. It is what defines man. All the other faculties are there as a crucible for the rational faculty. A man that has not developed his rational side has wasted his potential as a human being.

The imaginative faculty plays an important role in the development of man’s rational faculty. It helps him visualize concepts. When one arrives at a conclusion about a non-physical concept, it is necessary to visualize it in a familiar form for the human mind to grasp it. The mind is conditioned so, that it has a hard time accepting the unknowable without somehow picturing it. To do that the mind turns to its memories and creates something that fits the parameters developed by the intellect.

The imaginative faculty on its own is the source of idolatry. Ancient man used it to construct the myths that supposedly answered his existential questions. It is only when harnessed by the rational faculty that it becomes a tool for proper understanding of the relationship of man to his Creator.

That is how Moreh 2:36 is to be understood. “Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an overflow overflowing from God, through the medium of the Active Intellect, first to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most Perfect development of the imaginative faculty.” When the rational faculty grasps an idea or concept and uses the imaginative to comprehend it, that fusion of the functions of man’s brain, utilizes man’s potential to its fullest thus perfection. The Active Intellect can be described in our modern parlance as the sum total of all the laws of nature that govern our universe including the information about the sequences of cause and effect that brought it into existence. Prophecy is therefore the understanding by a man of the information about the universe and its provenance. It gives him a glimpse into its workings and allows him to act in harmony with it.

That explains the need for a prophet to predict a natural event to prove the legitimacy of his prophecy. It shows that his understanding is correct and reliable, that the imaginative faculty did not lead him astray. It is similar to a scientist proving a theory as correct by performing an experiment.

This post is just scratching the surface of the concept of prophecy. Much more needs to be said about the two faculties that play a role in it. I will be talking about that more as time allows.


  1. Whats the hebrew term used to describe the "imagintive facculty"?

  2. The problem I have with the Rambam is that his view of the Koach HaMedameh pretty much stilfles the creative instinct in man.

    Imagination only has a role to play once it is completely conquered unconditionally by the intellect. The attitude that comes out of this is one of basic hostility towards the arts, poetry, etc as being a real expression of our humanity.

    The ideal society which functions in this way is to me horrific. Such an attitude also creates an abnormal disconnect from nature - much of our relationship with nature is based on the same life-forces that feed the koach haMedameh.

    The imaginitive force is one which is identified by some kabbalists as intrinsically close to that of pure will. Unfocused or unfettered, it can create incredible levels of destruction and evil, but when channeled properly, it the material that life in all its glory is made of.

    I greatly prefer the kabbalistic model of chochma being a guard or a lens that keeps the imaginative force in check.

  3. >haMedameh

    How would one spell that in Hebrew? Hey - Mem - Dalet - Mem?

  4. כח המדמה

    That is only one term for it כח היצירתי is another.

  5. whoah! A hebrew palindrome longer than 3 letters. Don't see many of those.

    >כח היצירתי

    Thats a good term. Gives much more meaning than the english word "imagination"

    Now to look up MDM

  6. >The problem I have with the Rambam is that his view of the Koach HaMedameh pretty much stilfles the creative instinct in man.

    I disagree and will address it. Just for a start look at 2:37 and 2:45 the first group.

    The complete take over of the Medameh by the sechel is only for Moshe the lawgiver when he gives the law and even him not at other times (Ha'azinu and vezot habracha maybe?). Generally neviim thrived on the medameh as long as it was restrained within limits so that idolatry does not affect it.

  7. Irviner, Medameh probably is the hebrew word closest to an illusion. A mirage is when the imagination presents to the mind an oasis, which exists elsewhere and is known to that person from past experience, to the present situation.

  8. Giving form to things which have no form?

    I would probably distinguish between the concept of Medameh from Imagination, because Imagination is often associated with finding connections where none exist, and creating ideas out of nothingness.

    For example, with the mirage, there is a logical connection between what you see and an oasis. However, if I saw a mirage, and said "That must be a creature that is going to eat me alive after killing me"(contradiction on purpose) that is just pure nonsense and fantasy and has no connection to what is being seen. And I don't think the english term imagination really differantiates those two.

  9. Irviner, One can only imagine something that one can conceive. One can only conceive something one has experienced or the construct of different experiences. For example we know that horses have tails and elephants have long trunks. We can therefore visualize a horse with a long trunk though such an animal does not exist. We cannot however conceive of an entity that does not exist. If it does not exist how can it be an entity? In our experience all entities exist. No matter how nmuch imagination you will not be able to imagine that. However that is a definition of God. Matzuy velo Bimetziut.

    So how do we then visualize God? We imagine Him as something we know, a scientific wizard, a wise old man, a Ba'al tefila wrapped in a Talit. That is the only way we humans can visualize Him but it is pure imagination created by the interaction of our rational faculty which has analyzed His deeds and applied an image using our experience of an entity that could make such a result.

  10. >So how do we then visualize God?

    We don't. Why try? And why do you refer to God as "Him"? I don't like giving God human traits, it just confuses matters

  11. >So how do we then visualize God? We imagine Him as something we know, a scientific wizard, a wise old man, a Ba'al tefila wrapped in a Talit. That is the only way we humans can visualize Him but it is pure imagination created by the interaction of our rational faculty which has analyzed His deeds and applied an image using our experience of an entity that could make such a result.

    Odd, I have never had any such images of G-d since I was 13, at a minimum. Because when I turned 13 I started imagining G-d as what can best be described as what I see behind my head. (hope that made sense) - As an aside, this was based on learning about the Tefilin, and reading something in a meditation book.

    From an art perspective, alien movies and the like, its a common argument that people can not imagine that which they don't experience in some form or another, however that is not entirely true. I do not know how to explain it, but I worked a lot in computer art, and I once had a dream about my favorite colour. When I woke up and went to the computer, and had 1.6 million colors in front of me. I was unable to find the color in my dream.

    Although my color was not anything close to red, I have since then used my own term "Florecent Maroon" to talk about colors that do not exist.

  12. >Irviner, One can only imagine something that one can conceive.

    Bleh side tracked from the point.

    There are two ways of concieving something. One is a way that makes sense, the other way is one which does not.

    My imagination can take the smell of cugel, and maybe remind me of my family or of shabbat. This makes sense, and my imagination is good here. Its giving form to that which is formless.

    However, if I was insane, I could smell cugel, and think about pink elephants palying baseball with giraffes wearing french berets. (Random stuff I just made up) This makes no sense, and this is my imagination not acting good. This is what we would call "crackpot ideas" It is also from the imagination, but can not compare to Hamedema or Coach Yetzirah.

    That is what I was trying to point out, that the word "imagination" is misleading in this case.