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Volume 13, Issue 2: Poetics

Imaginative Succession

Douglas Jones

Though I have heard it too many times, I am still pierced through when I hear Christian parents glibly proclaiming that they donít want their children to hear fairy tales or fiction of any sort. It sounds like a certain death sentence. It sounds like the parent is saying, "Iím really hoping to raise imbeciles and perverts to the glory of God."

A well-exercised imagination is crucial to making moral and rational judgments. Both ethics and logic assume imagination as a starting point. Those who lack a dynamic imagination will never be able to grow into mature wisdom. They will always be stuck in very narrow, self-centered mental grooves, following infantile rules.
In the case of morality, many thinkers have pointed to the fact that moral judgments involve the imaginative act of placing yourself in the other personís place, the act of sympathy. Even the simplest, yet most profound commands—"You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:39) and "love one another as I have loved you" (Jn. 15:12)—require us to imagine one person as another, one situation in terms of another, Christ as us. That involves a profound and imaginative metaphorical transfer. And that has to be learned; the implications are very subtle.
Similarly, when we pray "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Mt. 6:12), we (terrifyingly) invoke one imagined reality and ask it to be applied to us. Interpersonally, we are commanded to imagine and treat others "in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil. 2:3).
Not only love, but faith and hope, too, involve a very creative imagination. Faith, of course, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). More concretely, Abraham "against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations" (Rom. 4:18). This gets explained in terms of Abrahamís imagination: "accounting that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead" (Heb. 11:19).
Now where are we supposed to learn how to project these very intricate patterns and schemes of imagination required in faith, hope, and love? Are we really supposed to believe that we can starve our childrenís imaginations for twenty years and then magically expect them to have any ability at all to imitate Christ or Abraham? Thatís like making a child sit still for his whole childhood so that he can sprint in the Olympics when heís twenty. Rubber legs wonít cut it. And it will be far too late to start. The same goes for imagination.
But itís not only moral judgments that suffer from a defective imagination. Plain reasoning does too. One of the common myths about logic is that it can free us from that "nasty" world of metaphor and imagination. Almost every logic text goes to some pains to explain why metaphor has to be reduced or exiled from logical discourse. Logic canít handle figurative language, so it has to be reduced to the literal. As one classic mathematical logic text explains: "Use of formal languages will allow us to escape from the imprecision and ambiguities of natural languages."1
The irony is, of course, that logic itself grows out of some very basic metaphors that quickly get forgotten. Peruse a logic text sometime in search of the various root metaphors that do so much real grunt work in logic. Take, for example, the popular college-level text by Bergmann, where "argument" is defined in terms of something like a pancake stack: "An argument is a set of sentences one of which (the conclusion) is taken to be supported by the remaining sentences (the premises)."2 But propositions or sentences arenít really bricks or pancakes, but that sort of metaphorical mapping of concrete objects onto abstract logic doesnít end at introductory definitions.
The nature of logical inference itself is regularly defined in terms of a metaphorical path of some sort. Sainsbury and countless others explain that "one way in which premises can give good reason for a conclusion is for the conclusion to follow from the premises."3 But premises canít literally "follow" anything like an elephant or a river does. When Sainsbury starts to explain "following" he continues metaphorically: "The logician wants to say that [arguments] are valid in virtue of their pattern or form, the same in each case."4 And so inference now is thought of in terms of molds of some sort, rarely if ever specified any further. Even deeper, Sainsbury explains that sometimes logicians think of "truth values, truth and falsity, as kinds of objects."5 And we come full circle: the abstract is determined by the concrete.
The most powerful metaphor in logic is that which dictates talk about categories and sets. Categories take on the properties of everyday containers. Like a simple cup, logical categories have interiors, boundaries, and exteriors, so that as Lakoff and Nunez note, "the Classes-Are-Containers metaphor maps the inferential laws . . . onto conceptual classes."6 In short, logic comes from cups.
All of morality and reasoning involve imagination and metaphor. They canít get off the ground without it. And we learn to exercise our imaginations in stories—fiction and fantasy and fairy tales most tellingly. But far deeper than either morality or logic is the importance of a sense of play for all of life. It is a joy and fascination with creation and life that imagination fosters most of all. That drives everything else, including the parental part of what our children turn out to be.

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