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The Material Used By Imagination

What is the material, the mental content, out of which imagination

builds its structures?

IMAGES THE STUFF OF IMAGINATION.--Nothing can enter the imagination the

elements of which have not been in our past experience and then been

conserved in the form of images. The Indians never dreamed of a heaven

whose streets are paved with gold, and in whose center stands a great

white throne. Their experience had g
ven them no knowledge of these

things; and so, perforce, they must build their heaven out of the images

which they had at command, namely, those connected with the chase and

the forest. So their heaven was the happy hunting ground, inhabited by

game and enemies over whom the blessed forever triumphed. Likewise the

valiant soldiers whose deadly arrows and keen-edged swords and

battle-axes won on the bloody field of Hastings, did not picture a

far-off day when the opposing lines should kill each other with mighty

engines hurling death from behind parapets a dozen miles away. Firearms

and the explosive powder were yet unknown, hence there were no images

out of which to build such a picture.

I do not mean that your imagination cannot construct an object which has

never before been in your experience as a whole, for the work of the

imagination is to do precisely this thing. It takes the various images

at its disposal and builds them into wholes which may never have

existed before, and which may exist now only as a creation of the mind.

And yet we have put into this new product not a single element which

was not familiar to us in the form of an image of one kind or another.

It is the form which is new; the material is old. This is

exemplified every time an inventor takes the two fundamental parts of a

machine, the lever and the inclined plane, and puts them together in

relations new to each other and so evolves a machine whose complexity

fairly bewilders us. And with other lines of thinking, as in mechanics,

inventive power consists in being able to see the old in new relations,

and so constantly build new constructions out of old material. It is

this power which gives us the daring and original thinker, the Newton

whose falling apple suggested to him the planets falling toward the sun

in their orbits; the Darwin who out of the thigh bone of an animal was

able to construct in his imagination the whole animal and the

environment in which it must have lived, and so add another page to the

earth's history.

THE TWO FACTORS IN IMAGINATION.--From the simple facts which we have

just been considering, the conclusion is plain that our power of

imagination depends on two factors; namely, (1) the materials available

in the form of usable images capable of recall, and (2) our

constructive ability, or the power to group these images into new

wholes, the process being guided by some purpose or end. Without this

last provision, the products of our imagination are daydreams with their

castles in Spain, which may be pleasing and proper enough on

occasions, but which as an habitual mode of thought are extremely


IMAGINATION LIMITED BY STOCK OF IMAGES.--That the mind is limited in its

imagination by its stock of images may be seen from a simple

illustration: Suppose that you own a building made of brick, but that

you find the old one no longer adequate for your needs, and so purpose

to build a new one; and suppose, further, that you have no material for

your new building except that contained in the old structure. It is

evident that you will be limited in constructing your new building by

the material which was in the old. You may be able to build the new

structure in any one of a multitude of different forms or styles of

architecture, so far as the material at hand will lend itself to that

style of building, and providing, further, that you are able to make

the plans. But you will always be limited finally by the character and

amount of material obtainable from the old structure. So with the mind.

The old building is your past experience, and the separate bricks are

the images out of which you must build your new structure through the

imagination. Here, as before, nothing can enter which was not already on

hand. Nothing goes into the new structure so far as its constructive

material is concerned except images, and there is nowhere to get images

but from the results of our past experience.


imaginative output limited by the amount of material in the way of

images which we have at our command, but also and perhaps not less by

our constructive ability. Many persons might own the old pile of

bricks fully adequate for the new structure, and then fail to get the

new because they were unable to construct it. So, many who have had a

rich and varied experience in many lines are yet unable to muster their

images of these experiences in such a way that new products are

obtainable from them. These have the heavy, draft-horse kind of

intellect which goes plodding on, very possibly doing good service in

its own circumscribed range, but destined after all to service in the

narrow field with its low, drooping horizon. They are never able to take

a dash at a two-minute clip among equally swift competitors, or even

swing at a good round pace along the pleasant highways of an experience

lying beyond the confines of the narrow here and now. These are the

minds which cannot discover relations; which cannot think. Minds of

this type can never be architects of their own fate, or even builders,

but must content themselves to be hod carriers.

THE NEED OF A PURPOSE.--Nor are we to forget that we cannot

intelligently erect our building until we know the purpose for which

it is to be used. No matter how much building material we may have on

hand, nor how skillful an architect we may be, unless our plans are

guided by some definite aim, we shall be likely to end with a structure

that is fanciful and useless. Likewise with our thought structure.

Unless our imagination is guided by some aim or purpose, we are in

danger of drifting into mere daydreams which not only are useless in

furnishing ideals for the guidance of our lives, but often become

positively harmful when grown into a habit. The habit of daydreaming is

hard to break, and, continuing, holds our thought in thrall and makes it

unwilling to deal with the plain, homely things of everyday life. Who

has not had the experience of an hour or a day spent in a fairyland of

dreams, and awakened at the end to find himself rather dissatisfied with

the prosaic round of duties which confronted him! I do not mean to say

that we should never dream; but I know of no more pernicious mental

habit than that of daydreaming carried to excess, for it ends in our

following every will-o'-the-wisp of fancy, and places us at the mercy of

every chance suggestion.