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Twentieth Century

The transcendentalist view of imagination that came to full flower in the early nineteenth century was seriously questioned by existentialist philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger (1889–1971), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). For them, the humanist values implicit in the Romantic idea of imagination as affirmative and redemptive were no longer tenable in a modern world of violence and inhumanity. Negation and angst replaced the affirmations of humanism. In their wake, postmodernist thinkers like Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) further undermined the Romantic idea of imagination by questioning or denying a valid relationship between image and reality. As Derrida put it, there is no "hors-texte."

For all this, however, there have remained strong and serious countervailing voices—philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Emmanuel Levinas, theorists like Paul Riceour and Walter Ong, critics such as George Steiner and Geoffrey Hartman, who affirm (in Ong's phrase) the "presence of the Word" and the possibilities of transcendence. Most important of all, artists still create in poetry, in paint, in music, in drama, and in film, and there continue to be those who reflect on this creative work and affirm its human value and the unifying power of the imagination that shaped it. Given its long history and its continuing force, the idea of imagination seems likely to endure.


Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Bantly, Francisca Cho. Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in The Dream of the Nine Clouds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Although there is no formal concept of imagination in Buddhism, chapter one articulates helpfully the Buddhist "ontology of illusion."

Barth, J. Robert. The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition. 2nd ed. Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2001.

Bate, Walter Jackson. From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1946.

Bundy, Murray Wright. The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Mediaeval Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1927.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. A clear and useful study of the imagination in Islam.

Engell, James. The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. The definitive study of imagination during the period of its fullest development.

Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1988. A comprehensive survey and analysis of the idea of imagination from the Hebrew scriptures to postmodernism.

Mahony, William K. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A thorough study of imagination in the Hindu tradition.

McFarland, Thomas. Originality and Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. Todorov, Tzvetan.

Theories of the Symbol. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Warnock, Mary. Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wellek, René. Immanuel Kant in England, 1793–1838. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1931.

J. Robert Barth

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityImagination - Biblical Beginnings, Non-western Traditions, Ancient Greece, Medieval And Renaissance Views, The Enlightenment