Essay on the Creative Imagination
by Th. Ribot
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Transcriber's Note: Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the bottom of this document. The children's letters on page 108 have been reproduced in this text as diagrams.










Arthur Allin, Ph. D.,





The name of Th. Ribot has been for many years well known in America, and his works have gained wide popularity. The present translation of one of his more recent works is an attempt to render available in English what has been received as a classic exposition of a subject that is often discussed, but rarely with any attempt to understand its true nature.

It is quite generally recognized that psychology has remained in the semi-mythological, semi-scholastic period longer than most attempts at scientific formulization. For a long time it has been the "spook science" per se, and the imagination, now analyzed by M. Ribot in such a masterly manner, has been one of the most persistent, apparently real, though very indefinite, of psychological spooks. Whereas people have been accustomed to speak of the imagination as an entity sui generis, as a lofty something found only in long-haired, wild-eyed "geniuses," constituting indeed the center of a cult, our author, Prometheus-like, has brought it down from the heavens, and has clearly shown that imagination is a function of mind common to all men in some degree, and that it is shown in as highly developed form in commercial leaders and practical inventors as in the most bizarre of romantic idealists. The only difference is that the manifestation is not the same.

That this view is not entirely original with M. Ribot is not to his discredit—indeed, he does not claim any originality. We find the view clearly expressed elsewhere, certainly as early as Aristotle, that the greatest artist is he who actually embodies his vision and will in permanent form, preferably in social institutions. This idea is so clearly enunciated in the present monograph, which the author modestly styles an essay, that when the end of the book is reached but little remains of the great imagination-ghost, save the one great mystery underlying all facts of mind.

That the present rendering falls far below the lucid French of the original, the translator is well aware; he trusts, however, that the indulgent reader will take into account the good intent as offsetting in part, at least, the numerous shortcomings of this version.

I wish here to express my obligation to those friends who encouraged me in the congenial task of translation.

A. H. N. B.


Contemporary psychology has studied the purely reproductive imagination with great eagerness and success. The works on the different image-groups—visual, auditory, tactile, motor—are known to everyone, and form a collection of inquiries solidly based on subjective and objective observation, on pathological facts and laboratory experiments. The study of the creative or constructive imagination, on the other hand, has been almost entirely neglected. It would be easy to show that the best, most complete, and most recent treatises on psychology devote to it scarcely a page or two; often, indeed, do not even mention it. A few articles, a few brief, scarce monographs, make up the sum of the past twenty-five years' work on the subject. The subject does not, however, at all deserve this indifferent or contemptuous attitude. Its importance is unquestionable, and even though the study of the creative imagination has hitherto remained almost inaccessible to experimentation strictly so-called, there are yet other objective processes that permit of our approaching it with some likelihood of success, and of continuing the work of former psychologists, but with methods better adapted to the requirements of contemporary thought.

The present work is offered to the reader as an essay or first attempt only. It is not our intention here to undertake a complete monograph that would require a thick volume, but only to seek the underlying conditions of the creative imagination, showing that it has its beginning and principal source in the natural tendency of images to become objectified (or, more simply, in the motor elements inherent in the image), and then following it in its development under its manifold forms, whatever they may be. For I cannot but maintain that, at present, the psychology of the imagination is concerned almost wholly with its part in esthetic creation and in the sciences. We scarcely get beyond that; its other manifestations have been occasionally mentioned—never investigated. Yet invention in the fine arts and in the sciences is only a special case, and possibly not the principal one. We hope to show that in practical life, in mechanical, military, industrial, and commercial inventions, in religious, social, and political institutions, the human mind has expended and made permanent as much imagination as in all other fields.

The constructive imagination is a faculty that in the course of ages has undergone a reduction—or at least, some profound changes. So, for reasons indicated later on, the mythic activity has been taken in this work as the central point of our topic, as the primitive and typical form out of which the greater number of the others have arisen. The creative power is there shown entirely unconfined, freed from all hindrance, careless of the possible and the impossible; in a pure state, unadulterated by the opposing influence of imitation, of ratiocination, of the knowledge of natural laws and their uniformity.

In the first or analytical part, we shall try to resolve the constructive imagination into its constitutive factors, and study each of them singly.

The second or genetic part will follow the imagination in its development as a whole from the dimmest to the most complex forms.

Finally, the third or concrete part, will be no longer devoted to the imagination, but to imaginative beings, to the principal types of imagination that observation shows us.

May, 1900.



Translator's Preface v

Author's Preface vii



Transition from the reproductive to the creative imagination.—Do all representations contain motor elements?—Unusual effects produced by images: vesication, stigmata; their conditions; their meaning for our subject.—The imagination is, on the intellectual side, equivalent to will. Proof: Identity of development; subjective, personal character of both; teleologic character; analogy between the abortive forms of the imagination and abulias. 3





Dissociation, preparatory work.—Dissociation in complete, incomplete and schematic images.—Dissociation in series. Its principal causes: internal or subjective, external or objective.—Association: its role reduced to a single question, the formation of new combinations.—The principal intellectual factor is thinking by analogy. Why it is an almost inexhaustible source of creation. Its mechanism. Its processes reducible to two, viz.: personification, transformation. 15



The great importance of this element.—All forms of the creative imagination imply affective elements. Proofs: All affective conditions may influence the imagination. Proofs: Association of ideas on an emotional basis; new combinations under ordinary and extraordinary forms.—Association by contrast.—The motor element in tendencies.—There is no creative instinct; invention has not a source, but sources, and always arises from a need.—The work of the imagination reduced to two great classes, themselves reducible to special needs.—Reasons for the prejudice in favor of a creative instinct. 31



Various views of the "inspired state." Its essential characteristics; suddenness, impersonality.—Its relations to unconscious activity.—Resemblances to hypermnesia, the initial state of alcoholic intoxication and somnambulism on waking.—Disagreements concerning the ultimate nature of unconsciousness: two hypotheses.—The "inspired state" is not a cause, but an index.—Associations in unconscious form.—Mediate or latent association: recent experiments and discussions on this subject.—"Constellation" the result of a summation of predominant tendencies. Its mechanism. 50



Anatomical conditions: various hypotheses. Obscurity of the question. Flechsig's theory.—Physiological conditions: are they cause, effect, or accompaniment? Chief factor: change in cerebral and local circulation.—Attempts at experimentation.—The oddities of inventors brought under two heads: the explicable and inexplicable. They are helpers of inspiration.—Is there any analogy between physical and psychic creation? A philosophical hypothesis on the subject.—Limitation of the question. Impossibility of an exact answer. 65



Importance of the unifying principle. It is a fixed idea or a fixed emotion.—Their equivalence.—Distinction between the synthetic principle and the ideal, which is the principle of unity in motion: the ideal is a construction in images, merely outlined.—The principal forms of the unifying principles: unstable, organic or middle, extreme or semi-morbid.—Obsession of the inventor and the sick: insufficiency of a purely psychological criterion. 79





Difficulties of the subject.—The degree of imagination in animals.—Does creative synthesis exist in them? Affirmation and denials.—The special form of animal imagination is motor, and shows itself through play: its numerous varieties.—Why the animal imagination must be above all motor: lack of intellectual development.—Comparison with young children, in whom the motor system predominates: the roles of movements in infantile insanity. 93



Division of its development into four principal periods.—Transition from passive to creative imagination: perception and illusion.—Animating everything: analysis of the elements constituting this moment: the role of belief.—Creation in play: period of imitation, attempts at invention.—Fanciful invention. 103



The golden age of the creative imagination.—Myths: hypotheses as to the origin: the myth is the psycho-physical objectification of man in the phenomena that he perceives. The role of imagination.—How myths are formed. The moment of creation: two operations—animating everything, qualifying everything. Romantic invention lacking in peoples without imagination. The role of analogy and of association through "constellation."—The evolution of myths: ascension, acme, decline.—The explanatory myths undergo a radical transformation: the work of depersonification of the myth. Survivals.—The non-explanatory myths suffer a partial transformation: Literature is a fallen and rationalized mythology.—Popular imagination and legends: the legend is to the myth what illusion is to hallucination.—Unconscious processes that the imagination employs in order to create legends: fusion, idealization. 118



Is a psychology of great inventors possible? Pathological and physiological theories of genius.—General characters of great inventors. Precocity: chronological order of the development of the creative power. Psychological reasons for this order. Why the creator commences by imitating.—Necessity or fatalism of vocation.—The representative character of great creators. Discussion as to the origin of this character—is it in the individual or in the environment?—Mechanism of creation. Two principal processes—complete, abridged. Their three phases; their resemblances and differences.—The role of chance in invention: it supposes the meeting of two factors—one internal, the other external.—Chance is an occasion for, not an agent of, creation. 140



Is the creative imagination, in its evolution, subject to any law?—It passes through two stages separated by a critical phase.—Period of autonomy; critical period; period of definite constitution. Two cases: decay or transformation through logical form, through deviation.—Subsidiary law of increasing complexity.—Historical verification. 167




The need of a concrete study.—The varieties of the creative imagination, analogous to the varieties of character. 179



It makes use of clear images, well determined in space, and of associations of objective relations.—Its external character.—Inferiority of the affective element.—Its principal manifestations: in the arts dealing with form; in poetry (transformation of sonorous into visual images); in myths with clear outline; in mechanical invention.—The dry and rational imagination its elements. 184



It makes use of vague images linked according to the least rigorous modes of association. Emotional abstractions; their nature.—Its characteristic of inwardness.—Its principal manifestations: revery, the romantic spirit, the chimerical spirit; myths and religious conceptions, literature and the fine arts (the symbolists), the class of the marvelous and fantastic.—Varieties of the diffluent imagination: first, numerical imagination; its nature; two principal forms, cosmogonic and scientific conceptions; second, musical imagination, the type of the affective imagination. Its characteristics; it does not develop save after an interval of time.—Natural transposition of events in musicians.—Antagonism between true musical imagination and plastic imagination. Inquiry and facts on the subject.—Two great types of imagination. 195



Its elements; its special characteristics.—Thinking symbolically.—Nature of this symbolism.—The mystic changes concrete images into symbolic images.—Their obscurity; whence it arises.—Extraordinary abuse of analogy.—Mystic labor on letters, numbers, etc.—Nature and extent of the belief accompanying this form of imagination: it is unconditional and permanent.—The mystic conception of the world a general symbolism.—Mystic imagination in religion and in metaphysics. 221



It is distinguishable into genera and species.—The need for monographs that have not yet appeared.—The imagination in growing sciences—belief is at its maximum; in the organized sciences—the negative role of method.—The conjectural phase; proof of its importance.—Abortive and dethroned hypotheses.—The imagination in the processes of verification.—The metaphysician's imagination arises from the same need as the scientist's.—Metaphysics is a rationalized myth.—Three moments.—Imaginative and rationalist. 236



Indetermination of this imaginative form.—Inferior forms: the industrious, the unstable, the eccentric. Why people of lively imagination are changeable.—Superstitious beliefs. Origin of this form of imagination—its mental mechanism and its elements.—The higher form—mechanical imagination.—Man has expended at least as much imagination there as in esthetic creation.—Why the contrary view prevails.—Resemblances between these two forms of imagination.—Identity of development. Detail observation—four phases.—General characters. This form, at its best, supposes inspiration; periods of preparation, of maturity, and of decline.—Special characters: invention occurs in layers. Principal steps of its development.—It depends strictly on physical conditions.—A phase of pure imagination—mechanical romances. Examples.—Identical nature of the imagination of the mechanic and that of the artist. 256



Its internal and external conditions.—Two classes of creators—the cautious, the daring.—The initial moment of invention.—The importance of the intuitive mind.—Hypotheses in regard to its psychologic nature.—Its development: the creation of increasingly more simple processes of substitution.—Characters in common with the forms of creation already studied.—Characters peculiar to it—the combining imagination of the tactician; it is a form of war.—Creative intoxication.—Exclusive use of schematic representations.—Remarks on the various types of images.—The creators of great financial systems.—Brief remarks on the military imagination. 281



Successive appearances of ideal conceptions.—Creators in ethics and in the social realm.—Chimerical forms. Social novelists.—Ch. Fourrier, type of the great imaginer.—Practical invention—the collective ideal.—Imaginative regression. 299


I. The foundations of the creative imagination.

Why man is able to create: two principal conditions.—"Creative spontaneity," which resolves itself into needs, tendencies, desires.—Every imaginative creation has a motor origin.—The spontaneous revival of images.—The creative imagination reduced to three forms: outlined, fixed, objectified. Their peculiar characteristics. 313

II. The imaginative type.

A view of the imaginative life in all its stages.—Reduction to a psychologic law.—Four stages characterized: 1, by the quantity of images; 2, by their quantity and intensity; 3, by quantity, intensity and duration; 4, by the complete and permanent systematization of the imaginary life.—Summary. 320



A. The various forms of inspiration. 335

B. On the nature of the unconscious factor. Two categories—static unconscious, dynamic unconscious.—Theories as to the nature of the unconscious.—Objections, criticisms. 338

C. Cosmic and human imagination. 346

D. Evidence in regard to musical imagination. 350

E. The imaginative type and association of ideas. 353





It has been often repeated that one of the principal conquests of contemporary psychology is the fact that it has firmly established the place and importance of movements; that it has especially through observation and experiment shown the representation of a movement to be a movement begun, a movement in the nascent state. Yet those who have most strenuously insisted on this proposition have hardly gone beyond the realm of the passive imagination; they have clung to facts of pure reproduction. My aim is to extend their formula, and to show that it explains, in large measure at least, the origin of the creative imagination.

Let us follow step by step the passage from reproduction pure and simple to the creative stage, showing therein the persistence and preponderance of the motor element in proportion as we rise from mere repetition to invention.

First of all, do all representations include motor elements? Yes, I say, because every perception presupposes movements to some extent, and representations are the remnants of past perceptions. Certain it is that, without our examining the question in detail, this statement holds good for the great majority of cases. So far as visual and tactile images are concerned there is no possible doubt as to the importance of the motor elements that enter into their composition. The eye is very poorly endowed with movements for its office as a higher sense-organ; but if we take into account its intimate connection with the vocal organs, so rich in capacity for motor combinations, we note a kind of compensation. Smell and taste, secondary in human psychology, rise to a very high rank indeed among many animals, and the olfactory apparatus thus obtains with them a complexity of movements proportionate to its importance, and one that at times approaches that of sight. There yet remains the group of internal sensations that might cause discussion. Setting aside the fact that the vague impressions bound up with chemical changes within the tissues are scarcely factors in representation, we find that the sensations resulting from changes in respiration, circulation, and digestion are not lacking in motor elements. The mere fact that, in some persons, vomiting, hiccoughs, micturition, etc., can be caused by perceptions of sight or of hearing proves that representations of this character have a tendency to become translated into acts.

Without emphasizing the matter we may, then, say that this thesis rests on a weighty mass of facts; that the motor element of the image tends to cause it to lose its purely "inner" character, to objectify it, to externalize it, to project it outside of ourselves.

It should, however, be noted that what has just been said does not take us beyond the reproductive imagination—beyond memory. All these revived images are repetitions; but the creative imagination requires something new—this is its peculiar and essential mark. In order to grasp the transition from reproduction to production, from repetition to creation, it is necessary to consider other, more rare, and more extraordinary facts, found only among some favored beings. These facts, known for a long time, surrounded with some mystery, and attributed in a vague manner "to the power of the imagination," have been studied in our own day with much more system and exactness. For our purpose we need to recall only a few of them.

Many instances have been reported of tingling or of pains that may appear in different parts of the body solely through the effect of the imagination. Certain people can increase or inhibit the beating of their hearts at will, i.e., by means of an intense and persistent representation. The renowned physiologist, E. F. Weber, possessed this power, and has described the mechanism of the phenomenon. Still more remarkable are the cases of vesication produced in hypnotized subjects by means of suggestion. Finally, let us recall the persistent story of the stigmatized individuals, who, from the thirteenth century down to our own day, have been quite numerous and present some interesting varieties—some having only the mark of the crucifix, others of the scourging, or of the crown of thorns.[1] Let us add the profound changes of the organism, results of the suggestive therapeutics of contemporaries; the wonderful effects of the "faith cure," i.e., the miracles of all religions in all times and in all places; and this brief list will suffice to recall certain creative activities of the human imagination that we have a tendency to forget.

It is proper to add that the image acts not altogether in a positive manner. Sometimes it has an inhibitory power. A vivid representation of a movement arrested is the beginning of the stoppage of that movement; it may even end in complete arrest of the movement. Such are the cases of "paralysis by ideas" first described by Reynolds, and later by Charcot and his school under the name of "psychic paralysis." The patient's inward conviction that he cannot move a limb renders him powerless for any movement, and he recovers his motor power only when the morbid representation has disappeared.

These and similar facts suggest a few remarks.

First, that we have here creation in the strict sense of the word, though it be limited to the organism. What appears is new. Though one may strictly maintain that from our own experience we have a knowledge of formication, rapid and slow beating of the heart, even though we may not be able ordinarily to produce them at will, this position is absolutely untenable when we consider cases of vesication, stigmata, and other alleged miraculous phenomena: these are without precedent in the life of the individual.

Second, in order that these unusual states may occur, there are required additional elements in the producing mechanism. At bottom this mechanism is very obscure. To invoke "the power of the imagination" is merely to substitute a word where an explanation is needed. Fortunately, we do not need to penetrate into the inmost part of this mystery. It is enough for us to make sure of the facts, to prove that they have a representation as the starting point, and to show that the representation by itself is not enough. What more then is needed? Let us note first of all that these occurrences are rare. It is not within the power of everybody to acquire stigmata or to become cured of a paralysis pronounced incurable. This happens only to those having an ardent faith, a strong desire that it shall come to pass. This is an indispensable psychic condition. What is concerned in such a case is not a single state, but a double one: an image followed by a particular emotional state (desire, aversion, etc.). In other words, there are two conditions: In the first are concerned the motor elements included in the image, the remains of previous perceptions; in the second, there are concerned the foregoing, plus affective states, tendencies that sum up the individual's energy. It is the latter fact that explains their power.

To conclude: This group of facts shows us the existence, beyond images, of another factor, instinctive or emotional in form, which we shall have to study later and which will lead us to the ultimate source of the creative imagination.

I fear that the distance between the facts here given and the creative imagination proper will seem to the reader very great indeed. And why so? First, because the creative activity here has as its only material the organism, and is not separated from the creator. Then, too, because these facts are extremely simple, and the creative imagination, in the ordinary sense, is extremely complex; here there is one operating cause, a single representation more or less complex, while in imaginative creation we have several co-operating images with combinations, coordination, arrangement, grouping. But it must not be forgotten that our present aim is simply to find a transition stage[2] between reproduction and production; to show the common origin of the two forms of imagination—the purely representative faculty and the faculty of creating by means of the intermediation of images;—and to show at the same time the work of separation, of severance between the two.


Since the chief aim of this study is to prove that the basis of invention must be sought in motor manifestations, I shall not hesitate to dwell on it, and I take the subject up again under another, clearer, more precise, and more psychological form, in putting the following question: Which one among the various modes of mind-activity offers the closest analogy to the creative imagination? I unhesitatingly answer, voluntary activity: Imagination, in the intellectual order, is the equivalent of will in the realm of movements. Let us justify this comparison by some proof.

1. Likeness of development in the two instances. Growth of voluntary control is progressive, slow, crossed and checked. The individual has to become master of his muscles and by their agency extend his sway over other things. Reflexes, instinctive movements, and movements expressive of emotion constitute the primary material of voluntary movements. The will has no movements of its own as an inheritance: it must coordinate and associate, since it separates in order to form new associations. It reigns by right of conquest, not by right of birth. In like manner, the creative imagination does not rise completely armed. Its raw materials are images, which here correspond to muscular movements. It goes through a period of trial. It always is, at the start (for reasons indicated later on), an imitation; it attains its complex forms only through a process of growth.

2. But this first comparison does not go to the bottom of the matter; there are yet deeper analogies. First, the completely subjective character of both instances. The imagination is subjective, personal, anthropocentric; its movement is from within outwards toward an objectification. The understanding, i.e., the intellect in the restricted sense, has opposite characteristics—it is objective, impersonal, receives from outside. For the creative imagination the inner world is the regulator; there is a preponderance of the inner over the outer. For the understanding, the outside world is the regulator; there is a preponderance of the outer over the inner. The world of my imagination is my world as opposed to the world of my understanding, which is the world of all my fellow creatures. On the other hand, as regards the will, we might repeat exactly, word for word, what we have just said of the imagination. This is unnecessary. Back of both, then, we have our true cause, whatever may be our opinion concerning the ultimate nature of causation and of will.

3. Both imagination and will have a teleological character, and act only with a view toward an end, being thus the opposite of the understanding, which, as such, limits itself to proof. We are always wanting something, be it worthless or important. We are always inventing for an end—whether in the case of a Napoleon imagining a plan of campaign, or a cook making up a new dish. In both instances there is now a simple end attained by immediate means, now a complex and distant goal presupposing subordinate ends which are means in relation to the final end. In both cases there is a vis a tergo designated by the vague term "spontaneity," which we shall attempt to make clear later, and a vis a fronte, an attracting movement.

4. Added to this analogy as regards their nature, there are other, secondary likenesses between the abortive forms of the creative imagination and the impotent forms of the will. In its normal and complete form will culminates in an act; but with wavering characters and sufferers from abulia deliberation never ends, or the resolution remains inert, incapable of realization, of asserting itself in practice. The creative imagination also, in its complete form, has a tendency to become objectified, to assert itself in a work that shall exist not only for the creator but for everybody. On the contrary, with dreamers pure and simple, the imagination remains a vaguely sketched inner affair; it is not embodied in any esthetic or practical invention. Revery is the equivalent of weak desires; dreamers are the abulics of the creative imagination.

It is unnecessary to add that the similarity established here between the will and the imagination is only partial and has as its aim only to bring to light the role of the motor elements. Surely no one will confuse two aspects of our psychic life that are so distinct, and it would be foolish to delay in order to enumerate the differences. The characteristic of novelty should by itself suffice, since it is the special and indispensable mark of invention, and for volition is only accessory: The extraction of a tooth requires of the patient as much effort the second time as the first, although it is no longer a novelty.

After these preliminary remarks we must go on to the analysis of the creative imagination, in order to understand its nature in so far as that is accessible with our existing means. It is, indeed, a tertiary formation in mental life, if we assume a primary layer (sensations and simple emotions), and a secondary (images and their associations, certain elementary logical operations, etc.). Being composite, it may be decomposed into its constituent elements, which we shall study under these three headings, viz., the intellectual factor, the affective or emotional factor, and the unconscious factor. But that is not enough; the analysis should be completed by a synthesis. All imaginative creation, great or small, is organic, requires a unifying principle: there is then also a synthetic factor, which it will be necessary to determine.


[1] A. Maury, in his book L'Astronomie et la Magie, enumerates fifty cases.

[2] There are still others, as we shall see later on.






Considered under its intellectual aspect, that is, in so far as it borrows its elements from the understanding, the imagination presupposes two fundamental operations—the one, negative and preparatory, dissociation; the other, positive and constitutive, association.

Dissociation is the "abstraction" of the older psychologists, who well understood its importance for the subject with which we are now concerned. Nevertheless, the term "dissociation" seems to me preferable, because it is more comprehensive. It designates a genus of which the other is a species. It is a spontaneous operation and of a more radical nature than the other. Abstraction, strictly so-called, acts only on isolated states of consciousness; dissociation acts, further, on series of states of consciousness, which it sorts out, breaks up, dissolves, and through this preparatory work makes suitable for entering into new combinations.

Perception is a synthetic process, but dissociation (or abstraction) is already present in embryo in perception, just because the latter is a complex state. Everyone perceives after an individual fashion, according to his constitution and the impression of the moment. A painter, a sportsman, a dealer, and an uninterested spectator do not see a given horse in the same manner: the qualities that interest one are unnoticed by another.[3]

The image being a simplification of sensory data, and its nature dependent on that of previous perceptions, it is inevitable that the work of dissociation should go on in it. But this is far too mild a statement. Observation and experiment show us that in the majority of cases the process grows wonderfully. In order to follow the progressive development of this dissolution, we may roughly differentiate images into three categories—complete, incomplete, and schematic—and study them in order.

The group of images here termed complete comprises first, objects repeatedly presented in daily experience—my wife's face, my inkstand, the sound of a church bell or of a neighboring clock, etc. In this class are also included the images of things that we have perceived but a few times, but which, for additional reasons, have remained clean-cut in our memory. Are these images complete, in the strict sense of the word? They cannot be; and the contrary belief is a delusion of consciousness that, however, disappears when one confronts it with the reality. The mental image can contain all the qualities of an object in even less degree than the perception; the image is the result of selection, varying with every case. The painter Fromentin, who was proud that he found after two or three years "an exact recollection" of things he had barely noticed on a journey, makes elsewhere, however, the following confession: "My memory of things, although very faithful, has never the certainty admissible as documentary evidence. The weaker it grows, the more is it changed in becoming the property of my memory and the more valuable is it for the work that I intend for it. In proportion as the exact form becomes altered, another form, partly real, partly imaginary, which I believe preferable, takes its place." Note that the person speaking thus is a painter endowed with an unusual visual memory; but recent investigations have shown that among men generally the so-called complete and exact images undergo change and warping. One sees the truth of this statement when, after a lapse of some time, one is placed in the presence of the original object, so that comparison between the real object and its image becomes possible.[4] Let us note that in this group the image always corresponds to certain individual objects; it is not the same with the other two groups.

The group of incomplete images, according to the testimony of consciousness itself, comes from two distinct sources—first, from perceptions insufficiently or ill-fixed; and again, from impressions of like objects which, when too often repeated, end by becoming confused. The latter case has been well described by Taine. A man, says he, who, having gone through an avenue of poplars wants to picture a poplar; or, having looked into a poultry-yard, wishes to call up a picture of a hen, experiences a difficulty—his different memories rise up. The experiment becomes a cause of effacement; the images canceling one another decline to a state of imperceptible tendencies which their likeness and unlikeness prevent from predominating. Images become blunted by their collision just as do bodies by friction.[5]

This group leads us to that of schematic images, or those entirely without mark—the indefinite image of a rosebush, of a pin, of a cigarette, etc. This is the greatest degree of impoverishment; the image, deprived little by little of its own characteristics, is nothing more than a shadow. It has become that transitional form between image and pure concept that we now term "generic image," or one that at least resembles the latter.

The image, then, is subject to an unending process of change, of suppression and addition, of dissociation and corrosion. This means that it is not a dead thing; it is not at all like a photographic plate with which one may reproduce copies indefinitely. Being dependent on the state of the brain, the image undergoes change like all living substance,—it is subject to gains and losses, especially losses. But each of the foregoing three classes has its use for the inventor. They serve as material for different kinds of imagination—in their concrete form, for the mechanic and the artist; in their schematic form, for the scientist and for others.

Thus far we have seen only a part of the work of dissociation and, taking it all in all, the smallest part. We have, seemingly, considered images as isolated facts, as psychic atoms; but that is a purely theoretic position. Images are not solitary in actual life; they form part of a chain, or rather of a woof or net, since, by reason of their manifold relations they may radiate in all directions, through all the senses. Dissociation, then, works also upon series, cuts them up, mangles them, breaks them, and reduces them to ruins.

The ideal law of the recurrence of images is that known since Hamilton's time under the name of "law of redintegration,"[6] which consists in the passing from a part to the whole, each element tending to reproduce the complete state, each member of a series the whole of that series. If this law existed alone, invention would be forever forbidden to us; we could not emerge from repetition; we should be condemned to monotony. But there is an opposite power that frees us—it is dissociation.

It is very strange that, while psychologists have for so long a time studied the laws of association, no one has investigated whether the inverse process, dissociation, also has not laws of its own. We can not here attempt such a task, which would be outside of our province; it will suffice to indicate in passing two general conditions determining the association of series.

First, there are the internal or subjective causes. The revived image of a face, a monument, a landscape, an occurrence, is, most often, only partial. It depends on various conditions that revive the essential part and drop the minor details, and this "essential" which survives dissociation depends on subjective causes, the principal ones of which are at first practical, utilitarian reasons. It is the tendency already mentioned to ignore what is of no value, to exclude that from consciousness. Helmholtz has shown that in the act of seeing, various details remain unnoticed because they are immaterial in the concerns of life; and there are many other like instances. Then, too, emotional reasons governing the attention orientate it exclusively in one direction—these will be studied in the course of this work. Lastly, there are logical or intellectual reasons, if we understand by this term the law of mental inertia or the law of least resistance by means of which the mind tends toward the simplification and lightening of its labor.

Secondly, there are external or objective causes which are variations in experience. When two or more qualities or events are given as constantly associated in experience we do not dissociate them. The uniformity of nature's laws is the great opponent of dissociation. Many truths (for example, the existence of the antipodes) are established with difficulty, because it is necessary to break up closely knit associations. The oriental king whom Sully mentions, who had never seen ice, refused to credit the existence of solid water. A total impression, the elements of which had never been given us separately in experience, would be unanalyzable. If all cold objects were moist, and all moist objects cold; if all liquids were transparent and all non-liquids opaque, we should find it difficult to distinguish cold from moisture and liquidity from transparency. On his part, James adds further that what has been associated sometimes with one thing and sometimes with another tends to become dissociated from both. This might be called a law of association by concomitant variations.[7]

In order to thoroughly comprehend the absolute necessity for dissociation, let us note that total redintegration is per se a hindrance to creation. Examples are given of people who can easily remember twenty or thirty pages of a book, but if they want a particular passage they are unable to pick it out—they must begin at the beginning and continue down to the required place. Excessive ease of retention thus becomes a serious inconvenience. Besides these rare cases, we know that ignorant people, those intellectually limited, give the same invariable story of every occurrence, in which all the parts—the important and the accessory, the useful and the useless—are on a dead level. They omit no detail, they cannot select. Minds of this kind are inapt at invention. In short, we may say that there are two kinds of memory: one is completely systematized, e.g., habits, routine, poetry or prose learned by heart, faultless musical rendering, etc. The acquisition forms a compact whole and cannot enter into new combinations. The other is not systematized; it is composed of small, more or less coherent groups. This kind of memory is plastic and capable of becoming combined in new ways.

We have enumerated the spontaneous, natural causes of association, omitting the voluntary and artificial causes, which are but their imitations. As a result of these various causes, images are taken to pieces, shattered, broken up, but made all the readier as materials for the inventor. This is a process analogous to that which, in geologic time, produces new strata through the wearing away of old rocks.


Association is one of the big questions of psychology; but as it does not especially concern our subject, it will be discussed in strict proportion to its use here. Nothing is easier than limiting ourselves. Our task is reducible to a very clear and very brief question: What are the forms of association that give rise to new combinations and under what influences do they arise? All other forms of association, those that are only repetitions, should be eliminated. Consequently, this subject can not be treated in one single effort; it must be studied, in turn, in its relations to our three factors—intellectual, emotional, unconscious.

It is generally admitted that the expression "association of ideas" is faulty.[8] It is not comprehensive enough, association being active also in psychic states other than ideas. It seems indicative rather of mere juxtaposition, whereas associated states modify one another by the very fact of their being connected. But, as it has been confirmed by long usage, it would be difficult to eliminate the phrase.

On the other hand, psychologists are not at all agreed as regards the determination of the principal laws or forms of association. Without taking sides in the debate, I adopt the most generally accepted classification, the one most suitable for our subject—the one that reduces everything to the two fundamental laws of contiguity and resemblance. In recent years various attempts have been made to reduce these two laws to one, some reducing resemblance to contiguity; others, contiguity to resemblance. Putting aside the ground of this discussion, which seems to me very useless, and which perhaps is due to excessive zeal for unity, we must nevertheless recognize that this discussion is not without interest for the study of the creative imagination, because it has well shown that each of the two fundamental laws has a characteristic mechanism.

Association by contiguity (or continuity), which Wundt calls external, is simple and homogeneous. It reproduces the order and connection of things; it reduces itself to habits contracted by our nervous system.

Is association by resemblance, which Wundt calls internal, strictly speaking, an elementary law? Many doubt it. Without entering into the long and frequently confused discussions to which this subject has given rise, we may sum up their results as follows: In so-called association by resemblance it is necessary to distinguish three moments—(a) That of the presentation; a state A is given in perception or association-by-contiguity, and forms the starting point. (b) That of the work of assimilation; A is recognized as more or less like a state a previously experienced. (c) As a consequence of the coexistence of A and a in consciousness, they can later be recalled reciprocally, although the two original occurrences A and a have previously never existed together, and sometimes, indeed, may not possibly have existed together. It is evident that the crucial moment is the second, and that it consists of an act of active assimilation. Thus James maintains that "it is a relation that the mind perceives after the fact, just as it may perceive the relations of superiority, of distance, of causality, of container and content, of substance and accident, or of contrast between an object, and some second object which the associative machinery calls up."[9]

Association by resemblance presupposes a joint labor of association and dissociation—it is an active form. Consequently it is the principal source of the material of the creative imagination, as the sequel of this work will sufficiently show.

After this rather long but necessary preface, we come to the intellectual factor rightly so termed, which we have been little by little approaching. The essential, fundamental element of the creative imagination in the intellectual sphere is the capacity of thinking by analogy; that is, by partial and often accidental resemblance. By analogy we mean an imperfect kind of resemblance: like is a genus of which analogue is a species.

Let us examine in some detail the mechanism of this mode of thought in order that we may understand how analogy is, by its very nature, an almost inexhaustible instrument of creation.

1. Analogy may be based solely on the number of attributes compared. Let a b c d e f and r s t u d v be two beings or objects, each letter representing symbolically one of the constitutive attributes. It is evident that the analogy between the two is very weak, since there is only one common element, d. If the number of the elements common to both increases, the analogy will grow in the same proportion. But the agreement represented above is not infrequent among minds unused to a somewhat severe discipline. A child sees in the moon and stars a mother surrounded by her daughters. The aborigines of Australia called a book "mussel," merely because it opens and shuts like the valves of a shellfish.[10]

2. Analogy may have for its basis the quality or value of the compound attributes. It rests on a variable element, which oscillates from the essential to the accidental, from the reality to the appearance. To the layman, the likeness between cetacians and fishes are great; to the scientist, slight. Here, again, numerous agreements are possible, provided one take no account either of their solidity or their frailty.

3. Lastly, in minds without power, there occurs a semi-unconscious operation that we may call a transfer through the omission of the middle term. There is analogy between a b c d e and g h a i f through the common letter a; between g h a i f and x y f z q through the common letter f; and finally an analogy becomes established between a b c d e and x y f z q for no other reason than that of their common analogy with g h a i f. In the realm of the affective states, transfers of this sort are not at all rare.

Analogy, an unstable process, undulating and multiform, gives rise to the most unforeseen and novel groupings. Through its pliability, which is almost unlimited, it produces in equal measure absurd comparisons and very original inventions.

After these remarks on the mechanism of thinking by analogy, let us glance at the processes it employs in its creative work. The problem is, apparently, inextricable. Analogies are so numerous, so various, so arbitrary, that we may despair of finding any regularity whatever in creative work. Despite this it seems, however, reducible to two principal types or processes, which are personification, and transformation or metamorphosis.

Personification is the earlier process. It is radical, always identical with itself, but transitory. It goes out from ourselves toward other things. It consists in attributing life to everything, in supposing in everything that shows signs of life—and even in inanimate objects—desires, passions, and acts of will analogous to ours, acting like ourselves in view of definite ends. This state of mind is incomprehensible to an adult civilized man; but it must be admitted, since there are facts without number that show its existence. We do not need to cite them—they are too well known. They fill the works of ethnologists, of travelers in savage lands, of books of mythology. Besides, all of us, at the commencement of our lives, during our earliest childhood, have passed through this inevitable stage of universal animism. Works on child-psychology abound in observations that leave no possible room for doubt on this point. The child endows everything with life, and he does so the more in proportion as he is more imaginative. But this stage, which among civilized people lasts only a brief period, remains in the primitive man a permanent disposition and one that is always active. This process of personification is the perennial fount whence have gushed the greater number of myths, an enormous mass of superstitions, and a large number of esthetic productions. To sum up in a word, all things that have been invented ex analogia hominis.

Transformation or metamorphosis is a general, permanent process under many forms, proceeding not from the thinking subject towards objects, but from one object to another, from one thing to another. It consists of a transfer through partial resemblance. This operation rests on two fundamental bases—depending at one time on vague resemblances (a cloud becomes a mountain, or a mountain a fantastic animal; the sound of the wind a plaintive cry, etc.), or again, on a resemblance with a predominating emotional element: A perception provokes a feeling, and becomes the mark, sign, or plastic form thereof (the lion represents courage; the cat, artifice; the cypress, sorrow; and so on). All this, doubtless, is erroneous or arbitrary; but the function of the imagination is to invent, not to perceive. All know that this process creates metaphors, allegories, symbols; it should not, however, be believed on that account that it remains restricted to the realm of art or of the development of language. We meet it every moment in practical life, in mechanical, industrial, commercial, and scientific invention, and we shall, later, give a large number of examples in support of this statement.

Let us note, briefly, that analogy, as an imperfect form of resemblance—as was said above, if we assume among the objects compared a totality of likenesses and differences in varying proportions—necessarily allows all degrees. At one end of the scale, the comparison is made between valueless or exaggerated likenesses. At the other end, analogy is restricted to exact resemblance; it approaches cognition, strictly so called; for example, in mechanical and scientific invention. Hence it is not at all surprising that the imagination is often a substitute for, and as Goethe expressed it, "a forerunner of," reason. Between the creative imagination and rational investigation there is a community of nature—both presuppose the ability of seizing upon likenesses. On the other hand, the predominance of the exact process establishes from the outset a difference between "thinkers" and imaginative dreamers ("visionaries").[11]


[3] Cf. the well-known aphorism, "Apperception ist alles." (Tr.)

[4] See especially J. Philippe, "La deformation et les transformations des images" in Revue Philosophique, May and November, 1897. Although these investigations had in view only visual representations, it is not at all doubtful that the results hold good for others, especially those of hearing (voice, song, harmony).

[5] On Intelligence, Vol. I, Bk. ii, Chap. 2.

[6] In his recent history of the theories of the imagination, La psicologia dell' immaginazione, nella storia filosofia (Rome, 1898) Ambrosi shows that this law is found already formulated in the Psychologia Empirica of Christian Wolff [d. 1754]: "Perceptio praeterita integra recurrit cujus praesens continet partem."

[7] Sully, Human Mind, I, p. 365; James, Psychology, I, p. 502.

[8] For a good criticism of the term, consult Titchener, Outlines of Psychology (New York, 1896), p. 190.

[9] For the discussions on the reduction to a unity, a detailed bibliography will be found in Jodl, Lehrbuch der Psychologie (Stuttgart, 1896), p. 490. On the comparison of the two laws, James, op. cit., I, 590; Sully, op. cit., I, 331 ff; Hoeffding, Psychologie, 213 ff. (Eng. ed. Outlines of Psychology, pp. 152 ff.).

[10] Note here a characteristically naive working of the primitive intellect in explaining the unknown in terms of the known. Cf. Part II, Chap. iii, below. (Tr.)

[11] It is yet, and will probably long remain, an open question whether we can draw any clear distinction between the two kinds of mind here discussed. The author is careful to base his distinction on the "predominance" of the "rational" or of the "imaginative" process. So-called "thinkers," who do nothing, can not, certainly, be ranked with the persons of great intellectual attainment through whose efforts the progress of the world is made; on the other hand, the author seeks to make results or accomplishments the crucial test of true imagination (see Introduction).

As regards the relative value or rank of the two bents of mind there has ever been, and probably forever will be, great difference of opinion. Even in this intensely "practical" age there is an undercurrent of feeling that the narrowly "practical" individual is not the final ideal, and the innermost conviction of many is the same as that of the poet who declares that "a dreamer lives forever, but a thinker dies in a day." (Tr.)



The influence of emotional states on the working of the imagination is a matter of current observation. But it has been studied chiefly by moralists, who most often have criticised or condemned it as an endless cause of mistakes. The point of view of the psychologist is altogether different. He does not need at all to investigate whether emotions and passions give rise to mental phantoms—which is an indisputable fact—but why and how they arise. For, the emotional factor yields in importance to no other; it is the ferment without which no creation is possible. Let us study it in its principal forms, although we may not be able at this moment to exhaust the topic.


It is necessary to show at the outset that the influence of the emotional life is unlimited, that it penetrates the entire field of invention with no restriction whatever; that this is not a gratuitous assertion, but is, on the contrary, strictly justified by facts, and that we are right in maintaining the following two propositions:

1. All forms of the creative imagination imply elements of feeling.

This statement has been challenged by authoritative psychologists, who hold that "emotion is added to imagination in its esthetic aspect, not in its mechanical and intellectual form." This is an error of fact resulting from the confusion, or from the imperfect analysis, of two distinct cases. In the case of non-esthetic creation, the role of the emotional life is simple; in esthetic creation, the role of emotional element is double.

Let us consider invention, first, in its most general form. The emotional element is the primal, original factor; for all invention presupposes a want, a craving, a tendency, an unsatisfied impulse, often even a state of gestation full of discomfort. Moreover, it is concomitant, that is, under its form of pleasure or of pain, of hope, of spite, of anger, etc., it accompanies all the phases or turns of creation. The creator may, haphazard, go through the most diverse forms of exaltation and depression; may feel in turn the dejection of repulse and the joy of success; finally the satisfaction of being freed from a heavy burden. I challenge anyone to produce a solitary example of invention wrought out in abstracto, and free from any factors of feeling. Human nature does not allow such a miracle.

Now, let us take up the special case of esthetic creation, and of forms approaching thereto. Here again we find the original emotional element as at first motor, then attached to various aspects of creation, as an accompaniment. But, in addition, affective states become material for the creative activity. It is a well-known fact, almost a rule, that the poet, the novelist, the dramatist, and the musician—often, indeed, even the sculptor and the painter—experience the thoughts and feeling of their characters, become identified with them. There are, then, in this second instance, two currents of feeling—the one, constituting emotion as material for art, the other, drawing out creative activity and developing along with it.

The difference between the two cases that we have distinguished consists in this and nothing more than this. The existence of an emotion-content belonging to esthetic production changes in no way the psychologic mechanism of invention generally. Its absence in other forms of imagination does not at all prevent the necessary existence of affective elements everywhere and always.

2. All emotional dispositions whatever may influence the creative imagination.

Here, again, I find opponents, notably Oelzelt-Newin, in his short and substantial monograph on the imagination.[12] Adopting the twofold division of emotions as sthenic and asthenic, or exciting and depressing, he attributes to the first the exclusive privilege of influencing creative activity; but though the author limits his study exclusively to the esthetic imagination, his thesis, even understood thus, is untenable. The facts contradict it completely, and it is easy to demonstrate that all forms of emotion, without exception, act as leaven for imagination.

No one will deny that fear is the type of asthenic manifestations. Yet is it not the mother of phantoms, of numberless superstitions, of altogether irrational and chimerical religious practices?

Anger, in its exalted, violent form, is rather an agent of destruction, which seems to contradict my thesis; but let us pass over the storm, which is always of short duration, and we find in its place milder intellectualized forms, which are various modifications of primitive fury, passing from the acute to the chronic state: envy, jealousy, enmity, premeditated vengeance, and so forth. Are not these dispositions of the mind fertile in artifices, stratagems, inventions of all kinds? To keep even to esthetic creation, is it necessary to recall the saying facit indignatio versum?

It is not necessary to demonstrate the fecundity of joy. As for love, everyone knows that its work consists of creating an imaginary being, which is substituted for the beloved object; then, when the passion has vanished, the disenchanted lover finds himself face to face with the bare reality.

Sorrow rightly belongs in the category of depressing emotions, and yet, it has as great influence on invention as any other emotion. Do we not know that melancholy and even profound sorrow has furnished poets, musicians, painters, and sculptors with their most beautiful inspirations? Is there not an art frankly and deliberately pessimistic? And this influence is not at all limited to esthetic creation. Dare we hold that hypochondria and insanity following upon the delirium of persecution are devoid of imagination? Their morbid character is, on the contrary, the well whence strange inventions incessantly bubble.

Lastly, that complex emotion termed "self-feeling," which reduces itself finally to the pleasure of asserting our power and of feeling its expansion, or to the pitiable feeling of our shackled, enfeebled power, leads us directly to the motor elements that are the fundamental conditions of invention. Above all, in this personal feeling, there is the satisfaction of being a causal factor, i.e., a creator, and every creator has a consciousness of his superiority over non-creators. However petty his invention, it confers upon him a superiority over those who have invented nothing. Although we have been surfeited with the repeated statement that the characteristic mark of esthetic creation is "being disinterested," it must be recognized, as Groos has so truly remarked,[13] that the artist does not create out of the simple pleasure of creating, but in order that he may behold a mastery over other minds.[14] Production is the natural extension of "self-feeling," and the accompanying pleasure is the pleasure of conquest.

Thus, on condition that we extend "imagination" to its full sense, without limiting it unduly to esthetics, there is, among the many forms of the emotional life, not one that may not stimulate invention. It remains to see this emotional factor at work,—to note how it can give rise to new combinations; and this brings us to the association of ideas.


We have said above that the ideal and theoretic law of the recurrence of images is that of "total redintegration," as e.g., recalling all the incidents of a long voyage in chronological order, with neither additions nor omissions. But this formula expresses what ought to be, not what actually occurs. It supposes man reduced to a state of pure intelligence, and sheltered from all disturbing influences. It suits the completely systematized forms of memory, hardened into routine and habit; but, outside of these cases, it remains an abstract concept.

To this law of ideal value, there is opposed the real and practical law that actually obtains in the revival of images. It is rightly styled the "law of interest" or the affective law, and may be stated thus: In every past event the interesting parts alone revive, or with more intensity than the others. "Interesting" here means what affects us in some way under a pleasing or painful form. Let us note that the importance of this fact has been pointed out not by the associationists (a fact especially worth remembering) but by less systematic writers, strangers to that school,—Coleridge, Shadworth Hodgson, and before them, Schopenhauer. William James calls it the "ordinary or mixed association."[15] The "law of interest" doubtless is less exact than the intellectual laws of contiguity and resemblance. Nevertheless, it seems to penetrate all the more in later reasoning. If, indeed, in the problem of association we distinguish these three things—facts, laws, causes—the practical law brings us near to causes.

Whatever the truth may be in this matter, the emotional factor brings about new combinations by several processes.

There are the ordinary, simple cases, with a natural, emotional foundation, depending on momentary dispositions. They exist because of the fact that representations that have been accompanied by the same emotional state tend later to become associated: the emotional resemblance reunites and links disparate images. This differs from association by contiguity, which is a repetition of experience, and from association by resemblance in the intellectual sense. The states of consciousness become combined, not because they have been previously given together, not because we perceive the agreement of resemblance between them, but because they have a common emotional note. Joy, sorrow, love, hatred, admiration, ennui, pride, fatigue, etc., may become a center of attraction that groups images or events having otherwise no rational relations between them, but having the same emotional stamp,—joyous, melancholy, erotic, etc. This form of association is very frequent in dreams and reveries, i.e., in a state of mind in which the imagination enjoys complete freedom and works haphazard. We easily see that this influence, active or latent, of the emotional factor, must cause entirely unexpected grouping to arise, and offers an almost unlimited field for novel combinations, the number of images having a common emotional factor being very great.

There are unusual and remarkable cases with an exceptional emotional base. Of such is "colored hearing." We know that several hypotheses have been offered in regard to the origin of this phenomenon. Embryologically, it would seem to be the result of an incomplete separation between the sense of sight and that of hearing, and the survival, it is said, from a distant period of humanity, when this state must have been the rule; anatomically, the result of supposed anastamoses between the cerebral centers for visual and auditory sensations; physiologically, the result of nervous irradiation; psychologically, the result of association. This latter hypothesis seems to account for the greater number of instances, if not for all; but, as Flournoy has observed, it is a matter of "affective" imagination. Two sensations absolutely unlike (for instance, the color blue and the sound i) may resemble one another through the equal retentive quality that they possess in the organism of some favored individuals, and this emotional factor becomes a bond of association. Observe that this hypothesis explains also the much more unusual cases of "colored" smell, taste, and pain; that is, an abnormal association between given colors and tastes, smells, or pains.

Although we meet them only as exceptional cases, these modes of association are susceptible to analysis, and seem clear, almost self-evident, if we compare them with other, subtle, refined, barely perceptible cases, the origin of which is a subject for supposition, for guessing rather than for clear comprehension. It is, moreover, a sort of imagination belonging to very few people: certain artists and some eccentric or unbalanced minds, scarcely ever found outside the esthetic or practical life. I wish to speak of the forms of invention that permit only fantastic conceptions, of a strangeness pushed to the extreme (Hoffman, Poe, Baudelaire, Goya, Wiertz, etc.), or surprising, extraordinary thoughts, known of no other men (the symbolists and decadents that flourish at the present time in various countries of Europe and America, who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are preparing the esthetics of the future). It must be here admitted that there exists an altogether special manner of feeling, dependent on temperament at first, which many cultivate and refine as though it were a precious rarity. There lies the true source of their invention. Doubtless, to assert this pertinently, it would be necessary to establish the direct relations between their physical and psychical constitution and that of their work; to note even the particular states at the moment of the creative act. To me at least, it seems evident that the novelty, the strangeness of combinations, through its deep subjective character, indicates an emotional rather than an intellectual origin. Let us merely add that these abnormal manifestations of the creative imagination belong to the province of pathology rather than to that of psychology.

Association by contrast is, from its very nature, vague, arbitrary, indeterminate. It rests, in truth, on an essentially subjective and fleeting conception, that of contrariety, which it is almost impossible to delimit scientifically; for, most often, contraries exist only by and for us. We know that this form of association is not primary and irreducible. It is brought down by some to contiguity, by most others to resemblance. These two views do not seem to me irreconcilable. In association by contrast we may distinguish two layers,—the one, superficial, consists of contiguity: all of us have in memory associated couples, such as large-small, rich-poor, high-low, right-left, etc., which result from repetition and habit; the other, deep, is resemblance; contrast exists only where a common measure between two terms is possible. As Wundt remarks, a wedding may be compared to a burial (the union and separation of a couple), but not to a toothache. There is contrast between two colors, contrast between sounds, but not between a sound and a color, at least in that there may not be a common basis to which we may relate them, as in the previously given instances of "colored" sound. In association by contrast, there are conscious elements opposed to one another, and below, an unconscious element, resemblance,—not clearly and logically perceived, but felt—that evokes and relates the conscious elements.

Whether this explanation be right or not, let us remark that association by contrast could not be left out, because its mechanism, full of unforeseen possibilities, lends itself easily to novel relations. Otherwise, I do not at all claim that it is entirely dependent upon the emotional factor. But, as Hoeffding observes,[16] the special property of the emotional life is moving among contraries; it is altogether determined by the great opposition between pleasure and pain. Thus, the effects of contrasts are much stronger than in the realm of sensation. This form of association predominates in esthetic and mythic creation, that is to say, in creation of the free fancy; it becomes dimmed in the precise forms of practical, mechanical, and scientific invention.


Hitherto we have considered the emotional factor under a single aspect only—the purely emotional—that which is manifested in consciousness under an agreeable or disagreeable or mixed form. But thoughts, feelings, and emotions include elements that are deeper—motor, i.e., impulsive or inhibitory—which we may neglect the less since it is in movements that we seek the origin of the creative imagination. This motor element is what current speech and often even psychological treatises designate under the terms "creative instinct," "inventive instinct;" what we express in another form when we say that creators are guided by instinct and "are pushed like animals toward the accomplishment of certain acts."

If I mistake not, this indicates that the "creative instinct" exists in all men to some extent—feeble in some, perceptible in others, brilliant in the great inventors.

For I do not hesitate to maintain that the creative instinct, taken in this strict meaning, compared to animal instinct, is a mere figure of speech, an "entity" regarded as a reality, an abstraction. There are needs, appetites, tendencies, desires, common to all men, which, in a given individual at a given moment can result in a creative act; but there is no special psychic manifestation that may be the "creative instinct." What, indeed, could it be? Every instinct has its own particular end:—hunger, thirst, sex, the specific instincts of the bee, ant, beaver, consist of a group of movements adapted for a determinate end that is always the same. Now, what would be a creative instinct in general which, by hypothesis, could produce in turn an opera, a machine, a metaphysical theory, a system of finance, a plan of military campaign, and so forth? It is a pure fancy. Inventive genius has not a source, but sources.

Let us consider from our present viewpoint the human duality, the homo duplex:

Suppose man reduced to a state of pure intelligence, that is, capable of perceiving, remembering, associating, dissociating, reasoning, and nothing else. All creative activity is then impossible, because there is nothing to solicit it.

Suppose, again, man reduced to organic manifestations; he is then no more than a bundle of wants, appetites, instincts,—that is, of motor activities, blind forces that, lacking a sufficient cerebral organ, will produce nothing.

The cooperation of both these factors is indispensable: without the first, nothing begins; without the second, nothing results. I hold that it is in needs that we must seek for the primary cause of all inventions; it is evident that the motor element alone is insufficient. If the needs are strong, energetic, they may determine a production, or, if the intellectual factor is insufficient, may spoil it. Many want to make discoveries but discover nothing. A want so common as hunger or thirst suggests to one some ingenious method of satisfying it; another remains entirely destitute.

In short, in order that a creative act occur, there is required, first, a need; then, that it arouse a combination of images; and lastly, that it objectify and realize itself in an appropriate form.

We shall try later (in the Conclusion) to answer the question, Why is one imaginative? In passing, let us put the opposite question, Why is one not imaginative? One may possess in the mind an inexhaustible treasure of facts and images and yet produce nothing: great travelers, for example, who have seen and heard much, and who draw from their experiences only a few colorless anecdotes; men who were partakers in great political events or military movements, who leave behind only a few dry and chilly memoirs; prodigies of reading, living encyclopedias, who remain crushed under the load of their erudition. On the other hand, there are people who easily move and act, but are limited, lacking images and ideas. Their intellectual poverty condemns them to unproductiveness; nevertheless, being nearer than the others to the imaginative type, they bring forth childish or chimerical productions. So that we may answer the question asked above: The non-imaginative person is such from lack of materials or through the absence of resourcefulness.

Without contenting ourselves with these theoretical remarks, let us rapidly show that it is thus that these things actually happen. All the work of the creative imagination may be classed under two great heads—esthetic inventions and practical inventions; on the one hand, what man has brought to pass in the domain of art, and on the other hand, all else. Though this division may appear strange, and unjustifiable, it has reason for its being, as we shall see hereafter.

Let us consider first the class of non-esthetic creations. Very different in nature, all the products of this group coincide at one point:—they are of practical utility, they are born of a vital need, of one of the conditions of man's existence. There are first the inventions "practical" in the narrow sense—all that pertains to food, clothing, defense, housing, etc. Every one of these special needs has stimulated inventions adapted to a special end. Inventions in the social and political order answer to the conditions of collective existence; they arise from the necessity of maintaining the coherence of the social aggregate and of defending it against inimical groups. The work of the imagination whence have arisen the myths, religious conceptions, and the first attempts at a scientific explanation may seem at first disinterested and foreign to practical life. This is an erroneous supposition. Man, face to face with the higher powers of nature, the mystery of which he does not penetrate, has a need of acting upon it; he tries to conciliate them, even to turn them to his service by magic rites and operations. His curiosity is not at all theoretic; he does not aim to know for the sake of knowing, but in order to act upon the outside world and to draw profit therefrom. To the numerous questions that necessity puts to him his imagination alone responds, because his reason is shifting and his scientific knowledge nil. Here, then, invention again results from urgent needs.

Indeed, in the course of the nineteenth century and on account of growing civilization all these creations reach a second moment when their origin is hidden. Most of our mechanical, industrial and commercial inventions are not stimulated by the immediate necessity of living, by an urgent need; it is not a question of existence but of better existence. The same holds true of social and political inventions which arise from the increasing complexity and the new requirements of the aggregates forming great states. Lastly, it is certain that primitive curiosity has partially lost its utilitarian character in order to become, in some men at least, the taste for pure research—theoretical, speculative, disinterested. But all this in no way affects our thesis, for it is a well-known elementary psychological law that upon primitive wants are grafted acquired wants fully as imperative. The primitive need is modified, metamorphosed, adapted; there remains of it, nonetheless, the fundamental activity toward creation.

Let us now consider the class of esthetic creations. According to the generally accepted theory which is too well known for me to stop to explain it, art has its beginning in a superfluous, bounding activity, useless as regards the preservation of the individual, which is shown first in the form of play. Then, through transformation and complication, play becomes primitive art, dancing, music, and poetry at the same time, closely united in an apparently indissoluble unity. Although the theory of the absolute inutility of art has met some strong criticism, let us accept it for the present. Aside from the true or false character of inutility, the psychological mechanism remains the same here as in the preceding cases; we shall only say that in place of a vital need it is a need of luxury acting, but it acts only because it is in man.

Nevertheless, the inutility of play is far from proven biologically. Groos, in his two excellent works on the subject,[17] has maintained with much power the opposite view. According to him the theory of Schiller and Spencer, based on the expenditure of superfluous activity and the opposite theory of Lazarus, who reduces play to a relaxation—that is, a recuperation of strength—are but partial explanations. Play has a positive use. In man there exist a great number of instincts that are not yet developed at birth. An incomplete being, he must have education of his capacities, and this is obtained through play, which is the exercise of the natural tendencies of human activities. In man and in the higher animals plays are a preparation, a prelude to the active functions of life. There is no instinct of play in general, but there are special instincts that are manifested under the forms of play. If we admit this explanation, which does not lack potency, the work of the esthetic imagination itself would be reduced to a biological necessity, and there would be no reason for making a separate category of it. Whichever view we may adopt, it still remains established that any invention is reducible, directly or indirectly, to a particular, determinate need, and that to allow man a special instinct, the definite specific character of which should be stimulation to creative activity, is a fantastic notion.

Whence, then, comes this persistent and in some respects seductive idea that creation is an instinctive result? Because a happy invention has characteristics that evidently relate it to instinctive activity in the strict sense of the word. First, precocity, of which we shall later give numerous examples, and which resembles the innateness of instinct. Again, orientation in a single direction: the inventor is, so to speak, polarized; he is the slave of music, of mechanics, of mathematics; often inapt at everything outside his own particular sphere. We know the witticism of Madame du Deffant on Vaucanson, who was so awkward, so insignificant when he ventured outside of mechanics. "One should say that this man had manufactured himself." Finally, the ease with which invention often (not always) manifests itself makes it resemble the work of a pre-established mechanism.

But these and similar characteristics may be lacking. They are necessary for instinct, not for invention. There are great creators who have been neither precocious nor confined in a narrow field, and who have given birth to their inventions painfully, laboriously. Between the mechanism of instinct and that of imaginative creation there are frequently great analogies but not identity of nature. Every tendency of our organization, useful or hurtful, may become the beginning of a creative act. Every invention arises from a particular need of human nature, acting within its own sphere and for its own special end.

If now it should be asked why the creative imagination directs itself preferably in one line rather than in another—toward poetry or physics, trade or mechanics, geometry or painting, strategy or music, etc.—we have nothing in answer. It is a result of the individual organization, the secret of which we do not possess. In ordinary life we meet people visibly borne along toward love or good cheer, toward ambition, riches or good works; we say that they are "so built," that such is their character. At bottom the two questions are identical, and current psychology is not in a position to solve them.


[12] Ueber Phantasievorstellungen, Graz, 1889, p. 48.

[13] Die Spiele der Thiere, Jena, 1896. The subject has been very well treated by this author, pp. 294-301.

[14] The "disinterested" view is found widely advocated or hinted at in literature. Cf. Goethe's "Der Saenger" (Tr.).

[15] Psychology, I, 571 ff.

[16] Hoeffding, Psychologie, p. 219; Eng. trans., p. 161.

[17] Groos, Die Spiele der Thiere, 1896, and Die Spiele der Menschen, 1899 (Eng. trans., Appletons, New York, 1898, 1901).




By this term I designate principally, not exclusively, what ordinary speech calls "inspiration." In spite of its mysterious and semi-mythological appearance, the term indicates a positive fact, one that is ill-understood in a deep sense, like all that is near the roots of creation. This concept has its history, and if it is permissible to apply a very general formula to a particular case we may say that it has developed according to the law of the three states assumed by the positivists.

In the beginning, inspiration is literally ascribed to the gods—among the Greeks to Apollo and the Muses, and in like manner under various polytheistic religions. Later, the gods become supernatural spirits, angels, saints, etc. In one way or another it is always regarded as external and superior to man. In the beginnings of all inventions—agriculture, navigation, medicine, commerce, legislation, fine arts—there is a belief in revelation; the human mind considers itself incapable of having discovered all that. Creation has arisen, we do not know how, in a total ignorance of the processes.

Later on these higher beings become empty formulas, mere survivals; there remain only the poets to invoke their aid, through the force of tradition, without believing in them. But side by side with these formal survivals there remains a mysterious ground which is translated by vague expressions and metaphors, such as "enthusiasm," "poetic frenzy," "possession by a spirit," "being overcome," "having the devil inside one," "the spirit whispers as it lists," etc. Here we have come out of the supernatural without, however, attempting a positive (i.e., a scientific) explanation.

Lastly, in the third stage, we try to sound this unknown. Psychology sees in it a special manifestation of the mind, a particular, semi-conscious, semi-unconscious state which we must now study.

At first sight, and considered in its negative aspect, inspiration presents a very definite character. It does not depend on the individual will. As in the case of sleep or digestion, we may try to call it forth, encourage it, maintain it; but not always with success. Inventors, great and small, never cease to complain over the periods of unproductiveness which they undergo in spite of themselves. The wiser among them watch for the moment; the others attempt to fight against their evil fate and to create despite nature.

Considered in its positive aspect, inspiration has two essential marks—suddenness and impersonality.

(a) It makes a sudden eruption into consciousness, but one presupposing a latent, frequently long, labor. It has its analogues among other well-known psychic states; for example, a passion that is forgotten, which, after a long period of incubation, reveals itself through an act; or, better, a sudden resolve after endless deliberation which did not seem able to come to a head. Again, there may be absence of effort and of appearance of preparation. Beethoven would strike haphazard the keys of a piano or would listen to the songs of birds. "With Chopin," says George Sand, "creation was spontaneous, miraculous; he wrought without foreseeing. It would come complete, sudden, sublime." One might pile up like facts in abundance. Sometimes, indeed, inspiration bursts forth in deep sleep and awakens the sleeper, and lest we may suppose this suddenness to be especially characteristic of artists we see it in all forms of invention. "You feel a little electric shock striking you in the head, seizing your heart at the same time—that is the moment of genius" (Buffon). "In the course of my life I have had some happy thoughts," says Du Bois Reymond, "and I have often noted that they would come to me involuntarily, and when I was not thinking of the subject." Claude Bernard has voiced the same thought more than once.

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