The Need For Imagining Reality

A curious trait of our time is that we so stubbornly confuse lack of imaginative capacity with realism. I was reminded of this after visiting an arts exhibition centered on metaphysical art, 'Pittura Metafisica', an early 20th century Italian movement developed by artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carrà and Felice Casorati.

This artistic movement, also known as magical realism, sought to illustrate the strange bind between the external world and the world of imagination. "The art of magic realists," described the curator, "is simultaneously realistic and far removed from reality." The metaphysical artists depict the world it was manifested to them, a world in movement, a world shrouded with dreamlike layers of imagination and meaning, one which invites curiosity and oftentimes evokes detachment.

I wondered. If there ever was a realism which rang true to me, it would be something along the lines of this: imaginative, meaningful, capable of switching between alternate realities.

To be clear, it should be noted that nothing in realism, as a form of art or philosophy, prohibits imagination. From the very beginnings of artistic realism, for instance, it has taken vivid and illusionistic forms, eventually absorbing our thought in realistic fiction with wildly imaginative characters, the likes of Holden Caulfield. Nor does the capacity to imagine contain any argument against philosophical realism, which merely makes general claims about the world’s existence independent of us.

Yet in everyday discourse, it is not uncommon to notice a derogatory stance towards imagination, as if it clashed with realism. Novel ideas discordant with the status quo are dismissed as products of "mere imagination" and imaginative individuals envisaging alternative futures are often denounced as unrealistic. Former president of Shell Oil, Marvin Odum, once stated that we must be "realistic about" the pace at which the global energy mix can change. I find little consolation in such realism coming from a representative of one of the largest oil companies in the world. With a similar tone, our Prime Minister described his party, one often criticized for lack of transformative environmental agenda, as representing "realistic green values". But who are they to decide what counts as realism?

The notion that rationalization has somehow stripped us of our imaginative capacity is an old one. Having been educated in sociology, I am particularly reminded of the likes of Max Weber, who famously characterized the modern individual trapped in a bureaucratic and cold iron cage, bereft of subjective meaning. Yet, hopefully avoiding the repetition of a cliché, I ask: whence the conflict between realism and imagination?

Conceptions of the aforementioned sort largely underestimate the role of imagination in life and its adaptive capacity. Perceivers are "imaginers too", writes Andy Clark, creatures "poised to explore and experience their worlds not just by perception and gross physical action", but also by means of imagery and dreams. Our imaginative faculties allow us to make better choices and select better actions by envisaging alternative futures. We live in 'The Imaginarium', a state where imagination is a necessary component in interacting successfully with the variant and ephemeral, yet completely realistic, external world.

We must be wary of associating realism with uniformity, or absence of alternatives. Realism is not a political stance to be assumed by the unimaginative. As the metaphysical artists were sure to emphasize, there is no singular way of perceiving the world, even when conforming to a realist style. At times like ours, characterized by ecological crises, destructive path dependencies and fundamentally unsustainable forms of life, it is imperative for us to become imaginative realists, envisaging the real world with layers of meaning and dreams alternative to those currently imposed upon us. For imagination begets adaptation.