The basic concept of imagination is one that is widely understood; it is common for us to employ the terms “imagine” and “imagination” casually in our everyday conversation. We regard imagination dismissively, even condescendingly, as the province of the very young or the un-productive. Tracing the trajectory of imagination in human history requires a broad-based, comprehensive scope. In many ways, the history of human imagination mirrors the history of humanity and the millennia-long march towards modern civilization. However, it is impossible to trace imagination as a transformative force in human history in a directly linear, straightforward manner, because the complexity of possible imaginative outcomes today is much greater than that which existed thousands of years ago.
In other words, over the course of human history, human imagination has itself changed, growing more complex and far-reaching as the earlier products of imagination have been realized. The realm of the possible as it exists today, for example, encompasses things that would have been literally unimaginable in the distant past, because imagination is a cumulative process that builds incrementally on realized successes over time.
Today, it is not inconceivable for scientists to imagine the colonization of other planets, because the process of realizing this type of result has been set into motion by previous concepts and ideas and their realization. However, in the past, such an eventuality would have been unimaginable, simply because humanity had not accumulated the collective understanding of astronomy and astrophysics that is now established. In this way, then, imagination is more complex today, because the realm of the possible has been expanded precipitously by the past achievements of humanity. However, at the same time, it can be said that there are some ways in which the power of human imagination has waned somewhat in modern times.
Because of the many historical, cultural, and social changes that took place from the classical to the medieval periods, very little philosophical or theological work focused on the role of the human imagination during this time. Instead, most of the philosophical or theological work undertaken during this period focused on more topical, surface-level issues. It would not be until the late medieval period that philosophy would begin to be afforded the focus that it had received during the classical Greek period, and as such, this is the first time that we can observe significant changes in the prevailing conception of human imagination, its nature, and its capacity.
The most significant variable that served to impact the conception of human imagination prior to the medieval period was the introduction and increasing prominence of Christianity throughout the West. As such, the view of imagination that prevailed throughout medieval Europe was one that relied heavily on the biblical injunction against graven images, as well as Plato’s dismissal of the fruits of human imagination as inferior and morally suspect.
Many medieval theologians and exegetes further espoused this narrow view of the human imagination, regarding it primarily as a potential threat towards the ascendancy of God. Christian believers were frequently warned against the overuse of the imagination, because taking such a path was viewed as a dangerous transgression against the primacy of the faith and the Word of God. In the greater liberalism and intellectualism that characterized the later medieval period, just prior to the widespread flowering of philosophy, art, and science that would be realized in the Renaissance, the view of human imagination that came to be held by the most prominent thinkers of the day shifted somewhat. Gradually, some theologians began to identify some benefits in the judicious use of imagination. Most notably, the idea that imagination was a vital part of intellectual processes and contemplation began to be more widely accepted. As the anti-intellectualism that had characterized the early medieval period began to dissipate to some degree in the later years of the period, a growing contingency of theologians encouraged believers to use their imagination as a way of deepening their relationship with God, as well as forming complex, abstract ideas and theories about the external world.
However, throughout the medieval period, the warnings that imagination should be tempered by reason and faith continued to be issued. Many Church documents from this period warn believers against the dangers posed by the unfettered human imagination. In addition, many of the more conservative philosophers and theologians of the medieval era continued to argue that the imagination was the nexus of human weakness and disobedience.