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Imagination & Creativity in Jean-Paul Sartre

Understanding the imagination was central to Sartre’s attempts to understand what it is to be human, and how we should live. Maria Antonietta Perna thinks he had important insights which are still worth considering.

What is imagination? The word itself seems to be used in at least two different ways, and as this ambiguity is reflected in various studies of the imagination, it needs to be cleared up. This I will try to do in the first part of this article. Afterwards, I will focus on Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of the imagination. In my view it offers an insight into our relationship with the world, and with each other, which deserves renewed attention. The conclusions arrived at in the first part of the article will help defend Sartre’s position against a common line of criticism.

Imagination and Creativity

The word ‘imagination’ seems to be used both (a) for the capacity to experience or to form mental images, and (b) for the capacity to exercise creative thought, which may or may not involve the presence of mental images. It seems to me that, at least in some contexts, the distinction between these two senses of the term is crucial, since the word applies to not one, but two kinds of activities. For clarity, therefore, I will use the term ‘imagination’ when I refer to imagination (a), and reserve the term ‘creativity’ for imagination (b).

I propose to begin by tracing a distinction between the verb ‘to imagine’ and the verb ‘to create’. If, for instance, Mr.X strongly desires to own a great sum of money, we might catch him lost in thoughts of himself winning the lottery, gaining enormous amounts on the stock market, successfully robbing a bank, or getting rid of his rich wife. Mr.X’s activity can be described as follows: he satisfies his wish in image form, or simply, he plays with some ideas which form ‘in his head’. But it could not be claimed that he is considering concrete possibilities in order to realise his desire: Mr.X is not working out a plan, he is not considering the means at his disposal, he is not weighing pros and cons. Using the verb ‘to create’ in order to describe Mr.X’s activity would be inappropriate, but it would certainly be correct to use the verb ‘to imagine’.

On the other hand, if I were working on a novel whose main character was Mr.X, I would be carrying out a concrete project. Writing a novel involves a method of proceeding which obviously differs from one writer to another. For instance, I could pass from a purely conjectural stage to another in which I work out a sketch of the main plot, then I begin to individuate the characters and to construct the various scenes, I elaborate a structure, then, as I proceed, I realize that I need to modify some of what I had previously planned. This complex sequence of actions does not necessarily have recourse to imagination (a), and, were I to characterise what I am doing in a single word, the verb ‘to create’, rather than ‘imagine’, would be the most appropriate and exhaustive.

Unlike the verb ‘to imagine’, the verb ‘to create’ therefore refers to a connected set of actions of an inventive and productive, rather than simply reproductive, kind, which aims at a specific result.

The same reasoning can be applied to those cases where we attribute imagination or creativity to a person. If, for example, I see a child sitting on a chair, mimicking his dad’s gestures in driving the car, I might think that the child is being imaginative, but I will hardly think he’s being creative. This doesn’t mean that the activity of play isn’t a creative one; it can be a creative activity in various senses, depending on the kind of play. On the other hand, if the child tells me a story that he has made up, I will not be mistaken in affirming that he is a creative child.

On this basis, I think it is fair to claim that imagination refers to mental acts which are not necessarily connected to the accomplishment of a concrete result. Creativity can have recourse to imagination, but the latter is not essential to its activity. What it necessarily needs to include is a ‘doing’ with an end product in view. Besides, such an end product, either from the start or on request, allows itself to become public, that is, it can be shown to, and eventually evaluated by, other people. (It may very well be the case that somebody can compose verses, but does not care to write them down; this doesn’t mean that, on request, he would not be able to recite or to write down his poems).

A different way of showing this distinction is to point out that, in relation to fiction writing and story telling, hence in relation to creative activity, it would be appropriate for the artist to ask for my opinion of his work; and it would make sense if I asked such questions as “What did you do in order to obtain this particular effect?”; or else, if I made such evaluative statements as “I don’t think the character is credible in this scene.” But it would be absurd if I asked these sorts of question or made these sorts of observations with regard to Mr.X as he imagines his lottery winnings, or to the child playing at driving the car.

This analysis is further confirmed by comparing the imagined object and the created object. For instance, Anne tells Mary over the telephone that she has dyed her hair blonde, and asks her friend whether she thinks that was a good idea. Before answering, Mary calls Anne’s face to mind and pictures it combined with various shades of blonde hair. What Mary is doing is imagining, and what we mean here by Anne’s face as an image is a more or less vague thought of Mary’s, which does not intrinsically require confrontation with anything real outside of itself, and cannot be experienced by others. The mental image is, in fact, tied to first-person experience; furthermore it is an inappropriate object of any kind of evaluative criteria. In this respect, it is similar to expressions of likes and dislikes.

So much for ‘imagined objects’. ‘Created objects’ differ in that they are ideas more or less fully realised by means of some kinds of materials or tools. Take a novelist’s description of Anne as an example. In order to be identified as the novelist’s creation, Anne’s features must meet requirements which don’t apply to the mental image: Anne’s face must be capable of evoking different feelings in different observers, it must lend itself to evaluation on the basis of appropriate criteria and it must possess its own identity which distinguishes it from any other face, even from Anne’s face as it is in the real world, in the event that the novelist has taken the real Anne as a model for his character.

In discussing creative activity, we shouldn’t forget an essential characteristic which distinguishes it from other kinds of activity: a created object is intended as an artefact which achieves an original synthesis of form and content, in no way assimilable to anything already existing in the natural or the social world. Thus, in the above example, Anne as a fictional character is an entirely different being from Anne as she is in the world, who inspired the novelist; only the former is a product of human creative activity.

‘Creativity’ can be contrasted with ‘repetition’, ‘routine’, ‘habit’; ‘being creative’ can be contrasted with ‘being conventional’ and ‘being a conformist’. The former group of terms refers to certain kinds of action or set of actions, the latter to a person’s overall lifestyle. In both instances it can be noted that the words are, more or less explicitly, value-laden. ‘Imagination’, on the other hand, doesn’t function as opposite of the above terms. In fact a creative action, by definition, cannot at the same time be repetitive and predictable, whereas imagination and repetition can be compatible – I can imagine the same person or the same situation in the same way an indefinite number of times. I would fall into self-contradiction if I claimed that my friend’s lifestyle is rather creative, and at the same time affirmed that he is a totally conventional person. But on the contrary, there would be no contradiction in holding that my friend plainly sticks to social conventions and, at the same time, imagines he is Jim Morrison of the Doors. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to claim that imagination can be part of a person’s character, hence also of his way of life, should he manifest the tendency frequently to escape from the actual situation in order to think of possible and impossible situations, or to get lost in daydreaming. This equally lends itself, in certain contexts, to moral considerations which will be part of my discussion of Sartre’s position.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Imagination and Bad Faith

Sartre devoted two major works to the nature of the imagination. In The Psychology of the Imagination (1940) he drew a sharp line between imagination and perception. He claimed that consciousness can either perceive or imagine, but that the two kinds of act can never be combined. But, his critics have pointed out, this goes against our ordinary perceptual and aesthetic experience, where perceived and imagined elements often intertwine.

A reply to this criticism requires us to consider Sartre’s metaphysics. He uses the term ‘reality’ in at least two ways. Firstly it denotes common sense reality, that is, the familiar world made up of trees, houses, roads, people and so on. But he also uses it in a technical sense, to indicate ‘Being’, that is, the ultimate and fundamental structure underlying what we call ‘reality’ in the everyday sense. Let’s use the expression ‘first level of reality’ to indicate common sense reality, and the expression ‘second level of reality’ to refer to the real in the metaphysical sense. In ordinary circumstances, access to the second level is only available via the first level. The second level consists of two very different modes of existence, namely, being-in-itself (etre-ensoi), and being-for-itself (etre-pour-soi). Being-in-itself applies to anything which isn’t conscious of its own existence, and which is simply and completely itself, such as a stone or a book. Beingfor- itself is the type of existence enjoyed by anything conscious of its own existence and able to make choices about ‘what to be’. It involves values, meanings and so forth, which being-in-itself plainly doesn’t. The two kinds of being are structurally related, but cannot merge into each another.

On the basis of this rather sketchy picture, it is possible to answer the above criticism as follows. In ordinary experience, the in-itself always appears as being infused with the for-itself’s projects, given the necessary interrelation between the two modes of being: the first level of reality is structured according to human meanings, values and ends. It is through philosophical reflection that Sartre intends to show how such meaningful relations are not an integral part of what is real in a fundamental sense (second level). Their being is based on the internal relation between the in-itself and the for-itself, and they disappear at the moment the for-itself chooses to sustain different ones. In other words, they are not inherent aspects of the two modes of being, but they depend on the for-itself for their existence. Such is the status of the imaginary: it possesses a kind of reality only for as long as it is sustained by a for-itself, but it can never merge into the in-itself. Consider a portrait of my friend Peter. Sartre would agree that in our ordinary experience of looking at the portrait, the analogon, that is, the material component of the portrait (the canvas, the frame, the paint), is intermingled with the imaginary component of the portrait (i.e., the image of Peter). But, he would say, philosophical reflection can reveal the distinctive ontological status of the different elements: their being is dependent on a relation, not on a fusion, between in-itself and for-itself. Thus, the above criticism doesn’t take into account Sartre’s ontology, nor the manner in which he makes use of philosophy. Sartre doesn’t deny that the real is always mixed with the imaginary in ordinary experience. On the contrary, he stresses the point, since it is in order to free ourselves from this false view of the real that philosophy can be a guide to action, and hence acquire its fullest meaning.

A distinction between imagination and creativity along the lines of the preceding section, can be a key to understanding why Sartre strongly insists on a stark separation between the analogon and the imaginary, by moving us towards the terrain of ethics. Just as the imaginative consciousness from the perspective of common sense fuses the analogon and the imaginary element into a synthetic unity, so does it carry out a similar synthesis between the in-itself and the for-itself in that existential attitude which in Being and Nothingness Sartre calls ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi). He gives the example of a café waiter. The waiter carries out his tasks with mechanical precision, thereby achieving an imaginary synthesis between what he intends to be, that is, simply a café waiter, thus an in-itself, and what he is, that is, a café waiter at a distance from himself (i.e., a self-conscious being). Instead of being truly himself, he is acting the part of a café waiter. Another famous example from the same book involves a similar synthesis. A character whom Sartre calls ‘the champion of sincerity’ is trying to convince a homosexual friend openly to avow what he is, where by ‘is’ is meant a being-in-itself. But, says Sartre, what the homosexual is effectively being asked to do, is to synthetically unify his past actions and gestures into an image with which to identify himself, now and always. It follows that, in order to become one with this self-image, he would have to live his life constantly repeating those postures and acts which qualify and confirm his way of being as homosexual. Not only would this be a monotonous and repetitive kind of existence, but he would also have renounced his own way of being as an individual, in order to unreflectively adhere to a pattern given to him by the other person: to let himself be identified as the ‘typical’ homosexual.

It can thus be claimed that spending one’s life trying to hide one’s real being (second level of reality, the for-itself) by means of an imaginary identification with a self-image, ultimately leads to repeating the same pattern of behaviour. This is because, having made the identification on the imaginary plane, the person involved perceives himself falsely (hence ‘bad faith’) as being that imaginary being and, consequently, as being incapable of acting in any other way or being anything else. This involves denying himself the possibility of choosing in full awareness what he wants to be and how to lead his life. It involves turning away from the continuous, never to be completed, creation of one’s self.

A possible argument against this conclusion might be the following. The person in bad faith is not simply imagining. In fact, to the extent that he is identifying himself with his image, he is performing complex actions and carrying out projects which all involve creative activity.

This objection, I think, fails on at least two counts. Firstly, not every kind of action effected on the real can be called ‘creative’. The simple fact that the person in bad faith acts according to a model that he has given to himself, or that others have given to him, does not necessarily imply that he is exercising a creative kind of activity. The worker on the assembly line performs certain operations upon matter, handles tools, follows instructions or models. Nonetheless, one would not claim that he acts creatively. On the contrary, his work is confined to the reproduction of sets of objects (or of constitutive parts of objects), and his acts are to a large extent predetermined, repetitive and foreseeable, and so is their end product. Similarly, the person in bad faith, by conforming to an extrinsic self-image, reproduces through his actions a ‘serialised’ lifestyle, which makes of him a ‘social product’. It might be helpful to remember that at one stage in the preceding section, I stressed an essential criterion which the created object ought to meet: the object, in order to be identified as the product of creative activity, ought to show a certain uniqueness, a certain stubborn refusal to be serialised and generalised. I also underlined the contradiction between creativity and repetitive actions, and between being creative and being conventional; and the compatibility or possibility of coexistence between imagination and repetitiveness, and being imaginative and being conventional. All of this seems consistent with my reading of Sartre’s text.

Secondly, acting in bad faith seems like the child I mentioned earlier, playing at being an adult by sitting on a chair mimicking his father’s gestures in driving the car. Hence it is an imaginative rather than a creative kind of action. Consider the similarities: the child and the person in bad faith both support their imaginings by adopting certain postures and actions, but reality is far from approaching the image that they project onto it, and cannot be otherwise, given the age of the child in the one case, and Sartre’s ontological framework in the other. This transformation of reality, being impossible on factual and on ontological grounds respectively, is carried out through an imaginary act, which fills the gap between reality and the image and leaves the former untouched, at least in the relevant respects.

Nevertheless, one important difference between the child and the person in bad faith ought to be stressed. Play is part of the child’s self-development, which could be considered as a creative process. Furthermore, the child plays in different ways, and acts out different roles in various situations within the spontaneous, childish universe to which he or she belongs. Bad faith, on the other hand, infects the whole of one’s existence, by shaping it into the reproduction and repetition of a certain mode of being.

It is our relationships with each other and with society that offer the most effective support to bad faith, and this circumstance underlines its moral significance. In fact, it is clear that the syntheses achieved in bad faith, imaginary though they be, are sustained by means of certain kinds of conduct, and thus have a real and often devastating impact on how people relate to each other and reproduce ways of living together.

What Sartre means by ‘authenticity’, which is the fundamental positive value in his ethical perspective, partly consists in shattering those images, myths and conventional labels within which individuals enclose themselves, thus limiting the scope of their freedom, and in the creative construction of the human world, a task which is always open to the dimension of the ‘possible’.

Our contemporary world is often described as an ‘image culture’. If this is so, then Sartre’s theory and its invitation to a creative rethinking of the real deserve our appreciation and attention.

© Maria Antoinietta Perna 2001

Maria Perna wrote a PhD on Sartre at Birkbeck College, London, and now lectures at the University of Calabria in Italy.

Further Reading
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Psychology of the Imagination (1940).
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (1943).
Edward S. Casey ‘Sartre on Imagination’, in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, (Open Court, 1981). Casey addresses the kind of criticism of Sartre’s theory of imagination considered in this article.

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