Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part Two)

Break down the core concept — the pragmatic imagination — for us. What do you mean by imagination? In what senses can our imaginations be turned into pragmatic tools for changing the world?


When most people think of imagination, they mostly – or only – think of it in terms of the role it plays in artistic or speculative activities, those activities that we tend to associate with the word ‘creative.’ It has been deified within the realm of cultural pursuits and demonized when it emerges to get in the way of important thinking and serious work.

Those who trade in reason for a living recoil at its undisciplined nature. While others claim that we should not squander it on ‘practical’ work. Throughout western history, we have seen philosophers, artists and scientists setting imagination up against reason. Pragmatic Imagination proposes that the imagination is actually integral to all cognitive effort and therefore all activities in the world. But it is integral in different ways and to different degrees of effort. Understanding this allows us to unpack its role in the relationship between thought and action and then propose a way to think about how to amplify its capacity for meaningful activity of every kind.

We began by defining imagination. Because imagination and creativity are too often used interchangeably, we started by uncoupling the two. To do so, you need to enter into the domains of linguistics, philosophy and the brain sciences. (I said earlier that DesUnbound was its own ‘design’ project. This is because it moved forward through questions and more questions around those questions. As we asked and wrestled with questions, we discovered unforeseen perspectives, openings and branchings in previous thinking. This whole chapter is a good example of that!).

In wrestling with a good way to think about the imagination we went back to word origins. Both imagination and creativity are associated with novelty. That’s why they get conflated. But etymologically, ‘imagination’ is the capacity for, or the product of, imagining, which refers to the making of mental images. ‘Creativity’ is associated with the verb ‘to create’, and refers to inventive, productive and usually intentional action that results in the making of something.

Creativity is aimed at making things that enter the world, while imagination is a specific kind of cognitive function. It is the power or capacity of humans to form internal images of objects and situations. We usually think of these images as visual images, but they can also be auditory, olfactory, or motor ‘images.’

My colleague, the renowned neuroscientist who directs the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, Antonio Damasio, talks about how the imagination relies on banked images that one recalls, brings ‘on line’ and then operates on to create novel combinations. The banked images he refers to come from both the world outside the mind and images that we are continually working on inside the mind. Experiences create images for the imagination to hold. But the imagination, with its propensity for playing with associations, also creates new renditions of them. So, real world experiences seed rich image banks for the imagination to draw from. The imagination is eclectic. It does not care where it gets images from and ‘real’ images are quickly replaced by ‘interpreted’ images.

Both imagination and creativity are processes that create products. But the product of the imagination is the image itself, while the product of creativity is something that enters and belongs to the world, whether that something is material – a new gadget – or immaterial – a new policy. And – (this is a critical difference) – they are differently experienced because they are different processes of human cognition and interaction with the world. The imagination is primarily an intra-psychological process, occurring in the brain on a temporal scale of microseconds, and ending when a resolution between an individual’s experience, and the internal image formation that this experience calls forth, emerges.

Creativity is a process that is part of a social domain of action. It operates on a longer time scale, ending when an internal cognitive product – a solution to a problem, an idea or an image – becomes embodied as something that enters the world of social relations – a world that has a history to it. Both are socially and culturally mediated products but the experience is different and the relationship of the product to the world is different. Because of this, we tend to associate creativity with intentions and purpose and we tend to associate imagination with the luxury of individual expression.

Why do I dwell on this? Because in looking at the imagination this way – as the cognitive process of making mental images – we were then able to interrogate how this cognitive process functions, and when. New research in the neurological and cognitive sciences – different work that focused on specific activities from basic perception to jazz improvisation – led to a pretty good framework for understanding how it functions. In understanding better the how, we then asked when. It is important to add that, while the concept and framework of the pragmatic imagination might have been catalyzed by scientific advances, it is actually a blend of science, philosophy, experience, and speculation.

A catalytic discovery for us was the work of two cognitive psychologists at UCSD who were working off of the shoulders of the famous Russian psychologist Vygötsky. Lev Vygötsky built a theory of human cultural development that theorized the interaction between the social and biological aspects of our evolution. The work that interested us was on how culture mediates perception – specifically, the most basic function of perception, which is seeing. Everything we see is mediated by the images we hold from past experience – images that are personal and cultural interpretations of the ‘real’ experience. (This is why two people seeing the same event might not agree on what they saw, or worse, a whole group of people might agree on the something they saw or experienced in a manner that completely contradicts what actually happened.)

Two UCSD cognitive scientists, Pelaprat and Cole, did a series of experiments, three quarters of a century after Vygötsky’s seminal work, that actually showed how, in the physical act of seeing, the brain relies on nano-second gaps in vision. When those gaps were removed, the brain ‘saw’ nothing . . . the image in front of the subjects disappeared to gray. In those gaps, they theorized that we use existing banked mental images to correlate the new image with what we know. In other words, to make sense of what we are seeing. This is where Pragmatic Imagination begins because this suggests that the process of creating, retrieving, and making mental images is not just about the most extremely undisciplined activities we might associate with this kind of cognitive activity, but, if it is also part of perception itself, then why not part of everything in between – an entire spectrum of cognitive activity.

Once you understand that the cognitive operations that are the imagination can serve in multiple roles from the most basic cognitive activity that we believe is a direct translation of reality – I’m talking about seeing – all the way to dreaming, which is considered the least directly related to reality, then the bi-polar dichotomy between reason and imagination is no longer relevant. This sets up the first principle of Pragmatic Imagination, which is that the imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity from perception through three forms of reasoning, speculation, experimentation, and all the way to where the free play of the imagination dominates.

There is a quote by William James that I love. He gets it. He says, “There are imaginations, not ‘the Imagination,’ and they must be studied in detail.”

In our interest to ‘study in detail,’ we then went on to look at the role of the imagination in this spectrum, and to specifically ask about the role of the gap. The gap being the difference between the unmediated thing we see, or experience in the world, and what we know; between the new ‘image’ and our banked ‘images.’ On one side of the spectrum – in perception through reasoning – we use the image making capacity of the mind to resolve that difference. The imagination helps us close the gap and make sense of the world. But as one moves along the spectrum, we actually use the imagination to enlarge, or create, new gaps and then to assist in resolving them to different degrees depending upon how the image is meant to intersect with the world. When we speculate on something, we begin to entertain things that are not necessarily viable – we begin to form images of things that might not be possible – of things that are strange to us. And then we use the imagination to make sense of these strange things – or at least to make them familiar enough to assimilate them. So there is a sense-making capacity in the imagination but there is also a sense-breaking capacity.

These are the first two principles of our framework. The next four go on to talk about how to harness all of this – the whole spectrum for pragmatic purpose. This framework allows us to talk about how the imagination, in all of its cognitive roles, can be put to purpose for agency and impact in today’s world. But it is also important to clarify that we use the word ‘pragmatic’ in its richest sense. We do not mean ‘practical.’ They are often used synonymously to refer to common sense conduct that is concerned with ordinary activities and ordinary work. This may accurately define ‘practical’, but it is insufficient for ‘pragmatic’ as both a way of acting and a way of thinking.

The Pragmatic Imagination draws on a deeper and more textured meaning of the word by borrowing from philosophical Pragmatism whose foundational premise was that thinking and acting in the world are integrally associated; they are indivisible and reciprocal, meaning that thinking – learning actually – depends upon empirical action in the world and action depends upon thinking. In Pragmatic Imagination, we are building a framework to understand how imagination and action can sustain a similar productive entanglement to support agency in the world. And how this is critically relevant in today’s white water world.

Pragmatic Imagination is a framework of six principles that build on each other in a manner that is intended to be useful for getting at how the imagination can be better understood, prompted into action, and then converted into work for all activities, but especially to create a new capacity for working on complex problems in ways we have not been able to do – and, to use your words, “to change the world.” In complex problems, or almost any problem, or opportunity, or interaction with the world, it is often those things which one doesn’t see clearly, or cannot foresee, or will not entertain as viable, etcetera, that are most difficult for us, yet potentially most useful. Often in focusing too hard, responsibly, earnestly, on a problem, we miss seeing the problem completely. Imagination is cognitive peripheral vision that helps us ‘see’ all of those things that are lying just out of range of what we know. And helps us discover things unknown.

The framework draws from advances in the cognitive and neuro-sciences that have allowed neuroscientists to watch the brain functioning under different imaginative activities. It draws from first hand accounts of moments of intense awareness of this kind of cognitive activity. And it draws from personal experience as participants in, and mentors of, imaginative activity. It talks about different methods used to provoke and scaffold the imagination and then looks forward to Design Unbound as a tool set for instrumentalizing the products of the imagination.

The six principles of the Pragmatic Imagination are encapsulated here:

  1. The imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity.
  2. The imagination both resolves and widens the gap between the unfamiliar (the new/novel/strange) and the familiar. This gap increases along the ‘role of imagination in cognitive processes’ spectrum from left to right. Within the range of abductive reasoning, there is a significant shift from using the imagination for sense-making to sense-breaking, where one first widens the gap and then resolves it with the imagination.
  3. The Pragmatic Imagination pro-actively imagines the actual in light of meaningful purposeful possibilities and sees the opportunity in everything.
  4. The Pragmatic Imagination sees thought and action as indivisible and reciprocal. Therefore, it is part of all cognitive activity that serves thought and action for anticipating, and thought and action for follow-through; and the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side of the spectrum is especially critical in a world that requires radically new visions and actions.
  5. The imagination must be instrumentalized to turn ideas into action – the entire spectrum of the imagination especially the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side.
  6. Because the imagination is not under conscious control, we need to find and design ways to set it in motion and scaffold it throughout meaningful activity.

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).