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W. P. Ker – on Burke and Imagination

September 15, 2014

Edmund Burke:

“Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure – but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, tobacco, or some such other low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence, of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.

As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal Society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures each in their appointed place.”

(from Reflections on the French Revolution, paragraph 165, online Harvard Classics)

W. P. Ker, commenting on the above passage:

“This is generalization, but it is the generalization of the artist judging the total effect, the main features, of the object he has before his mind; it is synoptic, like the eye of the painter when he is finding the composition of a landscape, or like an author working out the right proportions of his story. Though general, it is not abstract; the matter is still definite, though it is regarded from a point of view that lets the subordinate differences fall out of notice.

It is not easy to find a better name than Imagination for these modes of thought; they are imaginative in their hold upon the living particulars of experience, on the one hand, and in their lofty and comprehensive vision on the other. And they exemplify a habit of mind that has some claim to rank among the intellectual virtues, or perhaps more rightly as the highest form of practical wisdom or prudence. This kind of imagination is not opposed to judgment, it is the ground and source of right judgment, being the habit of mind which is both comprehensive and definite, both longsighted and minute.

A sort of imagination is required for all right action, and there are few good actions but might be improved by a little more of it. May we take the name imagination to denote the power of realizing what one is speaking and thinking about? It seems a permissible and not uncommon use of the term.”

(from ‘Imagination and Judgment,’ in Collected Essays of W. P. Ker, Vol. 2 [1925])

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