Imagination and Knowledge

Imagination and Knowledge

Painting by Treya Mukherjee, 5 years

To me it seems that all sciences are vain and full of errors that are not born of Experience…and that are not tested by Experience…that do not at their origin, middle, or end, pass through any of the five senses…Experience does not feed investigators on dreams…

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Ed: Irma. A. Richter

Such reverence of experience—despite its inability to feed investigators on dreams—from a man associated with prophetic creativity, seems incongruous. It appears especially ironic when contrasted with the primacy given to imagination by Albert Einstein, in his statement that imagination is more important than knowledge. Einstein is irrevocably identified with a field popularly perceived to be reliant on practical, demonstrable facts. A debate across the time-frames and life spans of the authors of these two seemingly opposite viewpoints may raise several interesting questions about the validity of their assertions.

Some questions that come to mind are, is it true to ascribe potent change to the effects of experience instead of imagination? Did our ancestors surmount evolutionary hurdles only after putting together a comprehensive knowledge base or through an intelligent imagining of what they did not know? And when each human being moves through its own life cycle, is  he or she increasing an existing genetic data base by imbibing new experiences, or interpreting the world through latent imagination? Can imagination exist without knowledge or vice versa, and which is finally more important? In truth, as Rabindranath Tagore put forth in his searching analysis of the memory of a race, is ‘…the history of idea…distinguished from the history of fact’?2

Attempting to answer these questions is fraught with the risk of seperating the head and tail even if they are part of the same coin. Conventional wisdom suggests that knowledge as ‘information acquired by study or research’, is distinct from imagination, ‘the mental faculty which forms concepts of external objects not present to the senses’. But is this actually so? Are erudition and creativity mutually exclusive, and what does their absence result in? As embodied in absolute terms, it is true that the ability to dream even when unsupported by any knowledge may cause a person to evolve in new and unexpected ways, while great erudition unaccompanied by imagination is unlikely to effect much real change in an individual and therefore in the larger worlds. However, individuals with such absolute attributes are rare. Nearly everyone is born with some amount of creative vision; and it is equally impossible to escape the acquisition of information of some kind, whether unconventional or formal, technical or experiential. Despite his professed feeling for imagination, Einstein too must have presupposed the existence of a certain amount of knowledge as an intrinsic part of imagination

Having said that absolute imagination and absolute knowledge are equally unlikely propositions in reality, individuals with extreme proportions of both attributes do exist. Such personalities have also been plausibly invented in literature in almost all parts of the world, as in the two principal players amongst the wide range of characters portrayed by George Eliot in her novel Middle March set in 19th century provincial England. The painstaking pedantry of the elderly Edward Casaubon is contrasted with the fervent empathy of his young wife, Dorothea Brooke. Knowledge without imagination as personified by Casuabon is shown to confine itself to a mere acquisition of an individual, and worse, to constrict the happiness or growth of other individuals. Despite the almost fatally flawed decisions that Dorothea’s excessive imagination and limited education lead her to, her qualities are clearly superior to such scholarship.

Such stifling of intrinsic imagination is often perpetuated in schools—the very repositories of informed instruction—when learning is transformed into a narrow-eyed tyrant. Rabindranath Tagore, recognized for the almost universal breadth of his mind,  left school to escape the incarceration of conventional education. Ironically and perhaps aptly, he did not reject knowledege as an ideal, but instead used this experience to dream into reality the imaginatively different educational ideal of his VisvaBharati school and university. And perhaps Einstein’s distaste for knowledge in the strict sense of the word stemmed from a reportedly similar attitude to school authoritarianism.

Even a little imagination can flavour and leaven learning, and cause it to rise and grow in a similar process as yeast and flour. This was personified for me in the magical transformation of  a normally repressive educational encounter into an imaginative literary exploration, by one of my teachers in Loreto Convent—one of the many schools I studied in. The weekly subject of ‘Moral Science’ consisted of a variety of strictures and sermons anticipated in one of the inevitable retorts that the sharp-chinned Duchess made in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘Everything’s got a moral if only you can find it. Instead of treating this in the usual way, our teacher in the 8th Standard, a young Australian nun, made us choose and enact excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays which showed how women could, by dint of their mental strength and courage, change the course of events.

A handicap of knowledge without imagination can effect a spatial compass varying from a home to an empire, perhaps most apparently so in overtly creative fields such as design—especially architectural design. Functional training in construction and aesthetics, a requisite to good design, is what technical-schools today and apprentice systems traditionally, seek to transmit. However, that this foundation of knowledge even when aided by compatible resources, teachers, syllabi, or experience, is insufficient for great design, is borne out by the often unsatisfactory creations of conventionally brilliant students. In the general decline in meaningful built and open spaces, inspirational interventions are few and are invariably effected not necessarily by those able to contain the greatest level of technical wisdom, but those with an intrinsic ability to continually evolve through their training.

Imagination actually allows a redefinition of knowledge, by continually adding to the existing body of accumulated information. Extraordinary imagination—a rare and personal attribute—can remarkably often transcend ordinary limitations, even time and space. The renowned contemporary and rival of Leonardo, Michelangelo Buonarotti—sculptor, painter and architect—commissioned by the Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel despite no specific experience of ever colouring in fresco, still produced a work of genius, emulated in his lifetime and beyond. The 15th century Mughal emperor Akbar, who began his rule as a 14 year old boy, overrode his conventional illiteracy through an unusual vision that effected vitally positive changes in urban and rural society, religion, art and architecture. Even four centuries after his life, these continue to provide deeply felt joy and inspiration. Conversely, Aurangzeb, despite being equipped with the benefits of training denied to his great-grandfather, catalyzed the downfall of this extensive empire and dynasty, as well as of its artistic achievements and its social institutions.

Much of what is celebrate today as wisdom or genius—in the arts, philosophy or mathematics—owes its origin to the inventiveness of great or small, named or unnamed individuals. Even the language that we speak and write in is the result of a collective conception, while what we consider history is the interpretation by several individuals of their past and present worlds. Mathematics, the ultimate representation of technical logic, is considered by some to be ‘only a language invented to describe sizes and quantities and relationships between measurable things’ (Einstein for Beginners, pp). The conception of knowledge itself is fluid. Most of us agree with Hamlet, an imagined prince, that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of’, and yet dreams frequently outpace us. It is interesting to remember that what we accept as knowledge is really just imagination that has been proven, and what we may term as sacrilegious today may seem extraordinarily relevant tomorrow. If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and others of his time had not dreamed into reality a radically new way of freeing their people, the power of non-violence or Ahimsa may have been relegated to the absurd. The concepts of space and time, once imagined by Issac Newton as the classical understanding of the physical world were themselves replaced by the formulation of the theory of relativity, but as Einstein wryly remarked:

‘If relativity is proved right, the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the German will call me a Jew.’

Icons of creative genius, whose stirring and disturbing creations, unabashedly alter the perception of life—may yet produce divergent and sceptical reactions in their time and after. Despite his lifetime of renown as a renaissance master, did none of Leonardo’s sketches of his inventive machines cause scepticism among his contemporaries? While the wisdom of the ‘flat earth’, the edge of which was believed to terminate a long journey in horrific ways is today dismissed as a whimsical wandering, some of the occurrences authored by Jules Verne’s to be savoured as improbable illusions in his lifetime, are being enacted in the real world today. Will future generations designate as myth the descriptions of aeroplanes, as we do the flying chariots of the epics? Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s mind confronts us with an un-experienced reality as he describes the ascent of the living beautiful Remedios to the heavens, even as the ideals of our sages and religious teachers comfort us with a description of an intangible haven that changes with the regions that we inhabit on the earth. And religion—personal or community or traditional (or the lack of it)—which moves us all in different ways, is it not more hypothesis than fact? Or the fact that various people with differing insights are imagining the truth of Einstein’s statement, with no perfect means to know what he meant?

However, it is equally true that the acquisition of knowledge often impels latent creativity to its climax. The revered Indian musician Baba Allaudin Khan, born with almost unimaginable talent, spent most of his life in the pursuit of musical knowledge. As his son, the renowned sarod player, Ali Akbar Khan recalls, after his father ran away from home at the age of eight, he spent more than 40 years in the quest for musical knowledge which culminated at the feet of the great Mohammad Wazir Khan, descendant of the legendary 15th century musician Tansen. Allaudin Khan’s continuously diligent training undoubtedly heightened his inborn musical qualities, and enabled him to guide a new generation of extraordinary musicians. Such unusual desire for self-education, also moved Leonardo Da Vinci to supplement his apprenticeship under the painter and goldsmith, Andrea del Verrochio, through a voracious analysis of all aspects of his personal experience. Leonardo, who additionally taught himself Latin to imbibe the maximum available knowledge, repeatedly advocates comprehensive study. Nonetheless, for all this emphasis, he does not ignore the value of intuitive power, rationalizing it into an exercise for future painters to envision in

‘walls stained with damp or…stones of uneven colour…the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety…battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces, and clothes, and an infinity of things…’

This process of reconciliation, the mutually inseparable collaboration where knowledge feeds on the power of dreams and dreams are realized through knowledge, is perhaps encapsulated in the process of learning and performing music. Classical music requires continually rigorous training to render compositions with technical dexterity. However, only the presence of personal imagination can elevate it to an unique mystical experience. This importance of the freedom of creation within a framework of consciousness is elevated into an art form in Indian classical music, where imaginative interpretation within the law of the melody, is venerated as intrinsic to musical evolution. Even jazz, long characterized as a non-conforming musical style, requires substantial measures of conventional musical knowledge and dexterity, to actually carry out its characteristic improvisation and syncopated phrasing.

The popular though often reviled genre of the whodunit, balances the qualities of knowledge and imagination. Despite being a witness of sequential events along with the investigator, an accurate solution of the mystery cannot be predicted by every reader, excessive little imagination a la Miss Lemon and excessively great imagination a la Hastings are equally likely to confound the answer. Similarly, in a perceivably more real situation, while specialized training is necessary, it alone is insufficient for an archaeologist to restore fragments from different times and spaces, and assign to them their order and use. Even in an avowedly scientific field such as medicine, the rigid comprehension and application of knowledge may regress into an extraordinary reversal of the healing philosophy. This becomes sadly evident in chronically confounding diseases, where despite the sporadic success of conventional medical treatment, the refusal of many scientific minds to even contemplate the possible benefit of alternative healing systems such as traditional sciences, often causes unimaginable harm—and even loss of life—to patients.

Knowledge, the result of individual or collective imagination, exists in some form or the other in this world, like so many immeasurable half-visible tubes in endless chambers. To spot the right entrances to the chambers, to see the right tubes to perhaps mix them in proportions that create new densities, colours and forms requires more than just the power to count the tubes and remember their numbers. It is the ability in each of us to enter through different doors, and swing the light to re-see the visible and the invisible world uniquely, that transforms knowledge and takes it further on the path of creation and change. And thus, the underlying assertion of Einstein’s statement may perhaps be, ‘change is more important than constancy’. Nonetheless, some uncertainty in the imagination of an individual and of an age will always remain inevitably dependant on the earlier framework recognized as knowledge, as a conversation between Einstein and Tagore records6:

Einstein: “…uncertainty will always be there, about everything fundamental in our experience…Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.”

Tagore: “And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste confirming to the universal standard.”


1. Selected and edited Irma. A. Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 224

2. Rabindranath Tagore, The Centre of Indian Culture, p. 10.

3. George Eliot, Middle March, Ed: W. J. Harvey, p. 30.

4. Ibid. Introduction, p. 8.

5. Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland,  Annotated by Martin Gardner, p.

6. Confluences of Minds, Tagore-Einstein Colloquy, p. 15, Rabindra-Bhavna, Visva-Gharati. Santi Niketan 731 235.

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