Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Forms of Fantasy: Psychology and Epistemology in the House of Alma, De la Force De Vimagination, and Othello

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Forms of Fantasy: Psychology and Epistemology in the House of Alma, De la Force De Vimagination, and Othello

Article excerpt

WHAT EARLY MODERN DISCUSSIONS of imagination lacked in substantive originality, they made up for in formal ingenuity. Consider Robert Basset's 1637 Curiosities: or the cabinet of nature, which offers this definition:

Q. What is fantasie or imagination?

An. Fantasie, according to Aristotle Cap. 3. Lib. 1. de Anima, is an
apparition, or imagination, (under which are also meditation and
thought comprised) by which are represented Idaea's of things, which
may fall under the exteriour senses, but also an infinity of other
things, which neither are, nor can be, and this either sleeping or
waking, as Gyants, Devils, Hydra's, castles in the Ayre, Chymaera's,
and any thing that can be imagined or thought upon joyntly, or
severally. (1)

The account is unremarkable in that it is entirely consistent with what Basset's contemporaries would have understood by the term "imagination"--also "fantasy," or "fancy"--namely, that it is an inward mental representation, produced and manipulated by the powers of the sensitive soul in the ordinary course of cognition. Fantasies are the intelligible species employed by the faculties of imagination, understanding, and memory; they indeed constitute the basis of "meditation and thought." Rightly, Basset identifies Aristotle's De anima as the origin of faculty psychology. He points out that fancies can represent "things" that may or may not exist in actuality, and that they can be utilized in isolation or in combination--"joyntly, or severally." He implies, also rightly, that the words fantasy and imagination may be used interchangeably, and that the faculties may be thought of as interior senses, analogous to the "exteriour" ones.

Things become more interesting when we examine the texture and arrangement of this definition. Next to the classical citation there is what sounds a bit like Sidney's Defence of Poesy: compare the latter's "Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras" as examples of fancies with Basset's "Gyants, Devils, Hydra's." (2) Meanwhile, the interrogative scheme evokes the medieval quaestio: Basset's definition is drawn from a chapter dealing with the interior senses, written as a series of questions. Compare his "Wherefore are they tearmed interior?" with Thomas Aquinas's "Whether the interior senses are suitably distinguished?" in the Summa Theologiae. (3) The subtitle of Basset's work would seem to confirm this air of intellectualism: it is a miscellany of "Phylosophicall Naturall and Morall Questions." But the philosophical thinking is obscured by the playful, somewhat clotted prose, and most of the book's chapters are not very scholarly seeming, treating such topics as mad dogs, marmalade, and snow. (4) We must look to another element of Basset's title to comprehend its eclectic contents: cabinet of nature. The Curiosities styles itself as a closet of wonders, a textual display case of exotica--intended to resemble the kunstkammern that exhibited "nature in the raw" alongside "ancient works of art," mingling old things and new, from all over the world. (5) Framed in this way, imagination becomes a wonder, belonging to the newly wondrous world. The faculty's venerable intellectual history, which comprises antique and medieval thought, is here remade as a marvelous pastiche in its own right. Simply by organizing established ideas about fantasy in this layered, symbolic presentation, Basset breathes life into the timeworn precepts of faculty psychology. At the same time, the passage reveals something specific about the epistemological efficacy of the curiosity cabinet: variety and melange cause us to see things with fresh eyes, and so provoke fresh thoughts.

Basset has exploited the fact that although the tenets of faculty psychology were mostly stable at the turn of the seventeenth century, there was no one way of writing about this psychology, no singular authoritative mode of presentation. Commentators could choose among or fashion these modes as they pleased. …

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