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By Sheryl Boyle


This paper will explore the Aristotelian concept of the Rational Imagination (Phantasia Logistike) and propose it as a sixth sense[1] – a partner to our sense of vision[2] as a contribution to the ABCDerium online catalogue of ideas expanding the definition of the senses.[3]  Aristotle’s work (384-322 BCE) on the senses and phantasia persisted through until the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance and had far-reaching effect on the arts and architecture which were intimately involved with the role of the image and imagination.

So how can phantasia be understood as the sixth sense? And how does it positively expand our understanding of the senses?  In a scientific and technological culture, the sense of vision dominates and imagination is peripheral at best.  In The Wake of Imagination, Richard Kearney describes the attrition of the imagination despite the proliferation of the image in contemporary society.  He posits the technological image as a prime catalyst in moving our age from one of production to one of reproduction (of the image)[4].  Production is seen as an act of making, a creative act, while reproduction can be seen as a mirror on the image of the world[5].  Kearney laments the loss of what Walter Benjamin called the authenticity or ‘aura’ of the original work of art in this shift.[6]   By looking to the first full philosophical descriptions of imagination in Plato and Aristotle, perhaps we can better understand the current crisis of the imagination and rediscover opportunities to expand the senses.


To elaborate Aristotle’s position on sensation and imagination, it is important to delineate the departure he makes from the philosophy of Plato (c. 424-347 BCE) before him, and the positive influence this had for the understanding of the senses in Western thought.


Both Plato and Aristotle defined the concept of imagination as a picturing activity.[7] For Plato, the forms that hold meaning exist in a transcendental world, completely apart (and above) the material world.  In the Timeaus, Plato describes the creation of the cosmos (nature) by a divine craftsman/architect (demiurge) as a physical representation of this Ideal other-world.  Art by humans, an exercise of the imagination, is therefore seen as a copy of a copy since the artist makes a copy of nature (a painting of a flower for example) that is already a copy made by the demiurge of the Ideal flower (which exists only as an idea).   For Plato, these second-hand copies have the power to lead us away from pure reason (the Spiritual/Good), and towards the illusory world of imitations (the Material/Bad).  Imagination then, for Plato, turns us away from reason (the ultimate good) and towards idolatry and illusion.[8]


Aristotle, on the other hand, firmly embraced the material sensory world as the source for ideas that lead to knowledge.  His realist epistemology moved the discussion of imagination from the metaphysical to the psychological level and was a radical development and departure from Plato’s idealist epistemology.   By embedding the meaning of reality in the sensible/tangible world, rather than in a transcendental other-world, Aristotle redefines the role of imagination and the importance of the senses.  The seat of the soul was in the heart for Aristotle, and the head was a cooling system for thought[9].  Both acts brought meaning to within grasp of the sensing, imagining, thinking human.


Aristotelian philosophy delineated five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch), each with their own receiving organ (eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin[10])[11] and a medium that conjoins them.[12]  Sensation in the form of multi-sensory impressions was required for the mind to perceive impressions of the world.[13] Aristotle, in his treatise On Memory, states “without an image, thinking is impossible”.[14]  These sensory impressions were processed by the “common sense” where the image of figure, size, number, movement and rest were generated and merged with the sensation data from each of the five senses to create an image.


The Aristotelian theory of sensation identified the head as containing three ventricles which each oversaw receiving, processing and storing of sensory information.[15]  These ventricles were depicted[16] as three “spaces” located at the front, center and back of the head.


Common sense was situated, like a filter, in the front section of the front ventricle.  Once processed, these images were passed along to the larger ventricle space of phantasia or imagination that then informs the second ventricle, estimation (recognition) and finally passes the image on to the third ventricle, memory.[17]  For Aristotle, memory, like a reservoir of stored sensations, was the main source of our images.  While he tries to define what imagination is, Aristotle finds that it is sort of a species of sensation, but special in that it has privileged contact with reason.[18]  Aristotle does conclude his discussion on the imagination in his On The Soul (429a5) by drawing attention to the etymological connection between sight and imagination, “As sight is the most highly developed sense, the name fantasia (imagination) has been formed from faoV (light) because it is not possible to see without light.”


With memory as a reservoir, imagination is called upon to call up images to aid in decision making (morals), not only with reference to identical situations already experienced but to construct potential solutions out of the existing stored experiences.[19]  Aristotle defines this kind of imagination as the rational imagination (phantasia logistike/bouleutike) with ability to unite and combine empirical sensations.  The active role of uniting and combining is defined as a ‘synthetic practice’[20] and is therefore constructive in nature.    Although Aristotle is adamant that rational imagination, unique to humans, is not a source for new ideas[21] he does allow it the power to unite and combine both stored images from memory and new sensations and to sift through various outcomes of combinations in the imagination driven by desire for knowledge[22].


In this way, imagination constructs a world based on sensations/images, and is in itself an act of creation preceding reason.  This could be seen as analogous to the act of cooking, whereby individual (yet multi-sensory) ingredients are collected (by the common sense) and are put together in a creative act of cooking, and presented to the mind to eat and remember.  This process of ingredient collecting can also access the stored sensations in our memory, or a pantry in our analogy.[23]


Of interest to this proposal is the heightened role of imagination in informing reason[24] that the Aristotelian theory of perception gives to us.  It could be said that the front ventricle portrays a twinned image of a redefined sense of vision: one part receiving multi-sensory impressions from the world through the organs of sense (a medium of reception), and the second part projecting a newly constructed and multi-sensory mental image to the mind[25] (an medium of projection)[26].  Imagination then, creates multi-sensory “images” from both what we sense (common sensibles), and what we have sensed (memories).  Its place in Aristotelian thought as an informant for reason places a creative act of construction (imagining) ahead of a rational world.  So the world is, as we imagine it.


Returning to the discussion of phantasia as a sixth sense.  Strictly speaking, Aristotle did not see phantasia as a sense, as it did not meet the criteria of a sense by his definition (i.e. it did not directly sense or perceive things in that same way that his five senses did).  Phantasia also did not create new knowledge as we have previously described, but rather constructed things from given and stored images.  And finally, phantasia did not meet his criteria of being a judgement since imagination lies within our own power.   Aristotle also did not see imagination as any combination of these three categories.[27]  Phantasia then, sat outside of these definitions, and yet was necessary for any and all of them to function.


If we focus on the actions taking place in Aristotle’s epistemology, vision is understood to receive “images” of the tangible world, and imagination projects “images” of the intangible world.  Their partnership balances elements of the sense of sight – namely receiving and projecting, or alternatively of deconstructing (sight) and constructing (imagining).  By expanding the definition of what a ‘sense’ might be[28] we can find a partner for vision as a sixth sense.


With imagination at the helm, the hegemony of vision could be dramatically enhanced if twinned with a multi-sensorial image of our own making.  Imagination, asleep since the enlightenment, could serve to give sensorial depth to the flatness of our envisioned world, and engage us in construction of this world, rather than passively receiving it.



 Barnes, Jonathan (trans). The Complete Works of Aristotle – the revised Oxford Translation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.

Cassirer, Earnst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, John Herman Randall, Jr (eds.). The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Erickson, Caroly. The Medieval Vision – Essays in History and Perception.  New York: Oxford, 1976.

Howes, David (ed). The Sixth Sense Reader.  New York: Berg, 2009.

Kearney, Richard.  The Wake of Imagination.  Minneapolis, Univertsity of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Paul Oskar Kristeller. Reniassance Thought – the Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains.  New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1955.

Quiviger, François.  The Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art.  London:  Reaktion Books, 2010.


[1] David Howes proposes the concept of a sense without an organ (a sixth sense) as not a limiting concept of one sense, but an opening of the concept of the senses beyond the five traditional senses. See David Howes (ed.), The Sixth Sense Reader, p 1.

[2] The concept of pairings in the senses as discussed with Professor Howes in his Concordia class, HUMA 866 Sensory Studies.  Hearing and touch were paired, one dealing with sensing vibrations in close proximity (touch) and one with perceiving distant vibrations (hearing).  Taste and smell were paired, with taste dealing with molecular level exchanges/perceptions on contact, and smell dealing with these at a distance.  Sight is left without a partner, giving rise to the search for the sixth sense.

[4] Kearney, p 4

[5] Kearney, p 6.

[6] Kearney, p.4 and also in Walter Benjamin, The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction where Benjamin proposes that the aura is built of both the authenticity of the work itself being made by an artist in a unique space and time, and the specific world of the work as brought by the viewer.

[7] Richard Kearney. The Wake of Imagination. p.109.

[8] Kearney. p 88.

[9] Francois Quiviger, The Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art. p 16.

[10] There was considerable uncertainty as to what the organ of touch was by Aristotle as it was not as obvious as the four other senses situated clearly on the head.   He noted that touch may be more than one sense, and struggled with the correspondence of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) with the five senses.  See Nicholas Wade, ‘The Search for a Sixth Sense: the Cases for Vestibular, Muscle and Temperature Senses’ in David howes, The Sixth Sense Reader. p 55-56.

[11] The number five allowed Aristotle to elicit a correspondence between the number of fingers on a hand, the number of appendages on the human body and the number of senses, although this required significant condensing of senses.  See Howes/Classen in The Sixth Sense Reader, p.3.

[12] Howes, p 16.

[13] Quiviger, p.17.

[14] Aristotle, On Memory (450a1)

[15] Francois Quiviger, The Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art. p 15.

[16] The map of the head was supplied by Galen. Though it could certainly not have matched his discoveries through dissection, it did correspond with the parts of Aritotle’s theory that he agreed with.

[17] Quiviger, p 18.

[18] Kearney, p 108.

[19] Kearney, p 110.

[20] Aristotle defines this practice as eidõlopoiountes (De Memoria 441b) in Kearney, p 111.

[21] Kearney, p 112.

[22] Kearney, p 419.

[23] Kearney, p107.

[24] In The Wake of Imagination, Richard Kearney states that Aristotle shifts the discussion of the imagination to be on its role as a process between sensation and reason, and away from the twice removed  Platonic image as a copy of a divine and perfect image (nature) which is then copied in our minds as an image.  p 106.

[25] Kearney, p106.

[26] Kearney also states that Aristotle understood dreaming as a species of imagination, and therefore a mode of perception imagined.  To fall back on my cooking analogy, this can be seen as a dreamed meal, prepared from the sensations collected in the common sense. p 107. See also Howes, p 33.

[27] Aristotle, On the Soul (427b 15)

[28] For more on this, see David Howes’ Introduction to The Sixth Sense Reader. pp 1-52.