In this work, I trace a systematic reading of Kant and Hegel’s Idealism through a novel account of the nature of the imagination. I argue that the imagination, understood rightly, is the sine qua non of Kant’s critical philosophy. I understand the imagination to be a productive function of synthesis that is perhaps more central to Kant’s account of pure reason than any other single component in his tripartite idealism: from attributing all synthesis to the imagination, including, I argue, the synthesis of pure representations of the understanding, as well as ‘pure intuitions’ in mathematics, mixed intuitions for the schemata, as well as empirical intuitions as products of synthesis of manifold wholes from the raw given of sensibility, to the pure productive (creative) intuitions of the beautiful (which are pure formal intuitions grounded in the felt free play of the faculties), and the synthetic production of aesthetic ideas as both the intuitional matter and as symbolic schemata for moral ideas. The imagination is key to understanding the unity of reason in Kant’s idealism. More importantly for Hegel, Kant’s mature conception of the imagination in the third Critique suggests a transcendental method of free play or interdetermination that is crucial, on Hegel’s account, for understanding the self-determining, yet lawful nature of reason and its dialectic method. While Hegel moves away from the term imagination as a result of his critique of Kant’s formalism of the faculties of the mind, he nevertheless takes Kant’s recognition of the inner productive power of synthesis evidenced by the imagination to be a key path forward in an account of the unity and absolute necessity of reason. While Hegel is explicit in his early writings about the importance of the imagination for Kant’s thought, I argue that he retains this fundamental view throughout his mature work.
In short, I argue that the imagination is fundamental to the unity of Kant’s tripartite system and is adopted by Hegel, under a different guise, as the core of his absolute idealism. More specifically, I argue that the point of transition between Kant and Hegel is most aptly identified and understood when we bring into view a particular understanding of Kant’s principle of the free lawfulness of the imagination as a transcendental conception of the inner purposiveness of the mind.
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