Thus far Wolff has mentioned a capacity of thinking oneself and a capacity of thinking other things that happen to affect one's body – the latter capacity we might call sensation or perception. These two capacities concern things which are truly present, but human beings have also the capacity of thinking something that is not present. Wolff calls this capacity Einbildung – word which is usually translated as imagination.
Whereas we would nowadays think of creating something novel as an epitome of imagination, for the early modern philosophy imagination was particularly a capacity for representing something that had been perceived or generally thought earlier. Thus, Spinoza explains imagination through the example of Paul thinking his friend Peter, although Peter is currently somewhere else. Later on, Kant and his followers would call this capacity reproductive imagination and separate it from productive imagination, which was required for constituting experience itself.
It is then no wonder that Wolff also connects Einbildung with memory (Gedächtnis). Memory is not then, according to Wolff, a capacity for thinking things that once were thought – this is already covered by imagination. Instead, the memory is left only with the task of recognising that a certain thought is something that has been thought before. Note that neither imagination nor memory need to concern just earlier sensations, but they can also reproduce all sorts of thoughts or conscious states.
Still, Wolffian Einbildung also includes the possibility of thinking something that has not been thought before: if nowhere else, this happens at least in dreams. This is still no Kantian productive imagination, because Wolff admits that at least the materials of these imaginations must derive from perceptions, that is, that the imaginations are mere recombinations of previous thoughts. The imaginations in general are thus always dependent on perceptions. Furthermore, the products of imagination are also weaker than direct perceptions. Thus, the Wolffian difference between perceptions and imaginations shares some similarities with the Humean difference between impressions and ideas.
Wolff distinguishes two possibilities of imagining new thoughts. Firstly, the imagined recombination of previous thoughts might be groundless, that is, something that could not be generated. This is what Wolff calls an empty imagination and it is exemplified by mythical notions like centaur, but also by fantastic notions of different types of artists. Wolff would probably include the utopian Lennon song mentioned in the title among the products of an empty imagination.
Then again, the combination might be based on the principle of sufficient reason, or in other words, we might know how to produce it. In this case, Wolff maintains, the combination has truth, and as we've seen before, Wolff means by truth actually order: in other words, such a combination is regulated. This is the highest point of beauty for Wolff – creativity that is controlled by rules. It seems no wonder that Wolff is especially presenting architecture as an example of true beauty (I have examined Wolff's attitude towards architecture in an earlier post). Wolff is pleased of a roof protecting us from the weather, because it is something we can truly make to happen, unlike dreams of love and peace.
In addition to architecture, Wolff assumes the controlled, but creative imagination is used in mathematics: we might not have seen a particular sort of curve, but we still know how to construct one, because we know its equation. In Wolff's time all known curves were undoubtedly such that could be constructed so easily. Yet, nowadays we are familiar also with curves that cannot be completely constructed, but which can only be approximated through a series of constructible curves: the desired curve is then defined as the limit of such series. If Wolff were consistent, he would probably have to consider such curves results of an empty imagination.
In any case, Wolff appears to think that if creative imagination is to be fruitful, it requires external control. Although the control is not assigned to any particular faculty, it is probably understanding (Verstand) Wolff is thinking. I shall consider this faculty next time.