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Imagination in Plotinus

Author(s): E. W. Warren
Source: The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1966), pp. 277-285
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association
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'The higher and the lower powers of the soul meet in the
imaginative faculty (qav-Taula or 0avaa7TLKdv), which is the

psychical organ of memory and self-consciousness."

following Siebeck,z pointed out the important role Plotinus

functions of imagination in psychic life. Imagination is the


terminusad quem of all properlyhuman conscious experience ;3 it is that faculty

of man without which there can be no conscious experience.4 The sensitive

soul is an imaginative soul below which there is Nature, or vegetative soul,
which acts without being conscious. When the functions of reason are added
to sensation to produce a rational human being, there is conscious discursive
thought as well as conscious sensation; and since the sensitive soul cannot be
responsible for the imaging of rational concepts, Plotinus assertsthe existence
of a conceptual imagination.s
The distinctive characteristic of man is his conscious apprehension of discursive thought, which makes him a conscious reasoner.Discursive thought itself, without imagination, possessesa kind of consciousnessof its activities, but
Plotinus does not discuss this kind of consciousness-without-an-imagevery
often.6 Conscious rational activity, which is the truly human experience, encompasses both

tavo-r7TpKdv and

is avyrAq7bLs
The special power of imagination
proper,7 an apprehensive
power, which lays hold of what is not itself (the object), in order to make it
in knowing itself is self-conscious,while &davota
part of itself (as an image). NVous

knows the otov rTvroL,which are innate potentialities waiting to be illuminated

Each decline in cognitive power is the result of a progressiveseparation

by NVous.
of knower and known until

doaLsis reached.

The separation of knower and known is complete in the unconsciousknowfor, as an immaterial power, the last of the real beings, it vivifies
ledge of O;avus;
the world and fashions it, but c;avsdoes not realize that it acts; there is no
longer any cognitive connexion, any cognitive link between knower and
'For which reason nature does not know, but only produces. For what it
has it gives without deliberation9to what follows after it, and giving to the
I Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists, p. 52.

Von Kleist in 1883 in his valuable

PlotinischeStudienalso recognized the importance of Oav-raatain Plotinus, but he seems
to have relied on Siebeck for his inspiration, p. 87, footnote i.
3 Except Stdvota, however, which possesses its own consciousness independent of
imagination, I. 4. 10o.
to the
4 Br6hier remarks with regard
Stoics: 'La psych6, par opposition la physis,
est bien la psych6 en g6n6ral; or, une de ses
caract6ristiques est la representation, fonction consciente. La fonction consciente est

donc ins6parable de la fonction vitale.' Chrysippe, 166-7, n. 2.

s See my previous article, 'Memory in
Plotinus', C.Q. N.s. xv (1965), 252 if.
Io and 4. 6. 3.
7 1.4.
is a power common to sensavirlAirls
tion and imagination, but sensations become
conscious only when apprehended in the
imagination. Thus, conscious sensation involves the apprehensive power employed in
8 See Aristotle, E.N. IIo2b
9 See 4. 4. 37, where choice appears as an
indicator of consciousness.

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body and to the matter is its activity.... Whereforenature has no imagination either. But thought is superiorto imagination; the latter is between the
impression of nature and thought. Nature' has no conscious apprehension
of anything nor any understanding, but imagination has an understanding
of what is brought before it.'2
In order to bridge the gap between the soul and its object, Plotinus introduces
the concept of conscious apprehension.
The realm of conscious experience encompasses both animal and human
life. Plotinus says very little about animal life below man, and assertionsabout
its characteristicsare derived largely from knowledge about the nature of the
sensitive soul.3Human sensation requires the apprehensionof a rd0osoand the
production of an image. After the specific sense powers have split up the object
into tactile parts, visual parts, and so on, there must be a processof unification
in the OvX7/.The end product of this unification is an image in imagination.
Consciousnessis assured; for the sentient, by possessinga psychic content, the
image, is able to distinguish itself from the object that it knows in the spacetime world.
When the sensitive and rational functions are combined into one soul, a new
conceptual imagination performs a function analogous to that of sensible
imagination. There is no longer the need to unify what is known, because the
concept has not been split up by the individual senses as the sense object has
been; the need is rather to divide what is more unified.
'For just as in pictorial imagination, reason4 in motion or the motion
from it is a dividing [the setting of limits]. Or, if this reason were one and
identical, it would not be in motion, but it would endure without change.'5
Plotinusmakes clear that the imagination is the true point of contact between
man and his orientations irp's -5
when he explains that
KaiLirp0 70
Kd7owand that
sensible imagination intellectualizes (unifies), otovy
The sensible image has to be
imagination sensifies (divides), otov alaOryrdv.
immaterial and so more unified than the sensible object; the conceptual image
has to be less unified than the vdro'a or else it would be vdro'~a.The conceptual
image is a down-grading of the concept so that it can meet sense knowledge.
Conceptual imagination is the agent of human consciousness;and, although
imagination is an active power, in two of his most striking passages, 4. 3. 29
and I. 4. I0, Plotinus likens it to a reflecting mirror. Conceptual imagination,
introduced in the Fourth Enneadlargely to explain discursive memory, is discussed in its own right at I. 4. Io, where its importance for conscious life can
be clearly seen.6
An imaging power is necessary in human psychic life because the human
soul is a kind of half-way house, p~EOdpov
ov'aa,present both to intelligence and
Dicta Sapientis Graeci II, paragraph 64
(Plotini Opera, Henry-Schwyzer, ii, p. 89).
supports this interpretation.
and I I-15. This in2 44. 13, lines 7-9
teresting section shows the close connexion
of imagination, consciousness, and d'vi-irAibT.
is without consciousness, Plotinus
to it the power of imagination. See
denies ov'r
possesses otov avva'aOrlaot
3. 8. 4, where bv'atc

and a kind of understanding. Lines 22-25

show that it is the understanding of sleep as
compared to that of waking!
3 On animal life, for example,
I. I. II;
5. 2. 2; 6. 7. 94 Atdyog,compare infra, pp. 281-2.
s 3. 6. 18, lines 33-35.

6 See infra, pp. 283-4.

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to sensation. Since the soul no longer possesses its objects, it must possess
'The imagination itself does not consist in the having but in what it sees
and in what it is made to become like.... Because the imagination has all
things secondhand and so not perfectly, it becomes all things; and, since it
lies on the border and is situated in such a place, it is borne towards both."
It is precisely the possessionof and knowing through images that distinguishes
human knowledge from the knowledge of Vous;for the human being possesses
images rather than the objects themselves and, consequently, can never have
truth but only opinion.zThis is a common theme for Plotinus, as the following
passages illustrate:
'..., but we will say that it (the living being in itself) is the intelligible
has outside of itself the things
(that which is thought of) and that the NVous
that it sees. Thus, Nous has images and not the truth, if the truth is there.'3
'If this is true (namely, that Nous contemplates and has its objects before
dividing itself), it is necessarythat contemplation and the object of contemplation be the same, and intelligence be the same as the intelligible. For,
indeed, if they are not the same, there will be no truth. For he who possesses
being will have an impressionother than being, which is not truth.'4
Aside from a few passages about conceptual imagination, Plotinus usually
supposes that the imaging power primarily involves the sensitive soul. He
comes closest to defining imagination in the Sixth Ennead, 8. 3, lines Io-I2:

'But as for ourselveswe call imagination, strictlyspeaking,what is awakened

from the passive impression of the body ...


The notion of the imagination as the recipient of a blow is not an isolated one,
for it occurs elsewhere in the Enneads.The most specific mention is at I. 8. 15,
lines 18-19:
'Imagination is brought about by the irrational part (of the soul) being
struck from outside. But (the soul) receives the blow on account of its
divisible nature.'s
Further, the imagination is also evoked by disturbancesin the body; or reason,
seeing a wrong committed, may evoke an image which in turn stimulates the
body to action. Imagination, then, is an intimate link which holds the various
operations of the human soul together.
4- 44 3, lines 7-8 and 0o-12.
It has been asserted that Plotinus' identification of subject and object in Nous was
designed, among other things, to meet objections of sceptics. Any knowledge of another
being was bound to involve a representational
psychology, which leads to the question:
how do I know that my concept corresponds
to the reality which is known? For discussion
of this question see the works of G. Boas,
'A Source of Plotinian Mysticism', Journal

of Philosophy xviii


pp. 326-32,


P. E. More, HellenisticPhilosophies,p.
3 3. 9. 1, lines 7-9. This passage is part of
an interpretation of Timaeus 39e and is not
a statement of his own view.
4 5. 3. 5, lines 21-25.
s Note the similarity (or borrowing) in
Augustine, '. .. nihil est aliud illa imaginatio,
mi Nebridi, quam plaga inflicta per sensus,
...', Epist. 7. 3. Br6hier says of the Stoics,
'La repr6sentation sensible ... est l'image du
r6el produite dans l'ame par l'action d'un
objet ext6rieur' (Chrysippe,pp. 81-82).

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Plotinus develops his theory of sensitive imagination largely in conjunction

with a discussion of sensation and of memory. 4. 3. 23, after establishing that
the principle of sensation and of impulse in the human animal is active in the
brain, assertsthat reason is above these powers. Reason, however, has nothing
in common with the body, -ri S aoca-rt od'33a/oi
reason and sensation.
there must be some line of communication between
Communication is accomplished by imagination.
'. . what had nothing in common with the body had to communicate, at
all costs, with that [the receptive power of intellectual imagination] which
was a form of soul, a soul capable of making conscious apprehensionsfrom
reason [that is, capable of apprehending concepts].'I
As we know from I. 4. io and 4- 3. 30 the power apprehensive of reason is
conceptual imagination.
Plotinus does not establish the relationshipbetween conceptual and sensible
imaginations in 4. 3- 23 nor does he even indicate that what apprehendsS&avoq4He ignores here the doctrine of the twoUEasdoes not also apprehend alerO-qr4.

fold imagination because it is not integral to his discussion. Furthermore, as

he says later, the duality of our nature generally escapes us.2
Imagination, because it provides a link between reason and sensation, is

otov voEpdv.As we know from his discussion of memory,

imagination is a power and activity of the soul alone, whereas sensation, to be

an active power of the soul, needs organs. Sensible imagination, however, must
be inoperative when there are no sensations to provide images, except in so
far as that imagination is responsible for sense memories. In the Orphic discussions of the soul's journey after death there is granted at times a kind of
of the
memory of things here. Such a memory would have to be a d!v-raurpa
sensible imagination.
Imagination is on a higher level than the sense power, since it is one step
closer to the unity granted to intellectual thought. As he says,
'The power of sensationof the soul must be the power not of apprehending
sensible objects but rather of apprehending consciously the impressionsthat
arise in the living being from sensation. For these impressionsalready are

Plotinus goes on to insist on the quasi-intellectual character of imagination

when he further clarifies his notion of sensible image. He denies emphatically
that it is material in any way and affirms that the manner of apprehensionwhich produces the image-is like thought, otov vd'rqts. Specifically he says
that the images are not magnitudes.4The image in effect is the result of sensible
KploLsand d'JVTA7-L&.

Imagination is established as the terminus of sensation in three major passages :s


4. 3. 23, lines 29-31.

4. 3- 31.
I. 1. 7, lines 9-12.

4 4. 3. 26.
s The statement at 4. 3. 26, &AAai

OXuyjv A'YELV oaa 8t" a wpa-ras,

means that all bodily activities are under
the purview of the soul, but it does not mean
that all bodily activities reach the imagination. See on this point 4. 4. 8.



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'For this is that in which sensation terminates, and when the sensation
is no longer present, the visual image is present to it [imagination]."'
'The affection is there [in the body], but knowledge is in the sensitive
soul which lies close by and perceives and makes a report to that power in
which sensations terminate.'2
'How could one say that the sense objects are different if the sense images
did not terminate in one place ?'3
Imagination is integral to the functions of both sensation and memory.
The sensory power has its natural completion in the production of an image,
and the memory functions through the emergence in the imagination of the
The sensitive-memorative soul is naturally imaginative, providing
the duality of the image and the object imaged necessaryfor the consciouslife;
for, according to Plotinus, the conscious life is only possible where there is
a 'following along with', TrapaKo0ov0dEv,
where the soul by its images parallels
the object known.


That Plotinus is going to develop a doctrine of a double imagination becomes apparent in 4. 3. 29, where he specifically denies a common apprehensive power which will apprehend both sensibles and intelligibles. Sensible
memory having been established, Plotinus explains his doctrine of conceptual
memory in 4. 3- 30. It is a discussion not without difficulties.
In lines 1-5 Plotinus presents the Aristotelian theory that an image follows
upon every thought.
'What power will be responsiblefor rememberingconcepts? Will imagination [be responsiblefor] these, too ? Now if upon every thought there follows
an image-which is a copy, as it were, of the thought-and if this image
endures, then remembrance of knowledge could arise in such a way.'
He does not explicitly reject Aristotle's theory but passes on to the one which
he will hold.s
The Aristotelian theory is not acceptable to Plotinus, for he denies that an
image follows each thought. He affirms that there may be dianoetic thoughts
withoutimages and thought processes unconscious to man. The images of
thoughts are needed for their conscious apprehension by the human being.
Once there is consciousnessof a thought, that thought may be apprehended
again by the memorative function of the imagination. Imagination has a new
dimension now: that of providing for the consciousnessof the thinking process.
4- 3- 29, lines 24-26. papLais formed in
the pattern of a~uoritpa,sense image. It does
not mean visual object.
2 4*
lines 4-7.
4. 19,
See Aristotle, De
3 4. 7. 6, lines Io-II.
Anima 426bx7-19.
* How closely connected are the explanations of memory and sensation can be underand
stood from the frequent use of d~vracaLa
The doctrine
the infrequent use of atir8rOpa.

of sensation is often explained within the

context of a discussion of memory. d'qvraacpa,
while properly meaning a memory image,
frequently functions as sense image.
s Guitton apparently accepts this statement as genuinely Plotinian. 'La pens6e
aussi est toujoursaccompagn6e d'une image,
v6ritable reflet du raisonnement,...'
Tempset l'tternit6, p. 70).

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The need of an imagination to guarantee consciousnessappears to be foreign

to Aristotle's thought.'
The remainder of 4. 3. 30 is taken up with the Plotinian view.
'Perhaps it [memory] is a receiving into the imagination of the logos
which follows along with the concept. For, on the one hand, the concept
is indivisible, and it is hidden within like something which has not yet come
outside; but the logos,which has unfolded [the concept] and brought it from
the realm of the concept into the imagination, shows it as in a mirror, and
thus arisesthe consciousapprehensionofthe concept, a resting and a memory.
Therefore, the soul being in constant motion with regard to thought, it is
when the soul is in that state [namely, the viewing of the picture in the
mirror], that we have conscious apprehension.For thought is one thing, and
the conscious apprehensionof that thought is another; we always think but
we do not always apprehend that we think. This is true because the receptive power receives not only thoughts but also sensations on the other side.'
The chief difficulty with the text is the translation of the term Adyos.Clark
follows Br6hierin translating,laformuleverbale.Harder has Begriff(Wort); MacKenna, 'verbal formula'; and Guthrie, 'reason'. It seems to us that no one
here; and if one is forced to
phrase can indicate the entire meaning of
attempt a translation, Brehier'sis the most acceptable.2
The nuance is lost of the notion of Advyos
as a representationof a higher level
of reality on a lower level, a nuance closely connected with the contrast Plotinus
is drawing between 0av-racrta-ElKWV
and q!av-raota-Adyos.
The image in conceptual imagination is nota picture, whereas that of sensation is.3
Conscious apprehension in imagination arrests the motion of soul-thought
and shapes it into a stable image. This is the manner in which we know that
we think. Thinking is one thing, knowing that we think is another. This
condition is brought about because we know through images; consequently,
there must be a power to bring the two together. This power, as this passage
shows, is a'v-i1A-r
The chief problem raised by the doctrine of the two imaginations is the
unity of man. For how can there be two imaginations and yet a unitary experience ?4 Plotinus objects,
'For it would not happen that one part [of the soul] remembersintelligibles
I See
Beare, Greek Theories of Elementary
Cognition,Part III, where the common sense
is described as providing for consciousness,
namely being aware that you are aware
2 The close connexion between discursive
thought and verbal expression is shown in
4. 33. I8.
See Clark, Essays in Honor of Irving
Singer, pp. 306-7, for an interesting note
about non-pictorial images.

4 'Nun giebt es ja aber zwei


folglich auch von jedem wahrnehmungsund denkinhalte ein doppeltes bewusstsein?

Die frage wird c. 31 dahin entschieden, dass
dem allerdings so sei, dass aber ftir gewohnlich die #av-raala des h6heren


die obmacht habe, die des niederen ihr nur

wie ein schatten folge; zuweilen kaime es

freilich zwischen den beiden #avraolat zu
einem widerstreite, dann werde uns auch
die andere fUr sich deutlich, wir merkten
aber nicht, dass ihr subjekt ein anderes sei,
weil wir (wer sind denn aber eigentlich wir ?)
ja iiberhaupt die doppelheit der seelen in uns
nicht merkten' (von Kleist, PlotinischeStudien,
p. 72, n. 2). I differ from von Kleist on one
point: he interprets TVoi-rq- KpEPoTTVOS,
Io-I I, as the higher imagination. This makes
Plotinus more of an intellectualist than he is.
Earlier Vacherot also said, 'Partout oui se
produit l'imagination intellectuelle, elle
6clipse l'imagination sensible; . . .' (Histoire
critique de l'tcole d'Alexandrie,p. 553). The
statement O"Tavpv Uavp4wv-qV
47ETEpa Tr&yEpaL

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and the other sensibles; for in such a manner there would be two living
beings [persons'] who had nothing in common with each other.'2
Plotinus answers in this way: when both souls are in harmony, there is one
image; the image of the stronger soul rules the image of the other, the weaker
following along. This much of the doctrine seems clear. The following lines,
however, are most difficult. Translation amounts to interpretation.
'But whenever there is conflict and disharmony, also the other soul shines
forth in itself, escaping notice in another [the other imagination], because
the double character of the souls escapes us. For both souls come into unity
and one soul hovers above. The higher soul has seen all things and when it
departs it keeps some things but some of the other soul it abandons.'3
The difficulty in the text is the uncertainty attached to - e~rpa. Examination
shows the impossibility of assuming that the expression consistently refers to one
of the souls. His doctrine is briefly as follows: even when the souls are in disagreement, they still are a unity but they do not produce a common image.
Plotinus is not ruling out here the possibility that the conceptual imagination
might be dominant over the sensible. When there is conflict, the soul has to
identify itself with either the higher or the lower.
Plotinus probably would hold that man usually identifies himself with the
lower soul; however, he surely cannot hold that man can never reject the
sensible imagination and pursue the conscious thoughts of dianoetic imagination. When he stated earlier in this section that the stronger imagination
dominates, he was indicating that it was possible for either soul to be the
stronger one; it is for the individual soul to determine its own course. The
imagination that becomes clear in itself does not engage the attention of
the soul; the other imagination provides for our conscious experience as men.
This interpretation denies that the stronger soul is also the higher soul; it
may be either soul. It denies that conflict produces the inevitable conquest of
the higher by the lower or the lower by the higher.4
Another important text concerning conceptual imagination is I. 4. 10,
which also is very important for the doctrine of consciousness. divr7lArA
arises when the concept is thrown back upon itself, as if reflected in a mirror.
emphasizes the agreement of the two souls,
higher and lower. It is quite possible for both
higher and lower to be in agreement about
sensible affairs. In such a case the stronger
soul would be the sensible soul.
Von Kleist rightly asks 'Who are we ?' For
Plotinus 'we' are that part with which we have


The other part, dKOcaviq

avsrT, is unnoticed by us. Suppose we

identify ourselves with Ltdvota,is there then

a conscious

bavTrartLKdv alaOB/pq dv? Should

we identify ourselves very brutishly with our

sensitive soul alone, we know that &tdvota
remains conscious to itself. Why not the same
for the sensitive imagination? Plotinus' answer

is that Stavoca ~ ' a;ir-s

does not

needan imagination for conscious experience.

The conscious

3tavota possesses 10' a-zjqS the

otov 7Tro0L.For thoughts or sensation to be

conscious to manthere must be apprehension
in the imagination. Were we to identify ourselves with Stavota in opposition to any
sensible experience, kdme es zu einem widerstreite, the sensible imagination would function but without ever reaching the attention
of man; for the man has now identified his
attention with reason and the conceptual
imagination. Our psychic unity is a focus of
Following Clark, op. cit., p. 308, n. 34The use of the word 'person' is modern but
corresponds to Plotinus' meaning rather
2 4. 3 33, lines 5-8.
3 Ibid., lines 13-18.
4 See 6. 4. 17.

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If the mirror-activityof imagination is disturbed in any way, then there is no

image, but there is thought without an image. Here the term for consciousness
is lapaKo0ovO86v,'follow along with'. The metaphor of the mirror expresses
a following
precisely what Plotinus has in mind for human 7rapaKoAoV'Op8ts,
The human being is conscious only when an image is present, an image
either of a sensible or of an intelligible object. Imagination is like a mirror,
reflecting the activities of soul above and below it; consequently, it is like a
faithful companion, following wherever its friend leads. Our imagination,
which is our consciousness of objects, is always separate in being from the
object of awareness, and so our conscious life sharply separates the knower
and the known.
The importance of ivAlhbLsand its function together with the imagination
in guaranteeing conscious life becomes clear after Plotinus has declared that
there may be thought without an image of that thought.
'When we contemplate and act, one might discover many beautiful
activities, contemplations, and actions that we do while we are awake and
that we do not accompany with consciousness. It is not necessary that a
reader be conscious that he is reading and especially then when he is reading
with concentration. Nor need the courageous man be conscious that he is
courageous and that he acts in so far as he acts in virtue of courage. And
there are countless other instances. So that consciousnessseems to make the
activities themselves of which there is consciousnessweaker. But when these
acts are all alone [isolatedfrom consciousness],then they are pure, even more
active and alive; and indeed, if the wise man is in such a state, life exists to
a higher degree, not spread out in the sensible world but gathered up in
the same place and in itself."
There are two points which must be carefully noted: first, that Plotinus
is extolling the loss of consciousnessin thehumanbeing(-tazis),and second that
the kind of consciousnesswhich the wise man is fleeing is that which is disPlotinus is emphatically not assertpersed in sensation, KEXVluVOV
estranges himself from his bodily life, is
unconscious on the level at which he is psychically active. Acute attentiveness
produces a kind of unconsciousness and provides the psychic force which
separates the higher man from his sensible connexions.
We have seen before that imagination degrades rational activity, just as it
raises sensible activity. Plotinus shows in this passage the psychological reasons
for the loss of consciousness to the human being when he contemplates the
highest forms of Nous. Human consciousnessis largely dependent upon images
in imagination. Deprived of images man, as a human being, is unconscious
to himself.
in which life really exists,
The state of unconsciousness, 'v
7 'rocovTrcp7adL,
is one where there is no longer any need of conscious
life, for life is nowselfhuman
soul that marks its
conscious. precisely
decline in cognitive power. Remove the image and become what is known!
and then you are unconscious to man, the imaginative creature, but you are
self-conscious as your true, noetic self.
x1. 4. Io, lines 2x--end.

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bos occurs as a function of memory in 4. 3- 29, but it is

observationsin that passage and in I. 4. Io that Jv-rA7hv%~
clear from his general
not just memory, of the otov
must occur if there is to be humanconsciousness,
the sensitive imagination
makes an apprehension of a memory-image. dvrAqvtL must occur for conceptual memory but he is not clear about sense memory.'
The sensitive soul is really defined by its antileptic ability. The rational
of sense objects through the
human soul, however, involves not only
organs with the production of an image but also dvr1A7lr of concepts and
their presence in the higher imagination as Adoyo.The human soul reaches out
in two directions, through sensation to sense objects and through reason to
noetic objects, but the common centre of both that allows for integrated human
experience is the antileptic imagination.
Imagination on the sensory side seems to be conceived as rather passive,
as a receptacle of impressions which are apprehended
by the sense power but
which become contents of consciousnessin virtue of the imagination's image.
Conceptual imagination, however, is clearly active. Traditionally imagination
had been regarded as passive. The active imagination is Plotinus' peculiar
It would be difficult to emphasize too much the importance of correctly
grasping the role of the imagination in Plotinus. Only by ascertaining its
relations to sense objects and to concepts can we see how human consciousness
functions. His discussion of human imagination, then, is a chief source of
knowledge about the Plotinian concept of consciousness; and it is probably
not too much to claim that an adequate understanding of Plotinus demands
an appreciation of his notion of consciousness.
San Diego State College




I It
should be remembered that in 4. 3- 29 Plotinus asserts that the sense images become
memory images after the sensation is past, the ataO77pabecomes a Obavraatla.

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