Matthew Kapstein, “Imagination, Imaginaire, and Imaginal in the Study of Religions”
The purpose of my short presentation is to initiate some reflections on certain key terms for our discussion: “imagination” (together with “mental image,” “imagining,” and “imaginary”), “imaginaire,” and “imaginal.” I do not wish to stipulate usage, but just to clarify some of the main ways in which these terms and associated concepts have already been used in scholarship pertinent to the study of religion. Three levels of analysis are prominent in my choice of terms:
- “Imagination” is primarily treated as a mental faculty, pertaining to the mental capacities of the individual, and thus a topic investigated in psychology, cognitive science, or philosophical psychology;
- “imaginaire,” though it literally means “imaginary,” began to be used in a peculiar sense by historians of the Annales school in France—such as medievalists Jacques Le Goff, Philippe Ariès, and Jean-Claude Schmitt—to refer to what we may paraphrase as “collective imagination,” and therefore a phenomenon for social-historical analysis;
- “imaginal,” as I am using it, stems from the work of Islamicist Henry Corbin, and involves the posit of a supernal realm, disclosed to the imagination of some individuals, but not taken as a product of their imagination and thus not reducible to the phenomena of individual psychology. This is a topic for metaphysical or theological inquiry.
Having distinguished these three levels, I would like to turn to their interrelationships and introduce, as well, some aspects of their applicability to the study of the religious tradition I know best, Buddhism. I will avoid Jungian reflections, which may well be of interest in this context (particularly on the relations between “imaginal” and “imaginaire,” but in different terms), though some may wish to introduce Jung into subsequent discussions.
Monday, June 13
- 3:45pm - 4:30pm
- Recorded Presentation
Tuesday, June 14
- 9:30am - 10:45am
- Live Q&A
Matthew Kapstein specializes in the history of Buddhist philosophy in India and Tibet, as well as in the cultural history of Tibetan Buddhism more generally. He has regularly taught Contemporary Theories in the Study of Religion in the History of Religions program, and Introduction to the Philosophies of India in Philosophy of Religions. His seminars have focused on particular topics in the history of Buddhist thought, including Buddha Nature, idealism, and epistemology (pramāṇa), and on broad themes in the study of religion including the problem of evil, death, and the imagination. Kapstein has published over a dozen books and numerous articles, among which are a general introduction to Tibetan cultural history, The Tibetans (Oxford 2006), an edited volume on Sino-Tibetan religious relations, Buddhism Between Tibet and China (Boston 2009), and a translation of an eleventh-century philosophical allegory in the acclaimed Clay Sanskrit Series, The Rise of Wisdom Moon (New York 2009). With Kurtis Schaeffer (University of Virginia) and Gray Tuttle (Columbia), he has completed Sources of Tibetan Traditions, published in the Columbia University Press Sources of Asian Traditions series in 2013. Kapstein is additionally Professor Emeritus of Tibetan Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris. In 2018 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.