1. Introduction
  2. Precursors to Goethean Einbildungskraft
  3. Goethe’s Concept of Einbildungskraft
  4. Umsichtige Einbildungskraft: Nature and Tropes
  5. Einbildungskraft as the Source of Poetry
  6. Einbildungskraft in its Meta-Representations
  7. Conclusion
  8. Notes
  9. Works Cited and Further Reading


Einbildungskraft, which evolved as a philosophically informed concept over the years with aporias and antinomies, became a key component of Goethe’s aesthetic reflections. Drawing on Kantian principles and synthetizing a number of philosophical issues of the day, Goethe gradually elaborated a non-systematic and multifaceted mental faculty that supplemented Kant’s twofold theorization of a reproductive and productive imagination by introducing a third category, which he called the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft.” Variously rendered as the “surveying,” “synthesizing,” “encompassing,” or “figurative” imagination, the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” identifies a mental function that participates in all cognitive processes as a mediating force (vermittelnde Kraft) of perception, affect, and memory. As such, it also presides over artistic representation as a pre-noetic power that resides within poietic language. And while Goethe does not extensively elaborate this function of the imagination in any theoretical reflection, it does figure in a number of meta-critical representations in his poetry and in Faust, as well in some of his narrative fiction, including Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (1795; Conversations of German Refugees), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjare (1821; Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years) and Die Wahlverwandschaften (1809; Elective Affinities).

With the exception of Abel’s entry in the Goethe-Handbuch, which describes a unified development, the most important critical treatments maintain that Goethe’s conceptualization of Einbildungskraft resists systematic analysis. And even Abel identifies the “Janusköpfigkeit der Einbildungskraft” (the double-headed quality of the imagination)1 as one of its features. Accordingly, despite attempts to systemize or normalize the concept, to understand it completely, its changing functions should be considered through the long course of its evolution. In fact, Goethe’s own understanding of the imagination extended from its positive evaluation as an inherited gift that gives form to images of memories and perceptions to its negative evaluation as a monstrous and absurd drive that recalls the foolishness and brutality of the savage. Moreover, according to Ernst Cassirer, there is a difference between Goethe’s use of the term Einbildungskraft, whose inherent function of “forming and transforming”2 has cognitive qualities, while Phantasie, which overcomes “the barrier between this world and the beyond, the sensual and the intelligible,” joining “the nearest and the farthest, the highest and the lowest, together in an all-connecting intuition” (Cassirer, Freiheit und Form, 2), remains confined within the realm of the sensible.

In the course of his career, Goethe used Einbildungskraft (with about 700 occurrences) interchangeably with “Phantasie” (fantasy) (with about 180 occurrences). Only at the end of his life did he explicitly reconsider and elaborate a distinction in a conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann about the imaginative power of great scientists. Phantasie, he surmised, constructs a counterfactual world above reality, while Einbildungskraft interprets and grasps the “lawfulness” (Gesetzlichkeit) of reality:

Und zwar meine ich nicht Einbildungskraft, die ins Vage geht und sich Dinge imaginiert, die nicht existieren; sondern ich meine eine solche, die den wirklichen Boden der Erde nicht verläßt und mit dem Maßstab des Wirklichen und Erkannten zu geahnten, vermuteten Dingen schreitet. Da mag sie denn prüfen, ob denn dieses Geahndete auch möglich sei und ob es nicht im Widerspruch mit anderen bewußten Gesetzen komme. Eine solche Einbildungskraft setzt aber freilich einen weiten, ruhigen Kopf voraus, dem eine große Übersicht der lebendigen Welt und ihrer Gesetze zu Gebote steht [. . .].3
And of course I don’t mean imagination as that which gets lost in the clouds and pictures things that don’t exist; rather, I mean that which doesn’t leave the solid ground of the earth and proceeds to things that have already been sensed and felt by means of what is real and known. Then it can test if these presentiments are even possible and if they don’t contradict other conscious laws. Such an imagination presumes, of course, a calm and expansive mind that has a broad view of the living world and its laws at its disposal.4

In this last sense, Goethean Einbildungskraft provides an interface between the capacity to think (Denkkraft) and the mental elaboration of perceptions and affects, thereby producing images (Darstellungen) in language and rhetorical figures. As Abel summarizes,

Einbildungskraft ist für Goethe dasjenige menschliche Vermögen, welches seinen Ausgangspunkt von Erfahrungen nimmt, sein Material in inneren Vorstellungen von diesen Erfahrungen hat und in deren Darstellungen seinen Ausdruck findet [. . .]. (Abel, Einbildungskraft 239)
Imagination, for Goethe, is that human faculty which takes experiences as its point of departure, has inner representations of these experiences as its matter and expresses itself by bringing them to external presentation.

Precursors to Goethean Einbildungskraft

Einbildungskraft became a core concept in German aesthetic discourse during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It occurs not only in the philosophical and anthropological reflections of Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, among others, but also in the poetological discourse of writers and poets from the late Enlightenment to the Romantics. The lexeme was first used in the seventeenth century as the German translation of the Greek term φαντασία (appearance, display, image) and the Latin imaginatio (imagination), which recalls Paracelsus’ translation of the Latin “vis imaginationis.” Within discussions about the dialectical relation between transcendence and immanence, Einbildungskraft was also often used as synonym for “Phantasia.” As such, and because it was generally configured in relation to its material determination, it was understood as a faculty that requires the control of reason (Vernunft).5 From an epistemological point of view, the concept of the imagination underwent significant changes: at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the rationalist tradition devalued the imagination in relation to “true knowledge.”6 This devaluation of the imagination took basically two forms: on the one hand, the imagination was reduced to the mere echo of perceptions in memory, and it was thus understood merely as an imperfectly reproductive faculty; on the other hand, in authors such as Pascal or Malebranche, it found a strong coupling to falsity or error, or even to madness and insanity. Later, in the course of the eighteenth century, the imagination developed a wide spectrum of meanings, ranging from a positive appraisal as a cognitive ability to transform past perceptive experiences into images, to a critical disposition towards what was defined as the “unbridled” force of fantasy creating exalted blends of deceptive sensory illusions.

In this sense, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–62) distinguishes within his taxonomy of all possible forms of imagination the “aesthetica phantasiae” (aesthetics of the imagination) and the “phantasia effraenis” (unbridled imagination), which are two useful concepts to understand the subtle difference in Goethe’s usage of the terms Einbildungskraft and “Phantasie.” In fact, Baumgarten claimed in §570 and §571 of his Metaphysica that “aesthetica phantasie” is the “scientia imaginando cogitandi” (the science of thinking by imaging), while “phantasia effraenis” is a “habitus vana phantasmata formandi” (proficiency in forming empty images).7

From the middle of the eighteenth century, Einbildungskraft was generally considered to be bound to perception and dependent on memories, while phantasia involved a transformative power that was not bound by the laws of reason. Yet, by connecting experience and intuition (Anschauung), Einbildungskraft also worked creatively to produce visions within the mind’s eyes, which in the absence of real objects (Vorstellungen) made reality manifest in its essence. Einbildungskraft did not designate an abstract category, therefore, but a “force” (Kraft) that could creatively reinvent memories by projecting them into the future. And when put in relation to the self, this term, which was widely discussed and debated by German philosophers of the time, ultimately revealed a psychological dimension that the English literary critic and philosopher William Hazlitt (1778–1830) would summarize in “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action” (1805) thusly:

The Imagination, by means of which alone I can anticipate future objects, or be interested in them, must carry me out of myself into the feelings of others by one and the same process by which I am thrown forward as it were into my future being, and interested in it.8

Moreover, following Joseph Addison’s On the Pleasures of the Imagination (1712) and Alexander Gerhard’s Essay on Genius (1774), the term was acknowledged as inherent in the work of artistic genius, which is grounded in a quasi-magic power of synthesis.

The conceptualization of Einbildungskraft as a cognitive faculty reached its climax with Kant’s theorization of the imagination as the capacity to mediate between sensitivity (Sinnlichkeit) and rationality (Verstand). For Kant, as well as for Goethe, moreover, Einbildungskraft became part of cognitive processes that elaborated perceptual inputs, affects, and memories by transforming them first into mental images and then into artistic representations. It was, therefore, active not only in aesthetic production, but also and primarily in the cognitive organization and interpretation of human experience. As Kant claimed in theory and Goethe exemplified in his literary practice, Einbildungskraft gathers the many scattered elements of human perception into a cognitive synthesis that can produce works of art. And in this, their understanding of the power of Einbildungskraft recalls a controversial feature of the imagination that ancient Greek philosophers had already highlighted: namely, its capacity “to represent” in derivative mental images and cultural artefacts what is originally “present” in perception. The primary images of perceptions, according to Plato and his followers, differed from secondary mental and artistic images, which were the illusory by-products of lived experience and its subjective transformation of what was originally sensed. Accordingly, both generally in the widespread discussions of the imagination in the aesthetic and philosophical discourse of the eighteenth century and then specifically in Kant, a fundamental distinction would be drawn between the reproductive and productive imaginations.

In Kant’s system, Einbildungskraft involves a cognitive capacity to combine and elaborate mental images in agreement with associative, rational, or synthetic rules. Following the rules of reason, it gathers diverse mental images (Vorstellungen) and structures them based on the “pure concepts of the understanding,” or what Kant calls “categories” (Kategorien). The synthesis performed by the imagination is, therefore, a product of the understanding, which moves through perception to a spontaneous unified representation of the world by transforming the plurality of perceptions into an image and endowing it with meaning. In this regard, Kant’s Einbildungskraft intervenes in the perceptual process as well as in interpretative acts that transform the experience of the external and internal worlds into meaningful constructions. More specifically, it serves as a mental faculty in two different modalities: in its “reproductive” phase, it recreates in the mind’s eye perceptual experiences and objects, while in its “productive” phase, it creates mental images of objects that are not present. And in doing this, Kant’s productive imagination spontaneously concentrates multitude and multiplicity into meaningful mental images, or symbols, that extend experience beyond its cognitive and perceptual limits:

Da nun alle unsere Anschauung sinnlich ist, so gehört die Einbildungskraft, der subjektiven Bedingungen wegen unter der sie allein den Verstandesbegriffe eine korrespondierende Anschauung geben kann, zur Sinnlichkeit; so fern aber doch ihre Synthesis eine Ausübung der Spontaneität ist, welche bestimmend, und nicht, wie der Sinn, bloß bestimmbar ist, mithin a priori den Sinn seiner Form nach der Einheit der Apperzeption gemäß bestimmen kann, so ist die Einbildungskraft so fern ein Vermögen, die Sinnlichkeit a priori zu bestimmen [. . .]. So fern die Einbildungskraft nun Spontaneität ist, nenne ich sie auch bisweilen die produktive Einbildungskraft, und unterscheide sie dadurch von der reproduktiven, deren Synthesis lediglich empirischen Gesetzen, nämlich denen der Assoziation ist.9
Now since all of our intuition is sensible, the imagination, on account of the subjective condition under which alone it can give a corresponding intuition to the concepts of understanding, belongs to sensibility; but insofar as its synthesis is still an exercise of spontaneity, which is determining and not, like sense, merely determinable, and can thus determine the form of sense a priori in accordance with the unity of apperception, the imagination is to this extent a faculty for determining the sensibility a priori [. . .]. As figurative, it is distinct from the intellectual synthesis without any imagination merely through the understanding. Now insofar as the imagination is spontaneity, I also occasionally call it the productive imagination, and thereby distinguish it from the reproductive imagination, whose synthesis is subject solely to empirical laws, namely those of association. (B151–52; CUP 256–57)

In addition to Kant’s philosophy, Goethean Einbildungskraft draws on contemporary philosophical and aesthetic discussions, including Leibniz, Baumgarten, Sulzer, and especially Herder, who configured the imagination as a sea of feelings where thoughts, sensations, and impulses merge into one another. Thus imagination, which was traditionally bound to the lower mental faculties, became productive after being stimulated by the forces acting on the mind. In this sense, Goethe seems to draw on Fichte’s ideas concerning the concept of a revelation a priori, although the “empirical datum” confirms the human weakness, based on sensuality. This human weakness is remedied by the imagination, which “von der einen Seite sinnlich [. . .], von der andern durch Freyheit bestimmbar ist, und Spontaneität hat” (which is sensual on the one hand [. . .], determinable on the other by freedom, and has spontaneity).10 In this regard, then, the imagination not only regulates cognitive activity in relation to the environment, but it also defines the conscious self:

Ich kann demnach Z [eine scharfe Grenze zwischen den entgegensetzten A und B] durch die bloße Einbildungskraft ausdehnen; und muss es, wenn ich mir die unmittelbare Begrenzung der Momente A und B denken will – und es ist hier zugleich ein Experiment mit dem wunderbaren Vermögen der produktiven Einbildungskraft in uns angestellt worden [. . .], ohne welches gar nichts im menschlichen Geiste sich erklären lässt – und auf welches gar leicht der ganze Mechanismus des menschlichen Geistes sich gründen lässt.11
Accordingly, I can extend Z [a distinct border between the opposed elements A and B] by mere imagination; and need to do so if I want to consider the direct limitation of moments A and B – and, here, an experiment with the wonderful faculty of the productive imagination has commenced in us [. . .], a faculty without which it is impossible to explain anything at all regarding the human spirit – and on which it is very simple indeed to base the entire mechanism of the human spirit.

Regarding its specific aesthetic quality, moreover, Goethe refers to some of Karl Philipp Moritz’s (1756–1793) principles, interpreting Einbildungskraft as a primal magmatic flow dominated by what Moritz calls Tatkraft (power of action), a fundamental energy that joins creation and destruction in an endless process of transformation. This energy functions, on one hand, as Bildungskraft (creative force) and, on the other, as Empfindungskraft (receptive force). Furthermore, Tatkraft, according to Moritz, tends steadily toward unity and wholeness, while the artist endowed with this power can represent beauty by creatively reconfiguring the perceived reality into the perfect whole (“das in sich selbst vollendete”12; “that which is perfect in itself”) of the work of art. Similarly, according to Goethe, the creation of beauty is achieved through the imagination, which encompasses the organic wholeness of what is living, as he writes, commenting on Moritz’s Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen (On the Transformative Imitation of the Beautiful): “Was nicht nützlich zu sein braucht, muß notwendig ein für sich bestehendes Ganzes sein und seine Beziehung in sich haben; allein um schön genannt zu werden, muß es in unsern Sinn fallen oder von unserer Einbildungskraft umfaßt werden können” (FA 1.18:257; What is not necessarily useful must therefore be a self-constituting totality/whole and be related only to itself; however, in order simply to be called beautiful, it must be able to affect our senses or be grasped by our imagination).

Goethe’s Concept of Einbildungskraft

To stage his all-encompassing concept of nature as an organic whole, which also includes the human being, Goethe developed an equally sweeping poetic concept of the imagination. Enabled by this faculty, the modern poet could, according to Goethe, recover the same kind of unified perception of life that defined the aesthetic and anthropological unity of the ancient Greeks: “Alle hielten sich am Nächsten, Wahren, Wirklichen fest, und selbst ihre Phantasiebilder haben Knochen und Mark. [. . .] Noch fand sich das Gefühl, die Betrachtung nicht zerstückelt, noch war jene kaum heilbare Trennung in der gesunden Menschenkraft nicht vorgegangen” (FA 1.19:180; All were fixated on what was real and true before their noses. And even their fantasies had guts and bones. [. . .] Feeling and observation were not yet dismembered; that hardly reparable division within the human spirit had not yet occurred). The act of reconfiguring the parts into a whole became, in Goethe’s view, the chief function of the third form of the imagination, which he called the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” (surveying imagination). With this he associated a power to transform a variety of mental processes leading to the formation of concepts, ideas, abstract thoughts, into vivid displays of artistic images that poetic language in turn can appropriate in literary works, giving rise to their rhetorical texture.

In addition to the ancient Greeks, however, Goethe also joined the anthropological discussions of his contemporaries about the imagination and explored its poetic capacity to transform perceptions of nature and self in works of art. This idea had already been advanced in 1772 by the physician Ernst Platner (1744–1818), who wrote about the role of Einbildungkraft in anthropological terms, attributing to it the power of organizing scattered ideas in cognitive concepts and of using art and literature to represent life as an organic whole that included the imaginary unity of the self. Here language gains relevance in Goethe’s view as powerful tool of poeisis, with the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” even able to reconfigure natural objects and abstract concepts into imaginary living creatures. “Felsen und Ströme sind von Halbgöttern belebt, Untergötter endigen unterwärts in Thiere: Pan, Faune, Tritone. Götter nehmen Thiergestalt an, ihre Absichten zu erfüllenˮ (FA 1.24 690; Cliffs and rivers are enlivend by the demigods, and lower spirits find themselves in the animals beneath; Pan, fauns, tritones. Gods take on animal forms to achieve their ends). In a letter to Karl Ludwig von Knebel sent on February 21, 1821, Goethe, after summarizing the features of the reproductive and productive forms of the imagination, introduces the term “umsichtige Einbildungskraft,” which integrates and shapes objects and experiences through linguistic tropes, thereby opening a way to a deeper understanding of the ontological essence of the world:

Zur Anschauung gesellt sich die Einbildungskraft, diese ist zuerst nachbildend, die Gegenstände nur wiederholend. Sodann ist sie produktiv, indem sie das Angefasste belebt, entwickelt, erweitert, verwandelt.
Ferner können wir noch eine umsichtige Einbildungskraft annehmen, die sich beim Vortrag umherschaut, Gleiches und Ähnliches erfasst, um das Ausgesprochene zu bewähren.
Hier zeigt sich nun das Wünschenswerte der Analogie, die den Geist auf viele bezügliche Punkte versetzt, damit seine Tätigkeit alles das Zusammengehörige, das Zusammenstimmende wiedervereinige.
Unmittelbar daran erzeugen sich die Gleichnisse, welche desto mehr Wert haben, je mehr sie sich dem Gegenstande nähern, zu dessen Erleuchtung sie herbeigerufen worden. Die vortrefflichsten aber sind: welche den Gegenstand völlig decken und identisch mit ihm zu werden scheinen [. . .]. (FA 2.9:152)
Associated with the faculty of intuition is imagination, which at first is reproductive as it merely repeats objects. But then it is productive in so far as it enlivens, develops, expands, and transforms what it grasps.
Furthermore, we can assume a circumspective imagination that looks around while a topic is being spoken of, seizing on equivalences and similarities, to confirm what has been expressed.
Here we see what is most desirable about analogies, which transpose the spirit to numerous related points so that its activity can reunite what belongs together in harmony.
Immediately thereafter, comparisons/similes are then generated, which are even more valuable the closer they come to the object that they are called upon to illuminate. The most excellent of them are those that converge fully with the object and appear to be identical to it.

In this passage, Goethe, similar to Kant, distinguishes a “mimetic” (i.e., reproductive) Einbildungskraft from a “productive” one. The “mimetic” imagination reproduces the external world of phenomena and objects by way of imitation (“nachbildend”). By contrast, the “productive” imagination implements the perception of the real world by applying to language the same laws that govern nature. According to Ernst Cassirer, Goethe used Kantian terminology in creative ways: “Während Kant nach synthetischen Grundsätzen, nach höchsten Prinzipien der menschlichen Erkenntnis sucht, sucht Goethe nach den Bildungsprinzipien der schaffenden Natur” (While Kant seeks synthetic postulates and the highest principles of human knowledge, Goethe strives for the formative principles of creative nature).13 This means that, for Goethe, acquiring knowledge, even in the natural sciences, did not just involve analytical procedures; as a process of alternating polarities, it also required moments of synthesis. Analysis and synthesis follow each other, according to this way of thinking, and complement each other like systole and diastole, just as they do in the mysterious life of any evolving whole. Furthermore, according to Goethe’s understanding of the imagination, its third modality as the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” rules over the dialectical mediation of opposing activities and between perception and understanding.

Linguistic tropes, especially analogy and simile, have a poietic and maieutic power to compare and relate perceptions and rational concepts in a continuous flow that produces new meanings and insights. The “umsichtige Einbildungskraft,” which encompasses both the reproductive and productive modalities of the imagination, plays a fundamental role in this process by lending creative, i.e., poietic, force to language and thereby reaching and representing the infinite biological principle, or the ontological essence, of life. One of the few passages in Goethe’s works that considers this complex idea can be found in a letter to the Grand Duchess Maria Paulowna dated January 3, 1817. Here Goethe describes “Phantasie” (a near-synonym for “Einbildungskraft”) as

die vierte Hauptkraft unseres geistigen Wesens, sie supponiert die Sinnlichkeit, unter der Form des Gedächtnisses, die legt dem Verstand die Welt-Anschauung vor, unter der Form der Erfahrung, sie bildet oder findet Gestalten zu den Vernunftsideen und belebt also die sämtliche Menscheneinheit, welche ohne sie in öde Untüchtigkeit versinken müsste. Wenn nun die Phantasie ihren drei Geschwisterkräften solche Dienste leistet, so wird sie dagegen durch diese lieben Verwandten erst ins Reich der Wahrheit und Wirklichkeit eingeführt. Die Sinnlichkeit reicht ihr rein umschrieben, gewisse Gestalten, der Verstand regelt ihre produktive Kraft und die Vernunft gibt ihr die völlige Sicherheit, dass sie nicht mit Traumbildern spiele, sondern auf Ideen gegründet sei.
Wiederholen wir das Gesagte in mehr als einem Bezug! – Der sogenannte Menschen-Verstand ruht auf der Sinnlichkeit; wie der reine Verstand auf sich selbst und seinen Gesetzen. Die Vernunft erhebt sich über ihn ohne sich von ihm loszureißen. Die Phantasie schwebt über die Sinnlichkeit und wird von ihr angezogen; sobald sie aber oberwärts die Vernunft gewahr wird, so schließt sie sich fest an diese höchste Leiterin. Und so sehen wir denn den Kreis unserer Zustände durchaus abgeschlossen und demungeachtet unendlich, weil immer ein Vermögen durchaus abgeschlossen und demungeachtet unendlich, weil immer ein Vermögen des anderen bedarf und eins dem anderen nachhelfen muss.14
the fourth chief faculty of our human spirit; it provides support to sensuality in the form of memory; it provides the understanding with an intuitive presentation of the world in the form of experiences; it forms or discovers concrete images for the ideas of reason. Hence it enlivens the entire unity of the human spirit that would, without it, sink into barren listlessness. If on the one hand fantasy provides these services to its three sibling faculties, then on the other these loving relatives introduce fantasy to the realm of reality and truth. Sensuality offers certain clearly delineated forms for fantasy, the understanding regulates its productive power, and reason provides it with the absolute certainty that it is not playing with mere dream images but instead is grounded in ideas.
Let us repeat what has been said in another way! – So-called common sense depends upon the faculty of sensuality, while pure understanding depends only on itself and its own laws. Reason rises above the understanding, without, however, tearing itself loose from it. The fantasy hovers above sensuality and is drawn to it. But as soon as it becomes aware of reason above it, it attaches itself to this highest guiding spirit. And thus we see the circle of our mental states close upon itself, while nonetheless remaining infinite because one faculty needs the other and each must assist the others.

Umsichtige Einbildungskraft: Nature and Tropes

As a tool of analogical thinking, language, which Goethe understands in connection with the imagination in heuristic terms, has maieutic power in Socratic terms. In Zur Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colours), for example, he writes about a “natural language” (of universal designations) that he further construes as “eine Symbolik [. . .] als Gleichnis, als nahverwandten Ausdruck, als unmittelbar passendes Wort” (FA 1.23.1:13; a symbolism [. . .] as comparison, as closely related expression, as the word that captures it directly). According to this line of thought, nature is an aggregate of forms that are analogous to aesthetic ones. The scientific comprehension of the natural world may, therefore, be part of an aesthetic process that the imagination facilitates. As Hartmut Böhme points out, the “unity of art and the aesthetics of nature” builds the backbone of Goethe’s oeuvre: “Die Natur [. . .] spiegelt sich überall analog unserm Geiste; und wenn sie nur Tropen und Gleichnisse weckt, so ist schon viel gewonnen” (Brief an Stanislaus Zauper, 10.09.1823, in: WA 4.37; Nature [. . .] mirrors itself everywhere analogously to our spirit; and when nature awakens tropes and comparisons, life is enriched).15

“Analogical” principles thus govern nature, the human mind, and language, as Goethe’s morphological studies explain. Here we find that the simile has a pivotal role in producing thought, because the core function of this trope is to linguistically bind heterogeneous elements into new relations and forms, thereby providing insight by way of analogy with the generative laws of nature: “Die Morphologie soll die Lehre von der Gestalt, der Bildung und Umbildung der organischen Körper enthalten” (FA 1.24: 365; morphology should contain the doctrine of the shapes, the formation, and transformation of organic bodies). By capturing vital relations and linking distant qualities, similes—and tropes more generally—are language’s means of perceiving and aesthetically representing within poetry the creative power of nature (natura naturans):

Was der Beobachter treu und sorgfältig gesammelt hat, was ein Vergleich in dem Geist allenfalls geordnet hat, vereiniget der Philosoph unter einem Gesichtspunkt, verbindet es zu einem Ganzen und macht es dadurch übersehbar und genießbar. Sei auch eine solche Theorie, eine solche Hypothese nur eine Dichtung, so gewährt sie schon Nutzen genug; sie lehrt uns einzelne Dinge in Verbindung, entfernte Dinge in eine Nachbarschaft zu sehen, und es werden die Lücken einer Erkenntniß nicht eher sichtbar als eben dadurch [. . .]. (WA 2.10: 205f)
What the observer has accurately and carefully gathered, and what has been arranged in the mind through comparisons, the philosopher unites under one perspective, combining it into a coherent whole and making it thereby easily surveyable and pleasurable. Even if such a theory or such a hypothesis turns out to be a mere fiction it nonetheless proves useful; it instructs us to see individual things in context, distant things in proximity; and this is the only way for holes in our knowledge to become visible.

This creative power of tropes is intrinsic to the imagination and enables the mind to represent the endless transformations that at the same time rule nature, thought, and language:

Die Erscheinungen des Wandelns und Umwandelns organischer Geschöpfe hatten eine leidenschaftliche Aufmerksamkeit in mir erregt; Einbildungskraft und Natur schienen hier mit einander zu wetteifern, wer verwegener und konsequenter zu verfahren wisse. (FA 1.24:413)
Phenomena of change and transformation in organic beings awakened a passionate intellectual focus in me; imagination and nature seemed to be in competition with each other to see which knows how to proceed more boldly and consistently.

Einbildungskraft as the Source of Poetry

Goethe considers the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” as the force by which the poet makes the world manifest as a complex whole. In its highest manifestation, this faculty is the essence of the Dichtungsvermögen (poetic faculty, poetic imagination), which presides over the production of art and science, as Schelling theorized. According to F.W.J. Schelling (1775–1854), in works of art the imagination presents the infinite in finiteness, thereby reconciling the real and the ideal, the relative and the absolute, emotions and reason: “Das treffliche deutsche Wort Einbildungskraft bedeutet eigentlich die Kraft der Ineinsbildung, auf welcher in der That alle Schöpfung beruht” (The apt German word ‘imagination’ means literally the power to bring together in an image; indeed, all creation derives from this).16 Goethe expresses the same idea in Noten und Abhandlungen zu besserem Verständnis des West-östlichen Divans (Notes and Treatises toward a Better Understanding of the West-Eastern Divan), where he puts the creative power of language in direct relation to the imagination.: “Hier sieht man, dass die Sprache schon an und für sich produktiv ist, und zwar, insofern sie dem Gedanken entgegenkommt, rednerisch, insofern sie der Einbildungskraft zusagt, poetischˮ (FA 1.3.1:197; Here one sees that language is productive already in and of itself in two ways: rhetorically, in so far as it approaches thoughts, and poetically, in so far as it speaks to the imagination).

The creative power of the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” is also acknowledged by Goethe as the power of narrative fictions to develop plot and lead characters to final aims, as in the Wilhelm Meister novels.17 There the imagination works as a mythopoietic capacity to create new worlds from “luftigen Gestalten, Wesen einer eigenen Gattung” (airy shapes, beings of their own species) that are not bound to reality, but instead obey the mysterious rules of the imagination. As we read in the Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, the imagination “soll, wenn sie Kunstwerke hervorbringt, nur wie eine Musik auf uns selbst spielen, uns in uns selbst bewegen und zwar so daß wir vergessen, daß etwas außer uns sei, das diese Bewegung hervorbringtˮ (FA 1.9:1081; When [imagination] gives rise to works of art it should merely affect us playfully like music, that is, move us internally in such a way that we forget that something external to us is bringing about this movement). Thanks to the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft,” the artist recruits images and schemas from the senses and memory and allows them to develop, or expand and compress, in order to produce aesthetic forms:

Hier darf nun unmittelbar die höhere Betrachtung aller bildenden Kunst eintreten [. . .]. Es muss nämlich ihre [of the artists] innere productive Kraft jene Nachbilder, die im Organ, in der Erinnerung, in der Einbildungskraft zurückgebliebenen Idole freiwillig ohne Vorsatz und Wollen lebendig hervorthun, sie müssen sich entfalten, wachsen, sich ausdehnen und zusammenziehn, um aus flüchtigen Schemen wahrhaft gegenständliche Wesen zu werden. (FA 1.25:826)
At this point we can introduce the higher consideration of all pictorial arts [. . .]. [The artists’] inner productive power must bring forth spontaneously and without premeditation and will those after-images, that is, the idols resting inside the organ, memory, and imagination. These images must be allowed to unfold, grow, expand and contract so that they might transform from fleeting schemata to truly plastic beings.

As Goethe writes in “Anmerkungen an die Schrift: Das Sehen in subjectiver Hinsicht, von Purkinje” (1819; Notes on the Essay “Seeing from a Subjective Perspective,” by Purkinje), the imagination is a quality of the human mind that is related to senses, the affects, and memory:

Zunächst diesem ließe sich behaupten, dass Gedächtnis und Einbildungskraft in den Sinnesorganen selbst thätig sind, und daß jeder Sinn sein ihm eigenthümlich zukommendes Gedächtnis und Einbildungskraft besitze, die, als einzelne begränzte Kräfte, der allgemeinen Seelenkraft unterworfen sind. (FA 1.25:825)
Let us begin with the assertion that memory and imagination are active even in the individual sensual organs and that each sense possesses its own unique form of memory and imagination, which, as individual, limited powers, are subordinated to the general power of the mind.

The effectiveness of the imagination is not only bound to the human mental power to produce images of past experiences as memories, but also to the power of literature to produce emotions within the reader’s mind. In fact, the work of Einbildungskraft is also significant for the reception of literary works. Thus, in anticipation of recent cognitive theories about the act of reading, Goethe’s review in 1827 of the Nibelungenlied points out that the imagination allows readers to experience fictional worlds both affectively and cognitively as an empowerment of the self. What is rhetorically compressed in rhythmic figures of sound, as well as in those of speech and thought, is “decompressed” by the reader’s imagination, which opens up the expansive polysemy of the text: “Jeder rhythmische Vortrag wirkt zuerst auf’s Gefühl, sodann auf die Einbildungskraft, zuletzt auf den Verstand und auf ein sittlich vernünftiges Behagenˮ (FA 1.22:820; Every rhythmic spoken utterance affects first the feelings, then the imagination, and finally the understanding and morally rational comportment). The aesthetic pleasure produced by the act of reading, the review continues, is not limited to judgement; it also fundamentally involves the imagination:

Das Werk ist nicht da, ein für allemal beurtheilt zu werden, sondern an das Urtheil eines jeden Anspruch zu machen und deshalb an Einbildungskraft, die der Reproduction fähig ist, an’s Gefühl für’s Erhabene, Übergroße, sodann auch das Zarte, Feine, für ein weit umfassendes Ganze und für ein ausgeführtes Einzelne. (FA 1.22:819)
The work is not just judged once and for all but, rather, makes a claim to the judgment of each recipient, and thus to the imagination capable of reproducing it, to the feeling for the sublime and magnificent, as well as for the tender and delicate, for a broadly conceived whole and for a well-executed detail.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the role played by the imagination in the act of reading was considered by Adam Bergk in his treatise Die Kunst Bücher zu lesen (1799; The Art of Reading Books). According to Bergk, by conferring vividness to counterfactual images, writers can engage their readers’ imagination: “Das Erste, was man beim lesen thun muss, ist, das Feuer der Einbildungskraft anzufachen, um den Vorstellungen Lebendigkeit einzuhauchen, und das Ganze sich anschaulich darzustellen und es mit Reflektion überschauen zu könnenˮ (The first thing to do upon taking up reading is to fire up the imagination in order to breathe life into the representations, to bring the whole before one’s eyes, and to be able to gather it in reflection).18 Similarly, in many passages of his own works, Goethe refers to his ability to provide visual consistency in his narratives in relation to the imagination: “Gleichermaßen ward meine Einbildungskraft durch Erzählungen leicht erregt, so daß ich Gegenden, von denen im Gespräch die Rede war, alsobald zu entwerfen trachteteˮ (FA 1.17:237; In the same way my imagination was easily excited by stories and, in turn, I immediately strove to map out the places that were spoken about). That is to say, Goethe prized the Einbildungskraft for its role in improving the human condition by giving meaning and purpose to existence through the enhanced reconfiguration of reality as an inexhaustible world of images:

Keine seiner Fähigkeiten ist dem Menschen werther als die Eibildungskraft. Das menschliche Leben scheint so wenig auf Glück berechnet, dass man nur mit Hülfe einiger Schöpfungen und gewisser Bilder, nur durch glückliche Wahl unserer Erinnerungen die vertheilten Freuden der Erde sammeln, und, nicht durch die Kraft der Philosophie, sondern durch die weit mächtigere Wirkung der Zerstreuungen gegen die Leiden zu kämpfen vermag, die uns das Schicksal auflegt. (FA 1.18:341)
None of a person’s faculties is more valuable than the imagination. Human life can so little count on good fortune that we can only gather together some of the pleasures widely dispersed across the earth by means of our own creations and images, by means of a fortunate selection of our memories; we can struggle against the suffering foisted on us by fate not through the power of philosophy but through the much more powerful effect of distractions.

Einbildungskraft appears here as a power that reconfigures life experiences in the creations of artistic forms able to generate new meanings as source of an alternative way of thinking by giving sense to the existence, both in anthropological and ethical sense.

Einbildungskraft in its Meta-Representations

Despite the unsystematic quality of his scattered theoretical comments on the imagination, Goethe provides powerful meta-representations in some of his literary works which directly configure Einbildungskraft as a productive force. As early as the hymn “Prometheus” (1772–74; 1785/89) for example, he gave poetic form to the imaginative process by creating an analogy between Prometheus’ Schöpfungsakt (creative act), as the father of mankind, and Zeus, the father of the gods. By far the most effective meta-representation of the Goethean imagination, however, can be found in the scene “Finstere Gallerie” (Gloomy Gallery) in Faust II (1832), which stages the protagonist’s descent into the realm of the Mothers. Here the imagination is a force that works to overcome the cognitive limits of the mind within a pre-categorical zone of pure, unexpressed potentiality, a virtual realm of possibility and latency that encompasses all possible forms and elements and, with the help of the imagination, extends the reach of the mind beyond the threshold of visibility and matter.

The scene begins after a great allegorical revue at the emperor’s palace, when Faust is asked to produce a theatrical illusion of the archetype of human beauty: “das Musterbild der Männer so der Frauen” (FA 1.7.1:254, v. 6185; The paradigm of men as well as women). To carry out this request, Faust has to face a dangerous challenge: he must find his way to the pure potentiality of form itself, represented as a fluctuating vortex, floating images that are unavailable to perception for identification and comprehension. This challenge then takes Faust to the Realm of the Mothers, a mysterious, timeless, and barren wilderness. The imagination is represented as a whirling cloud,19 set into motion by the Mothers: “Mephistopheles / [. . .] / Göttinen thronen hehr in Einsamkeit. / Um sie kein Ort, noch weniger eine Zeit” (FA 1.7.1:255, v. 6213–14; Mephistopheles / [. . .] / Goddesses, enthroned on high, and solitary. / No space round them, not even time).This “fremdest[e] Bereich” (FA 1.7.1:254, v. 6195; most alien realm) is occupied by a throng of “wavering forms” which Mephistopheles likens to a vast and fluctuating train of clouds—“Wie Wolkenzüge schlingt sich das Getreibe” (like cloud-drifts whirl the shades of past existence; Hamlin)—where all unfinished and changing forms keep swirling above the speechless Goddesses. As “der Gebilde losgebundne Reiche” (FA 1.7.1:257, v. 6277; boundless realm of all gathered forms), these realms are stylistically represented by a metaphorical oxymoron that joins the contrasting poles of formal definition and boundless extension, thereby placing the pre-noetic zone of the imagination at the fringe of being and non-being in a kind of foggy vortex, where autonomous motion is governed by mysterious Goddesses who also rule human thought: “Wie’s eben kommt, Gestaltung, Umgestaltung, / Des ewigen Sinnes ewige Unterhaltung.” (FA 1.7.1:257, v. 6288; Formation, Transformation, / Eternal minds eternal recreation). Accordingly, after entertaining this vision of the Mothers, Faust can perceive the pure potentiality of the imagination and, in the final scene of Act I (“Rittersaal”; Knights’ Hall), produce the protoplasts of Paris and Helen on the dangerous stage of illusion: “In eurem Namen, Mütter, die ihr thront / Im Grenzenlosen, ewig einsam wohnt, / Und doch gesellig. Euer Haupt umschweben / Des Lebens Bilder, regsam, ohne Leben, / Was einmal war, in allem Glanz und Schein, / Es regt sich dort; den es will ewig sein” (FA 1.7.1:263, v. 6427–32; In your name, Mothers, you enthroned / In boundlessness, set eternally alone, / And yet together. All the Forms of Life / Float round your heads, active, not alive, / What once was, in all its lustre and shine, / It stirs there; for it wants to be eternal).

In the context of this dynamic and fluid meta-representation of the imagination as a pre-noetic, wavering image in turmoil, Goethe implicitly defines its pure potentiality as the source of all cognitive and creative mechanisms (i.e., concepts, ideals, words, images) that join intuition and symbolic process in advance of the work of reason. Here, in its poetic staging, the imagination is situated as a threshold faculty between cognition and intuition, linking the human to the divine. And as its reproductive work becomes creative and productive, it can achieve its culminating modality with the comprehensive work of the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft,” which stages the morphological essence of all living forms to make manifest the ontological essence of reality.


Goethe’s definition of the “Einbildungskraft” is, to be sure, not free from aporias and antinomies. It also changed over the years and was influenced by many thinkers of the time. While Goethe clearly responded to Kantian doctrines, he made his own contributions to the discourse on imagination in the aesthetics and philosophy of the eighteenth century through his creative appropriations, offering less systematic and stable definitions. One of Goethe’s main contributions was to free the poetic imagination from the dominion of reason by linking it to the forces of life. This allowed him gradually to redefine Einbildungskraft and other semantically related terms like Imagination and Phantasie. But he did not ignore the dangerous manifestations of exalted forms of the imagination, which he represented in characters like Torquato Tasso and Werther, who enthusiastically exclaimed: “Was die Einbildungskraft für ein göttliches Geschenk ist!ˮ (FA 1.8:165; What a divine gift is the imagination!). But as this example also suggests, the exalted, undisciplined imagination, which leads to excesses, may also unleash demonic forces when its activity is unchecked and unreflected. Thus, for instance, Goethe would himself experience an instance of such excess as disgust upon visiting the park of the Principe di Palagonia near Palermo in 1787. The grotesque figures, which he referred to as “Mißbildungenˮ (misshapen figures) and “Spitzruten des Wahnsinnsˮ (lances of insanity) gave him the idea that they had been created “durch keine Art von Reflexion oder auch nur Willkürˮ (through no form of reflection or even willfulness), conveying the idea, “dass das Gefühl der Wasserwaage und des Perpendikels, das uns eigentlich zu Menschen macht [. . .], in uns zerrissen und gequält wirdˮ (FA 1.15.1:262–63; that the feeling of levelness and balance, which makes us properly human [. . .], is torn and tortured within us).

Moreover, in the frame of the aesthetic discourse of his epoch, Goethe elaborated a new concept, that of the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft.” This was a turning point in his morphological construction of nature, whose governing rules are mirrored in poetic language. This kind of imagination works according to the same principles that govern the whole system of living forms and its driving mechanism of endless transformation. As such, it connects the scientific comprehension of the natural world to aesthetic creation and comprehension, thereby conditioning the cognitive faculties to construct meaning through the configuration of aesthetic forms. Goethe’s “umsichtige Einbildungskraft” makes it possible to gather (i.e., synthesize) the scattered elements of perception in a productive synthesis of cognition, memories, and affect, lending noological consistency to all living forms. In this sense, Einbildungskraft played a significant role in defining the epistemic paradigms through which the scientist investigates nature by linking opposing modes of thought that reproduce real images of the world, on the one hand, and create counterfactual images in literature, on the other: “Man bedenkt also niemals genug, daß eine Sprache eigentlich nur symbolisch, nur bildlich sein und die Gegenstände niemals unmittelbar, sondern nur im Widerscheine ausdrückeˮ (FA 1.32.1:244; One can never emphasize enough that language in a proper sense can only be symbolic, figurative; and objects can never expressed in an unmediated way but only in mirrored reflection). Thus, Einbildungskraft is the force that lends to the artist the possibility to transform reality and the cognition of it in symbols, thereby transcending human perceptions, affects, and memories through the construction of an analogical world of counterfactual images.

For Goethe, then, the imagination is situated between cognition and creation, or the reproductive and productive powers, transforming phenomenal reality into a narrative through the links and cross-references made by the imagination. In fact, it establishes relationships between more or less analogous concepts, objects, or phenomena in order to produce new possibilities of meaningful images in which nature is aesthetically represented, the unknown becomes known, the invisible becomes manifest, and the unspeakable becomes poetic expression. In its most comprehensive modality, as the “umsichtige Einbildungskraft,” it gathers “Gleiches und Ähnliches” (equivalence and similarity) according to the principle of analogy and produces “Gleichnisse” (comparisons), which reproduce the inherent organic principle of life. According to Goethe, the imagination thus enables us to understand the world by summarising it in a representational way, which reveals the essence of all living forms and allows humans to discover their own divinely-inspired powers of creation.

  1. Günter Abel, “Einbildungskraft,” in Goethe Handbuch, ed. Bernd Witte et. al. (Frankfurt: Metzler, 2016), vol 4.1, 239. Hierafter cited as (Abel, Einbildungskraft).
  2. Ernst. Cassirer, Freiheit und Form. Studien zur Deutschen Geistesgeschichte. (Berlin: Verlag Bruno Cassirer, 1917), 238. Hierafter cited as (Cassirer, Freiheit und Form).
  3. Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens 1823–1832, 27.1.1830, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtliche Werke. Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, eds. Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl, et al. 40 vols. (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013), 2.12:688–89. Hereafter cited as FA.
  4. All translations of Goethe’s works are by the GLPC editorial team, unless otherwise explicitly indicated.
  5. See: Antoine Falvre, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition. Studies in Western Esotericism (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000).
  6. Rudolf Meer, Giuseppe Motta and Gideon Stiening (edited by), Konzepte der Einbildungskraft in der Philosophie, den Wissenschaften und den Künsten des 18. Jahrhunderts. Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Udo Thiel (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019).
  7. Alexandri Gottlieb Baumgarten, Metaphysica (Halle: Impensis Carol. Herman. Hemmerde, 1779), Sectio IV, §570–571; transl. by Courtney D. Fugate and John Hymers, Metaphysics (London/New York: Bloomsbury Publishing 2014), 214–15.
  8. William Hazlitt, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, ed. J.R Nabholtz (Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1969), 3.
  9. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Hamburg: Meiner Verlag, 1998 [1781]).
  10. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Gesamtausgabe der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, eds. R. Lauth and H. Jacob (Stuttgart/Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Froomann Verlag, 1962), 172.
  11. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Grundlagen der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (Jena und Leipzig: Gabler, 1802), 172.
  12. Karl Philipp Moritz, “Versuch einer Vereinigung aller schönen Künste und Wissenschaften unter dem Begriff des in sich selbst Vollendeten,ˮ in Die Signatur des Schönen – und andere Schriften zur Begründung der Autonomieästhetik, ed. Stefan Ripplinger (Hamburg:‎ Philo Fine Arts, 2009 [1785]), 7–17.
  13. Ernst Cassierer, “Goethe und die Kantische Philosophie,ˮ in Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, ed. Rainer A. Bast (Leipzig: Meiner Verlag, 1991), 63–100.
  14. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethes Werke. Im Auftrag der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen. 143 vols. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1887–1919, 4.27:308–9. Hereafter cited as WA.
  15. Hartmut Böhme, Natur und Figur. Goethe im Kontext (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2002).
  16. Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling, Sämtliche Werke. 14 vols. (Stuttgart/Augsburg: Cotta, 1856-1861), 1.5:386.
  17. See following fundamental studies by Hellmut Ammerlahn: Imagination und Wahrheit. Goethes Künstler-Bildungsroman “Wilhelm Meister Lehrjare”. Struktur, Symbolik, Poetologie (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2003); “Produktive und destruktive Einbildungskraft: Goethes Tasso, Harfner und Wilhelm Meister,” in: Orbis Litterarum 53 (2007): 83–104; Imagination & Meisterschaft/Mastery (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2021).
  18. Adam Bergk, Die Kunst Bücher zu lesen (Jena: In der Hempelschen Buchhandlung, 1799), 61.
  19. The floating image of clouds symbolizing the infinite transformative power of nature recurs in Goethe’s works generally as a metaphor of transformation and imagination, like, for instance, in the poems “Ganymed” and “Howards Ehrengedächtnis.”

Works Cited and Further Reading