The Evolution of Imagination

Stephen T. Asma. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-226-22516-6
Blending arguments from philosophy, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, argues that improvisation, or “spontaneous creation,” lies at the heart of imagination and that the “improvising imagination is one of the little-explored phenomena that uniquely unify the humanities and biology.” Asma builds on an extended metaphor of improvisation in jazz, beginning each chapter with a discussion of a jazz group playing the Van Heusen tune “Imagination.” He ranges broadly across topics, looking at imagination in the arts, the evolution of language, the creation of theory of mind, and the origin of morality and ethics. However, he does not delve very deeply into any particular area. Asma ends by discussing different cultural perspectives on improvisation, comparing China and the U.S., but does so superficially, which results in conclusions that reinforce cultural stereotypes rather than offer insights. Additionally, his use of technical philosophical and musical jargon will likely put off most generalist readers. Positing that “the imagination is an embodied voluntary simulation system that draws on perceptual, affective, and memory elements, for the purpose of creating works that adaptively investigate external and internal resources” and that “imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world,” Asma’s two overarching conclusions will leave readers unsatisfied. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/24/2017
Release date: 06/01/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
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