In Imagination and Time, Mary Warnock examines the fundamental role of imagination in understanding existence and its relationship with time, personal identity, and a commitment to the future. A classical definition of imagination—as enabling an individual to think about things that are absent, including things that no longer exist or do not yet exist—permeates throughout these lectures and proves essential for establishing the general argument. As a result, imagination is viewed as the faculty that connects the momentary and ephemeral with the permanent, the particular with the universal, and allows human beings to grasp and to understand the world of which they form a part.
The first part (chapters 1-4) explores the importance of imagination for understanding the mental and corporeal aspects of the individual self in its endeavor to comprehend existence and the outside world. Rather than merely understanding the world through images encountered in one’s individual experience, post-Kantian philosophy viewed imagination as an innate, categorical framework common to all rational creatures. It allows access to both the external, natural world, as well as to the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of other people. Eventually, this notion of imagination blurred the distinction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds, leading to both the Romantic idea of the genius—who is able to produce a vision of the natural world that is new, yet acceptable to all—and the twentieth-century conception that the point of contact with the outside world is the innermost feelings and lived experiences of humans, which further creates various meanings through symbols.
The second part (chapters 5-9) focuses on the individual as a being situated in time—remembering what is past and foreseeing how things might come to be in the future. In particular, storytelling is able to convey eternal and necessary values by placing a framework around events in a form that makes sense to human beings and that provides meaning by rendering order out of chaos. In terms of the past, Warnock maintains that the genre of autobiography, and its employment of memory, is the place where imagination, human values, and an awareness of time make the clearest connection. While common ideals and experiences allow humans to relate to, and learn from, the past, they act further as a provision for equipping individuals with the ideas and values necessary to prepare for, and to shape, the future.
In the end, this sense of continuity creates meaning for the individual, an awareness of something more universal that is impervious to time, and an obscure feeling of eternity, or timelessness. As imagination provides the ability to understand the world, it allows individuals to find those values that endure throughout time, yet recognizably persisting into the present and the future. If indeed imagination allows humans to reach a common understanding of the values they can claim to share with other individuals, Warnock concludes that the education of imagination and the handing on of these values to a new generation is by far the most important educational goal.