MIMESIS Munich Doctoral Program for Literature and the Arts

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Manuel Mühlbacher

Dr. Manuel Mühlbacher

Former Doctoral Student


Thesis Title

Die Kraft der Figuren. Darstellungsformen der Imagination bei Shaftesbury, Condillac und Diderot / The Power of Figures. Representing and Performing the Imagination in Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot
(completed in 2017, published in 2019)


Faculty psychology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has always credited imagination with an ambivalent role. Imagination is of paramount importance to the process of cognition, but also tends to subvert it. A number of philosophers such as Bacon and Descartes attempt to counter the incalculable power of imagination by marking out a space of untainted rationality within the human mind: It is only from the standpoint of reason that one attains reliable knowledge and exerts control over the imagination. In eighteenth-century philosophy, though, this kind of “rational outside” seems increasingly questionable. Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot are a case in point since they all endorse – in their own irreducible ways – a concept of absolute imagination and identify the human mind with the power to imagine. For these writers, an Archimedean point of absolute certainty such as the Cartesian cogito, which positions itself beyond imagination, is no longer conceivable.

My Ph.D. thesis investigates what it means to write under post-rationalist conditions, i.e. within an epistemological framework that no longer allows for a categorical divide between reason and imagination, between philosophy and poetry. Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot derive different textual strategies from their concepts of absolute imagination. In order to understand these strategies, my thesis focuses on the interrelations between two levels that have mostly been examined apart from each other: imagination as the object of theory and imagination as a mode of writing. One the one hand, I argue that theories of imagination can be read as self-reflexive statements concerning the process of writing. On the other, I examine how imagination as a textual force re-enters its own theory, how it questions and resists attempts of conceptualization. The imaginative performance in Shaftesbury’s, Condillac’s and Diderot’s texts can make us understand that the theory of imagination can’t help relying on imaginary figures.