A Word: Fantasia
by Creative Leaps President and CEO John Cimino
The word is fantasia, the Italian word for imagination (pronounced, in the Italian, fan-ta-SEE-a). Borrowed famously by animator Walt Disney, fantasia first made its little splash of color among a circle of scholars back in the 1700s, via philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) barely a few decades after Decartes’ monumental pronouncements on thinking, being and logical analysis. Vico, a professor of Latin Eloquence at the University of Naples (and a mean thinker himself), took issue with Descartes’ famous pronouncements, asserting that imagination, or fantasia—and not formal logic—was our most direct and potent way of knowing.
We must commit ourselves to lives of imagination, to building educational systems which seed and nurture imagination, to creating workplaces and social structures which liberate and harvest imagination.
Vico was not an irrationalist; far from it. And he wasn’t merely lauding the virtues of creative reverie. He was endeavoring, seriously and with high discipline, to re-claim and rightly define fantasia as an authentic species of knowing equivalent to the uniquely intimate knowing of an inventor or creator. By this he meant a form of knowing born of being witness to original discovery, to meaning just taking shape: a product of personally formed internal imagery linked, he said, to personal memory and also to culturally evolved “poetic universals.”
This was fantasia, an immediate, very palpable form of knowing: personally experienced, personally grasped, personally felt. By contrast, Descartes’ approach—mediated by the formalisms of logic and analysis—was, for Vico, second-hand at best. Instead of keeping a front row seat to the sparks and drama of our own most vivid thinking, Descartes would have us distance ourselves from those fireworks via the stratagems of formal logic. This was a tragedy, said Vico, especially in the realm of education where he saw active, original thinking being replaced by more formulaic methods.
Sound familiar? It wasn’t that Descartes’ logic was fundamentally wrong or invalid, or anything less than mighty (evidence the scientific revolution which followed) but it wasn’t thinking at its human best. It was weaker thinking, the lazy thinker’s substitute for the original, more authentic work of fantasia. Feel a chill?
Today, we find it increasingly practical to extol the virtues of imagination. Einstein’s help notwithstanding (“Imagination is more important than knowledge”), our understanding of imagination is still shallow and we consequently lack the courage to embrace it wholeheartedly. There's the rub. To do so we would have to commit ourselves to lives of imagination, to building educational systems which seed and nurture imagination, to creating workplaces and social structures which liberate and harvest imagination. And, yes, acknowledge a knowing beyond logic and pure fact.
Fantasia. I loved the animated feature. But it’s much more than a Disney musical, now isn't it? It’s the whole business of living fully our greatest, most ennobling—and assuredly yet undiscovered—possibilities. I’d like to think we’re up to that.
John Cimino is director of Creative Leaps International and founding President and CEO of its parent company, Associated Solo Artists (ASA), Inc. In addition to his formal training as a scientist and learning theorist, he is an award-winning operatic and concert artist, having trained at the Juilliard School of Music and performing to acclaim throughout Europe and the continental U. S. Cimino holds a uniquely interdisciplinary perspective, and works across a host of disciplines dedicated to learning and human development.