Imagination is the faculty that defines humans
Imagination is the faculty that defines humans, because although other animals have it, it’s ours in peculiar abundance. I define it as the power of seeing what isn’t there. In Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It, I argued that imagination arises from two evolved faculties: first, anticipation (which all predators and prey have but which is richest in humans to make up for our deficiencies, compared with rival species, in other respects); second, memory. The former is the power of seeing what isn’t there yet, the latter’s seeing what isn’t there any longer. Human memories, despite our tendency to congratulate ourselves on being at the summit of evolution, are very bad. So when we think we recall, we actually imagine something new.
All art and all new ideas are products of suitably disciplined imagination. Historians like me wield it freely, subject to the discipline of fidelity to our sources, to conjure vanished worlds and converse silently with the dead. Two new books of mine have appeared this year, both in March: Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan is an account of Ferdinand Magella’s journey through life, in which I take what I guess to most historians would seem recklessly imaginative risks: reconstructing conversations from documents in reported speech and tracing the changes in Magella’s mercurial temperament on the basis of fragmentary texts. The second book – in Spanish – is Un imperio de ingenieros (An Empire of Engineers), written jointly with Manuel Lucena Giraldo, in which we try to explain the success and durability of the global Spanish monarchy by exploring the infrastructure: the roads, bridges, canals, water supply, hospitals, missions and other public works. By investing heavily in them, the Spanish crown enriched subject elites and communities and won the lasting allegiance of thousands of communities of dazzlingly varied cultures, who had few other obvious reasons for tolerating the Spaniards’ presence.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a Professor of history and author of books such as Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It, Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed, Ideas That Changed the World, and his latest, Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan, a biography of the real Ferdinand Magellan.
Reviewers have compared Felipe Fernández-Armesto with Gibbon, Herder, Montesquieu and Braudel and called him “one of the best living historians”, “one of the world´s most formidable political commentators” and “the voice of reason”. He holds the William P. Reynolds Chair for Mission in Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a professor in the departments of History and Classics and in the programme in the History and Philosophy of Science. In 2016 the King of Spain honoured him with the Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso X el Sabio for services to education and the arts.