Tim Ingold, Imagining for Real: Essays on Creation, Attention and Correspondence. New York: Routledge, 2022; 417 pp. ISBN: 978-0367775117

Reviewed by Bruce Baugh, Professor Emeritus, Thompson Rivers University

The proper study of mankind is man.—Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, 1733-34

Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 1966


The study of human beings and their place in the world goes by the name of “anthropology.” It was once a province of philosophy; Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) constitute the most notable examples. But as Europeans increasingly colonized the planet, a new discipline arose, in which the colonizers studied the ways of life, customs, and belief systems of the colonized. This new discipline, focused on ethnography, developed methods and principles that would distinguish it from philosophy and establish its scientific bona fides. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl hypothesized that so-called “primitive people” had a “pre-logical mentality” distinctively different from the discursive rationality of Europe (The Primitive Mentality,1922); Claude Lévi-Strauss, on the contrary, argued that Indigenous peoples organize experience using the same rationality as Western science (The Savage Mind, 1966). But whether the colonized objects of study were regarded as the Same or as Other, anthropology looked to supposedly less developed cultures to seek the origins of the malaise of modern civilization Freud diagnosed in Civilization and Its Discontents (1923), and to perhaps offer a cure.

Tim Ingold, an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, begins his most recent book wondering whether he has strayed from anthropology to philosophy: “Am I a philosopher now?” (7). In his concluding chapter, he claims that anthropology poses philosophical questions concerning the nature of knowledge, social existence, justice, our place in nature, and the significance of our own mortality, but whereas philosophers prefer to wall themselves up in the ivory tower of their canonical texts, anthropologists philosophize through both observation and conversation with the human and non-human beings with whom or with which they share their lives (347). It is clear that Ingold’s studies are meant to respond to problems of a modern post-industrial world dominated by a technocratic rationality that has removed humans from nature and isolated them from one another. 

The basis of Ingold’s approach is a metaphysics of a reality that is in a constant process of becoming. Supposedly stable objects, with determinate outlines separating them from other things, result from a temporary equilibrium among different and often opposing forces and processes (262, 271, 327-8). In truth, each thing’s individuality arises from a differential ground of interconnected processes in the world as a whole, “the primordially undifferentiated flux of the potential” (55, 356), much as a wave temporarily differentiates itself from the ocean in which it remains immanent and whose forces are carried within it like a memory of the whole from which it originates (54-56, 58, 326-7, 352-9). In a world of “ever-emergent difference,” “things do not so much exist as occur” (37);  there are no boundaries of inclusion and exclusions demarcated by a set of stable characteristics shared by all members of a group but not by outsiders (359-60), no self-enclosed “continents” (173) to contradict the original unity of becoming that makes all beings inhabitants of one “undivided and indivisible world” (127, 362).

Humans and other organisms, accordingly, are not self-contained units but “a confluence of vital forces that spill out beyond the skin” (344) into the environment, “a tissue of affects” defined by textures and resonances (110), radically open to the turbulence of nature’s becoming (55-57). Every organism continually and mutually responds to other living and non-living beings through affects, senses, and lines of movement (of bodies, of weather, of scents, of light and dark, etc.) (6, 37, 122, 333, 352). Taking a page from Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1922), Ingold holds that organisms (like all things) are “relatively stable forms” that emerge from the ongoing flow of life and duration, like eddies that curl back from the forward flow of a river and “lag behind” while nevertheless being sustained by that forward flow (4, 24, 41-42, 55-56, 327-8). From Whitehead, he adopts the distinction between the diversity of constituted things, “emergent facts” or natura naturata, and the creative forces immanent in those things, “the life of natura naturans, of nature’s becoming” (24-25, 53-55). In short, for Ingold, reality is not only “a whirling world” of “spiralling movements that run into one another” (236-7) arising from “a single matrix of variation” (270), but “a living whole that is always emerging out of the manifold biophysical, human, and spiritual elements and relations that make it up” (362).

Given Ingold’s references to Bergson and Whitehead, it’s not surprising that he also refers to Deleuze and Guattari, although not always accurately (see his erroneous interpretation of the “black hole/white wall system,” 95-96, 207). However, he doesn’t make use of Bergson and Deleuze’s distinction between the virtual and the actual. Nor does he refer to Spinoza, despite the explicit mentions of the natura naturans/natura naturata distinction. Perhaps most surprising of all, there is not a single reference to the philosopher of becoming who (together with Bergson) most inspired Deleuze: Nietzsche. Nor, despite Ingold’s invoking the Romantic idea of the world as “a living whole” is there any reference to Schelling or his followers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Alexander von Humboldt, the latter of whom wrote in Cosmos (1845) that the world is “a living whole, not a dead aggregate,” an idea to which Ingold returns to on several occasions (22-24, 52-56, 258-68, 360-61).

The absence of any reference to Schelling or Coleridge is all the more surprising given that Ingold’s goal is to mend the rift between imagination and reality (xii) and move beyond their opposition (4). For Ingold, imagination is neither an image-making nor representational faculty, but a movement that brings forth the new by entering into the impulse of creative growth—what Bergson calls the élan vital—constitutive of the world itself (5-6, 24-25, 32), participating “from within” in the very flux of becoming (12). Just as temporal duration is a ceaseless upspringing from which the “absolutely new” arises (Bergson), imagination is more than just the recombination of already existing and fully formed parts (24-26), but participates “in the world’s endless creation of itself” (27), supported by an intuition that “goes upstream” from constituted actual beings to enter into a milieu of “immanence and becoming” prior to the division between “the real and the imagined” (38). Like life itself, imagination “runs ahead of itself,” ventures forth into the unknown (38, 342), while taking up the past (memory) that grounds our forward movement (49, 58, 279, 356, 359), straining forward beyond the limits of conceptualization and representation to loop back to a grounding that “recedes beyond the limit of memory” into a primeval past, thereby joining past and future, undergone passivity and creative activity (254, 342, 352). In that sense, imagination could be said to be the very ground of our being.

But, says Ingold—sounding a note of disenchantment with modernity that runs through his work—a centuries-long process, beginning with Francis Bacon, has convinced us that imagination is “an escape from reality rather than its impulse,” impairing our sense of wonder (61-62). It need not be so, says Ingold—and here the ethnographer has his say. For Indigenous cultures, such as the Ojibwa, the division between imagination and reality does not exist; rather than being the province of “hard facts,” truth for the Ojibwa is a pathway handed down by the ancestors, a movement one can join with in dreams, which can open us up to a truth behind appearances (67-72). Imagination allows us to attend to the world, not observing and classifying it, but through feeling and affect, and even empathy, a mode of inhabiting the world that is more open-ended, sensorily alive and sustainable than that offered by modern science and capitalism (66-80, 127). We can return to this older way of inhabiting the world, which we also glimpse in children (314), by giving the imaginative mode of life “ontological primacy” (324).

Indeed, it would seem that for Ingold, as for Wordsworth, “heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But beyond this longing to return to less corrupted past, what truly makes Ingold a Romantic is the similarity of his theory of imagination to that of Schelling and Coleridge. For them as well, the imagination gives us the possibility of transcending the confines of conceptual thought and venturing into unknown future possibilities. More significantly, Schelling and Coleridge also make the imagination into the mediating faculty between passivity (sensations, affects, memory) and future-oriented activity, between the voluntary and the involuntary, the power, in Schelling’s words, able “to combine together even what is contradictory.” It is the imagination, says Schelling, that enables us to recapture the original unity between Mind and Nature, activity and passivity—in other words, as in Ingold, the originary world of becoming and growth prior to the division between the imaginary and the real, subjective and objective.

Not coincidentally, when Ingold describes the relationship between perception, which grounds us in the world, and imagination, which allows us to venture forth, he uses the same metaphor as Coleridge: walking (38, 322). In walking, says Ingold, we lift one foot and risk falling forward into the void, only to regain equilibrium as that foot touches the ground and adjusts to its irregularities, just as imagination launches us into the void and perception “restores our grip” (322). Compare Coleridge: In walking, “we first resist the gravitating power by an act purely voluntary [of lifting the foot], and then by another act, voluntary in part, we yield to it, in order to light on the spot we had previously proposed to ourselves,” just as the mind yields to sensory perceptions “in order to gather strength for a further propulsion;” this alternation of activity and passivity requires a coordinating faculty that is both active and passive, and that faculty is the imagination. The simile serves a somewhat different function in Ingold and Coleridge, but the similarity is remarkable. 

However, what Ingold’s theory of imagination lacks is the Romantics’ conception, taken from Kant, of the imagination as a power of synthesis: the power to unite passively received sensations and feelings with active thought in a way that makes possible perceptions of things, landscapes, and the world as a whole—and which forms images. Ingold contends that “perceiving is imagining,” not because the transcendental imagination makes possible the unity of experience, but because the perceived world “is continually brought forth… in the very act of imagination” (35). It’s an interesting idea, but one that blurs the distinction between perceiving and imagining rather than showing how the latter informs the former. It seems that Ingold’s philosophizing, here as elsewhere, could have benefited by diving more deeply into the philosophical canon.

The myriad studies offered in this book, which touch on everything from the nature of color and sound to what is involved in playing a cello or tracking animals, give the philosopher plenty to ponder. As for anthropology, perhaps when it ceases to seek solutions to Western problems in Indigenous cultures, and instead becomes the decolonized subjects’ study of “the Western mentality,” then perhaps the image of (Western) man will, as Foucault predicted, at last be effaced by the incoming tide of history.



Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos: Entwurt einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, vol.1-3 (Stuttgart and Tübingen: Cotta’scher Verlag, 1845-50), vol. 1, 39; cited in Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels. The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022), 335.

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978), 228.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. George Watson (London: Everyman; J. M. Dent and Sons, 1991), 72.