Through and through "a Western concept," imagination should be understood as "potentially extraordinary consciousness--not just the dream stage, but the whole gamut of it-present with ordinary consciousness" (RM 30). For Barfield, inheritor of the Romantic, Coleridgian conception of organic imagination, the term denotes "an ultimate mental activity that opposes, and transmutes into a kind of aesthetic or mystical contemplation, that absolute dichotomy between perceiving subject and perceived object on which our practical everyday experience . . . is necessarily based" (xxx).1 Or to put it simply and concisely, imagination is for Barfield "the power of creating from within forms which themselves become a part of nature" (HEW 211).

Whereas the word "''imagination' has come to mean, for most people, the faculty of inventing fictions, especially poetic fictions . . . ,"2 for Barfield imagination "in its deepest sense . . . signifies that very faculty of apprehending the outward form as the image or symbol of an inner meaning . . . " (RM 19). With Shakespeare he would agree that

         as imagination bodies forth
      The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
      Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
      A local habitation and a name. (quoted in HEW 209)
As successor to the throne once held by "inspiration,"3 imagination is the "needful virtue" of our time because the literalness which supports idolatry is the "besetting sin" of the age (SA 162). In imagination "we find ourselves in finding vision" (RM 30).

Imagination's theatre of action is not, however, some subjective realm but the world itself. (And so we find Barfield quoting with admiration historian of science Thomas Kuhn concerning "transformations of the 'imagination that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world'" [HGH 83-84.]) It is "the most precious of all our possessions--the chosen one of all our faculties to be our savior" (RCA 45).4

Barfield's concept of imagination is indebted as much to Rudolf Steiner as to Shakespeare and the great Romantics. For Steiner revealed the role of imagination in the evolution of consciousness. Only Steiner," he observes in the "Introduction" to Romanticism Comes of Age, "clearly apprehended [imagination] as part, and but the first part, of a long, sober process of cognition that may end in man's actually overcoming the dichotomy [between mind and matter, self and world]--sober but involving a plus of self-consciousness amounting to a mutation, since it presupposes no less than a crossing of the stark threshold between knowing and being" (RCA 15-16).

Barfield's philosophy of imagination is inextricably linked to his concept of polarity. In a memorable passage from "Matter, Imagination, and Spirit" he explains the relationship. As human beings, he writes, "we live in [the] abrupt gap between matter and spirit; we exist by virtue of it as autonomous, self-conscious individual spirits, as free beings." This gap cannot be ignored with impunity, however; indeed, "because our freedom and responsibility depend on it, any way that involves disregarding the gap, or pretending it is not there, is a way we take at our own peril." The existence of this gap makes possible--makes necessary--imagination:

    Now imagination does not regard the gap; it depends on it. It lives in it as our very self-consciousness does, in this case not as a small helpless creature caught in a trap between the two, but rather as a rainbow spanning the two precipices and linking them harmoniously together. The concern of imagination is neither with mere matter nor with pure spirit. It is thus a psychic, or a psychosomatic, activity. On the other hand, if we are seeking to have to do with spirit, it is worse than useless to try to approach it by way of scientific investigation-at least as the word 'science" is used today, for science is avowedly based on mere perception, and in mere perception it will always be matter we are having do with and never spirit. Indeed mere perception is itself the gap between matter and spirit and, whatever else one can do with a gap, one cannot use it as a means of crossing itself. (RM 150)
Because "the images begotten by [it] are alive and creative, and have a sort of germinating power of their own," the rainbow of imagination thus provides the means to recover, this time self-consciously, with full human awareness, the powers at work in the creative universe: "When true imagination is at work, the same power is operating in man as operated, in the Beginning, in the creation of the world; only now it flows from an individual mind, and in association with what Coleridge called the 'conscious will'" (RM 89).
See in particular "Imagination" (HEW 196-215), "Imagination and Fancy, I & II (WCT 69-91), "Imagination and Inspiration" (RM 111-29), "Matter, Imagination, and Spirit" (RM 143-54), and Poetic Diction, passim.
1In "The Rediscovery of Meaning" Barfield offers a concise summary of Coleridge's position:
    Thus it was held by Coleridge that the human imagination, at its highest level, does indeed inherit and continue the divine creative activity of the logos (the 'Word' of the opening verses of St. John's Gospel) which was the common origin of human language and consciousness, as well as the world which contains them. Out of the whole development of the romantic movement in Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth a conviction arose in these circles that man's creative imagination can be applied, not only to the creation and contemplation of works of art but also in the contemplation of nature herself. (RM 19)
2"Imagination," Barfield hastens to remind us, "is not the fenced preserve of poetry, or even of the fine arts in general; and no one saw that more clearly than George Eliot, when she remarked, in Daniel Deronda: 'Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy:-in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures'" (HGH 80).
3As Barfield observes in Speaker's Meaning, "Perhaps all our endeavors to say something fruitful about imagination can best be seen as a struggle to reject the old concept of inspiration--and yet somehow retain it--to reject the old superindividual psychology and at the same time to develop an individual psychology which is viable for the phenomenon of art . . ." (SM 80).
4Though his primary emphasis is on imagination as a power to transform the world of perception, it should be noted that Barfield also detects the existence of a power--a much needed power--he calls "moral imagination." In "Matter, Imagination, Spirit," he distinguishes it from other forms of imagination.
The extent to which we perceive [the] body as mere matter, and the extent to which we perceive it as spirit, will depend on the degree of imagination with which we are perceiving. We may call this 'moral imagination,' to distinguish it from the aesthetic imagination which is concerned with the perception of nature. To the extent that we experience another's spiritual activity in speech, in gesture, in the mobility of his countenance, and so on, the same mode as our own-and thus af it were our own-we are exercizing our moral imagination. (RM 151)