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Ada Lovelace on the Nature of the Imagination and Its Three Core Faculties

“It seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.”

Ada Lovelace on the Nature of the Imagination and Its Three Core Faculties

The human imagination is the seedbed of everything we know to be beautiful and true — it created the Mona Lisa’s smile and recreates its mystery anew with each viewing; it envisioned the existence of a strange particle and sparked the myriad scientific breakthroughs that made its discovery possible half a century later in the Higgs boson; it allows us to perform the psychoemotional acrobatics at the heart of compassion as we imagine ourselves in another’s shoes. And yet the essence of the imagination remains elusive and opaque even to those most endowed with this miraculous human faculty.

Perhaps the finest definition of what it is and how it works comes from Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, better known as Ada Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852), who is commonly considered the world’s first computer programmer for her collaboration with Charles Babbage on the first computer.

Illustration by Sydney Padua from The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

In early January of 1841, two years before she applied her formidable imagination to writing the first paper on computer science and forever changing the course of technology, Lovelace considered the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties in a magnificent letter found in Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer (public library) — the same volume that gave us Lovelace on science and religion.

A century and a half before Stephen Jay Gould observed that creativity is the art of connecting the seemingly unrelated, she writes:

What is Imagination? We talk much of Imagination. We talk of Imagination of Poets, the Imagination of Artists &c; I am inclined to think that in general we don’t know very exactly what we are talking about. Imagination I think especially two fold.

First: it is the Combining Faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new, original, endless, ever varying, Combinations. It seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.

Secondly: It conceives & brings into mental presences that which is far away, or invisible, or which in short does not exist within our physical & conscious cognizance. Hence is it especially the religious faculty; the ground-work of Faith. It is a God-like, a noble faculty. It renders earth tolerable (at least should do so); it teaches us to live, in the tone of the eternal.

Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.

She points to mathematics as a supreme manifestation of these two imaginative faculties:

Mathematical Science shows what is. It is the language of the unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able fully to appreciate, to feel, to seize, the unseen, the unconscious. Imagination too shows what is, the is that is beyond the senses. Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, — those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840)

Complement the altogether revelatory Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers with the illustrated story of how Lovelace and Babbage invented the world’s first computer, Sartre on the key to the imagination, and this wonderful 1957 read on the role of intuition in scientific discovery.

Published December 10, 2015




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