The Iconic Imagination

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Douglas Hedley
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Iconic Imagination is Douglas Hedley’s final in a trilogy on the imagination. In the first volume, Living Forms of the Imagination (2008, Bloomsbury), Hedley hews from Cambridge-Platonist lumber the imagination’s frames and forms. Architectural forms shape us even as we shape them, and so too, argues Hedley, with our imagination. In Sacrifice Imagined (2011, Bloomsbury), Hedley’s second, they ask after the language and imagery of sacrifice. “By blood we live, the hot, the cold / to ravage and redeem the world / there is no bloodless myth will hold,” penned Geoffrey Hill in “Genesis” (Yale University Press, 2010). The blood we live by ravages and redeems, and Hedley finds in the religious phenomenon of sacrifice imagined the human ache to atone, to make “at-one” that which is riven by lack and loss.

In the book, Hedley argues that the imagination confers transcendence because it is from, through, and to transcendence. That is, the images of the imagination are icons because “such images participate in what they express” (xvii). Hedley’s claim centers on a “metaphysics of the image as a bearer of transcendence” (259)—as a “‘locus’ of revelation” (xii). Fundamental to this claim is a Platonism in which the cosmos participates the Forms. As we limn the world in the imagination, we find that the imagined world gives because it receives itself from the Forms. Our imagination looks neither at nor past the cosmos, but through it.

Hedley’s first chapter begins by suggesting that “the rejection of transcendence will eviscerate rather than restore the image” (1). Art historians of the 20th century have criticized the Platonic transcendence of the image as a denigration of the image qua image. Hedley, however, finds in Plotinus a metaphysics of the image in which its being transcended does not threaten, but rather fosters, its dignity. In the second chapter, Hedley moves to a reflection on the relation between human nature and the imago Dei. What is it for humans to image God? Hedley assumes, and engages deeply with, evolutionary theory. Given the blurred lines between apes and humans, Hedley navigates between a “biological fatalism” on the one hand and a “theological positivism” on the other (32), comparing Thomas Aquinas’ and Meister Eckhart’s view of the imago Dei and finding virtues and vices in each.

This is followed by a chapter on beauty and the sacred, in which Hedley argues that the imagination is anagogic. The focus is not analogy but anagogy (the ascent), we are cautioned; in the imagination, the soul thrills and plumes its wings, taking flight. Hedley finds aid in Roger Scruton and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to distinguish between fancy, a mere escape from reality, and the imagination, a generative and formative understanding of reality through art to the sacred. In chapter 4 Hedley looks at images of freedom, narrative, guilt, and sacrifice through C.S. Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces (1956, Geoffrey Bles), suggesting both that morality requires an imaginative narrative and that the moral imagination finds its foundation in story.

Hedley’s next chapter looks at the relation between symbol, participation, and the divine ideas in the history of Christian thought. The history of the divine ideas in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas is recounted, and Hedley criticizes those who confuse Platonic ideas with universals. Hedley distinguishes between the ontological status of the divine ideas and our epistemic access to them. This does not, however, invite either nominalism or voluntarism. Indeed, for Hedley it is the symbol that “presupposes the metaphysics of participation” (145), and at the same time that the “via eminentiae and via negativa are dialectically related in via symbolica” (147).

Chapter 6 concerns idolatry and iconoclasm. One need not oppose icons to idols, writes Hedley, for “Christianity transformed the pagan idols rather than obliterated them” (151). Here, the author reflects on the relations between monotheism, polytheism, iconography, and idolatry. Following this chapter, Hedley thinks through the ubiquity of theism throughout human history and its relevance to the life of the imagination. Dwelling on the rich field of Indian philosophy and its relation to Romanticism and the Enlightenment, Hedley argues that certain “visionary outbursts” (206) in human history have involved “imaginative attunement to the Divine” (xv). This is, for Hedley, a divine history—not Hegelian—which is the transformation of human experience in dense moments of mingling between the imagination and revelation.

Hedley’s final chapter extols the aesthetic import of the natural world. In the images of holy mountain, celestial city, feast, and fest, the earth is mantled by a great and terrible beauty. These images find their denouement in the Revelation of St. John. This final chapter weaves together notions Hedley urges throughout the book: that the imagination, even as participating anagogy, is not movement away from, but movement into, the realm of the senses. Further, “contemplation is the ontological motor of being” (243) and in Plotinian form, the soul becomes what it imagines.

The Iconic Imagination is a textured text. Reminiscent of George Steiner, Hedley weaves history, philosophy, theology, literature, psychology, and more throughout each chapter. This is, in my judgment, both its strength and weakness. At worst, it risks going a mile wide and an inch deep, as well as conflating genealogy with philosophical argument. At best, it holistically images various features of human life, and affirms vital academic interdisciplinarity. Would that more erudition was applied to correcting the editorial errors littered throughout.

In my view, Hedley’s reading of Plotinus is the strongest feature of the text and has much to commend it, not least because it grounds the inner coherence of Hedley’s argument. Their first and last chapters are especially rich and stand out among the rest. I wonder, however, whether the author’s claims would only be enriched by further developing the analogy of being that seems to lie behind the argument. For instance, how does commitment to analogy inform the structure of anagogy? In all, The Iconic Imagination merits reading, reflection, argument, and rereading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caleb Kormann is an M.T.S. student in Systematic Theology at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Hedley is Reader in Hermeneutics and Metaphysics and Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge, UK. A past President of the European Society for the Philosophy of Religion, he has been visiting Professor at the Sorbonne and holder of the Alan Richardson lectureship at Durham University. He delivered the Teape Lectures in India in 2007. His former publications include Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion (Cambridge University Press).


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