Einstein famously said:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

In answer to the question, “Do you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?” From interview with G. S. Viereck, “What Life Means to Einstein,” Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929; reprinted in Viereck, Glimpses of the Great, 447

source: p. 12 of Calaprice's The Ultimate Quotable Einstein

Is Einstein's opinion what Kant would also hold?

Aristotle, St. Thomas, et el. say that the intellect is superior to the will with its "imagination," "phantasms," or "sense images". Aristotle said the human intellect is in a way everything because it can potentially understand anything. This "intellect" seems to be what Einstein calls "imagination" in his quote.

Does saying imagination is more important than knowledge mean that Einstein held Scotus's view that the will is primary and the intellect secondary, subjected to the will?

Have any philosophers specifically treated imagination vs. knowledge?

  • In what context? For what purpose? The quote answers a question addressed personally to Einstein and with implied context of his scientific work. Knowledge and (productive) imagination are centerpieces of Kant's cognitive philosophy, imagination is responsible for filling empty categories when synthesizing a priori knowledge, in Husserl it is the source of eidetic variation that discovers new a priori truths about universals. Einstein was heavily influenced by Riemann's and Mach's adaptations of Kantian cognitive model.
    – Conifold
    Mar 3, 2017 at 22:49
  • Napolean: "Imagination rules the world."
    – user20153
    Mar 3, 2017 at 23:26
  • That answer was about Einstein's imagination. It was true in his case. You can use your logic in one particular case. You can give the meaning, 'the greatest knowledge' for knowledge--the knowledge that transcends everything. If that is the idea implied, knowledge is more important than imagination. This is because greatest imaginations are for some great knowledge. Then which would be 'the aim'/ more important? Mar 6, 2017 at 15:28
  • For the greatest knowledge the person should have great power of imagination. If Einstein had reached that greatest knowledge he wouldn't have devalued his own knowledge...he didn't use it in a greater sense. So in my opinion, you'd better not generalize Einstein. Mar 6, 2017 at 15:29
  • I imagine it is, but know that it isn't. Which part of that statement is more important? Mar 30, 2017 at 19:08

8 Answers 8


An important question in philosophy of science is how scientific knowledge grows. Philosophers until Thomas Kuhn were convinced that there must be some logic in scientific discovery as well as scientific justification. If Kuhn is right, there is no logic in scientific discovery. But then how is scientific discovery made?

A set of scientific facts is always'theoretically (model-wise) inconsistent' in the sense that there are anomalies or facts that disobey going scientific laws. In the normal science situation as Kuhn uses the term, these facts are mere outliers. But when these outliers become meaningful puzzles or core questions for the scientific community, a crisis in science is impending. Who will be the hero in this revolution?

History of science reveals that only those equipped both with imagination and sagacity have been the heroes. This observation is called scientific serendipity. Sagacity (scientific training and knowledge) is necessary. But knowledge is analytical and fragmented. To solve the puzzle, one should be able to see the whole, all-encompassing picture (to think outside the box, so to speak). We call this ability imagination. The set of possible solutions is factually limited by the ability to imagine.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge," in this light, is to explain the genesis of scientific heroes.

  • Kuhn stops well short of claiming there is no logic in scientific discovery. The vast majority of normal science is not anomalies, and the comparison of paradigms is not arbitrary, it is a group process involving the use of intelligence. Only by the narrowest meaning of 'logic' is this not logic. We don't just go ask an oracle...
    – user9166
    Jul 10, 2017 at 15:38

I think that what we know of psychology proves this is a false dichotomy. We recall life in stories and in the constructs we populate those stories with. Both of those things are imagination.

The brain is not a Von Neumann computer: The stores into which we put facts are not tables of rules impressed directly on the brain, they are negotiated story-lines that make sense of what we know.

There is a continuum here, between focusing upon fitting, and focusing upon being compelling, but there is just one thing -- the story that makes something you can hold onto out of the things you experience.


As we know (following Kant) spatial-temporal determinations are blind on their own. Conceptual determination is empty when taken by itself. Through imagination we fuse the two together and we manage to grasp phenomena. But Kant considers that imagination has another function as well. It is also productive, working as a kind of synthesis. Deleuze, explains Kant’s concept of productive imagination as:

determining a space and a time in conformity to a concept, but in such a way that this determination cannot flow from the concept itself; to make a space and a time correspond to a concept, that is the act of the productive imagination. What does a mathematician or a geometer do? Or in another way, what does an artist do? They're going to make productions of space-time.

In productive imagination, spatial-temporal determinations do not merely follow conceptual determinations. There is a “production of space and time” that goes beyond the space and time of any given phenomena and that is how imagination is productive.

Paul Ricoeur also distinguishes between image as replica and image as fiction, a distinction that corresponds to Kant’s reproductive imagination and productive imagination. The image as replica, as portrait, is the image that we get through perception. It refers to a specific something that exists in the realm of reality (your neighbor’s dog, for example). The image as fiction does not refer to anything that has a reference (a centaur, for example). There is a play here between nothingness in its form as absence and in its form as unreality (as Ricoeur calls it). There is a rather great difference between imagining your neighbor’s dog and imagining an unreal object, or writing a story or breaking down the universe into elementary particles.


Einstein's imagination quote does not seem to me related to any of the philosophical issues that you mention. Kant, Aquinas et al were interested in the structure of mind for every mind-possessing being. Einstein, by contrast, was talking specifically about himself, as a creative and intuitive scientist. The question regarding imagination apparently followed Einstein's assertion that he "was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions [concerning General Relativity]. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong". Einstein trusted his beautiful theory, because it was beautiful, and fitting. He would have been surprised if it turned out to be false. But would he actually refuse to accept a refutation?

One is reminded of Einstein's refusal to accept the dominant non-deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics. This could be a good example for an actual situation where Einstein trusted his "imagination" (intuitions) over his "knowledge" (the experimental results and arguments supporting the indeterminist interpretation).


Read some Richard Rorty. His magnum opus is Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. But in the context of your query, I recommend (primarily) Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, but also Philosophy and Social Hope. While he does not expressly make the contrast that you mention, his thesis is essentially that imagination trumps knowledge. Tell me what you think.


Reality is the product of human 'Imagination'. In turn, the collective 'Knowledge'; an interpretation of the Truth.

We can say: 'the grass is green' is (real) Knowledge; but in 'Truth', both the 'grass' and the color 'green' are the product of human imagination looking of an order or meaning of an underlying Truth.

Truth drives human Imagination, becoming Knowledge and creating Reality.

  • Can you please provide some sources, from reputable philosophers, for your assertions?
    – Geremia
    Mar 30, 2017 at 19:36
  • I was simply answering regarding the meaning of Einstein's answer. Knowledge is a result of the Imagination, so it is limited within that framework. Imagination and Knowledge are not opposite forces. For Knowledge can only exist as a result of the Imagination. And can only evolve with further Imagination. In itself, Knowledge is just stated meaning. A memory of the Imagination. Mar 30, 2017 at 20:10
  • Within Einstein's context: He had to Imagine the theory of relativity before it became common Knowledge. In this sense, that act of Imagination was an act of Creation. Mar 30, 2017 at 20:37

Imagination is more important than knowledge. – Einstein.

Shahidur Rahman Sikder looking- Near about 14 billion years past- Allah/God the Imagination than Big Bang and started Evolution. Allah/God the Universe & Big Bang came before everything else by the Imagination.

Imagination: Our present research result; at the extremity of imaginative power came the result that everything of the universe is dwelling on the sea of imagination.

From the inception of imagination the very incidence of our intelligent mankind and from the very formula of imagination, there have been the expeditions of science viz. the start. With the improvement of imagination, the development of science is achieved and at the extremity of imaginative power came the result that everything of the universe is dwelling on the sea of imagination. “Individual respective very locations are the present and the rest all the locations are of the deep of the past”. In this way- All the visible things of the real world is comparable to the imagination of nature of absolute space in absolute dimension. In everything of the Allah/God/nature’s plan is the play of imagination. The most remarkable saying: Nature/God herself is the victim from rolling to moving or changes i.e. Allah/God power of Evolution.


Albert Einstein looking- imagination is more important than knowledge yet- I am looking everything of the universe is dwelling on the sea of imagination i.e. In everything of the Nature’s plan is the play of imagination. https://shahidurrahmansikder.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/27/

What was God doing before He created the universe? Answering of the question: As I see it- Before creating the universe, the Allah/God imagined about it.


I think (personal opinion) the answer to the question is so easy it is never given! :)

Imagination can know everything knowledge can, but knowledge can never know everything imagination can! Here is your superiority! It is a pity that it seems like all of the "great" (comas are because the position of greatness is subjective) philosophers never touched on this issue.

  • 1
    I'm not asking for opinions (which might be a cause of my question being closed, if it gets closed), but what philosophers have thought about this. Perhaps I am asking about the difference between knowledge and what aids us in attaining knowledge.
    – Geremia
    Mar 3, 2017 at 14:10
  • 1
    As far as I know no "serious" philosopher has ever said anything on the issue, so I don't think you can get any more than that. But again you asked a question and I provided an answer, so I don't think my answer is out of topic. After all it addresses your question, right? Mar 3, 2017 at 17:54

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