The problem of phantasia in the history and study of religion

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David Miller


Phantasia, Religion, Marsilio Ficino, Giordano Bruno, Imagination, middle ages

Subject Categories

History of Religions of Western Origin | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


In this dissertation, I trace the development of concepts of imagination in the history of Western ideas and the impact of those concepts upon the study of religion. It is my contention that an early mistrust of imagination as a faculty that involved appearances rather than truths, that was considered vulnerable to external influences, and that was strongly connected to desire, led to its eventual separation into two forms: imagination proper, which was defined by its ability to reproduce or retain sense-impressions based upon reality, and phantasia, which creatively divided and recombined those impressions into phantasms that might have no relationship to reality. More and more, as theories of imagination and phantasia developed, phantasia became associated with the more negative qualities of imagination---instability, vulnerability, and transgression---until it was (sometimes literally) demonized as a source of temptation rather than inspiration.

The focus of my study is the representation of phantasia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, specifically in the work of Marsilio Ficino, in the Malleus maleficarum , and in several works by Giordano Bruno. In Bruno's De vinculis in genere in particular, I argue that he develops theories of the importance of phantasia as part of a more general network of bonds or connections by which human beings approach and interact with each other. It is by using this theory of bonds, or vincula , as a means to question the role of scholars of religion in relationship to the objects of their study that I examine the problem of whether phantasia continues to be treated with the same theologically-grounded suspicion that marked it in the late Middle Ages, and of what value it would be to scholars to reconsider it as a useful instrument.


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