David Carr - Research Topic

Spirituality, Imagination and Poetry

David Carr

Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Values

Concepts of spirit and spirituality have to date no doubt been most readily associated with or located in contexts and discourses of religious commitment or faith perhaps presupposing beliefs in a metaphysically distinctive non-material human spirit or soul. In fact, it might be held that little real sense can be attached to such notions apart from such contexts and associations. However, despite some previous work of this general drift by the present author (Carr 1995, 1996, 2002, 2003), the case for a more general non-religious or secular conception of spirituality may not be entirely ruled out. Thus, if spirituality is regarded as a particular dimension or expression of natural human psychology and sensibility – rather than as, say, the property of some Cartesian ‘ghost in the machine’ – one might hope for an reasonably clear account not just of what is distinctive about such sensibility but of how it might be developed or ‘educated’. The present project sets out to indicate the general direction of just such an account. The basis of this account is that spirituality is a distinctive human capacity – one not possessed by other non-human species – for evaluative transcendence of the world of immediate practical and material concerns with what the romantic poet William Wordsworth described as ‘getting and spending’ (Nichol Smith 1921) enabling either: (i) non-utilitarian perspectives on or interpretations of the world of ordinary experience; or (ii) ‘entry’ into alternative or ‘possible’ worlds of enchantment that lie beyond that of ordinary experience. Either of these forms of transcendence is made possible by human possession of (rational cum affective) powers of imagination that are again not available to non-human brutes. It will further be argued that while such imagination has often been expressed in religious myths and narrative, such narratives may be regarded as particular species of a wider genus of creative art and literature that is the principal mode or vehicle of expression of human imagination. This general case for the connection between art and literature will also be reinforced by reference to the work of Wordsworth and other romantic poets. However, it will also be a crucial part of the present case to argue that such poetic or other artistic products of human imagination are not thereby – by virtue of their worldly ‘transcendence’ – to be dismissed as fictional or ‘false’. In this respect, to characterise a religious or other imaginative narrative as a ‘myth’ is not at all to deny that it contains or embodies truth: on the contrary, insofar as some of deepest and most significant of human insights have been expressed – and perhaps may only be expressed – in the form of myths and other narratives, there seems to be a case, explored by past and present philosophers, poets and theologians for recognising the genuine epistemic value of poetry and other artistic expressions of human imagination as significant forms of human knowledge and insight into what is perhaps most important and true concerning the human condition. In this regard, this project will also draw for support on significant work along these lines by such latter day philosophers as Jacques Maritain (1959) and Alasdair MacIntyre (1981).


Carr, D. (2003). Three concepts of spirituality for spiritual Education. In David Carr and John Haldane (eds) Philosophy, Spirituality and Education. London: Routledge.

Carr, D. (2002). Metaphysics, reductivism, and spiritual discourse. Zygon 37 (2): 491-510.

Carr, D. (1996). Rival conceptions of spiritual education. Journal of Philosophy of Education 30 (2): 159–178.

Carr, D. (1995) Towards a distinctive conception of spiritual education, Oxford Review of Education, 20, 83-98.

MacIntyre, A. (1981) After Virtue, London: Duckworth

Maritain, J. (1959) The Degrees of Knowledge, London: Geoffrey Bles

Nichol Smith, D. (1921) Wordsworth: Poetry and Prose, Oxford: Clarendon Press