The expression "in imagination" shows up in phrases such as "meanings may be infinitely combined and rearranged in imagination" (John Dewey).

I have also, just once or twice, heard artists say things like "the beholder can rearrange the objects imaginatively", meaning that the beholder can move the objects around in their imagination. Another example of this usage would be this sentence "Imaginatively, Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels." (from https://www.frieze.com/article/why-alasdair-grays-1934-2019-weird-visions-cannot-be-canonized).

So the usage I'm asking about is when "imaginatively" is used to mean "in imagination" and not "with imagination" as is usual. What is the history of this usage? It sounds rare and alternative to me, and I haven't found it in any of the dictionaries that I've consulted. Could it be a calque from some other European language? What's going on?

  • 1
    "Rearrange the objects imaginatively" seems to be the regular use of the word: creatively. Not inside your mind, but with a new approach you found originally in your imagination. Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 4:00

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure why John Dewey says "in imagination" rather than "in the imagination". It seems rather whimsical but not wrong.

But "imaginatively" doesn't ever mean "in the imagination": it only means "in a way that is new, original, and clever" (Cambridge). The word needed is imaginarily.

If artists say "the beholder can rearrange the objects imaginatively" they are inviting us to take hold of the objects and redistribute them in a way that shows creativity or inventiveness! The quote about Glasgow is equally misleading.

The OED defines imaginary as "existing only in the imagination" and "imaginarily [adverb]" as a derivation.

  • I don't know when "complex numbers" first appeared in the field of advanced mathematics, but it's probably fair to say whoever came up with the concept (and indeed, the name) was definitely being imaginative, even if the numbers themselves were merely imaginary. Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 13:43
  • On the first point, I do think it's standard usage, if old fashioned now. See britannica.com/topic/aesthetics/The-role-of-imagination: "In imagination we contribute a content that has no reality beyond our disposition to “see” it, and it is clear that this added content is frequently summoned by art when, for example, we see the face in a picture or hear the emotion in a piece of music." It's what's needed if the word "imagination" is used in the countable sense.
    – Theo H
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 15:54
  • I've accepted your answer but I was really looking for some insight into the particular usage of "imaginatively" that I described. This usage is definitely a thing in belletristic writing—Brian Dillon or Steven Connor, for example. Here's a clear case: "We have no way of reaching imaginatively into the kinds of teeming space occupied by insects. Insect life is life lived in the swarm; it is life lived close-up, in a swarming, phobic proximity." Here 'imaginatively' is very clearly intended to mean 'in imagination'; the writer is a self-conscious stylist. (stevenconnor.com/insects.html)
    – Theo H
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 18:41
  • See my answer. It turns out to be in the OED, after all.
    – Theo H
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 20:15

I've resolved this by looking at a 1971 Compact OED. it includes the entry "Imaginatively adv. In an imaginative fashion; in imagination"

The example given is from William Petty (1662):

"A man is actually and truly rich according to what he eateth, drinketh, weareth, or any other way really and actually enjoyeth; others are but potentially or imaginatively rich, who though they have power overmuch, make little use of it; these being rather Stewards and Exchangers for the other sort, then owners for themselves."

(This text is to be found here: https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:William_Petty_-_Economic_Writings_(1899)_vol_1.djvu/191)

It's just an old archaic sense of the word. So no surprise to come across it in scholarly/artsy writing.

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