Renowned Philosophy Professor Stephen T. Asma has just completed the writing of his ninth book, entitled The Evolution of Imagination. Through the new book, published by the University of Chicago Press, Asma takes his readers on an extraordinary tour of the human creative spirit:

  • Consider Miles Davis, horn held high, sculpting a powerful musical statement full of tonal patterns, inside jokes, and thrilling climactic phrases—all on the fly.
  • Or think of a comedy troupe riffing on a couple of cues from the audience, until the whole room is erupting with laughter.
  • Or perhaps it’s how a team of software engineers brainstorms its way to the next Google, or the Einsteins of the world, code-cracking the mysteries of nature.
  • Or maybe it’s simply a child playing with her toys.

What do all of these activities share? With wisdom, humor, and joy, philosopher Asma explains the phenomenon of the human imagination and the evolution of creativity. And Asma clearly knows what he's talking about. An accomplished jazz/blues musician, he’s had the experience of playing guitar, live on stage, with such legendary music artists as Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy, among other blues greats.

Guided by neuroscience, animal behavior, evolution, philosophy, and psychology, Asma burrows deep into the human psyche to look right at the enigmatic but powerful engine that is our improvisational creativity—the source, he argues, of our remarkable imaginational capacity. Considering everything from how imagination works in our physical bodies to the ways we make images, from the mechanics of language and our ability to tell stories, to the creative composition of self-consciousness, Asma expands our personal and day-to-day forms of imagination into a grand scale: as one of the decisive evolutionary forces that has guided human development from the Paleolithic era to today.

The result is an inspiring look at the rich relationships among improvisation, imagination, and culture, and a privileged glimpse into the unique nature of our evolved mind.

Regarding the new book, The Wall Street Journal has said, “The Evolution of Imagination makes a compelling case that we should not, and ultimately cannot, leave our creative roots behind.  In the course of this slim but ambitious book on the nature of the imagination, Mr. Asma tells his reader that ‘sometimes an artist like James Brown will interrupt a long vamp or groove by calling out to the band. ‘Should we take it to the bridge, fellas?’ For Mr. Asma, the answer has always been ‘yes.’ The bridge is the point at which a melody takes what he calls ‘a musical left turn,’ a moment that initiates artistic improvisation. Mr. Asma takes readers to the bridge, the site of human creativity, gives them a sense of its thrill, and while doing so leads them through a series of questions that have stymied philosophers for millennia: How exactly does human creativity take place? What is the importance and meaning of the imagination? How did humans first become, in Mr. Asma’s words, the ‘improvising ape’?”

Adds Mark Johnson, author of Morality for Humans, “This is a terrific book. It is a grand, expansive journey through the central role of improvisation and imagination in everything we experience, think, and do. Asma draws masterfully on anthropology, genetics, biology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and embodied cognition studies.”

The Evolution of Imagination is available here:

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is a Senior Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture. He is also the author of nine books. In addition to his latest, The Evolution of Imagination (Univ. of Chicago Press,) his other works include Against Fairness (Univ. of Chicago Press), On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford Univ. Press), Buddha for Beginners (For Beginners), and The Gods Drink Whiskey (HarperOne).

Asma’s work has been featured in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Vanity Faire, among other prestigious media outlets.

Asma writes regularly for the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Skeptic magazine. He has also written for the Sunday Times, the Chicago Tribune, Aeon Magazine, Psychology Today, and many others. His works have been translated into German, Spanish, Hebrew, Czech, Romanian, Hindi, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese.

In 2003, Asma was a Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, and in 2007, he lived and studied in Shanghai, China. Asma also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. In 2014, he was named a Fulbright Scholar, teaching philosophy in Beijing, China.

Asma has been an invited lecturer at Harvard University, Brown University, the Field Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Fudan University (Shanghai), Xi’an Jiaotong University, the University of Macau, School of the Art Institute, and many more.

In addition to his extensive academic, literary, and philosophical accomplishments, Asma is also a blues/jazz musician. He has played onstage with many great artists, including Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy.

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