In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge draws a contrast between primary and secondary imagination. A creative person needs both types, he says, as they are aspects of the same innate power of interpreting the world, which together enable creativity.
The primary imagination, Coleridge states, is what underlies human perception and in turn can lead an individual to “the eternal creation.” This aspect of imagination is
the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.
The secondary imagination, he continues, co-exists with the conscious will but is identical to the primary imagination in that both have the same kind of agency. The only differences—and though few, they are significant—are
in degree and in the mode of its operation. [The secondary imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
Through the secondary imagination, a person takes the unified image or idea before them and “dissolves” it, breaking it into its components. The person then “diffuses” and “dissipates” what they have dissolved, and “recreates” it, or reassembles it according to their unique perspectives and abilities. In this respect, reality continues to exist, but it seems entirely different because the creative person has rendered it in a different way.
Even though it might be “impossible” to dissolve and recreate in this way, the human mind always endeavors to do so: the secondary imagination “struggles to idealize and to unify.” This process of struggle is likely to happen when regarding objects, which “are essentially fixed and dead.” The human mind endows objects with meaning; this is manifested in making and using symbols, such as through language or art.