We have the world. Its nature and conditions are very similar to Earth, only the people are very different in one detail (but I would say it is a very important one).

People in this world are not able to imagine anything; they completely lack the creativity.

What does it mean, a little more precisely:
They cannot think about anything that is not very strictly based on things they see around. It is possible to create something new, but it must be very logically established on some already real cause without any intermediate innovational steps.

I can imagine that in this kind of world any progress would be very slow.
The art, I think, is possible - in the books people can describe their one lives, they can draw pictures or build statues of things or people they see (etc.)
But what I am not sure about: Has the art, a concept essentially based on creativity, any reason to grow? Why would people do that?

To communicate? To give something to the world? Would they be even interested in consuming the art anymore?
How would it look like? What kind of art would be on top?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 24, 2017 at 0:44

12 Answers 12


The question you ask dives deep into the heart of philosophy and the eternal question "what is consciousness?" Imagination is typically considered to be something deeply entwined with consciousness, so it's hard to imagine a creature which has consciousness but lacks imagination.

Of course, defining "imagination" is hard enough. I've had several comment exchanges with the OP on this topic trying to pin down the word and it is as difficult as one can expect. Accordingly, I think it makes sense to approach the question in a multi-level fashion, starting from the most generalized philosophy and working close to the specifics the OP asked for.

Chakras Philosophy

In philosophy we have a concept called "p-zombies" that we use to explore the idea of "conciousness." P-zombies are entities which are explicitly not conscious, but otherwise operate as we do. An example might be a player piano like machine which is loaded up with every action it will ever do. If the tape that runs through that player piano were designed by an omniscient deity, they may be able to appear to respond to us as a conscious individual would, but would not in fact be conscious. More advanced p-zombies are explored, of course. We can have p-zombies based on combinatorial logic or sequential logic (which are how FPGAs operate), which decreases the need for an omniscient deity to load a future-predicting tape of data, but they're all put in the same class because they are not conscious but may appear to be conscious.

For all our philosophy, we have come up with no way to identify a difference between a conscious individual and a p-zombie. They can look and act just like we can. They can even appear to feel things like pain and joy by responding properly. This is important to the story of imagination because we can imagine a conscious entity with imagination, thus we must be able to imagine a p-zombie which appears to have imagination as well. There would be no distinguishing factor between this imagination-less p-zombie and a creature with imagination, so the limitation here that "these creatures do not have imagination" is not limiting at all. They can do anything we can do. Thus, from a philosophical perspective, they would be able to construct any art that we can.

Honeybee Nature

Taking one step away from the turbulent waters of philosophy, we can look at nature. Nature is considered by many to be a beautiful thing chock full of imagination itself. For example, consider the lowly honeybee. A honeybee who finds a flower loads up with pollen and nectar and flies back to the hive. Once at the hive, other workers crowd around them and the pollen laden worker does a dance. This dance, known as the Waggle Dance, describes to the other honeybees where the flowers were with respect to the sun:

The direction and duration of waggle runs are closely correlated with the direction and distance of the resource being advertised by the dancing bee. The resource can include the location of a food source or a potential .... flowers that are located directly in line with the sun are represented by waggle runs in an upward direction on the vertical combs, and any angle to the right or left of the sun is coded by a corresponding angle to the right or left of the upward direction. The distance between hive and recruitment target is encoded in the duration of the waggle runs. The farther the target, the longer the waggle phase. The more excited the bee is about the location, the more rapidly it will waggle, so it will grab the attention of the observing bees, and try to convince them. If multiple bees are doing the waggle dance, it's a competition to convince the observing bees to follow their lead, and competing bees may even disrupt other bees' dances or fight each other off.

From an imagination perspective, this dance is important because it conveys abstract concepts. Worker bees who observe a waggle dance observe an abstract encoding of data and make decisions off of it. Note that, in the above quote, there may be competition between multiple foragers. The "winner" is the one who expressed their idea the best, instilling in the minds of the other bees a sense of a field of flowers the other worker has not yet experienced. Thus, you may say the interpretive waggle dance of honeybees encourages other honeybees to imagine the field of flowers well enough to encourage other honeybees into motion!

Steampunk engineer Constructing your world

Now these previous sections point to two key things:

  • Non-conscious entities can act in a way indistinguishable from imagination
  • Real life honeybees exhibit imagination

This creates some bounds on the question. We know that we can't rely on the metaphysical definition of "imagination" to answer the question, and we know that a lowly 1cm long animal exhibits imagination like behaviors. Your creature is going to have to fit in this space, or else we must admit that either imagination is more nuanced than we think or your creature is less advanced than a honeybee.

If I may quote your comments, I think we can see how to fit your world into this schema:

Ok, my definition: Imagination is the ability to devise, invent or even make anything that is new at all. To do it without making the steps that weren't in front of me already. Example: I can see a crocodile so I can think about a lizard (and possibly draw it for example). I European woods so I can think about that too. What more? I can think about the lizard in the woods. But what I cannot think about is a deep African jungle with dragons (even so that is very similar to what I know). If I saw more sizes of lizards I can imagine a giant lizard (but not if I only saw one).

So this shows that these creatures can observe concrete things and draw abstractions from them. We can even compose an image consisting of two things we've seen. However, we can narrow this down based on your response to TheSexyMinhir's answer. In that answer, it was assumed that your creatures lacked the ability to create abstract thoughts, but you disagreed with that in comments, saying that you would prefer answers focusing the lack of what TheSexyMinhir called "Recombination:" the ability to take the attributes of one thing and apply them to something else.

Now we can see the important dividing line for your creature's lack of imagination. It can compose a scene, but it cannot recombine elements of two scenes.

This suggest how the creature will express itself. It can compose a scene in its head, and compare it to the world around it. It may then act to make that scene match the composition in its head. All creatures can do this differential comparison and expression, all the way down to the lowly yeast cells, so it's fair to assume your creatures can do this too. However, unlike most creatures, if it can't find a way to express its inner scene, it is not permitted to alter the scene. It must instead construct new scenes (via composition)

This will be the key to art in your creatures world: the ability to compose a world that contains the art and then see if they have an action which can bring this to reality. Accordingly, I would expect their art to be tremendously subtle and terribly fierce. Without a clear way to recombine reality with the scene in their head, their work would be inherently bimodal. Either their actions would be subtle enough that they did not need to recombine reality with their scene, or their actions would create an environment where future compositions also are actionable. Their life would be in a constant swing between just barely simmering, trying to wait for a scene which permits compositing, and loud powerful aggression.

During the simmering phase I could see time-consuming art being popular, such as the mandalas done by monks. In this approach, the art is always just barely one step away from reality, so it can grow forward by tiny steps which can be composed from reality. You may also see fractaline artwork, depending on your definition of recombining ideas. Fractals are self-similar, so recombining the scene before them with itself would yield fractaline art*.

Sand MandalasGoogle Dreams of Fractals

This art would be very healthy for them, as it would exercise their composition side of their mind, which is much needed for their long term survival. They would almost certainly develop art as a form of mental exercise, given the inability to recombine.

However, once in a while, one individual would find that the images he is composing can be acted on with great force. Sometimes when they compose their scene in their head and compare it to reality, they see that one swift action can bring reality in line with their composed scene. In these times, their art would look more like war. When they compose a scene in their head, and find that all they need to do to conceive it is to whack off your head, you'll find they are more than happy to express themselves with an axe or a sword.

This would suggest their warfare would be similar in nature to that of the Daleks from Dr. Who. The Daleks were famously uncreative, seeking nothing but to eradicate everything that was not pure Dalek. In fact, they were so uncreative that eventually they had to split off the Cult of Scara, which was a mere 4 Daleks (out of millions) who sought out imagination to find new ways to kill everyone else. So when you consider the art they might create, I would concentrate on propaganda art which suggests this species is the only species that is worth existing.

Dalek Propaganda

* For amusement, the fractal I chose was one which was run through Google Dreams. Google Dreams is clearly a piece of software with no imagination, and yet the results it produces are... provocative. However, it's exactly the opposite of your speices -- it can recombine but cannot compose.

  • $\begingroup$ Really cool, thanks. The summary of my info you made fits nicely with my idea. Generally, good summarization, I'' definitely use it. Also, the google dream note is interesting. $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ My wife just read this, and she suggested another source of material that I'd overlooked: the Vogons from Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. What's interesting about them is that, because they are part of a larger society, they can actually be even less creative and imaginative than I suggested here and still survive. If your story has another race controlling the unimaginative one, the Vogons may be a great source for you. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 20, 2017 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ This anwer is cool! $\endgroup$
    – beppe9000
    Jan 21, 2017 at 0:32

Art and innovation without any creativity does not sound realistic to me. They would always be content with what they have and would not see any reason to change anything, because they would need to imagine something better to strive for it.

But, if I imagine that creativity is non-existent in your story: In Evolution something that is negative for an individual is often a reason to be attractive for other members of their species. The reason is that this individual can survive even with a disadvantage. Something similar is how we humans tend to buy unnecessary and expensive things just to show that we can afford to give away so much money.

One reason might therefore be that your people want to impress others by showing that they have time to spend on something that is seen as a waste of time.

  • $\begingroup$ interesting idea with the impressing others with unpracticality, I like it $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ "Art and innovation without any creativity" … we already have that: Anime is a nearly 100% standardized "art" form where each drawing has an attached meaning to every single part. So you can tell stories visually without thinking about the visual part. $\endgroup$
    – kaiser
    Jan 19, 2017 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @kaiser: I disagree with you in this point. Every drawing conveys meaning, but someone has to think about what people would conceive as the meaning of the drawing. This requires creativity so that you can use different and new styles of drawing and storytelling to tell your story. Someone had to start and do something different. Of course there are many Animes with similar styles and stories. But some creative person had to start everything. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jan 19, 2017 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't upward progress without creativity pretty near the dictionary definition of evolution? $\endgroup$
    – Blackhawk
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Blackhawk: Evolution of a species is possible in such a world, because it does not require creativity. You cannot influence how you were born and how well adapted you will be for the world you are born into. The problem is that things like technology and art can not exist if there is no creativity, because nobody can imagine anything better than the status quo. Technology and art do not evolve by themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jan 20, 2017 at 7:57

Natural challenges

In a world without imagination, art would consist less of pretty, not real things and more of challenging things, for example;

  1. Rock Balancing
  2. Complex geographical patterns
  3. Extremely detailed depictions of real things
  4. Sculptures of real things in great detail
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Some are bronze and some are clay. But in all cases one must first imagine an object which does not exist in nature. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @TGar How could he imagine he could write his name? Or shape a face? Besides who invented writing in the first place? $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Jan 19, 2017 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ Why would someone without imagination make a stone sculpture to represent a real thing? It might be shaped like a dog but all anyone there would see is carved stone. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Jan 19, 2017 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b then you are imagining a representation of that thing made of something else. Even crows that bend wire to make hooks are using imagination on multiple levels, they see the world as something other than it is and work out how to get from what the world is to what they want. They also see the imagine the possibility of turning the wire into a hook. no imagination means no tool using or problem solving. Even the monkeys on typewriters approach requires some imagination, "I can't do X but I might be able to if I change something" $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ @John then the question is flawed, humanity would never arise as they could never make tools $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Jan 20, 2017 at 0:29

With your question, we can go two ways.

  • Mankind has only recently lost their ability to imagine things, and is forced to move on from that point,
  • We have never had the ability to imagine things and therefore have never moved on to be as we are now.

The immediate problem that comes from the second assumption is that the lack of imagination will mean humanity has never wondered about how fire worked, or why we're different than other beings, why we fall in love, why others do things. In short, if we follow down this path, humanity will have never invented fire, and therefore, we'd still be living in caves, which means art as we know it will have never started to exist, or have any function.

So, let's go and assume humanity did have creativity to start with, but lost it over time. In that case, we just have to look at the functions of art in nowadays society, to be create some uses for art as we know it.


Art, just like music, games, and other entertainment have always fulfilled the need for, well, entertainment. A lack of imagination does not take away that a person will still want to keep themselves busy with other things than work.


Besides that, art has been a big part of product advertisement for years now. When you walk through a store, you can obviously see what brands are expensive, and which are not, simply by looking at the product. Often, the more "artsy" or "pretty" products are the better ones. If people are similar in each other way to reality, then this should have the same effect on them, as it has on us.

Expressing emotions

Even though we do not have imagination, we still have emotions as human beings. Thus, we'll need ways to express this, and more often than not, art has proven to convey emotions very well.

In short, as long as humanity has evolved into the current society we live in, we have plenty of reasons for art to still exist.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't understand why humanity wouldn't have discovered (not created as you said) fire if they realised how it was good: they don't need to imagine why it exists, they randomly found it and kept it. And this doesn't really answer any quesiton the OP had, but since he accepted it ... $\endgroup$
    – Asoub
    Jan 20, 2017 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Asoub Well, imagination is needed to see why it is "good". They could have literally seen that lightning struck a tree, lit it on fire and cooked the birds inside, and they still wouldn't have realized how it was good, because they would not be able to "imagine" the birds now being edible, and let's say through miracle, that they did try, it would have still left them with only realizing they could cook birds. They would never come to any conclusions that would lead them onward. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Asoub Actually it was not my intention to accept this answer (I didn't notice that I did that), I am sorry, both of you. $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 20, 2017 at 11:48

I think art would (or at least could) still exist, but art appreciation would be based on technical prowess, rather than an emotional reaction to the art; whereas for us, art appreciation is a combination of the two.

Hyperrealism would probably be the highest standard of painting and sculptures, while things like M. C. Escher's art wouldn't exist at all, I could certainly see a society without imagination producing something like this marble statue that imitates transparent cloth.

I could see the existence of music going either way. Perhaps it doesn't take an imagination to find particular combinations of sounds aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps the mathematical underpinnings of music theory could be used to "derive" such aesthetically pleasing combinations, or perhaps they could be found by trial and error, but it seems unlikely, or at least very difficult.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the emotion reaction be even bigger? I can imagine (unlike people in the world :D ) that if I see something that I couldn't imagine before at all then I am shocked much more than if I have the ability to invent something similar myself. $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ @TGar Maybe if you showed our art to someone from their world; but art from their world would by necessity only depict mundane subjects. I might marvel at the skill displayed by a still life painting of a bowl of fruit, but it doesn't move me to tears. $\endgroup$
    – Retsam
    Jan 19, 2017 at 21:35

Let's assume some things first.

First assumption

"Imagination" is made up of three distinctive parts:

  1. In-sight: The ability to "see" something in your mind.
  2. Abstraction: The ability to reduce something to only it's relevant markers (all HAIR on a ANIMAL is called FUR regardless of COLOR).
  3. Recombination: The ability to take attributes of one thing, and apply them to something else (RED CHERRY + GREY ELEPHANT = RED ELEPHANT).

These abilities can be combined (Raised Heart rate + emotion + visual/mental image of a person - weird itch on my nose - anger about boss at work = love => raised heart rate = love).

Second Assumption

In your world people are missing ability number 2.

Third Assumption

Your people have somehow managed to reach some form of civilization that isn't completely foreign to ours (BIG handwave there).

So, why do people create Art?


Your people still have emotions, so they can still enjoy art. Any Form of Art would strife to be extremely lifelike, since your people would lack the ability to understand which parts they can leave out for an enjoyable experience to still be enjoyable (e.g. all performances would be recreations of events or combinations of events, including the viewpoint of the person originally experiencing the event).


Your people still have a need to communicate things whicht can't be expressed through words. Art would likely have an even more important role as communicator, since people would have to convey ALL of the information of a event for other people to truly be able to be empathic about anything. (Our World: I'm sad -> I was sad once I can understand how you fell; Your world: I'm sad, I'm slightly hungry, my nose itches, and I see a tree -> I was sad once, but my nose never itches. I have no idea what you are talking about.)


Your people would probably have no need to create art to preserve things. Without abstraction, they couldn't apply past situation to their current circumstances anyway, unless they match one for one.

  • $\begingroup$ You're probably very right with handwave in your third assumption, that is a glitch in my question probably. I think that preserving still could be found important (but I don't know if through art) applying situations is not only reason for that, they still can be curious, don't you think? $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 20, 2017 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ @TGar Good point. Only Counterpoint that I could think of, is that curiosity also has a component of personal relevance, but your world probably would have some people that are in it purely for "THE SCIENCE!!!". Also keep in mind: "Handwaves are tools too". $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ Weirdly, I would have taken assumption that people that can't imagine would lack property number 3: recombination. But +1 for analysing what is imagination. $\endgroup$
    – Asoub
    Jan 20, 2017 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Asub Agree. I would also like more the third option. $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 20, 2017 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Asoub "It is possible to create something new, but it must be very logically established on some already real cause without any intermediate innovational steps." -> recombination $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 12:27

Imagination is a means to create art, but entertainment is its main purpose (together perhaps with expression). People found it entertaining to listen to music, look at paintings and watch plays. The entertainment value comes mostly from the imaginative aspects of escaping to another world, the joy of seeing somebody do something skillful, and the more intangible, abstract kind of pleasure we derive from things like music.

The people in your world will probably not be able to enjoy fiction, since it requires the consumer to have some imagination as well. But they will differentiate between pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

A good example is food. most likely they enjoy eating calorie-rich foods, due to their evolutionary benefit. Surplus energy would be spent on seeking out specific foods that they prefer, and people with enough food could trade these for other goods and services. Without imagination it would take a long time to discover how to bake something like a cake, but small progress could be made by random experimentation, and with enough free time, lengthy random experimentation would be rewarded, even though people would have no concept of working towards a thing that doesn't exist yet.

Music might emerge in a similar way. People could not actively put sounds together to invent music, but they would find certain sounds more agreeable than others. They would surround themselves with things that naturally make pleasant sounds and might stumble across simple combinations of such objects. they would perhaps come up with something like a windchime.

Finally, interesting visual patterns could emerge randomly by setting certain events in motion. Cutting the head of a chicken and letting it run around in white sand as it bleeds (sorry for the gory example) might produce a pleasant pattern. Once this is noticed, the process can be repeated to achieve the same effect.

Most of their art would emerge in this kind of indirect fashion. They cannot imagine a goal and work towards it, but they would discover that when things are arranged in a certain way, the universe sometimes comes up with new things, which they can then recognize to have value. Once they have seen an example, they might be triggered to reproduce it, but they could only reproduce it by repeating the same steps. They would not think to paint the pattern in the sand themselves, but would keep slaughtering chickens in order to achieve the same pattern.

  • $\begingroup$ this is pretty much what I would've written. In TheSexyMenhir's answer, he described imagination as the abilty to see, abstract and recombine. I would say that they can't recombine ("They cannot think about anything that is not very strictly based on things they see around"). So they wouldn't be able to imagine new stuff actually. But randomness would certainly replace imagination. They would randomly combine stuff and see if they like it. Litterature wouldn't exist, and music would be more like techno (using samples). But I guess, abstract painting would still be created(maybe not apreciated) $\endgroup$
    – Asoub
    Jan 20, 2017 at 15:20

Creative disciplines and ways around not being creative

There are several ways around a creative "block". You learn those techniques on universities that focus around this topic (Architecture, Sculpturing for e.g.). There are ways to create new things without being creative at all, but just interpreting what the result of a process is.

Example: Crashing frozen things on the floor, shuffling them, calling them a draft, photographing and printing it on paper just to trash the result again and to unfold a remodeled bunch of lines that you call a section, view or plan for a new building often is enough to give you input that you self lack at this moment. You do not even need a plan, just a process, in some cases some parameters that you can throw in for modification.

Aesthetics ≠ beauty, Art ≠ creativity

One important fact to keep in mind. The same goes for reason. Not always is the result something that seems to be worth the process. Curiosity alone is enough to drive engagement.

  • $\begingroup$ I fully understand the second part (Art ≠ creativity) and I like it. But could you please be a little more specific what do you mean with the Aesthetics ≠ beauty part? $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 20, 2017 at 7:41

As others I don't think that a creature that lacks any imagination can develop beyond the state of a trilobite. That we make models of the world around us is a key feature of intelligence, and because our information is incomplete any non-trivial model depends on some degree of imagination.

By the way, that is also true for our ability to form communities of free individuals. We can only do that because we can put ourselves in other peoples' shoes (partly because we have mirror neurons), which in turn needs some degree of imagination because actually we don't know at all how other people feel, or think, or perceive the color red.

That said, I think even without any imagination one can still see patterns in reality and create art which shows such patterns. That kind of art would always be some form of abstraction. For example, one could depict the topology of a crystal lattice, or the gravity well of the solar system, or a network of friendships, or the geometry underlying the arrangement of sunflower seeds in the blossom. It would probably resemble the finest examples of technical illustrations in our text books, which I think can legitimately be called art.


Portraits obviously, perhaps some slight embellishments on furniture or made of unusual materials. You could have some sort of art that makes itself, like adding various oils to a bowl of water and seeing what sort of colours and shapes emerge. Oversimplified portrayals of life might take on a sort of unrealistic quality.



Simply pointing and shooting a camera by itself doesn't require creativity. I see a pretty sunset and would like to capture it, and so I take a photo. Other people like the photo, and will pay to hang it on their wall. Art. In a world where you can't imagine anything not in front of you, about all you can do is just that - make art of what's in front of you.

Of course, really good photography does require creativity to tell a story, properly frame the subjects, color correct, etc. That said, it also takes creativity to appreciate the story and subtleties in good photography, so "good" photography wouldn't be appreciated in this imaginationless world anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ nice catch with photography! (Maybe another the question is if there would be need for creating a camera at all) $\endgroup$
    – TGar
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ This was the exact answer I was going to suggest. Being able to see different parts of the world via photography would be an excellent use of art. $\endgroup$
    – Gigazelle
    Jan 20, 2017 at 1:45

I can imagine a world where abstract ideas are conveyed in a technical sense rather then an artistic one. Rather then paintings and sculptures we would see the proliferation of complex engineering designs and mechanical blueprints that convey all needed information in a clear and concise way, with no room for misinterpretation as the "true form" of that particular profession.

Other engineers/welders/architects will understand the form of something from nothing but a sheet of paper. They can "see" the form of the thing in their mind but only through a complex and ordered understanding of their professional symbolism and standards.


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