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Creativity

by on June 11, 2021

Creativity

by Marco M. Pardi

When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: ‘Only stand out of my light.’ Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for the creative men and women is to stand out of their light.” John W. Gardner.

To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” Albert Einstein

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James, MD. On Thinking. Lecture. 1907

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Since my childhood was dominated by religious people who droned on and on that “God created everything, from nothing”; that we are all “God’s creatures”; and, that we should appreciate “creation” I’m inclined to react with gale force flatulence on hearing anything rooted in “creation”, creativity included. But of late I’ve softened my views, holding the ill winds in abeyance.

I still bristle at the suggestion of something from nothing since quantum mechanics do support my philosophical insistence that the presence of a state, such as nothingness, demands and therefore manifests the co-existence (even if undetectable) of somethingness, the classic Hsiang Sheng (Mutually Arising) of Tao. Thus, the assumed pre and post relationship of one to the other is negated, each by the concurrent presence of the other; At Onceness is manifest.

These thoughts on the nature of being are most commonly associated with philosophical discussions, often going until the morning light. But while many discussion participants cite – or drop, depending on your perspective, famous philosophers’ names, increasing numbers of scientists are making their presence known in ways more rooted in their philosophical origins. This should not be surprising. After all, until very recently in our history what we call science was known formally as philosophy.

One such philosopher/scientist I have been revisiting is William James MD Harvard (1842 – 1910), considered the Father of American Psychology. A recent book spoke of the people you would want to meet “in heaven”. James and I agree there is no heaven, but I sure would want to spend some “time” in discussion with him.

James saw the self as a composite of four elements: the Material Self, things that identify a person; the Social Self, the various roles we adopt; the Spiritual Self, our core identity; and, the Pure Ego, the soul or mind. Of these four, the Pure Ego is the most inaccessible to scientific analysis. And while creativity, if loosely accepted as the presentation of new and even unique features, can be accepted in any of the other three elements, its origins lie in the Pure Ego. This position then challenges the apparently presumptuous act of judging someone’s creativity.

For example, in prep school and undergraduate college my Humanities classes included sections on “music appreciation”. I very certainly appreciate certain music, but I am utterly unable to grip how and why a person devises sounds the way they do. I could not appreciate what a composer was supposedly trying to convey. I knew only what I liked, and disliked. The same held for the visual arts and I have often wondered at the commentary from fellow gallery visitors as they viewed what I had assumed were the same paintings I had just seen. In fact, I asked art professors and artists I knew how anyone could judge art. Invariably, they pointed to technique. But I felt this did not address “creativity”.

But the worst affronts came in my college literature classes. The class was challenged to identify the “Christ figure” in each of the assigned literary works. While others debated I repressed the urge to ask: Did anyone contact the author and ask? I could just imagine the authors’ response: WTF are you talking about?! And, when I asked how certain famous writers could get away with such miserable grammar I was told, It was their style. So why test for grammar at all?

James excoriated organized religion, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, religion for its sellout to autocratic politicians, Darwin for failing to counter the Tooth & Claw ethic which gave rise to Social Darwinism and the ethic of a pointless universe, and Freud for his abysmally unscientific presumptuous hierarchy of Super Ego, Ego and Id. The Darwinian and the Freudian schools were both based in an inescapably negative view of human action, the former in mechanical determinism, the latter in the cursed birthright of aggressive instincts and drives.

While in graduate school I maintained my cross-cultural interest in how cultures devise religious delusions and I applied myself to studies of evolution and genetics. Unfortunately, the internationally famous professor, Dr. Jules Henry, under whom I had come to study Psychological Anthropology lingered and died after a major stroke and the other significant professor, Dr Pertti Juto Pelto, returned to Cornell. As a University Scholar, Research Assistant, and Teaching Assistant I continued their work and took the opportunity to meet with a practicing Freudian Psycho-Analyst in St. Louis. Although she fully informed me of the principles and techniques underlying her discipline I left her company with a certainty that Freud had serious issues and that my imaginary Id was not plotting to draw me into varied and nefarious bumfuckery.

James, however, seemed onto something. Among the first to separate mind from brain, he proposed mind as an amorphous field-like entity capable of exchanging information with other minds, even unknowingly. This immediately put sense to the word inspiration, deriving literally from the idea of some thoughts coming in through infusion from an immaterial (spiritual) source. Okay, here some may want to imagine a God whispering in the ear. I do not. But we certainly have examples of “coincidence”, such as Darwin and Wallace independently and simultaneously coming up with evolution from “lower to higher” life forms.

James also explored visualization, the effect the mind has on the universe of probabilities. That is, the role of the observer in the manifestation of the observed. In this he was perhaps a century ahead of modern physics. Just for fun, consider Edgar John Rubin’s Ambiguous Figure Vase.*

As an observer, what do you see? Have you created two faces, or one vase? And who can say your choice is incorrect?

Of course, just as Social Darwinism arose from Darwinian evolution and pop psychology from Freudian fantasies, the Visualization fad arose from James’ insights and the growing realization of the observer effect which was becoming obvious in physics. The Creative Visualization Workbook : Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life by Shakti Gawain became one of the more influential books in this development. Since its publication I have wondered how many purchasers have tried to visualize getting their money back. The take away is: Imagining doesn’t make it so. Staring at your bank balance will not enable you to pay the mortgage.

The saying, “There’s nothing new under the Sun” recently gained new life with the publication of Biocentrism : How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Bob Berman and Robert Lanza. Saying essentially that all life forms are of equal moral standing and that life creates the universe, Biocentrism is fundamental to several ancient and current religions, Jainism the most pronounced. Yet Biocentrism relies heavily on our quickly growing understanding of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. In ways it is also dependent on the insights of William James, proposing the interconnectedness of all life consciousness such that particular and specific origins for ideas, or “creations”, are difficult if not impossible to ascribe. It is the umbra surrounding the person who, when asked how he or she arrived at a particular inspiration simply says, “I don’t know. It just came to me.”

Nonetheless, we still reward what we call creativity. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemical engineer who combined existing elements and invented dynamite, established the foundation which awards prizes across a broad spectrum of fields. But are these given for creativity or for inventiveness? If we distinguish these concepts by saying inventiveness is the reconfiguration of existing elements into a new package which can be used in a way the pre-existing elements could not, should there not be equal credit given to the existence of the elements? For example, words are elements. They exist. Is the Nobel Prize for Literature an award for inventiveness or for creativity? Does a visual artist merit a prize for arranging perceptible elements creatively or inventively? And upon what basis do Juries, whether for literature or visual art, make their award selection? Who, with anything greater than their own subjectivity, can tell you your painting is amateur or your short story is nonsense? And by the same token, who can tell you your work is creative?

I’ve often said, If you are willing to take the credit you should be willing to take the blame. The same holds true when understanding one’s role in the unfolding of the universe.

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11 Comments
  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, I always have to read your posts several times to grasp the content.  Sometimes I feel quite feeble-minded but I’m glad you give us all deeper subjects about which to think.  

    Is there anyone who is truly creative on their own without a source of inspiration?  John Donne’s poem “No Man is an Island” may not specifically apply here, but it does come to mind.  It would seem today it might even be more difficult to develop completely new ideas because we are bombarded with so much from the Internet alone.  And as someone with a (sometimes unfortunate) memory for conversation, I have to be especially cautious that I am not plagiarizing certain others.  

    Over the past couple of decades I’ve thought I had a new, or innovative, or creative endeavor, only to perform an Internet search and discover the idea was already used.  This even applies to names for characters or ideas I’ve had for tentative stories.  It would seem there is nothing new under the sun.  

    I’ve never been one to judge art, not that I think I have an eye for it regardless. But I have seen plenty in museums I would never want hanging on my own walls

    Like

    • Thank you, Dana. You raise a pertinent resource – Donne – and a very valid observation about the context in which we live. I realize that my dislike of the word creativity is largely based in aversion to religious fantasy but I still think we exchange inventiveness and creativity far too freely.

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      • Marco, prior to this post I never thought about the differences between “creativity” and inventiveness. But I can see why you might have an aversion to the notion of creativity.

        By the way, when I was a child I never thought the O.T. Creation fable was very interesting or clever. Speaking everything into existence? Really? That certainly didn’t require any ingenuity, and the story was absolutely full of holes – even in my seven year old mind.

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        • Thank you, Vampirella. I think many people do not think carefully about the words they use, and this is often a symptom of careless thinking. Communication should be precise and exact, leaving no need tor subsequent questions. Words can be viewed in the same way as markers on a map; they should say exactly where you are and indicate exactly where you have been and where you are going. “Common usage” is not good enough.

          But, it is possible to generously extend a concept of mysticism to the stories of the Old Testament. In this application conceiving of a thing, in the form of putting a word or words to it, is bringing it into existence. For this reason the ancient Hebrews (the Elohim) proscribed the speaking of the name of god; speaking it brought the god into existence in a form separate and apart from the speaker, thus separating the speaker from god. This was viewed as the ultimate tragedy. In the same way, parents often chide their children with sayings such as “Don’t even SAY that!”, expressing the fear that speaking a thing will bring it to life.

          I think the most salient indicator of a couple’s relationship is the amount of unforced time they happily spend together without a word being needed. It glows on its own.

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          • Vampirella permalink

            “Communication should be precise and exact, leaving no need tor subsequent questions.”

            I wholly agree, Marco. That would probably eliminate a lot of my confusion, significantly in the workplace where I either tend to rely on guesswork, or spend far too much time asking questions for clarity. One of my last managers in the United States prided themselves on their sarcastic style of communication, which in my opinion has no value when giving employees direction.

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  2. Mike Stamm permalink

    I spent the majority of my working life on the fringes of academe, and experienced at second hand many of the debates (or, as often, dismissals) about the importance of creativity. So I have what I like to think of as both a rather jaundiced and yet clear-eyed understanding of those who teach but seldom do (to paraphrase Shaw). The assumption seems to be that no creator is immune from comprehension if only the correct interpreter can be found. Interpretation and analysis have their places, but their scope is often very limited. In UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, Bel Kaufman’s protagonist writes of having had her analysis of Edna St. Vincent Millay rejected by a committee of academics–even though Millay herself wrote to confirm that the student had gotten it absolutely right. The committee’s response was only to stand by its verdict–and to change the rules so that students could no longer submit work based on the work of living writers. I learned years later that this was a true story and had happened to Kaufman herself, and it changed forever the notion that opinions from those who claim to know better often are founded on nothing but ego. So I rely on my own Philistine notions that I know what I like, and I do not bother with that which I do not like or which seems to be empty posturing or con artistry disguised as “creativity.”

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    • Thank you, Mike. You cite a marvelous example, which was in fact a foundational text in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s movement for educational reform. While continuing the work on Jules’ major study, The Ecology of the Inner City Child, I encountered highly placed educational administrators who refused to cooperate with me out of fear that I would apply the lessons learned in Up The Down Staircase. It often seems impossible to get people to see the needs of others coming before those of themselves.

      And I share your adamant posture on the autonomy of choice in what to like.

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  3. Amazing! Where to begin?

    I once told someone that education was not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. I loved school because I love learning. You continue (after more than forty years) to teach me, for which I am grateful. I question, is creativity the beginning of evolution, its end, or just a step along the way. The word applies itself to so many subjects, I’m not sure there is a definitive answer.

    From an artistic standpoint, literature, music, or the fine arts, I adhere to the notion that all things are subjective. I love a good Rembrandt, find Dali to be weird, and simply don’t understand Pollock at all; that’s just me. Since I saw you initially in an Art History class, I am happy to have had the opportunity to learn about all of it. I like most kinds of music, but do have my preferences. I am an avid reader, but some stories are (in my opinion) just a waste of trees.

    Yesterday, I took my granddaughter to a movie of her choice, “In the Heights”. It is not something I would have chosen, but I am ever so happy that she did. The music was beautiful, the choreography stunning, and the social history and lessons built into the story well worth learning. This was creativity at its finest, but I can’t honestly say it is for everyone. Some people don’t appreciate the lessons that may be learned by keeping an open mind, and an open heart.

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    • Thank you, Rose. I agree with you about learning. As you know, I disliked the concept of “teaching” and favored the concept of facilitating. I am so deeply thrilled when it is evident that someone opens a door they may never have considered before and finds themselves in a more exciting and fulfilling world. Now you have me curious about that movie.

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  4. Dana permalink

    This interesting, meaningful response is from Tilly in Canada:

    Marco,

    Your observation on whether what we call creativity is more accurately described as inventiveness caught my interest. What is the difference, I wondered. Is it the technical as opposed to the imaginative? Making something out of something as opposed to making something out of nothing? Drawing inspiration from without as opposed to from within? Precision as opposed to subjectivity? These are a few initial questions that popped into my head. Thanks very much for giving me something interesting to think on! I enjoyed the post!

    Tilly

    Like

  5. Thank you, Tilly. Your comments encourage me to feel I am in thinking company. Indeed, I would love to read your thoughts as you consider these issues further. Marco

    Like

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