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The Philosophy of Creativity

The Philosophy of Creativity edited by Elliot Paul and Scott Barry Kaufman

Les Reid has a creative response to a book on the philosophy of creativity.

Education is a politically contentious subject. Systems of education are continually being proposed, implemented, regretted and reorganised. There are arguments over religious segregation, the usefulness of various subjects, rote learning versus other methods of learning, the role of the teacher, and so on. Disagreements about purpose and methods in education have a long history: Plato and Aristotle held very different views, and philosophers as diverse as Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Russell and Rorty have added their own ideas. One facet of education, however, seems to have escaped controversy, and now enjoys general assent – creativity. Today we expect schools at all levels to nurture creativity, especially in literary composition and art, but also in problem-solving, critical thinking, media production, music, and dance. We seem to think that it is good to cultivate creativity, not only because personal development requires self-expression, but also because society is changing all the time and so we value the ability to respond to new challenges creatively. We want our education system to produce individuals who do not merely replicate ideas, but are capable of having new ones, whether commercial, artistic, scientific, or otherwise. So creativity is a good thing.

But what kind of a thing is creativity? The essays in this anthology explore many of its aspects, presenting familiar philosophical issues in less familiar contexts, which is an encouragement to take a fresh look at those issues and perhaps rethink our opinions. Creativity is looked at in relation to literature, music, audience response, character, imagination, the unconscious. and artificial intelligence. There are also essays on psychological experiments and teaching, and more. The compilers of the anthology are to be congratulated on its range and variety.

Portrait Of A Young Woman, Vaite (Jeanne) Goupil
Portrait Of A Young Woman, Vaite (Jeanne) Goupil, Paul Gaugin, 1896

Some myths about creativity are scrutinised and deflated. One Romantic tradition emphasises the flash of inspiration – the ‘Eureka!’ moment when the act of creation allegedly occurs. Simon Blackburn is very sceptical about accounts of creativity which make the process sound miraculous. He points to the years of learning, study and practice which preceded compositions which are said to have arrived out of the blue. Without those years of preparation, the achievements of Poincaré, Darwin, or Mozart would have been impossible. Blackburn tells us about a pianist who was complimented on his luck by a well-intentioned fan. “Yes,” he replied, “and the more I practise, the luckier I get.”

There is also a common belief that creativity is hampered by conscious deliberation. Creative ideas are supposed to well up from the unconscious like spring water from subterranean strata. This idea was popular with the Surrealists, and it also explains the Victorian interest in ‘automatic writing’, where a pen is moved ostensibly without conscious control. It was given credibility by statements from some artists and composers, for example Mozart, who said “Whence my ideas come, I know not, nor can I force them.” However, as reported in the essay by Baumeister, Schmeichel and Dewall, evidence from psychological experiments points to the opposite conclusion: that conscious processes are integral to creative behaviour. It is difficult to generate real creativity in a laboratory setting, so the experimental results are admittedly not a proof. Nevertheless they do incline us to the view that intentional awareness must play a significant role in highly complex creative activities. Unthinking reactions will not qualify as creativity.

That last point leads directly to the question whether computers can be truly creative. They can produce novel compositions in music and art, and they can invent new strategies and winning combinations of moves in chess. Such activities have an appearance of creativity; but Margaret Boden is not impressed by them. She sees them as a tribute to the creativity of the programmer, not of the machine which performs the function. However, she is more impressed by ‘genetic algorithms’ – programs that can make random changes in their own basic rules. The random changes are then subject to a fitness selector, which keeps the best altered rules and discards others. In this way, program development emulates biological evolution. A graphics program by Karl Sims operates in this way to produce novel images which look unrelated to each other. Such developments in computing are tantalising, says Boden, but they are a long way off creativity. Computers lack some key ingredients: autonomy, intentionality, consciousness, values, and emotions. Even the novel outputs of genetic algorithms do not constitute autonomy, because they are based on random changes, not deliberate choices. The key ingredients of true creativity require levels of operational complexity far beyond present computing capabilities. Boden concludes that the question whether computers can (eventually) be creative is currently unanswerable, but is still open.

Computers may be struggling to be creative, but what about us? Surely human beings are good at being creative? Every day we respond to things others say or to the events of the day by inventing new combinations of words. What we say is unscripted and unrehearsed; we simply make up an utterance on the spur of the moment! Even more creatively, we often initiate a discussion ourselves, as I have done writing this paragraph; and we launch it into a social nexus: in this case an angry mob of Philosophy Now readers who are already firing off apoplectic rebuttals to the Letters page!

Berys Gaut provides a very positive assessment of the human capacity for creativity. Not only are we normally pretty good at it, but we can be helped to be better at it. She shows how creative problem-solving in mathematics can be improved by following the strategies devised by George Pólya in his book How to Solve It (1971). The strategies include drawing a figure, considering special cases, looking for a related problem, and breaking down a complex task into simpler ones. Gaut shows that some of the strategies recommended in creative writing courses are similar. That is surprising, given the categorical difference of subject matter, but less so if one thinks of creativity as a skill which can be honed by practice. The strategies prepare the combustible materials which must be there if the creative spark is going to ignite anything.

I liked this book. The general direction of the essays sits easily with my libertarian, Humanist outlook, and the wide variety of topics it addresses has refreshed my interest in aesthetics, philosophy of education, and home improvement. But that’s my creative response to the book (see the essay by Noel Carroll). Yours will be different. I just hope that you get some enjoyment and enlightenment from it before you pen that angry rebuttal.

© Les Reid 2017

Les Reid teaches a course on Humanism as part of the Edinburgh City Council adult education programme.

The Philosophy of Creativity, edited by Elliot Paul and Scott Barry Kaufman, OUP, 2014, 326 pages, £34.49, ISBN 9780199836963

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