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Plaiting Gravy

Les Jones on allegories, specific domains and Wittgenstein’s social ideas.

The word ‘creativity’ is derived from the Latin word creare; literally, ‘to cause, to create, to make’. But this definition itself suggests problems. Humans can certainly make things by putting other things together; but do we have the capacity to create something new, as it were, from nothing? Well, like many others, I will take refuge in the phrase “it all depends what you mean by…” The idea that creation was only in God’s realm seems to have been ditched in the seventeenth century. The word creativity seems to have acquired its present meaning around that time, with its implication that humans too can be creative.

One thing we need to clear up first, is that creativity and discovery are not the same thing. Discovery is unearthing something new: that which hasn’t been known before. The discoverer does not know anything of the thing discovered until the discovery occurs. This helps us with what creativity is not: although of course creative people do discover things, creativity can be a frame of mind, whereas discovery cannot.

Some have suggested that one criterion for a creative act is that it should be ‘unique’, rather than a copy of a previous act. Clearly however this cannot be the only criterion, or else one could just churn out a random sequence of letters or characters that made no sense at all and claim that to be creative act. So we need a second criterion for creativity: what is created must make some sort of sense. For that to work, the creative event must be embedded in some sort of symbol system intelligible to a wider audience: for example, language, logic, maths or music.

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Portrait by Clint Inman 2022
Painting © Clinton Inman 2022 Facebook at Clinton.inman

Wittgenstein & Creativity

So creative events require meaning. Ludwig Wittgenstein claims in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) that, when it comes to language, ‘meaning is use’.

For those who have wrestled with the various ideas in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus or his later Philosophical Investigations, it might seem a little incongruous that Wittgenstein has much to say about creativity. His later work brilliantly advances his ‘Private Language Argument’, demolishing the possibility of a strictly personal language developed inside one’s own head using creative abilities inspired solely from one’s own internal world. Rather, Wittgenstein argues that understanding is a public phenomenon; that language can only develop in interactions between individuals. Indeed, his famous notion of a ‘language game’ centres on the fact that language use is embedded within different types of social interaction, so that subtly different rules govern different language games. For instance, the language game played by religions has boundaries that separate it from other language games. (Few language games are circumscribed by belief: religion is one; supporting a football team may be another.)

It’s important to note that language games are social by their very nature. If, as Wittgenstein argued, understanding is a public phenomenon, then clearly one cannot have a language game if there is no public. If there is no human interaction, then there is no communication. Wittgenstein insisted that language games were not static, but were developing systems constantly under review by those using them, especially creative individuals.

Some philosophers have suggested that creativity is forged in a culture of traditions – linguistic, cultural, etc. A new theory or method or way of looking at things is judged creative by those imbued with the values, judgements and theories of the tradition in which they work. But traditions are developed within societies, so it follows that creativity is developed socially. This notion has been named by psychologists and some philosophers ‘the sociocultural theory’.

The idea that creativity springs from cultures of traditions is criticised by other philosophers. Creativity, they argue, is about ‘thinking outside the box’; that is, outside the tradition. Wittgenstein has much to say about this – such as, “Genius is courage in talent”. He said further: “Genius is talent in which character makes itself heard.” Is he trying to open our minds here to the fact that creativity has to do with more than just the proverbial ‘Eureka!’ moment? Language, and all that goes with it, must be based in rule-following; and rule-following by definition must be in a public space. Wittgenstein says that there is no magic spark that flashes on in the workings of the individual’s mind, devoid of any contact with the public space. How can it, Wittgenstein asks, when the very building blocks of any new idea are rooted in linguistic rule-following in the social domain? One could even argue that here Wittgenstein is casting doubt on the intelligibility of an idea being completely limited to one’s own private sphere.

Many would (publically) say that if there was ever a truly original thinker, it was Wittgenstein. But Wittgenstein wrote in 1931: “I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking, I have always taken one over from someone else. I have simply straightaway seized on it with enthusiasm for my work of clarification. That is how Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me.” (1931, in Culture and Value 1980).

This is a surprising, maybe grievous, thing to say. Perhaps Wittgenstein was being self-effacing, although that doesn’t seem in character. The truth may instead lie in his aphorism ‘Genius is courage in talent’. Here we get a hint that the creative individual must be prepared to suffer and challenge for his or her creativity. The individual must endure and triumph over enormous strain before true creativity can be achieved.

Wittgenstein’s own way of working bears witness to these ideals. Yes, he had enormous natural talent; but he also had enormous persistence and doggedness. He would turn a problem around, invert it, weigh its perspectives, and in general, fight against the ‘leave it to another day’ notion that can bedevil many of us. The creative individual believes so intensely in their ideas that he or she forces them on culture. This calls on some form of courage to smash through a ceiling of doubt or indolence, to force the idea through by making use of it, living it.

Creativity Through Allegory

An allegory is a fictional narrative or image that can lead the reader or viewer to consider moral or political situations. Perhaps the best-known allegory in philosophy is Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, a story he tells of some prisoners who have been kept in chains in a cave all their lives, watching shadows thrown upon the cave wall by a fire. These shadows are of objects being carried behind them. They are a distorted representation of the world, but they are the only ‘reality’ the prisoners know. For Plato the shadows stand for our sense perceptions, though of course sense perceptions are only a fraction of our total experience, which also includes our reason and analysis. A famous political allegory is George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm, an allegory of Soviet Communist history. In it a group of farm animals, filled with idealism, stage a revolution and take over their farm. Orwell, a former Communist, describes the shifting situation of the animals as the pigs seize control and are steadily corrupted by the opportunities and selfishness of absolute power.

Yet another example of allegory is Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist. On seeing this film, one of Bertolucci’s followers suggested he could ‘plait gravy’ – i.e. achieve something widely seen as impossible. Yes, it seemed (and still seems in many ways) that creative, that complex. The Conformist is set in Fascist Italy in the 1930s. The main character is Marcello Clerici. As a child he was mistreated, and this scars him deeply. Marcello seeks refuge in the overwhelming power of the fascist state. He’s charged with investigating Professor Quadri, who is an anti-fascist and Marcello’s old college professor. Quadri uses Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to condemn the contemporary political situation in Italy. “And what do they see, the prisoners?”, asks Quadri. “Shadows, reflections of things. Like what is happening to you people now in Italy” he persists. Marcello instead takes the route that appears to quell his various anxieties; he is not ready to confront reality. Marcello is self-deluding and on the road to moral bankruptcy, but is he morally bankrupt enough to carry out his fascist masters’ orders and kill Quadri?

For the viewer this is captivating stuff and also raises profound questions. The truth of Marcello’s situation finally begins to dawn on him. He begins to realise that he is not a puppet master, but one of tens of thousands of puppets. Along with Marcello, the viewer is presented with opposing pathways to good and evil. Has Marcello’s quest for security, status and belonging harmed him more than helped him? Should he even have considered this path? Marcello is becoming ensnared in a moral trap from which there will be no escape. The impression of his growing terror is enhanced by exceptional camera work, light and shade, angles suggesting claustrophobia. The creativity of the artwork is stunning. Bertolucci uses Marcello to explore the drives that fuel cruel autocracies and mendacious dictatorships the world over. Marcello, for all his guile and confidence in his abilities to work the system, finally comes to see the utter bankruptcy of his position, for just like those he despises, he has become an extension of the fascist state.

The movie is an allegory, rather than a historical drama, because it tries to awaken all of us to questions about society and our place within it, and to alert us to the lure of conformism, the tendency of so many to mindlessly follow whatever popular trend or set of expectations is dominant in society at a given moment. The raising of such questions, and the limitless possibility of further questions, is the very bedrock of creative thought.

Psycho-Philosophical Creativity

Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2021) identified a type of highly focused mental state conducive to productivity and creativity. He called it the ‘flow’. He described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Csikszentmihalyi advanced a model of creativity that stresses the importance of a ‘specific domain’ to make meaningful contributions within a culture – a time and place in history where many variables come together to form a situation where creativity can bloom. Renaissance Florence is sometimes cited as a domain where many such factors came together. The city was a financial and political powerhouse. The rich were encouraged to advertise their wealth and power through great art – which in its turn attracted artists, sculptors, architects, etc; all the seeds needed for a harvest of creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi’s work focuses on creativity as a cultural phenomenon. It is useful, he says, to think about culture as systems of interrelated domains. He puts forward a model of creativity consisting of a domain, a field, and a person. The domain is the wider area of cultural application, whether that be sculpture, mathematics, reason or science. Inside the domain is the specific field; and inside the field is the person. Csikszentmihalyi outlines the creative person as having “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule-bound action system” (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990). To achieve this sense the individual absorbs and develops cultural information. In some individuals this knowledge will reach such a level that they will be selected by the gatekeepers in the field for inclusion into the creative domain. He writes, “Typically, the memes and rules that define a domain tend to remain stable over time. It takes psychic energy to learn new terms and new concepts, and in so far as psychic energy is a very scarce and necessary resource, and provided that the old terms and rules are adequate to the task, it makes sense for domains to remain stable” (Creativity, 2014).

Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that domains can be transmitted and developed even without an annotation system: “For instance Piaget gave a very detailed description of how rules are transmitted in a very informal domain: that of the game of marbles played by Swiss children. This domain is relatively enduring over several generations of children, and it consists in specific names of marbles of different sizes, colour, and composition. Furthermore, it consists in a variety of arcane rules that children learn from each other in the course of play. So even without a notation system, domains can transmitted from one generation to the next through imitation and instruction.” (Creativity, 2014).

Creativity For All

This ‘cultural’ view of creativity goes against that of many thinkers, such as Kant or Freud, who saw the spark of individual genius as the source of creativity. Some of these thinkers went to great lengths to rationalise this idea of an individual creative spark. Freud for example seems to have suggested that creativity was related to neurosis, a meandering, disturbing stream of thought. More modern views, such as Csikszentmihalyi’s, see creativity as a more complicated process, subject to far more than ‘delicate flower’ individualism. True, creativity is a delicate flower; but not so delicate that analysis cannot make progress in understanding it.

The struggle between the creative culturalists and the creative individualists will continue. But after perusing Wittgenstein’s ideas on creativity, and the ideas of others such as Csikszentmihalyi, one must surely see the relevance of culture. The processes of creativity are carried out through an intertwining of public language and symbol systems like mathematics, with various forms, in various domains. Nevertheless, creativity need not be the exclusive preserve of those initiated into the higher echelons of a particular field of endeavour. Those who read a novel, view a play or a film, look at a painting, and so on, can also have an input into the meaning of a work of art and perhaps suggest new meanings.

Of course, the ‘common sense’ understanding has always been that the artist, writer or other creative determined the intent of the work. This concept was challenged by a revolutionary paper called ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ published in 1946 by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley. Their idea was that the meaning of a work is not necessarily what was in the writer’s mind, at the time of writing or later, but has more to do with what the readers of a work see as its meaning. Beardsley argues that the meaning of a text can change even after the author has died, or maybe even after a week or a month or a year has elapsed, or in the light of events. Georgia Warnke takes the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain as an example, drawing attention to the relationship between Jim and Huck. There has been a revolution in attitudes to sexuality and tolerance since the book was written, and where readers of a hundred or more years ago would be hard put to recognise anything but a platonic relationship between Jim and Huck, some of today’s readers would be struck by a number of passages in the book which could certainly suggest a different story.

Creative Conclusions

Creativity is an elusive quality. It doesn’t fit easily into a theory or an outlook. Plato speaks of truly great poetry being ‘inspired’ – in effect, a breath from the gods. Talking of Greek gods, Friedrich Nietzsche also saw great creativity in the tragedy and poetry of ancient Greece as a marriage between a ‘Dionysian’ outlook (spontaneity, irrationality, the rejection of discipline) and a more serious and ordered ‘Apollonian’ outlook. But this only goes to emphasise the elusiveness of creativity: maybe it all depends on the respective balance of such ingredients?

It has been suggested by some that by its very nature creativity cannot be subject to rigorous analysis. Of course, this itself is a question that can only be resolved by rigorous analysis. Yet Kant – not usually one to shy away from rigorous analysis – seemed to conceive of creativity as something individual that cannot be learned, cannot be related to erudition in the ‘normal’ way, and which is an enigma even to those who display it.

As we’ve seen, Wittgenstein does not go along with this view. And the creative products we’ve considered in this short essay, such as The Conformist, rest on public foundations similar to those illustrated by Wittgenstein when he talks of his work resting on the influences of Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell and the others. Indeed, the very notion of allegory cannot take place without something to be allegorical about. Moreover, allegory throws open the door to creative minds to search out new and insightful perspectives, juxtapose insights and conjure up mind-blowing analysis. And by using that phrase ‘conjure up’, am I conceding that creativity may have a touch of the magical – maybe even of the divine?

© Les Jones 2022

Les Jones is a retired educational professional. He taught in schools and colleges and has been a department head. He has also worked for exam boards as an examiner and senior examiner for GCE, GCSE and A-Level.

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