The Philosophy of Creativity

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day with the Philosophy Department at the University of Bristol for a series of talks on Creativity – I was curious to discover what this corner of higher education had to say about the process of developing and executing ideas.

It was genuinely fascinating – if a little baffling on occasion when they turned up the technical philosophical jargon – but I’ve captured some key insights below that fascinated me.

Disputing the ‘Romantic’ view of creativity

The first talk debated whether creativity was a wholly cerebral process, entirely within the mind, with the use of notes, tools, and prototypes simply a physical recording or product of that creative insight. This is the ‘romantic’ view – that creativity arises within the mind without external stimulation or working-through and that physical realisation (be that an artefact or a performance) is a non-creative task.

The counter-view, or ‘situated cognition’ view holds that we consistently interact with the external world and that the process of sketching, modelling, making, or rehearsing actually forms part of the creative process. This latter view was the one supported with plenty of evidence that suggests we are constantly inspired, provoked, and led by external stimuli – whether we are conscious of it or not.

How to use this insight: create by doing – sketch, write, play, make stuff – it all helps unlock the creative process more than thinking alone.

Cumulative Cultural Artefacts

This is basically the idea that many of the items we have in our culture have arrived through cumulative creative steps – each building on what has gone before. This suggests that all ‘new’ ideas have a hinterland of all the previous insights we have consciously or unconsciously absorbed. The difference between a cave-painting and a Titian has to include all the know-how, assumptions, cultural awareness and technique that Titian had acquired over the intervening centuries.

This is similar to Stephen Johnson’s ideas about the ‘adjacent possible’ and the premise that existing inventions create a scrapyard of ‘spare parts’ that will inevitably lead to the creation of new inventions that assemble those parts into new configurations.

How to use this insight: surround yourself with diverse stimulus to provoke new and interesting connections and ideas.

Permission is required

Another talk focused on parallels between the ‘creative’ and certain forms of mental illness… it appears that certain forms of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia not only appear in ‘creative’ individuals and families at higher rates but that the linking factor may be able being to assemble ‘non-obvious’ connected ideas in creative new ways. Divergent thinking seemed to be a double-edged ability, a bonus for ‘creatives’ and ‘madness’ for those diagnosed as mentally ill.

It is difficult to draw a clear line between creative insight and madness – are there functional and non-functional forms of creativity? One evident factor that struck me was about creative confidence – or the ‘permission’ to think divergently (and then say it out loud…) as being something practising creatives and those not conforming to societal norms might both possess.

How to use this insight: give yourself permission to say the silly or unexpected things, but maybe select or train your audience to be appreciative and not reach for the strait-jacket…

I’m still working on a further set of ideas – but need to read up on my Immanuel Kant first…

Overall the philosophers concurred with a lot of the ‘practitioner’ know-how and popular literature on creativity – they just used different language.

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