Chasing creativity theorists up the Nile

In an earlier post, I offered my working definition of creativity. It wasn’t intended as a rigorous definition – I just wanted readers to know where I’ll be coming from when I talk about the phenomena – but it got me thinking that it might be useful to offer a quick survey of some of the other definitions that are out there. They aren’t likely to teach us much about how to be more creative I’m afraid, but they will show us something about why so little progress is being made toward enhancing creativity.

What do I mean by that? Well as you’ll see, most of the definitions offered by the pundits and sages are stated in terms of how to identify creative ideas after they’ve happened. I think of these as sieve definitions – they tell us how to search for something in a pile of something else, like panning for flakes of gold in river silt. They’re very useful for studying things – for being sure you’re actually looking at authentic Greco-Gothic architecture before you start prattling on about what a beautiful specimen of Greco-Gothic architecture it is. But sieve definitions are almost completely useless when you’re looking for better ways to actually make things. They tend to focus on the end results rather than the formative processes.

In fact, when we’re talking about creativity, it almost seems that the experts are so uncomfortable dealing with what you and I think of as creativity, that they’ve pushed the goal-posts around so that they can find something they are comfortable talking about, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s a good example of a sieve definition. Some guys named Newell, Shaw and Simon described creativity as: a special class of problem solving activity characterized by novelty, unconventionality, persistence and difficulty in problem formulation. [1] Hardly a recipe for improving your creative output, is it?

One helpful observation was offered by Margaret Boden about the different kinds of creativity, in her book, Creative Minds [2]. Her big distinction was to sever the topic into two distinct types of creativity, which she called psychological creativity and historical creativity. P-creativity is the kind that you and I usually experience when we have a cool idea and sit there basking in the glow of our own brilliance. This is the kind of creativity that most practicing artists I know yearn to experience. That occasional buzz of whole-being self-satisfaction is what drives us.

So it should come as no surprise that most of the pundits have decided to focus on the other kind: h-creativity.

Consider the definition offered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – one of the leading creativity psychologists. He says creativity is what you get when a person takes concepts from some domain of knowledge and reorganizes them into a new pattern that experts working in the same domain judge as worthy of becoming part of that domain. (Taken from  Creativity [3])

Huh? I’ve tried to clean up the jargon a bit so that it is understandable without appealing to a list of sub-definitions, but rendered into plain language, it seems as though he and his colleagues are avoiding the question, doesn’t it? These guys aren’t searching for ways to help artists identify and nurture individual creative ideas. Instead, they’ve moved the goal posts to an apparently loftier and more valuable question. “Let’s not define individual, personal creativity,” they say. “Surely it would be more beneficial if we focused on those creative ideas that are in fact of value to all of humanity!” That’s what those references to ‘experts’ and ‘domains’ are all about in Dr. C.’s definition. Who cares about Joe Blow artist having a creative idea? Those are a dime a dozen. What really matters are the profound, Earth-shattering ideas that transform entire schools of thought.

As I see it, there are two problems with this shift of focus. First, Czikszentmihalyi’s definition seems to be a variation on “I know creativity when I see it,” married with a colossal passing-of-the buck: “Creativity is what the experts say creativity is.” It might help some theorists classify that rare and timid bird of world-changing creative ideation, but it’s not really helping anybody to actually do anything.

The second problem with Dr. C.’s definition is that it denies a very important aspect of those world-class ideas: before an idea can be presented to that implied college of experts working in the relevant domain, it first has to pass muster in the mind of the artist who had the idea in the first place. If that person didn’t think the idea was hot stuff, then it’s never going to see the light of day outside his or her lab or studio, let alone make it onto the agenda of some august tribunal.

So I’m perfectly happy to let the psychologists and theorists chase each other up the mighty Nile, searching for the storied headwaters of h-creativity. At the very least, it gets a lot of very silly chatter out of the room and off into the jungle where I can’t hear it. In fact, if they weren’t chasing each other up the river, the rest of us would probably have been forced to do it ourselves, so that probably worked itself out better than we could have expected. And who knows? Maybe there is something to all of that monkey-scurry and it really will amount to something valuable after all. But me? My money is on p-creativity: one artist, alone in his own head, having an idea that strikes him to the core like an electric shock.

That’s where the magic is.

Chaos is our friend
Sanderson's Principle of Limitations
  1. [1]Newell, Shaw and Simon in Contemporary Approaches to Creativity, 1962.
  2. [2]Creative Minds: Myths and Mechanisms 2nd Ed., Sphere Books, 2004. (Now available as a PDF.)
  3. [3]Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Collins, 1996.

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.