Exploring Creativity, Part II: A Brief History of Creativity

In my previous post, I began my exploration of creativity with an intriguing proposal for circumventing bias via a creative exercise. My overarching goal in this series is to showcase the methods of rationality while also explaining the modern scientific understanding of creativity. I intended to follow up that post with a brief survey the history of the concept, from its origins in philosophy to its modern meaning. And then I planned to follow up with a discussion of some of the technical definitions of creativity used in modern psychology. Disappointingly, the intellectual history of creativity is not particularly relevant or interesting. I had expected creativity to have followed a similar trajectory to early sciences, like optics, which underwent a more or less smooth and unidirectional course of improvement from their ancient origins to their modern incarnations. The history of creativity, by contrast, is marked by a small number of theories going in and out of fashion throughout the ages, with the major conceptual breakthroughs all happening in very modern times.

Creativity as we understand it is an astonishingly recent invention. This is not to say that until recently no one thought or acted creatively; it is rather the case that they did not conceive of their thoughts and actions in those terms. More than anything, the history of creativity emphasizes that our current conception of creativity as a singular mental faculty is not the norm. Rather, creativity comprises a cluster of phenomena: it is a faculty of mind, a personality trait, a variety of subjective experience, and a skill that can be taught and exercised. This multifaceted thing we call creativity has also experienced a change in connotation over the course of its history, from slightly untrustworthy to uniformly positive. The mystical undercurrents of creative thought have similarly subsided. Whereas the term creativity originally referred to the divine ability to engineer life, it is now a thoroughly secular concept. Whereas creative thinking was once ascribed to the intervention of supernatural agents, both good (angels, geniuses, muses) and evil (daemons, djinns), it is now recognized as being instantiated in our physical brains. Despite its secularization, creativity retains some of its original mystique. This enduring mystique manifests itself in people who still argue that human creativity is qualitatively superior to the creativity of non-human animals, as opposed to both existing at different points along a spectrum of cognitive and behavioral flexibility.

The words creative and creativity have taken on a distinct meaning from their etymological origin in the word create. As I mentioned earlier, creativity used to refer exclusively to divine creation. The next step in the term’s evolution was toward something synonymous with “productivity,” in which there was no indication that the production was due to creative expression or not. We can illustrate the distinction between this sense and the modern sense using a simple thought experiment. We would not say that a person who produces a thousand origami cranes in a single day while working from an instruction manual is necessarily creative. However, we would say that the maker of the first ever origami crane was creative, even if it took him fifteen years to fold his first crane. The crane-maker in the first case is creative in the earlier sense, but not in the modern sense. The crane-maker in the second case is creative in the modern sense, but not in the earlier sense.

Before the twentieth century, it was commonly thought that creative expression was something field-specific: one used separate mental faculties for mathematical versus philosophical creativity, rather than employing the same basic faculty of mind but applying it to different subjects. The modern conception of creativity as a phenomenon that is fundamentally the same across disciplines is attributed to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who, in 1927, coined the word in its modern sense. Whitehead’s references to creativity mostly track the current meaning, but, crucially, neglect the possibility that it could be an object of scientific inquiry. (Whitehead regarded creativity as a metaphysical concept.) The psychological establishment took little notice of creativity until 1950, when J.P. Guilford discussed creativity in his address to the American Psychological Association. Guilford’s message to the psychological community was that creativity was not merely a fuzzy metaphysical concept, but a something that could, in principle, be studied just as rigorously and quantitatively as topics like intelligence and emotion. Once creativity was reified as a legitimate scientific topic, the serious efforts to define it began. Precise definitions are crucial in all sciences, but particularly in the psychological sciences, where there most of the objects of inquiry are abstract concepts rather than physical phenomena.

When reviewing the early efforts to define creativity, I was delighted to discover another opportunity to bring in rationality. Next time, I will present another case study in the intersection of creativity and rationality. This will lead into a more technical overview of the different definitions of creativity that have been put forward by psychologists since 1950.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Creativity, Part II: A Brief History of Creativity

  1. Until recently I thought of the definition of creativity as akin to Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” It is interesting to read your synopsis of the intellectual history of creativity. I wonder if you would date the “modern” definition of creativity to the Renaissance and to such writers as the art historian Vasari, whose ” The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” lauds the originality which seems an essential part of the modern definition of creativity?

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