Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What is creativity?

How does it work? Is it mere imitation, or transformation, or could it be — under rare circumstances — “pure” creation, that is, out of thin air, as it were? This last possibility is captured in the Christian doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo”, which is attributed to God — the creation of the universe out of “nothing”.

It is a moot question, whether the description, in Genesis 1, of God creating the world in six days, is compatible with this doctrine — after all, when one reads it, you get the impression that there was “something” formless or chaotic before God incrementally imposed order on it. This would make the creation myth in Genesis 1 similar to the creation myths across a wide spectrum of cultures, which always assume a primordial chaos, followed by order somehow being “created” out of the components of the antecedent chaos.

But whether one believes in the divine capacity to create something out of nothing, or merely to bring order to chaos, when it comes to human creativity, it is hard to defend any semblance of creation from zero; at best, humans can “create” by shaping, structuring, transforming, ordering or organising some given “material” of some kind into something “novel”. There have been two influential ways of thinking about this, namely what the ancients called mimesis and creatio, respectively.

Mimesis, which forms the etymological basis for words like mimetic, imitate, mime and mimic, means creation by imitation, suggesting that creating something always requires a preceding model or archetype, which is imitated in the creative act. Creatio, on the other hand, gives greater credence to creating without pre-existing models, but this need not re-invoke the creatio ex nihilo-doctrine of the church. Creatio can be understood as creation without imitation, by or through experimentation, by constructing something (a novel, a poem, a sculpture, an architectural design) without any preconceived notions.

The trouble with creatio in this sense is that, no matter how experimental it is, one cannot escape pre-existing notions altogether. To leap into a realm NEVER before visited or broached is an impossibility, at least as far as making it intelligible or communicable in a new “creation” is concerned. To speak a new language is still to speak or use a language of sorts, to design a novel building is still to design a building — unless it is recognisable as a building, it is arguably not architecture, but something else altogether. It is illuminating in this regard that one fairly persuasive “definition” of insanity is the inability on someone’s part to communicate in a recognisable language, to be an “idiot” in the literal sense of being someone who is trapped within the circle of his or her own, un-shareable ideas.

Hence, it seems that the most accurate notion of creativity would be something that recognises the inability to escape from some kind of precursor, however minimal (in the guise of language, or images) it may be — in fact, I am tempted to say that Kierkegaard’s notion of “repetition” captures it well. Instead of, like Plato, understanding repetition as repeating something that has always existed in the form of an archetype, Kierkegaard conceives of repetition in paradoxical terms, as “repeating differently” — when an architect designs a concert hall, for example, he or she can’t get away from previous designs of concert halls, but faces the challenge, either to repeat one of them passively, as it were, in the process merely copying other, existing concert halls, or to re-interpret the very idea of a concert hall, repeating the idea in their design, but doing so with a difference. Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic Hall is a good example of this.

Just in passing one may note that “repeating differently” also exhorts human beings to live their lives according to this paradoxical formula — repeat your life as a human life (which is unavoidable), but do so with a difference — honour both convention and invention, simultaneously.

One could therefore also describe creativity by saying that one creates (a novel, a human life) by “inventing” something comparatively new on the basis of some existing thing, or by transforming some “convention” inventively, as Derrida has argued. In fact, Derrida’s deconstruction of the supposed opposition between invention and convention is a demonstration of each of these concepts being implied, and limited by the other. That is, simplifying in the extreme, convention always has its roots in an invention of some kind, which, through long use and custom, becomes sedimented in the form of conventional practice. On the other hand, invention cannot occur in a vacuum; it always, unavoidably, happens against the backdrop of conventional practices, in relation to which the invention appears novel. They are, one might say, locked in a life-giving struggle of mutual implication. Convention is limited by the need to invent, or perhaps re-invent it from time to time, and invention is limited by the necessity of a kind of social agreement that an invention is socially acceptable, useful or valuable. Without invention, no possibility of convention, and without convention, no need for invention. Without convention, no invention would have teeth or appeal, and without invention, conventions would become fossilised, obsolete, desiccated, barren.

This, I would argue, sums up the situation in which global societies find themselves today. The conventional political-economic system of liberal democracy combined with neo-liberal capitalism is increasingly showing itself as having outlived the reasons for becoming conventional in the first place, with regard to both economic conditions worldwide (the exclusion of the majority of human beings from the economic “benefits” that it has generated for a small minority), and, even more importantly, ecological conditions, which just happen to comprise the indispensable basis or foundation on which all living beings (including those people who still blindly cling to the existing economic model) depend for their livelihoods. As Thomas Princen has remarked, nature can do very well without humans, but humans cannot exist without the natural foundation of all life.

The task facing all creative human beings today, therefore, is to come up with novel ideas concerning our economic mode of existence, keeping in mind that this is inescapably imbricated with political ideas of governance. How do we “repeat differently” our economic being-in-the-world, with due regard for human needs and for those of natural ecosystems, with which humans are intertwined, whether they admit it or not? And how do we factor this into our political mode of being, in a way that there may be economic and ecological justice for all?

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    • ian shaw

      Analogy is one of the tools of creativity in science, especially spontaneous analogy which occurs suddenly in an “Aha” moment. I am currently working on a DPhil with the subject being .analogies between engineering and biology. The number of such validated analogies is quite substantial and it remains for people like you to come up with a comprehensive theory as to why this is so.

    • Maria

      Bert, if anyone doubts the need for creative thinking in the face of the potential disaster we face today, they should read this article:

    • Laurence Wright

      Bert, have you read the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It is called Lila, and has some answers you might entertain.

    • Richard

      Economics is a complex convergence of different aspects of what you term creativity. Argument (hopefully not too long-winded) goes as follows: perhaps it is necessary to think of creativity being understood both in terms of reason and in terms of aesthetics, ie, perhaps mathematically/scientifically (and its technological applications), or the panoply of interpretative humanities (music/literature/visual arts/law, etc). In the former, particular mechanistic problems are discovered and addressed (how to move water, how to fly, treat diseases, etc) while in the latter novel (excuse the pun) ways of expressing abstract anxieties/social problems/harmonies, etc. Both of these categories are of course human conceptions, and at some level simply different ways of addressing similar underlying human preoccupations. They don’t usually exist in isolation, however; there is generally an overlap between the two, think of consumer-versions of devices, aeroplanes, and so on. However, aesthetics not being mechanistic, varies very much from one human group to another. These are not necessarily mutually understandable: the differences between Beethoven and Brahms are profound, but perhaps not conceivable to people from other cultural contexts. Economics is a potent mixture of these two frameworks. For instance, it is entirely possible to measure the effect of changing interest rates on borrowing, but not possible to determine what effect cultural taboos on borrowing might have.

    • Richard

      Efficient economic activity depends on certain types of behaviour, trust between people being one, to allow credit into the equation. Where this does not exist, production becomes impossible. In countries like India, with its complex caste-system, there has always been an enormous amount of deprivation, and a few points of extreme wealth. People simply did not trust each other sufficiently to allow the sort of economic co-operation that occurred in the West. The poor expected to be poor and abused by the wealthy, and to stay poor: that was their aesthetic response to their economic condition. Even in these globalised times it is not possible (nor, arguably, desirable) to export Western models elsewhere. In South Africa (and many other of what are called “developing nations”), for example, corruption means that the money that should be channelled into the productive process (whether for goods, or education, whatever) is removed. That is a cultural behaviour that disrupts the entire economic system, and is not sufficiently societally contested because there is a lack of trust/concern between people in South African society. The network of social obligations that has evolved in the West does not exist in sufficiently sophisticated form.

    • Richard

      Nowhere is this more evident than in some non-economic activity like voluntary blood-donation: in the West (and Westernised countries like Japan and South Korea) there is more than enough blood donated by people who understand the importance of this web of social co-operation. That is not present elsewhere in the world, which is much the poorer. In this sense, social creativity is perhaps the integration and development of these two axes in some kind of synergy.

    • peter

      Thomas Princen was quite correct. The only thing that we have created as humans is ‘ chaos and confusion’. In our efforts to prove our superiority and cleverness above all other living creatures, we actually messed up everything in the process. Just how clever and creative that is, is highly questionable. Being educated, well read, well spoken and idolised by no means substitutes for pure common sense, which in the main is lacking in our modern day icons. Our greatest achievement of course is that we can create wealth out of nothing, such as paper money which is actually becoming more and more worthless as we speak. How creative is that? Have we outsmarted ourselves with our magical and incomparable creativity. Probably. Are we really creative or just fraudsters, important or simply just destructive non entities? Time to climb off the white stallion, remove the gold armour and take a good look in the mirror! Hmmm? How does that look now?

    • http://n/a Jorge

      Richard, you make some pertinent points, but your assertion that corruption is a ‘cultural behaviour’ is at the least, patronising. You find people in every society who endure poverty and degradation, yet they adhere to an innate sense of ethical behaviour. To generalise corruption as a cultural behaviour, just feeds into the cycle of repetition – saturated exposure, in the media, in the creative fields, without a balance of checks, (for example, karmic principles), will create the impression that corruption is indeed an acceptable fact of life.

      I am disappointed to see that even in the advertising industry there is a tendency to introduce underhanded, deceitful actions, as humour. This only trivialises dishonesty, and helps create the perception that all is fair in getting what you want, regardless, and by implication, that this is acceptable.

      Your assertion just supports the notion, which is ultimately false.

    • http://n/a Jorge

      My apologies to Bert, in deviating from your interesting essay on ‘What is creativity’. I always enjoy your work and tend to agree with your ideas. I look forward to some more interesting debates.

    • Bert

      Laurence – Nice hearing from you! Yes, I have read Lila, but the chapter I recall most clearly is (understandably, I guess) the one where Pirsig/Phaedrus distinguishes between philosophy and “philosophology” – itself a bit of creative thinking, and very illuminating at that. The other thing I recall is that Lila, like its predecessor, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, deals with the phenomenon of insanity, in a very novel way, and also has the form of an Odyssey (apart from resonating with Goethe’s Erlkonig) – in one case on a motorcycle, looking for a/the “cultural home”, and in Lila, in the guise of a boat trip down (mainly) the Hudson, contemplating the nature of “Quality”. Fascinating books, and I shall certainly return to Lila. Thank you for reminding me.
      Richard – Thank you for what is, in my judgment, itself a very creative response to the question of creativity, especially economic creativity. You have in effect pointed in the direction of precisely the kind of thing I had in mind for a “renewal” of thinking about economics, economic behaviour, and so on. It is a valuable contribution, and you make some very illuminating points. In the latest TIME magazine there is (right at the back) an interview with psychologist and Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahnemann, on the fact that people generally do not make “rational” choices, least of all when it comes to economic matters. You would find that interesting.

    • Richard

      @Bert, I recall thinking when I studied economics that it really does present a model that makes it possible to predict human behaviour far more accurately than pyschology or any of the human sciences. I suppose that is because acquisition and physical survival is so universally tied in with the urge to procreate and establish the pecking order. The Categorical Imperative doesn’t stand much of a chance against that! @Jorge, some years ago I met a Fijian at the Commonwealth Broadcasting Assocation’s meeting in Manchester. He said to me that all the taxes in that country belong to the king, and he is able simply to raid the coffers if he feels the urge. Some people in Fiji regard that as corruption, but most Fijians feel that that is part of their culture, and to regard that behaviour as corruption is a Western conceit. Ergo, corruption is a cultural construct. It may be that it is the culture of a sub-group (the UK is generally very corruption-free, remarkably so, but politicans there form a sub-group within which corruption is practised), or a larger group than a sub-group, perhaps the majority of a certain society. I can only say that from my vantage-point it is wrong to deprive a society of economic efficiency through what I term corruption, which can have profound effects on health-care or education, and that I regard that as wrong, but until those societies label it pejoratively as “corruption” my pespective has no moral imperative as far as those people are…

    • Richard


    • Rene

      If I understand the work of James Lovelock correctly, Bert, no amount of creativity re climate change is going to prevent the planet from frying. I think there is general agreement among climate scientists that the planet takes about 100 years to respond to significant changes in its atmosphere (greenhouse gases, etc.), so what will 20% reduction in emissions help us?

    • Garg Unzola

      The Art Forger’s Handbook by Eric Hebborn should lay to rest the notion that copying is not necessarily being creative. Of course it is, as is applying old ideas into different contexts, or improving on older methods and ideas. This is why science and mathematics are fundamentally creative and intuitive in nature, despite the traditional left/right hemisphere splits.

      You are absolutely correct. Weather is known to be nonlinear, that is even if there is a causal relationship between emissions and global warming, removing emissions will not necessarily result in a return to a former equilibrium. It will change the system, but in an unpredictable way. There is no predictable relationship between input such as our carbon emissions and output such as surface temperatures.

      For more on this, reference the work of Lorenz or read James Gleick’s Chaos.

    • Ziphozakhe Hlobo

      Wow, this for me is like a spiritual feast! I do not think that there is a creative mind that does not repeat.To answer your question; ‘how do we repeat differently?’, I think creativity is precisely in the fact that although there is a common thread in what creatives talk, express or write about, each and everyone contributes their own personal perspective of the idea. I think that is what sets us apart within our repetitions. Make sense?

    • Maria

      Yes, Ziphozakhe, it does. You should read Nietzsche to understand the implications of each person’s unique perspective on “life” – to my mind, the most creative philosophical contribution to this question ever made.