Creativity / Eccentrics / Philosophy / Recommended books / Thoughts

Individuality, Historicity and Creativity

We are writing blogs because we are individually different. We are reading blogs because each of the other bloggers is different. This individuality is typically human. What we are doing here is typically human. It is typically human that there is nothing typical in us.

Compare this to a simple animal like a butterfly.

You may view its life as an individual life. You see it hatching from a pupa, fly here or there, visit a flower, eat, mate, lay eggs and die. But this is your outsider’s view as a human observer. From its own perspective, the butterfly has no history or biography. It does not have a memory, or only a very limited one. If it is killed and replaced by another one, there is no difference. Subjectively, it does not have any individuality. The information in the brain of butterfly A is the same as the information in the brain of butterfly B, if they are from the same species. Exchange one for the other, and they will not notice it. It is always the same fixed structure interacting with the environment, describable by a finite, static theory. In a sense, this makes them immortal, because one can be viewed as an identical backup copy of the other and may thus be viewed as the continuation of the other, but it also means they don’t have an individual life.

We humans, on the other hand, are individuals, each with a unique individual biography, so this kind of “backup-immortality” is bared to us. But that is better so. Unlike the butterfly, we humans have a memory. This is what gives us an individual history. It is our memory that defines our identity, even if most of the molecules in our bodies are exchanged for others during our lifetime. It is our memory that gives us our individuality, our life. And the same memory allows us to be creative (See Thinking out of the Box). Information we have received during our life can be turned into active knowledge. As a result, we are able to do things that were not predetermined by our genes. There is no complete theory about our cognitive processes; we can change (or “reprogram” ourselves) in unpredictable ways. If what we can do was predetermined by a fixed program, we would be static in the sense an algorithm is static. There would be a theory, and as a result, no history. We would be like butterflies.

In my article „Notes on Historism and Creativistic Philosophy”, I cited, among others, the philosopher Schelling, who had the interesting insight that history and theory are mutually exclusive. Applied to humans,this means: if there was some complete theory enabling us to predict what humans do, humans would be ahistorical. There would be no individual biographies and no collective histories because everything happening could be derived from that theory in advance. I don’t follow Schelling in most of his philosophy, but I think this insight is valid.

In the book Zhuangzi, the philosopher known by the same name (also known as Zhuang Zhou) writes that he once dreamed about being a butterfly. After waking up, he was not sure if he was Zhou, having dreamed to be a butterfly, or a butterfly, dreaming to be Zhou. He then states: “But between Zhou and a butterfly there must be a difference” (see http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/adjustment-of-controversies#n2732, Nr. 14). So the difference is that Zhuangzi, the human, was creative and thus historic and individual. The butterfly was just the same butterfly as ever.

Being creative, we cannot be described completely by any single theory and this results in our historicity. This makes us unique individuals and makes every culture and every moment in our history unique, be it me writing this now, you reading it or a Chinese philosopher dreaming and reflecting about butterflies about 2400 years ago.

File:Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream.jpg

(Pictures are from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ML-Pfauenauge_(1).jpg and http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream.jpg)

The Zhuangzi is a very beautiful book, by the way. And I like Zhuangzi also because he was just such an eccentric.

11 thoughts on “Individuality, Historicity and Creativity

  1. Dear Mr blogger. Have you not learned anything from the cartoons that were hanging on the oval bathroom mirror in Ernst August Str? There were two ants sitting under a clear sky of stars and said, “looking up there, one could imagine to be quite small”
    Maybe all the butterflies would be offended by your article? Can we ever be certain?

    • Maybe I should rewrite this article and choose roaches instead 😉 But I liked the butterfly. And it fitted with the Zhuangzi story.

    • Thank you. It needed time. I had posted a version of this before, but it was not well written and it looks like nobody understood it, so I removed it. It took some time to get it the right way arround.

  2. How fortunate for us that the butterfly cannot post his monotonous cogitations on WP – where is my next meal, where is my mate, etc. Instead, we are beguiled by yours, dear Nannus, which are always welcomed.

    “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” – The Nietzschonator

  3. Interesting thoughts. I’m however sad at the possibility that the butterfly may not have a memory. As a person who believes in reincarnation, and the possibility of perhaps having had an insect form in a previous life: may that not mean that the butterfly remembers me as much as me remembering the butterfly?

  4. Pingback: A Kind of Credo : Intertextuality : “Art is Difficult” : Manifesto? | "The Whole Hurly Burly"

  5. Fascinating story. The picture is gorgeous. You did so well photographing a butterfly. I don’t have a good enough camera to make them come alive as you do. Thanks for sharing and stopping by my blog. Rlte

    • That picture is not from me, I got it from Wikimedia Commons (the link is at the end of the article). I am not that good a photographer. So I have to pass on the praise. 🙂

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