Creativity / Incompleteness / Philosophy

The Spectrum of Creativity

File:A Young Astronomer.jpg

Art and philosophy are similar in their creative aspect. One thing artists and musicians can do is to extend what we can perceive and experience, in the realm of the visual and auditory experiences as well as that of other senses. In a comparable way, one job of the philosopher may be to extend the expressive power of thought, making thinkable what was up to then unthinkable. In a similar way, the poet or writer can extend the expressive power of language with respect to the expression of our experiences and life. Poets might be viewed as an intermediary between the sensual artists and the theoretical philosopher. In this view, artists, poets, authors and philosophers may be thought of as occupying different places on the same spectrum, a spectrum that continues beyond the theoretical thought of the philosopher into areas of formal thought, like formal logic, mathematics and computer science.

We are using certain methods and concepts that our forerunners in these occupations have developed, but we may criticize and change them, adapt them and add new ones suited to new circumstances and situations. In none of these different activities is it possible to produce a formal theory or fixed algorithm that describes them completely. I think this is so in principle. Every description of how our cognitive processes work, from the sensual to the formaly theoretical, is incomplete. New ways of thinking and experiencing can be added. We might think of ourselves as “programmable” in the sense that we can extend ourselves.

Where a body of methods and knowledge allows a set of problems to be solved in a methodic way, arts turn into crafts and philosophy turns into science. The creative components, while normally still present to some extent, retreat into the background. But the resulting “disciplines” never cover all of reality, all experience and perception possible and all possible thought.

In art and poetry, the incompleteness of all knowledge and the necessity to invent new things is rather obvious. For logic, mathematics and computer science, the incompleteness of all methods and theories can even be formally proven. Here, in the most formal activities, it is possible to demonstrate that creativity is required and even to give an exact definition of what creativity is, a definition that, I think, is also applicable in philosophy and art and that, I think, is a basic, even a defining, property of humans and of human societies: creativity can be defined as the ability of a system to extend itself beyond the scope of any given fixed description of it. And although they apply it in very different ways, it is creativity in this sense that the mathematician, the philosopher and the artist share.

(The picture, a painting by Olivier van Deuren (1666-1714) titles “Young Astronomer”, is from It captures a moment in the history of ideas when philosophy, science and art where still more closely connected.)

8 thoughts on “The Spectrum of Creativity

  1. I wonder when creativity, which connotes originality, begins. Much of it seems to be no more than the elevation of the unconscious to the conscious, so presenting merely the illusion of originality, and then probably only to the subject within whom this process operates. Where anything truly original manifests [e.g. great art or new scientific theory] that too often has its source in the unconscious, where closely related ideas remain in a state of incubation until such time as they give rise to original thought. Jacques Hadamard wrote about this in his fascinating little book The Mathematician’s Mind – The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. The question remains though, when does creativity begin? Is it when the new idea becomes conscious, or prior to it? It seems an unanswerable question, and perhaps there is no first cause or temporal marker.

    • I think the point is that there is no general scheme of cogintive processes. They work always differently, so there is no general law of how thinking is working. Creativity in the sense I am using the term is the fact that there is no general law of cognitive processes. So it is not possible to pinpoint how it works. Some of the processes in our brain are conscious, some are not, and anything (including anything that works as an inspiration from outside) can play a role. It is always different. So creativity is not a specific ability but the general property of humans that it is impossible to produce a complete and exact theory of how our thinking works, although each single thought process might be understandable.

      See also

      If you have a theory or scheme describing how thinking works (lets call this theory “A” and then something is going on in your mind (a thought process “b”) that is not described by theory A, then from the point of view of theory A, that is a creative process. However, you can extend that theory into a theory “B” that includes A and also describes b. From the point of view of B, b, is just a normal process. So what is a creative process is a matter of the description you are using. You can always extend the theory.

      However, it is impossible to create a theory that includes every thought process. Whatever theory of cognition you have, it is possible to extend it. (By the way, this insight is originally not my own, I owe it to my mathematician/philosopher friend Kurt Ammon).

  2. Great article — although I think in principle one can produce a formula for creativity. What you wrote about philosophy makes me think of those who see the beauty in mathematics. What are your thoughts about the linguistic turn in philosophy? Do you think it runs counter to this trend, given that it seems dedicated to showing many philosophical issues are really language problems?

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