Thursday, 30 September 2010

what is creativity?

Steven Johnson argues that good ideas come from coffee shops. The basic idea seems to be that the kind of free-flowing discussion that happens in coffee shops is particularly conducive to the articulation of new ideas. I think that's right. More ideas come to fruition when people interact casually than when people sit alone in armchairs, and more (good) ideas come to fruition under the influence of caffeine than alcohol. But I suspect coffee shops are conducive to particular kinds of creativity -- especially combinatorial creativity or negation (pubs might be even more conducive to negation. Alcohol seems to fuel contrarians).

So what are some other forms of creativity?

Johnson describes one more, the  "long hunch," where the glimmerings of an idea are not yet fully articulated. Often, he says, what's needed is to connect up a number of half-ideas together into one good idea. So the "long hunch" is just a slow drip form of coffee shop creativity. Not really a new kind at all. But Johnson's explanation of the "long hunch" isn't satisfying to me. I think something else is going on.

John Wilkins, who has clearly thought more about this than I have, suggests a candidate, what he calls deep novelty. First, some preliminaries:
we have a frame of prior contrasts in which we typically (and traditionally, since these are inherited from teachers and other cultural influences) set up our problems and thoughts.
Wilkins pictures these contrasts as dimensions in a space of possibilities, explaining that
If you think that God may or may not exist, for example, then believing God does exist is to assert a coordinate in a binary space. If you think God’s existence is a matter of confidence or likelihood, then you settle on (if you do) a coordinate on a continuum.
On this view, coffee shop creativity involves mixing up or applying contrasts in new ways. But there are clear limits to this kind of creativity. "Our semantic world is the sum of all the contrastive axes of that space," which means that it simply isn't possible to express any idea that doesn't fall into the existing contrastive spaces.
To be clear, "our beliefs at any time are the coordinates we assert," and the possible beliefs we have the tools to understand are limited to the sum of the contrastive axes. Anything inside this space will be the combination, permutation, or negation of something pre-existing.
But there's another kind of creativity: "something is deeply novel if an entirely new contrast is added to the space."
I think this is a much better way to understand what's going on with a "slow hunch." To use Johnson's example, Darwin may have had all of the pieces to evolution, but he wasn't able to articulate how they fit together because he didn't yet have the relevant contrast. Once he had the contrastive structure in place, he could fit all the pieces together.
There's one emendation I'd make to Wilkins' account: it's also possible to stretch, shrink, or otherwise reshape existing contrasts. A mundane example of this happened when I moved from the United States to Canada and saw the political spectrum to the left suddenly unfurl and go for miles and miles kilometres and kilometres.
The remaining question (perhaps for cognitive scientists?) is how we come to have new contrasts.
In my dissertation (which is mostly about other things), I suggest that novel contrasts sometimes come about in the development of new scientific instruments. It's a complicated story, but the basic idea is that instrument design puts our conceptual understanding of the functioning of the instrument into conversation with its actual material capacities. We reshape both our ideas and the material instrument with the intention of producing an acceptable degree of agreement between concept and material. We're then able to use the instrument to provide evidence for scientific explanations. And scientific explanations consist in the selection of one state of affairs from a specified set of possible states of affairs (a contrast class).
One day soon, I hope to have the semantic space to explain that more clearly.


John S. Wilkins said...

Thanks for the linkage. A couple of points:

One is that this is basically a contrastive account of novelty. I recommend you look into contrastive accounts, beginning with Alan Garfinkel's Forms of Explanation (1981).

The other goes to your remark about shifts. The so-called Overton Window (the shift to the right in public discourse) is a case in point: what used to be the mode has become an outlier and extreme position in US polity, and what used to be an outlier has become the mode, at least in the media.

However, this remain combinatorial novelty, in that the density of the coordinates has merely shifted. What might count as an in-between case is a shift in the very metric of the axis, so that it becomes nonlinear. A Riemannian-axis, in other words. I'll have to think about that some.


Isaac said...

Hi John - Thanks for the clarification; yes, I should have made the connection to contrastive explanation explicit.

For any readers not familiar with contrastive explanation, the idea is that explanations select one element from a specified class of contrasting elements. "What colour was his shirt," for example, obviously wants something like "red" or "blue." If an answer isn't among the class of expected possible answers, I generally won't accept it. Occasionally, we do accept answers outside of our expected set of contrasts - e.g., when an explanation convinces me to switch to a new set of contrasts that contains the element I've decided to accept. ("Oh, it was a blacklight party and the shirt looked pink. Gotcha.")

Regarding the Overton Window, you're probably right that a nonlinear metric would smooth the nit I picked. I'm now wondering about transformations from binary or ordinal (or even unordered?) sets to spectra, but this is less a criticism than a curiosity.

John S. Wilkins said...

Now you're doing serious logic, and have left me behind. If you write something useful on this, please let me now.

Sarah said...

I don't want to be a big old curmudgeon, and I don't mean to shit on your articulate analysis, but reduction of creativity like this makes my soul cry. I think that you need to divorce the process of making ideas from the process of making art. They are perhaps two circles on the Venn diagram of thought--intersecting, but distinct. At the most basic, it's intuition vs. reason; emotions vs. knowledge (though I shudder still at my own reduction of artistic creativity to a circle on a Venn diagram).

When I dance or paint or write, it's not really because I've interacted with other people and generated new ideas through exercises in contrast. It's because I just really fucking need to dance or paint or write. The inspiration for expression comes from the ether in which my experiences, memories, and emotions are floating around and bouncing off one another; the impulse comes from something deep and intangible (and best left undisturbed by overanalysis). The most satisfying art comes not from interaction, but from lack thereof. Or perhaps from the desperate need for interaction? I wish I'd taken you to see more (good) dance when it was geographically possible, because it's the best example of what I'm talking about.

In my years of studying and making art, this is what I've learned: You can learn a lot about an object or an idea through close study, but you can't methodize what is visceral, so don't try to convince yourself that you can. Sometimes--no, most of the time--good art comes from that annoyingly unidentifiable space outside of "the world." I'm not saying metaphysical, because I don't believe in that. Extra-physical, I guess.