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.