Dialectics of Creativity


Creativity broadly refers to a cluster of psychological processes and behaviors that enable individuals and groups to produce novel and useful contributions to their own lives and the lives of others. Inasmuch as creativity is associated with technological progress, artistic production, and entertainment, it is highly valued (Sawyer, 2012). Being instrumental, creativity can be used for evil ends. Much as deception, intrigue, and betrayal require social intelligence, so do they benefit from a creative mind (Gino & Wiltermuth, 2014; Mayer & Mussweiler, 2011). When regarded as a capacity or process, that is, independent of these potential outcomes, creativity (like money or knowledge) is value-free (Weber, 1917). People  aregenerally quite interested in the nature and the process of creativity, and they ask how they might enhance their own creativity (or the creativity of their children, students, or employees). In this article, I review classic work on creativity and argue that each of these approaches captures some truth about the phenomenon, but that, taken by itself, each of these approaches is not just incomplete, but mistaken. Creativity, in my view, emerges from the dialectical interplay between opposing forces, where each force requires the existence of the other. Creativity would collapse if one of these forces were to win the struggle. It is the struggle that brings forth creativity. The article is organized as a series of seven dialectics. I introduce each dialectic with reference to the relevant classic sources. I conclude with an integrative summary and a note on the relationship between psychology of creativity and the psychology of judgment and decision-making.


Dialectic 1: Russell’s Paradox

Dual-process theories pervade (again) psychology. Aristotle, the Church Fathers, and Freud distinguished between a simple intuitive mind and a higher, more rational, mind (Dawes, 1976). Kahneman (2011) and other recent writers have reinforced this view. Decades ago, the noted humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968) presented a dual-process argument with respect to creativity. He viewed creativity as a capacity characteristic of self-actualization, the highest human motive. Yet, in his view, creativity requires a partial regression to childlike spontaneity, playfulness, and disregard for public opinion. Spontaneity is a feature of a primary, unfettered, process, but this process cannot be completely unleashed. There needs to be a secondary process to maintain standards and conventions, a process that gives direction to the primary process and sets limits. What then is creativity? Is it the spontaneity of the primary process, or is it this spontaneity within the constraints imposed by the secondary process? Logically, it can’t be both, lest it be a case of Russell’s paradox. Critiquing classical set theory, Russell (1902) noted that a set cannot contain itself. A library catalogue cannot include itself in the list of books without being self-contradictory. Likewise, creativity cannot refer to both, a primary, intuitive process and the outcome of the interplay between the intuitive process and a policing, secondary process. However, a dialectic view of creativity is not troubled by such logical paradoxes. Instead of fearing refutation by contradiction, the dialectical perspective suggests that the phenomenon of interest emerges from the tension between opposing forces or ideas, it emerges as a synthesis from the interplay between thesis and antithesis.

Dialectic 2: Between Chance and Purpose

Where do spontaneous thoughts and behaviors come from? Most cognitive psychologists assume that mental events can be traced to external stimuli whose effects propagate through the mind’s web of associations. Not so Campbell (1960). Campbell proposed that ideas flow from an unconscious idea generator, which blindly churns out mutations of previous ideas. The analogy with genetic mutation and Darwinian evolution is deliberate. Given a copious supply of ever mutating ideas, occasionally one will fit a psychological task at hand. At that moment, it becomes conscious and yields an aha!-moment of insight. To Campbell, insight is the result of a process of blind variation and selective retention, and not an explanatory concept. Campbell’s proposal stands in dialectical contrast to the hypothesis that creative problem solving is a matter of systematic and effortful search, whereby a solution is approached and ultimately found by the careful stepwise elimination of options. This view was championed by the Gestalt psychologists (Wertheimer, 1959), and is well illustrated by Duncker’s (1945) analysis of the candlestick-matchbook problem. The dialectical view of creativity suggests that neither chance (Campbell) nor purpose (Duncker) can succeed on its own. Blind variation needs a criterion for success and purposeful search needs a mechanism to generate options. Guilford’s (1950) proposal that creativity engages an alternative intelligence captures this dialectic. Guilford distinguished between convergent thinking, which narrows options down until a single correct solution is found, and divergent thinking, which generates multiple diverse options (e.g., a list of ways in which a brick might be used). The primary process generates alternatives, but it does so within the constraints set by the criterion of usefulness.

Autore/i dell'articolo

Parole chiave dell'articolo


Keep me updated about new In-Mind articles, blog entries and more.