Dialectics of Creativity

Dialectic 3: Beyond Convention and Expertise

If a creative primary process can show itself only within the constraints of a monitoring secondary process, one must inquire into the nature of constraint. A nondialectical perspective treats constraint as either good (purpose) or bad (inhibition). Maslow (1968) saw social constraints, normative expectations, and peer pressure as barriers to creative expression. A person whose behavior is produced by habit and limited by fear cannot be creative. Professional expertise allows a person to master skills, technique, and ways of thinking (Fleck, 1935). Expertise provides the box within which people think and act efficiently. The dialectical perspective suggests that this box is necessary for out-of-the-box exploration and innovation. Gutenberg had mastered the technology of his time (Figures 1a and 1b). Figure 1a. Wine presses at Santa Rita, Chile. Photo by J. Krueger.Figure 1a. Wine presses at Santa Rita, Chile. Photo by J. Krueger.He understood the engineering of the wine press and he knew about movable type. His creative contribution was to think neither as a vintner nor as a scribe. By combining the mechanics of the press with the combinatorial potential of letters, he revolutionized communication.Figure 1b. Vintage printing press (1812) at the National Library of Chile. Photo by J. Krueger.Figure 1b. Vintage printing press (1812) at the National Library of Chile. Photo by J. Krueger.

Mednick (1962) proposed a cognitive theory of how ideas are mentally organized, and how this organization depends on the depth of expertise. In individuals with a steep associative hierarchy, knowledge is tightly packed. An engineer’s mental space is a dense cluster of concepts, where each concept readily activates other concepts within this space. Concepts outside of this professionally defined space are difficult to reach. Individuals with a flat associative hierarchy more easily access remote associates. This is a dialectical idea. Expertise is important, but too much of it is constraining. Mednick developed the famous “Remote Associates Test” to quantify the gradient of association. If, for example, the words ‘car,’ ‘cue,’ and ‘swimming’ are shown, a person with a flat associate hierarchy will be quicker to pinpoint the word ‘pool’ as the common (and thus remote) associate than a person with a steep (or no) hierarchy. Mednick’s thinking is Guilford’s in reverse. Guildford would ask respondents to list words that are related to the word ‘pool’ but not to one another.

Dialectic 4: Creative Destruction

Schumpeter (1942), the influential apologist of cyclical capitalism, asserted that economic downturns, even catastrophic contractions, are instances of creative destruction. The destruction of the old is necessary for the genesis of the new, and potentially better. Rank (1925), the influential Neo-Freudian, elevated the dialectic of destruction and creation to a “general life principle.” Rank would have had unlikely allies among the Gestalt psychologists. The key concept of the Gestalt theory of perception is Prägnanz, the idea that the mind interprets a bundle of stimuli in terms of the best-fitting configuration, thereby rejecting all alternatives. Perception is creative as it adds interpretation and coherence to disparate stimuli. As only one interpretation can rise to consciousness, all others must be destroyed subliminally. Likewise, creative design and creative action must try and discard all but one possibility. Rank asserted that the inverse is also true, that every destruction entails creation. This is a bold and probably false claim. It is safer to say that every destruction contains the seed of creation. Whether new creation comes to pass depends on the whole set of dialectics.

Dialectic 5: Disturbed Homeostasis

Any single-minded emphasis on the primary process makes creativity look easy and invites an illusion of wish-fulfillment. Who would not like to get something for nothing? Exploiting this illusion, self-help gurus may write books on 7 +/- easy ways to become more creative. A dialectical perspective on creativity respects the critical role of effort. Russell (1930) described how he would dedicate sustained mental effort to difficult intellectual tasks. If he failed to produce a solution after weeks or months of work, he would suspend his conscious efforts, expecting that mental work would continue in the psyche’s underground. Often, he found this attitude rewarded when after some time a solution would present itself seemingly out of nowhere. Russell understood the dialectic of effort and surrender, thus anticipating the psychology of the incubation effect (Ellwood, Pallier, Snyder, & Gallate, 2009). This dialectic is a general life principle on a par with Rank’s. It is easily understood with the analogy of the body. A healthy body requires a balance of exertion and rest, and so it is with the mind. It is not the homeostasis that is critical, but the return to homeostasis after a period of stress.

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