Profile of Some Creators

What is meant by creativity?

Permit a tentative definition. Some years ago Doctor Frank Barron at the University of California wrote for Scientific American(1) on what he called the psychology of imagination. Here are some of his conclusions:

“Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do.”

One difference between the creator and the clod in all of us is that the creator often says, “Look at that.” And the clod often replies grudgingly, “Look at what?” with the attitude of “Why should I?”

“They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognized; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved.”

My, at the time, three-year-old daughter Mindy might well have staggered the world’s poets after her first taste of ginger ale. “It tastes like my foot feels when it’s asleep.”

            “They see things as others do, but also as others do not.”

Take the unconventional comment of Hugh Nibley: “The righteous have always been persecuted and usually have deserved to be.” Or the statement of an historian: “The Holy Roman Empire was not Holy, not Roman, and not an empire.”

“They were born with greater brain capacities; they have more ability to hold many ideas at once, and to compare more ideas with one another — hence to make a richer synthesis.”

Related studies suggest that creative people, almost without exception, have more linguistic interests, and seek more variation in the way they recall and verbalize, and more discernment in making distinctions.

“They are by constitution more vigorous, and have available to them an exceptional fund of psychic and physical energy.”

The heady experiences of discovery and expression can become almost obsessive to the uncaring neglect of the so-called necessaries of life — sleep, food, recreation, exercise, even relief from the houndings of pain.

“Their universe is thus more complex and, in addition, they usually lead more complex lives.”

Complex functions here less as the opposite of simple, than as the opposite of sterile.

“They have more contact than most people do with the life of the unconscious — with fantasy, reverie, the world of imagination.”

From the reports of curriculum and creativity seminars here and abroad — which so far do more to describe and celebrate instances of it than to develop techniques for unlocking it — one can distill related elements which somehow accompany, if they do not fully define, the creative person:  a sort of self-sufficiency, an independence, insatiable curiosity mixed with a quest of variety, resourcefulness, persistence in the midst of setbacks, a tolerance of disorder and ambiguity (take a look at a painter’s studio or a kitchen where someone is cooking up a storm), stubbornness in pioneering or pathfinding, catalytic influence on others of like inclinations, and ability to endure marathons of sustained effort or thought. Each of these can be deliberately exercised and developed. But behind them all — the most fragile and crucial quality — is openness to one’s own impulses and inner feelings.

Of Differences and Gifts

William James once observed (an insight he says he gained from a carpenter) that “there is very little difference between one man and another but what little there is is very important.”  All important and all-important differences may have no cutting edge if they remain unrecognized. Recent systematic efforts to identify and to distinguish multiple talents are highly encouraging. They counter if they do not cut away the assumption that I.Q. is either fixed or adequate as a measure. Some estimates of the standard intelligence tests say they measure less than ten percent of our potential. Further, no direct correlation exists between grade-getting — that almost unavoidably enviable cluster of talent known as academic performance — and later worth or success or contribution in the larger society. This is disquieting to some educators, but David McLellands’ Achievement Studies are all but conclusive. Undercut, also, is the notion that we can accurately divide students into sheep and goats, the gifted and the plodders, the honored and the dishonored, the Phi Beta Kappas and the Phi Kappa Phis. These indices and labels are faulty. So are many conclusions of elevation or depreciation drawn from them. When native ability comes to the surface, it needs no official stamp.  But officialdom benefits from the stamping. Such reflection leads to the somewhat cynical jibe that prestigious centers of learning don’t train their proud products. They just pick them from a flood of applicants. A sharp half-truth.

Positively put, there is evidence that everyone potentially is a genius at something; likewise that no one is a genius at everything. After we are through with aptitude tests, career counseling — sampling and dabbling and specializing and disciplining — deciding a major and minor, the imponderable question remains: Have we found ourselves and how will that “finding” relate to our future outcomes?  Consider a physician. One study quantifies him into 120 abilities. Of these, only 12 to 15 can be formally taught or trained. Most of the rest are on “hold.” They come out in that subtler individualized chemistry of actual doing over the long haul.

Differences, then, are not just in degree of giftedness for gifts are spread in abundance across the board. They reside in each person’s combination of gifts and the ways he chooses to bolster and apply them.

A Hundred Talents

Calvin Taylor,(2) simplifying Guilford’s studies which classify skills and talents into more than a hundred categories, reduces them to seven. In my shorthand terms they are: (1) academic gifts — jumping through the hoops and writing examinations and winning professorial applause, e.g., in high research-oriented physical and social sciences; (2) artistic talents — the fine arts: music, literature, dance, drama, painting, et al. Closely related are the so-called “vocational school” crafts and guilds; (3) decision making skills — confronting problematic situations and making right judgments, then making judgments right — the crux of business, management organization, public affairs, political science, law; (4) communication talents, including language skills to capture, clarify and convey in all modes of verbal expression; as also the non-verbal ways to “get across.” (Apparently message-giving correlates with powerful message-getting.) (5) wisdom talents — the gift for assessing the gist of situations, seeing them whole, and proceeding without folly on the one hand or excess on the other — central to family relations and life sciences; (6) planning and forecasting, such skills as show up in architecture and engineering, and ranging from weather prognosis to the plotting of economic trends, et cetera.

Somehow these talents shake out into another cluster called (7) leadership talents. Exactly how remains unclear.

How many talents may there be for which we have no names? How many jobs or expression-modes are we innately equipped for which have not yet been created? How many electric wizards lived and died before the discovery of electricity? How many computer experts spent their lives totally oblivious to their powers before the century of the computer?

So one comes to the highly personal question.

“Can I find out what is locked in my more or less unexplored depths, my potential, my capacity?” Many of us fall into the fallacy of structure: “I guess I won’t know until someone tells me.” My thesis is that this is too much to expect. It is delegation by default. Self-discovery can at best be facilitated and aided, perhaps triggered, by perceptive teachers. But in the end you will either find it within yourself or it will not be found.

And how does one do that?

By the groping and the elusive approach to self-awareness that takes account of what is often written off as fugitive impression, subjective wish, vain-glorying and daydreaming, and in short, a refusal to face reality.

What and How Can We Intuit?

There is something strange in supposing that you can be faintly aware of something without knowing how you are aware, without knowing why you are aware, and in some awesome cases even, that you are aware.

Let us spend a few minutes to illustrate how thoughtful persons in the western world have again and again found themselves insisting on opening the lens of the human camera to an intuitive range of awareness and what they claim to find.

I.        Mathematical Insight

        Plato anciently held that mathematical connections, especially those of plane geometry as in the dialogue “The Meno,” can by careful questioning be found within instead of imposed from without. Socrates found the Pythagorean theorem lodged within an unlearned slave boy. One reading of Plato is that all knowledge is of this sort: recollective, the coming to the surface of what we already know.

        Aristotle’s subject/predicate logic is built on a foundation of “laws of thought” which he holds are “given” in intuitive self-evidence. Some today make the same claim for primitives and axioms of mathematics and set theory.

        We all know or quickly recognize analytic propositions such as “All bachelors are unmarried: or “There are no round squares” (Werkmeister, Hocking vs. Quine and White). Some writers hold that these are self-evident, that they are not just resolves or conventions on the use of language, but intuitively known.

II.      Modes of Reality

        Influential appeals to intuition as cosmic in scope include: The transcendental ideas of truth, beauty and goodness (Plato); the a priori “forms” of space and it me (Kant); wholes as distinct from parts in Gestalt psychology (Wolfgang Kohler); and essences that appear in a presuppositionless approach to the inner world (Husserl).

III.     Value Theory and Ethics

        G.E. Moore, a common sense realist, held that we all intuit goodness as a “simple non-natural characteristic” in analogy to the way we see yellow. We neither sense good nor do we arrive at judgments of good by rational deliberation. We intuit it.

        Likewise, W.D. Ross maintained that we intuit what he calls “prima facie obligations.” We have ethical surety, for example, that we ought to keep promises and ought to maximize the good and to minimize suffering.

        Still another view (Harold Pritchard) is that we all have the intuitions when we need to know what we ought to do in a given moral dilemma. But this cannot be derived in advance either from a calculation of consequences as in most utilitarian theories or from any applied ethical principle.

        Some analysts of legal issues hold that only intuition can resolve decision-issues in jurisprudence, for example, the definition in a given case of “criminal negligence” (John Wisdom).

IV.    Subjectivity as Truth

        Pascal maintained a difference between reasons of the mind and reasons of the heart. More elaborately, Bergson held there were profoundly distinct, even opposite, ways of approaching objects. The first moves around the object, the second enters into it. That is impossible without intuition. By that same process, he maintained, and only by it, one has access to his memory, his processes of becoming, his striving, pulsing, and the core of his freedom which is his “lan vita.” In short, his selfhood.

        William James spoke of “sudden and great extensions of the ordinary field of consciousness” and would not submit to “medical materialism” that reduces such flashes — even if one concedes that they are sensate — to physical interactions.

        John Wild has written at length of the difference between “passive consciousness” and “intentionality.” Objects “tend.” Man “intends”: intends to see and not see; to mean and not mean. To “grasp” intentionality in our own “signals” and symbols as well as others, one must resort to a species of intuition.

        Carl Jung assumes with other depth psychologists, that there is an unconscious. But he expands it vastly. He maintains that all of us have within us a “collective unconscious” that is a racial memory, a reservoir that somehow recapitulates all the experiences of all mankind. In confirmation of the claim he cites the instance of an 8-year-old girl who had a series of uncanny dreams in which 12 “archetypal motifs” appeared. Jung could find no exposure to these ideas in the girl’s formal teaching. He posits an “undiscovered self” which is somehow “pre-existent to full consciousness.”(3)

        But is there a realm that is deeper still in the self beyond the conscious or the unconscious?

Of Introspection and Phenomenology

A modern movement, somewhat amorphous, includes many renowned names who subscribe to a method called phenomenology. In reaction against “pure thought,” associated with absolute idealists and the scientific empiricism that says all our reliable beliefs are combinations of sense-data, these writers insist that one may strip away a priori assumptions about what will or will not count as data and “look and see” when one probes past even the “sloppy data” that psychological techniques attempt to reveal — dreams, linguistic slips, free association, and the like — what does he find?

This realm is variously called the “depth self,” the Ursprung, the origin self, the root self, and in many writers, the “authentic self.” It is allegedly accessible only in “existential intuition.”

The literary brilliance of these writers is stunning. But some of their findings are radically pessimistic, even nihilistic. What many uncover is “the furies,” a ghastly, all-pervasive despair. Take, for example, Kierkegaard’s distinction between fear and dread. Fear occurs in response to an object; one can always specify the object in answer to “What are you afraid of?” The removal of the object relieves the fear. But dread has no object. And no manipulation of our environment can remove it. Relief is unavailable.  We have a host of other such awarenesses, e.g., the imminence of death, a day and night certainty which we hold at arm’s length. We are certain of death, uncertain of its timing. We try to “objectify” so we can “handle it.” But in vain.

Heidegger writes at length of “being unto death,” a commitment of our all, that not only tinctures but embraces our entire consciousness, out of which comes not superficiality but authenticity in our choices.

Sartre finds nausea, despair, troubled sleep. But also the most radical form of human freedom . . . that we not only have choices between hemmed in alternatives of action; we are and inevitably will be our own creators, out of the bowels of our own being. We are condemned to be free.

Another writer insists that the only power is superman power, the “ubermensch” which takes to itself all else and turns all the esteemed values of western tradition and reserves them. All that has been condemned is good; all that has been recommended is evil.

Another writer speaks of utter solitude and loneliness and estrangement. But, by the same method, another finds profound roots for love, for  non-exploitive power, and for justice.

One writer speaks of the endless “angst” of life, roughly translated “anguish.” Another, by the same intuitional token, speaks of reconciliation, homecoming, and transcending the “abyss” by accepting it. Kierkegaard insists on a faith-state which is the leap into darkness coming paradoxically as the aftermath of a breakdown of all one’s aesthetic and ethical projection systems.

Two allegedly “fatal” objections to such a resort to “privileged access” which I am calling intuition are (1) that the truth-claims of different intuitionists, even the ones I have selected, contradict each other both on how we know and what we know. And by what criterion do we disentangle acceptable intuitions from hallucinations and those that lead to the asylum? (2) that there is no organ or faculty called “intuition?” It has never been shown (and the word “shown” carries implicit premises on what would be acceptable) that there is such a thing as a “special faculty” or “super-sense” or “para-normal” aspect in men which answers to a verifiable physicalistic entity. We can locate brain and spleen. But where is intuition?

One cannot “prove” intuition to another. But he can show that some objections are fallacious. To the first it may be said that there are competing truth-claims in the midst of individual scientists as also among the sciences; contradictions and tension. Within our lifetime the Encyclopedia of Unified Science attempted to simplify–reduce–and integrate all the confirmable findings of the sciences. The project was abandoned as too unwieldy. But few have given up on the hypothetical-deductive methods of science. The senses sometimes deceive us. They eye tells us the train tracks converge; subsequent experience tell us they do not. We make adjustment for this chimera and for mirages and pink elephants. Then we continue to consult and, within learned limits, to trust the senses.

Formal systems sometimes turn out to lead to contradiction and mathematical calculations to paradox. Few give up for this reason on mathematics. We make repairs in the systems and proceed, even with the mutually incompatible geometries of Euclid and Lobachevski.

If so, then one may say that all intuitions, like all sense data or all deductions, are not created equal. What we call “insight” can be misleading or mistaken. Likely it will be when it is not brought into engagement with the cumulative and coherent whole of our experience and “tried out” at various levels of application and implication.

As for the cry that modern psychology, physiological or introspective, finds no room for outworn “faculty” analyses of the self, grant it. What follows? What follows is that the organ-grinder explanation of intuition fails to explain. Can we then say that all explanations are doomed to fail? If so, we need an explanation for the extrapolation. One is not forthcoming. Shoulder-shrugging does not count as explanation. If the positivist insists it will turn out that intuitions are just hopes and fears, that is his positive faith leap. What is the leap based on? If he insists that they; are all delusions — that is another leap. This time negative. In both cases how, on his own criterion, does he know?

W.P. Montague once concluded his “federation of methods” of knowing by arguing that whatever comes intuitively or immediately, which he dubbed mysterious, should be approached as “suggestions we are thankful to receive but careful to substantiate.” Fair enough.

If one makes room for the hosting of this disorderly repository, then what can be done to enhance it?

Three Impediments

Some still claim, more today than ever, that by tippling drinks, by shooting drugs, and popping pills, one may escape all disabling externals and enter into a marvelously productive realm. The claim was made even among a coterie of students in Harvard graduate schools. Harvard awaited the outcome. It was a dud. The potions turned out to be poisons. Worse. Addiction became destructive of the higher noetic centers, as irreversibly as a frontal lobotomy. After three decades of observation, I could provide a list of dozens of first-rate minds who have been decimated by such artificial whips. One is left with a harsh truth: shortcuts cut you short and leave you short. Drugs and other so-called fixes, as Al Capp once said expand consciousness in the same way the bomb expanded Hiroshima. There cannot be incubation if we abuse of mutilate or destroy the incubator.

I have mentioned the impotence of the “artificial fix.” There are two other cul-de-sacs.

(2) The Gap

As one looks around at would-be mentors who seem so assured and reassured in the command of their own lives, a “chasm” appears — the difference between him and me. Senior citizens in the realm of learning often demonstrate such a vast sum of erudition that it seems not only hard but impossible ever to begin to catch up. The forest is a rough place for a seedling. The truth: those persons were once as inept and as ignorant as you. Their competence emerged from many separate acts and hours of work. The failure to recognize this cuts hopes into ribbons. The resulting shortsightedness has shipwrecked many a promising career. It is not required that we burn up the track, only that we keep appropriately at work, paced, patient, laying in store. Persistent plodding will finally add up to your own sum of learning, your own wisdom and to many kinds of usefulness. At no time in history has the totality of available data been so utterly beyond the command of any one mind or set of minds. The lesson usually drawn is “You must specialize.” But the creative response also mandates that you cut through, keep your head above the deluge. It is reassuring that one who learns to swim does as well over five hundred fathoms as over five feet of water. But deep sea diving is something else.

(3) On Robots

A considerable literature suggests that creativity is a form of “possession,” absolutely automatic.

The muse effortlessly sounds and the flow begins. You fasten your seat belt and soar. A similar assumption underlies the Skinnerian approach to social engineering. This is what I call the billiard ball theory: if it makes sense at all, once you have become a thorough-going determinist, to urge any other person to action (since the urging itself is the result of an ineluctable cause), Skinner urges manipulation. On such a view the university is a blacksmith shop filled with robots who pound out everything — by causal assault and battery. It is much less, if at all, a greenhouse. The one view tends to reduce the student to an object, a number, a learner, in a kind of obsession with objectivity. The other sees him — always and everywhere — as a living subject. It protects the tender plant with the zeal of an Eskimo, who in a raging wind would protect the flame of his last candle.

Recent discussion of the right brain-left brain phenomenon tends to conclude that one can by habitual pressure all but cut one’s self off from this realm by practical-technical preoccupations. We can be “blocked” by demanding from ourselves strictly public and repeatable and conventional approaches to problems. Maslow summed it up “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.” And when the hammer fails, he usually finds a bigger hammer.

Process or Processes

Having named some approaches that don’t work, what can be said of some that do? Are there not at least some guidelines?

Ghiselin’s The Creative Process is a stimulating collection of first-hand accounts. But one does not find a hip-pocket process. Instead he finds several processes. Ghiselin, himself a poet, writes an able introduction and draws a few common elements.

Four points: (1) Whatever else you may think and do, you cannot simply sit on your hands and wait to be transported. (2) Perspiration is still the price. You have to earn and learn your way up to the frontiers before you can advance them, or advance beyond them. (3) Creative effort has two stages, and perhaps two levels, and they require each other: the flow or flash that comes somewhat unpredictably, and second, the midnight oil of shaping, refining, applying. (4) An infinite capacity for taking pains with the materials, the skills, is not an evasion of intuition. It is one path toward it.

I am pleading here for a recognition — which like freedom itself is nothing without continued alert exercise, a kind of creative vigilance. We ought to be and can be open in the richest sense of that term. Chesterton once observed that the purpose of opening the mind as of opening the mouth was to close it again on something solid. The image is lively and useful. But even Chesterton would not have held that once closed, it should stay closed. Other solid things await. We ought to be open on a triple front: open upward and open outward. But we must insist on an “ever more” of further search and research. I plead with you to be open in the most neglected way — Be open inward.


1 – Scientific American, September 1958.

2 – “Progress in the Discovery of Intellectual Factors,” Widening Horizons of Creativity, Calvin Taylor, ed.

3 – See Jung, Man and His Symbols, New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 69.