Q&A: What Is Not Creativity?

Many people who speak or write on the subject of creativity refer to standard definitions of the term that are found in many different dictionaries and encyclopedia. The Wikipedia, for instance, states:

Is Nature Creative?

Is Nature Creative?

Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc.) that has some kind of value.

I first saw this definition of creativity in a book by Sir Ken Robinson. At a certain point he seemed to get fed up with the lousy definition and substituted the term “divergent thinking” for the word “creativity” to describe the human creative mental process. This begs the question of understanding creativity itself, as it is possible to be a divergent thinker without actually creating anything. The Wikipedia definition struck me as so shockingly bad that any discussion of creativity would need to start by completely redefining the word. I was also curious as to how a word that has so much importance had degraded so badly. By analyzing the definition we can in fact uncover many of the misconceptions about creativity that prevent us from understanding it.

1. Creativity is a process, not a “phenomenon”.

The phrase, “Creativity is the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new…” uses the word, “create” to define “creativity”. This is like saying that: “Baking refers to the phenomenon whereby a person bakes something.”In addition, the word “phenomenon” does not apply to the verb “to create”. Creating, like baking, is a process not a phenomenon.

2. No objective observer exists to judge the result of a creative process and the result cannot define the process or agent.

The phrase, “ has some kind of value” is also absurd. During Van Gogh’s lifetime he was not able to sell enough paintings to live on the income. After he was dead the paintings became worth millions of dollars. Did Van Gogh become creative after he was dead? In fact, anything that is truly innovative is likely to encounter difficulty in being accepted. For this reason, the word “value” would be applied in retrospect. Other creative actions, such as imaginative play, make no attempt at financial success. The level of creativity that goes into play certainly cannot be judged by remuneration.

3. Creativity is not a specialization.

The phrase: “something new…a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc…” implies that creativity is useful in a limited, specialized and exceptional area of life and not a universally vital necessity. This narrow definition is in stark contrast to the universal need for creativity in education, business and society that is being proposed today. The term, “something new,” is also problematic. “New to whom?” we may ask.

4. Creativity does not describe a human psychological condition.

The definition indicates that creativity is a purely human enterprise and does not exist anywhere else in the universe. The primary reason for the failure of the definition is rooted in the futile attempt to describe creativity in terms of human psychology. Theodule Armand Ribot in his “Essay on the Creative Imagination”, (1900) attempted to describe imagination at the service of creativity. While imagination is a feature of human psychology, creativity describes a process, not a mental condition.

The current definition of creativity not only fails to shed any light on its nature, but also actively obfuscates the term. Creativity is viewed as a pastime for a small set of individuals sitting off in a corner and tinkering with things in the hope that some mysterious “phenomenon” will yield a marketable product. Such a distorted view makes it impossible to understand or develop creativity within our educational system, corporate environments, or society as a whole. It is necessary to completely rethink our ideas about creativity in order to even begin to insert it into our cultural worldview.

My own definitions of creativity are these:

Creativity in nature is the fourth feature of the physical world.

The physical world has four attributes: time space, energy, and creativity. Creativity is the tendency for the other three attributes, (time, space and energy), to form increasingly complex patterns.

Human Creativity is the process of manifesting an idea in the physical world.

To me, it is absurd to propose that human creativity arose from nothing and is a unique phenomenon in the universe. Human creativity is distinct from nature because all human knowledge is fundamentally symbolic. Humans must translate experience into some form of language, (this includes mathematics, musical notation and design as well as written or spoken languages), before manipulating it into new combinations. These new combinations of symbols are then expressed as actions or artifacts.

By correctly defining creativity, we can better understand our relationship with the universe and with basic reality. We can then begin to redefine other terms such as imagination, intelligence and language. All of these terms are connected to creativity and cannot be understood as separate mental processes.

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