how does something come from nothing? a PHILOSOPHICAL look at creativity
RICK MAYOCK is Professor of Philosophy at West Los Angeles College. In addition to his academic career, he is interested in the creative ways that philosophy can work for public intellectuals. He is a frequent contributor to several books on philosophy and popular culture, including The Beatles and Philosophy, The Rolling Stones and Philosophy, The Office and Philosophy, Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy, and Jeopardy! and Philosophy. Rick Mayock is also a guitarist/vocalist/songwriter and has been performing with bands and as a solo artist for over two decades, both in Southern California and on the East Coast. He is currently performing with the band East of Lincoln, playing an eclectic blend of original rock, blues, R&B, and urban acoustic music.
How does something come from nothing? Whether it’s an idea, a work of art, a melody, a symphony, or a universe, there is something magical about the creative process; about something coming into being. But philosophers have a hard time explaining magic. They like to explain things in terms of rational concepts and convincing arguments. Consequently, they have largely kept silent about creativity and have been reluctant to analyze or categorize such an elusive concept.
The poets, on the other hand, can explain it all. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” we read in Genesis. In the Greek tradition the poet Hesiod claims the muses sang to him and told him that in the beginning was Chaos, and out of Chaos came Gaia and Oranos (or earth and sky) and a character named Eros (or desire). Through a series of acts of sexual union and procreation the world as we know it came into being.
The early philosophers, however, were hesitant to speak of muses and mythological entities like Chaos and Cosmos. Their task, as they saw it, was to de-mythologize their explanations. As a result, they favored more abstract concepts like Being and Becoming. But for the most part, they declined to offer us a satisfying account of creativity or of creation.
Parmenides, a pre-Socratic philosopher says that, in effect, there is no creativity at all—no bringing something into being from nothingness, because everything already exists. No Becoming, only Being. Heraclitus, on the other hand, says that there is only creativity. Everything is in a state of flux, constantly creating itself; no Being, only Becoming. From the very beginning of the philosophical movement, the concept of creativity ended up in a paradox, a philosophical stalemate.
Then along comes Socrates, who thinks we’re getting a bit too creative, with the truth. Socrates finds himself in conflict with the sophists, teachers of rhetoric, the creative art of public speaking and argumentation. For the sophists, it doesn’t matter what you’re arguing for, all that matters is how creative and convincing your arguments are. In an age where a top presidential advisor suggests that the press corps consider “alternative facts,” Socrates’ suspicions about creativity seem to be somewhat prophetic.
Plato takes things a step further by claiming that creative artists in general, and poets in particular, compose not from knowledge but from some kind of inspiration. They are also imitators of more real life experiences, which themselves are mere imitations or copies of an even more real world of eternal and unchanging ideas or “forms.” So, according to Plato, poets and artists are not dealing with reality. He also says that poetry is dangerous because it corrupts the soul by seducing us to indulge in our emotions at the expense of our reason, making us “womanish” (his word, not mine). So for Plato, creativity has nothing to do with truth, or knowledge or reality, and it can corrupt our souls…
Let’s move to the next great philosopher, Aristotle. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with creativity other than to reduce it, as Plato does, to imitation. Aristotle’s need to categorize and explain things in terms of causality leads him to see creativity essentially as a rational, if not purposeful, activity. The purpose of dramatic poetry, for example, is to elicit certain emotions from the audience.
We could conclude at this point that the ancient philosophers do not offer much helpful insight into the nature of creativity. From Plato onward, philosophers become concerned with the destructive and dangerous power of creativity to lead us astray, and to leave us unmoored from the truth. But I believe the seeds have been planted by these early philosophers which lead to an inquiry into the dynamics of the creative process.
Plato’s division of the soul into three parts, the rational, spirited or emotional, and appetitive or volitional souls is a good place to begin. The creative process seems to involve all three functions (reason, emotion and willing). They may work together in a reciprocal relationship in the creative experience. 20th century psychologist Rollo May writes of the creative encounter as an ecstatic experience (in the sense of ex-stasis, to stand out from, to be freed from the usual split between subject and object). This experience brings rational, emotional and volitional functions into play in a unique way.
Aristotle also gives us some clues to understanding creativity by introducing a dynamism into the cognitive function. Without invoking the mythical Eros, he acknowledges the importance of desire. “All men, by nature,” he says, “desire to know.” In his ethics Aristotle shows us how actualize our potential by developing virtuous character traits and creating a life of composure.
Whatever creativity is it seems to be a process that involves not just reason but feelings and emotions, and some kind of willingness, intention or volition. But philosophers keep moving in the wrong direction by establishing a trend that favors the rational over the emotional, the objective over the subjective, the scientific over the artistic, the accessible over the occult, firmly established truth over ungrounded speculation.
Enlightenment thinkers continue this trend. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant diminishes the importance and impact of the emotions in his attempt to “purify” reason. Kant refers to artistic genius as an innate capacity to somehow produce works of “exemplary originality,” through the imagination. This process, for Kant, follows no rules, and can never be learned or taught, and is mysterious even to geniuses themselves.
But once again it may be helpful to turn to the poets, the unabashedly creative thinkers, to help move philosophers out of their conceptual rigidity. Just as Hesiod and Homer were unafraid to draw on inspiration from the muses to move philosophy out of its dogmatic rationalism, 19th century romantic poets help open the door to a more sympathetic view of creativity. The poet John Keats in his poem Lamia illustrates that philosophers are lacking a receptivity to creative impulses. Responding to Newton’s analysis of a rainbow as a collection of quantifiable wavelengths, Keats implies that the philosopher’s need to analyze, synthesize and systematize is destructive to the creative process. Keats writes: “in the dull catalogue of common things, philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.”
This romantic reaction of the poets inspires a number of philosophers who break with the rationalist tradition and are willing to acknowledge and incorporate emotional and volitional components into their world view and into their theories of knowledge. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard embraces the emotions as essential components of our cognitive experience. One of our most basic emotions, angst, paradoxically impels us to more creative experiences. Anxiety can be our teacher, says Kierkegaard, because it brings us face to face with the absurdity of our existence. This confrontation with the anxious state requires an interplay of reason and emotions, inducing us to create a more meaningful life, thereby averting an existential crisis.
In his philosophical autobiography titled Ecce Homo and subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is,” Friedrich Nietzsche incorporates willing or volition as an essential part of our reality. A life-affirming philosophy, according to Nietzsche, will acknowledge and embrace freely inventing and creating aspects of our conceptualizing minds. Paralleling a musical reconciliation, the creative task is to enable the accepting of all Becoming, all willing, as Being; and a willing of all Being as Becoming. It is to acknowledge that Being and Becoming are melodies in counterpoint, reconciled, to continue a musical metaphor, in the tonic key.
In addition to the rational, emotional and volitional components, creativity also requires a certain amount of receptivity to the unintentional and unintended object. Poets might call this a receptivity to the muses. Psychologists might call it receptivity to the unconscious. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within…” Emerson urges us to acknowledge and honor our creative ideas. “In every work of genius,” he writes, “we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
The psychologist William James also focuses on this idea of receptivity. He describes the stream of consciousness as a series of alterations of dynamic and static imaginings. “Like a bird’s life, it seems to be an alternation of flights and perchings,” he writes, recognizing the transitive and substantive parts of the stream of thought. Language forces us to focus on and concretize the substantive, or “perchings.” As a result the transitive parts, or “flights” are eclipsed. But perhaps the creative process involves widening our attention and intention, augmenting our receptivity to include a look at the flights between perchings and recognizing the value of the transitive, the “unfinished” possibilities. This may be one way to account for the elusive magic; that something that comes from nothing, of which philosophers are so suspicious.
In the creative experience we approach a horizon, a point beyond which we cannot see. The philosopher Martin Heidegger calls the horizon the point at which the unmanifested manifests itself. Creativity can be seen as a spiritual enterprise, requiring a receptivity to the unmanifested. Maybe Hesiod was on the right path, we need develop a receptivity to the singing muses.
Now that we have considered all of these insights from great philosophical minds, here’s how I see creativity. Philosophers have given us the language of intentionality. We can define intentionality as the relationship between the knower and the known; between the knower and the object. It is a directional intentionality, so the object, as Aristotle would say, is something desired. Creativity also can be seen as a kind of intentionality but with the important difference that the object is not known…yet. So we can speak of creativity as -1) an objectless intentionality.
But there is a willing involved, a willingness to bring something into being. There is an objective, in the creative experience, a goal or telos. For example, if I want to write a song, there is an objective present. I may not have the song yet (that is, the object) but I do have an objective.
To further compound and confound the matter, sometimes the object arrives or arises or ahead of the objective or independently of the objective. Improvisation can bring this about. When musicians improvise, sometimes they bring something into being: a melody, a rhythm, a riff. It is an unintended, yet often pleasing accident. Creative minds, therefore, must maintain a vigilance and a receptivity to that which is unintended.
This intentionality points to a horizon, the line at which the unmanifested manifests itself. Creativity strives toward this line, at the point where the horizon is reached or perhaps breached. So creativity is: (my definition) -2) an objectless but not objectiveless intentionality which sometimes leads to an unintended yet pleasing accident at the point where the horizon that separates the manifested from the unmanifested is reached or breached.
In summary, here is what we can learn from the great philosophers. Traditional philosophers, led by Plato, are suspicious of emotions. They see philosophy as a cognitive enterprise; philosophy is about ideas. Creativity requires sometimes going with a “feeling,” a hunch, what feels right, or guess work. Creativity has an aesthetic criterion. In fact, much of science is creative. It relies on guess work and going with “hunches.” Physicists speak of the “elegance” of a theory, as an aesthetic criterion for scientific advancement and understanding. Einstein once remarked that he found the big bang theory to be “beautiful.”
Just as in creating a melody line in music, creativity requires a receptivity and a willingness to be uncensored, unfiltered and unedited (for a time). Yet creativity also requires the ability to edit and direct, or conduct, to use a musical image, like an orchestra conductor at the proper time, paying close attention to rhythmical nuances.
Contemporary creativity studies call the unfiltered, unedited, receptive function of opening ourselves to the gathering of options, divergent thinking. To focus, prioritize and bring order to our musings is called convergent thinking. It is a movement as old as the cosmos itself, from exploring the chaos to creating the cosmos.
Creative people become aware of the music of their lives and become the conductors of their orchestras. Like good musicians, they learn to improvise, they know when a melodic idea can be stretched and seek harmonic opportunities. They become averse to dissonances and hone their aesthetic craft to see beyond the plateaus of boredom and stagnation. They become aware of the climaxes, the crescendos and dynamics, recurring motifs, themes and variations. Seeing their lives in a larger, more cosmic perspective, they develop an ear for the sonata form, with its expositions, its developments and its recapitulations.
Improvisation encourages receptivity to (sometimes pleasing) accidents…one must be willing to suspend the rules and improvise. Creative people are aware of counterpoint, and understand that life is often an interplay of opposites. They become aware of the flights and perchings of their creating consciousnesses. And creative people acknowledge the need for times of silence. The creative ear needs periods of rest. Composers and conductors need to retreat, to seek the muses of their inspiration. These times of creative silence are times we need to shift our attention, times when, according to Emerson, we should read books, and, according to Thoreau, we should take walks.
Creativity requires faith in our narratives. Kierkegaard says that the dynamics of faith is such that it requires a reaffirmation with every step, like the faith of Abraham. We must have faith in ourselves and faith in the process. Rollo May calls this the courage to create. According to Nietzsche, this is the faith to become what one is.