Arthur Koestler

The Act of Creation




This extract is the summary (made by the author) of Chapter V of The Act of Creation.
The creative act takes place when a person "uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills." To do so the individual needs to overcome the blocks represented by old conventional ideas and views. Otherwise nothing new will ever emerge because it is neither searched nor desired.



When life presents us with a problem it will be attacked in accordance with the code of rules which enabled us to deal with similar problems in the past. These rules of the game range from manipulating sticks to operating with ideas, verbal concepts, visual forms, mathematical entities. When the same task is encountered under relatively unchanging conditions in a monotonous environment, the responses will become stereotyped, flexible skills will degenerate into rigid patterns, and the person will more and more resemble an automaton, governed by fixed habits, whose actions and ideas move in narrow grooves. He may be compared to an engine-driver who must drive his train along fixed rails according to a fixed timetable.

Vice versa, a changing, variable environment will tend to create flexible behaviour-patterns with a high degree of adaptability to circumstances - the driver of a motor-car has more degrees of freedom than the engine-driver. But novelty can be carried to a point - by life or in the laboratory - where the situation still resembles in some respects other situations encountered in the past, yet contains new features or complexities which make it impossible to solve the problem by the same rules of the game which were applied to those past situations.

When this happens we say that the situation is blocked - though the subject may realize this fact only after a series of hopeless tries, or never at all. To squeeze the last drop out of the metaphor: the motorist is heading for a frontier to which all approaches are barred, and all his skill as a driver will not help him - short of turning his car into a helicopter, that is, playing a different kind of game.

A blocked situation increases the stress of the frustrated drive. What happens next is much the same in the chimpanzee's as in Archimedes’s case. When all hopeful attempts at solving the problem by traditional methods have been exhausted, thought runs around in circles in the blocked matrix like rats in a cage. Next, the matrix of organized, purposeful behaviour itself seems to go to pieces, and random trials make their appearance, accompanied by tantrums and attacks of despair - or by the distracted absent-mindedness of the creative obsession.

That absent-mindedness is, of course, in fact single-mindedness; for at this stage - the 'period of incubation' - the whole personality, down to the unverbalized and unconscious layers, has become saturated with the problem, so that on some level of the mind it remains active, even while attention is occupied in a quite different field - such as looking at a tree in the chimpanzee's case, or watching the rise of the water-level; until either chance or intuition provides a link to a quite different matrix, which bears down vertically, so to speak, on the problem blocked in its old horizontal context, and the two previously separate matrices fuse. But for that fusion to take place a condition must be fulfilled which I called 'ripeness'.

Concerning the psychology of the creative act itself, I have mentioned the following, interrelated aspects of it: the displacement of attention to something not previously noted, which was irrelevant in the old and is relevant in the new context; the discovery of hidden analogies as a result of the former; the bringing into consciousness of tacit axioms and habits of thought which were implied in the code and taken for granted; the un-covering of what has always been there.

This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards. The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole. Man's knowledge of the changes of the tides and the phases of the moon is as old as his observation that apples fall to earth in the ripeness of time. Yet the combination of these and other equally familiar data in Newton's theory of gravity changed mankind's outlook on the world.

‘It is obvious', says Hadamard, 'that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas. . . The Latin verb cogito for "to think" etymologically means "to shake together". St. Augustine had already noticed that and also observed that intelligo means "to select among".'

The 'ripeness' of a culture for a new synthesis is reflected in the recurrent phenomenon of multiple discovery, and in the emergence of similar forms of art, handicrafts, and social institutions in diverse cultures. But when the situation is ripe for a given type of discovery it still needs the intuitive power of an exceptional mind, and sometimes a favourable chance event, to bring it from potential into actual existence. On the other hand, some discoveries represent striking tours de force by individuals who seem to be so far ahead of their time that contemporaries are unable to understand them.

Thus at one end of the scale we have discoveries which seem to be due to more or less conscious, logical reasoning, and at the other end sudden insights which seem to emerge spontaneously from the depth the unconscious. The same polarity of logic and intuition will be found to prevail in the methods and techniques of artistic creation. It is summed up by two opposite pronouncements: Bernard Shaw's ‘Ninety per cent perspiration, ten per cent inspiration', on the one hand, Picasso's 'I do not seek - I find' (je ne cherche pas, je trouve), on the other.


[Home] [Top]