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Creativity in the Arts and Sciences

Historical Conceptions

As a concept, creativity is most strongly associated with European civilization. This is not because other civilizations have not displayed creativity. On the contrary, there is no doubt that other world civilizations—such as the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic—have produced creative geniuses of the highest order. The difference stems largely from how creativity is conceived in various cultures. The basis for the difference is to be found in the very definition of the phenomenon. Although an idea is not creative unless it is both original and useful, the exact proportions of originality and usefulness are not fixed.

At the same time, world civilizations vary greatly in the relative importance they place on individualism versus collectivism. Therefore, more individualistic cultures assign more weight to originality because that feature provides a means to demonstrate personal uniqueness. In contrast, more collectivist cultures tend to stress usefulness. To be "useful" in that case means that an original idea must be compatible with societal values and cultural traditions. If not, then those ideas cannot work insofar as they would prove divisive rather than consensual.

This cultural contrast can be illustrated by looking at philosophical creativity. On the originality-individualistic side is René Descartes (1596–1650), who launches his inquiry by doubting everything he has ever learned and experienced, eventually arriving at a highly egocentric, even autistic first principle—I think, therefore I am (cogito, ergo sum) —on which he could base his entire philosophy. On the usefulness-collectivist side is Shankara (c. 700–c. 750), the Indian thinker who communicated his highly influential Vedanta philosophy by writing commentaries on the principal Upanishads and other ancient scriptures. Although great philosophers in other intellectual traditions frequently use the same modus operandi, this tactic is extremely rare in European civilization. Even in the Middle Ages, when Greco-Roman individualism had to yield some ground to the more collectivist values of Christianity, intellectual innovations were seldom embedded in commentaries on traditional texts. For example, Thomas Aquinas's (1225–1274) Sixteenth-century painting by Qiu Ying depicting Li Bo receiving visitors. Although the concept of genius being linked to madness or unconventional behavior was more prevalent in European societies, one exception was the Chinese poet Li Bo, a reputed drunkard and carefree wanderer. THE ART ARCHIVE / PRIVATE COLLECTION PARIS / DAGLI ORTI Summa Theologica (1266–1273) synthesized classical philosophy and Christian theology not through commentaries on Aristotle and Augustine but rather by means of a stand-alone treatise. Admittedly, like all generalizations about whole civilizations, many exceptions exist. For instance, the place of poetic creativity in China is not unlike that in Europe.

In any case, although historical conceptions of creativity are quite diverse, three views have been especially prominent: divinity, madness, and craft.


In antiquity, creativity was a divine attribute, a capacity narrated in the creation myths that are almost universal in human cultures. Examples include the Creator of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, Odin of Norse mythology, Ormazd of Zoroastrianism, and Brahma of the Hindu trinity. Even when creativity was attributed to individual human beings, the ultimate source often remained spiritual. This connection is illustrated in the ancient Greek belief in the Muses. According to the myth, Zeus, the reigning god in the pantheon, fathered nine daughters with Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Each of these nine daughters presided over a different domain of human creativity. In particular, these muses were responsible for epic poetry, lyric poetry, sacred poetry and hymns, tragedy, comedy, music, dance, astronomy, and history. Each muse was thought to provide a guiding spirit or source of inspiration for the mortal creator. This usage underlies several common expressions, such as to say that one has lost one's muse when one has run out of creative ideas. Given this view, human creativity remained subordinate to divine creativity.

The religious or spiritual roots of creativity are also evident in the concept of genius, an idea that would later become intimately identified with creativity. According to Roman mythology, each individual was born with a guardian spirit who watched out for the person's distinctive fate and individuality. With time, the term was taken to indicate the person's special talents or aptitudes. Although in the beginning everybody could be said to "have a genius," at least in the sense of possessing a unique potential, the term eventually began to be confined to those whose gifts set them well apart from the average, such as the creative genius. Outstanding creativity then became the gift of the gods or spirits, not a human act. Even during the Italian Renaissance rudiments of this ascription persisted. For instance, when Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) wrote his biography of the "divine Michelangelo," he explicitly asserted that "the great Ruler of Heaven" sent the artist to earth to serve as an exemplar of artistic genius.


As European civilization became increasingly secularized, especially after the Enlightenment, creativity's spiritual connotations gave way to more naturalistic conceptions. One prominent viewpoint was that creativity, and especially creative genius, was closely linked to madness. This linkage became especially popular during Europe's Romantic period, attaining a peak in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was also during this period that creative genius began to become associated with alcoholism, drug addiction, and other pathological conditions. In the Preface to "Kubla Khan," for example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) claimed to have conceived this poetic masterpiece in an opium stupor.

Eventually the mad-genius conception of creativity received scientific endorsement from psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts. For instance, Cesare Lombroso (1836–1909) attributed exceptional creativity to a genetically based "degenerative psychosis." The only conspicuous disagreements concerned the specific nature of the mental disorder. Unlike Lombroso, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) saw creativity as a variety of neurotic behavior, whereas William James (1842–1910) viewed creativity as a form of "borderline" personality. Related to this issue was a debate about the extent to which creative genius bears any relation to criminality. Some psychiatrists argued that genius, madness, and criminality were all consequences of the same underlying genetic disorder.

The mad-genius view of creativity is less common in non-European civilizations, but it still appears. An example is the Chinese poet Li Bo (701–762). Popularly known as a "banished Immortal," he was notorious for his undisciplined wanderings and incessant drunkenness. Legend even had him drowning after trying to capture the reflection of the moon while spending an evening intoxicated in a boat.


Despite the abundance of scientific research on the subject of creativity, several central issues continue to escape successful resolution. Of these, the following three are probably most critical:

  1. Nature versus Nurture—Is creative genius born or made? Or, to phrase the question in less dichotomous terms, what are the relative contributions of genetic endowment and environmental influences, such as family background, education, and training? One special manifestation of this question regards how gender, race, and ethnicity determine individual creativity.
  2. Madness versus Mental Health—How much truth is there to the traditional concept of the "mad genius"? Although both psychiatrists and psychologists continue to find provocative connections between creativity and psychopathology, it is also clear that the two phenomena are far from equivalent. Furthermore, humanistic psychologists argue that creativity can actually be considered a sign of supreme mental health.
  3. Individual versus Society—To what extent is creativity embodied in the individual and to what extent is creativity a representation of larger sociocultural phenomena? This is often expressed as the debate between genius and zeitgeist theories of creativity. Because psychologists, psychoanalysts, and psychiatrists favor the individual as the unit of analysis, they tend to support some form of the genius theory. In contrast, anthropologists, sociologists, and Marxist philosophers, who prefer cultures and societies as analytical units, are more prone to advocate some version of the zeitgeist theory.

Probably any resolution will be inclusive rather than exclusive. That is, creativity will eventually emerge as a function of nature and nurture, madness and mental health, the individual and society.


In most cultures and civilizations throughout the world, creativity was often inseparable from craft traditions. Rather than artists, there were artisans. The knowledge and skills necessary to make culturally valued objects were passed down from generation to generation through parent-child or master-apprentice relationships. Even in European civilization, the linkage between creativity and crafts persisted in many domains for many centuries. It is telling that not all forms of creativity in ancient Greece had their muses. Evidently, creativity in certain areas required no divine intervention but merely the acquisition of the necessary expertise. Even much later, painters, sculptors, and architects would hold the status of artisans rather than artists. This position held for painters until the time of Giotto (1276–1337). And musical creativity in Europe did not completely emancipate itself from the craft image until the time of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827).

Although creativity came to be separated from craft, many still considered the phenomenon as the outcome of the acquisition of some special expertise. Creativity remained a skill that anyone could acquire if they first mastered the requisite knowledge and skills. The painter Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) expressed this view in his Discourses on Art, which were based on his lectures at the Royal Academy of Art. Unsympathetic to notions that artistic creativity required any special talent or genius, he argued that creativity in the arts demanded only that the student be willing to study and practice. Those who have done so sufficiently, according to Reynolds, would be indistinguishable from the so-called natural genius.

Conceptions of scientific creativity included a variation on this position. Science was defined by a special method—the logic of inference or investigation—by which scientists arrive at their discoveries and inventions. This position was first explicitly stated in Francis Bacon's (1561–1626) Novum Organum, which presented his inductive method. A little later Descartes advocated his own method based on deductive reasoning. Eventually, creativity in science became the chief concern of a whole new discipline, the philosophy of science. Notwithstanding the disparate opinions of various philosophers of science, most agreed that scientific creativity consisted of a well-defined method. Like any craft, this method, once mastered, enabled the individual to become a creative scientist. Indeed, some thinkers, such as José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955), insisted that scientific creativity required no outstanding abilities.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCreativity in the Arts and Sciences - Historical Conceptions, Core Controversies Concerning Creativity, Contemporary Research, Bibliography