Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Social Conditions for Creativity

Philosophy is part of the gift economy, and as such, what we can learn about the sociology of philosophies is equally applicable to the other spontaneous orders (the sciences, the arts, etc.) within the gift economy.

Given this fact, consider what Randall Collins has to say about the necessary conditions for creativity. He points out that "A conflict theory of intellectual life emphasizes opposition as the generator of creativity" (162), but then notes that there were strong periods of intellectual conflict in China during which there was little creativity. Thus, agonistic relations is necessary, but not sufficient, for creativity.

We have abundant evidence that conflict is sometimes creative. The law of small numbers gives a structural shape to this struggle. The issue is to show what kinds of structural rivalry drive innovation by opposition, with associated shifts upward in the level of abstraction and critical self-reflection, and what kinds of conflict have the opposite effect on intellectual life, producing stagnation and particularism. (163)
There are two things of note in this section. One is that Collins notes the importance of institutions in whether or not a period is creative. This of course only raises the question of what institutions are important for periods of creativity. The other is that focusing on small changes is the definition of intellectual stagnation. We see this in the arts at the present time, where all the new developments of Modernism are being exhaustively investigated in Postmodernism. How, then, do we move to a new era of creativity?

It turns out that during creative eras, class is not an important factor; but when class does become an important factor in a society, creativity drops off:

I have argued that class determination is not a very useful theory for dealing with the highest levels of creativity, the sequences of abstractions produced within the core of the intellectual community; but class determination is applicable in periods when structural bases of autonomy are absent. These are typically periods of intellectual stagnation for an abstract discipline such as philosophy. What innovation occurs will be at a more concrete and particularistic level (164)

Autonomous individuals are more creative than those tied to class or other collectives.

Left to themselves, intellectuals produce their own factions and alliances. Their competition over intellectual attention space leave behind a trail of abstractions which constitute the inner history of ideas. When intellectual autonomy is low, this self-propelling dynamic is absent. Instead, new ideas occur at the moments when the class structure changes, when there are new external bases for intellectual life---new political conditions fostering religious movements, new economic and administrative conditions raising or lowering the salience of court aristocrats, state bureaucrats, or propertied gentry, and other such shifts. These changes in external conditions are much more episodic. Intellectual changes, typically in the form of concrete religious doctrines or of lifestyle ideologies, come about when a new kind of structure is created. (164-5)

Periods of social stability are bad for cultural creativity; periods of social instability are good for cultural creativity. This may go a long way to understanding the progressive-conservative division in the concept of culture. This is why creative types are typically progressive in the sense of change for the sake of change, and why conservatives defined as those who want to conserve what we have, no matter what it is, are typically perceived as anti-intellectual and anti-art. In any case, those who are freed from what has been the stable structures and institutions of a society are most creative. This is not surprising, if we consider the move from one stable era to another as a move from one equilibrium to another, through a far-from-equilibrium state.

The far-from-equilibrium state is the most creative, whether we are talking about biological processes, mental processes, or social processes. It is not impossible to remain in a far-from-equilibrium state, however. It is likely our brains are in such a state. But it is clear that our societies can be in equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium states (or even multiple equilibria or cyclical). If a society is at equilibrium, negative feedback processes have been dominating. If positive feedback processes dominate, you get boom-bust cycles and/or multiple equilibria. If you have bipolar feedback -- that is, if agonal paradoxical tensions dominate -- you get a far-from-equilibrium, or high creativity, state.

What are the social conditions and institutions that result in negative feedback dominating? What are the social conditions and institutions that result in positive feedback dominating? What are the social conditions and institutions that result in bipolar feedback dominating? And if the latter is in fact most creative, is it possible to create such conditions without having conditions like the pre-Han Warring States in China, the time of the ancient Greeks warring with Persia through the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, the wars and social upheaval of the Renaissance, and WWI and WWII giving rise to Modernism?

1 comment:

  1. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article
    nice post, that's very interesting information thanks for sharing :)
    I introduce a Economics student in Islamic University of Indonesia Yogyakarta