Wisdom and Creativity

by David Galenson David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). 22.03.2017

Academic psychologists have promulgated the myth that wisdom hinders creativity. Robert Sternberg, for example, contended that “the kinds of thinking required to be creative and wise are different.” In his opinion, “Creative thinking is often brash whereas wise thinking is balanced.” He agreed with Harvey Lehman, who had earlier recognized that “the old usually possess greater wisdom and erudition,” but believed that these were accompanied by a rigidity in situations that require “a new way of looking at things.” For Sternberg, Lehman, and their colleagues, the old may be wise, but the young are creative, and never the twain shall meet.

My research has revealed that these psychologists are wrong, and it has also shown why they are wrong. Their fundamental error is their implicit belief that all creativity is conceptual. This is evidenced by Sternberg’s characterization of creative thinking as brash, rather than balanced. In fact, however, creative thinking can be balanced, measured, and judicious, and important experimental innovators generally benefit from considerable wisdom.

Robert Frost, Wikimedia Commons

Robert Frost (in the picture) believed that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Experience was essential for the poet: “Practice of an art is more salutary than talk about it.” He never wrote poems merely as an exercise – “I always extended for the best” – but even unsuccessful efforts made a contribution, for “what I failed with I learned to charge up to practice after the fact.” Frost wrote of himself that “The country and nature in New England have been his background, but the poems are almost without exception portraits of people.” The poet Randall Jarrell explained that Frost’s “wonderful dramatic monologues or dramatic scenes come out of a knowledge of people that few poets have had, and they are written in a verse that uses, sometimes with absolute mastery, the rhythms of actual speech.” To Frost, the knowledge of his subject and the technical means of its expression could not be separated: both were the product of a kind of knowledge that poets could neither gain solely in libraries nor acquire deliberately, but comprised “what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” This knowledge, compounded from a blend of experience and judgement, was Frost’s most highly prized possession: he wrote in his notebook that “I had rather be wise than artistic.”

Virginia Woolf in 1939, Wikimedia Commons

After Virginia Woolf’s death, one of her closest friends, the novelist E.M. Forster, wrote that “she respected and acquired knowledge, she believed in wisdom.” Observing that she “had a singleness of purpose which will not recur in this country for many years,” Forster understood that Woolf’s constant application stemmed from her love for her art, as he commented that “She liked writing with an intensity which few writers have attained or even desired.” By the 1920s, Woolf knew that she had gained wisdom as a writer. While writing Mrs. Dalloway, at 43, she privately mused that “I might become one of the interesting – I will not say great – but interesting novelists,” and her own convictions may have appeared in the mind of one of her characters:

"The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavor to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light."

The suspicion that the triumphant exclamation point emphasizing “at last” expressed Woolf’s celebration of her own hard-won powers is reinforced by her characteristic qualification of this joy almost immediately thereafter: “A whole lifetime was too short, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavor; to extract every ounce, every shade of meaning…”

Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron,Wikimedia Commons

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin wrote with characteristic modesty of the development of his abilities over time that “I think that I have become a little more skillful in guessing right explanations, and in devising experimental tests; but this may probably be the result of mere practice, and of a larger store of knowledge.” The scholar Michael Ghiselin argued that Darwin’s achievement was the result of a combination of courage, ability, audacity, and another crucial element: “To accomplish his great feats of intellect, Darwin needed a remarkable talent for judging the appropriate.” Ghiselin reflected of Darwin that “Perhaps we should attribute his accomplishment less to intelligence than to wisdom,” noting that Darwin sought “to gain wisdom through reflecting upon his experience, and was very careful to learn from his mistakes.”

The sudden leaps of young conceptual geniuses can yield radical new results, but major innovations can equally be achieved through the gradual and incremental procedures of older experimental masters. Robert Frost’s poetry, Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution are among the very greatest developments in modern art and science, and all were the result of decades of experimentation. Each of these depended on the wisdom of a great innovator who had the patience, determination, and judgement to make sustained progress toward a distant goal over long periods, by taking countless small steps. All are prime examples of the wise and balanced thinking that Robert Sternberg wrongly rejected as a correlate of creativity. In a society that devotes as much effort as ours to eliminating such pernicious forms of discrimination as racism and sexism, it is past time to recognize that the false doctrine that wisdom is an enemy of creativity is a myth that makes a damaging contribution to perpetuating ageism.


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