Mar 22nd 2017

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).

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.

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"