Brain Pickings

The Role of “Ripeness” in Creativity and Discovery: Arthur Koestler’s Seminal Insights, 1964

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“The Latin verb cogito for ‘to think’ etymologically means ‘to shake together.’”

What a wonderful Rube Goldberg machine of discovery literature is, the countless allusions and references in a book guiding you to yet more great works. This was the case with the recent Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity, which first flagged the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas and now brings us to The Act Of Creation (public library) — a seminal treatise on creativity, penned by Hungarian-British journalist and author Arthur Koestler in 1964. In this magnificent 700-page tome, Koestler itemizes the principles of creativity — “the conscious and unconscious processes underlying scientific discovery, artistic originality, and comic inspiration” — and sets out to outline a common pattern that can be trained and perfected.

Koestler’s insights and conclusions resonate deeply with my own beliefs about the combinatorial nature of creativity — this notion that all ideas are, as Mark Twain put it, “second-hand,” born as we constantly copy, transform, and combine old ideas, synthesize existing information, combine eclectic influences, remix material, build on what came before, and connect the seemingly disconnected.

But, Koestler argues, there is one necessary condition for this combinatorial creative fusion — which he terms “bisociation” — to take place. In this passage from the end of Chapter V, he describes that condition beautifully, articulating the backbone of creativity:

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 uncovering of what has always been there.

This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterward. The creative act is an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It creates something in heaven and projects in onto the world becoming a new mind. 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 favorable 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 their 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 those due to sudden insights which emerge from the creative mind or 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.

The Act Of Creation is superb in its entirety, essential reading for a holistic creative mind.

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