The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person
“The creative personality is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change.”
By Maria Popova
“If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes,” Van Gogh wrote in a magnificent letter to his brother about how taking risks and making inspired mistakes moves us forward. He was speaking, of course, from the only perspective he knew — as an artist and a human being — but he was also speaking to a central principle of creativity that holds true in art, science, and any human endeavor.
That principle is what the great Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, writer, and historian of science Jacob Bronowski (January 18, 1908–August 22, 1974) examined in 1967, when he was invited to speak at the prestigious Silliman Memorial Lectures at Yale University, previously delivered by titans of science like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, and Edwin Hubble. (Of disquieting note is the fact that since the founding of the series in 1901, only three women have spoken — perhaps Yale would be well advised to heed astronomer Vera Rubin’s wisdom about the importance of role models in equalizing science.)
In his six lectures, posthumously published as The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (public library), Bronowski sets out to explore the essence of creative thought, the nature and limits of human knowledge, and the mechanism by which we continue to transcend ourselves as individuals, a society, and a species.
In the fifth lecture, titled “Error, Progress, and the Concept of Time,” Bronowski makes a beautiful case for how “errors” — which are often simply contradictions of and challenges to the established order, ideas incompatible with the status quo — move us forward:
Evolution is built up by the perpetuation of errors. It runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics by promoting the error to the new norm so that the second law now works on the error, and then a new error is built up. That is also central to all inductive acts and all acts of imagination. We ask ourselves, “Why does one chess player play better than another?” The answer is not that the one who plays better makes fewer mistakes, because in a fundamental way the one who plays better makes more mistakes, by which I mean more imaginative mistakes. He sees more ridiculous alternatives… The mark of the great player is exactly that he thinks of something which by all known norms of the game is an error. His choice does not conform to the way in which, if you want to put it most brutally, a machine would play the game.
Therefore, we must accept the fact that all the imaginative inventions are to some extent errors with respect to the norm. Nothing is worth doing which is not this mad maverick kind of change. But these errors have the peculiar quality of being able to sustain themselves, of being able to reproduce themselves.
With an eye to how groundbreaking discoveries are portrayed in popular culture — as a single Eureka! moment of epiphany, rather than the combinatorial product of innumerable imaginings, trials, and errors — Bronowski cautions:
Never confuse the process of exposition with the process of discovery… Discovery is made with tears and sweat … by people who are constantly getting the wrong answer. And it is not possible to eliminate it because that is the nature of looking for imaginative likenesses. You are always looking for a likeness and nine out of ten of the likenesses you are looking for are not there. So, of course, more bad science is produced than good and more bad works of art are produced than good ones.
Progress is the exploration of our own error.
And yet that exploration, Bronowski reminds us, is, as another tremendous scientific mind would elegantly put it half a century later, a “truly human endeavor.” He admonishes:
You must remember that by the time science becomes a closed — that is, computerizable — project, it is not science anymore. It is not in the area of the exploration of errors. I want very much to transmit to you — scientists as well as nonscientists — the feeling of adventure, of exploration, in this exactly because we are all the time pushing the boundaries of the closed scientific system into an area which is full of pitfalls and errors.
If we ask “Why do we know more now than we knew ten thousand years ago, or even ten years ago?” the answer is that it is by this constant adventure of taking the closed system and pushing its frontiers imaginatively into the open spaces where we shall make mistakes.
He illustrates this necessary willingness to make mistakes and to be seen as being in error with a charming anecdote:
I once addressed, on a Christmas day many years ago, on behalf of the United Nations, an audience of about two thousand school children in London. As on this occasion, I knew in general what I was going to say, but I did not know exactly what I was going to say, and in a moment of abandon I said to them: “This is how the world goes, you are going to have to make it different, you are going to have to stop listening to your parents. If you go on obeying your parents, the world will never be a better place.” And at that moment twenty newspaper men representing the European press got up from the front row and rushed for the telephone boxes. And by the time I got home one of the more adventurous correspondents from Geneva had actually phoned my daughter, then aged seven, at school in order to ask her whether she was encouraged to disobey her parents at home.
At the heart of the ability to transform the world is what Bronowski calls “the heroism of being a contrary man.” (To be sure, he was one such contrarian himself — brought up as “a very orthodox Jew,” by his own description, he went on to become a scientist and one of the past century’s most influential voices of reason.) A decade after artist Ben Shahn’s memorable assertion that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” Bronowski writes:
Knowledge is not a finished enterprise… To go looking for the truth only has a point if the truth has not already been found. And naturally if you suppose that the truth is a thing, that you could find it the way you could find your hat or your umbrella, then none of this makes sense, then you just look for a good finder. But that is not how truth is found. It is not how knowledge is created, and it is not how it works to quicken and leaven and create social change. The kind of questioning personality that I am describing is one who is appropriate to our changing society only because he is the self-correcting mechanism. He is the thermostat built into the system. He is the man who says, “That is not right, we will try it another way.” Science is essentially a self-correcting activity. But more important, scientists are people who correct the picture of the moment with another one, as a natural evolution towards a “true” picture of the world.
This necessary “maverick personality” of the scientist, Bronowski argues, is just as necessary in any field of creative endeavor. In a sentiment which psychology’s most influential study of what makes a creative person has affirmed, he notes that creative visionaries like Goethe, Da Vinci, Rutherford, and Einstein were notoriously “troublesome for their teachers,” and writes:
The creative personality is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change. Otherwise, what are you creating for? If the world is perfectly all right the way it is, you have no place in it. The creative personality thinks of the world as a canvas for change and of himself as a divine agent of change.
Complement this particular portion of Bronowski’s wholly magnificent The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination with physicist David Bohm on creativity, Kahlil Gibran on why artists make art, Janna Levin on why scientists do science, and Alan Lightman on the shared psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit Bronowski on the dark side of certainty.