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

“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.


Carl Sagan’s Message to Mars Explorers, with a Gentle Warning

“Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

Several months before his death in 1996, Carl Sagan — who twenty years prior had co-composed the Arecibo message as part of the Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI) project and sent the Golden Record into space — sat down in his home at 900 Stewart Avenue in Ithaca, New York, and recorded a moving message to the future explorers, conquerors, and settlers of Mars. As NASA’s Curiosity Rover makes history this week, Sagan’s words echo with even more poignancy and timeliness.

Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.

But some sixteen years prior, in Chapter V of his legendary Cosmos, titled “Blues for a Red Planet,” Sagan had voiced a gentle lament reminding us to keep our solipsistic anthropocentrism in check:

The surface area of Mars is exactly as large as the land area of the Earth. A thorough reconnaissance will clearly occupy us for centuries. But there will be a time when Mars is all explored; a time after robot aircraft have mapped it from aloft, a time after rovers have combed the surface, a time after samples have been returned safely to Earth, a time after human beings have walked the sands of Mars. What then? What shall we do with Mars?

There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing this question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.

It’s Okay To Be Smart


Twilight Zone Creator Rod Serling on Where Good Ideas Come From

“Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized.”

The questions of where good ideas come from, what inspiration is made of, why some people are more creative than others, and how we can optimize ourselves for creativity are perhaps as enduring as the act of creation itself.

In this short clip from the vintage TV special Writing for Television, Rod Serling, creator of the cult-classic The Twilight Zone, manages to articulate the combinatorial nature of creativity, as well as Arthur Koestler’s seminal theory of “bisociation,” in a mere sixty-four seconds:

Ideas come from the Earth. They come from every human experience that you’ve either witnessed or have heard about, translated into your brain in your own sense of dialogue, in your own language form. Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized. Ideas are probably in the air, like little tiny items of ozone.

Half a century later, David Lynch answered the same question.

Complement with pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity.


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