The New Cannot Be Seen or Thought

Abstract Thinking comes from know-how, know-what, thinking-making, thining-thinking
Abstract Thinking Emerging from Doing

What Happens at the Beginning of the Creative Process?

To understand how to be creative we need to go backwards from what is recognized to be a creative outcome to the initial moment the new first meets us. If we only look at the finished product we will have a very skewed notion of the process.  

What is happening at this initial moment when a glimmering of the new meets us?

How does it meet us?

To answer these questions we need to say a few things about creativity.

What is the New?

Creativity is the process by which something new comes into being.

The “new” is a difference that was not there before -- some form of new difference -- it could be anything: a concept, a tool, a virus… Now a new difference can be thought of as a unique change -- an alteration that was not there before.  

In philosophy, change has two distinct forms: change-in-degree and change-in-kind.

  • Change-in-degree is incremental
  • Change-in-kind is qualitative
Change in Degree and Change in Kind
2 Forms of Creativity - Change in Degree and Change in Kind

The radically new is something qualitatively different or something that possesses the potential to be qualitatively different. The qualitatively new is something that fully and totally sits outside of existing logics and concepts -- it is a qualitative discontinuity. It will become something that has its own novel concepts, practices, and logics.

The Creativity Paradox

As something qualitatively different it exceeds our existing categorization or conceptualization schemes. For if we could identify it and carefully categorize it -- it would not be qualitatively new. We would be able to meet it with a sense of recognition -- we would be able to identify it as a known quality.

But if we meet something qualitatively new can we recognize it as such? Can we see it? Can we put it into concepts? Can we grasp it in thought? We cannot.

This is the creativity paradox: how can you recognize what has never been seen?

This means something fascinating and truly challenging for anyone engaging with creative practices:  

If something is genuinely novel it cannot at first be conceptualized. Radical novelty at its birth is a-conceptual and non-representational.

Humans cannot independently think their way to the new...

Ideation is not an Early Stage of Creativity

The difficulty, the crux of this paradox, is that we believe that creativity is something to do with ideas that happen inside our heads as thoughts. In the western tradition, creativity has been understood to be primarily about thinking differently and developing new ideas.

Historical Model of Creativity
4 Stages of Creation Models

This approach has developed into a four-step “ideate first” model of developing novel outcomes (the focus of part two in this series: “Where did your Big Idea come from?”).

But the “Ideas First” model falls apart: starting with, and focusing on, ideation will never lead to genuine qualitative novelty. And moving through a linear sequence of Prepare, Ideate, Plan, and Make is logically antithetical to creativity.

Here is where the central problem lies with "ideation first" models of creativity: the modes of thinking that ideation relies on are highly concept and representation-dependent. They are most often inductive or deductive forms of conceptual reasoning. And these concepts pre-exist the activity of ideation and fundamentally shape it. Ideation is thus inherently tied to the past and what already exists. And if it already exists it cannot be considered to be novel, which means: ideation cannot directly lead to novelty.

Ideation, and thinking in general, is by its very nature a fundamentally conservative activity.

How Do We Cut the Gordian Knot?

What if we change our basic assumptions:

  1. Thinking is not in our heads -- it is a worldly phenomenon
  2. Thinking does not begin with clear concepts -- it begins in embodied, embedded, and extended doing and sensing in the midst of an ongoing reality full of emerging novelty
  3. Novelty is not a human generated phenomenon -- but a fundamental quality of all reality

Now the Creativity paradox vanishes: If we are not having to independently ideate the qualitatively new at the beginning of the creative process, and novelty is an emergent worldly phenomenon that we participate in -- things look and feel very different.

Enactive Approach asking What is Thinking and Where Does Thinking Come From
What is Thinking and Where Does Thinking Come From

You might be perplexed -- How is thinking not in our heads? In our previous article ”Part Three: Thinking is not in your head” we went into detail about this critical concept from the Enactive approach to thinking (it is worth a read). To summarize:

Thinking requires a brain, but that alone is insufficient. Thinking is a relational property of a tightly networked system of an embodied, embedded, and extended being enactively co-shaping the world. In this making -- doing and thinking are always conjoined and participate with a world.

Know-How not Know-What

If we return to our initial question:

What is happening at the initial moment when a glimmering of the new meets us?

Franciso Varela, one of the founding theorists of the Enactive Approach to cognition, in a wonderful short book Ethical Know-How proposes a helpful model of how thoughts emerge from embedded and embodied action that cannot be made explicit -- this is what he calls "know-how". The world of know-how grounds and gives rise to what we would call thinking and ideas -- and this realm he calls "know-what".

Here Varela and the Enactive Approach draw upon the work of Phenomenological Philosophy which argues that what can be theorized, and conceptualized (explicit knowledge/thinking) arises from and is supported by a world of embodied engagement (a way of life) that is fundamentally non-conceptualizable.

This model is really helpful with our question, because for Varela conceptual thinking does not first arise from other conceptual thinking but from the world of Know-How -- the realm that is not explicable with clear concepts. And it here that we first meet and engage with novelty. Spontaneously arising differences meet us in our ongoing doing. And only via a process of engagement, that is at first non-cognizable, does the new slowly emerge as something that stabilizes and can be conceptually thought.

Abstract Thinking Emerging from Making
4 Stages of Emergent Abstract Thinking

We can lay this out as a series of steps (see above diagram):

  1. Novel thinking first emerges from embodied novel actions in novel environments as a vague sensation that accompanies action (Making-Feeling). It is something felt as a disturbance in our embodied sense of “know-how” (Know-how is all of the knowledge that is in our bodies, environments, habits, and practices that is non-conceptualizable).  
  2. As we engage with things and their embodied affordances vague sensations transform into hunches and quasi-thoughts (Making-Dialoging)
  3. These affordances and embodied hunches slowly take a more understandable and distinct shape via further activity, environment shaping, tool construction, practice formation, and worldly experimentation and become something like what we would call an unformed idea (Thinking-Making)
  4. Concepts — those fully formed things that are tossed around in brainstorming or ideation sessions are the final step in this process (Thinking-Thinking)

What of Ideation?

Does this mean thinking and concept generation have no role in creativity? Of course not. Thinking and concepts matter. But it is a question of when, in what form, and in relation to what other ongoing activity.

The mistake is forgetting how thinking arises and where it occurs. Thinking is an embodied and distributed process.  It is engaged, it requires moving and doing. It is environmental and tool-based.

We need to spend less time in the world of language, high-level concepts, sterile board rooms, and brainstorming sessions early in the innovation process and more time in the messy perplexing world of highly engaged experimental doing.

Here we meet differences as differences -- unknowable but just ever so slightly sensible as something odd.

Do you have favorite techniques for this? We would love to hear your thoughts.


This is the fourth of seven articles critically deconstructing the concepts of creativity and innovation as they have historically developed in the west with the goal of proposing alternative approaches.

Part One we look at how creativity, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And that for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.

Part Two we delve into “Where did your Big Idea come from? We go on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe those big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.

Part Three we unearth the overlooked "Thinking is not in your head" – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing.

Part Four we examine "The New Cannot be Seen or Thought" -- so how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?

Part Five is an examination of Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

Part Six questions Creativity: “and what else can it do?” -- introducing the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity so that you can be more creative and innovative.

Part Seven - Creativity is Less - dives deeper into affordances introducing constraints and how they are the unheralded secret to all innovation

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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