Welcome to Emerging Futures — Vol 27: The Greeks Weren't Creative?
Good Friday morning fellow wanderers in the emergent world of creative processes!
This week’s newsletter is a bit of a lengthy detour into our history and its relation to creativity. A couple of weeks ago we posted on LinkedIn about how the classical Greeks were not creative. This generated a lot of interest (we mean a lot). But a LinkedIn post is by nature short and the space allowed for comments is equally short. That left a lot of unanswered questions and all too quick generalizations on our part. And so we thought we should dig into this topic in the newsletter.
For us the return to the Greek and the European history of mentalities and concepts is important because it allows us to reflect critically on the why and how of some of our contemporary implicit patterns in regards to innovation and creativity.
It’s a newsletter so there are no citations or footnotes — we’re going deeper, but we still want to keep things light and readable. At the end we have a section with sources and further reading. And please shoot us an email with further thoughts — this should not be the end of the conversation on this topic!
When Jason and I mention to people that the word “creativity” is of very recent origin — being first used in the 1850’s and only becoming part of our everyday English somewhere between the 1930’s and 60’s — we’re met with incredulity.
The most common first reaction is “that cannot be true.” And when assured that it is, the next reaction is, “well they must have had some other word for it”.
When we try to reassure them that they did not — then the incredulity really sets in — “How could this be? Every culture is creative so they must have had the concept!”
The Fine Print
Up-front we need to clarify a couple of things:
 What do we mean by “creativity”?
Contemporary definitions of creativity focus on the concept of “the human making of something genuinely new”. And if we take this as a basic definition, then — the very concept of creativity did not exist in the west until sometime in the 1700’s.
 Weren’t the Greeks making new things? What do we mean by the claim that in the western tradition the concept: “humans can make new things of their own power and imagination” did not exist prior to the 1700’s?
We hear this rejoinder often: “This seems crazy, weren’t the Greeks and the Europeans making all sorts of new things, and concepts that were really new and different?”
That is certainly correct.
What matters is how did they understand what they were doing?
Did they understand that they were being “creative”?” If the answer to this question is yes — then they had a concept of creativity, and if the answer is no — then they did not.
Historians tell us pretty clearly that they did not conceive of what they were doing as being creative. (We will get into what their self understanding was in a moment).
 All of which brings us to an important point: for us as a contemporary culture, creativity is something of great importance, it is a very positive attribute, and something we understand to be universal (we in general believe that it is in all people and all cultures). But, here we need some cultural humility — why are we ascribing our values and concepts to all people everywhere and at all times? Can we just do this prior to rigorous research in good intellectual faith?
When we ascribe our values and concepts to others are we losing sight of the fact that there are other ways to be alive?
Other ways of being alive do not necessarily share any of our habits, practices, values and concepts. To think otherwise prior to research risks a dangerous cultural and historical imperialism and erasure of difference.
We live in a world where many worlds exist. And because of this we know that genuine differences exist:
Our most cherished concepts are not universal. Nor are they ahistorical. Other cultures and other eras live and lived in very different ways. To believe otherwise leaves us assuming that everything and everyone is just a variation of the same. And that these variations all happen to be confirming our default starting values, concepts and assumptions…
…and nothing could be further from a creative position than this…
Let’s turn to the Greco-European history of making with a curiosity and humility that comes from knowing that qualitative differences exist.
It is best to go back to the classical Greeks to answer the question, “did creativity always exist in the west?” — because of the profound influence their concepts had and continue to have on Western Asian thought (or as it is often also called: European thought or Western thought — there is no ideal term but we like “West-Asian” because it connects the region to the continent, notes its cardinal location (west), and locates it in a larger set of theoretical debates that has flowed historically across Asia).
We know quite a bit about Classical Greek concepts on the topic of creating/making from the writings of philosophers and playwrights, politicians and poets.
Creation is a word of Latin derivation, the Greek word for making was poiein. Our word poetry comes from this word as does autopoiesis (self making). This word covered all forms of making from the making of written texts, to ceramics, to a house. All making was of the same sort — they had no concept or word that would translate our modern concept of “art” or “craft.”
For each area of making there was a need to learn a set of skills, and practices of making (techne— from which we derive technique and technology). Techne was aimed at making the perfect or ideal version of whatever was being undertaken (arete).
The critical question for Greek makers was “how do we make (create) something perfect”? This is a very different question from “is there a better way to solve this problem?” Or “is there a totally new way to address this issue?”
For the Greeks the perfect was the true. Truth had to be something both essential (getting to a singular core answer) and unchanging. This meant that truth is an ideal immaterial essential form.
All of Plato’s Socratic dialogs are just this: Socrates asks various people “what is X?” — with X being beauty, truth, love, justice etc. They answer, and he criticizes them for only offering examples but never getting to the true essence. For while Socrates claims he knows nothing, and this famously makes him according to the oracle at Delphi the smartest Greek, he does know the form any right answer must take. To be true it must be the pure immaterial unchanging essence that sits behind any actual worldly and changeable example.
In this manner the Greeks bequeathed West Asia with a two world model of reality: one of pure immaterial ideas (ideal essential forms) and the other of changing inherently imperfect matter (the everyday world we live and make within).
This model continues in many of our most cherished assumptions and values about the immaterial nature of truth and ideas and their place in our actions.
With this model the perfect is always immaterial — an “idea” that does not change. And with this model we have the basic logic of Greek making: we need to see the ideal form and copy it. Making is aimed at perfection and perfection is found in an immaterial ideal that can be copied.
This is why historians can clearly say that the Greeks did not have a concept of “creativity,” because in their self-understanding of reality nothing new is ever made.
For the Greeks at the beginning of time there were the ideal unchanging immaterial forms — and everything that exists in our world is an instantiation or copy of these forms. This is ultimately a closed universe where all life “follows” from a pre-existing set of ideal forms.
A good maker seeks to gain access to the ideal itself. This happens via techne and the muses (what is later called “inspiration”). Once a good maker has been granted access to the ideal, they can then copy it as best they can (here the whims of the gods play a role).
The model has three phases:
A poor maker is someone who looks at things in our mundane world (vs the ideal realm) and seeks to use these things as a model to copy. Plato was strongly critical of painting, poetry, and theater because they tended to focus on copying what was seen in our mundane world — and thus the practitioners of these forms of making were mere copiers of copies.
A great maker in Plato’s writing was someone who could contemplate the ideal forms directly — someone who did not make at all. This led to a divide that persists today between those that merely make and those that “think”. Thinking is still far more valued, and only lesser folks need to get their hands dirty. Board rooms ideate and then the task of making is delegated out to others.
And here in Plato’s ideal we can already see hints of what the problem is for us today with this model of “creativity”: abstract thinking is of great value if your aim to to uncover fixed ideals — but if your goal is to do something new, then perhaps abstracted thinking (in whatever form it takes) will be far less helpful. (But, here we are rushing ahead…)
“But, for the Greeks, how did they imagine that this world of ours came into being? Surely our reality could not have been created from nothing?”
Plato discusses how things originate and come into being in the Socratic Dialog Timeaus. Here it is posited that a good god formed our reality based upon the perfect immaterial forms found in the ideal realm (which resided in the mind of this god). The material world prior to this was a chaotic mix of the basic elements. Aristotle later develops this god into the concept of the “unmoved mover” who then becomes the model for the cristian god in the work of Aquinas and the Scholastic tradition.
The god becomes the first creator/maker who imposes a plan drawn from the ideal forms he possesses in his head, and imposes them upon passive matter. But importantly — even this god was copying…
The anthropologist Marshall Sallins describes this model well, “this is a heroic model of creation involving the imposition of form upon inert matter by an autonomous subject, whether god or mortal, who commands the process by a pre-established plan…”
Between the Timeaus and Aristotles later work the basic model of making, that in its most general form continues to this day, was laid out:
And in following this model it’s fundamental assumptions still exist:
We see this very general model and these very general implicit assumptions in almost every aspect of the contemporary creativity and innovation landscape (there are some key exceptions, which we will discuss at the end).
Now there are other key aspects to the Greek model of creation:
 Nature (all living things) are active in striving to perfection or to realize their inner essence.
 Internal essences: Aristotle puts the essence in each and every existent thing (the onion model). The process behind this model of creation is one of seeing through things (and ignoring them) to find what is behind them, of peeling off the superficial layers and digging down to uncover — all to find the hidden immaterial essence. We engage reality as something to see beyond and to strip away like the peeling of an onion. This model leads to a worldview of seeing discreet things with internal essences (vs for example, a relational model of reality).
 Progress: The Greeks organized reality into a hierarchical “Great Chain of Being” where everything could be organized along one vertical axis of ascending perfection. This bequeathed us models of reality without qualitative difference, with a single hierarchy and a striving towards a singular end.
We can roughly summarize this model coming from the Greeks:
But all of this just adds to a fundamentally anti-novelty model of creation. This cannot be seen as a critique of the Greeks — the Greeks lived in a closed universe and developed practices that worked astonishingly well for that world.
But, we live in an open universe full of change — would it not behoove us to develop tools and techniques best suited to this world?
As Christian theology developed it turned to the Greeks for key inspiration. Many of the key Greek concepts are transformed into Christian ones:
Umberto Eco in his critical history of aesthetics and ars/art in the Middle Ages sums it up this way, “this argument [referring to Aquina’s argument] shows how far the Medievals were from any conception of art as a creative force…” Then he goes on to quote St. Bonaventure “the human soul can make new compositions but it cannot make new things… “
The historian Camilla Nelson sums up the role of ars and the arts in the post Greekup to the 1700’s thus: “For art was concerned with an entirely different aim — to know. Classical art aimed to produce the true… Originality was understood only in the sense of typicality — of art’s proximity to the great original… Once again, in the light of such aims originality and innovation as we understand them, not to mention the feelings of the artist and his artistic self-expression were entirely irrelevant.”
Again, it is important to say — of course we would now recognize what was done during this period was highly creative and innovative — but their self-understanding of their actions did not in any way involve the concepts of creativity and innovation.
What starts to change that leads to a new self understanding?
Arrangements of practices, habits, tools, concepts, regulations and environments changes such that new ways of being alive emerged in the 17 and 1800s. This new assemblage led to a new form of self — and ultimately the invention of the modern creative subject.
The Greek two world model which gave rise to the model of a creative god who has all of the immaterial forms in his head shaped a model of the human. And by the 1600’s the model of the mind of god having direct access to immaterial truths becomes codified as a human model of possessing a mind (immaterial) separate from the body. This is most famously developed by Rene Descartes who said it most succinctly “I think therefore I am”. With the development of this model of the self a new form of subjectivity emerges:
This new subjectivity creativity — the development of the new emerges as a concept and a value. To be really alive is to be internally creative in a highly subjective manner. This is first developed/expressed in the emergence of the modern idea of art.
We see creativity in the sense of the human development of something new first emerging in the work of the pre-romantics and the romantics (starting roughly in the 1750’s). Here the stress on individuality and originality.
What is important is that the form this model of creativity takes is one that follows the Greek two world model. We internalize the heroic dematerialized world-removed god model of creation…
The heroic model of creativity is not the only one that emerges during this period. Here are a few of the emerging alternatives:
The systematic study of creativity as a human psychological quality began after the Second World War. It begins in the United States and is heavily funded by the US military and even the CIA (primarily in the arts). American heroic individualism is seen as a necessary and critical counter to Soviet collectivism. American heroic creativity is seen as a necessary thing to identify and cultivate to win the Cold War.
There is a type of ideological blindness that shapes the early development of creativity studies. It assumes that creativity is best studied and taught as:
In doing so much of the work in the sciences of evolution, ecology, systems and complexity is largely ignored. As is the work in other fields looking at the agency of things, systems, and relational processes.
A second key early lineage in the development of creativity as a field of study and practice is from the world of American advertising: Alex Osborn, an advertising executive played a pivotal role in developing the study and systematization of many techniques of creativity during the immediate post-war period (he is most famous for the technique of brainstorming). The most important of which is the Creative Problem Solving Process (CPS). What is important is that his approach, coming out of advertising, has all the biases that one would expect…
Most importantly for this discussion — the Greek model of making and its implicit assumptions remains at work.
The study of creativity, in how it has implicitly carried forward Greek models of making, and with its focus on creativity being a thing associated with individual humans and their minds is highly problematic. There are six key issues:
Our habits, practices, tools, concepts and environments all have a history and all shape us toward certain ends. We need to carefully disclose what is implicit and evaluate it critically from the perspective — what does it do? Who does it make us? Can we be otherwise?
We believe that our engagement with the processes of creativity are better served by putting down the habits, practices and tools of the historical Greco-West Asian traditions. There are many many alternative traditions to draw up and many new paths open to us that will bring us into a deeper engagement with the beauty of creative processes and possibilities: other habits and worlds are possible…
We are drawing upon our own readings and research into the topic over the last twenty-five years. We can recommend two good articles to start with: The Invention of Creativity: The Emergence of a Discourse by Camila Nelson, and Paul Oskar Kristeller’s Creativity and Tradition. Below is a longer list of sources:
On the Greeks:
On Art and the Middle Ages:
If you are struggling with classical models of creativity and need disruptive innovation design - we can help in one of three ways:
Till Volume 28,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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