Wayne State University
College of Lifelong Learning
Interdisciplinary Studies Program
Winter, 1999
Creativity: Building the New
ISP 5500 Section# 981, Call# 90577, 4 cr and
ISP 5990 Section# 981, Call# 95268, 4 cr
Course web site: http://www.cll.wayne.edu/isp/drbowen/crtvyw99

Last updated: 1/13/99
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What is Creativity?

What is creativity? You will see that creativity has been defined in many ways. Some people that you will read say that there is a fundamental similarity and agreement in all of the definitions, while others will say that there is no consensus on what creativity is. Personally, I side with the first group. Whichever group you come to side with during this course, I would like to start with the following definition, at least as a guide:

Definition: Something is creative if

You will read very similar definitions many times in this course, but also some different ones. Early in the semester, you will be asked to make up your own mind, at least initially, on what you think creativity is. In the definition above, "meets a need" and "solves a problem" are supposed to be different wordings for the same idea. Also, the need or problem does not have to be practical or utilitarian. In the case of Picasso, for example, artists of the time had come to an impasse over what they were trying to do. Picasso met their need by showing them the way forward. But newness all by itself does not mean that something is creative.

Aspects of Creativity; analyzing this beast

There are four aspects of creativity that are studied:

  1. The creative thing or product; that which is creative. The definition above is about the creative product.
  2. The creative person; the person who creates the product.
  3. The creative process; the steps that the creative person followed to create the product.
  4. The creative environment; the group of people with whom the creative person was involved during the creative process, and perhaps prior to it. In some cases, the environment can also refer to different aspects of the physical environment, such as the colors, the type of architecture and furniture and countryside Vs urban.

Can someone be creative without there being a creative product? The idea of product here is very general. It could be a theory, an artistic work, an idea, or a suggestion a suggestion box. But if there is no product external to the person, can that person ever be considered creative? There is a practical question here; without some external manifestation, how would the rest of us ever know whether or not the person is creative? For one thing, we could ask people if they are creative or not. But would we be able to trust these self-evaluations without an external product? On a theoretical level, while most of the people you will read in this course require an external product, some do suggest that, if the practical problems could be solved, people might be regarded as creative without an external product.

Some creativity researchers add a fifth aspect; the symbols used in the field. By symbols here is meant the methods used to represent ideas in the field in which a particular creative person works. For example, in the physical sciences, mathematics is used to represent theories. In the life sciences, ideas such as "gene" are more often abstract intellectual constructs that are defined in writing. In music, there is musical notation -- musical notes. The idea of inlcuding the symbols as an aspect of creativity is that perhaps the particular symbols in use at the time influence the types of creativity that are possible at that time. Certain types of symbols may foster creativity, while other types may hinder creativity. Those who give symbols an important role in creativity also regard creativity as either creating new symbols, or using the existing symbols in new ways.


There are major aspects of creativity that are controversial. Here are some of the fundamental controversies:

Some people will say that some of these issues are proven or disproven, but others will simply assume that one or another of the above is true or false.

One fundamental issue for me in designing this course is:  Undoubtedly it would be valuable for people studying creativity to experience being creative. But is it fair for me to expect creativity from students in this course? Students know that at the end, they will be evaluated (graded). Some researchers say that external motivation (such as praise, grades, salary, promotions, recognition, awards) stifle creativity.

A Dark Side?

Does creativity have a dark side? Scientific creativity has a history of being portrayed as malignant or out of control -- Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dr. Strangelove are famous examples. The Romantics associated artistic and cultural creativity with disease and even madness. One of the most famous modern American artists, Jackson Pollock, died at a relatively early age when he drunkenly drove his car into a tree, and this early death attributed to abuse is said to enhance his reputation as an artist. A recent book (Creativity and Disease by Philip Sandblom, M.D., Ph.D.) examines the role of physical and mental illness in art. And one of the articles in The Nature of Creativity ("Creativity, leadership and chance", Pg 404, refers to a finding by R.B. Cattell that "scientists [tend] to be 'schizothymic' (i.e., withdrawn and internally preoccupied) and 'desurgent' (i.e. introspective, restrained, brooding, and solemn." This is not an uncommon view, but it is hardly what a mother might wish for her children! Howard Gardner in Creating Minds writes about the "Faustian bargain" that creative individuals make with their work.

On the other hand, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in his study Creativity, writes that after conducting detailed interviews with contemporary creative artists and scientists, "contrary to the popular image of creative persons, the interviews present a picture of creativity and creative individuals that is upbeat and positive." He quotes from several interviews that speak of lyrical happines with the work and with everyday life of his creative subjects. Einstein is universally portrayed as happy and cheerful in his personal life.

Where does the truth lie? For me, this is one of the unanswered questions. Here are some possible explanations of this seeming paradox, some of which you will read about in this course:

Synonyms and Antonyms

Words that are similar to creative or creativity:

I intend to avoid "mission creep", or redefining creativity to include other topics. Creativity is not the same as: