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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Reading Notes: Arthur Koestler, Act of Creation

This book has had tremendous impact on me.



  • Single logic of creation comedy, science and art
  • Blurb: "bisociative thinking" – the creative leap which connects previously unconnected frames of reference and makes us experience reality on several planes at once.
  • "there are no frontiers where the realm of science ends and that of art begins, and the uomo universale of the Renaissance was a citizen of both".[1]
  • "I shall call a matrix 'blocked' when its 'rules of the game' prove inapplicable to the existing situation or problem in hand; when none of the various ways of exercising a skill, however plastic and adaptable that skill is, leads to the desired goal."[2]
  • AK's version of "luck favors the prepared mind": "the bisociative act … depends in varying degrees on assistance from fringe-conscious and unconscious processes".[3]
  • "The creative act of the humorist consisted in bringing about a momentary fusion between two habitually incompatible matrices. Scientific discovery … can be described in very similar terms – as the permanent fusion of matrices of thought previously believed to be incompatible".[4] AK is not consistent with this latter piece, which is important. He generally says the matrices had previously to be orthogonal, but here he says they need to have been incompatible, meaning they had already been crossed in some way. Saying they are believed incompatible is saying that their connection is already known. So I think this line is an error.
  • Unifying formula of creation: "matrices with fixed codes and adaptable strategies".[5]
  • "The creative act, by connecting previously unrelated dimensions of experiences, enables [one] to attain a higher level of mental evolution. It is an act of liberation – the defeat of habit by originality".[6]
  • The bisociation becomes permanent: "when to matrices have become integrated they cannot again be torn asunder. That is why the discoveries of yesterday are the commonplaces of today".[7]
  • "Discovery often means simply the uncovering of something which has always been there but was hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit".[8] Actually, that's kind of what it actually does mean.
  • Why we should all be polymaths, like AK: "the statistical probability for a relevant discovery to be made is the greater the more firmly established and well exercised each of the still [109] separate skills, or through-matrices, are."[9]
  • Discussion of certain ideas being ripe, ripeness, pp. 108-109.
  • Multiple discoveries, p. 110.
  • "fortune favors the prepared mind" AK attributes to Pasteur.[10]
  • "The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing [Mingus to Leary: "You can't improvise on nothing, man"]; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills".[11]
  • Hadamard: "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'."[12]
  • "The greatness of the philosophers of the scientific revolution consisted not so much in finding the right answers but in asking the right questions; in seeing a problem where nobody saw one before; in substituting a 'why' for a 'how'."[13]
  • "The evidence for large chunks of irrationality embedded in the creative process, not only in art … but in the exact sciences as well, cannot be disputed".[14]
  • Paradox of science: "A branch of knowledge which operates predominantly with abstract symbols, whose entire rationale and credo are objectivity, verifiability, logicality, turns out to be dependent on mental processes which are subjective, irrational, and verifiable only after the event."[15] I think John Meyer would agree with this!
  • On variation: "static vision does not exist; there is no seeing without exploring".[16]
  • "visual exploration and mental exploration are actually indistinguishable".[17]
  • "When a situation is blocked, straight thinking must be superseded by 'thinking aside' – the search for a new, auxiliary matrix which will unblock it, without having ever before been called upon to perform such a task. The essence of discovery is to hit upon such a matrix – as Gutenberg hit on the wine-press and Kepler on the sun-force".[18]
  • Why unconscious mentation is so important: "the temporary relinquishing of conscious controls liberates the mind from certain constraints which are necessary to maintain the disciplined routines of thoughts but may become an impediment to the creative leap".[19]
  • pp. 170-171 drugs madness art science
  • pp. 172-173 move from verbal thinking – too limited – to visual or auditory thinking.
  • Under heading "the snares of language", he notes that "words are a blessing that can turn into a curse".[20]
  • "in some forms of intellectual activity language is not only an indispensable tool, but … the stream of language actually carries the thought, so that the processes of ideation and verbal formulation become indistinguishable."[21]  What is so useful about this to me is that I often think everything is linguistically constructed. The statement only applies to some forms of intellectual activity.
  • Language can parameterize thought.[22]
  • "The rules of the game, however absurd, cannot be altered by playing that game". "True creativity often starts where language ends."[23] Hmmm, this guy never played "King Beer" in Isla Vista. Or "Calvinball".
  • Dreaming: "Without this daily dip into the ancient sources of mental life we would probably all become desiccated automata. And without the more spectacular exploratory dives of the creative individual, there would be no science and no art".[24]
  • To me this is the clearest statement of AK's perspective on the Creative act: "new synthesis of previously unconnected matrices of thought".[25]
  • In the waking state 'side-stepping', 'shift of emphasis' and related expressions signify a change-over from one frame of reference to another. [i.e., we are serial processors; one other possibility – such expressions can just seem "off", or orthogonal {which they are!}] But while we dream, the coherence of these frames is so much loosened that the change is not experienced as such, and side-stepping becomes almost the normal way of the dream's progress. It is by virtue of its freedom from restraint that the 'dreamy' way of thinking can benefit the creative person."[26]
  • "To undo wrong connections, faulty integrations, is half the game. To acquire a new habit is easy, because one main function of the nervous system is to act as a habit-forming machine; to break out of a habit is an almost heroic feat of mind or character".[27]
  • "The prerequisite of originality is the art of forgetting, at the proper moment, what we know. … Without the art of forgetting, the mind remains cluttered up with ready-made answers, and never finds occasion to ask the proper questions".[28]
  • "The essence of discovery is that unlikely marriage of cabbages and kings—of previously unrelated frames of reference or universes of discourse—whose union will solve the previously insoluble problem"[29]. And the unconscious is the "ultimate matchmaker".[30]
  • pp. 224ff very Kuhnian view of scientific progress, normal science punctuated by creative discovery
  • "All decisive advances in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines".[31]
  • AK's version of "all observation is theory-laden": "the collecting of data is a discriminating activity".[32]
  • We would call this a Lakatosian view of the relationship between evidence and insight: "What we call 'scientific evidence' can never confirm that a theory is true; it can only confirm that it is more true than another".[33]
  • "Controversy is the yeast which keeps science in lively fermentation".[34]
  • "It has been said that we know more and more about less and less".[35]
  •  Artist-Jester-Sage is his key triptych
  • An "oceanic feeling of wonder is the common source of religious mysticism, of pure science and art for art's sake; it is their common denominator and emotional bond".[36]
  • #music "Contemplation of the 'divine dance of numbers', which held both the secrets of music and of the celestial motions, became the link in the mystic union between human thought and the anima mundi. Its perfect symbol was the Harmony of Spheres – the Pythagorean Scale, whose musical intervals correspond to the intervals between the planetary orbits".[37]
  • "the serious research scholar in our generally materialistic age is the only deeply religious human being".[38] and "the equation of science with logic and reason, and art with intuition and emotion, is a blatant popular fallacy".[39]
  • "To derive pleasure from the art of discovery, as from the other arts, the consumer –in this case the student—must be made to re-live, to some extent, the creative process".[40] All of 265-267 is on teaching.
  • "Art is a form of communication which aims at eliciting a re-creative echo. Education should be regarded as an art, and use the appropriate techniques of art to call forth that echo".[41]
  • "every member of a living organism or social body has the dual attributes of 'wholeness' and 'partness'."[42]
  • "A living organism or social body is not an aggregation of elementary parts or elementary processes, it is an integrated hierarchy of semi-autonomous sub-wholes, consisting of sub-sub-wholes, and so on."[43]
  • "The single individual represents the top level of the organismic hierarchy and at the same time the lowest unit of the social hierarchy."[44]
  • "incongruity—the confrontation of incompatible matrices—will be experienced as ridiculous, pathetic or intellectually challenging, according to whether aggression, identification, or the well-balanced blend of scientific curiosity prevails in the spectator's mind".[45]
  • "our remarkable responsiveness to rhythmically patterned stimuli and our readiness 'to become patterned ourselves' arises from the depths of the nervous system, from those archaic strata of the unconscious which reverberate to the shaman's drum."[46]
  • "The emergence of order from chaos is a leitmotif of all mythologies".[47]
  • "The surest symptom of decadent art is that it leaves nothing to the imagination; the Muse has bared her flabby bosom like a too obliging harlot—there is no veiled promise, no mystery, nothing to divine".[48]
  • "man is a symbol-making animal".[49]
  • "The belly of the whale cannot be made into a permanent residence".[50]
  • "eternity is a pretty meaningless notion—unless it is made to look through the window of time. 'Immensity' is a bore—unless it is 'cloystered in thy deare wombe'. The absolute becomes emotionally effective only if it is bisociated with something concrete – dovetailed, as it were, into the familiar."[51]
  • "This interlacing of the two planes [Tragic and Trivial] is found in all great works of art, and at the origin of all great discoveries of science. The artist and scientist are condemned –or privileged—to walk on the line of intersection as on a tightrope. At his best moments, man is 'that great and true amphibian, whose nature is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds'."[52]
  • The liminal spaces get all the interesting traffic: "The great innovators all stand at draughty corners of world-history, where air currents from different culture-climates meet, mix and integrate".[53]
  • Virtuosity is mastering a technical skill. "Genius consists not in the perfect exercise of a technique, but in its invention".[54]
  • "the principal mark of genius is not perfection, but originality, the opening of new frontiers; once this is done, the conquered territory becomes common property".[55]
  • "laughter is sparked off by the collision of matrices; discovery, by their integration; aesthetic experience by their juxtaposition".[56]


[1] Koestler 1975 [1964], 28.
[2] Koestler 1975 [1964], 92.
[3] Koestler 1975 [1964], 93.
[4] Koestler 1975 [1964], 94.
[5] Koestler 1975 [1964], 96.
[6] Koestler 1975 [1964], 96.
[7] Koestler 1975 [1964], 105.
[8] Koestler 1975 [1964], 108.
[9] Koestler 1975 [1964], 108-109.
[10] Koestler 1975 [1964], 113.
[11] Koestler 1975 [1964], 120.
[12] Koestler 1975 [1964], 120.
[13] Koestler 1975 [1964], 126.
[14] Koestler 1975 [1964], 146.
[15] Koestler 1975 [1964], 147.
[16] Koestler 1975 [1964], 158.
[17] Koestler 1975 [1964], 161.
[18] Koestler 1975 [1964], 163.
[19] Koestler 1975 [1964], 169.
[20] Koestler 1975 [1964], 173.
[21] Koestler 1975 [1964], 174.
[22] Koestler 1975 [1964], 176.
[23] Koestler 1975 [1964], 177.
[24] Koestler 1975 [1964], 181.
[25] Koestler 1975 [1964], 182.
[26] Koestler 1975 [1964], 189.
[27] Koestler 1975 [1964], 190.
[28] Koestler 1975 [1964], 190.
[29] Koestler 1975 [1964], 201.
[30] Koestler 1975 [1964], 201.
[31] Koestler 1975 [1964], 230.
[32] Koestler 1975 [1964], 233.
[33] Koestler 1975 [1964], 242. The connection is especially to Lakatos 1970.
[34] Koestler 1975 [1964], 246.
[35] Koestler 1975 [1964], 252. "Althea" would agree.
[36] Koestler 1975 [1964], 258.
[37] Koestler 1975 [1964], 260.
[38] Koestler 1975 [1964], 262.
[39] Koestler 1975 [1964], 264.
[40] Koestler 1975 [1964], 265.
[41] Koestler 1975 [1964], 266.
[42] Koestler 1975 [1964], 286.
[43] Koestler 1975 [1964], 287.
[44] Koestler 1975 [1964], 289.
[45] Koestler 1975 [1964], 305.
[46] Koestler 1975 [1964], 311.
[47] Koestler 1975 [1964], 327.
[48] Koestler 1975 [1964], 342.
[49] Koestler 1975 [1964], 342.
[50] Koestler 1975 [1964], 364.
[51] Koestler 1975 [1964], 364.
[52] Koestler 1975 [1964], 365.
[53] Koestler 1975 [1964], 395.
[54] Koestler 1975 [1964], 402.
[55] Koestler 1975 [1964], 402.
[56] Koestler 1975 [1964], 408.

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