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Creativity Research Journal


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The evolving systems approach to creative work


a b
Howard E. Gruber
a
University of Geneva ,
b
Department of Psychology, Program in Developmental Studies, Teachers College ,
Columbia University , New York, NY, 10027
Published online: 02 Nov 2009.

To cite this article: Howard E. Gruber (1988) The evolving systems approach to creative work, Creativity Research
Journal, 1:1, 27-51, DOI: 10.1080/10400418809534285

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Copyright 1988 Creativity Research Journal
Volume 1 (ISSN 1040-0419)

The Evolving Systems Approach


to Creative Work
Howard E. Gruber
University of Geneva and
Teachers College, Columbia University
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What might we ask of a theory of Faced with this dilemma, there


creative work? are several available paths to choose
Surely not that it give us an ac- among. One path - the path of Holy
count of inscrutable processes that Cow! is to search for some special
lead to miraculous products. If it is trait or ability, itself unexplained,
to be a scientific undertaking, such a which explains creativity. A second
theory must explain how knowable path ~ the path of Nothing But -- is
and sometimes well-known processes, to reduce the creative to the ordinary,
organized in new ways, bring about to deny altogether its specialness. A
the great marvels of human thought third path ~ the one I take in this
and invention. On the other hand, if essay, is to focus attention on the way
it is to be about creativity, it must the creative person is organized as a
deal not with the predictable and unique system for recognizing, em-
repeatable - the stuff of normal sci- bracing, and doing the new job at
ence - but with the unique and unre- hand. To see and understand this sys-
peatable. tem requires neither fragmentary
measurement nor ineffectual mystifi-
cation, but patient attention to each
This article is adapted from Chapter One of unique creative person at work. (See
Creative People at Work: Twelve Cognitive the 12 case studies of creative workers
Case Studies, edited by Doris B. Wallace and in various branches of the arts and
Howard E. Gruber. Copyright 1989 by Oxford sciences presented by Wallace &
University Press, Inc. Reprinted by permis-
sion. Gruber [1989]). What is sauce for the
Correspondence should be addressed to goose is not sauce for the gander. Or
Howard E. Gruber, Department of Psychology, as William Blake put it, "One Law for
Program in Developmental Studies, Teachers the Lion and Ox is Oppression."
College, Columbia University, New York, NY
10027.
This essay examines the relations

Creativity Research Journal 27


among three issues: Our interest in on particularly salient aspects of that
extraordinary individuals, our choice enormously complex set of processes:
of the case study method, and our for such and such a case or group of
point of view - the evolving systems cases, at that point in the discussion,
approach to creative work. at that moment in history, and so on.
We take it for granted that some Thus, for the purposes of this essay
human acts and products are creative, we say that a work is creative if it is
while some are not; some people lead (a) original, (b) purposeful on the
creative lives, and some do not. But part of the creative person, and (c) in
we are not looking for some philoso- harmony with or compatible with
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pher's stone, or ground rhinoceros other human purposes, needs, and


horn, or other magical stuff that values. Let us refer to this last
makes it all happen. Rather, we ask, property as felicity. As we shall see,
how does creative work work? What there are intimate connections among
do people do when they are being originality, purpose, felicity, and
creative? How does the creative difficulty.
person organize and deploy his or her
resources to do what no other person The Evolving Systems Approach
has done? How does this special
organization and special set of tasks In this essay I dwell upon the inter-
come about? play of purpose, chance, and insight.
Our emphasis on the uniqueness But my aim is more general: To ex-
of each creative person has an impor- plore and cultivate the set of attitudes
tant consequence for the kind of we call the evolving systems approach.
theory we seek. On the one hand, The approach is developmental
we reject the idea of one grand theory and systemic: Creative work evolves
accounting for all creative work. On over long periods of time. It is pur-
the other hand, we insist that each poseful work and there is a constant
creative person is a coherent knowing interplay among purpose, play, and
system, and that our task is to under- chance.
stand it. In other words, for each case The approach is pluralistic: The
we seek a "theory of the individual" creative person enjoys and exploits
(the phase was coined by Newell & not one but many insights, metaphors,
Simon, 1972) - a grasp of how each social relationships, projects, and
creative person creates. heuristics.
Creative work involves the functi- The approach is interactive: The
oning of the whole mind. In any creative person works within some his-
given discussion, emphasis will be put torical, societal, and institutional

28 Creativity Research Journal


framework. The work is always con- We believe that trait theories, that
ducted in relation to others. At the is, attempts to list the psychological
same time, the creator works alone, characteristics that favor creativity,
even when intimately bound up with will never get very far. What is per-
others. This interaction produces tinent, important and rare at one
varying patterns of conflict, influence, place, in one domain, at one moment
and collaboration. in history will be irrelevant or com-
The approach is constructionist: monplace elsewhere. On the island
The creator participates in choosing of Tonga almost everyone can juggle
and shaping the milieu within which well, and many beautifully. Even
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the work proceeds, the skills needed worse for trait theories, they must
for the work, and the definition of the promise an exactitude they can never
ensemble of tasks. Little is "given" deliver, for they require measurement
and nothing that is taken is taken as of the creative person on a number
is. The creator must reconstruct and of variables, using tests that apply also
take possession of whatever he or she to less creative subjects. Only such
needs for the work. a procedure can provide the necessary
The approach is experientially basis for saying, with psychometric
sensitive (or phenomenologically precision, that a particular individual
aware): The creator is not considered has more or less of such and such a
simply as the doer of the work, but trait or combination of them. But if
also as a person in the world. Such the creative person is unique he or
a person has emotions and aesthetic she is not politely unique on just those
feelings, and social awareness of the variables the psychometrician has
relation of his or her work to the chosen for the perfection of his mea-
world's work, its needs and feelings. suring instruments. Rather, our
subject has become extraordinary in
Can Creativity Be Measured? ways that will not even be in the
books until his or her achievement is
Perhaps the question should not be, accomplished and recorded. This is
"Can creativity be measured?" but one of the fundamental connections
"Should it be measured?" What good between our interest in extraordinary
will measurement do? Some of the individuals and our choice of the case
perplexities entailed in deciding whe- study method.
ther or not to measure it can be seen A recent book (Jackson & Rush-
by examining trait theories of creativ- ton, 1987) on scientific excellence
ity, for they are the major expression demonstrates the dilemma facing
of the ethos of measurement. those who would "measure" creativity

Creativity Research Journal 29


on one or a few dimensions. An prolonged attention to the individual
edited work with 16 chapters, the and must pay special attention to the
authors pay close attention to prob- very great.
lems of measurement of "excellence" David Rapaport somewhere
and to statistical analysis of the relates the story of the Hungarian
impact of scientific work. The result count who is an expectant father in
is that, except for one or two chapters, a waiting room. The nurse comes out
the individual disappears, and in of the delivery room bearing an arm-
particular the most excellent. The ful of babies and announces that he
names of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, is the father of triplets. The count
Freud, and Einstein are missing. adjusts his monocle, studies the babies
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More pointedly, for the book is about and declares, pointing, "I choose that
contemporary science, only three one." Similarly, it seems to me, Sim-
Nobel prize winners are mentioned, onton (1988) when confronted with
and those briefly in connection with the complexities and perplexities of
their opinions about the conditions of a full view of the creative process,
creativity, not for any discussion of mentions what he considers to be four
their actual work. One typical study, fundamental aspects of creativity. He
cited at some length in the book, concludes:
deals with 4,070 faculty members of
"the top 100 departments of If we cannot assume that all four
psychology in the United States, aspects cohesively hang together,
Canada, and the United Kingdom" then it may be best to select one
(Rushton, Murray, & Paunones, 1987, single definition and subordinate
p. 129). There are really two points the others to that orientation. As
at issue here. First, the quantitative a social psychologist... I natural-
approach to creativity must force the ly opt for creativity as persuasion.
criterion level downward; second, the (Simonton, 1988, p. 387)
quantitative approach prevents and
perhaps even taboos serious scrutiny Over and over, avoiding the study
of the individual. We are certainly of the case, in favor of readily
not criticizing efforts that focus on the measurable variables, confronts the
creativity of those below the summit investigator with the Hungarian
of Mount Olympus. Indeed, the cases count's choice.
represented in Wallace and Gruber Turning from psychometry and
(1989) are not all at the same level. historiometry to typology, Gardner's
But we insist that the serious study of (1983) proposal of multiple intelli-
creative work requires careful and gences while not claiming to be the

30 Creativity Research Journal


last word on the varieties of creative ways. This multiple deviance has as
mind, is valuable for indicating that a first consequence the extreme rarity
we need not seek a single pathway in of any particular combination. (The
our pursuit of the Grail. Similarly, probability of any particular combina-
Feldman's (1980) emphasis on the tion of rare events is the product of
specificity of each domain of creative their individual probabilities, and
endeavour, and on its historical devel- therefore very small.) It has the
opment, suggests that characteristics further consequence that a novel
appropriate in one domain at one organization of the person's resources
point in its history may not be the must emerge. Moreover, at any given
characteristics of promise under other
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moment in history, there are not one


circumstances. but many environments available, and
the creative person both chooses and
Uniqueness constructs a milieu that suits the
needs of the enterprises in question.
In one sense it is a truism to say that The creator's external environment is
the creative person is unique, because not a given and resources are not
that is true of every human being. "gifts" - they are the ever changing
But the key point is that the student results of constant work (Gruber,
of creative work makes the under- 1982; Wallace, 1985).
standing of that uniqueness the The fact that the creative person
central goal of the investigation. If produces a unique impact on his or
there is to be a scientific understand- her external environments has the
ing of creative work, it cannot be effect of partially concealing the very
limited to those few things we may uniqueness of which we speak.
find that some creative people have Others come along who emulate and
in common. Instead we must search elaborate. Even in the loneliest
for a general approach to the descrip- creative effort there is some
tion and understanding of unique, communication with others, and often
creative people. it is not so lonely. Because the
If a single departure from existing creative process is protracted, there
norms was enough to produce a crea- is opportunity for others to take the
tive outcome, the event in question same direction long before the work
would be much more common (i.e., is finished. As the distance of history
less original) and then we would not obscures detail, it becomes easier to
deem it so creative. It is a good guess confuse such nuances in sequence,
that the creative individual departs and thus to see the creative person as
from existing norms in a number of produced by a trend, rather than

Creativity Research Journal 31


producing it. Shifting the direction the joy can coexist with a sense of
of influence in this way devalues the frustration about other projects not
individual and does nothing to doing so well. To be sure, the com-
advance a correct view of creative pletion of one project often opens
work as deeply social in nature. In the way to just such a change in the
order to capture the social aspects of focus of attention from the newly
the creative process we must deal with achieved pinnacle to the next morass.
the complex interactions among But which morass? It is common
unique individuals. among creators to have a number of
projects in progress and in mind. We
Three Loosely Coupled can make the relatively weak predic-
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Subsystems tion that an important achievement


will lead to a redeployment of resour-
We believe that the task of under- ces. But only a thorough and
standing creative work requires us to sensitive case study can even suggest
conceive of the creative person as an how the next choice will be made.
evolving system in an evolving milieu. Our subject is a moving target.
Each such system is comprised of Thus, precisely because these
three subsystems - organizations of internal subsystems are only loosely
knowledge, purpose, and affect. Each coupled with each other, and the sys-
of these subsystems has a dual aspect: tem as a whole only loosely couple
In one sense it has a life of its own, with its external milieu, the creative
in another it contributes to the inter- person is, as Isaac Newton put it,
nal milieu of the others. "never at rest" (Westfall, 1980).
Although the subsystems constitute
each other's internal environments, Deviation Amplifying Processes
they are only loosely coupled. A
change in one subsystem does not Naturally, people who lead creative
precisely and unequivocally determine lives have much in common with
events in the others. The joy atten- people who do not. But there is a
dant on achieving a long-sought goal fundamental way in which they differ.
has little direct effect on the person's Creative people commit themselves
total state of knowledge and no read- to creative tasks. In other words they
ily predictable effect on his set of hope to make some change in the
purposes. Without depriving the sum of human knowledge and
person of the soul-filling joy of the experience. This is a commitment of
moment, if we take a slightly longer some moment, and it is a choice, for
time perspective we may even say that it is entirely possible to make the

32 Creativity Research Journal


opposite commitment to live in the area. Even the humble example of
hopes of not causing a ripple. Indeed, repetition is directly pertinent to our
most life processes are homeostatic present discussion, for if one looks
in the sense that deviations from closely at almost any creative process
existing norms are corrected, one sees a great deal of repetitive
eliminated. This is a widespread work. There are other sorts of devi-
characteristic of physiological systems, ation amplifying processes, and it will
such as temperature control be the task of our future research to
mechanisms, and it is emulated in discover and clarify them.
mechanical systems, such as
thermostatically controlled heating
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Novelty and Progress


systems. Social systems, too, have
many mechanisms for minimizing "If I have seen further it is by standing
deviance. on the sholders of giants." (Isaac
But under some conditions devia- Newton, February 5, 1676)
tion amplifying systems (Maruyama,
1963) are viable, and they are always In one of the earlier forms of the
necessary for creative work. To take idea expressed in Newton's remark it
a very simple example, the repetitive ran, "In comparison with the ancients,
performance of a skilled act can be we stand like dwarfs on the shoulders
assimilated to a homeostatic devia- of giants" (Bernard of Chartres, about
tion correcting system or to a devia- 1100 A.D., cited in Merton [1965/
tion amplifying system. In the former 1985]). That version reflects a belief
case, when deviations from a norm in degeneration since the Creation
are detected, the goal is to eliminate ("There were giants in the earth in
them. In the latter case, when devia- those days" [Genesis 6:4]). But by the
tions occur they are welcomed and time Newton gave the phrase its
the goal is to explore and elaborate better known form, it seemed clear
them: They are made a part of the that human knowledge is in some
creative person's hoped for something sense progressive, and that is the
new under the sun. Because manifest sense of Newton's remark.
deviations always occur, the choice is Two more centuries elapsed before
always there to be made. the ideas of progressive organic evolu-
Piaget (1936/1952) described the tion and evolution of the human mind
constructive function of repetition in were clearly enunciated and firmly
babies, and I have extended this line established. Newton may conceivably
of thought to creative work (Gruber, have intended humility (only by stand-
1976), but it is a relatively unexplored ing on the shoulders of giants); or he

Creativity Research Journal 33


may have been vaunting himself as a Newton's phrase allows for that, and
giant among giants; or he may simply he himself was certainly a patient
have been making a suggestion to his builder, sometimes.
colleagues about a useful strategy; or, But Newton's phrase allows for
as Manuel (1968) suggested, the something else as well, the way a
remark may have had a concealed climber reaching one summit dis-
meaning, a sneer Newton directed at covers unseen valleys, and new and
his rival, the hunchback Robert higher ranges never seen before.
Hooke. Progress in our sense need not
But this much is clear: He pre- mean only "higher and higher" but
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supposed that human knowledge also "further and further" from some
advances. starting point. Imagine first a figure
Much of the later discussion of in a plane which can expand at differ-
Newton's famous phrase has turned ent rates in every possible direction,
on the image of the person standing so that one or more lines of develop-
there: pygmy, ordinary man, or giant ment might be discerned. Then
too? Although Newton may have imagine that at any point along any
tactfully left a little ambiguity for us line some new line of development
to mutter over, it is certain that he might begin, not necessarily in the
did not think of himself as an original plane. We would eventually
intellectual pygmy, and more than have an expanding multidimensional
that, he needed a strong self-image to web of great complexity, always mov-
do the wonderful work he did. ing outward, but with no discernible
Let us exploit Newton's phrase a stable center.
little further. We suppose that crea- Because "outward" is only defined
tive work is always progressive in the with regard to some particular starting
sense that it is new, that it builds on point, some developmental lines might
some of its predecessors, and in some seem to be moving back toward pre-
way or other it goes beyond them. viously developed areas. Thus the
Newton's image is one of just that web of human knowledge and exper-
kind of growth. ience would grow without limit both
Now if we think of building as a larger and denser. In such a web
mere incremental process, brick on would the exploring person be lost?
brick, it does not sound very romantic Not subjectively, or at least not al-
or exciting - it has not the savor of ways, for although there is no real
creative struggle and epiphany. Well, center, she would often feel herself to
sometimes, we are sure, creative work be at the center.
is just that patient kind of building. We say that creative work must

34 Creativity Research Journal


produce novelty, but whatever we work brings out the role of purpose.
might hope to mean by novelty chan- Rather than pitting them against each
ges as human history moves on in other in our theory, a more promising
time, always unfolding new possibil- path may be to see how they work
ities. This idea of creative work as together.
producing progressive change in Imagine a perfectly orderly, har-
human experience raises a second monious, and unchanging world.
problem for trait theories: It makes There would be no need for purpose.
it impossible and undesirable to To be sure, simple tropisms, such as
compose a stable list of traits that moths exhibit in flying toward the
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describe the novel works or their light, would exhibit themselves. But
creators. think of the kind of high human pur-
pose that begins with a vision of
Chance and Purpose things as they are not, that anticipates
difficulties - surmounting some and
The Darwinian theory of evolution avoiding others, that responds to
through natural selection ascribes a surprises without losing sight of its
crucial role to chance. Many anec- goals. A system exhibiting purposes
dotes about creative work suggest that such as these can only come into
chance plays a large role (Archimed- being in response to the imperfections
es, Becquerel). Some theoreticians of adaptation, the uncertainties of the
have proposed an "evolutionary epis- world, and the inadequacies of our
temology" in which chance plays the knowledge and skills. When we say
central role in the creation of new that someone is "purposeful" we mean
knowledge (see especially Campbell, that he or she cannot easily be de-
1960). flected from the pursuit of a chosen
We agree that chance sometimes course. Together, the deflections and
plays a prominent role and that some the responses to them illuminate the
role for chance may be in principle purposes, not only for onlookers like
required in all creative accomplish- us, but for the striving creative sub-
ment. Still, our main thrust is that jects themselves.
creativity is purposeful work. Can we Probably the chief contemporary
reconcile these two ideas? We be- exponent of the role of chance in
lieve that some such reconciliation is creative work is Campbell (1960).
a necessary part of any account of But it should be noted that his
the creative process. Darwinian model combines "blind
Indeed, almost everything written variation and selective retention,"
about the role of chance in creative thereby leaving room for our

Creativity Research Journal 35


insistence that creativity work is (1948) Cybernetics, or Control and
purposeful. Communication in the Animal and the
It is also notable that Simonton Machine. Maybe the crazier the
(1984, 1988), who acknowledges his world, the more purposeful our im-
intellectual debt to Campbell, uses the ages of self must become.
idea of chance in a highly qualified
way that in good measure resembles Networks of Enterprise
the position I take here. If it is agre-
ed that chance and purpose both play When we speak of creative work as
a role, we should not trivialize the purposeful, we have in mind a concep-
discussion by saying that the choice
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tion of work as complex human ac-


of which pole to emphasize is a mere tivity organized to achieve specified
matter of taste. Rather, the key point ends (Gruber, 1988; Gruber & Davis,
is that the evolution of human pur- 1988). To describe the pattern of
pose transforms the operation of work in the life of a creative individ-
chance. Purposeful work that does ual we have adopted the organizing
not take cognizance of the chanciness concept of a "network of enterprise."
of the word, including the inner world, We use the term enterprise to stand
will not lead to creative outcomes. for a group of related projects and
The concept "purpose" got a bad activities broadly enough defined so
name in earlier times when it seemed that (a) the enterprise may continue
to imply a teleological view of the when the creative person finds one
universe as a whole. In psychology, path blocked but another open toward
the behaviorist movement wished to the same goal, and (b) when success
expunge the term "purpose" along with is achieved the enterprise does not
all other "mentalistic" terms. But the come to an end but generates new
idea that humans and other organisms tasks and projects that continue it.
have purposes that can be understood Enterprises rarely come singly.
in scientifically legitimate ways has The creative person often different-
been undergoing rehabilitation ever iates a number of main lines of act-
since Darwin's The Descent of Man ivity. This has the advantage that
(1871). Indeed, even during the hey- when one enterprise grinds to a halt,
day of behaviorism, an early cognitive productive work does not cease. The
behaviorist, Edward Tolman published person has an agenda, some measure
Purposive Behavior in Animals and of control over the rhythm and se-
Men (1932). A modern turning point quence with which different enter-
came just after World War II with the prises are activated. This control can
appearance of Norbert Wiener's be used to deal with needs for variety,

36 Creativity Research Journal


with obstacles encountered, and with ties, and so on. A powerful strategy
the need to manage relationships for minimizing the disruptive potential
among creator, community, and aud- of interruption is to organize the job
ience. as a whole into subunits that can each
A second outstanding character- be smoothly completed before an
istic of enterprises is their longevity interruption occurs; these must be
and durability. To take only one stable enough to endure until the
example, Milton began the work that work is taken up again (Simon, 1969).
led to Paradise Lost in 1640, but did Creative work is peculiar in its
not complete until 1667. It was the relation to these two issues. It puts
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major project within the enterprise of a premium on innovation and must


writing epic poems; that enterprise consequently be organized so as to
was one among several ~ politics, accept the risks of disruption, delay,
prose pamphlets, and the shorter and failure. But it can reduce some
poems. of these risks by developing a special-
Both the objective and subjective ized organization into subtasks.
conditions of all work, quotidian and Needless to say, this organization is
creative, are constantly changing, al- not given to the creative person, but
though often slowly. This gives rise is something he or she must construct
to impulses toward innovation. in the course of living and working.
Ordinarily, such impulses must be In constructing the network of
resisted or treated cautiously, for the enterprise the individual faces a trade-
main function of ordinary work is off between density and breadth.
reliable production, whereas Piaget, for example, had a very broad
innovation is always potentially network, including projects pertinent
disruptive. When the work is to epistemology and logic, history of
concerned with producing the science, psychology, sociology, and
necessities of life, even relatively biology all fields in which he did
small obstacles and delays can turn substantial work. One choice this
into disasters. pattern forced on him was his decision
Another important characteristic to study the abstract and universal
of work is that, often, the time be- "epistemic subject." In contrast, his
tween beginning it and achieving a lifetime collaborator, Inhelder, was
useful product is long enough that gifted in relating to and understanding
interruptions form a natural part of the individual child and the rich diver-
the process ~ to rest, to deal with sity of each real "psychological" sub-
incursions from outside the work pro- ject. The close collaborative relation-
cess, to cope with unforeseen difficul- ship of these two scientists shows that

Creativity Research Journal 37


such choices do not necessarily pro- person as highly task-oriented, rather
voke irreconcilable conflict. People than ego-oriented (Amabile, 1983), it
with different networks of enterprise is also true that the set of tasks taken
can and must collaborate (Gruber, as a whole constitute a large part of
1988). the ego: To be oneself one must do
The fact that different kinds of these things; to do these things one
activity entail different sorts of risk must be oneself.
adds to the usefulness of a diversified Second, the network of enterprise
network of enterprise, allowing the provides a structure that organizes a
creator to be by turns daring and complex life. In the course of a single
secure, as emotional needs wax and day or week, the activities of the
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wane. Darwin the taxonomist, con- person may appear, from the outside,
structed for himself an eight-year as a bewildering miscellany. But the
haven from the slings and arrows of person is not disoriented or dazzled.
a hostile world, classifying his world- He or she can readily map each activ-
wide collection of barnacles and ity onto one or another enterprise.
writing his four volume treatise on Third, as already indicated in the
fossil and extant members of the discussion of Darwin, by providing
order Cirripedes. Darwin the theore- different levels of risk and other kinds
tician was engaged in a more risky of emotional coloration, the network
enterprise. He had no way of know- of enterprise allows the person to
ing in advance whether he would choose tasks that fit different moods
succeed or not. "Mine is a bold and needs. Similarly, the network
theory!" he wrote in his private note- provides an organization of goals
books (Gruber, 1981). within which the person can set differ-
ent levels of aspiration. There is no
Self-Concept and reason to suppose that this level is a
Network of Enterprise constant over the whole life and the
whole network. Darwin was an expert
The network of enterprise impinges pigeon fancier, but he had no need to
on the creative person's self-concept strive to be a great breeder. For him,
in an number of ways. First, and consorting with pigeon breeders was
most important, by constituting the a way of steeping himself in the art
person's organization of purpose, it and lore of breeding, knowledge that
defines the working self. Each he could turn to good account in
creative person has certain other enterprises, in the zone of his
conceptions of his or her life tasks. greatness.
Although we think of the creative Finally, the network of enterprise

38 Creativity Research Journal


helps the creative person define his ugh knowledge but by inspiration."
or her own uniqueness. The creator On the contrary, Wordsworth's image
may or may not be obsessed with this of the poet was of a growing, thinking,
issue of uniqueness, but it is our con- willing person:
viction that people who lead creative
lives generally intend to be original What is a poet? . . . He is a man
and define themselves accordingly. speaking to men: a man, it is
"I am a mathematicisn," proclaims true, endued with more lively
Norbert Wiener (1956) in the title of sensibility, more enthusiasm and
his autobiography. That modest man, tenderness, who has a greater
Albert Einstein, when he was 26 years knowledge of human nature, and
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old wrote to a friend, "I promise you a more comprehensive soul, than
four papers . . . the first . . . deals are supposed to be common
with radiation and the energy among mankind; a man pleased
characteristics of light and is very with his own passions and voli-
revolutionary" (Miller, 1981, p. 3). tions, and who rejoices more than
In his autobiographical poem, The other men in the spirit of life that
Prelude, William Wordsworth is in him; delighting to contemp-
(1805/1979) wrote of himself: late similar volitions and passions
as manifested in the goings-on of
. . . But I believe the universe, and habitually im-
That Nature, oftentimes, when she would pelled to create them where he
frame does not find them. (Wordsworth,
A favored being, from his earliest dawn
Of infancy doth open out the clouds 1801/1909, p.937)
As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
With gentlest visitation; not the less, Difficulty, Duration,
Though haply aiming at the self-same end,
Does it delight her sometimes to employ and Purpose
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable and so she dealt with me. If a million long-lived monkeys typed
for a million years, they would never
Whatever the correct etiology of purely by chance type Hamlet. But
his poetic power may have been, it is suppose one miraculous day they did?
clear that from a young age Words- It would not be a creative act. There
worth thought himself a poet and "a would be no one capable of sorting
favored being." But the gods' "touch out all the nonsense and finding the
of lightning" does not mean that masterpiece. And if someone did find
Wordsworth, like Plato's Ion, could be it? He or she would label it an acci-
persuaded that he worked "not thro- dent, not a creative act. Or look

Creativity Research Journal 39


around for Shakespeare. ing would be crazy, and novelty might
Never in a million years, true not be so difficult to produce. Part
enough. But serious creative work of the difficulty of achieving a creative
does take a long time. Compared to outcome arises from the need to
the few milliseconds of a lightning make it compatible with human
bolt, with which the creative act is purposes. The creative person may
sometimes compared, the actual pro- very well start with a wild idea. Soon
cess is very long indeed, to be reckon- enough it becomes familiar and,
ed in months, years, and often dec- within a private universe, no longer
ades. Fortunately, the network of seems so wild. But to be effective the
enterprise and the vision that sustains creator must be in good enough touch
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it are capacious and durable enough with the norms and feelings of some
to sustain the individual work through others so that the public product will
periods of dormancy and recalci- be one that they can assimilate and
trance. In order to understand the enjoy. Even the person who is far
temporal shape of the creative process ahead of the times must have some
we must consider the intricate rela- community, however limited or
tions among difficulty, duration, and special, with whom to interact. When
purpose. the gap between the creator and
If a work was both felicitous and others grows too great, there are
easy, many would be doing it and we basically two main strategies available:
should not see it as especially Modify the work to make it more
creative. If it were original but acceptable, or educate the potential
incompatible with human purposes, audience so that they will be prepared
we might see it as crazy or merely for the great surprise. The two
odd. When Di Maggio mistakes that approaches are not so different,
great catch or Nijinsky that leap, we because this education entails showing
say they make it "look easy" - others the way from the present to the
knowing all the while that this is a future.
hard-won easiness. Huxley saw that
Darwin's theory was, once enunciated, "Not Enough to Have a
simple. "How stupid not to have Certain Dexterity"
thought of that!" he cried, but he
never suggested that Darwin's road The difficulty of creative work leads
had been easy, nor would anyone in turn to the characteristic duration
who gave the Origin of Species (1959) of the task. It is long hard work.
a serious reading. Sometimes the last steps of the whole
If there were no constraints noth- creative process look easy; confusing

40 Creativity Research Journal


this phase with the process as a whole spective in which to see van Gogh?
can lead to exaggerated ideas of its His creative achievement was to give
spontaneity and ease. We consider us another way of seeing the world.
that purposeful growth, making one- If we see sunflowers or landscapes
self the kind of person who can do differently now, his way, it is not
the creative task in view, is a part of because of one painting, but an
the process. oeuvre. The evolving systems
To be sure, there are seemingly approach permits us to accommodate
sudden appearances of great works. sudden moments of insight, furious
But if we look more closely, say, at bursts of work, and slower processes
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the adolescent Picasso, we will see an of growth ~ all linked together by the
adolescent shaping himself, beginning common thread of purpose.
to form a style of work, thinking Van Gogh's letters to his brother
about the very issues with which he Theo (I use the version edited by the
will later grapple effectively. By poet W. H. Auden [1963]) teem with
failing to take adolescence seriously his sense of time and purpose. We
as part of the creative life we create see him thinking into the past and
for ourselves this appearance of into the future:
suddenness. Picasso was precocious.
But his productions at 14 were not yet Now by continuing this furious
great art. He was, it is true, only 12 work during next February and
or 13 by the time he was ready to March, I shall hope to have finish-
paint works that looked like an artist's ed the quietly composed repeti-
work and not a precocious child's. tions of a number of studies I
But he had then been drawing and made last year. And these togeth-
painting for at least five years. It is er with some canvases you have
safe to say that no case of early already had from me, such as the
achievement occurs without a long "Harvest" and the "White Or-
apprenticeship (Bloom, 1985; chard," will form a tolerably firm
Feldman, 1986). foundation [for a hoped-for ex-
Van Gogh's life might seem to hibition], (from Aries, January
support an almost opposite thesis. He 28, 1889)
began late and his whole career as an
artist lasted only 11 years. He could We see him envisaging a change in his
work at a furious pace, often turning style:
out a canvas per day. The individual
canvases might be produced extremely . . . staying here means making
fast. But is that the right time per- progress. And to make a picture

Creativity Research Journal 41


that will really be of the South, sudden new arrangement. One very
it's not enough to have a certain full and rich treatment of the topic
dexterity. It's looking at things for from this point of view is Koestler's
a long time that ripens you and (1964) The Act of Creation. If such
gives you deeper understanding. an account were correct it would
When I left Paris I did not think undermine our whole argument that
that I should once think Monticelli creative achievement is accomplished
and Delacroix so true. It is only chiefly through purposeful work. We
now, after months and months, do not query the occurrence of Eure-
that I begin to realize that they ka! experiences in the course of some,
did not imagine it all. And I think perhaps even all, creative lives; but
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that next year you are going to see we do question the validity of
the same subjects all over again, telescoping the essence of the creative
orchards, and harvest, but with a process into a moment, an "act."
different coloring, and above all In truth, our knowledge of insight
a change in the workmanship, is quite limited. The most celebrated
(from Aries, September 18,1888) instances such as Archimedes,
Kekule, Darwin, Poincare -- are
We see him persisting through illness: known chiefly through accounts given
many years after the event. Cole-
This new attack, my boy, came on ridge's account of his composition of
me in the fields, on a windy day, Kubla Khan in a dream has been re-
when I was busy painting. I will examined by Perkins (1981), among
send you the canvas. I finished it others. It is yet another case of a
in spite of it. (from St. Remy, twenty-year old memory presented as
August 18, 1889) a.white-hot experience. More impor-
tant, at least two drafts are known,
On Eureka! Experiences: and examination of them suggest a
A Clarification of Illumination typical process of protracted construc-
tive work. Finally, both the poem and
the story Coleridge told of its com-
Theoreticians of creativity often lay position fitted in well with his larger
great stress on the role of sudden purpose of exploring, through poetry
insight, sometimes virtually identifying and opium, strange states of being.
creativity with the having of such
Eureka! experiences. In some treat- So-called "flashbulb memories" are
ments of insight it is coupled with the a similar phenomenon. Spelke, Hirst,
idea of chance recombinations: The and Neisser (1976) have shown that
very absence of intention permits the they are probably all post hoc con-

42 Creativity Research Journal


structions in which the memory for frequency of such entries varied be-
the event is unconsciously tailored to tween two and three per week. From
the person's conceptions. my reading of the Darwin notebooks,
We would like to know some which sometimes give direct textual
simple things about insight. Do they evidence of sudden insights, my guess
occur at all, or are they really post is that his rate was somewhat higher,
hoc reconstructions? Let us for the perhaps as many as two or three per
present assume that even though day.
memories of them may be fallible, Not all sudden insights are
they really do occur. How often do correct, important, and enduring. Let
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they occur? Are they a mixture of us assume that someone like Darwin
small and great? What proportion of has about one good idea per week,
them are fruitful and what proportion surely a conservative estimate. This
misbegotten? Are there some creat- means about 50 per year, or 500 per
ive individuals who do not report decade. Seen in that light, the
them? Are they really millisecond individual moment of insight does not
flashes, or do they -- like lightning represent such a sudden break with
(Gruber & Davis, 1988) -- have an the past; instead, the steady
inner structure, somewhat spread out occurrence of such moments expresses
in time? Are they entirely involun- the proper functioning of the system
tary, or does the person have some that constitutes the creative person at
measure of control over their occur- work.
rence and course of development? Duration of the "Moment of In-
Are they examples of primitive think- sight. " For the present it is impossible
ing and primary processes, or do they to give any direct measure of this
take more rational forms? As we time. But let us suppose that some
cannot address all these questions insights are something like making
here (see Gruber, 1979,1981) we take sense out of a fragmented picture. If
up those that seem most central to so, that suggests that they would take
the exposition of our own approach. between 5 and 10 seconds, or possibly
Frequency and Magnitude. Probab- much longer. A moderately complex
ly our best single source of informa- dream may take between 5 and 60
tion is an unpublished document by seconds. I have made notes on some
an experimental psychologist, Herbert of my insights as they occurred.
Crovitz. He kept a detailed notebook Often a sort of aura ~ a sense that
of his scientific activities over a 10- something is happening ~ precedes
year period, starting every entry that the full and explicit awareness of just
represented an "illumination." The what happy thought is "happening."

Creativity Research Journal 43


This description is similar to the thinking. Neither point is correct. In
feeling one gets, while listening to a the notebooks, we can see the insight
joke, of a buildup to laughter. developing, with almost the same
Similarly in sexual experience, the idea reached a number of times over
orgasm announces itself before it a period of months. It is closer to the
arrives. mark to describe Darwin on reading
The issue of duration is important Malthus as finally recognizing an idea
to our conception of the place of in- he has had, almost within his grasp,
sight in the scheme of things. If it for some time. In spite of the
were an involuntary millisecond flash, recollected transforming power of the
faster even than a sneeze, we might moment, in the event, as the
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see it as happening to the person, un- notebooks show, it took Darwin


purposefully. But if the time is long perhaps a week or two to change
enough, there is time for the person direction, to seize hold of his own
to monitor the insight - protect the insight and follow it up - there was
moment from disturbance if it is a no instantaneous transformation of
welcome thought, change direction if his point of view.
unwelcome. A few seconds may make Although Poincare's account of
all the difference. one of his mathematical discoveries
Insight as Part of a Protracted is often cited as a classic case of
Process. We think it is safe to say sudden insight (As he put his foot on
that all examples of creative insights the step of the bus . . . ), his own
occur within protracted creative account, written thirty years after the
processes. Consider the celebrated event, describes the discovery as
moment in which Darwin, while consisting of seven episodes, taking
reading Mai thus' Essay on Population, place in different places, over a
finally saw the pertinence of natural period of months. This is a case of
selection to the problem of evolution. the readers telescoping and distorting
This case gives us a good opportunity the event, for Poincare's (1908/1952)
to compare the original event with the version is readily available.
remembered insight, because we have Similarly, Wertheimer's (1945)
a record of the former, in a very full reconstruction of Einstein's train of
context, in his notebooks, and of the thought in which he developed the
latter in his autobiography. The later theory of special relativity depicts ten
recall is much telescoped and makes "acts" considerably spread out in time.
it appear as if Darwin's great moment Wertheimer's work was based primar-
on reading Malthus came out of the ily on retrospective interviews with
blue and thereupon transformed his Einstein, in Berlin in 1916 and later

44 Creativity Research Journal


(i.e., at least 10 years after the event). in a way that accentuates the
Further work by Holton (1973) and experience. This leads the person to
Miller (1981) has corrected preserve and pursue the new idea.
Wertheimer's picture, showing the Often, the pursuit leads to further
process to have been more complex change: The idea in its original form
and more open to interaction with the is displaced by its derivatives.
world of other physicists, but no less The famous story of Kekule dis-
protracted. As Einstein recounted the covering the structure of the benzene
process, it began when he was 16 ring while in a hypnotic state that
years old and reached a first terminus wonderful and much-traveled image
10 years later with the publication of of the snake biting its tail - illustrates
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his paper on special relativity. Again all three points. For him to see
we see that precocity does not mean atoms dancing about and forming
instant achievement. interesting configurations was not an
The Role of Insight in Creative isolated event, but one of his
Thinking. All of the reservations accustomed ways of thinking about
expressed above should not be taken structural problems in chemistry.
to mean that we are skeptical either Indeed, in the same lecture (years
of the occurrence or the importance after the event) in which he retold the
of Eureka! experiences. But it is benzene ring story, he also told of a
important to try in a new way to similar imagistic event 12 years earlier
specify their role. We suggest three still, in which he had made another
points. First, the occurrence of an important discovery. Finally, Kekule
insight indicates a certain degree of was at no point making isolated
mastery of a domain, something com- discoveries: He was one of an
parable to being able to speak a international community of chemists
language with spontaneity. Everyone who were very deliberately and
would agree that skillful speaking is self-consciously constructing the
controlled by processes that are in foundations of structural chemistry
some sense unconscious: We do not (Benfey, 1966; Gruber, 1979).
know how we select the words in a Unconscious Work. It might seem
sentence, or exactly how it will end. as though the occurrence of uncon-
Every sentence is a surprise. Second, scious activity would argue against our
insights often represent a moment of thesis of purpose in creative work.
consolidation or confirmation, a sort This is not necessarily the case.
of recognition of what one already Rothenberg (1979) has given a good
almost knows. Third, when the account of the way the creative person
insight occurs, it is affectively laden can steer unconscious work so that it

Creativity Research Journal 45


moves in the person's chosen direc- poet; every crisis is mastered, and
tion. every poem comes out of years of
Yeats expressed his interest in preparation" (Ellman, 1948, p. 295).
involuntary activity in many forms. Insights and Stages. Can we make
In the following passage he gives an better sense out of this complexity by
idea of how he thought it could be reducing it to some simplifying sche-
put to work. me such as Wallas' (1926) well-known
four-stage description of the creative
The purpose of rhythm . . . is to process: preparation, incubation,
prolong the moment of contem- illumination, verification? In a sense,
Wallas was expressing a point of view
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plation, the moment when we are


both asleep and awake, which is similar to ours, dethroning the Eureka
the one moment of creation, by experience and viewing the unde-
hushing us with an alluring monot- niable phenomenon of sudden
ony, while it holds us waking by illumination in a developmental
variety, to keep us in the state of perspective. Wallas' scheme was
perhaps real trance, in which the intended to apply to the development
mind liberated from the pressure of the individual creative project, not
of the will is unfolded in symbols. to the longer enterprise of which each
(From "Symbolism in Poetry," project is a part, and certainly not to
written in 1900, cited in Stallwor- the creative life.
thy, 1963) In fact, when Wallas' often ser-
viceable scheme is applied to the
Lest it be thought that liberation creative life, the result is not so sim-
"from the pressure of the will" pro- ple. If the person has a number of
duced outpourings of untrammeled projects going, they may all be in
spontaneity, be it noted that Yeats different stages of development. An
was an extremely deliberate, slow insight in one project may reawaken
writer. He "followed a pattern of a dormant enterprise. A new skill
composition which was to vary little mastered in the interests of one enter-
for the rest of his life: prose draft, prise may suddenly become relevant
rough verse drafts, fair copy, magazine elsewhere in the tangle. One project's
publication, and then further revisions period of incubation will be another's
for the first printing in book form" opportunity for demonic activity.
(Stallworthy, 1963, p. 4) And on a At the level of the individual
longer time scale, one of his biograph- creative project Wallas' scheme is
ers stresses "the tremendous organiza- incomplete at both ends. He omits
tion that informs the poems and the the early stages of problem finding

46 Creativity Research Journal


(Arlin, 1986) and of the formation of stage-wise progressions.
an "initial sketch" that guides the But I believe that this is not the
work. Arnheim's (1962) reconstruc- correct approach. In the history of
tion of Picasso painting the mural psychology, the major stage theories
Guernica gives a valuable picture of have been unilinear. That is, all
the role of the initial sketch. Wallas individuals are considered to follow
omits also the late stage of expansive the same developmental pathway, to
application of the creative achieve- pass through the same stages in the
ment. same sequence. This is true of Piage-
At the level of the creative life, t's theory of child and adolescent
Wallas' scheme is silent, because it development, of Freud's and Erikson's
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deals only with the genesis of single theories of psychosexual and psycho-
projects. Seen in proper perspective social development, and more recently
Wallas' developmental scheme is not of Levinson's account of adult person-
a template to be applied routinely to ality development (Levinson, Darrow,
every instance. Rather, it cries out Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978).
for the determined and sensitive Albeit with considerable latitude,
application of the case study method. these unilinear stage theories also
If we elaborate the scheme by suggest that all individuals pass thr-
correcting the omissions noted above, ough the same stages at approximately
and complicate it by recognizing the the same ages.
multiplicity of enterprises and I do not wish to enter here into
projects, all at different stages of the vigorous contemporary debate
development, we can arrive at an about the validity and utility of stage
image of sufficiently entangled theories in psychology. Elsewhere,
intricacy to represent the creative Voneche and I have argued that even
person at work. Piaget's use of the stage concept was
primarily descriptive and not essential
Stage Theories and the to his theory (Gruber & Voneche,
Creative Life 1977). In the present context, the key
point to consider is the applicability
of any theory of uniform stages to the
Our case studies of creative work
development of creative lives.
have, of necessity, a narrative form.
It is certainly tempting to conceive of A theory of uniform stages has its
a narrative as divisible into stages. greatest promise when the task is to
Once that step is taken, a next step describe and explain behavior that is
becomes plausible ~ to examine crea- typical of the species as a whole. The
tive lives in general for common case for uniform embryological, infan-

Creativity Research Journal 47


tile, and juvenile stages is strength- Freud was a promising neurologist
ened by the consideration that in until the age of 29, when his visit to
some respects all individuals share the Charcot in Paris started him on a
same environment and undergo sim- series of deviations from that path
ilar developmental constraints. Cer- that led him to psychoanalytic theory,
tainly, the fetal environment is a perhaps 10 years later (Sulloway,
miracle of constancy and uniformity; 1979). Piaget was a precocious biolo-
every new parent can experience the gist years from the age of 11, and was
miraculous result: 10 fingers, 10 toes, firmly set in his scientific pathway by
and so on. the age of 25 (Gruber & Voneche,
But as life goes on, developmental 1977). Erikson was a wandering artist
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pathways increasingly diverge, even until the age of 25, then accidentally
despite the strenuous efforts most became involved as a teacher in an
people make to conform to well- experimental school that brought him
beaten paths (Gruber, 1986). On into contact with prominent psycho-
evolutionary grounds, there would be analysts, leading him later to his own
little reason to suppose that our carer as innovative analyst (Coles,
species had evolved a normative de- 1970). Thus we have one case of
velopmental pattern for individuals rather straightforward continuity
past the age of 40, because that is (Piaget), one case of a series of devia-
near the end of the reproductive tions leading to a rather gradual
period and was, only 2 or 3 millennia reshaping of a career (Freud), and
ago, about the average age of death. one case of a sharp break with a
youthful past (Erikson).
When we consider the develop-
mental patterns of creative individuals To take an even more striking
the picture necessarily becomes more example, consider some of the great
individualized, because we are not poets. Among the romantics, Keats
dealing with species-wide adaptations and Shelley were dead by the time
but with unique and original patterns. they were 30; Wordsworth began his
Even if creators are like other people greatest poem, The Prelude, when he
in some respects, we would expect the was 28 and finished it some 30 years
interweaving of normal development later. Blake wrote all his best poetry
and the novel aspects of each creative before he was 40, but he made his
life to take a special form in each best engravings and designs after he
case. was 60. From another era, Milton
Look at the different patterns began Paradise Lost when he was
displayed in their own lives by three about 40, put it aside until he was 60,
major proponents of stage theories. and finished it then.

48 Creativity Research Journal


Does this critique of the idea of Bloom, B. (1985). Developing talent in young
unilinear developmental pathways children. New York: Ballantine.
Campbell, D. T. (1960). Blind variation and
and uniform stages mean that we selective retention in creative thought as
must reject the idea of stages in other knowledge processes. Psycholo-
altogether? Not at all. But if we gical Review, 67, 380-400.
accept the idea that our starting point Coles (1970). Erik Erikson: The growth of
in the study of creativity must be the his work. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
unique creative person at work, then Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of the
species by natural selection. London:
we must look for the stages of Murray.
development in the individual, and Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and
we must consider the personal selection in relation to sex (2 vols).
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developmental history as a whole: A London: Murray.


belief system and way of working that Ellman, R. (1948). Yeats, the man and the
masks. New York: Dutton.
functions as a transitional state for
Feldman, D. H. (1980). Beyond universals in
one person may well be another's life cognitive development. Norwood, NJ:
work. Ablex.
To understand the points of cleav- Feldman, D. H. (1986). Nature's gambit:
Child prodigies and the development of
age between stages, and the dynamics
human potential. New York: Basic
of movement from stage to stage, we Books.
must look ever more deeply at the Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The
individual. And that is why the theory of multiple intelligences. New
evolving systems approach is so York: Basic Books.
intimately linked with the case study Gruber, H. E. (1979). On the relation bet-
ween "Aha experiences" and the construc-
method. tion of ideas. History of Science, 19,
41-59.
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