History of the concept of creativity

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History of the concept of creativity

In spite of its current popularity, the concept of creativity, i.e. its name, is a recent notion that, nevertheless, went through a number of development stages and metamorphoses caused by the changes in the way the concept of creativity was perceived by societies at various stages of development. The process is not finished yet. Sometime in the future the general concept of creativity will hopefully be converted into a specialized concept, i. e. its regularities will be enumerated while its particularities linking it currently to a culture or a subculture will be eliminated. In the following text, the evolution of the concept of creativity throughout history is reviewed briefly, with the focus on important milestones and personalities. The milestones are arranged in a temporal sequence, whereas outstanding personalities are quoted where necessary, rather than presented in a strict temporal sequence.

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It is intuitively easy to accept the thesis that creative acts have been around as long as the homo sapiens, the humanoids and, indeed, living organisms. The concept of creativity appeared much later, and came forth very gradually. On the long way to establishing it, many intermediate new terms were generated, some of which have been used for centuries, in exceptional cases until our time. They help us understand more easily what creativity is and how it interacts with other operations in the intellectual sphere.

Theoretical views of creativity follow the development of human culture and thought. Therefore, the concept of creativity is a component of the history of the human thought to the same extent as any other intellectual manifestation (Briffault, 1928). Much of the historical developments as accounted for in the following review are based on Tatarkiewicz’s book (1980), Dictionnaire philosophique, and the following references: Verma (1969), Lindberg (1976), Abdus Salam (1984), Agar (2001), Ahmad (2002), Steffens (2006), Covington (2007), Roshdi (2007), and Medieval Classic civilization; An Encyclopaedia.

Prehistoric times

Remarkable and very advanced objects testifying to human creative genius are known from the art history. They originate from many parts of the world and from many different cultures and epochs. Perhaps the foremost examples of the earliest manifestations of creativity are various objects produced by the Australian Aborigines. The Aborigines are presumed to have moved to Australia from India some 50 000 years ago. Their most puzzling creative product is the boomerang – for them hunting tool, for us an enigmatic object of scientific studies.

Other important manifestation of human creative act and thought originates from Egypt and Mexico. These countries distinguish themselves not only by very advanced ability to produce objects, but also by the scientific (most often astronomic) knowledge embedded in these products. The pyramids of Egypt and those of Mexico, Guatemala, or Belize, the Mayan calendar, and the way of using mathematics in Egypt and in Mexico, are absolutely amazing even today. The Mayan astronomers had developed a spatial geometry parting from astronomy. The mathematics they used is still more accurate than the computational algorithms that make the flow of data in modern information networks possible (Ferrera-Balanquet, 2009).

Another cultural area of great importance extends in Asia, particularly in the area comprising the present day Iraq, Iran, India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Buildings, materials and various concepts of physics embedded in the buildings testify to the high level of knowledge these peoples possessed thousands of years ago. In China and Japan, too, creativity enhanced knowledge in a manner that after thousands of years is still admired.

India stands, as usual, apart in that it knew creativity as “insight” since times immemorial. For instance, in the extinct Pali language the word vipassanā consists of the Sanskrit prefix “vi-“ and the verbal root √paÅ›. It is often translated as ”insight” or “clear-seeing,” One should not be misled by the “in-“ prefix in “insight”.. “Vi” in ancient Aryan languages is equivalent to the Latin “dis-”. It is reasonable to conclude that in the word vipassanā the prefix “vi-” generates the meaning “to see apart”, or discern. Alternatively, the “vi” can function as an intensifier. In that case vipassanā may mean “seeing deeply”. A pali synonym for “Vipassanā” is paccakkha, menaing “before the eyes,” which refers to direct experiential perception. Thus, the type of seeing denoted by “vipassanā” is that of direct perception and experience, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument. It has also been adopted as the name of a kind of Buddhist meditation.

Ancient Greece

The people of Ancient Greece had no terms corresponding to “creativity” or “creator”. Yet, the poet was considered to be one who creates. Whatever was “creative” in the present sense of the word, was called art. The concept of art (in Greek Š˜€¼€°, from which technique and technology evolved), implied subjection to rules. Poetry (from ‚€€´€€´ƒŠ€¼ – to make) was an exception, although it was limited only to ‚€ƒŠ€°†€´ˆ (poetry) and to the ‚€€´€°Ššˆ (poet, or maker) who made it, rather than to art in general.

The reason was that art was considered an imitation of what already exists, “the making of things, according to rules”, hence subjection to laws and rules. In painting, music, or literature, there was no freedom. They were governed by what was known as νομοι (the laws). This conservative attitude and need for subjection prevailed in the works of Plato who claimed, mainly in Timaeus, Dialogue of Ion, and in The Republic, that a good work is contingent on observing an eternal model as suggested by Nature, and never deviate from that model. The eternal models were within reach, in the surrounding world, of which artists were the imitators. They thus had to abide by certain rules. In the visual arts, freedom was curtailed by the proportions that Polyclitus had established for the human frame. He called them “the canon” (meaning, measure). Likewise, in music, no freedom was necessary because melodies for ceremonies and entertainment were known. They were prescribed as nomoi. Making of things according to rules, or τεχυη, was not considered to contain any creativity at all. In fact, if they had contained creativity, the state of affairs would be considered bad by the Greek standards of that time: Something similar to the negative perception of creative accounting nowadays [Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 244]. Man ought to discover the laws of Nature and abide by them. Seeking freedom of action unnecessarily distracts him from seeking the optimum way. In Ancient Greece the artist was not an inventor, he was a discoverer [Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 245]. It means that he had to study the laws of Nature, discover and see how related entities interact, and use them as a model.

This world-view had its own justification. Nature is both perfect and subject to laws. The artist’s ambition must be to discover these laws and submit to them, rather than seek the distracting freedom from these laws, a freedom that would deflect him from attaining the optimal state. Poetry stood outside these limitations. The poet invented a whole new world and gave it life. The poet differed from the artist, the imitator, in that laws did not bind him. In spite of the absence of the term for creativity, creation, or the creator, the poet, and only the poet, was understood to be a creator.According to the Greek view, the poet was an inventor, i. e. he put together unrelated entities and let them interact in an arbitrary manner. This is what made poetry the only exception from the rules applying to art.

In terms of truthfulness of this world-view, Aristotle, who established the term truth, was not sure whether poetry required adherence to truth, i. e. whether it imitated Nature. He thought that poetry was in the realm that was neither true nor false [Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 245-6]. The concepts of imagination and inspiration, too, were restricted to poetry only. Poets were seen differently and they saw things differently.

But not everybody was reconciled with this restriction. An example can be found in the Odyssey, where a question is posed why the singer should be forbidden to entertain his listeners with singing as he himself will. Yet, even in this rigid environment of dogmas, some progress took place. Thus, in the 3rd century, Porphyry of Tyros graphically visualized the concept categories of Aristotle. In the 4thcentury of the Christian era, Pappus of Alexandria searched for a science of invention. He named his techniques “heuristics”.

Antique Rome

The Roman civilization developed from the Greek civilization. It was younger, thus more progressive and more exploratory than was the civilization of Greece. Therefore, things were seen in a different light in Rome, and the Greek concepts were viewed as partially outdated. To begin with, the vocabulary was enriched with new concepts, which shook up the foundations of the Greek thought. This effort happened to follow two counter-directions. on the one hand, Cicero wrote that art embraces those things “which are known” (“quae sciuntur”) [Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 245]. Horace, on the other hand, elevated painters to the level of poets in giving them the privilege of daring whatever they pleased (“quod libet audendi”), instead of following the “eternal model”. Moreover, in the declining period of antiquity, Lucius Flavius Philostratus discovered a similarity between poetry and art, and found that art and poetry have imagination in common. Callistratos expanded these ideas by stating that as much as the art of the poets and writers of prosaic literature is inspired, so are the hands of sculptors. They, too, are gifted with the blessing of divine inspiration.

The novelty of these postulates follows from the fact that Greeks had applied the concepts of imagination and inspiration to poetry only, but not to the visual arts. The Greek language had no word for creating, whereas Latin had. Creare and facere were two Latin words corresponding to the Greek ποειυ. Yet, initially the two Latin terms had almost the same meaning (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 246), and were thus interchangeable.


Under medieval Christianity, the Latin “creatio” came to designate God’s act of “creatio ex nihilo” (i.e. creation from nothing). “Creatio” thus no longer could apply to human activities. Its meaning differed from the meaning of “facere” (to make). Applied to human activities, facere was the only word to be used. Cassiodorus, the important statesman and writer of the 6th century, explained that things made and created differ, because we can make but cannot create. His important works on this topic, written after his retirement, include De anima (published 540), Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum (published probably 543-555), and De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Litterarum [Tatarkiewicz 1980, p. 247].

This more or less “secular” interpretation of creativity collided with the archaic views of some Christian writers. To begin with, they believed that art did not belong to the realm of creativity. In this respect they had the same belief as the Greeks. Medieval Christian writers granted no exception to poetry. They claimed that poetry had to follow its rules. Therefore it was an art, i. e. a craft rather than a creative activity. The dominant figure among these writers was St. Augustine, a personality whose works are of interest even today. He is claimed to have used the word imagination as a precursor to creativity. Imagination, according to St. Augustine comprised disposition, multiplication, reduction, extension, ordering, any kind of re-composition of images, etc. (Rodari, 1983). These very same components of “imagination” are used even today [Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 247].

Further changes were recorded in the Middle Ages: poetry’s exceptional status was gradually revoked, because poetry had its rules. It was thus regarded as an art, i. e. a craft, rather than creativity. The new, religious interpretation of the expression notwithstanding, the opinion that art is not related to creativity persisted. The works of two influential early Christian writers, Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Augustine, prove it. The same can be said the works of Hraban the Moor and Robert Grosseteste, in the 13th century.


There are two periods in European history, called the Renaissance. The first one is the 12th century Renaissance. It was a period of many innovative and creative cahnges during the High Middle Ages, such as social, political and economic transformations. Parallel developments in philosophy and science resulted in an intellectual revitalization of Europe.

The second renaissance is the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century. Some historians claim that the changes having taken place in the Middle Ages paved the way to the Italian Renaissance, as well as to the scientific developments of the 17th century.

The French historian Jacques le Goff, an agnostic, argues that the Middle Ages formed an entirely new civilization, distinct from both the Greco-Roman antiquity, and from the modern world. The medieval achievements of the human mind and the human hands can only be related briefly.

The First Rrenaissance . The most creative political acts of the 12th century were the founding of the Hansa in Northern Europe (along the southern shore of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, with a few excursions deeper into Central Europe), the Crusades, the rise of towns, and the rise of the early bureaucratic states. In the cultural sphere the vernaculars began to replace Latin increasingly, higher education became more prominent, with universities sprouting all around the European continent between the Atlantic and the Theisse river, the Romanesque art was gradually replaced by the Gothic art, the liturgical drama, and a European system of law was established. These changes are true milestones. In the arts, more emphasis was put on architecture and sculpture, while in parallel there was a revival of interest in Latin poetry and Latin classics. An outer expansion began in the late 13th century, when the Venetian explorer Marco Polo set out to follow the Silk Road to China. His documentary Il Milone made Europeans more aware of the Far East, which inspired many missionaries (Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Giovanni de Marignolli, Giovanni di Monte Corvino, and others) to go east and spread Christianity.

The greatest leaps of human knowledge were, however, recorded in science and technology. Since Ibn al-Haytham (also known as Alhazen, 965-1039) laid down the foundations of the scientific method, the emphasis was put on seeking truth. Science thus became a formal discipline, different from philosophy. In early Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire, the most advanced culture of antiquity, suffered losses and a decline in its scientific capacity. Likewise, Western Europe, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, suffered a catastrophic loss of knowledge. This was partially offset by the efforts of Church scholars, like Aquinas and Buridan, who preserved elements of scientific inquiry. In that manner, by translating and imitating the works of Islamic scholars Europe could begin catching up with the scientific discoveries of the Islamic world, the Mediterranean basin, India, and China.

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The most important steps to Europe’s scientific recovery at that time comprise the following events: Development of the scientific method (Alhazen, Biruni, Bacon, and Grosseteste); Arithmetic and Algebra (Al-Khwarizmi); Differential calculus (Bhaskara); Mechanics (Avicenna, with a later contribution by Ibn Bajjah, also known as Avempace, Buridan, Galileo, Descartes and Newton); Optics(Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Euclid, Hero of Alexandria, Ptolemaeus. In the 10th century, Alhazen proved empirically that light propagates linearly;Robert Grosseteste developed a theory of optics based on the works of al-Kindi and Ptolemaeus. Roger Bacon expanded on Grossetestes’s theory and integrated Alhazen’s optics into it. Finally, Kepler was able to use the foregoing findings to develop the modern theory of optics); Surgery(Abulcasis or Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi developed procedures and instruments of modern surgery, such as the scalpel, syringe, vaginal speculum, etc.). In 1266, Theodoric Borgogni published his Chirurgia, in which he advocates antiseptic surgery); Alchemy and Chemistry (The Jaberian Corpus, written in the 10th century by the Brotherhood of Purity (Ismaylia), the Summa Perfectionis, by Paulus de Tarento, the Secret of Secrets by al-Razi (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi);Trigonometry (al-Tusi, Regiomontanus and Puerbach made these methods wider known in the 15th century); Navigation (the astrolabe and the portable compass, Peter de Maricourt); Accurate lunar models(Ibn al-Shatir; Copernicus is believed to have relied on al-Shatir’s model); Incendiary weapons and bombs (flame-throwers, land- and sea-mines, and rockets).

Among important technological accomplishments and developments, the following can be listed:

The windmill, first mentioned in 1185 (England); Paper manufacture began around 1270 (Italy); The spinning wheel (13th century); The magnetic compass for navigation, and the astrolabe (toward the end of the 13th century); Eyeglasses, in the late 13th century (Italy); The Hindu-Arabic numerals introduced to Europe in 1202 with the book Liber Abaci by Leonardo of Pisa; The stern-mounted rudder, which can be found on church carvings.

The philosophy developed in the Middle Ages was the Scholasticism. It is founded on a reinterpretation of the works of Aristotle, with further refinements by scholars like Avicenna, Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, and Abélard. Scholasticism believes in empirical studies, and its practitioners supported the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of Scholasticism was Thomas of Aquinas. His Philosophy of mind teaches that the mind of a newborn baby is a tabula rasa that was given the ability to think, and to recognize forms, patterns, or ideas through a divine spark.

In the late Middle Ages, the rate of scientific progress declined significantly due to the decline of the Muslim empires and the Byzantine Empire. This situation lasted until after the Renaissance.

The Italian Reanaissance. The Italian Reanaissance brought further changes into the mode of thinking and lifestyle of people. The Renaissance philosophy is that of Humanism, which perhaps is more a method of learning than a philosophy per se. An approximate, but generally accepted definition of Humanism is “the movement to recover, interpret, and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome”. Unlike the medieval scholars, humanists would apply a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence in reading and appraising ancient texts in the original. Humanist education focused on the study of five humanities: poetry, grammar, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. Above all, humanists asserted man’s genius and the ability of the human mind, which is unique and extraordinary.

Humanism is more secular in some aspects, but it unquestionably developed against a Christian backdrop, particularly in the Northern Renaissance. That period gave mankind some outstanding theologians, all of them followers of the humanist method. They include Zwingli, Calvin, Thomas More, Erasmus, and Martin Luther. In particular, Dr Martin Luther must be viewed as the liberator of the human soul, with whatever effect it had on subsequent cataclysmic developments in society, science, business, and trade.

Although the people of the Renaissance were well aware of their freedom and creativity, the term creativity was not established yet. It was not until the 17th-century that the word “creativity” was applied for the first time. The man behind it was Polish poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1595-1640), also known as “the last Latin poet”. Sarbiewaski applied the term only to poetry. In his treatise, De perfecta poesi, he wrote that a poet “invents,” and creates anew (“de novo creat”) in the manner of God (“instar Dei”) (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 248). Other arts, in Sarbiewskis opinion, do not create. They merely imitate and copy.

Why Sarbiewski regarded creativity as something that only poetry could be associated with, thus excluding visual arts, follows from his opinion that arts (other than poetry) imitate and copy, rather than create, in that they assume the material from which they create is already available, and so is the subject. At the end of the 17th century André Félibien (1619-75) called the painter “a creator”. Spanish Jesuit Baltasár Gracián (1601-58) saw art as the second Creator that complements nature. This formulation is reminiscent of Sarbiewski’s formulations (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 248).

In the 18th century, the occurrence of the concept of creativity in art theory kept increasing. It was complemented with the concept of imagination. In Joseph Addison’s opinion imagination “has something in it like creation”. A similar opinion was held by Voltaire (1740). These authors, however, equated only poet with creator (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 248-9).

Contrary views proliferated, too, particularly in France. Diderot worked with imagination, which he viewed merely as “the memory of forms and contents”, which “creates nothing”. It only combines, magnifies or diminishes. “The human mind cannot create”, wrote Charles Batteux. He, too, saw its products as displaying the stigmata of the model used. Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-80) and Luc de Clapiers, known as marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-47), proposed similar ideas (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 249). There were three reasons why they rejected the idea of human creativity:

  • Creation was at that time reserved for creation ex nihilo. The latter was beyond man’s abilities.
  • Creation is a mysterious act. Enlightenment psychology, however, had no room for mysteries.
  • Artists of that time age observed their rules. Creativity, however, seemed irreconcilable with rules.

The third objection was, however, weak. Houdar de la Motte (1715) was one of the thinkers who suggested that rules, too, “are a human invention” (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 249).

The philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote that the artist’s work is the result of thinking it up (“excogitatio”). Leon Battista Alberti, the theoretician of architecture and painting, claimed that he preordains (“preordinazione”), and Raphael claimed that his ideas shape his painting. Universal genius Leonardo da Vinci claimed that it was his idea that determined how his painting was shaped, using shapes that do not exist in nature. Another painter, Raphael Santi, too, claimed that he painted according to his ideas. Giorgio Vasari claimed that nature is conquered by art. Paolo Pino, the art theoretician from Venice claimed that painting is “inventing what is not”. Likewise, Paolo Veronese declared that painters take the same liberties as they were poets and madmen. “A new world, new paradises”was what an artist shapes, maintained Federico Zuccari. Cesare Cesariano extended this to architects whom he considered “demi-gods.” In the realm of music, according to the Dutch composer and musicologist Jan Tinctoris, a composer was “one who produces new songs”. He thus associated novelty with a composer’s work.

Writers on poetry were even more consequent. Capriano claimed that poetic inventions spring “from nothing”. Francesco Patrizi held that poetry was a “fiction”, “shaping”, and “transformation” (Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 248).

The developments in the Renaissance science were as dynamic as in the arts. Science and the arts were intermingled, which manifests best in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. He made observational drawings of nature and anatomy, set up and conducted controlled experiments in water-flow and aerodynamics, systematic study of motion, and medical dissection. Leonardo devised principles of scientific research method in the spirit of holistic, non-mechanistic and non-reductive approach popular today. Leonardo deserves the epithet “the father of modern science”. The focus on the process for discovery, the scientific method, corroborated by influential proponents such as Copernicus and Galileo, is perhaps the most significant development of that time. This revolutionary way of learning about the world stressed the importance of empirical evidence, as well as the importance of mathematics, rather than highlighting a given discovery.

Age of Reason

In the 18th century, the Age of Reason and Change, the concept of creativity appeared more frequently in art theory. Once again, famous personalities needed an ancillary concept to explain and justify creativity. One such concept was that of imagination. It was first used in 1712 by the English essayist, poet and publisher Joseph Addison. He published 11 essays on imagination in The Spectator. In one essay he claims that only the sense of sight supplies ideas to the imagination. He speculated about a congruence between imagiantion and creativity. By the same time, the famous French author and philosopher François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire distinguished between passive and active imagination. On the latter he wrote in his Dictionnaire philosophique that “Active imagination is that which joins combination and reflection to memory. It brings near to us many objects at a distance; it separates those mixed together, compounds them, and changes them; it seems to create, while in fact it merely arranges; for it has not been given to man to make ideas-he is only able to modify them”. Voltaire continued: “This gift of nature is an imagination inventive in the arts – in the disposition of a picture, in the structure of a poem.” Both authors thus indicate that poets are creative, and they equate poet with creator.

Modern times

The resistance against recognizing art as creativity, seen in the preceding centuries, crumbled totally in the 19thcentury. Now art gained recognition as creativity and, moreover, art alone was regarded as creativity. At the turn of the 20th century discussion of creativity in the art as well as in the sciences, e.g. by Jan Łukasiewicz (Sinisi, 2004), and in nature (cf. Bergson, 1907) began. At this point concepts proper to art were applied to the sciences and to nature [Tatarkiewicz, 1980, p. 249]. There was, however, a long waiting time to the scientific study of creativity. The thinking of some modern time scholars will be expounded in the subsequent chapter.

The beginning of scientific study of creativity is generally taken to be J. P. Guilford’s address to the American Psychological Association in 1950. Many scholars joined in the effort to explore creativity in the years to come. They took a more pragmatic approach to this esoteric subject. As creativity became established as a discipline, scholars realized that creativity depends on being practiced. Creativity reveals itself in accomplishments and deeds, rather than in words. While a sound theoretical approach still was important, more and more emphasis was put on developing practical creativity techniques. Important personalities illustrating this approach include Alex Osborn, who in the 1950s invented brainstorming. In the same decade, Genrikh Altov, later calling himself Altshuller, came up with his “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”, better known as TRIZ. In the 1960, Edward de Bono became famous after having developed his influential theory of “Lateral thinking.” These and other theories and techniques are expounded in more detail in subsequent chapters.


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