Freedom and Creativity in Whitehead

In Lecture 4 of Modes of Thought, Whitehead claims “the essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The Universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity.” The subtitle of this blog is based on a possibly apocryphal quote by Whitehead. “Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe.” If the essence of life for Whitehead is the frustration of the established order, then the essence of life lies in Creativity, the refusal of complete conformity. Indeed, creativity is given the status of “category of the ultimate” by Whitehead in his categoreal scheme. All of the creatures of Whitehead’s philosophy, from God to space dust, are creatures of Creativity. Now, that is not to say that a cloud of space dust is really a creative and inventive artist. It is merely pointing out the fact that things do not remain the same. It is the constant advance of novelty, however trivial it may be.

One might want to dub this “becoming,” but Whitehead refrains from doing so, as the word becoming is reserved for a particular characteristic of actual entities, and creativity is not an actual entity. Furthermore, becoming in Whitehead’s philosophy is something intermittent. Becoming is not temporal for Whitehead, but rather temporality is something that becomes. There is not a continuity of becoming, but a becoming of continuity. However, there is a continuity of creativity, as continuity itself emerges for creativity, yet creativity is not something that is substantive. Everything in the Whiteheadian universe is taking part in creativity, but creativity is something actual only in virtue of entities that are able to condition and characterize it, i.e. actual entities.

Creativity is found in the fact that the world is never the same twice, and the temporal worldand, for Whitehead, the world in generalis constantly producing something new. Even space dust does not merely conform to the past. If there was no creativityno novelty being introduced by entitiesthere would be no change. Even space dust is floating about, sometimes clumping together, sometimes breaking apart, and always undergoing some small change. Life itself is something that is one of the greatest agents of creativity, for it allows for complex types of entities to emerge. Bacteria react to their environment and maintain themselves. Early lifeforms are some of the first things to exhibit complex selective behavior, transforming, reducing, and reacting to the flow of information that they are fine-tuned to receive.

Yet bacteria are not great poets. Their creativity is still trivial, and a bacterium is almost entirely determined by its environment. It is highly limited in its individual capacity to change itself and determine, and the means by which it transforms its experience are primitive. Yet compared to space dust, the bacterium is much more independent of its environment because of the very fact that it resists conformity. It is an active order of events, and the species that it belongs to is as a whole even more dynamic, able to adapt over time in ways of which previous types of entities were simply incapable. It is clear that creativity for Whitehead is not something that floats in from nowhere, but something that develops out of a social environment. Every entity has a conformative period in which the past fills it, and each entity then issues forth from the past a novel satisfaction, something new and different. In a sense, an entity is an interpreter of the past. Every act of interpretation is novel creation and vice versa. Again, if an entity did not introduce anything new into the equation, there would not be a new entity! Rather, there would simply be more of the same.

Humans are, as far as we know, the most advanced organisms in regard to novelty-production due to our complex mental abilities. We are able to imagine, theorize, and plan for the future. Yet like bacteria, we do not create ex nihilo. We exist in a society which conditions us to a large degree. Great poets often do not choose the language in which they write. When John Keats sat down to write Ode on a Grecian Urn, the title alone reveals that he was working off of a past culture and society that had placed ideas into his head. There is an urn which inspires him, one that was created by an artist who, like Keats, was conditioned and shaped to a large extent by his culture. Yet the poem is not merely the sum of Keats’ education, with a mere description of the urn; it is something that has never existed before. However small it may be, Keats does indulge in an act of creation that brings something new into the world through his imagination. There would be no Keats without English culture, no Ode without the ancient poetic traditions, and without Greece, no Grecian Urn, yet it is only through Keats creative capacity that they are able to be tied together and something new emerge. This is, in a large part, interpretation, but it is a creative act nonetheless. Keats is able to be creative precisely because there is a basis of past creativity from which he pushes off and differs himself. Think of the artist who made the Grecian urn in question: they themselves engaged in a similar act of creation which provides a basis for future novelty. Furthermore, the English culture itself emerged through a process of evolution and creation, millions of people and elements contributing to the creation of something that did not exist before, despite the influence and inheritance of the past. Creativity is freedom, and just like there is no pure creativity, there is no absolute freedom, but there are shades and degrees.

What really leads to something coming from nothing, though, is the position that all of this merely evolves entirely out of past states. The claim that everything is merely deterministically conforming to past events is all that happens is not only denying that entities can be creative, but is tantamount to rejecting that there is any change or creation at all. If one admits that there is true novelty, we must explain how it is able to emerge without merely waving our hands to an incoherent system in which things simply pop in from non-things and without submitting to the equally incoherent idea of a perfect being which, for reasons unknown, merely unfolds itself out. We must explain our experience, but we cannot explain it away. That is the chief disease of philosophy, to paraphrase Whitehead, and it must be avoided at all costs. The philosophy of organism is merely an explanation of the most basic fact of novelty. Creativity is not something incoherent that floats in from nowhere, unique to genius individuals, but the most basic and ultimate notion of the universe.

This is not to say that creativity is always something valuable. Keats’ poems, for example, are not valuable to those who cannot read them; they are irrelevant. Aliens on some other planet are, for now, irrelevant to humans. When Whitehead speaks of creativity, he is not making a value judgment. Creativity is not good in and of itself, but rather a condition for the possibility of value. Value emerges based on the ways in which other entities experience and interact with each other, rather than as some absolute factor of creativity. Things of little consequence or value to anything happen more often than not. A single photon flying through empty space is, for all intents and purposes, valueless. Creativity is not valuable per se, but value is something that is created.

It must be remembered that the environment which makes creativity possible is only one side of the story. The past presses down upon the present, but never completely. Even when humans are long gone, this creative advance shall not cease.

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats

 

Note: Some have asked me why Whitehead uses the term creativity rather than something more traditional like “becoming.” The most concise way of putting this reason is that becoming for Whitehead is ontic, it is something that happens to individual things, while creativity is not a thing or entity, but a description of the general process of reality.

Leave your comment