All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1965

The Flight From Reality: 10. The New Creativity

Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. Among his earlier writings in THE FREEMAN were his series on The Fateful Turn and The American Tradition, both of which are now available as books.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from.

-Walt Whitman, 1855

In fact, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel ourselves irradiated as by a new rosy dawn by the report that “the old God is dead”; our hearts thereby overflow with gratitude…. At last the horizon seems once more unobstructed…; our ships can at last start on their voyages once more….

-Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882

Now this empirical knowledge has grown till it has broken its low and limited sphere of application and esteem. It has itself become an organ of inspiring imagination through introducing ideas of boundless possibility… irrespective of fixed limits…. It is convertible into creative and con­structive philosophy.         -John Dewey, 1920

The twentieth century abounds in paradoxes. Not the least of these is the disparity between technological developments on the one hand and developments in arts, politics, and social arrangements on the other. No other century in history can match what has al­ready taken place in the twentieth in technological inventions, im­provements, and devices. It staggers the imagination to survey what has been wrought in the last hundred years, to extend the sur­vey back into the previous century a few years. Some will not con­sider all the innovations unquali­fied blessings, but everyone must marvel at what has been provided: electric lights, automobiles, me­chanical refrigerators, phono­graphs, airplanes, radio, televi­sion, typewriters, calculators, and so on through an ever-increasing list of contrivances. It has not been many years since a hospital was usually a way station to the funeral parlor. A revolution—to use the word dubiously—has oc­curred in the last generation in medicine. Scientific developments have taken place which have rend­ered the doings of scientists into something beyond the ken of out­siders. Technological progress has gone forward at an unparalleled pace.

By contrast, there has been a decided retrogression in the arts and literature. The techniques for purveying the arts and literature have kept pace with technological developments elsewhere. For ex­ample, the invention of recording and of phonographs has made pos­sible, the reproduction of musical programs in the home with great fidelity to the original playing. But the quality of music composed in this century is generally far inferior to that of the preceding century. It is true that audiences will now tolerate a selection from a twentieth century composer—from Stravinsky, Bartok, Ives, or Copland—if it is surrounded in the program by pieces composed in earlier centuries.

Contemporary painting and painters apparently flourish, but the art of careful drawing and painting is largely kept alive by commercial requirements. The nov­el has degenerated into barely dis­guised biographical accounts of the doings of bohemians, or into thinly coated historical recrea­tions. Contemporary poetry con­sists of jingles on the one hand and jumbles of words without form or rhyme or reason on the other. If the case of architecture is somewhat better, it can prob­ably be attributed mainly to the taste of those who pay the bills, not to those who purvey the serv­ices. Such exceptions as occur to the above generalizations only serve to highlight the general con­dition.

Objections Anticipated

The usual objections to the above critique need to be dealt with, at least summarily. It can be objected that the evaluation of the arts and literature is a matter of taste. This amounts, however, to saying that there are no standards by which to judge the arts. The belief, and the prac­tices that follow from it, that there are no standards is just an­other instance, as well as a cause, of the deterioration in the arts. Another frequent objection to the above critique goes something like this: Every age and time has its mediocre and inferior artists. In the course of time, these are for­gotten, and only the giants remain. Such is undoubtedly the case, but it is largely irrelevant as a ref­utation of the above contention.

My point is not simply that the twentieth century has no musical master of the caliber of Beethoven, or that not every writer has reached the heights of Mozart; it is rather that the composers rated as first rate are inferior to first rate composers of earlier centur­ies, that the second rate are infer­ior to the second rate ones, and that the caliber of music being produced does not measure up to past standards. I read somewhere that a composer had a scholarship for a year, I think it was, in which he composed a violin concerto. Mozart composed five concertos for the violin between April and De­cember of 1775. If it be objected that Mozart was a genius, one should still note that like geniuses are missing from among us. In short, there is no evidence of prog­ress in the arts commensurate with that in the sciences and tech­nology.

Political and Social Deterioration

Political and social develop­ments are not quite so difficult to evaluate, nor the positions taken quite so controversial as those about the arts. The evidence for positions taken is more readily assembled and more nearly appar­ent. The indications of political deterioration in this century are abundant and conclusive. In the political realm, the tendency al­most everywhere in the world has been toward totalitarianism, dic­tatorship, arbitrary government, the police state, the rounding up and imprisoning of political dis­sidents, the overthrow of older orders, and political experimenta­tion and manipulation. The belief in and observance of lawful modes of operation by agents of govern­ments has fallen below what it was generally in the seventeenth century. (There are, of course, countries in which this is not yet the case.) Socially, the breakup of the authority of the family evinces itself in divorce rates and juvenile delinquency.

Many would object to the par­ticulars of the above formulations, but there is widespread agree­ment that there is great disparity between developments in science and those elsewhere. In academic circles the disparity is acknowl­edged backhandedly by some such analysis as this: The humanities and social sciences need to catch up with the physical sciences and technology. Knowledge about hu­man beings has not kept pace, it is alleged, with that about things.

In Proper Sequence

Such a way of putting it almost completely obscures the roots of the untoward political and artistic developments. It puts the best pos­sible face on what has occurred and allows the very men and ideas which have wrought the conse­quences to go free of responsibil­ity for it. Historically, politics and the arts were not behind technol­ogy in the application of ideas drawn from science. If anything, the reverse was the case. The ar­tistic, political, and social implica­tions of modern science were being generally pointed out and applied by the eighteenth century. (It will be remembered that modern sci­ence emerged in the seventeenth century.) By contrast, the tech­nological implications are still un­folding, and this is largely a nine­teenth and twentieth century de­velopment.

It does not follow, of course, that the social studies and human­ities are ahead of technology now. They are neither ahead nor be­hind. What has happened cannot be fitted into a nice progressivist formulation at all. Politics and the arts have been cut off from real­ity; the proponents and develop­ers of them have been engaged in a flight from reality. By contrast, technology is still rooted in its scientific foundations, and prac­ticing scientists appear to be closer to reality than do other in­tellectuals. If technology should follow the path of the social studies and the humanities it would be cut loose from its founda­tions in laws and might be ex­pected, subsequently, to degener­ate.

Creature or Creator?

The key to understanding what has happened in the humanities and social studies (and from them to the arts and to politics) is the new conception of creativity. The way has been partially prepared thus far in this study for under­standing the New Creativity, but before pointing out the connec­tions to it of positions already es­tablished it may be well to ex­amine the idea of creativity from an historical point of view.

So far as I can tell, the use of creativity to refer to something that man does or can do is a re­cent innovation. Certainly, this usage has no foundation in the main Western tradition of thought. Traditionally, creation was what God did when he brought the universe into being, or, following the account in Gene­sis, gave the universe its form and brought beings into existence. One unabridged dictionary gives this as its first meaning of the word “creation.” To wit: “The act of creating from nothing; the act of causing to exist; and especially, the act of bringing this world into existence.” On the other hand, the American College Dictionary drops this particular meaning to third position, and deals with it as a special phrase. It says, “the Crea­tion, the original bringing into existence of the universe by the Deity.” The most absolute view of creativity imaginable was held by St. Augustine concerning God’s creation of the world. He held that it was created ex nihilo, out of nothing.

How, 0 God, didst Thou make heaven and earth? Truly, neither in the heaven nor in the earth didst Thou make heaven and earth; nor in the air, nor in the waters, since these also belong to the heaven and the earth; nor in the whole world didst Thou make the whole world; because there was no place wherein it could be made before it was made, that it might be; nor didst Thou hold anything in Thy hand where­with to make heaven and earth….1

There were differences among philosophers, of course, as to the extent and character of the Crea­tion. Aristotle did not even believe that the universe had been cre­ated; it has always existed, he thought. Probably a more usual view was that the universe was created, but that this consisted of giving it form and order. Be that as it may, what man does was not conceived of as creativity. Plato and Aristotle conceived of the artist as imitating reality. For example, Aristotle said: “Tragedy, then, [by which he meant a tragic drama] is an imitation of an ac­tion….”² They did not neces­sarily, or particularly, mean a lit­eral imitation of things as they appear to the sight.

Conveying the Ideals

Traditionally, the arts have been imitative of an underlying order. They have evoked ideals, caught the essence of man, or of a man, captured and set forth that which the most sensitive perceive in a thing. In short, the artists, too, labored in a metaphysical frame­work. They did not create; they imitated, but this was by no means a lowly task. Few things could be more worthy of doing than to make visible by painting and sculpture, to make audible by music, to communicate by drama and poetry, or to cast in concrete form by architecture the under­lying order in the universe and the ideals of justice, honor, truth, beauty, and piety by which men should live. That the artist did not create these was no reproach; it was enough that he should con­vey them. In this context, if the artist were to create, he would be committing a fraud, for he would be deceiving men as to the nature of the underlying reality.

Nor were other kinds of activity  conceived of as being creativity. Social thinkers were not supposed to be creating social and political relationships, but rather discover­ing them and setting them forth. Morality was behavior in accord with the order in the universe and/or Divine injunction. Notice the language in which the work of authors and inventors is de­scribed in the United States Con­stitution in the phrase which em­powers Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respec­tive Writings and Discoveries.” Even the inventor was apparently thought of as a discoverer.

Something New

But a change has occurred. Nowadays, all sorts of undertak­ings are described as being crea­tive. There are courses in creative writing in colleges. There are books on creative thinking, re­searches into the sources of crea­tivity, articles on creative group thinking, and public expressions of concern about how to foster creativity. Invention, discovery, innovation, artistic endeavor, and social thought are now conceived of as being creative. The follow­ing definitions and examples of usage indicate the scope of the word as it is now employed. One writer approves this definition heartily: “Creativity is the imag­inatively gifted recombination of known elements into something new.”3 Another writer says:

My definition, then, of the creative process is that it is the emergence in action of a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other.4

He points out that his definition embraces all sorts of activities: Creativity is not, in my judgment, restricted to some particular content. I am assuming that there is no fundamental difference in the creative process as it is evidenced in painting a picture, composing a symphony, devising new instruments of killing, developing a scientific theory, dis­covering new procedures in human relationships, or creating new formings of one’s own personality as in psycho-therapy. 5 Dictionaries have come to in­clude these new meanings of cre­ativity. The American College Dic­tionary offers as one definition of “create”: “to evolve from one’s own thought or imagination.” An­other defines “creation” as “any­thing produced or caused to exist, in mechanics, science, or art; es­pecially an unusual product of the mind; as the master creations of art.”

It could be objected that this is all a matter of semantics, that the word has come to have an addi­tional meaning, that at most there is some ambiguity in such usuages. But the loose use of language is not something to be taken lightly, even if this were all that is in­volved. We think and express our­selves in words. We may not be conscious of the connotations and overtones of language; these nev­ertheless influence our thinking and color what we say for those who hear or read it.

But what is involved here is not simply a matter of semantics. A new conception of creativity has been developed. Many have come to think of man as a creator. In­vention, discovery, innovation, and origination have come to be thought of as creation. The frame­work within which this occurred has already been set forth. It in­cluded the cutting loose from re­ality, the sloughing off of the past by denying repetition in history, and the positing of a new reality—a reality consisting of change, so­ciety, and psyche. The impetus to social creativity was provided by the visions of utopia that could be created, and a new pseudo phi­losophy—pragmatism—provided a substitute philosophy which al­lowed free play to the imagination.

The Role of Romanticism

Several lines of thought con­verged to buttress the new con­ception of creativity. Romanticism was the first of these outlooks to appear. Romantics exalted the im­agination, the will, desire, feeling, and subjective experience. They tended to withdraw inward to dis­cover that which was most impor­tant to them. Romantics tended to exalt literary and artistic ac­tivity, to see in it a means of con­tact with the Divine, or, depend­ing upon the thinker, a divine ac­tivity itself. The poet, or other artist, was thought of as having a particularly high calling, for he could transcend the limits of or­dinary experience by intuitions and grasp things of the greatest importance. The artist, at least, became a kind of demigod to many thinkers.


A second strain in the New Cre­ativity came from what can be called evolutionism. If it is proper to speak of revolutions in thought, then it is no exaggeration to say that the theory of organic evolution was the basis for a profound intellectual revolution. All sorts of hypotheses were spawned in the wake of the spread of this idea. If accepted in all its implications, Darwinian evolution fundamental­ly altered conceptions of creativity. Christians had generally believed, prior to the latter part of the nineteenth century, that Creation was a completed act of God. But now some thinkers began to con­ceive of creativity as an ongoing process, something that had oc­curred in time and might be ex­pected to continue in time.

The crucial point for creativity, as it is being considered here, was whether or not man could actually participate in this evolutionary creativity. Social Darwinists, such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, held that he could not. The course of evolution was determined by “forces.” Per­haps the most influential philo­sophical theory that man partici­pates in evolution is the theory of Creative Evolution. It was set forth in 1907 by Henri Bergson, a French philosopher. Bergson held that evolution cannot be ex­plained by the operation of me­chanical forces. There are mo­ments of “spontaneous originality in nature, and especially in cer­tain activities and experiences of mankind. The work of a great poet or painter clearly cannot be ex­plained by merely mechanical forces…. This kind of activ­ity…, resulting in something new, is typical of creative evolution.”6

Man Participates

There has been a variety of ap­plications of the notion that man participates in evolution creative­ly. The most important, from the point of view of this study, is the one known as reform Darwinism, a doctrine advanced particularly by Lester Frank Ward. Ward held that by social invention man could direct and control the course of social evolution. That is, he could create instruments for doing this, and, indeed, had been doing so for ages. Man participates in evolu­tion by developing means for co­operating with the process of evolution. The idea would seem to be this: one may by study discern the evolutionary trends. He can then work with them to bring about desired ends. Ward thought he discerned a rising social con­sciousness in his day, that the time when society would take over the direction of affairs collectively was at hand, and that the acqui­sition of knowledge would be for the purpose of fostering this de­velopment. He said, “If it can be shown that society is actually mov­ing toward any ideal, the ultimate substantial realization of that ideal is as good as proved. The proofs of such a movement in so­ciety to-day are abundant.”7

Science and Technology

A third stream to enter the New Creativity has been called scien­tism. No one has advanced a doc­trine or ideology by that name; it is a derogatory term applied to the practice of indiscriminately extending the ideas or methods of science. More specifically, the development to which I allude should probably be called technologism, though the language is al­ready sufficiently barbarized by “isms” without adding another. At any rate, there is a view of cre­ativity drawn largely from tech­nology. Many people have been swept off their feet, as it were, by developments in technology. They have been so awed by the achieve­ments in this area that they have thought there was a major clue for all areas of human activity in technology. There may be, but the development to which I refer was based upon a misunderstanding of technology. As we have seen in an earlier article, John Dewey con­fused science with technology, failed to take into account the fact that technologists apply previously discovered laws, deduced meth­ods from the behavior of tech­nologists, and proposed to apply these to all human thought and activity. Essentially, he thought that the inventor created, and that this kind of activity could be end­lessly extended.

Existentialism Promoted: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

The fourth support for the new conception of creativity came from existentialism. Actually, this phi­losophy did not get much fame, or notoriety, until after World War II with the writings of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But the origins of the ideas are traced back into the nineteenth century, primarily to Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus, some of the ideas can be said to have buttressed the New Cre­ativity, though the philosophy was not yet known by its current name. Nietzsche’s impact, at least, was considerable in artistic circles in the early twentieth century. For example, H. L. Mencken was an early American devotee of Niet­zsche.

There are several schools of ex­istentialism, but they generally share several premises with one another. The basic one, the one from which the name comes, is that existence precedes essences. Existentialists see man, or perhaps men, as creatures existing in space and time. The most im­portant fact in the world, to them, is existence. They are not inter­ested in, indeed are opposed to, essences, or the search for es­sences. They want to confront ex­perience in all its richness, not in some abstraction from it. To really be is to act, for in acting one’s existence is filled out and extended. Existentialists run the gamut from rugged individualists to Christians to Marxists. But what­ever their tendency, they are con­cerned with the here and now, with the given existence, with act­ing upon it and coming more fully to be.

Did Man Create God?

Nietzsche provided the most drastic foundation for human cre­ativity. God is dead, said Niet­zsche, and he had a profound con­ception of the significance of what he was saying. He was proclaim­ing, too, that the past was dead, that the foundations of Western civilization were gone, that man’s views must be drastically reori­ented. As one writer puts it, “For when God is at last dead for man, when the last gleam of light is extinguished and only the impene­trable darkness of a universe that exists for no purpose surrounds us, then at last man knows that he is alone in a world where hehas to create his own values.”8 It meant something more too; it meant that men created their gods. God existed for Nietzsche, only so long as men sustained their belief in Him. This was an exact reversal of the traditional view, the view that God created man and sustained him by His Providence. There are implicit conclusions that must logically follow: namely, that man is higher than the gods, for he has created them; that man is the lord of creation, for he is the highest being; that if creation could occur, it would probably be by man. Nietzsche talked of a Superman, the unusual man (or men) who would rise above moral­ity, go beyond good and evil to become the new master.

Before God!—Now however this God hath died! Ye higher men, this God was your greatest danger.

Only since he lay in the grave have ye again arisen. Now only cometh the great noontide, now only doth the higher man become—master!9

Not all the exponents of the New Creativity were as sensational in their advocacy as was Nietzsche, of course. But even the pedestrian John Dewey talked about a theory of art which has its foundation in the new view. Dewey discusses essentialism as a way of seeing things. He does not, however, believe that there are any essences which subsist in a metaphysical realm. The habit of looking to essences is merely something created and maintained by artists:

If we are now aware of essential meanings, it is mainly because art­ists in all the various arts have ex­tracted and expressed them in vivid and salient subject-matter of percep­tion. The forms or Ideas which Plato thought were models and patterns of existing things actually had their source in Greek art, so that his treatment of artists is a supreme in­stance of intellectual ingratitude)

It turns out, then, according to Dewey, that the foundations of Western philosophy were planted by artists in the mind of Plato. Philosophy, it appears, was really created by dramatists.

A New Creativity has emerged then, a radical view of man’s ca­pabilities, a changed conception of art and social affairs. Those who hold these views see man as a creator. The roots of the creativity are in the psyche, in the subcon­scious; in short, creativity arises from the irrational depths of the mind. Great value is placed upon innovation, change, originality, experiment, all of which are sup­posed to result in new creations.

Subconscious and Irrational

Perhaps the strangest of con­tradictions in a paradoxical age is that between the avowed eval­uation of man and the men one confronts in imaginative litera­ture. On the one hand, man is held in the highest esteem, supposed to be capable of doing great things, viewed as entrustable with great power, held to be innately good, and life is presented in the ethos of the time as a potentially highly enjoyable affair. On the other hand, novels and stories arc more apt than not to show the gradual degradation of a man in the course of his life, the disin­tegration of his personality, the emptiness of the things he does, and so on. This story is told over and over again in modern fiction. These contradictions, and others alluded to earlier, can be explained largely in terms of the New Cre­ativity. The attempt to locate creativity in the subconscious has resulted in irrational artistic pro­ductions. That which is dredged up from the irrational is irra­tional; that which is undisciplined in its production is undisciplined. It is at least plausible that the contents of the subconscious are subconscious for good and suffi­cient reason, that the subconscious is the garbage pail of the mind, and that one may no more look for the clue to life or for sustenance for healthy living there than in actual garbage pails. That which comes to us directly from these depths poisons life. The evidence for such a conclusion now exists in great profusion.

The attempt to create something out of nothing, or to draw from the junk yard of the psyche, re­sults in noise instead of music, chaos rather than order in paint­ing, disfigurement rather than form in sculpture, the denigration of man rather than his exaltation in literature, the death of art rather than life. Social invention aimed at creation based on the inchoate “needs” and “desires” of people has resulted in arbitrary government, the loss of liberty, the tendency of governments to become total in character, the dis­ruption of economies, social dis­location, and inharmonious rela­tionships among people.

Materializing the Mirage

The explanations for these de­velopments is now before us. Thinkers and artists have cut themselves off from their exper­ience, posited or accepted a “new reality,” and believed it was pos­sible for them actually to create something. They calculate or act in terms of time, society, and be­liefs or feelings of men, all of which are subject to change. They ignore the underlying and endur­ing realities: the laws in the uni­verse, the principles of human action, the essentials of artistic or economic production, human na­ture, and the conditions of liberty.

If man could indeed create, there would be no theoretical reason why governments could not issue fiat money and prevent inflation at the same time, why everything could not be controlled and di­rected by governments and the liberties of the people increased, why a world government of law could not be established without putting up with the inconvenience of having laws founded upon an enduring order, why the United States (or the Soviet Union) could not intervene in the affairs of other countries without subtract­ing from their independence, why taxes could not be lowered and government services increased without any untoward effects, why governments could not confiscate private property and still get pri­vate investors from other lands to pour money into their indus­tries, why the prices of those things that go into the production of goods could not be fixed and have retail prices remain flexible, why writers could not create a vision of order which would in­form their writings without be­lieving in any such real order, why painters could not picture beauty and order without disci­pline, why children could not be made good by surrounding them with pleasant objects without any support from the belief in and knowledge of a moral order in the universe, why the economy could not be collectivized and individ­ualism retained, and so on through what could be a much longer list of the fads, foibles, and dangerous doctrines of an era.

It is not strange that literary critics should be fascinated with ambiguities today. Men who lack a firm grip on the nature of man and the universe must surely be overcome with the failure of that which was intended and promised to materialize. There is an ex­planation for all of this. The no­tion that man can create realities out of irrational longing is not itself founded in reality. All at­tempts to act upon such premises must needs be abortive.

There is an explanation, too, for the otherwise strange and in­comprehensible doings of reform­ers in this century. They have largely lost touch with reality. They have imagined themselves as gods or demigods who could create a reality out of their dream of it. It turns out that they were only men. It is small wonder that those who feel deepest should turn upon man, then, and describe him as so contemptible.

The next article in this series will treat of “The Domestication of Socialism.”

From a seller’s tag attached to a handbrush:

User’s Duty

Truth spreads by testimony. There is a sort of high compulsion, which lofty spirits recognize, to bear witness to the truth when­ever found. That is how good standard merchandise gets world­wide distribution. A purchaser who has pleasure and satisfaction from the use of this brush spreads the news of his discovery to others whom he desires to enrich. If this brush pleases you, will you not tell about it to the most appreciative person you know?

Foot Notes

1 Quoted in W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Har­court, Brace and Co., 1952), p. 354.

2 Ibid., p. 250.

3 Harold F. Harding, “The Need for a More Creative Trend in American Edu­cation,” A Source Book for Creative Thinking, Sidney J. Parnes and Harold F. Harding, eds. (New York: Scribner’s, 1962), p. 5.

4 Carl R. Rogers, “Toward a Theory of Creativity,” in ibid., p. 65.

5 Ibid.

6 Encyclopaedia Britannica, VI (1955), 652.

7 Lester F. Ward, “Sociocracy,” Amer­ican Thought, Perry Miller, ed. (New York: Rinehart, 1954), p. 117.

8 William Barrett, “Introduction,” Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, III, William Barrett and Henry D. Aiken, eds. (New York: Random House, 1962) 148. Italics mine.

9 Quoted in Richard H. Powers, ed., Readings in European Civilization (Cam­bridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 505.

¹º John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Minton, Balch & Co., 1934), p. 294.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.