Leading channels of creative activity

From the fine arts we proceed by an easy transition to the processes of discovery and invention which play so important a role in progressive industry and are leading channels of creative activity. The process of discovering a new relation between phenomena, establishing a new fact or a new law, has much in common with artistic creation. The scientific imagination is creative through its use of the existing material of knowledge to frame hypotheses. Indeed, the disinterested play of the mind in the explanation of facts by bringing them within the range of scientific laws, or, conversely, in extending the range of known laws to new groups of facts, is a process of adventure containing novelties of insight and of outlook akin to artistic production. Those philosophers, indeed, who hold that the laws of science are nothing other than the patterns which man imposes upon the phantasmagoria of experience for his own private ends, would make the whole of scientific discovery merely an art, differing from the fine arts in having utility rather than beauty for its goal. But we need not press this interpretation in order to perceive the similarity of all disinterested pursuit of knowledge to the fine arts. When a mathematician speaks of a beautiful solution to a problem, he is not using the language of hyperbole, but attesting to the presence of an æsthetic emotion attendant on the mode in which a truth is reached and stated. Modern physics is full of discoveries containing some such artistic quality, e. g. the grouping of the elements in the proportions of their atomic weight which Mendelieff established, or Sir W. Ramsay's recent discovery of the relations between helium and its chemical kindred. But one need not labour the analogy between artist and scientist. For our main enquiry is into human costs, and it will be admitted that the zest of the scientific student and the joy of discovery are emotions as vital and as valuable in themselves as the emotions of the artist. So far, then, as the scientist comes within our purview as a productive agent, his activity must rank with the artist's, as yielding more human utility than cost. It may, however, be contended that the man of science seldom, as such, enters into the field of industrial productivity, save when he adds to his scientific work the rôle of inventor. With the advent of the inventor the attainment of knowledge is bent to some purpose of industrial utility. But though some definitely gainful purpose may lurk in the inventor's mind, it does not commonly impose upon his work the distinctive costs of labour. For invention, however narrowly utilitarian in its objects and results, still remains in the realm of creation, still yields the satisfaction of a production that is interesting and elevating in itself. It seems to matter little whether the inventive process is a large bold speculative handling of some problem in which the inventor is a pioneer, or whether he is engaged upon the narrower task of bringing the past inventions of many greater minds up to the level of industrial utility by some small new economy. The process of invention carries the quality of interesting novelty which from our standpoint is the badge of creative work. We shall, doubtless, be reminded at this point that history shows the path of the inventor to be almost as hard as that of the transgressor, strewn with toil and disappointments. But though a great invention, like a great work of art, often conceals an arduous and painful gestation under the appearance of a spontaneous generation, too much must not be made of such a cost.

The training of a creative faculty, though like all training it involves an exercise and a discipline not pleasing in themselves, can, indeed, scarcely be regarded in our sense as a cost of labour. It is a furtherance and not a repression of personality: the practice it involves, the technique it imparts are not merely mechanical aptitudes, and they always carry in them the conscious hope of creative achievement. The education of artistic or inventive faculty involves no real wear and tear of human vitality beyond that physical waste which every prolonged occupation involves. Invention itself involves no cost. In none of these operations is the characteristic of labour present, the giving-out of some single sort of energy by constant repetition of identical acts in a narrow groove of endeavour. Such acts of labour are indeed inimical to invention: the act of invention comes commonly in times of leisure. It is the product more of play than of work, and the element of instinct, perhaps even of chance, is often a factor of success.

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