Poincaré's 'delicate sieve': On creativity and constraints in the arts


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Testimony about episodes of artistic creativity often describes a puzzling combination of deliberate and involuntary elements. For example, Vincent Van Gogh wrote that it was possible for him to make an especially expressive picture, or as he put it, something with “feeling” in it, because the picture had already spontaneously taken form in his mind before he started drawing. He added, however, that if there was something worthwhile in the picture, this was “not by accident but because of real intention and purpose.” Reflection on such testimony and on his own experience as a poet led Paul Valéry to conclude that artistic creation always involves a combination of “conscious acts” and “spontaneous formation”; only their relative proportion varies. If this point is granted, the outstanding and notoriously difficult problem is to understand how such different elements combine in the creative process. In other words, how is inspiration, or the work of the muse, related to the artist’s deliberations, plans, rational choices, and intentional actions? In what follows I shall develop a conjecture that falls within the conceptual space defined by two extreme theses--the popular, inspirationist idea that artistic creativity is a sudden, involuntary, and ultimately inexplicable event, and the dubious, rationalistic counterthesis, which characterizes artistic creation as a principled, deliberate selection from amongst an array of previously known options, each of which is associated with an expected quantity of artistic value. In my first section I discuss Henri Poincaré’s reflections on creativity in his 1908 essay, “L’Invention mathématique.” Although some of Poincaré’s ideas have been restated and elaborated upon in the literature on creativity, I contend that his most important claims still merit a closer look. Taking Poincairé’s general model as my point of departure, I sketch a new conjecture about artistic creativity in section 2; I also discuss a kindred proposal by Jon Elster. In section 3 I further illustrate and explain this conjecture with reference to Virginia Woolf’s artistic breakthrough in the writing of Jacob’s Room. In my final section I take up and respond to objections that may be raised against these claims about artistic creativity.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Idea of Creativity
EditorsKaren BARDSLEY, Denis DUTTON, Michael KRAUSZ
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9789047427902
ISBN (Print)9789004174443, 9789004256828
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Publication series

NamePhilosophy of History and Culture
ISSN (Print)0922-6001


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