Here are what I consider the key books to read to have an understanding of creativity and culture.
A few years ago, when I would look at bibliographies in the papers of young academics, I would universally find Benjamin, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, etc.—otherwise known as “the usual suspects.” I would wonder – don’t any of these young academics have any original discoveries? And of course they are not permitted originality. They are on vicious treadmills toward tenure, and they must mimic their teachers who in turn mimic theirs.
So, I hope my list of sources shows some originality. It has attracted negative comments from some of my colleagues—a good sign, I hope. The comments page at the end of this section is open.
Let me begin by saying I do not find much of use in neurophysiologyical approaches to creativity. Some day it may be useful to know which lobes of the brain light up in an fMRI when someone is trying to think of as many things to do with a brick as they can, but that time is still a way off.
And I reject materialist approaches to culture. Currently Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and his Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed are all the rage. I find them of little use. Of course people use the recourses they have and don’t use the recourses they don’t have. But cultures are ultimately symbolic meaning systems, and a materialist approach does not tell us, for example, why the Maya and Egyptians had almost identical cultural structures while differing in their technologies (the Maya had no bronze, wheeled vehicles, or draft animals), or why Japan became a great industrial and technology power without iron, coal, or oil, or why it has recently faltered.
My approach to Visionary Creativity is organized around a core organizing idea:
Visionary Creativity is embedded in its culture, and at the same time remakes its culture. The Visionary Creative is aware that the world has changed in a profound way, that it is no longer what we have thought it to be, and that a new world is struggling to be born. The Visionary Creative is driven to bring to the rest of us this new world. It is this drive that leads to great works of art, paradigm shifts in science, and transformative businesses.
So, let’s do some unpacking of this statement. It posits that cultures are symbolic meaning systems that are manifest in works of art, so we can understand these symbolic meaning systems through the arts of a culture.
It also posits that there is an interplay between the consciousness of the individual creative and the culture.
So, how do we arrive at this core organizing idea? With two primary books. All the rest is commentary.
First lists, then with comments.
• The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler
• Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
Some of the books providing commentary, arranged in categories, are:
CULTURE AND ART
• Man’s Rage for Chaos, by Morse Peckham
• Masks of God (four volumes), Joseph Campbell
• Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, by Ernst Cassirer
• Vision in Motion, by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
• Modern Architecture, Vincent Scully
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
• The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn
• Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert
• The Quest for a Quantum Computer, by Julian R. Brown
• Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch
• Microcosm, George Gilder
• The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil
• The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler
• Engines of Creation, by Eric Drexler
INFORMATION AND GENOMICS
• The Mathematical Theory of Communication, by Warren Weaver and Claude Shannon
• The Information, by James Gleick
• The Recursive Universe, by William Poundstone
• A New Kind of Science, by Stephen Wolfram
• Human, All Too Human, by Friedrich Nietzsche
• Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, by Anton Ehrenzweig
• Phenomenology of Perception, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
• The Mythic Image, by Joseph Campbell
• Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
• The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu, trans. by Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English
• Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chogyam Trungpa
• Nature, Man and Woman, by Alan Watts
• Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, by John Lobell
• Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
• Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
The books again, this time with comments.
The Decline of the West
by Oswald Spengler
“The means to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is Metaphor.”
Spengler has two great insights. The first is that the great cultures of the world—Western, Greco-Roman, ancient Egyptian, Chinese, etc.—each have a distinctive inner symbolic configuration. The second is that each culture goes through a natural “lifecycle” from birth and youth, to maturity, to old age, and finally ossification. The two insights combined, along with his abundance of historical and cultural examples, make his work endlessly illuminating.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
by Marshal McLuhan
McLuhan is associated with the phrase, “The medium is the message.” By this he means that the importance of any medium (by which he means not only print and television, but just about any technology including the automobile) is not in its content, but in the medium itself. Thus trains will stop infrequently and lead to distinct towns, while automobile can stop anywhere, leading to sprawl. In both cases, these effects are independent of what they carry.
McLuhan shows how each new medium rebalances the senses and thereby how we perceive. Just as exercising a muscle will cause it to grow and strengthen, so exercising (for example) the part of the visual cortex used in reading will cause it to grow, strengthen, dominate other functions, and change the way we experience everything.
Long ignored following his phenomenal popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s (when ‘media ecology departments sprang up in universities like mushrooms, and many PhD theses were based on single paragraphs from McLuhan’s book), McLuhan is again back in fashion as a precusor of the Internet age. Now if some people would actually read the books …
Books by Joseph Campbell:
Hero With a Thousand Faces
Masks of God (four volumes)
– Primitive Mythology
– Oriental Mythology
– Occidental Mythology
– Creative Mythology
– “Symbol Without Meaning,” essay in his book, Flight of the Wild Gander
In Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell presents what he calls the monomyth, the underlying structure of many fairytales, myths, and religious patterns: Call to the adventure, separation from ordinary reality, crossing a threshold, winning a decisive victory, reconciliation with the father, and a return to enrich the world. (Think “Star Wars.”)
The book is filled with rich examples from many cultures. His original intended title for the book had been, “How to Read a Myth,” and it remains an excellent presentation of the notion of Metaphor, a notion Campbell returned to in one of his last books, “Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth and As Religion.” It also treats the “inner journey,” making it a rich supra-psychological exploration, one that, since it draws on the insights of numerous non-Western cultures, transcends the limited psychologies of the West.
Campbell acknowledged that the intent of Hero was to look for similarities, or rather a pattern, and he stated that his next major work, the four-volume “Masks of God” was intended to be about differences. Reading these four volumes is quite an experience, and can be a rich education. One can easily spend four years on them, a year each to read, then follow the footnotes, and then re-read.
“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”- Joseph Campbell
“No one in our century–not Freud, not Jung, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss–has sop brought a mythic sense of the world back into daily consciousness.” – James Hillman speaking of Joseph Campbell
Campbell defines myth broadly to include art, literature, and religion, and is a master at “reading a myth.” But far beyond mythology, Campbell is the most powerful interpreter of human culture, not through his own theories, but through enabling us to understand a culture’s own presentation of itself.
The human story is told over thousands of years of very capable people seeking to understand the higher order of things and their place in that order. We have made remarkable advances with our sciences (of which Campbell is very aware and very appreciative) but we would be foolish to think that we have nothing to learn from other cultures. Indeed outside of the sciences we probably have a lot to learn. For example our youthful psychology pales before the two thousand plus years of Buddhist studies of the mind.
While Hero is Campbell’s most important single book, all of his work is worth reading. His essay “Symbol Without Meaning” in Flight of the Wild Gander is an incredible insight into our contemporary condition, and his Masks of God provides powerful insight into the world’s great culture systems.
These books constitute perhaps the richest presentation of the diversity of the human experience, revealing the very different experiences of the worlds of the shamanisms of the Paleolithic, the task of putting oneself in accord with transcendent oneness of India, the task of submission in the Middle East, and moral center in the heart of each individual in the West. In summing up these four volumes, Campbell wrote:
“The geographical divide between the Oriental and Occidental range of myth and ritual is the tableland of Iran. Eastward are the two spiritual provinces of India and the Far East; westward, Europe and the Levant.
Throughout the Orient the idea prevails that the ultimate ground of being transcends thought, imaging, and definition. It cannot be qualified. Hence, to argue that God, Man, or Nature is good, just, merciful, or benign, is to fall short of the question. Once could as appropriately—or inappropriately—have argued, evil, unjust, merciless, or malignant….
In the Western range of the mythological thought and imagery, on the other hand, whether in Europe or in the Levant, the ground of being is normally personified as a Creator, of whom man is the creature, and the two are not the same; so that here the function of myth and ritual cannot be to catalyze an experience of ineffable identity.”
His essay, “Symbol Without Meaning” in his “Flight of the Wild Gander” is one of the most powerful statements of the sweep of human experience and the potential for the contemporary condition in which the historical traditions have shed their meanings and in which we now exist in free fall. It ends:
“Within the time of our lives, it is highly improbable that any solid rock will be found to which Prometheus can again be durably shackled…. The creative researches and wonderful daring of our scientists today partake far more of the lion spirit of shamanism than of the piety of priest and peasant. They have shed all fear of the bounding serpent king.”
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
by Ernst Cassirer
In contrast to the position of analytical philosophical traditions, which hold that human’s are “rational animals,” Cassirer argues that humans are “symbolic animals,” creating for themselves universes of symbolic meanings. Science and mathematics developed from natural language, and religion and art develop from myth. I take a similar position in the work presented on this site. In An Essay on Man, Cassirer presents the same ideas in a more popular format.
Vision in Motion
by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
One way to see modern art is that it is reflective of our move from a Newtonian to a relativistic universe. Art then becomes about motion. Moholy-Nagy’s dense book, a major production for its time, presents this transformation in the arts, in sciences, in various technologies, and in literature.
by Vincent Scully
Unpacking it can lead to an entire education. In this brief volume and his companion book on Frank Lloyd Wright, Scully presents one of the beist brief descriptions of the modern condition. The fact that the book is now xx years old gives us a chance to evaluate Scully’s notions with the advantage of historical perspective.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
by Thomas Kuhn
Kuhn, in seeking to explain how scientific ideas develop, introduced the now common term “paradigm shift” to refer to a change in a broad scientific mindset, and as a result of his book we now often use paradigm synonymously with “worldview.” Prior to Kuhn, we had been told that science advances incrementally as new data accumulates and necessitates new theories to accommodate it. Kuhn showed that this is not the case. Rather, science develops when a new paradigm is generated in a creative act.
Many interpreters of Kuhn claim that he says that a paradigm shift happens when too many anomalies (facts that don’t fit the current paradigm) accumulate. But that is not what he says. He says that anomalies are always there from the beginning of any new paradigm. He does not say where new paradigms come from. I do in my book, Visionary Creativity. They come from an interplay between Visionary Creatives and their cultures.
Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics
by Nick Herbert
TBD (to be done)
Fabric of Reality
by David Deutsch
TBD (to be done)
by George Gilder
TBD (to be done)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ray Kurzweil
Kurzweil, a technology entrepreneur and futurist, is an advocate for what is called the Singularity. “The Singularity” has several definitions, including a hypothetical time when technological progress, including in the field of artificial intelligence, becomes so rapid, it radically alters the human condition.
The most obvious example is Moore’s Law, which observes that the number of transistors on the latest computer chips doubles about every two years. If this rate continues, in twenty years a single chip will have more circuitry than the human brain, and in forty years more circuitry than all of the brains of all of the people who ever lived. Kurzweil, like many scientists, equates circuitry with intelligence, and intelligence with consciousness.
We might question Kurzweil’s understanding of consciousness, but we should not question the potential of this exponential growth, which he points out is taking place not only in electronics. For example, beginning in 1989, the US Department of Energy project to do the first human DNA sequence cost $10 billion and took eleven years. Beginning in 1998, Craig Venter’s Celera project did it for $300 million in two years. In 2007 the DNA of James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was sequenced for $1 million. In 2010 Complete Genomics announced that it will soon be able to do it for $5,000, and later in 2010 a Harvard physicist announced a technique that might do it for $30 at your local drug store while you wait. Those who start to think about what we are going to do with these technologies will be our future Visionary Creatives.
For Kurzweil, the ultimate outcome of all this will be a merging of human and machine intelligence and a migration of intelligence outward from the planet. He writes:
“The explosive nature of exponential growth means it may only take a quarter of a millennium to go from sending messages on horseback to saturating the matter and energy in our solar system with sublimely intelligent processes. The ongoing expansion of our future superintelligence will then require moving out into the rest of the universe, where we may engineer new universes.”
Hubris? Of course.
The Third Wave
by Alvin Toffler
TBD (to be done)
Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology
by Eric Drexler
“Nanotechnology” has a wide range of meanings, ranging from extensions of conventional physics to completely new approaches based upon molecular self-assembly, which is Drexler’s interest.
To jump ahead, Drexler’s vision is that some day we will each have an oven sized devices in our home that will take common elements, particularly carbon, and assemble them, one atom at a time, into anything we want, from a diamond ring to a sirloin steak, all cheaper than the cost of potatoes.
molecular self-assembly, from developing new materials with dimensions on the nanoscale to direct control of matter on the atomic scale. Nanotechnology entails the application of fields of science as diverse as surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, microfabrication, etc.
Nanotechnology is now a pervasive term, but it also has a wide range of meanings. The common meaning is now materials science which deals with small dimensions. But Drexler’s original meaning, now termed “molecular manufacturing,” was to make things by assembling single atoms or molecules.
Phenomenology of Perception
by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Post-modernism has offered us the “social construction of reality.” Merleau-Ponty offers us an understanding of the means through which such construction might actually take place. Merleau-Ponty’s great insight is that the “body-subject” as a giver of meaning through intentionality. Perception not only comes into the senses, it also goes out from the body, giving meaning to the environment. All of our experience originates with our perceptions, which in turn consists not only of the conscious and unconscious mind, but also of the pre-conscious, namely the structure of the body itself. The ceiling is high or low because I am short or tall. The chair is a chair because I can sit on it. The chair is made of wood because I have the category wood, which is made of chemicals, which are made of atoms because I have those categories in my mind.
The Fabric of Reality
by David Deutsch
This just might be the single most important book of the 21st Century (although it was published in 1997.) In it Deutsch, a pioneer in quantum computing at Oxford University, presents a fundamentally new view of reality that takes seriously four fundamental ideas of science that are fully accepted, but whose implications are widely ignored. These are: quantum theory, evolution, computation, and the theory of knowledge. Taken together, these four theories not only present us with the multiverse, the idea in quantum theory that when a particle has to make a decision to take one of two paths, it in fact takes both, and the universe splits at that moment into two parallel universes. This happens ad infinitum. One of Deutsch’s proofs of this is that harnessing its siblings in infinite parallel universes is the only workable explanation for the inordinate power of quantum computers.
The Quest for a Quantum Computer
by Julian R. Brown
Quantum computing will be the hot topic of the next decade or so, and this book provides the best introduction. But just as important, it brings us up to date on information theory, which has taken major leaps in the past twenty years. Ideas that I held about Maxwell’s Demon, the relationship of energy and information, etc. have been updated, and Brown’s book is a great source for getting caught up. In this sense it updates Singh’s Great Ideas in Information Theory, Language and Cybernetics. It is also a great introduction to Deutsch’s Fabric of Reality.
Great Ideas in Information Theory, Language and Cybernetics
by Jagjit Singh
It is now widely held that the fundamental substance of the universe is information. So how do we get up to speed on information theory? I would work through the following:
Written in 1966, Singh’s Great Ideas in Information Theory, Language and Cybernetics is out of date, but still an excellent introduction to the field.
Next I would read chapter 2 of Brown’s The Quest for a Quantum Computer for recent developments in information theory.
Then I would play around—perhaps re-read Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Robert Wright’s Three Scientists and Their Gods , presenting a lively introduction to the ideas of Edward Fredkin, Edward O. Wilson, and Kenneth Boulding. Wheeler’s Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam ; and B. Roy Frieden’s Physics from Fisher Information (You can get the introduction on Amazon. The rest requires graduate math, so skip unless you can handle it. Also peruse the criticism of Frieden on the Web.). And of course Claude E. Shannon’s 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication , which created the field of information theory. And Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos, by Seth Lloyd. He proposes that the universe is a quantum computer.
The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge
by William Poundstone
Looks at the development of cellular automata and John Conway’s Game of Life, and shows that organization is more fundamental than matter.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson