Wednesday, May 02, 2012


I've now finished the third in a trilogy of what some might find an unusual set of books to read.  None were planned. The second and third were found by the prior book making interesting reference to it, then trusting the views of the author about the prior book and hence taking the reference as a recommendation to read it.  Done in this way, one reads the works in a reverse chronology.  If I kept to the process for an extended period surely I'd end up with Homer and the Bible.  But for now I will stop with this approach and perhaps return to it after an extended sojourn with other sorts of books.  This summer I plan to have a go at some serious fiction, restricting attention to the twentieth century.  Indeed I've just download Ulysses for the Kindle.  (The price is right - $0.00)

The first book in the trilogy is Eric Hoffer's Between the Devil and the Dragon, a collection of his writings published in 1982.  I wrote about how I came to discover it a couple of years ago.  The trigger was The Quote of the Day:

The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.
Eric Hoffer
(1902 - 1983)

I don't know that at the time I explicitly made a connection between myself and that gentle cynic, but thinking about it the connection seems straightforward, even if on the gentle front that appears more an aspect of an earlier time.  Now anger seems to fill a greater fraction of my day and with that I've developed an impatience that leads to making a botch of things.  The anger is a caving in to the Devil, as Hoffer describes.  The impatience nonetheless, I had been primed to make the discovery of Hoffer's work.  A few months earlier I was thinking about how religion indirectly enters into the classroom and then what to do about it when it has. Any insight on that issue would appeal to me.  As if by magic, Hoffer's work appeared to satisfy my need.

Each of these works offers up a theory of creativity, though each takes a different perspective.  Hoffer makes repeated mention of the expression, "Man was made in God's image."  He operationalizes the expression to mean that, unlike any other animal, man can create in ways to overcome nature.  Indeed, man must do this in order to survive (food, clothing, and shelter).   But then, possessing this capability, man can more than survive.  Man can advance. Hoffer has a novel approach to why advancement happens.  The strong prefer the status quo, as they do well by it.  It is the weak who want to change things, to improve their own lot.  Among the weak one will have the creative impulse to try something different, something new.  That very well may fail.  Another will have a like impulse and try something different. That too may fail.  Eventually, something is found that works.  When that happens the weak overturn the strong and a new status quo emerges.  It is creativity then that resolves political/economic struggle.

* * * * * 

The next book is Marion Milner's On Not Being Able to Paint, which has recently been re-released, so it is now available in paperback and electronic formats.  I read the earlier hard cover version, which I got from the Campus Library.  The book takes on creativity as self-expression, which is more in accord to how I think of it.  One engages in such creativity perhaps in pursuit of a hobby or sometimes in aspects of work.  Milner is the first person I've read who talks at length about impediments to creativity, specifically fear and anger.  But she doesn't begin with that.  She first takes on the objective/subjective distinction.  She observes that intellectually she wants to be commonsensical and take objective reality for what it is.  But when she does that her painting is dull.  By discovering that perspective matters in viewing objects and then attempting to sketch the perspective she views, she begins to find a way to insert the subjective without entirely betraying her prior intellectual disposition.  Gradually her personality finds its way more and more into what she paints.

Milner has what seemed to me an odd expression - letting her hand do what it wants - in reference to the act of drawing or painting.  This is her way of letting the subconscious find itself in expression.  The objective/subjective tension parallels an internal competition for attention between the subconscious and conscious self.  Milner learns that creativity can be found by unlocking the subconscious.  As rational commonsensical people we tend to keep the subconscious bottled up.  We need to let it out if we are to be creative.

Milner is a cheerleader for intuition as the spark in creativity.  In this she contrasts sharply with Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.  Kahneman depicts intuition in that book as the evil twin.  His focus is on how people process statistical information.   Most of us are not very good at doing that.  We make incorrect inferences quite frequently.  There is no room for the subjective in considering statistical information.  It needs to get out of the way or it will muck things up.  With creativity, however, intuition can shine.  That's where subjectivity belongs.  Milner shows us how. 

Thinking at first that the book was about painting, I struggled to read it, because I don't know much about painting and haven't tried to paint anything as a means of expression since I was a kid.  So I put it down for quite a while, lacking a proper entry into what Milner was writing about and fearful I wouldn't find one as I went along.  Yet I felt some obligation to give it a more serious try.  Eventually, I had another go at it.  Soon after I picked it up again I imposed my own subjectivity and decided she was really talking about any endeavor that involves self-expression.  With that single assumption my experience writing blog posts became relevant and I started to find in her writing many thoughts she expresses that had previously occurred to me.  Among the more apparent are how issues from the rest of her life found their way into her painting, even if only indirectly.  Not until she interprets her pictures for the reader does one see in them what she is getting at, but then the connections become quite clear.  I can't do the analogous thing retrospectively with my blog posts, because I have never kept a journal of issues at work, and when things would get really "interesting" email wasn't a trusted means of communication for me, so though I have kept an archive of  my email it doesn't serve the journaling function for the really emotional stuff.  Nevertheless, on many occasions when something at work was bothering me, I know I'd be aware of it as I constructed the blog post.  I couldn't put it entirely out of my mind.  Further I had to ask myself whether to touch on it or explicitly ignore it, even while subliminally it's impact on my felt tone at the time of writing couldn't be ignored.

Armed with this connection to Milner, I even began to appreciate some of her ideas on painting technique.  On occasion I do consider writing technique issues and then attempt to reconsider my own crafted prose, so it was interesting to read about her attempts at technical improvement of the painting.  I could not read a whole book written on this subject, since it is not a passion.  My focus is on getting the argument/story to be sensible and not worry too much about word choice, sentence structure, and the rest for fear that focusing on it will block more than it will help.  But every once in a while it is worth considering. That is how Milner takes it up in her book, though there is a bit more of it early on.

* * * * *

Creative Experience by Mary Parker Follett is a tour de force of Progressivist thought as well as the third book in the trilogy.  (Page images of the book are freely available online.  It's a bit strange to read them this way especially if you prefer, like me, to have your tablet (or computer) in landscape mode, for then to look at the large size images you have to scroll.   But it certainly can work. The book is also freely available from Hathi Trust, but the previous link is more user friendly, in my opinion, because the rest of the stuff on the screen takes up less space.  I did get a hard copy of the book from the Library; the copyright said 1924, the original publishing date, and the pages felt brittle like they might tear if I wasn't careful with them.)  Creative Experience focuses on the essentials of the Progressivist view, first an epistemology and then a theory of social interaction.  Following that, in the second part of the book, Follett takes up politics and the law as to their purpose.  There is no mention of busting the Trusts nor is there mention of the Income Tax.  There is scant mention of unions and where they do appear they are used as illustrative examples only, not as a cause célèbre.  Follett presents Progressivist thought as an approach that naturally emerges from the then new developments in social science, principally but not exclusively psychology, and she stays true to that throughout the book.  While nowadays we often think of somebody as a Progressive by their stand on a host of issues, using the stance to define the political political philosophy confuses cause and effect.  In this work Follett is not concerned with the effect.  In that way she gets to the core of what Progressivism is about. 

It's somewhat ironic that Milner relies on Follett as her model of good practice.  Milner was a psychoanalyst so was looking for internal explanations to understand what was going on with her painting.  Follett, in contrast, was a social reformer.  In her concluding chapter she makes clear that the main purpose of the book is to offer an upbeat view about how conflict can lead to new understandings and fundamentally new solutions.  The epistemology that comes earlier is given to set a foundation for her views about conflict.  It is not presented as a thing in itself.  Nevertheless, Milner finds Follet's approach entirely sympathetic to her own views.  Milner makes repeated reference to Creative Experience in the second half of On Not Being Able to Paint and often quotes extended passages from Creative Experience in the footnotes.

Follett's conception of experience is essentially dynamic and non-linear.  She regards both subject and object in dual roles - sender and receiver.  Flux is ever present.   There is always motion towards something new.  She refers to the entire system as circular response.  This conjures up admonitions from Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline to take a Systems approach.   That's a management book and Follett has a reputation in some circles as a pioneer of modern management thinking.  So it may very well be that's where she is coming from.    But I think there is another way to effectively regard this approach.  It is an urging to be childlike, with each experience a novelty, wonderful in its fullness.  Between ten and fifteen years ago I had some extended interactions with some faculty in the School of Art and Design.  I recall they used the expression "linear thinking" derisively.  At the time I wasn't completely sure why.  Reading Follett, it makes more sense to me now.  Linear thinking is typically the product of taking an analytic approach, looking at parts of the situation only and abstracting from the rest.  (I'm prone to do this because of my training in economic theory.)  One can miss the forest for the trees as a consequence of taking an analytic approach.  Instead,  it is better to consider the whole of experience.

Follett's two favorite words are integration and interweaving.  By creative experience she means something new emerging from what has been happening.  That something new is a synthesis, but it is not merely a sum of what's come before.  It's novel.  Integration and interweaving are the necessary actions to make this synthesis.  The various separate strands of experience come together in this way.   The process takes time.  Follett imagines a gradual evolution; progress is ongoing.  Further, the process does not terminate.  All of this culminates in the chapter entitled Experience as Creating.  The impatient reader might go to that chapter straight away.  All that comes before it sets the stage, building in a slow crescendo to what's written there.  Reading the preceding chapters in full has the benefit of getting familiar with her approach and coming to accept the wisdom in the way she frames things.  It may be uncomfortable at first, because many of the ideas are likely unfamiliar.  The reader needs time to get accustomed to this way of thinking.

Follett uses this approach to consider conflict anew.  Conflict is not something to be avoided but something that should be cherished in that it's evidence of the diversity in us.  We are not all of one mind.  Let's appreciate that.  Her chapter on Power is worth the read for itself.  She distinguishes between "Power over," which is how most of us think about conflict and how we expect the conflict to resolve, and "Power with," where both sides views are accounted for in the resolution of the the conflict.  This is somewhat like the economic notion of Pareto Improvement, but with one big difference.  Follett emphasizes that the resolution must be found during the process.  It is not available at the start.  Follett's concept has elements of learning in it that are absent in the economic formulation, where the environment is either entirely well known in advance or, if there is some uncertainty, that can be reduced to a vector of parameter values over which there is a prior probability distribution.  In that setting, Bayesian learning is consistent with the economic approach.  But throwing out the model entirely in favor of something else more appropriate is not.  The learning is a critical piece in what Follett is after.  In this sense what Follett is talking about is very similar to Argyris and Schon's Model 2, which features double loop learning - core assumptions are examined and possibly modified or entirely discarded when they are shown to contradict experience. 

I also want to especially recommend one chapter from Part 2 of the book.  It is called The Dynamics of Representation: A Non-Intellectualistic View.  It poses the question: what does representative democracy mean?  In what way do our elected officials represent us?  If the officials engage in creative experience, as Follett suggests they should, the outcome will be power with the opposition, not the triumph of prior held views unbridled.  That would be power over the opposition, which Follett deems as slavery for both the vanquished and the conquerors alike.  It is a false sense of power, in her view.  I found this chapter extraordinarily relevant for today.  We have strayed quite far from the ideal that she develops for us.  Members of Congress would benefit from reading this chapter, as would the entire electorate.

* * * * *

I want to conclude this piece with a brief look at why these readings appeal to me.   One reason is that there needs to be multiple perspectives on what creativity means.  Right now there is a lot of discussion in the popular press about creativity as a certain type of entrepreneurial behavior - the type of creativity that generates new products or services, which in turn will help to make our economy grow.  While admitting there is a need for economic growth, on creativity it is too narrow a conception.  Indeed it doesn't recognize the personal dynamic involved - the role of deprivation and the role of the other emotions, in particular.  And it focuses on the creativity of like minds.  We are a pluralistic society, but we don't seem to know how to be creative in a social setting where that pluralism is a functioning reality.  It is uplifting to read that's what we should be trying to do.

In much of my formal economic training and much of the economics I teach to undergraduates, the approach is essentially static.  (The math, it relies on the implicit function theorem to get the results, is called comparative statics.)  Therefore, it is good to be critiqued by social scientists who are not economists, that the entire formulation is limited (and perhaps suspicious as a result).  I'm not about to abandon my belief in supply and demand or that opportunity cost is an extremely useful concept for considering decision making.  But more and more I question whether the economic frame that I was trained in is sufficient to consider social issues.  This skepticism about economics has been especially pronounced since the financial meltdown, where it seemed economics failed us in understanding prospectively what was happening.  I'm now of the mind that it is better to have multiple frames with which to consider issues, especially issues not so readily packaged within a market perspective.  So I'm self-educating now on the social science that once interested me as an undergraduate.

There is also a recent penchant to try to connect current ideas of mine to experiences in childhood.  I struggled to do this for quite a while with Follett's book.  Then it occurred to me that Follett avers much experience of ordinary people stems from "motor activity."  She finds intellectualism that is divorced from this true experience to be without validity.  When the two are connected it is the motor activity that is primary, in her eyes.  Do recall that she was writing in the early 1920s where most work entailed substantial physical labor.  But perhaps the point make sense even now and that many of us are less creative than we'd like to believe we are because we're sitting on our duffs much of the day with very little in the way of motor activity to generate the real experience.  That's certainly true for me now and has been true for a number of years.

It wasn't so true when I was a young kid.  The first school I went to was called Flushing Progressive.  (Scroll to the bottom of the page and see the ad in the box in middle.)  I went there for nursery school in 1959-60.  I was 4 when I started and 5 when I finished that school year.  We had already moved to Bayside by then so I'm not sure why I went to school in Flushing.  Maybe it's because the school's hours were longer than the kindergarten at the local public school, which I did attend the next year for first grade.  Maybe it's because I was too young to qualify for the regular kindergarten.  And maybe is because the word Progressive in the school's name appealed to my parents sense of what good education was about.  I don't know.

What I do recall is that I met my first real friend there, Wendy.  Our favorite TV show at the time was Fury - The story of a boy and the love for his horse.  (Fury was the horse.  The boy's name was Joey.)  During group play I would be Fury and get on my hands and knees. Wendy would be Joey and get on my back to go for a ride.  This was role playing, to be sure, but in essence it was motor activity.  We enjoyed the play and that way we enjoyed each other.  I have some other memory fragments of that time.  I know Wendy came to our house at least once and I recall us getting some Pez from the candy store on the corner of Bell Boulevard and 48th Avenue.  But this is where my memory goes astray.  Would my parents let two 5-year old kids walk the six blocks to the candy store and buy the candy on their own?  That's what I seem to recall. 

I do have my report cards from that time - obviously meant for my parents, not for me.  My mom had saved them and I took them when my parents moved from Bayside to Florida.  On each report card there are three categories - physical development, intellectual development, and social development, given in that order.  Under each are a few sentences about how I've been doing.  The first one makes it seem that there was also some face to face conversation about me ahead of time, since it refers to "my problem."  (I was a klutz, more so than the other children.  At first, I couldn't carry the tray with lunch up the staircase to where we ate lunch.)  More interesting to me now is whether the style of report reflects some particular educational philosophy.  Can we infer from it that the word Progressive in the school's name is associated with the same Progressivism that we associate with Follett?  Readers of this post who have or had children in pre-school or kindergarten may be better able to assess this than I can.

Much of this is not clear to me.  But the reports do make clear that I progressed.  I have to believe that having done so in those formative years it has made me long for progress during the rest of my life.

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