ON HOWARD GARDNER AND CREATIVITY
I’m finishing up Harvard Professor Howard Gardner‘s Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century . As with his Extraordinairy Minds, Intelligence Reframed has much to recommend it alongside sections that appear to me to be inadequately considered or less well expressed relative to the stronger parts of the book. On the plus side, Gardner’s evident willingness to reconsider, amend or improve MI theory in light of the findings of brain research is commendable and an indicator that Gardner’s books are more like steps along a journey than they are final destinations in themselves. That is a positive strength, not a weakness, in a theorist.
I take issue however with Dr. Gardner’s section on creativity, which for me was most interesting yet also intellectually frustrating -hence this post. Gardner’s work will be in bold, my comments will be in regular text:
” My definition of creativity has revealing parallels with, and differences from, my definition of intelligence.”
Puzzlement begins with this premise. Having acknowledged earlier that brain research has produced evidence of the modular nature of cognition, something that supports Gardner’s MI conceptual framework, Gardner now seemingly ignores research on creativity that has a physiological-modular link, such as that on insight. I’m not really seeing why creativity would be less an aspect of intelligence than ” kinesthetic” or, as Gardner speculates ” moral” categories of reasoning.
“People are creative when they can solve problems, create products or raise issues in a domain in a way that is initially novel but is eventually accepted in one or more cultural settings…The acid test of creativity is simple: in the wake of a putatively creative work, has the domain subsequently been changed?”
Well, in essence, Gardner is arguing that measurements of creative behavior of a certain order magnitude constitute real “creativity”. Aside from the implicit rejection of creativity as an intrinsic cognitive capacity ( again – why ? ) this is odd given Gardner’s twenty years of studied disinclination to develop or accept standardized measurements for MI theory. There is nothing wrong with arbitrarily designating the top 1 % of human efforts as genuinely creative, based on their longitudinal impact; but the irony of Gardner accepting the same position of Charles Murray goes unacknowledged.
The issue of vertical bias will be addressed momentarily.
“Let me underscore the relationship between my definitions of intelligence and creativity. Both involve solving problems and creating products. Creativity includes the additional category of asking new questions- something that is not expected of someone who is”merely” intelligent, in my terms. Creativity differs from intelligence in two additional respects. First, the creative person is always operating in a discipline or craft. One is not creative or noncreative in general; even Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the Western World’s ultimate Rnaissance man….was creative in certain domains, like painting and invention, and not nearly as creative in others. Most creators stand out in one domain or, at most, in two”
A clearer a priori rejection of synthesis, horizontal thinking and consilience could hardly be written. One that is profoundly weird, in my view ,given that some of the more highly significant acts of scientific discovery were precipitated by seemingly trivial observation of mundane events that yielded a moment when a sweeping insight crystallized. A history that begins with Archimedes of Syracuse and works forward to the present day.
Gardner is correct that highly creative people are not able to be equally creative in all fields in which they have no reference or skill mastery as where they have demonstrated expertise but that is akin to saying that because Michael Jordan could not hit a baseball as well as he could a jump shot, therefore he has no intrinsic athletic ability. Put Jordan up against a couch potato in a sport neither have ever played or seen before and lay odds on who will have the best initial performance. How can kinesthetic intelligence be intrinsic but not creativity ?
Finally, Gardner’s bias against horizontal thinking across domains conflicts with the nature of intellectual creativity itself which struggles against the constraining rules that constitute the definitional borders, official orthodoxy and received wisdom of the domain’s vertically trained experts. How, for example, was Einstein’s ” Big C ” creativity ( to use Gardner’s term) possible when relativity theory and quantum mechanics violated the precepts of the long established scientific world of Newtonian physics ? Creative people work not merely in domains but, especially, across them. Something Howard Gardner ought to know better than most.
Intelligence Reframed is a worthwhile read, in which Gardner has many useful and, indeed, insightful things to say but his efforts to wall off “creativity” from “intelligence” are simply wrongheaded and, I suspect, ultimately futile, as brain research into the biological mechanisms of insight and creativity will continue.