The Creative Aspect of Thinking About Stuff

One of the things that most attracts me to philosophical discourse is the special kind of creativity needed to engage in it.

It’s possible, of course, to simply digest some theory and then apply it to whatever one encounters. This requires at best minimal creativity. If I have learned a good deal about, say, utilitarianism, I can look at many problems from a utilitarian perspective and see if there is some failure to apply utilitarian principles in current approaches, or show how utilitarians would deal with this problem.

We see much the same thing in say, for example, philosophers writing about what Nietzsche would think of some particular artwork, or how Kant would respond to a particular political problem, or simply applying the terms and concepts of some particular critical theory to a critique of a popular film or TV series.

But the creativity I’m interested in involves not simply applying a theory.

One instance of it comes about in counter-examples. Although it became an industry in itself, and ultimately the formula got a bit easier, there’s something particularly creative about Gettier cases. To look at a standard definition, “knowledge is justified true belief,” and then to invent a story where someone has a justified, true belief that is not knowledge, requires a narrative sense of creativity as well as an analytic skill.

Parfit’s teletransporter, Williams’ split minds, Nagel asking what it is like to be a bat, all of these are examples of the sort of fiction-writing skills needed in certain areas of philosophy. Sartre made a career out of this sort of thing; Being and Nothingness is something like a collection of philosophical fictions, imaginary cases that bring out some essential elements of existentialist thought.

I think this creativity can be taught, as well.

In my critical thinking classes, I present the following to the students:

A study has shown that beer drinkers are significantly more prone to lung cancer than wine drinkers, even when the population samples are controlled for smoking (this is from an actual study I recall reading about in Slate some years ago.) Therefore, beer drinking contributes to lung cancer.

Then I ask them: is the conclusion reasonable? At first, some agree, but then they start to come up with alternative hypothesis. Maybe beer drinkers are more likely to work in factories with malignant air, whereas wine drinkers work in offices. Maybe beer drinkers hang around in bars where people smoke, whereas wine drinkers are in restaurants. Maybe beer drinkers are poorer and live in neighborhoods that are closer to toxic dumps, pollutants, etc.

Obviously, none of these possibilities are given in the short description. They have to be invented by the students. This is not analysis, then, but creative writing of a sort.

The more I do this sort of exercise with my students, the quicker they are to come up with original hypotheses on their own.

Philosophy, and thought, in general, requires some degree of creativity. And creativity is a skill that can be practiced. My concern is that in teaching theories and positions we be careful not to let our students think that philosophy is the process of applying these theories, or saying what Philosopher X would have said about some topic, but that we show them the creative process of thought, and, with any luck, goad them in the direction of trying out that creativity.

3 responses to “The Creative Aspect of Thinking About Stuff

  1. I like the illustration of teaching. I prefer inventiveness to creativity as a word. Answering why that might be might require one or both. Thumbs up!

  2. I’d like to hear about the preference. I’m using the terms somewhat interchangeably (as well as “create” and “invent”) so as to make the writing flow, and I’m not sure I can see an important difference in this context.

  3. Pingback: Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes | Popular Metaphysics

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