Creativity and Criticism (guest post by Patricia Marino)

Creativity and Criticism (guest post by Patricia Marino)


Patricia Marino is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo. She works in ethics, epistemology, the philosophy of sex and love, and the philosophy of economics. She also has a blog, The Kramer is Now, full of amusing and insightful thoughts about philosophy, culture, economics, politics, and various aspects of life. Below is a guest post* by her which originally appeared several weeks back on her blog, but which seems to have escaped much notice. It not only raises some interesting questions about philosophical practice, but also is relevant to some of the other issues currently being discussed here at Daily Nous (such as citations and concerns about philosophers just talking to each other). I thank Professor Marino for allowing me to repost it.


 Dilemmas of Philosophy: Creativity and Criticism
by Patricia Marino

I’m a philosopher, but I didn’t become one in the normal way. I studied math in college, and when I did take a philosophy class in undergrad, I happened into one of the standard Descartes-to-Kant history surveys. To be honest I spent the semester staring out the window and thinking, “Who cares about proofs of the existence of god? This is stupid.”

It wasn’t until after I’d spent years pursuing a PhD in mathematics and then eventually started hanging around some humanities people that I began to read some philosophy of mathematics, and that drew me in to the whole shebang, and really right into the core of philosophy. If you know me at all, you know I have ideas in a wide-range of philosophical areas, and that, in the classic philosophical style, I like to think about how they all fit together.

So I may be an “accidental” philosopher, but I’m definitely a philosopher.

This particular history, though, means that when I started my PhD in philosophy, I was already a pretty formed person, with opinions and a self-concept that were formed in the “pure math” atmosphere and not the “humanities” atmosphere. 

And one of the first things I noticed hanging out with humanities people — and especially humanities students — was how much time they seemed to spend on essentially critical activities. Finding a problem in someone’s argument, objecting to a framework, finding a counter-example, complicating a narrative.

While I could see how criticism could be important, and obviously useful for learning, and how it could be part of a dialectic activity that really did move things along, I found this aspect of the humanities … would “distasteful” be too strong a word? Criticism seemed to me so narrow in scope, so not-getting-anywhere, so uncreative, and frankly, often a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

I wanted to go beyond criticism. I wanted to create something, and I wanted to take a stand not only on what I thought was wrong, but on what I thought was right. If you know math, you know how creative it is: the main activity in math is proving things, and there’s a rich aesthetic quality to it. I wanted to keep the feeling of doing that, and I also thought there was a kind of intellectual virtue to laying my own cards on the table, to say not only “I disagree with your claim that X” but also “I think Y.”

So OK: as I’ve gone along in philosophy, I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to do just that. I’ve tried to say what I thought the answers to certain problems were, or how the problems should be framed, or what interesting things would follow from which other things.

Lately, however, I feel like I’m running up against the limits of creativity in philosophy. One major problem with it, it seems to me, is that it seems to require framing your new thing with some accepted background framework or set of ideas or posing of the question.

I mean, in philosophy, to make your new contribution seem intelligible, interesting, or relevant, you kind of have to appeal in some way to the way things are set up. Otherwise people — and especially other philosophers — have nothing to connect them to your idea, no way of understanding or entering in to what you are saying, no shared starting point for reflection. For example, if you want to offer, say, a new view in bioethics, getting others to care about and understand your work requires some kind of use of familiar concepts and references to familiar texts and so on.

But this seems to essentially limit the depth of possible challenges to the status quo. Sometimes you don’t want to appeal to the existing framework, because sometimes it’s the framework that’s the problem. Sometimes you want to say that some whole way of doing things is wrong — wrong in such a way that you can’t just turn around and create some other way of doing things.

For example, in his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills expertly lays out the historical and philosophical case that what we think of as “social contract theory” was constructed on essentially racist foundations. It’s basically a ground-up criticism of a whole way of thinking about something. I have to admit, when I first finished reading the book, I thought to myself for a moment, “Well? And? Should we stop doing social contract theory? Change it? What?” I was looking for the positive and creative part in a book where that wasn’t the point, where the point was more to say that the whole frame for thinking of some area was a problem. I had to step back and remember what that kind of deep criticism was all about.

So while I continue to feel the appeal of the creative and the positive, the importance of offering something that might be true of the natural or social world and not just true of some other theorizing, more and more lately I find myself confronting its limited usefulness for really deeply different thinking. And wow, does this ever seem like a time for deeply different thinking.

This essential limitation to creative and positive work seems to me particularly a problem in philosophy. In other humanities, it seems like scholars have so much to connect them to one another just in the content of the discipline: US historians have the history of the US; scholars of French literature have the literature of France; art historians have actual art to talk about.

But philosophy, it’s like there’s no there there. All we have are our ideas, and our history, and our shared conversation, for connecting our ideas together and sharing what we are thinking about and how it matters. That’s not only a negative thing — it can also be what makes philosophy limitless and open-ended in the strange way that it is. But it can be a problem.

One way it can be a problem, I think, is in this creativity/criticism dilemma. The creative work of philosophy, the saying what is, the making of a theory or set of ideas to share seems constrained. Since you’re always referring back to some shared conversation from the past to even frame what you’re talking about, it’s hard to strike completely out on your own with a radically and interestingly new thing.

(image: “Portal” by 1010)

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Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Dr. Marino, thanks for this interesting post. I think that we need to be open to a variety of ways of doing philosophy. Everything else being equal, I like arguments to be placed in the context of ongoing debate. Having said that, I appreciate that everyone’s creative process works differently. I hate the thought of a philosopher feeling that their creativity is being stifled.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
6 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experiences and these interesting observations. The part where you mention “the appeal of the creative and the positive, the importance of offering something that might be true of the natural or social world and not just true of some other theorizing” reminded me of a recent quote by Steven Pinker in his Response to the Book Review Symposium on his recent The Better Angels of Our Nature. In response to a critic’s charge that he did not sufficiently engage with the work of important theorists, Pinker wrote that, “This would count as criticism if he could identify some point that any of these writers made that explained the phenomena I address or undermined any of my analyses. But Better Angels is a book about violence, not about professors, and I do not subscribe to the style of scholarship that fetishizes a few hallowed theoreticians rather than seeking to explain things with the best intellectual tools available.” Perhaps creativity and criticism are among those tools. [http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/sociology-2015-pinker-0038038514556797.pdf]Report

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

Thanks for this, Patricia.

I have worries along these lines from time to time, so it is nice to hear them spoken aloud by someone in a less precarious institutional position. It is also quite gratifying to hear the topic of creativity addressed by someone who is not averse to philosophical rigor, when and where such rigor has a productive place in inquiry. Some people who advocate for the avant garde are uninterested in defending their works from critical scrutiny on the basis of reasonable standards of scholarship, experiment, or logic, and I think that neglect has real costs.

That said, I have two complicating thoughts. They’re not exactly objections, but rather places where our parallel lines of thought run the risk of diverging. (They’re also, alas, not very creative.)

The first issue I’d like to bring up is the relationship between creativity and radical novelty. Margaret Boden tells us that creativity has two major features: a) creativity means something like, doing work that is novel, surprising, and valuable, and b) creativity occurs against a backdrop of a received structure. I think these two convictions make good sense of the concept of creativity so long as they are adopted in tandem. Creativity is not often, or ever, truly *radical*: mathematical proofs are have the characteristics of novelty, surprisingness, and value insofar as they can be held up against a background of received and familiar structures of inference. I think it is quite difficult to assign any value to something radically novel. Even Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus’ (which was creative by most measures) cited Frege, Russell, Kant, Hertz, and Moore.

And here’s the other thing: I don’t think creativity should be contrasted with critique when philosophy is concerned. In many vocations, the contrast will be understandable enough: e.g., there is obviously a sense in which the author of hard-boiled detective novels shall be annoyed by the snobbery of the literary critic, and probably each could get on in life pretty well without having to make small talk with the other. But if we were to take a stab at describing the spirit of philosophy — the general ethos of the vocation, set apart from its methodological demands, cherished canons, and characteristic subject matter — I think we have to mention both the creativity involved in exploring the space of reasons as well as the skepticism required to really understand where those reasons take us. It is tempting to think of creativity and critique as competitors, but I believe instead they ought to be seen as equal partners.Report

Pedantus the Elder
Pedantus the Elder
6 years ago

I had a similar impression of philosophy when I was an undergraduate math major. For me mathematics was a constructive discipline, as opposed to philosophy, which I found more critical than constructive. I did envy the philosophers: they were considered intellectuals, whereas perhaps only the very greatest mathematicians were also intellectuals.Report