History of Creativity

Kelly Kearney. Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent. Editor: Barbara Kerr. Sage Publication. 2009.

Creativity is a difficult concept to define, primarily because it is so diverse. In its broadest sense, creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, or relationships to create significant new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations. Creativity is sometimes also known as originality, progressiveness, or imagination. It is used in various domains, from science and technology to history and the arts; it is employed by experts, everyday people, and even children. It is used to solve problems or as a form of personal expression. From ancient times to the Renaissance, all creative products were believed to be inspired by the gods or by God. During the Renaissance, the prospect of hereditary creative capacity emerged. More recently, creativity has been accepted as the result of a complex reaction between biological, psychological, and environmental factors. The concept of creativity and the domains of its expression have transformed over time, but humans have always been creative. This entry focuses on Western views of creativity; non-Western views are not described because in the philosophies of the Hindus, Confucius, Taoists, and Buddhists, the idea of individual creation “from nothing” has a different significance. Recently, however, creativity theorists have begun to examine the meanings of creativity in Eastern philosophies, particularly applying Zen ideas for moving beyond intellectualization to the understanding of creative process.

Historical Views

Pre-Christian Views

The ancient Greeks had no terms corresponding to “create” or “creator.” Instead, they used the expression poiein, meaning “to make,” and that only applied to poetry. For the early Greeks, creativity was something that was bestowed upon an individual by the gods. They noted that nature was perfect and was subject to laws of the gods, therefore man ought to discover its laws and submit to them. They also believed in the concept of what Julian Jaynes called a bicameral mind, in which the mind is composed of two separate chambers; the first is controlled by the gods and is meant to be filled with their creative ideas, and the second is used to express the gods’ inspiration through speech and writing. Many philosophers also thought that the creativity chamber was a site for madness (not insanity; rather, furious inspiration) when one’s muse was present. With the belief that the more original the creative product, the more likely that it was given by the gods, creativity took on a social value.

Early Romans believed in similar principles, except that they also extended some creative license to painters. The poet Horace wrote that painters as well as poets should be permitted to create as they wished. Figures such as Philostratus and Callistratos also drew similarities between the genres, noting that they both require the use of imagination. Latin did have a term especially designated for “creating,”—creatio—and two for “to create”—facere and creare.

Early Western Views

With the rise of Christianity came the idea that all creative gifts are divine and bequeathed by God. However, Christianity also imposed a strict code of behavior, resulting in the discouragement of free thought; all products were created with the intention of glorifying God. The term creatio also came to represent God’s creation of the world from emptiness and no longer was applied to human creations; instead, facere, “to make,” referred to human products. In the 5th century CE, Saint Augustine may have been the first to question the idea that all creative ideas come from God. However, creative production continued to be at a minimum, perhaps because of numerous outside invasions and starvation. Yet, at the end of this period, the view of the bicameral mind began to dissipate; speech and writing started to become more complex, allowing the idea of human potential to emerge.

Renaissance Views

It is hypothesized that a new emphasis on the individual and his or her creative potentials were brought on by a variety of changes, including opening of trade routes, a growing merchant class in city states such as Venice, and the bubonic plague. With a third of the population dead, the traditional social structure was shaken. Society placed less emphasis on authority and the Church’s power began to wane. To enhance their power, prestige, and influence, rulers and wealthy merchants patronized artists and gave them the venue for their expression. Artisans took pride in their work; people were motivated to create music, literature, and art. Still, the term create was not used until the 17th century, when poet and theoretician of poetry, Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski in his treatise, De perfecta poesi, wrote that a poet “invents,” “after a fashion builds,” and “creates anew.”

Enlightenment Views

At the beginning of the 18th century, faith grew in humans’ capacity to solve problems through their own abilities. Scientific discoveries by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Sir Isaac Newton disrupted traditional cultural and religious paradigms; these findings gave new credence to human ability, as opposed to divinely imparted talents. Creativity began to be linked with the concept of imagination, rather than being exclusively descriptive of the arts.

During this time, the first investigation into the creative process occurred. In 1767, William Duff was interested in determining what accounts for differences in creative abilities that he observed in people. He proposed that to show great creativity, one must have three fundamental qualities: imagination, judgment, and taste. The degree to which one possesses each of these traits dictates how one will perform creatively. Duff’s investigation commenced what is now research of creativity.

The Enlightenment contributed to a new concept of creativity in four ways, as laid out by Robert Albert and Mark Runco: (1) genius was divorced from the supernatural; (2) genius, although exceptional, was a potential for every individual; (3) talent and genius were to be distinguished from each other; and (4) their potential and exercise depend on the political atmosphere at the time.

Post-Enlightenment Views

As medical science produced support for the idea that physical traits are inherited from one generation to the next, so did the idea that mental abilities and creativity were heritable. Another area of investigation during this time was about the origin of creative ideas—was it from a problem’s parts to the whole (associationist view) or from the whole problem to its parts (the Gestalt view)?

Sir Francis Galton, the second great psychologist after Aristotle, is credited with being the first to scientifically explore the nature of the creative mind. Through his work, he came up with two principles: (1) thoughts in the conscious mind are ordered and cyclical, and (2) ideas in the conscious mind are linked to those in the unconscious mind through association of thoughts, termed free association. Galton promoted the idea that mental abilities are inherited and studied individuals he termed geniuses to better understand the phenomenon. He also used statistical analyses to compare differences in mental capacities among individuals; his methodologies were incorporated into the work of multiple researchers studying creativity.

The associationists were opposed by a group of German theorists known as the Gestalt psychologists, who believed that creativity was the result of a formation of gestalts, or mental patterns or forms. Instead of merely being associated, Gestaltists believed creative thoughts were connected through complex relationships. They envisioned the problem as a whole and then worked backward to complete the missing parts. Creative thoughts were not a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious; they originated wholly in either the conscious or the unconscious.

William James was the first scientist to propose the role of the interaction of genetic ability and the environment in creativity. James also promoted the thought supported by Galton that unconscious ideas are vital to creative production, although he did not pursue developing the theory.

20th-Century and Contemporary Views

In the 20th century, research on creativity became specialized, particularly in the areas of cognitive processes and the creative personality. During this time, creativity theory began to be developed. The most famous contributors to the study of creative cognitive processes were Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Graham Wallas. Some of the most famous contributors to the idea of the creative personality were Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers. Creativity theories also began to be translated into strategies for creativity, such as Alex Osborn’s “brainstorming,” Robert Crawford’s “attribute listing,” and Bob Eberle’s “SCAMPER” (S = Substitute something? C = Combine your subject with something else? A = Adapt something to your subject? M = Magnify or modify—add to it or change it in some fashion? P = Put it to some other use? E = Eliminate something from it? R = Rearrange or reverse it?). Creativity no longer applied only to eminent people or arts; it was recognized in all people and in multiple domains.

Measuring the History of Creativity

Historical Context and Zeitgeist

Various historical events and situations seem to influence creativity (e.g., war, economic depression, opportunity), but all of these “causes” of creativity are different. Edwin Garrigues Boring used the term Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, to explain what was considered creative in any given era. Zeitgeist includes attitudes, expectations, and assumptions about creative things and creative people. Whenever a person or product is evaluated on creativity, historical context and the Zeitgeist must be considered. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also noted that products are considered creative only in domains useful to contemporary society.

Several matters can change the Zeitgeist, in both positive and negative ways. Creativity does not always progress forward; it lapses and recurs. A few such examples follow: Tools and instruments are creative products themselves and influence the creative process. Most often, they accelerate the rate of change and then spur new creative products. Social, cultural, and technological change constantly alter the Zeitgeist. Along the same lines, humans’ ever-changing sense of self transforms the environment for creativity. Chance and accidents often bring about changes that lead to creativity.

Studying the Creative Individual

Creativity in itself is complex, and another way to study it is to examine eminent creative individuals through the case study method. Many theorists who study creativity use biographies as a starting point to form hypotheses, which can then be tested through empirical methods. Even more helpful than biographies are psychohistories—biographies written by historians with a focus on referring to psychological processes and interpreting behavior from a psychological perspective. Especially pertinent are those psychohistories written by authors familiar with creativity literature. These studies have the methodological limitations of other qualitative studies and are considered to be subjective, depending on the quality of the information and the construals of the author.


A more objective alternative to studying psychohistories is historiometry. Historiometry, promoted by Dean Keith Simonton, applies quantitative methods to archival data about historic personalities and events to test hypotheses about human thought, feeling, and action. According to Simonton, historiometry supports three common ideas about creative eminence: (1) being precocious and beginning to produce early; (2) generating a relatively large number of products on a regular basis; and (3) longevity. Given that this approach has been successfully applied to studying both groups and individuals, it is one of the most promising in researching creativity.