Reacting to the holidays, and on creativity

It is my second-to-last day in Seattle/Snohomish and the end of a long journey through multiple time zones, many conversations, and into the depths of the complex interpersonal relationships that are usually known as family. I have spent a lot of time this holiday break talking to my family (by which I mean that group of people who are genetically and/or intellectually closest to me) about my plans for a dissertation, about the project of being a philosopher, and about what activities make me happy and how I seek out those activities.

I was in my cousin’s kitchen baking bread for his parents with him a few days before Christmas and catching up. He is a quite talented musician and DJ, and one of the more creative people I know. He has also been stifled in, or afraid of, his creativity in the past because, when he has pursued it, he has not achieved the standard markers of young-adulthood accomplishment (college graduation, moving out of the parents’ house, etc.) and he has, I think, worried that he is not measuring up. The moral of this story is that he has spent significant time thinking about his creativity and questioning it, and has reached a place where he has a healthy relationship with it. I was commenting on how impressed I am by the way he has come out of that struggle and by the relationship he has now with his creativity, and he pointed out that my relationship with my writing underwent a similar metamorphosis in the past while or two.

This made me remember, for the first time in a while and with no small amount of sheepishness, that what I am doing with my life is a fundamentally creative activity. And this has been the subject of many, if not most, of my conversations over the holidays since then. I got so wrapped up in teaching and seminars and making sure I got all the appropriate progress-boxes checked that I forgot that philosophy is creative.

For the past few days, I have been staying outside Seattle on an old farmstead with a philosophical friend and her family (I should probably mention also that they are all musicians and quite creative people themselves). She and I were discussing the creativity of philosophy and philosophers, and she opposed the creative aspect of philosophical writing to the analytic aspect of philosophical writing. I think in a sense this is an appropriate contrast, but I think there is also much creativity to be had in the way an analysis is performed or the description of a new result. The writing in philosophy, the coaxing of really complicated and sometimes even important ideas out of a humble set of 26 letters, that is the creative activity, and I am looking forward to setting off on the biggest creative project of my life over this next year.

There are two directions I want to go, and each is fairly brief. I hope.

While the bread was rising at my cousin’s house, I took a walk in the garden and thought about what makes chemistry different, or interesting, or special. Is it that it is a science that is primarily about making stuff to improve the quality of human life, as opposed to simply discovering how things work? I think that’s a part of it (and sometimes I get worried that that means it is, ultimately, just a really fancy study of technology as opposed to a science in its own right), but I think, more fundamentally, what makes chemistry special is that it is the root of the transitions that make life meaningful, and that there are two important phenomena surrounding the language of chemistry that need to be teased out. One is that chemical language has constrained the way that we are able to understand chemical phenomena and so shaped the practice of chemistry as it stands today. The second is that there is a quite curious connection between the language of chemists and the language of human emotions–people have good chemistry, they have a bond of friendship, the dinner was a bit volatile with John and Frank in the same room, she is a bit high-strung and highly reactive because she hasn’t slept enough lately. I have to think there is more to this connection than mere coincidence.

I think I’ll have to devote a separate post, or perhaps just a dissertation, to the full extent of what I mean by “chemistry is the root of the transitions that make life meaningful.” But for now, it is no worse a phrase to meditate on than any other, and I think something creative may yet come of it.

Oh, that wasn’t as quick as I’d hoped. But the second direction will be. It is a simple question to the floor, if anyone cares to respond: What philosophers do you admire for their writing style? I’ll give you an initial list of mine, for the sake of catalyzing (and again, chemistry!) the conversation:

Arthur Fine, whose exchange with Musgrave is one of the wittier series of puns I have seen
WVO Quine, the source of so many “x-is-like-a-spiderweb” analogies of varying degrees of usefulness
Robert Pirsig, who is such an inspiration
Daniel Dennett, although I get annoyed with it after a while
David Albert, actually, who definitely has one of the clearer writing voices in contemporary philosophy, whether you love it or hate it
Leibniz, as always

I also really admire the poetry of the Islamic philosophers, especially if you count Rumi among that number. But I feel uncomfortable putting them on the main list because I do not read enough of the languages they originally wrote in.

Happy new year, Blogosphere!


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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4 Responses to Reacting to the holidays, and on creativity

  1. Bryan says:

    >> I have to think there is more to this connection than mere coincidence.

    Clearly it’s no coincidence: common language draws many of its metaphors from science. People gravitate toward each other. The ambience of a room can be electric. What more of a “connection” are you looking for?

  2. Or says:

    John Ruskin. You know you’re onto something when readers force your publisher to drop you (yeah, I know the question was about style, but he’s got that in spades too).

  3. Chris R. says:

    I’m confused by the first “direction” of your creative project. My take is that chemistry, like any science, consists of two more or less codependent factions: basic and applied. The first is science proper, while the second is technology. Of course, this is all very much simplified, and I’m sure you know much more about it than I do.

    But I don’t understand how chemistry is unique in this respect, or what it means to search for its essence, or what it’s “primarily about.” Sometimes we use “chemistry” to make “stuff to improve the quality of human life,” and sometimes we use it to produce a substance that clings to, and feverishly burns, human flesh. And sometimes it’s “simply [about] discovering how things work.” We can (and do) distinguish between these various usages of the term, but I don’t see how one can conclude that one of them is primary, or what such a claim even amounts to.

    You give two other reasons for thinking that chemistry is “special”: “chemical language has constrained the way that we are able to understand chemical phenomena and so shaped the practice of chemistry as it stands today” and “there is a quite curious connection between the language of chemists and the language of human emotions.”

    I’m particularly curious as to what you mean by the first. I’m not exactly sure what “language” in this context means, but I’ll continue anyway. We could say, analogously, that “the English language has constrained the way that we are able to understand English phenomena and so shaped the practice of English as it stands today.” There’s a certain vague and metaphorical sense in which this is true, but I think that to pursue it along such lines is tantamount to pursuing a theory of everything as it pertains to “the English language.”

    As for the second reason, I don’t see any special connection between “the language of chemists and the language of human emotions,” other than what Bryan mentions. It might be of some social or historical interest — where and when and guesses as to why such metaphors were introduced, and guesses as to why they are used, and so on — but it’s difficult for me to see why it’s of any particular philosophical or scientific interest, for the reason mentioned.

    On the other hand, it might make an excellent ode.

    Coffee, and a discussion about all this?

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