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Intelligence’s Creative Multiplicity

A recognition key to the future of understanding.

Key points

  • The observation that intelligence has multiple aspects is one of psychology’s most important contributions.
  • We can add to this the recognition that our multiple intelligences relate in specifically creative ways.
  • Intelligence’s creative multiplicity helps us understand developmental processes with greater nuance.

The observation that we are more than just rational beings is one of modern psychology’s most important contributions. Creative systems theory takes this recognition a critical step further. It describes how not only does human Intelligence have multiple aspects, our various ways of knowing relate in ways that are specifically generative—“creative.” This observation lies at the heart of the theory and its ability to bring new nuance and sophistication to understanding. It offers that we might get beyond the mechanistic assumptions of modern-age understanding and think in ways that better reflect that we are alive—and human.

This leap in understanding is the topic of my most recent book, Intelligence’s Creative Multiplicity—And Its Critical Role in the Future of Understanding. The notion that human intelligence works creatively should not wholly surprise us given that what most defines us is the audacity of our toolmaking, meaning-making prowess. Creative systems theory proposes that we are the uniquely creative creatures that we are not just because we are conscious, but because of the specifically generative way that the various aspects of our intelligence work, and work together.

The theory identifies four basic types of intelligence. For ease of conversation, we can refer to them as the intelligences of the body, the imagination, the emotions, and the intellect. (CST used fancier language.) It proposes that these different ways of knowing represent more than just diverse approaches to processing information. They are the windows through which we make sense of our worlds. And more than this, they describe the formative tendencies that lead us to shape our worlds in the ways that we do.

A brief look at a single creative process—say doing a piece of sculpture or writing a book—helps clarify this relationship. In subtly overlapping ways, the process by which any creative product comes into being goes through a progression of creative stages and associated sensibilities. The following outline is generally representative:

  • Before beginning, our sense of things will be murky at best. Creative processes begin in darkness. We may be aware we have something we want to communicate, but we are likely to have only the most beginning sense of just what that might look like. This is creativity’s “incubation” stage. The dominant intelligence here is the kinesthetic, body intelligence. It is like we are pregnant, but don’t yet know with quite what. What we do know takes the form of “inklings” and faint “glimmerings,” inner sensings.
  • Generativity’s second stage propels the new thing created out of darkness into first light. We begin to have “ah-has”—our minds flood with notions about what we might express and possible approaches for expression. Some of these first insights take the form of thoughts. Others manifest more as images or metaphors. In this “inspiration” stage, the dominant intelligence is the imaginal—that which most defines art, myth, and the let’s-pretend world of young children.
  • The next stage leaves behind the realm of first possibilities and takes us into the world of manifest form. We try out specific structural approaches. And we get down to the hard work that real creativity always requires. This is creation’s “perspiration” stage. The dominant intelligence is different still, more emotional and visceral—the intelligence of heart and guts. It is here that we confront the hard work of finding the right approach and the most satisfying means of expression.
  • Generativity’s fourth stage is more concerned with detail and refinement. While the created object’s basic form is established, much yet remains to do. Rational intelligence orders this “finishing and polishing” stage. This period is more conscious and more concerned with aesthetic precision than the periods previous. It is also more concerned with audience and outcome. It brings final focus to the creative work, and offers the clarity of thought and nuances of style needed for effective communication.
  • Creative expression is often placed in the world at this point. But a further stage—or more accurately, an additional series of stages—remains. Creative systems theory calls this further generative sequence creative integration. With the process of refinement complete, we can now step back from the work and appreciate it with new perspective. We become better able to recognize the relationship of one part to another. And we become more able to appreciate the relationship of the work to its creative contexts, to ourselves, and to the time and place in which it was created. We might call creativity’s integrative stages the seasoning or ripening stages. Creative integration forms a complement to the more differentiation-defined tasks of earlier stages—a second half to the creative process. Creative integration is about learning to use our diverse ways of knowing more consciously together. It is about applying our intelligences in various combinations and balances as time and situation warrant, and about a newly mature ability not just to engage the work as a whole, but to draw on ourselves as a whole in relationship to it.

Creative systems theory applies this relationship between intelligence and formative process to human understanding as a whole. It describes how we see the same general progression of sensibilities with any human change process—from the growth of an individual, to the development of an organization, to culture and its evolution. Of particular importance for our time, it describes how we can understand today’s most critical human challenges in terms of creatively integrative changes at a cultural level. The concept of cultural maturity in the theory describes our time in terms of a needed—and newly possible—“growing up” in culture as a creative process.

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