The Janusian Process in Creativity

The janusian process operates in past and future creative achievements.

Posted Jun 25, 2015

Creativity is at the core of the most important and far reaching achievements in art, literature, science, music, business and other fields. In this blog I have described my broad and long term investigations of this complex phenomenon through extensive empirical explorations of the creative work and productions of literary prizewinners and Nobel laureates in the sciences.  

Albert Rothenberg
Source: Albert Rothenberg

One of the creative cognitive processes I have discovered is named the janusian process.  Most commonly operative in the early or inspirational phase of creative production, the janusian process consists of actively conceiving and using multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously. The term, based on the multi-faced (variously possessing 2,4, or 6 faces) Roman god Janus looking always in diametrically opposed directions, denotes conscious conceptualization and application during the creative process of simultaneously co-existing and operative opposite or antithetical ideas, propositions, or actions.

Although seemingly illogical and self-contradictory, creators construct these conceptualizations in rational states of mind in order to produce creative effects. In art and literature they are responsible for early conceptions of plot, character, metaphor, organization, and design, in music for compositional construction, in science for creative breakthroughs, theorizing, and experiments. In business, they are often responsible for new organizational and practical approaches.  

Albert Einstein, for example, described his “happiest thought” in the development of the General Theory of Relativity as his conceiving that a man falling from the roof of a house was both in rest  (relatively) and in motion at the same time. Playwright Eugene O’Neill very early conceived the main character Hickey in his major play “The Iceman Cometh” as motivated by wishes for his wife to be both faithful and unfaithful to him at the same time. Depending on the level of development of a creative product, the janusian process also operates at later critical junctures as well as with practical solutions in a wide variety of fields.

Simultaneity of the multiple opposites or antitheses is a cardinal feature of the janusian process.  Creators conceive as simultaneously true and not-true firmly held propositions about the laws of nature, the functioning of individuals and groups, or the aesthetic properties of visual and sound patterns.  Or, both opposite and antithetical propositions are entertained as concurrently operative.  A particle spinning is going too fast and too slow at the same time, a chemical is both boiling and freezing, or kindness and sadism operate simultaneously.  Previously held beliefs or laws are still considered valid but opposite or antithetical beliefs and laws are formulated as equally operative or valid as well.

These formulations within the janusian process are waystations to creative effects and outcomes.  They interact and join with other cognitive and affective developments to produce new and valuable products.  Analogical, dialectic, inductive and deductive reasoning are applied also in the development of theories, inventions, and artworks.

The janusian process initially disrupts pre-existing contexts and conceptions. Creative thinkers, as in the Einstein example, are sometimes both surprised and gratified when formulating such thoughts, sometimes feeling as if they came out of the blue. Highly astounding, even incredible and inconceivable, are propositions that the contradiction or opposite of well-grounded fact, theory, or actuality is simultaneously valid. Previously held ideas and systems of ideas are split apart and broken, even essentially destroyed. This disruption provides for a creative result, the development of something both new and valuable.

As a rational, stepwise process, the janusian process proceeds consciously through four identifiable phases, as follows: 1.motivation to create; 2.deviation or separation from usual, accepted canons and procedures--scientific, artistic, or practical; 3.simultaneous opposition or antithesis; 4. construction of the theory, discovery, experiment, work of art, or business practice. Each of these phases bears on the development of the next one. In some cases, these phases, especially the deviation and simultaneous opposite ones, may occur in quick, almost instantaneous succession.

To apply the janusian process:

DO NOT: simply think in contraries or play with opposites; make endless lists of opposites rather than searching only for the pertinent and important ones in the matter at hand; just turn things around or go in some reverse and opposite direction.

DO: conceive two or more opposites as true, or theoretically, mechanically, or aesthetically operative at the same time--as, for example, in Hart Crane’s poetic metaphor "penniless rich palms," or the political approach of dealing with Iran with loving hatred, or the business procedure of both helping and contending with an arch competitor at the same time. 


Rothenberg, A. Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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