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Creativity, and Stevenson's Twelve Conceptions of Imagination.

What exactly constitutes "imagination" has troubled minds as diverse as Aristotle and Wordsworth. In his paper, Leslie Stevenson attempts to summarise the ideas on the topic into twelve conceptions [Stevenson 2003].

Creativity is a similarly elusive concept, and while it seems intuitively clear that there must be some link between it and imagination, surprisingly little investigation has been done.

In this essay, I shall be examining Stevenson's conceptions with a view to ascertaining which, if any, are necessary for creativity to occur. I shall then examine models of creativity from Novitz, Gaut and Boden and attempt to ascertain whether the twelve conceptions are sufficient for them.

For my initial discussion, I shall be using a basic definition of creativity: "the intentionally novel and valuable generation of an idea or combination of ideas". A creation must be novel, or it is at best a re-creation. Creativity must be intentionally novel to preclude chance discoveries, and mechanically generated combinations. It must be intentionally valuable to preclude random nonsense generated by children and madmen "since nonsense too can be original"[Kant, quoted in Gaut 2003, p269].

We should mention Gaut's ideas of "active" and "passive" creativity[Gaut, p276]. Active creativity is when the creator undertakes to create. He examines, investigates, trials and errs, all with the intention of creating something. By contrast, passive creativity happens to us. These are the flashes of inspiration, the hunches, the dreams and the visions that come to us unbidden. If active creativity is a conscious effort, passive creativity comes from the mind's unconscious workings.

Now to examine Stevenson's twelve conceptions. For brevity, rather than discuss every conception individually I shall deal with them in groups.

The first four conceptions can be summarised as "the ability to generate perceptions of objects not currently perceived". These objects may be real, possibly real, falsely believed to be real, or known to be fictitious. They are in many ways the most fundamental conceptions of imagination, and many of Stevenson's later conceptions are refinements of them.

While it may be obvious that creative acts such as writing novels would be impossible without being able to imagine fictitious things, in fact no creative acts would be possible without this conception-group. We would only be able to recreate that which was in front of us. As we would be unable to conceive of anything not present, the only alteration possible would be omission. However, as no-one would be able to imagine the pieces left out in the creation, no-one would be able to make sense of it.

If imagination consisted of these four conceptions but no others, could we be creative? We would have intentions and judgements, so we could judge that crossing a river was useful and form an intention to cross. We could then imagine and evaluate potential methods.

Is this creative though? All we have is a systematic examination of ideas. There is no mechanism for generating new ideas. It is basically Gaut's search model of creativity, but as Gaut himself acknowledges his search model fails to account for flair and inspiration [Gaut, pp277-278]. These conceptions might account for imagination as a vehicle of creativity, but not as a source [Gaut, p278].

The next two conceptions extend these four. Stevenson's fifth conception is simply "the ability to form mental images". The sixth conception is a generalisation of the first four to "the ability to think of anything at all". While this does extend the imagination to cover abstract and impossible concepts such as infinity, or square circles, it doesn't add anything conceptually new. We still have no potential source of creativity.

We skip forwards now to Stevenson's last four conceptions, which can be summarised as "the ability to appreciate and create aesthetically beautiful things". Can we now be creative? We can look at mountains and canyons and see deep significance within them, and we can recreate these significances in our own works. We have certainly expanded the ideas we can imagine, but we still cannot generate new ideas.

Let us return now to the two conceptions we skipped over.

The seventh conception is: "the non-rational operations of the mind". This is not saying imagination is irrational, rather it is accounting for the myriad thought processes that go on in our minds without our conscious intervention.

The eighth conception is (to paraphrase) "the ability to form perceptual beliefs about unperceived objects, or about unperceived aspects of perceived objects". At its simplest, this means I can imagine the back of your head while I look at your face. At its more metaphysical, it means I can believe you continue to exist even when I can no longer see you. We can perceive part of a spatio-temporal existence and imagine the remainder. It is imaginative extrapolation.

These two conceptions account for the combining and expanding of ideas. They come from Hume's theories of association. He maintained that association was a non-rational process, largely beyond our control, but that it accounted for highly fundamental aspects of human existence such as learning and deductive inference [Hume, quoted in Stevenson].

It is these conceptions that suggest a source of creativity. When Kekule dreamt up the solution to the problem of benzene's molecular structure, he did it by following a chain of associations from snakes to molecules [Boden 1994, pp250-251]. The bouncing bomb was invented by associating and combining the ideas of bombs and skipping stones. After radio was invented, it was a natural extrapolation from there to the idea of television.

The fact that these associations are formed subconsciously means we can account for passive creativity. While we are washing the dishes, or even while asleep, our subconscious is associating ideas. Eventually the subconscious association becomes conscious, and we have a flash of inspiration.

Having examined Stevenson's twelve conceptions we have hopefully established which are necessary for creativity. Referring back now to our simple model - "the intentionally novel and valuable generation of an idea or combination of ideas" - are Stevenson's conceptions sufficient?

To form an intention, one must first desire an outcome. As a desired outcome is by definition one that has not yet occurred, we must imagine it. Stevenson's second conception sufficiently deals with imagining things acknowledged as possible.

A creation will be valued if it is either useful or pleasurable. A practical creation will be judged on its utility. Imagination is certainly required for this, as one must be able to imagine scenarios in which the creation would be used and useful. Stevenson's first group of conceptions sufficiently serves this purpose.

A non-practical creation will be valued if it gives pleasure. Naturally in some cases this will again involve imagining the scenarios where the creation will be utilised and imagining the pleasure to be gained. In more artistic creations however, the pleasure will be in the appreciation. In these cases it will be Stevenson's later conceptions that are relevant.

However, while intentions and evaluations certainly depend on imagination, it would be wrong to say they are part of the imagination. Imagination is a wholly neutral propositional attitude without any assumptions of value, or commitments to believe or to act [Gaut, pp279-281]]. I can imagine a gold ring, and I can value it, and I can intend to buy it. These are concurrent but separate thoughts. The intention or the value judgement can change without affecting the imagining [Audio CD 4, trach 23]. Therefore Stevenson's conceptions cannot account for intention or value.

A novel combination of ideas is, as discussed earlier, accomplished through non-rational associations. Stevenson's seventh conception sufficiently accounts for this.

However, generating a truly new idea is impossible. As Kant puts it, "all our cognition begins with experience" [Kant, quoted in Stevenson, p250], or as Hume puts it "all our simple ideas in their appearance are derived from simple impressions" [Hume, quoted in Beaney 2005, p65]. In other words, we can conceive of nothing we have not previously perceived unless it is a variation or combination of ideas that we have perceived. If a child is born into a void with no sensory input at all, there is no way it can accumulate any thoughts.

To anticipate the "missing shade of blue" problem [Beaney, pp65-68] I would answer that while "blue" is a simple idea that cannot be imagined without prior perception, "light blue" and "dark blue" are complex ideas combining the ideas of blue and light/dark.

Like most definitions of creativity, my basic model has three criteria - novelty, value, and intentionality. Novelty and value are common to most models, but the third criterion varies. Let us now consider some other models.

Margeret Boden states that creativity must transform a conceptual space [Boden, pp246-251]. Briefly this is the set of rules, properties and relationships that define a system. For example the conventions of musical composition form a conceptual space, as do the rules of chess, or the totality of knowledge about the uses and properties of rubber.

For example, in the conceptual space of music, it was a convention to begin a composition in a home key, and work around it for the duration of the piece. In the early 20th Century, Shoenburg started composing pieces without this constraint. By doing so, he transformed the conceptual space.

One can explore and expand a conceptual space with the imagination. It is simply a case of imagining what has gone before and extrapolating (conception eight). Transforming a conceptual space is generally a case of inverting, modifying or dropping a constraint. This can also be done in the imagination, for example by imagining music without a home key. If one can imagine a concept, one can imagine its absence. This is another use of the extrapolation aspect of conception eight.

David Novitz, specifies "deliberate use" as his third criterion [Novitz 1999, p261]. This is similar to the idea of intentionality, but emphasises use and development of a creation rather than the method of creation. This allows for random and mechanically generated combinations to be classed as creative if their value recognised and exploited. In a second edition of his formulation, he revises it so that the method of creation must be "intrinsically valuable" [Beaney, p190]. However, he does not go into detail as to what constitutes "intrinsically valuable" in this context.

Berys Gaut specifies that the creative method must exhibit flair [Gaut, p270][Beaney, pp173-174]. However, like Novitz he does not define "flair".

In both these models creativity depends on an observer's value judgement. I am creative only if my methods are judged to have exhibited flair or intrinsic value18. This kind of subjective evaluation is not covered by Stevenson's conceptions, but as imagination is a value-neutral thought process this is no failing of his. Rather it shows that according to Novitz and Gaut, imagination is not the sole source of creativity.

Therefore, after examining Stevenson's conceptions of imagination, we can conclude that at least some of them are necessary for creativity to occur. However, creativity also depends on factors such as intentions and value judgements. While these may require imagination, they are separate from it. Therefore imagination, let alone Stevenson's conceptions thereof, is not sufficient for creativity.


  • Leslie Stevenson 2003 ; Twelve Conceptions of Imagination ; British Journal of Aesthetics, vol 43, No. 3
  • Michael Beaney 2005 ; Imagination and Creativity ; Open University
  • David Novitz 1999 ; Creativity and Constraint ; in Michael Beaney, above
  • Margaret A. Boden 1994 ; What is Creativity? ; in Michael Beaney above
  • Berys Gaut 2003 ; Creativity and imagination ; in Michael Beaney, above
  • Audio CD 4 ; Thought and Experience - Imagination and Creativity
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