Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Serendipities and Sudden Illuminations

Serendipity is an interesting concept I have discussed before. It has to do with fortuitous connections one discovers in one's notes or even in the stacks of libraries. It is also sometimes makes an appearance in studies of creativity, though usually under a different guise. Arthur Koestler argued in The Act of Creation of 1964 that this is best explained by "the bisociation of matrices" or the juxtaposition of formerly unrelated ideas. As he put it,
The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flashes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface of consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.
"The basic bisociative pattern of the creative synthesis [is] the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated skills, or matrices of thought."

Koestler was obviously indebted to Poincaré's description of mathematical invention, even though he ultimately rejects the latter's account as too mechanistic. For Poincaré such mathematical inventions are based on conscious choices:
How to make this choice I have before explained; the mathematical facts worthy of being studied are those which by their analogy with other facts, are capable to lead us to the knowledge of mathematical law are just as experimental facts lead us to the knowledge of physical law. They are those which reveal reveal unsuspected kinship between other facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another. Among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements borrowed from domains which are far apart.
The "sudden illuminations" are not magic for Poincaré. Rather, they are the result and "manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work." He believed that "unconscious work is possible, and of a certainty it is only fruitful, if it is on the one hand preceded and on the other hand followed by a period of conscious work."

Luhmann, who was rather suspicious of psychological explanations, also would have disliked Poincaré's account and emphasized "communication between systems", but it would appear to me that the the two accounts are compatible, especially if you view your note-taking system as a non-conscious (not unconscious) extension of yourself. To abuse Koestler's somewhat pretentious formulation: "The basic bisociative pattern of the creative synthesis [can be based on] the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated ... matrices of thought" that have been noted before in one's note-taking system (or, if you like, your Zettelkasten).[1]

I actually prefer Poincaré's description of the phenomenon, and not just because I think that one's note-taking tools are, at best, extensions of ourselves, not independent communicative systems. In other words, I do not communicate with my ConnectedText projects, but then I use "communicate" in a rather different sense from Luhmann.

1. As I said before, I increasingly dislike "Zettelkasten" in English, even though (or perhaps just because) it is a perfectly good German word for the perfectly good "slip box" in English. But that is probably just me.


Angry Thinker said...

I personally hate the term "slip box" as slip is many other things before it is a piece of paper. I think "card box" is closest to Luhmann's Zettelkasten.

MK said...

He used thin pieces of paper (slips), not card stock. That being said, I agree with you! Electronic notes have no thickness at all. "Database" is good, too.