Dr Alex Carter

Philosophy as a Guide to Creative Practice

Bye-Fellow Dr Alex Carter explains why his background in Philosophy shapes his teaching a new course: Diploma in Creativity Theory.

Based at the Institute of Continuing Education (ICE), the diploma looks back at the most pivotal moments in human history and asks what it was that made particular cultures, societies and individuals creative.

In this article, Alex looks at how soft skills, such as creativity, are in demand more than ever thanks to automation and artificial intelligence.

I have always insisted – often against popular opinion – that philosophy should be about putting theories into practice, or perhaps I should say, it is about thinking practically. But it is also about thinking differently. William James described this as a way of seeing ‘the familiar as strange and the strange as familiar’. Likewise, creatives must foresee a time when their “strange” new ideas will become “familiar”. Perhaps this is why, as a philosopher, I have found my recent segue into teaching creativity theory and creative practice so satisfying (and so familiar).

This is fortunate because there is a high demand for creativity right now. The creative industry is the fastest growing in the UK, and more and more industries are finding a use for creative thinkers. (I heard recently about an artistic encounter with, of all things, filing called “radical admin”, or radmin!). Undoubtedly, this need for creative thinkers is driven, in part, by the new “efficiencies” afforded by AI and automation. Increasingly, those with highly technical or process-driven jobs are needing to soften their skillset to gain access to roles machines are (for the time being) unable to fill.

The challenge with doing so is that current wisdom has it that so-called “hard skills” can be taught and assessed in ways that “soft skills” such as creativity cannot. There can be no rule book for soft skills, such as creativity, since it makes no sense to tell someone how to create; just as it makes no sense to be told how to be a leader.

What, then, is my role as teacher? Certainly, the answer is not, “To tell students how to be creative”. Rather, my role as teacher is to enable students to develop the skills associated with creativity by co-creating with them, i.e. finding out what students want to accomplish, and tailoring learning and assessment to that end.

For reasons I’ll come to, this doesn’t pose any major challenges when it comes to rethinking my role as ‘teacher’. However, it does mean asking some pretty searching questions about my role as ‘assessor’. Assessment is particularly challenging because it reintroduces problems with teaching creativity, i.e. by saying how it should be done. A more co-creative approach is to cajole students to engage with learning by problematising their “solutions”.

For this reason, I maintain that creative practice is at once entirely philosophical (and less than that). That is, creativity embraces the initial part of any philosophical enquiry, namely the deconstruction of one’s thinking (without necessarily feeling the need to seek the right way to think). The Greeks called the associated sense of uncertainty aporia.

At first glance, it might not be clear how aporia can serve as a suitable methodology for creative practice. Unlike the philosopher, the creative has places to be. It is not obvious that leaving one’s options open is what creativity is all about. Far from it. A stultifying procrastination is the creative’s worst enemy. However, this would be to assume, wrongly, that in attaining aporia one can do nothing at all. Rather it is that one can do nothing right – or rather that one cannot know that the path chosen is the correct path. In other words, those who experience aporia do not lose the ability to go in a given direction, but merely the dogmatic assumption that the direction of travel is “correct”.

For similar reasons, the creative too must challenge her preconceptions about a particular project. This needn’t involve a rigorous or systematic critical analysis. Although it might. It is enough that she come to ‘see the familiar as strange and the strange as familiar’. This is my job as co-creator: to disrupt any feeling of familiarity or comfort. To introduce, in other words, the “pain of the problem”.

All this is to say that creative practice remains philosophical up to a point, namely the point at which the creative is – at no specific time and for no good reason – gripped by a strange idea. By ‘no good reason’ I mean that the creative act itself cannot be justified from the outside (as philosophers, past and present, try to do). What makes the practice creative lies in its strange familiarity (or is that familiar strangeness?).

For no good reason, the above reminds me of the words of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’ The beauty of which is not simply the realisation that I can embrace a contradiction, but also that the embrace itself is a contradiction of sorts. Evidence, I like to think, that philosophers, like poets, can act creatively despite (or even because of) any uncertainty.

Dr Alex Carter is institute teaching officer and academic director for philosophy and interdisciplinary studies at ICE, University of Cambridge. He has also created some study skills videos to support students.

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