How Creative Systems Theory Not Only Rewrites History, It Predicts It

The development of Creative Systems Theory has had a pivotal place my life since I was in my mid twenties. This is no less the case now as I enter my seventies. I continue to find fascination with exploring and filling out the details of the theory. But of even more I find myself wanting to better understand, and better articulate, the importance of the theory in the larger story of ideas. Through the years, the theory’s significance in this very big-picture sense has become increasingly obvious. Often it has done so in ways that I have found surprising, and even a bit bewildering. 

Here I’ll share a way that I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate—and simply accept. CST not only provides a fresh way to understand history, by offering that we might make sense of why history has progressed in the way that it has, arguably we can think of it as anticipating history. If the theory had been around ten thousand years ago—which it obviously could not have been—we could have used it to predicted the basic contours of what has happened since. I don’t mean predict in the sense of anticipating events. But the theory could have told us a great deal about how human values and ways of understanding would likely evolve.

This is a radical—even audacious—assertion that clearly needs some explanation. The recognition of its validity—and willingness to voice it—has come to me in a series of steps over time. The first step came early on. I recognized that the kind of leap in understanding that CST represents (what I would later call Integrative Meta-perspective) and the reframing of experience in creative terms that provides the foundation of CST’s particular formulations, reflects a fundamentally new chapter in understanding. I saw that these things were new in the same sense that the contributions of Newton and Descartes were new in introducing modern age understanding’s rationalist/individualist/clockworks worldview. At first I found myself hesitant to assert this conclusion given the danger of sounding grandiose and even deluded. But I risked voicing this claim in my first book The Creative Imperative

Somewhat later, I recognize that the more accurate claim was even more radical. Given that CST patterning concepts effectively predict the general leap in understanding that Newton and Descartes described, it could be legitimately argued that CST’s significance is even greater. I’ve been more hesitant to voice this claim publicly, but it is directly implied and close colleagues have no problem with it. 

The last step follows from the same reasoning. It is not just modern age understanding that CST predicts. CST patterning concepts map out the underlying sensibilities that have produced each preceding major chapter in human understanding, back through the royal and religious absolutisms  of the Middle Ages, the polytheistic pantheons of ancient Greece or Egypt, to the primordial, animistic beliefs of our tribal origins. 

Just how might this be? If the kind if history I was referring to was that of events and inventions, then what I just described would be impossible. It could be nothing more than magical thinking. But as I’ve suggested, history as CST engages it is about values and ways of understanding—or even more basically, about the underlying sensibilities that produce particular values and ways of understanding.  

CST has its roots in the recognition that what most makes us who we are as humans—what makes us unusual if not unique as a species—is our toolmaking, meaning-making—we could say simply “creative”—capacities. It describes how human intelligence is specifically structured to support and drive formative process. It also describes how human change dynamics of all sorts organize creatively.  

The initial insight that first gave birth to CST’s formulations was the recognition that any creative process—say a process of invention or that of creating a work of art—could be understood in terms of a predictable sequence of underlying sensibilities or intelligences. While this recognition was significant, the next insight was even more provocative and pointed toward the theory’s larger significance. It turns out that individual psychological developmental follows this same general sequence of sensibilities. The final Patterning in Time recognition, how we see a parallel sequence of underlying sensibilities over the course of history, would prove most controversial, but also most consequential. CST describes how culture’s evolution has followed the same progression of underlying realities that we find with any other kind of formative process.  

The following reflections from my most recent book, Hope and the Future: Confronting Today’s Crisis of Purpose, give a good beginning feel for this relationship between intelligence, formative process, and the evolution of culture:

“CST describes how our various intelligences—or we might say sensibilities to better reflect all they encompass—relate in ways that are inherently generative, inherently “creative.” The theory delineates how different ways of knowing, and different relationships between ways of knowing, predominate at specific times in any human change processes and function together as creativity’s mechanism. Think of our various modes of intelligence as juxtaposed like colors on a color wheel. That wheel, like the wheel of a car or a Ferris wheel, is continually turning, continually in motion. The way the various facets of intelligence relate one to another makes change, and specifically purposeful change, inherent to our natures.

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\“The diagram above depicts how CST links the workings of intelligence and the stages of formative process. In fact, each creative stage in some way draws on each kind of intelligence. (See my earlier book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future.) But it is also the case that one kind of intelligence is most defining at each stage.

“CST identifies four basic types of intelligence. The theory uses fancier language (as in the diagram), but for ease of conversation, we can refer to them simply as rational intelligence, emotional intelligence, imaginal intelligence, and body intelligence. CST proposes that these different ways of knowing represent not just diverse approaches to processing information, but the windows through which we make sense of our worlds. More than this, they reflect the formative tendencies that lead us to shape our worlds in the ways that we do.

“A brief look at a single creative process helps bring these relationships to life. I’ve often done sculpture in stone. When I work on a piece of stone, the creative process proceeds through a progression of creative stages and associated sensibilities. Creative processes unfold in varied ways, but the following outline is generally representative:

Creative “Incubation” and Body Intelligence: Before formally getting started on a pieces of sculpture, my sense of where it will go is murky at best. Creative processes begin in darkness. I am aware of a certain felt sense that I want to communicate, but I have only the most beginning sense of how I will proceed or where proceeding will take me. 

“This is creativity’s “incubation” stage. The dominant intelligence here is the kinesthetic, body intelligence, if you will. It is like I am pregnant, but don’t yet know with quite what. What I do know takes the form of “inklings” and faint “glimmerings,” inner sensings. If I want to feed this part of the creative process, I do things that help me to be reflective and to connect in my body. 

Creative “Inspiration” and Imaginal Intelligence: Generativity’s second stage propels the new thing created out of darkness into first light. As I work with the stone, I begin to have “ah-has.” My mind floods with images and possible approaches for expression. Some of these first insights take the form of thoughts. Others manifest more as metaphors or expressive gestures.

“In this “inspiration” stage, the dominant intelligence is the imaginal—that which most defines myth, the let’s-pretend world of young children, and the language of dreams. The products of this period in the creative process may appear suddenly—Archimedes’s “eureka”—or they may come more subtly and gradually. It is this stage, and this part of our larger sensibility, that we tend to most traditionally associate with things creative.

Creative “Perspiration” and Emotional Intelligence: With the next stage in formative process, we leave behind the realm of first possibilities and move into the world of manifest form. With the piece of sculpture, I try out specific approaches. And I get down to the hard work of shaping and crafting. This is creation’s “perspiration” stage. 

“The dominant intelligence here is different still, more emotional and visceral—the intelligence of heart and guts. It is at this stage that I confront the hard work of finding just the right approach and the most satisfying means of expression. I also confront limits to my skills and am challenged to push beyond them. The perspiration stage tends to bring a new moral commitment and emotional edginess. I must compassionately, but unswervingly, confront what I have created if it is to stand the test of time.

Creative “Finishing and Polishing” and Rational Intelligence: Generativity’s fourth stage is more concerned with detail and refinement. The sculpture’s basic form is now established, but much yet remains to do. My attention now turns to the work’s surfaces, and to stepping back to be sure there is nothing I have forgotten. 

“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, offers the clarity of thought and nuances of style needed for effective communication.

“CST applies this relationship between intelligence and formative process to the workings of human experience as a whole. It proposes that the same general progression of sensibilities we see with a creative project orders creative growth in every kind of human system. It argues that we see similar patterns at all levels—from the psychological development of an individual, to the growth of a relationship, to the development of an organization. And of particular importance for this inquiry, it proposes that a related kind of patterning orders culture and its evolution.

“A few snapshots: The same bodily intelligence that orders creative “incubation” plays a particularly prominent role in the infant’s rhythmic world of movement, touch, and taste. The realities of early tribal cultures also draw deeply on body sensibilities. Truth in tribal societies is synonymous with the rhythms of nature and, through dance, song, story, and drumbeat, with the body of the tribe.

“The same imaginal intelligence that we saw ordering creative “inspiration” takes prominence in the play-centered world of the young child. We also hear its voice with particular strength in early civilizations—such as in ancient Greece or Egypt, with the Incas and Aztecs in the Americas, or in the classical East—with their mythic pantheons and great symbolic tales.

“The same emotional intelligence that orders creative “perspiration” tends to occupy center stage in adolescence with its deepening passions and pivotal struggles for identity. It can be felt with particular strength also in the beliefs and values of the European Middle Ages, times marked by feudal struggle and ardent moral conviction (and, today, in places such as the Middle East where struggle and conflict seem to be forever recurring).

“The same rational intelligence that comes forward with the  “finishing and polishing” tasks of creativity takes new prominence in young adulthood, as we strive to create our unique place in the world of adult expectations. This more refined and refining aspect of intelligence stepped to the fore culturally with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason and, in the West, has held sway into modern times.”

This ability to understand pattern—and with this to predict—does not stop with present times. With the concept of Cultural Maturity, CST describes a next chapter, one critical to our future as a species. The cognitive changes that define it, what CST calls Integrative Meta-perspective, offers that we might at once step back from and more deeply engage the whole of our cognitive complexity. When we succeed at doing so, new more mature and systemic understanding is the result.