3. Actualising tendencies

Part three in a four-part series exploring the shifting images of creativity in the history of western thought. Follow the links for part one and part two.

Behaviourism dominated laboratory research in the first half of the twentieth century, while more minded psychologists turned to Freud’s high-pressure ‘hydraulic’ image of the psyche to explain the foundations of human creativity. But the seed of revolt had already been sown at the inception of the Vienna School of Psychoanalysis, and one by one its core members began to question Freud’s insistence that libidinal instincts could fully explain creative behaviour.

The first analyst to be excommunicated for his ‘deviant’ beliefs was the physician Alfred Adler. Adler felt that Freud’s theories unduly isolated the psyche from the rest of the world and ignored the importance of healthy social relations in psychological maturation, and to account for this influence the individual had to be studied holistically, not reduced to a collection of sexual drives. In Adler’s view, people were not determined by their experiences, sexual or otherwise, but self-determined by virtue of the meaning they gave to them, and it was the job of the therapist to help the patient recognise this. In so doing, the therapist effectively handed back the individual’s ‘power to will’, a creative drive that Adler identified with the life force and which he believed enabled human beings to naturally overcome social problems.

The second heretic of the Vienna School was its secretary, Freud’s right-hand man, Otto Rank. Rank accepted the role of the unconscious in psychic life but bemoaned Freud’s reduction of emotion to sexual impulses, which led to ‘an unnatural elimination of all human factors in the analysis’. Emotions, said Rank, were basically relationships, and a denial of the emotional life led to a denial of the will – the source of creativity – as well as a denial of the interpersonal relationship in the analytic situation. Since all emotions were grounded in the present, Rank felt Freud robbed his patients of the emotional will to change their behaviour by locating their repression in the past, and an orientation toward the here and now was called for.

Rank was soon followed by the most famous dissenter of the Vienna School, Freud’s heir-in-waiting to the analytic throne, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Like Adler and Rank, Jung saw Freud as overly reductionist and felt that sex was just one of many possible expressions of psychic energy, which he conceived in terms more aligned with the French philosopher Bergson’s élan vital. However, Jung went further by claiming that the unconscious expanded beyond personal history to encompass a collective realm of primordial images that were inherited and common to the human species. Such images manifested in dreams and fantasies, Jung believed, and gave weight to his conviction that the unconscious should be seen not as a rubbish heap of repressed material, but as a gold mine of creative resources that could enrich and inform conscious life.

These dissenting voices in the psychoanalytic tradition paralleled later developments in the United States, where psychologists like Carl Rogers and Rollo May were busy formulating a humanistic approach to therapy that treated inner conflicts by changing the way clients (as opposed to patients) made sense of their lives. Rank’s post-Freudian ideas in particular deeply influenced gestalt therapists, while existential psychotherapists took inspiration from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, with both approaches emphasising interpersonal relationships as a route to psychic healing.

These fields eschewed the traditional image of the authentic self as fixed and instead regarded personality as an ongoing project. Rogers for example claimed all selves had an ‘actualising tendency’ – a drive in common with all other organisms to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. Creativity in this sense was the natural expression of a self engaged in a continual process of meaning-making – the activity of a fluid, ever-changing gestalt evolving within its particular Umwelt, rather than an essential subject with fixed attributes confronted with an objective world. Identity was therefore constituted over time as the relationship of the self to others evolved and the relations between perceptions and values shifted in the ‘phenomenal field’ of experience.

Perhaps the most well-known name in the emerging humanistic field was Abraham Maslow, who along with Rogers helped establish the new approach as the ‘third force’ in psychology. Maslow had begun his academic research as a card-carrying behaviourist before he attended a lecture by the gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, who emphasised the psychic significance of imagination – wonder, awe, playfulness, aesthetic enjoyment – human qualities unrelated to biological needs and conspicuously absent from the behaviourist’s mechanistic purview. Soon afterwards Maslow found himself questioning the basic tenets of the positivist method, and following a short stint under the tutelage of Adler, Maslow gave up behaviourist research in order to devote himself to the study of optimal human mental health.

Under the influence of theorists like Adler, Rank, Rogers and Wertheimer, Maslow came to believe common neuroses were the result of societal constraints imposed upon individuals that prevented some people from achieving mature psychological health. Maslow accepted that psychoanalysis had gained invaluable insight with its discovery of the unconscious, but felt its narrow conception of human motivation was a distortion and failed to account for the effects of enculturation. At the same time, he was also becoming increasingly intrigued by the character traits of some of his fellow researchers, whose accomplishments and good-naturedness seemed to epitomise for him the idea of the ‘self-actualised human’.

Central to Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation was a hierarchy of needs, which state that if an individual’s ‘deficit needs’ relating to basic survival are met, he or she will naturally strive to make the most of their innate abilities. At the heart of such striving, he believed, was ‘creativeness’, which wasn’t a compensation for personality deficiencies or the result of conditioning, but an imaginatively adaptive response to a shifting environment and part of a natural growth toward wholeness that was directed by a sense of inner values.

In Maslow’s self-actualising schema, creativeness did not refer to productive achievement or artistic talent per se, but instead defined a general imaginative attitude, a certain predilection to openness and spontaneity similar to that found in young children. Away from the secure rigging of verbalised concepts, readymade abstractions and inherited beliefs, creative types sought out what was fresh and novel by approaching experience innocently and without expectation, in an uninhibited, Taoistic fashion. Such optimally healthy people were less likely to see opposites as incompatible and more like two sides of the same coin. Pleasure was gained through duty, the distinction between work and play became murky, while stronger egos were more easily ego-less, more self-transcending, more imaginative. Such people were ‘integrators’, argued Maslow – more able to bring dichotomies together into a unity and more disposed to ‘peak experiences’, which he identified as unitive events marked by harmonious fulfilment and even spiritual ecstasy.

At base, Maslow believed creativity sprang from an openness to the imaginative depths of the unconscious through the influence of primary processes – the psychoanalytic term for the id’s propensity to pre-verbal, dreamlike thinking in the face of unfulfilled desires. Except where Freud conceived these processes as forbidden impulses repressed for the purposes of societal adjustment, Maslow embraced Jung’s more expansive view of the unconscious as a forgotten yet fertile imaginal realm, a direct source of intuition and spiritual insight whose psychic integration was necessary if creativeness was to flourish.

But if this pre-rational realm was the inner, spiritual source of outwardly imaginative activity, as Maslow theorised, then a second, rational stage had to exist to account for the critical judgement necessary for creative solutions and achievements to emerge. Indeed, a person who fused both stages in a higher unity bore all the hallmarks of ‘integrated creativity’, out of which emerge all the great works of art, philosophy, and science.

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