A Creative Community ?

Vanessa Bell, The Memoir Club (1943)

Hazy concepts can produce some enjoyable reading.

Evidence of that has been furnished by the recent conference on “Creative Communities”, which has been held at Duke on saturday, november 1st. I understand that the conference itself was an emanation of the HES list, following a question asked by Evelyn Forget in April 2008. Attendees were among those who answered Evelyn’s initial question. Those were the usual suspects working on some other usual suspects: Robert Leonard on The Vienna Circle, Ross Emmett on the Chicago School, Loic Charles on Quesnay’s circles and Craufurd Goodwin on the Bloomsbury group. Bruce Larson provided the opening speech and Evelyn Forget presented a paper on the US economists doing economic policy at the Office of Economic Opportunities in the 1960s. That episode, which is not well known among economists and historians, seems very interesting to me, because it is my feeling that the history of economics as it has been done until now has on the whole ignored the importance of economic policy and more generally of the work that has been done by social workers, statisticians, propagandists, journalists and bureaucrats at the crossroads of creation and diffusion of economic knowledge.

The other contributions were similarly interesting and produced many thoughtful comments from the audience. I particularly enjoyed Ross Emmett’s article on the Chicago School of economics, and its emphasis on the worshop, the seminar organized by the Chicagoans to train their graduate students and spread the Price Theory to the rest of the academics – involving some painful paper bashing from senior Chicago professors toward their students and guest lecturers.

Yet I have to confess that, while I learned a lot from individual contributions, I did not learn as much about the whole idea of “Creative Community”, a term that does not make much sense to me. What is the difference between a “Creative Community” and a “Collaborative Circle”? As Roy Weintraub suggested during the conference, it is even doubtful that the term “creativity” is of any interest as a historical concept. It results from this that the real contribution of the conference was elsewhere. Actually, it showed that good articles are easily obtained when the emphasis is placed on social relations in the process of creation and diffusion of (scientific) knowledge rather than on individual contributions or on the text itself. Said in other terms, good contributions to the history of economics require at least some understanding of the context. Though it would be rather easy to say that we already knew that, as historians of science have done such work for decades, I will simply say that I was delighted to see how the discussion turned naturally to the questions that interest me the most. Should we use the word “schools”? How collaborations occur? How one’s personality toward his friends and collaborators affect the work that is done? Are we focused too much on the output of scientific research and not enough on the process itself?

For this reason, I don’t think that the output of the conference should be a specific issue or a mini-symposium in a HET journal. If those contributions were to be fully developed and joined by some others, I would rather see a kind of SSK Reader following from this. But my wish might be at odds with the feelings and expectations of the other participants.


17 thoughts on “A Creative Community ?

  1. The concept of “creativity” can be of some use. Here in Amsterdam our reading group was just yesterday reading a “History of Curiosity”. Plastic concepts help one to tie seemly unlike subjects together, they may not be cognitively, methodologically or socially significant, but they can insinuate some unity in the historical record for historians to experiment with. It probably doesn’t work if you look only at instances of creative communities and don’t rehearse how “creativity”as a cultural value has developed in western culture or how it is expressed in the particular cultures of each studied case. So was creativity valued in Chicago workshops and how was it framed and how was it encouraged and exemplified? Ultimately, the interesting job here is doing the tie ins between the different cases and I wonder if the discussants did not exercise these threads.

    Besides, I think the reader model used by 4S is a good one. Teaching from a textbook is functional if you are teaching large groups or if you want to achieve some harmony among different institutions. I don’t think the history of economics needs it. A good extensive reader would give lecturers the chance to pick issues, periods, styles of writing history and motivate students to read a more complex script while inviting historians of economics to write more cleanly.

  2. Suppose there were to be an Economic Science Studies Reader (aka The Sandbox Reader), what articles, book excerpts, videos, etc. would you think are appropriate? The model of course is Biagioli’s SS Reader. Reader would be for for upper level courses for undergraduates and masters level graduates.

  3. Difficult question … I can’t be really assertive on that but I can cite some references that have been quite useful for me during the last few years.
    “A Paradox of Budgets” by Hands & Mirowski (1998)
    “Imagination and imagining in economic model-building” by Morgan (2004)
    “Equilibrim Proofmaking” by Weintraub (2002)
    “Blood, Politics & Social Sciences” by Fontaine (2002)
    “Between Worlds” by Leonard (2004)
    One of Loic’s articles on Quesnay (most likely the article on the Workshop), something by Perry Mehrling (on Fischer Black ?), something by Judee Klein (on WWII or on diagrams) and something by McCloskey, which after all, would be quite challenging.
    Sorry for those I forgot …

  4. The problem about “creativity” as a concept is that it is changing meaning across time and place. Before a very late (in the history of the world) time (17-18th century is the crucial period), creativity was not about creating new knowledge but about conveying in “new” ways a knowledge that was already known. In other words, creativity was seen as a rhetorical performance, not as a knowledge-adding performance. In this respect, I agree with what Roy say at the conference about creativity as a not very interesting concept in relation to the notion of “creative community”. Hence, we may want to use the expression “collaborative circle or community” instead.

  5. If the concept’s meaning changes then you have a history to write. If the concept remains fixed then you don’t have a history to write. So all the better that it has changed.

    “Communities” may not be enough. We need “Imagined Communities” to denote the identifies forged by nationalism. We talk of “interpretative communities” to talk of the incommensurability of expression. Why not “creative communities” to denote different understandings of knowledge making practices and, more interestingly to me, the cultural norms that sanction one act as creative and another as merely demonstrative.

    I have recently come across the story of how Keynes met Tinbergen, told by the latter. I think the source was Mary’s book, or some interview related to her book. Tinbergen approached Keynes excited with the news that he had done the math and painstakingly proven that one of Keynes’ claims (I think related to aggregate consumption) had been just right. Keynes did not share the enthusiasm and reacted “I am happy for you.” To Keynes, Tinbergen and his numbers had little or no merit. Isn’t there something here about valuing a certain kind of creativity, a certain creative practice?

  6. How come there is not history to write when the concept is not changing? Discourse is not everything, some hard facts are still worth investigating historically.
    Tiago, I was not saying that creativity is not interesting in general, I agree with you that it could be, but that in investigating “creative communities”, I think that the community aspect is much more central to the investigation than the creativity part.

  7. Back to the reader, the trouble with textbooks is that they are too much about content, how one moves from A to B. They read like an intro course to economics but with dates on it. Landreth and Colander runs like Marshall’s translation of economics past and present, I guess it is heritage of Blaug’s best seller. I don’t think we need the uniformity, it would be nicer to use history to draw different issues, methodological, social, cultural, and a reader could do it better. Of course, HES or however one defines our group of reference, is not as diverse as Science Studies, but maybe such a reader would sample authors from sister disciplines – something on performativity (MacKenzie), something on moral economy and science (Norton Wise?), origins of the social sciences (Ross, Furner?)…

    I am not sure this is a best strategy to move history of economics from the basic undergraduate program to a seminar and advanced setting, but it feels right.

  8. May I intervene here, as an occasional, and enthusiastic, reader of this blog and participant at the Duke workshop. As I understood it, Roy’s dismissal of the term “creative” was based on his dislike of the judgmental, and perhaps hagiographic, tone of the large literature on artistic creativity. That’s fine with me – although I’m not that convinced that the use of the term “creative” as a starting point necessarily means that one need approach it in a rhapsodic manner (i.e., with a heavenly choir playing in the background). For example, one can discuss Wald’s “creativity” in the mid-1930’s in the full awareness that his work didn’t gain greater social significance until the 1950’s. One can equally discuss the creativity of someone who never made it into the pantheon.

    My visceral reaction to Roy’s remark stemmed from my conviction that the discussion of “creativity” (without the heavenly choir) is, for me, one of the most interesting parts of what we do. When Loïc suggests that Quesnay’s invention of the Tableau may have been inspired by Grollier’s mechanical games, we are discussing Q’s creativity, with both psychological and cultural dimensions. When Tiago, as I see it, examines how Leonard Silk interprets and re-shapes economic ideas for a popular audience, aren’t we concerned with S’s “creativity”? When I suggest that von N’s construction of the stable set was fundamentally related to his personal confrontation with social disequilibrium in Europe in the late 1930’s, I am deliberately trying to understand his creativity.

    It seems to me that once you acknowledge that, at any particular historical moment, the future is largely undetermined, then you are necessarily concerned with how individuals (yes, in a social setting) construct their universe as they go along – and here the keywords are bricolage, creativity, world-making. “Whig history” and SSK, as I understand them, are similar insofar as they shift the emphasis away from these psychological and individual features of creative work. They steer us away from vast, crucial dimensions of human experience.

  9. Very interesting point, especially the plea for more respect to the psychological and the individual elements in HET. Strangely, until a few weeks ago (probably the session on SSK at York University), I did not see why SSK is so controversial as a future for HET. Then, I came to realize that within those among us who advocate for SSK, there’s a difference between those who think that the social has to be taken into account to a large extent to construct a satisfying history of economics – something I think everybody in our “group” would agree with – and people who believe that sociology comes first and that history of economics (or of science) should be used only to illustrate it – which I rather disagree with. That is why I came to the conclusion that it is a bit too simple to take SSK as a battle flag to claim that’s what we should do as historians of economics … and that this is better to argue that a good history (of economics) should take into account both sociological and individual elements, because that’s at the crossroads of those that knowledge flows (sorry for the emphatic tone, here). I was reading the introduction of Novick’s That Noble Dream, and he defines his own methodology as ‘overdeterminacy’, which is to say that he’s willing to take into accounts a variety of elements, without having to organize them into a hierarchy. I think this is a good framework, though not a very convenient one to sell, in those times of aggressive marketing!

  10. I think Roy is getting words put into his mouth. What the objection to “creativity” was rooted in was its use as a judgment. X’s work was “creative”, while Y’s work was a “natural extension” of Z’s work. Over many years I have tried to avoid such usage. In the US at least, “creative” has a bad reputation. The new TV ad is “creative”, “let my creative people have a crack at the script”, “little Mary’s fingerpainting shows real creativity”, etc. Go take a look at Jacques Barzun’s old House of Intellect to see how a master takes apart the cult of creative=good, noncreative=unprized. Why is creativity a virtue over other virtues? Why is it valorized at all? DeMarchi has written a lot about periods of art-marketing when copying was prized and originality was shunned. Creativity was the last and least desirable quality that a painting represented to the buyer.

    When I hear someone praise a work or individual for its or his/her creativity, I personally believe that the speaker is interjecting a verbal place-holder for the word “um” as in “um, I really like it.” Robert L’s “heavenly choir” is part of the modern use of “creative” whether or not we think it ought not to be so. I frankly don’t see the point — I found out yesterday when I went to the “From El Greco to Velasquez” exhibition that I marveled at the richness of the materials, their craft, the artist’s engagement and skill, but never thought to say “Boy, that El Greco was one creative dude.” Mutatis mutandi for Abraham Wald.

  11. When someone praises a work or an individual for its or his/her creativity does it not reflect a choice of a label over possible competitors. He/she could have called it “insightful”, “exemplar”, “convincing,” “logical.” Of course the choice of label means very little out of context. It might mean one thing at a marketing department, at kindergarten, and in a smoked filled room with economists. It might mean different things across time. And whether the context can be shown to be community dependent I don’t know (“creative communities” being defined by a shared definition of “creativity”, and not as groups of “creative” individuals).

    I like the “creativity” entry point because I think more should be written about how scientists are guided by aesthetic feelings and intuitions. One could do it by tracking the uses/notions of “beauty” but we could also do it by tracking the uses/notions of “creative.”

  12. If you want to talk in a useful manner about creativity you need to get specific about case histories or you will never get past definitions. And if you spend more than five minutes disagreeing about the meaning of creativity, then agree to disagree on the essence of creativity and use different words to capture the different meanings that are on the table.
    Arthur Koestler wrote a fascinating book on creativity.

    it should be read in parallel with his book on the the new cosmology of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton “The Sleepwalkers”.

    Another aspect of creativity is the blockage of ideas that are “before their time”. This is a review of a collection of papers on that theme.

  13. On the use of creativity, I vaguely remember one encounter with this word: in the Marschak paper, I found letters from the early forties where he balanced the relatives merits of Friedman and Koopmans, so as to recruit one at the Cowles. Friedman is quicker and more creative, while Koopmans is better trained in mathematics, he reflected.
    Thus, whether the notion of “creativity” is meaningful for us or not, it is, obviously, for some of our subjects.

  14. Beatrice, I think your point matches my view of the topic. An interesting story could be told about how economists judge each other “creative,” but there is little hope for writing histories about how certain communities are creative while others are not, when we can’t agree a-historically on what “creativity” is. “Creative” is not a noun.

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