Popper on creativity – and problem-solving

Sir Karl Popper makes some remarkably useful comments on creativity and problem-solving in his fascinating and inspiring ([1974] 2005) autobiography:

In Chapter 10, Popper (2005) notes:

`“A hungry animal divides the environment into edible and inedible things. An animal in flight sees roads of escape and hiding places.”…

…critical thinking may consist not only in a rejection of any particular trial or conjecture, but also in a rejection of what may be described as a deeper conjecture—the assumption of the range of “all possible trials”.

This, I suggest, is what happens in many cases of “creative” thinking.

What characterizes creative thinking, apart from the intensity of the interest in the problem, seems to me often the ability to break through the limits of the range—or to vary the range— from which a less creative thinker selects his trials.

This ability, which clearly is a critical ability, may be described as critical imagination.

It is often the result of culture clash, that is, a clash between ideas, or frameworks of ideas. Such a clash may help us to break through the ordinary bounds of our imagination.’

(Popper 2005, pp. 49-50)

He then goes on to say:

`…it seems to me that what is essential to “creative” or “inventive” thinking is a combination of intense interest in some problem (and thus a readiness to try again and again) with highly critical thinking; with a readiness to attack even those presuppositions which for less critical thought determine the limits of the range from which trials (conjectures) are selected; with an imaginative freedom that allows us to see so far unsuspected sources of error: possible prejudices in need of critical examination.’

(Popper 2005, p. 50)

Popper also makes interesting remarks in Chapter 11 on Music:

`…to return to objective music. Without asking a what-is? question, let us look at Bach’s Inventions, and his own somewhat longish title page, in which he makes it clear that he has written for people wanting to play the piano. They will, he assures them, learn “how to play with two and three parts clearly . . . and in a melodious way”; and they will be stimulated to be inventive, and so “incidentally get a first taste of composition”.

Here music is to be learned from examples. The musician is to grow up in Bach’s workshop, as it were. He learns a discipline, but he is also encouraged to use his own musical ideas and he is shown how they can be worked out clearly and skilfully. His ideas may develop, no doubt. Through work the musician may, like a scientist, learn by trial and error.

And with the growth of his work his musical judgement and taste may also grow—and perhaps even his creative imagination. But this growth will depend on effort, industry, dedication to his work; on sensitivity to the work of others, and on self-criticism. There will be a constant give-and-take between the artist and his work rather than a one-sided “give”—a mere expression of his personality in his work. From what I have said it should be clear that I am far from suggesting that great music, and great art in general, may not have a deep emotional impact.’

(Popper 2005, p. 70)


So the above talks about systems theory, and self-correcting feedback loops. The learning process itself can also be seen as a systems-cybernetic process. Lovelock (1995) states:


“The attainment of any skill, whether it be in cooking, painting, writing, talking or playing tennis, is all a matter of cybernetics. We aim at doing our best and making as few mistakes as possible; we compare our efforts with this goal and learn by experience; and we polish and refine our performance by constant endeavour until we are satisfied that we are as near to optimum achievement as we can ever reach. This process is well called learning by trial and error.”

(Lovelock 1995, p. 47).

Which all points toward creativity as the consilient bridge between Science and the Arts. Namely creativity works the same way, in science and the arts.
Popper then goes on to dismiss the Romantic view of creativity,
`The relation between music and the human emotions can be viewed in a number of very different ways.
One of the earliest and most seminal theories is the theory of divine inspiration which manifests itself in the divine madness or divine frenzy of the poet or musician: the artist is possessed by a spirit, though by a benign spirit rather than an evil one. A classical formulation of this view can be found in Plato’s Ion
…It should be noted that in developing these views Plato is far from serious: he speaks with his tongue in his cheek.’
(Popper 2005, pp 70-1)
Before reading Popper’s autobiography I was under the (mistaken) impression that he did not really understand creativity, and how it works. (Based on a remark he made much earlier in his intellectual career, about creativity being a mystery, in his first book The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934. But look what happened – how his view matured and changed – once he started investigating creativity!)
A great paper on it, for example is this one:
Naraniecki, A. (2016). Karl Popper on the Unknown Logic of Artistic Production and Creative DiscoveryCulture and Dialogue, 4(2), 263–282. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/24683949-12340015
A quote I like from the above article is:
`Popper’s fame during his life was a result of his tireless work in political and scientific philosophy, however, a central concern which runs through all of his work is that of creativity. Artistic creation, particularly musicology was also a major interest of his and one which greatly informed his scientific studies.
Bryan Magee stated in Popper that, “If Popper is right, there are not two cultures – one scientific and the other aesthetic, or one rational and the other irrational – but one.” (8)
This article supports Magee’s observation by drawing out the common arguments concerning the process of creative discovery that run through his scientific and lesser known aesthetics.
This unity was owing to an underlying anthropology that he referred to as “evolutionary epistemology.” Central to this for Popper was the view that a defining evolutionary characteristic of life was that it searches, and does so adventurously.
(Naraniecki 2016, p. 267)
Likewise – after reading more Popper, I came to see his Evolutionary Epistemology is in fact how creativity works. Csikszentmihalyi (brilliantly) uses systems theory to explain the same process of creativity, or cultural evolution.
As it turns out, Csikszentmihalyi’s dad and Popper also used to go mountain-climbing together, back in the day. …Fascinating stuff! Well; if you like – and are fascinated by – that sort of thing. Namely: creativity.
Anyway if this is of interest, maybe see my article on it in The Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (2017).
Popper and the creative “problem-solution” schema
In his 1974 / 2005 autobiography, Popper also says that art is about all problem-finding and problem-solving::
`The musician may make it his problem to depict emotions and to move us to sympathy, as in the St Matthew Passion; but there are many other problems he tries to solve. (This is obvious in such an art as architecture, where there are always practical and technical problems to be solved.)
In writing a fugue the composer’s problem is to find an interesting subject and a contrasting counterpoint, and then to exploit this material as well as he can. What leads him may be a trained sense of general fittingness or “balance”. The result may still be moving; but our appreciation may be based on the sense of fittingness—of a cosmos emerging from near chaos—rather than on any depicted emotion.
The same may be said of some of Bach’s Inventions, whose problem was to give the student a first taste of composition, of musical problem solving.
Similarly, the task of writing a minuet or a trio poses a definite problem for the musician; and the problem may be made more specific by the demand that it should fit into a certain half-completed suite.
To see the musician as struggling to solve  musical problems is of course very different from seeing him engaged in expressing his emotions (which, trivially, nobody can avoid doing).’
(Popper 2005, pp. 74-5)
What is striking about all this, is noting that Popper was talking about the problem-solution schema for art (all art, including music, painting, or whatever) back in 1974.
Also – this (terrific) book came out in 1976
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Getzels, J. W. (1976). The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem-Finding in Art. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
One is also reminded of David Bordwell’s and also Brian Boyd’s (brilliant) uses of the problem-solution schema in looking at cinema (movies) and literature (e.g. in  Film Poetics (2008), and On The Origin of Stories, 2008)
In short, it appears that Popper is just as important as E O Wilson’s Consilience (1998) in solving the Two Cultures Problem.
For more, see also my PhD
But in short, if looked at in the right way: All creativity is problem-solving.
~ Comments and feedback, always welcome!

JT Velikovsky, PhD – High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie & Transmedia Researcher

& Human & Computer Creativity Researcher

& Evolutionary Systems Analyst

See the research in my 2017 doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is reproduced here for the benefit of fellow bio-cultural scholars, and screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see also https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is a million-selling Transmedia writer-director-producer and game designer & writer. He has also been a professional Story Analyst for major movie studios, film funding organizations, and also for the national writer’s guild. He is also a judge for the writers guild and the director’s guild. 

For more, see also the Transmedia-Writing weblog: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/

Side Note: As a result of the Ph.D, Velikovsky also does: High-RoI Movie Consulting.
(If you’re a PhD, you are the world expert in: that specific topic. …e.g. …Movie RoI)


Lovelock, J. (1995). Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth. Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press.

Naraniecki, A. (2016). Karl Popper on the Unknown Logic of Artistic Production and Creative Discovery Culture and Dialogue, 4(2), 263–282. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/24683949-12340015

Popper, K. R. ([1974] 2005). Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography ([Rev. ed.). London; New York: Routledge.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema: A comparative study of the top 20 Return-on-Investment (RoI) Movies and the Doxa of Screenwriting’. PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1959.13/1324018

Velikovsky, J. T. (2017). Chapter 405: The Holon/Parton Structure of the Meme, or, The Unit Of Culture. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Fourth Edition (pp. 4666-4678). New York: IGI Global.

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