The Higher Forms Of Invention
We now pass from primitive to civilized man, from collective to
individual creation, the characters of which it remains for us to study
as we find them in great inventors who exhibit them on a large scale.
Fortunately, we may dismiss the treatment of the oft-discussed,
never-solved problem of the psychological nature of genius. As we have
already noted, there enter into its composition factors other than the
creative imagination, although the latter is not the least among them.
Besides, great men being exceptions, anomalies, or as the current
expression has it, "spontaneous variations," we may ask in limine
whether their psychology is explicable by means of simple formulae, as
with the average man, or whether even monographs teach us no more
concerning their nature than general theories that are never applicable
to all cases. Taking genius, then, as synonymous with great inventor,
accepting it de facto historically and psychologically, our task is
limited to the attempt to separate characters that seem, from
observation and experiment, to belong to it as peculiarly its own.
Putting aside vague dissertations and dithyrambics in favor of theories
with a scientific tendency as to the nature of genius, we meet first the
one attributing to it a pathological origin. Hinted at in antiquity
(Aristotle, Seneca, etc.), suggested in the oft-expressed comparison
between inspiration and insanity, it has reached, as we know--through
timid, reserved, and partial statements (Lelut)--its complete expression
in the famous formula of Moreau de Tours, "Genius is a neurosis."
Neuropathy was for him the exaggeration of vital properties and
consequently the most favorable condition for the hatching of works of
genius. Later, Lombroso, in a book teeming with doubtful or manifestly
false evidence, finding his predecessor's theory too vague, attempts to
give it more precision by substituting for neurosis in general a
specific neurosis--larvated epilepsy. Alienists, far from eagerly
accepting this view, have set themselves to combat it and to maintain
that Lombroso has compromised everything in wanting to make the term too
precise. There are several possible hypotheses, they say: either the
neuropathic state is the direct, immediate cause of which the higher
faculties of genius are effects; or, the intellectual superiority,
through the excessive labor and excitation it involves, causes
neuropathic disturbances; or, there is no relation of cause and effect
between genius and neurosis, but mere coexistence, since there are found
very mediocre neuropaths, and men above the average without a neurotic
blemish; or, the two states--the one psychic, the other
physiological--are both effects, resulting from organic conditions that
produce according to circumstances genius, insanity, and divers nervous
troubles. Every one of these hypotheses can allege facts in its favor.
We must, however, recognize that in most men of genius are found so many
peculiarities, physical eccentricities and disorders of all kinds that
the pathologic theory retains much probability.
There remain for consideration the sane geniuses who, despite many
efforts and subtleties, have not yet been successfully brought under the
foregoing formula, and who have made possible the enunciation of another
theory. Recently, Nordau, rejecting the theory of his master Lombroso,
has maintained that it is just as reasonable to say that "genius is a
neurosis" as that "athleticism is a cardiopathy" because many athletes
are affected with heart disease. For him, "the essential elements of
genius are judgment and will." Following this definition, he establishes
the following hierarchy of men of genius: At the highest rung of the
ladder are those in whom judgment and will are equally powerful; men of
action who make world-history (Alexander, Cromwell, Napoleon)--these are
masters of men. On the second level are found the geniuses of judgment,
with no hyper-development of will--these are masters of matter (Pasteur,
Helmholtz, Roentgen). On the third step are geniuses of judgment without
energetic will--thinkers and philosophers. What then shall we do with
the emotional geniuses--the poets and artists? Theirs is not genius in
the strict sense, "because it creates nothing new and exercises no
influence on phenomena." Without discussing the value of this
classification, without examining whether it is even possible,--since
there is no common measure between Alexander, Pasteur, Shakespeare, and
Spinoza,--and whether, on the other hand, common opinion is not right in
putting on the same level the great creators, whoever they be, solely
because they are far above the average, this remark is absolutely
necessary: In the definition above cited the creative faculty par
excellence--imagination--necessary to all inventors, is entirely left
We can, however, derive some benefit from this arbitrary division.
Although it is impossible to admit that "emotional geniuses" create
nothing new and have no influence on society, they do form a special
group. Creative work requires of them a nervous excitability and a
predominance of affective states that rapidly become morbid. In this way
they have provided the pathological theory with most of its facts. It
would perhaps be necessary to recognize distinctions between the various
forms of invention. They require very different organic and psychic
conditions in order that some may profit by morbid dispositions that are
far from useful to others. This point should deserve a special study
never made hitherto.
We shall reduce to three the characters ordinarily met in most great
inventors. No one of them is without exception.
1. Precocity, which is reducible to innateness. The natural bent
becomes manifest as soon as circumstances allow--it is the sign of the
true vocation. The story is the same in all cases: at one moment the
flash occurs; but this is not as frequent as is supposed. False
vocations abound. If we deduct those attracted through imitation,
environmental influence, exhortations and advice, chance, the attraction
of immediate gain, aversion to a career imposed from without which they
shun and adoption of an opposite one, will there remain many natural and
We have seen above that the passage from reproductive to
constructive imagination takes place toward the end of the third year.
According to some authors, this initial period should be followed by a
depression about the fifth year; thenceforward the upward progress is
continuous. But the creative faculty, from its nature and content,
develops in a very clear, chronological order. Music, plastic arts,
poetry, mechanical invention, scientific imagination--such is the usual
order of appearance.
In music, with the exception of a few child-prodigies, we hardly find
personal creation before the age of twelve or thirteen. As examples of
precocity may be cited: Mozart, at the age of three; Mendelssohn, five;
Haydn, four; Handel, twelve; Weber, twelve; Schubert, eleven; Cherubini,
thirteen; and many others. Those late in developing--Beethoven, Wagner,
etc.--are fewer by far.
In the plastic arts, vocation and creative aptitude are shown
perceptibly later, on the average about the fourteenth year: Giotto, at
ten; Van Dyck, ten; Raphael, eight; Guerchin, eight; Greuze, eight;
Michaelangelo, thirteen; Albrecht Duerer, fifteen; Bernini, twelve;
Rubens and Jordaens being also precocious.
In poetry we find no work having any individual character before
sixteen. Chatterton died at that age, perhaps the only example of so
young a poet leaving any reputation. Schiller and Byron also began at
sixteen. Besides this, we know that the talent for versification, at
least as imitation, is very early in developing.
In mechanical arts children have early a remarkable capacity for
understanding and imitating. At nine, Poncelet bought a watch that was
out of order in order to study it, then took it apart and put it
together correctly. Arago tells that at the same age Fresnel was called
by his comrades a "man of genius," because he had determined by correct
experiments "the length and caliber of children's elder-wood toy cannon
giving the longest range; also, which green or dry woods used in the
manufacture of bows have most strength and lasting power." In general,
the average of mechanical invention is later, and scarcely comes earlier
than that of scientific discovery.
The form of abstract imagination requisite for invention in the sciences
has no great personal value before the twentieth year: there are a
goodly number, however, who have given proof of it before that
age--Pascal, Newton, Leibniz, Gauss, Auguste Comte, etc. Almost all are
These chronological variations result not from chance, but from
psychological conditions necessary for the development of each form of
imagination. We know that the acquisition of musical sounds is prior to
speech: many children can repeat a scale correctly before they are able
to talk. On the other hand, as dissolution follows evolution in inverse
order, aphasic patients lacking the most common words, can
nevertheless sing. Sound-images are thus organized before all others,
and the creative power when acting in this direction finds very early
material for its use. For the plastic arts a longer apprenticeship is
necessary for the education of the senses and movements. To acquire
manual dexterity one must become skilled in observing form, combinations
of lines and colors, and apt at reproducing them. Poetry and first
attempts at novel-writing presuppose some experience of the passions of
human life and a certain reflection of which the child is incapable.
Invention in the mechanic arts, as in the plastic arts, requires the
education of the senses and movements; and, further, calculation,
rational combination of means, rigorous adaptation to practical
necessities. Lastly, scientific imagination is nothing without a high
development of the capacity for abstraction, which is a matter of slow
growth. Mathematicians are the most precocious because their material is
the most simple; they have no need, as in the case of the experimental
sciences, of an extended knowledge of facts, which is acquired only with
At this period of its development the imagination is in large part
imitation. We must explain this paradox. The creator begins by
imitating: this is such a well-known fact that it is needless to give
proof of it, and it is subject to few exceptions. The most original mind
is, at first, consciously or unconsciously somebody's disciple. It is
necessarily so. Nature gives only one thing, "the creative instinct;"
that is, the need of producing in a determined line. This internal
factor alone is insufficient. Aside from the fact that the imagination
at first has at its disposal only a very limited material, it lacks
technique, the processes indispensable for realizing itself. As long as
the creator has not found the suitable form into which to cast his
creation he must indeed borrow it from another; his ideas must suffer
the necessity of a provisional shelter. This explains how it is that
later the inventor, reaching full consciousness of himself, in order to
complete mastery of his methods, often breaks with his models, and burns
what he at first adorned.
A second character consists of the necessity, the fatality of creation.
Great inventors feel that they have a task to accomplish; they feel that
they are charged with a mission. On this point we have a large number of
testimonials and avowals. In the darkest days of his life Beethoven,
haunted by the thought of suicide, wrote, "Art alone has kept me back.
It seemed to me that I could not leave the world before producing all
that I felt within me." Ordinarily, inventors are apt in only one line;
even when they have a certain versatility, they remain bound to their
own peculiar manner--they have their mark--like Michaelangelo; or, if
they attempt to change it, if they try to be unfaithful as respects
their vocation, they fall much below themselves.
This characteristic of irresistible impulsion which makes the genius
create not because he wants to, but because he must do it, has often
been likened to instinct. This very widespread view has been examined
before (Part I, Chapter ii).
We have seen that there is no creative instinct in general, but
particular tendencies, orientated in a definite direction, which in
most respects resemble instinct. It is contrary to experience and logic
to admit that the creative genius follows any path whatever at his
choice--a proposition that Weismann, in his horror of inheritance of
acquired characters (which are a kind of innateness) is not afraid to
support. That is true only of the man of talent, a matter of education
and circumstances. The distinction between these two orders of
creators--the great and the ordinary--has been made too often to need
repetition, although it is proper to recognize that it is not always
easy in practice, that there are names that cause us to hesitate, which
we class somewhat at hazard. Yet genius remains, as Schopenhauer used to
say, monstrum per excessum; excessive development in one direction.
Hypertrophy of a special aptitude often makes genius fall, as far as the
others are concerned, below the average level. Even those exceptional
men who have given proof of multiple aptitudes, such as Vinci,
Michaelangelo, Goethe, etc., always have a predominating tendency which,
in common opinion, sums them up.
A third characteristic is the clearly defined individuality of the
great creator. He is the man of his work; he has done this or that: that
is his mark. He is "representative." There is no other opinion as to
this; what is a subject of discussion is the origin, not the nature of
this individuality. The Darwinian theory as to the all-powerful action
of environment has led to the question whether the representative
character of great inventors comes from themselves, and from them alone,
or must not rather be sought in the unconscious influence of the race
and epoch of which they are at a given instant only brighter sparks.
This debate goes beyond the bounds of our subject. To decide whether
social changes are due mostly to the accumulated influences of some
individuals and their initiative, or to the environment, to
circumstances, to hereditary transmission, is not a problem for
psychology to solve. We can not, however, totally avoid this discussion,
for it touches the very springs of creation.
Is the inventive genius the highest degree of personality or a synthesis
of masses?--the result of himself or of others?--the expression of an
individual activity or of a collective activity? In short, should we
look for his representative character within him or without? Both these
alternatives have authoritative supporters.
For Schopenhauer, Carlyle (Hero-worship), Nietzsche, et al., the
great man is an autonomous product, a being without a peer, a demigod,
"Uebermensch." He can be explained neither by heredity, nor by
For others (Taine, Spencer, Grant, Allen, et al.), the important
factor is seen in the race and external conditions. Goethe held that a
whole family line is summarized some day in a single one of its members,
and a whole people in one or several men. For him, Louis XIV and
Voltaire are respectively the French king and writer par excellence.
"The alleged great men," says Tolstoi, "are only the labels of history,
they give their names to events."
Each party explains the same facts according to its own principle and in
its own peculiar way. The great historic epochs are rich in great men
(the Greek republics of the fourth century B. C., the Roman Republic,
the Renaissance, French Revolution, etc.). Why? Because, say some,
periods put into ferment by the deep working of the masses make this
blossoming possible. Because, say the others, this flowering modifies
profoundly the social and intellectual condition of the masses and
raises their level. For the former the ferment is deep down; for the
latter it is on top.
Without presuming to solve this vexed question, I lean toward the view
of individualism pure and simple. It seems to me very difficult to admit
that the great creator is only the result of his environment. Since this
influence acts on many others, it is very necessary that, in great men,
there should be in addition a personal factor. Besides, in opposition to
the exclusively environmental theory we may bring the well-known fact
that most innovators and inventors at first arouse opposition. We know
the invariable sentence on everything novel--it is "false" or "bad;"
then it is adopted with the statement that it had been known for a long
time. In the hypothesis of collective invention, it seems that the mass
of people should applaud inventors, recognizing itself in them, seeing
its confused thought take form and body: but most often the contrary
happens. The misoneism of crowds seems to me one of the strongest
arguments in favor of the individual character of invention.
We can doubtless distinguish two cases--in the first, the creator sums
up and clearly translates the aspirations of his milieu; in the
second, he is in opposition to it because he goes beyond it. How many
innovators have been disappointed because they came before their time!
But this distinction does not reach to the bottom of the question, and
is not at all sufficient as an answer.
Let us leave this problem, which, on account of its complexity, we can
hardly solve through peremptory reasoning, and let us try to examine
objectively the relation between creation and environment in order
that we may see to what extent the creative imagination, without losing
its individual character--which is impossible--depends on the
intellectual and social surrounding.
If, with the American psychologists, we term the disposition for
innovating a "spontaneous variation"--a Darwinian term explaining
nothing, but convenient--we may enunciate the following law:
The tendency toward spontaneous variation (invention) is always in
inverse ratio to the simplicity of the environment.
The savage environment is in its nature very simple, consequently
homogeneous. The lower races show a much smaller degree of
differentiation than the higher; in them, as Jastrow says, physical and
psychic maturity is more precocious, and as the period just before the
adult age is the plastic period per se, this diminishes the chances of
a departure from the common type. Thus comparison between whites and
blacks, between primitive and civilized peoples, shows that, for equal
populations, there is an enormous disproportion as to the number of
The barbarian environment is much more complex and heterogeneous: it
contains all the rudiments of civilized life. Consequently, it favors
more individual variations and is richer in superior men. But these
variations are rarely produced outside of a very restricted
field--political, military, religious. So it seems impossible to agree
with Joly that neither primitive nor barbarian peoples produce
superior minds, "unless," as he says, "by this name we mean those that
simply surpass their congeners." But is there a criterion other than
that? I see none. Greatness is altogether a relative idea; and would not
our great creators seem, to beings better endowed than we, very small?
The civilized environment, requiring division of labor and consequently
a constantly growing complexity of heterogeneous elements, is an open
door for all vocations. Doubtless, the social spirit always retains
something of that tendency toward stagnation that is the rule in lower
social orders; it is more favorable to tradition than to innovation. But
the inevitable necessity of a warm competition between individuals and
peoples is a natural antidote for that natural inertia; it favors useful
variations. Moreover, civilization means evolution; consequently the
conditions under which the imagination is active change with the times.
Let us suppose, Weismann justly says, that in the Samoan Islands there
were born a child having the singular and extraordinary genius of
Mozart. What could he accomplish? At the most, extend the gamut of three
or four tones to seven, and create a few more complex melodies; but he
would be as unable to compose symphonies as Archimedes would have been
to invent an electric dynamo. How many creators have been wrecked
because the conditions necessary for their inventions were lacking?
Roger Bacon foresaw several of our great discoveries; Cardan, the
differential calculus; Van Helmont, chemistry; and it has been possible
to write a book on the forerunners of Darwin. We talk so much of the
free flight of imagination, of the all-comprehensive power of the
creator, that we forget the sociological conditions--not to mention
others--on which they are every moment dependent. In this respect, no
invention is personal in the strict sense; there always remains in it a
little of that anonymous collaboration the highest expression of which,
as we have seen, is the mythic activity.
By way of summary, and whatever be the causes, we may say that there is
a universal tendency in all living matter toward variation, whether we
consider vegetables, animals, or the physical and mental man. The need
of innovating is only a special case, rare in the lower races, frequent
in the higher. This tendency toward variation is fundamental or
superficial: As fundamental, it corresponds to genius, and survives
through processes analogous to natural selection, i.e., by its own
power. As superficial, it corresponds to talent, survives and prospers
chiefly through the help of circumstances and environment. Here, the
orientation comes from without, not from within. According as the spirit
of the time inclines rather to poetry or painting, or music, or
scientific research, or industry, or military art, minds of the second
order are dragged into the current--showing that a goodly part of their
power is in the aptness, not for invention, but for imitation.
The determination of the characters belonging to the inventive genius
has necessitated some seemingly irrelevant remarks on the action of the
environment. Let us return to invention, strictly so-called.
For inventing there is always required a natural aptitude, sometimes, a
The natural disposition should be accepted as a fact. Why does a man
create? Because he is capable of forming new combinations of ideas.
However naive this answer may be, there is no other. The only thing
possible, is the determination of the conditions necessary and
sufficient for producing novel combinations: this has been done in the
first part of this book, and there is no occasion for going over it
again. But there is another aspect in creative work to be
considered--its psychological mechanism, and the form of its
Every normal person creates little or much. He may, in his ignorance,
invent what has been already done a thousand times. Even if this is not
a creation as regards the species, it is none the less such for the
individual. It is wrong to say, as has been said, that an invention "is
a new and important idea." Novelty only is essential--that is the
psychological mark: importance and utility are accessory, merely social
marks. Invention is thus unduly limited when we attribute it to great
inventors only. At this moment, however, we are concerned only with
these, and in them the mechanism of invention is easier to study.
We have already seen how false is the theory that holds that there is
always a sudden stroke of inspiration, followed by a period of rapid or
slow execution. On the contrary, observation reveals many processes
that apparently differ less in the content of invention than according
to individual temperament. I distinguish two general processes of which
the rest are variations. In all creation, great or small, there is a
directing idea, an "ideal"--understanding the word not in its
transcendental sense, but merely as synonymous with end or goal--or more
simply, a problem to solve. The locus of the idea, of the given
problem, is not the same in the two processes. In the one I term
"complete" the ideal is at the beginning: in the "abridged" it is in the
middle. There are also other differences which the following tables will
make more clear:
First Process (complete).
1st phase 2nd phase 3d phase
IDEA INVENTION, VERIFICATION,
(commencement) or or
Special incubation DISCOVERY APPLICATION
of more or less (end)
The idea excites attention and takes a fixed character. The period of
brooding begins. For Newton it lasted seventeen years, and at the time
of definitely establishing his discovery by calculation he was so
overcome with emotion that he had to assign to another the task of
completing it. The mathematician Hamilton tells us that his method of
quaternians burst upon him one day, completely finished, while he was
near a bridge in Dublin. "In that moment I had the result of fifteen
years' labor." Darwin gathers material during his voyages, spends a
long time observing plants and animals, then through the chance reading
of Malthus' book, hits upon and formulates his theory. In literary and
artistic creation similar examples are frequent.
The second phase is only an instant, but essential--the moment of
discovery, when the creator exclaims his "Eureka!" With it, the work
is virtually or really ended.
Second Process (abridged).
1st phase 2nd phase 3rd phase
General preparation IDEA (commencement) CONSTRUCTIVE
(unconscious) INSPIRATION and
This is the process in intuitive minds. Such seems to have been the case
of Mozart, Poe, etc. Without attempting what would be a tedious
enumeration of examples, we may say that this form of creation comprises
two classes--those coming to maturity through an internal impulse, a
sudden stroke of inspiration, and those who are suddenly illumined by
chance. The two processes differ superficially rather than essentially.
Let us briefly compare them.
With some, the first phase is long and fully conscious; in others it
seems negligible, equal to zero--there is nothing of it because there
exists a natural or acquired tendency toward equilibrium. "For a long
time," says Schumann, "I had the habit of racking my brain, and now I
scarcely need to scratch my forehead. Everything runs naturally."
The second phase is almost the same in both cases: it is only an
instant, but it is essential--it is the moment of imaginative synthesis.
Lastly, the third phase is very short for some, because the main labor
is already done, and there remains only the finishing touch or the
verification. It is long for others, because they must pass from the
perceived idea to complete realization, and because the preparatory work
is faulty; so that for these the second creative process is shortened in
Such seem to me the two principal forms of the mechanism of creation.
These are genera; they include species and varieties that a patient and
minute study of the processes peculiar to various inventors would reveal
to us. We must bear in mind that this work makes no claim of being a
monograph on invention, but merely a sketch.
The two processes above described seem to correspond on the whole to
the oft-made distinction between the intuitive or spontaneous, and the
combining or reflective imagination.
The intuitive, essentially synthetic form, is found principally in the
purely imaginative types, children and savages. The mind proceeds from
the whole to details. The generative idea resembles those concepts
which, in the sciences, are of wide range because they condense a
generalization rich in consequences. The subject is at first
comprehended as a whole; development is organic, and we may compare it
to the embryological process that causes a living being to arise from
the fertilized ovum, analogous to an immanent logic. As a type of this
creative form there has often been given a letter wherein Mozart
explains his mode of conception. Recently (and that is why I do not
reprint it here) it has been suspected of being apocryphal. I regret
this--it was worthy of being authentic. According to Goethe,
Shakespeare's Hamlet could have been created only through an intuitive
The combining, discursive imagination proceeds from details to the
vaguely-perceived unity. It starts from a fragment that serves as a
matrix, and becomes completed little by little. An adventure, an
anecdote, a scene, a rapid glance, a detail, suggests a literary or
artistic creation; but the organic form does not appear in a trice. In
science, Kepler furnishes a good example of this combining imagination.
It is known that he devoted a part of his life trying strange
hypotheses, until the day when, having discovered the elliptical orbit
of Mars, all his former work took shape and became an organized system.
Did we want to make use once more of an embryological comparison, it
would be necessary to look for it in the strange conceptions of ancient
cosmogonies: they believed that from an earthly slime arose parts of
bodies and separate organs which through a mysterious attraction and
happy chance ended by sticking together, and forming living bodies.
It is an accepted view that of these two modes, one, the abridged or
intuitive process, is superior to the other. I confess to having held
this prejudice. On examination, I find it doubtful, even false. There is
a difference, not any "higher" and "lower."
First of all, both these forms of creation are necessary. The intuitive
process can suffice for an invention of short duration: a rhyme, a
story, a profile, a motif, an ornamental stroke, a little mechanical
contrivance, etc. But as soon as the work requires time and development
the discursive process becomes absolutely necessary: with many inventors
one easily perceives the change from one form to the other. We have seen
that in the case of Chopin, "creation was spontaneous, miraculous,"
coming complete and sudden. But George Sand adds: "The crisis over, then
commenced the most heartrending labor at which I have ever been
present," and she pictures him to us agonized, for days and weeks,
running after the bits of lost inspiration. Goethe, likewise, in a
letter to Humboldt regarding his Faust, which occupied him for sixty
years, full of interruptions and gaps: "The difficulty has been to get
through strength of will what is really to be gotten only by a
spontaneous act of nature." Zola, according to his biographer, Toulouse,
"imagines a novel, always starting out with a general idea that
dominates the work; then, from induction to induction, he draws out of
it the characters and all the story."
To sum up: Pure intuition and pure combination are exceptional;
ordinarily, it is a mixed process in which one of the two elements
prevails and permits its qualification. If we note, in addition, that it
would be easy to group under these two headings names of the first rank,
we shall conclude that the difference is altogether in the mechanism,
not in the nature of creation, and is consequently accessory; and that
this difference is reducible to natural dispositions, which we may
contrast as follows:
Ready-witted minds, Logically-developing
excelling in conception, minds, excelling in
making the whole almost elaboration.
out of one piece.
Work primarily unconscious. Patience the preponderating
Work primarily conscious.
Actions quick. Actions slow.
"Were we to raise monuments to inventors in the arts and sciences, there
would be fewer statues to men than to children, animals, and especially
fortune." In this wise expressed himself one of the sage thinkers of
the eighteenth century, Turgot. The importance of the last factor has
been much exaggerated. Chance may be taken in two senses--one general,
the other narrow.
(1) In its broad meaning, chance depends on entirely internal, purely
psychic circumstances. We know that one of the best conditions for
inventing is abundance of material, accumulated experience,
knowledge--which augment the chances of original association of ideas.
It has even been possible to maintain that the nature of memory implies
the capacity of creating in a special direction. The revelations of
inventors or of their biographers leave no doubt as to the necessity of
a large number of sketches, trials, preliminary drawings, no matter
whether it is a matter of industry, commerce, a machine, a poem, an
opera, a picture, a building, a plan of campaign, etc. "Genius for
discovery," says Jevons, depends on the number of notions and chance
thoughts coming to the inventor's mind. To be fertile in
hypotheses--that is the first requirement for finding something new. The
inventor's brain must be full of forms, of melodies, of mechanical
agents, of commercial combinations, of figures, etc., according to the
nature of his work. "But it is very rare that the ideas we find are
exactly those we were seeking. In order to find, we must think along
other lines." Nothing is more true.
So much for chance within: it is indisputable, whatever may have been
said of it, but it depends finally on individuality--from it arises the
non-anticipated synthesis of ideas. The abundance of memory-ideas, we
know, is not a sufficient condition for creation; it is not even a
necessary condition. It has been remarked that a relative ignorance is
sometimes useful for invention: it favors assurance. There are
inventions, especially scientific and industrial, that could not have
been made had the inventors been arrested by the ruling and presumably
invincible dogmas. The inventor was all the more free the more he was
unaware of them. Then, as it was quite necessary to bow before the
accomplished fact, theory was broadened to include the new discovery and
(2) Chance, in the narrow sense, is a fortunate occurrence stimulating
invention: but to attribute to it the greater part, is a partial,
erroneous view. Here, what we call chance, is the meeting and
convergence of two factors--one internal (individual genius), the
other, external (the fortuitous occurrence).
It is impossible to determine all that invention owes to chance in this
sense. In primitive humanity its influence must have been enormous: the
use of fire, the manufacture of weapons, of utensils, the casting of
metals: all that came about through accidents as simple as, for example,
a tree falling across a stream suggesting the first idea of a bridge.
In historic times--and to keep merely to the modern period--the
collection of authentic facts would fill a large volume. Who does not
know of Newton's apple, Galileo's lamp, Galvani's frog? Huygens declared
that, were it not for an unforeseen combination of circumstances, the
invention of the telescope would require "a superhuman genius;" it is
known that we owe it to children who were playing with pieces of glass
in an optician's shop. Schoenbein discovered ozone, thanks to the
phosphorous odor of air traversed by electric sparks. The discoveries of
Grimaldi and of Fresnel in regard to interferences, those of Faraday, of
Arago, of Foucault, of Fraunhofer, of Kirchoff, and of hundreds of
others owed something to "fortune." It is said that the sight of a crab
suggested to Watt the idea of an ingenious machine. To chance, also,
many poets, novelists, dramatists, and artists have owed the best part
of their inspirations: literature and the arts abound in fictitious
characters whose real originals are known.
So much for the external, fortuitous factor; its role is clear. That of
the internal factor is less so. It is not at all apparent to the
ordinary mind, escaping the unreflecting. Yet it is extremely important.
The same fortuitous event passes by millions of men without exciting
anything. How many of Pisa's inhabitants had seen the lamp of their
cathedral before Galileo! He does not necessarily find who wants to
find. The happy chance comes only to those worthy of it. In order to
profit thereby, one must first possess the spirit of observation,
wide-awake attention, that isolates and fixates the accident; then, if
it is a matter of scientific or practical inventions, the penetration
that seizes upon relations and finds unforeseen resemblances; if it
concerns esthetic productions, the imagination that constructs,
organizes, gives life.
Without repeating an evident truism, although it is often misunderstood,
we ought to end by remarking that chance is an occasion for, not an
agent of, creation.
Next: Law Of The Development Of The Imagination
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