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

irresistible vocations?

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

happy chance.

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


(commencement) or or


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

appearance only.

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

process, etc.

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

explain it.

(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.

The Foundations Of The Creative Imagination The Imaginative Type facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail