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The Metaphysics of Arthur Koestler

When this extraordinary book—part treatise and part biology and psychology copy book, part independent scientific speculation and part romantic Naturphilosophie—was published in England earlier this year, it caused something of a sensation. No one quite knew how to take it. Some reviewers (and it was reviewed profusely and often at great length) professed to think that, however improbably, The Act of Creation is itself a true act of scientific creation, conceivably the greatest and certainly the most ambitious work in the life sciences since Darwin’s epochal Origin of Species. On the other side, perhaps misled by Koestler’s reputation as a novelist (it is not without significance that Koestler has been mainly a political novelist for whom the work of imaginative literature may be at the same time a moral and political act), by his inappropriately lively and witty style, by displays of subjective reactions presumably irrelevant to questions of objective scientific understanding and truth, and by his bland refusal to be daunted by any intellectual problem, no matter how technical or complex, many were unable to take him seriously in the role of scientist In their view, Koestler does not fully realize what is involved in scientific inquiry, and his book, for all its learning, must be judged as the misplaced product of an incurably poetic imagination. Yet on both sides of the controversy, the critics seemed uncertain of their own reactions, and before they were through they had usually managed to hedge their bets by radical, if piecemeal, concessions to the opposing point of view.

I scarcely blame them. For one thing, The Act of Creation contains not one but two (no doubt related) books of very different ranges, perspectives, and styles. The first is beautifully readable and, for the most part, intelligible to any informed twentieth-century reader; the other is highly technical, occasionally unintelligible except to specialists and sometimes (I suspect) not even to them, but at the same time immensely ranging, not to say visionary, in its purview. For another thing, both books, for all their differences, have similar defects. Here I am not speaking of factual errors, most of which could no doubt be removed without affecting the main drift of Koestler’s arguments. The underlying difficulty concerns the intention of the book as a whole. What is Koestler really up to? Would it be an egregious mistake to take the book at its face value? But, then, what precisely is its face value? Practicing scientists will be, have been, disposed to dismiss Koestler as a possibly gifted but presumptuous and uncritical “writer” who has wandered unaccountably into a field for which, by training and aptitude, he is intrinsically unfitted. Literary men, especially those who have erected a wall between “imaginative literature” and other forms of writing, whether scientific, historical, criticial, or philosophical will “submit” that Koestler is at once making clear at the theoretical level what was always apparent from his practice, namely, that he is not an artist but an artificer, a maker and joiner who has been filling in time while his story-teller’s imagination has lain fallow. Either way, it seems impossible to accept his book as a “normal” contribution to biological and psychological science. And the point is merely sharpened by Professor Sir Cyril Burt’s statement, in an admiring if cautious Foreward, that Koestler had a scientific education, has “visited” in many places of learning where serious psychological research is conducted, has a formidable knowledge of the “literature” of the subject, and enjoys the intimate friendship of some of the most original investigators in contemporary science, “from nuclear physics to experimental neurology.”

To complete the picture, Koestler himself has created further uncertainty by a rather testy and cryptic reply to one reviewer who had made the important point, which others have also noted, that Koestler not only does not adequately distinguish, but apparently fails to appreciate, the salient difference between the scientist’s original moment of insight or discovery and the objective validation of his hypothesis, and between his (the scientist’s) “moment of truth” and the achievement of public scientific knowledge. Even if, as Koestler contends, there is in all human thought a continuous gradient from “objective” to “subjective” reactions, this does not prove what Koestler evidently thinks it proves. For scientific objectivity concerns, not a characteristic response on the part of scientific discovers, whether “subjective” or “objective,” but conformity to a system of impersonal practices for testing hypotheses.

If Koestler were willing to concede this, his two main arguments could still be true: that the scientist’s original insight bears a close analogy to the artist’s creative act; and that certain psychological (and ultimately physiological) conditions are common to them both. Why is he unwilling to make this saving concession which would seem to leave his theory of creation virtually intact? This question, I believe, is but one side of a more general question about the nature of his achievement. What no one seems to have asked is this: why does Koestler always stretch the range of his ideas to, and beyond, the breaking point? And what is the source of his passion for melding attitudes or temperaments? These questions are not answered by the charge that he lacks scientific discipline or that he suffers from the artist’s supposed incapacity for handling general ideas. When he chooses, Koestler can be as restrained and as analytical as the most proper academic scientists. Nor is he lacking in self-criticism. He makes clear at the outset that he has “no illusions about the prospects of the theory…it will suffer the inevitable fate of being proven wrong in many, or most, details…What I am hoping for is that it will be found to contain a shadowy pattern of truth, and that it may stimulate those who search for unity in the diverse manifestations of human thought and emotion.” Moreover, as it seems to me, Koestler is quite right in contending that there is no such thing as the artistic or the scientific temperament. The ideas both of art and of science concern forms, not of temperament, but of achievement. And to either form of achievement there is no one temperamental throughway. In my judgment, the real source of Koestler’s “defects” as a scientist is, rather, an overriding concern, not fully appreciated either by himself or by his critics, which can only be called metaphysical. And it is as metaphysics that The Act of Creation as a whole must be judged. However, before I can even begin to suggest why, and how, this is so, we must first take a closer look at his theory itself.

The Act of Creation is, I believe, a more truly creative work than any of Koestler’s novels and a more adequate revelation both of his powers as a writer and of his enduring interests as a man. In his own view, however, Koestler the quondam novelist and Koestler the scientific psychologist are merely chips off the same block. According to him, the creative faculty in whatever form is owing to a circumstance which he calls “bisociation.” And we recognize this intuitively whenever we laugh at a joke, are dazzled by a fine metaphor, are astonished and excited by a unification of styles, or “see,” for the first time, the possibility of a significant theoretical breakthrough in a scientific inquiry. In short, one touch of genius—or bisociation—makes the whole world kin. Or so Koestler believes. And why should this not be so? That one man is tone deaf and another good at numbers, or that one has an eye for facts and another is impervious to them proves nothing to the contrary. Koestler is talking about—if he will forgive the word—the fundamental mechanism of genius, not the specific “skills,” native or acquired, that may be necessary to particular acts of creation. On this score, he merely underlines a point we all must have known before, namely, that it is not the skill or facility that makes the creative artist or scientist, but what he does with it. In short, Koestler is interested in that transfiguring movement of the mind which turns cleverness into the creative act and talent into the stroke of genius. He believes that he can define the essential conditions of that movement. He also thinks, perhaps incontinently, that its more primitive analogues are in evidence everywhere in the organic world.

The theory of bisociation is explained and profusely illustrated at the human level in the lengthy but continuously fascinating first book of The Act of Creation. Here Koestler is at his ease. He entertains while he enlightens and persuades, and even though one may not really be shown in the end just why a bisociative act occurs in one situation but not in another, one is nonetheless enabled virtually to “see” Gutenberg in the act of inventing the printing press, Kepler (always a special hero of Koestler’s) in the process of discovering his three great laws of planetary motion, and Darwin moving up to and then lighting upon, as Darwin himself put it, “the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of the species.” Technically, “bisociation” may best be understood by distinguishing it from unitary, habitual associations on a single “plane” of experience. Connections of the latter sort, involving merely the articulation of an established routine, are manifest in such standard examples as, say, the association of clouds with rain, of fox with bagels, of the word “Fido” with Fido. Bisociation, on the contrary, occurs only when a new connection is made between two (or more) independent contexts of association which Koestler variously calls “frames of reference,” “universes of discourse,” or “types of logic.”1

Koestler shrewdly introduces his study of bisociation through an account of humor which, although (in my judgment) too intellectualistic, is one of the most convincing parts of his book. Humorous bisociation involves the perception of a situation in two habitually incompatible associative contexts. This “causes” an abrupt transfer of the train of thought from one “frame of reference” to another governed, as he puts it, by “a different logic or ‘rule of the game’.” In humor, however, certain emotions, “owing to their greater inertia,” cannot follow such rapid intellectual moves and so, “discarded by reason, they are worked off along channels of least resistance in laughter.” The emotions involved are, in particular, those of the self-assertive, aggressive-defensive type, which are based on the sympathetic-adrenal system and tend to beget bodily activity. “Laughter is a luxury reflect which could arise only in a creature whose reason has gained a degree of autonomy from the urges of emotion, and enables him to perceive his own emotions as redundant—to realize that he has been fooled.” There is no space to cite a fair sample of the many jokes and witticisms (both good and bad) which Koestler so perceptively and convincingly analyzes. Consider the following “memorable statement” which appeared (ye gods!) in Vogue:

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    Here, I may add, Koestler seems to remind us of the post-Wittgensteinian linguistic philosophers who treat each distinct “form of words” as having a characteristic “logic” of its own; the crucial difference here is that Koestler, in limiting himself to bisociations of frames of reference, fails to perceive possibilities of verbal bisociation that may arise from the collision or fusion of whole frames of reference with, say, “frames” of expressive or emotive meaning. In fact, my guess is that an adequate account of humor and of artistic creation, as distinct from the account of scientific discovery, would require just such cross-frame bisociations. Curiously, the “romantic” Koestler is often too narrowly intellectualistic in his approach to modes of bisociation. And one reason for this may well be, ironically, that his own training was scientific rather than humanistic and literary. I suggest, however, that an adequate analysis of metaphor and of rhetoric would require a more systematic study than Koestler gives of non-referential and non-descriptive forms of expression. Perhaps this may also help to explain why Koestler limits his morphology of human-creativity to the jester, the scientist, and the artist, leaving out of account the religious genius, the prophet, the moralist, and the charismatic leader.

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