Vygotsky on Collective Creativity

I just re-read a classic article about creativity, written almost 100 years ago by the legendary Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s theory–that innovations emerge from social networks and collaborative groups–has been supported by decades of research. Here are a few choice quotations:

Our everyday understanding of creativity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. In our everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few select individuals, geniuses, talented people. This view is incorrect. Creativity is present whenever a person imagines and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears. Collective creativity combines all these drops of individual creativity that are insignificant in themselves. This is why an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. (pp. 10-11)

Everything the imagination creates is always based on elements taken from reality, from a person’s previous experience. The most fantastic creations are nothing other than a new combination of elements that have ultimately been extracted from reality. (p. 13)

The first law of creativity: The act of imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience because this experience provides the material from which the products of creativity are constructed. The richer a person’s experience, the richer is the material his imagination has access to. Great works and discoveries are always the result of an enormous amount of previously accumulated experience. The implication of this for education is that, if we want to build a relatively strong foundation for a child’s creativity, what we must do is broaden the experiences we provide him with. (pp. 14-15)

Every inventor, even a genius, is a product of his time and his environment. His creations arise from needs that were created before him. No invention can occur before the material and psychological conditions necessary for it to occur have appeared. Creation is a historical, cumulative process where every succeeding manifestation was determined by the preceding one. (p. 30)

The right kind of education involves awakening in the child what already exists within him, helping him to develop it and directing this development in a particular direction. (p. 51)

In conclusion, I emphasize the importance of cultivating creativity in school. The entire future of humanity will be attained through creativity. Because the main objective of school is to prepare them for the future, the development and practice of creativity should be one of the main goals of education.

Vygotsky’s view is exactly what contemporary research on innovation and creativity has found, as captured in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. (And, more recently, in Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators.)

* Vygotsky, “Imagination and creativity in childhood.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology Vol. 42 No. 1.

Vygotsky on Collective Creativity

I just read this English-language translation of an old Russian text by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and it surprisingly foreshadows contemporary scientific understandings of creativity and innovation:

Our everyday understanding of creativity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. According to everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few selected individuals, geniuses, talented people….we typically believe that such creativity is completely lacking in the life of the ordinary person. However, this view is incorrect. Creativity is present not only when great historical works are born, but also whenever a person imagines, combines, alters, and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears. When we consider the phenomenon of collective creativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity that frequently are insignificant in themselves, we readily understand what an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. The overwhelming majority of inventions were produced by unknown individuals.*

This is very similar to the findings I report in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and also is captured right in the title of Peter Sims’ wonderful book Little Bets. I elaborate this scientific research at greater length in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.

*pp. 10-11 in: Lev Vygotsky, English translation published 2004 as “Imagination and creativity in childhood,” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Volume 42 Issue 1, pp. 7-97. From the original Russian text published in 1967: Voobrazhenie i tvorchestvo v detskom vozraste (Moscow: Prosveshchenie).

Thanks to Professor Susan Davis for sharing this manuscript with me!