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What's the best explanation of intellectual generativity?

by Raemon1 min read28th Jun 201924 comments

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Generativity
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Lately I've found myself wanting to make the argument that intellectual generativity is very important, and that you should be very careful with subtle forces that can corrode it.

"Generativity" is the sort of word that seems to come up a lot in casual conversations in my current circle but I just went looking for a good explanatory post and couldn't find one. I'm fairly confident that someone somewhere has talked about it (not necessarily on LW).

Curious if anyone knows of good existing writing?

And if anyone wanted to write up a fresh explanation that'd be cool as well. (A possible outcome is treating the answer section here as an opportunity to write a first draft that maybe turns into a post if there's consensus the answer is good)

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Initially, generativity is largely a matter of curiosity and play, unencumbered by social coercion. Development of ideas beyond the initial stage requires a network of communicating individuals who can check and build on each other's ideas.

Quoting Isaac Newton:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Regarding Bell Labs (well-known for being highly generative):

“[John] Pierce, to put it simply, was asking himself: What about Bell Labs’ formula was timeless? In his 1997 list, he thought it boiled down to four things: A technically competent management all the way to the top. Researchers didn’t have to raise funds. Research on a topic or system could be and was supported for years. Research could be terminated without damning the researcher.”

(from The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation)

While technically competent management has a clear relation to technical generativity, the other factors are more about absence of negatives (economic and social coercion) than about presence of positives. This makes sense given that (a) at least some humans are automatically generative (in the sense of being curious, inventive, etc) and (b) economic and social coercion destroy generativity. (b) makes sense given that: economic coercion can't incentivize activities the economic system can't test on short timescales (e.g. marketing of consumer goods), and social coercion works on very short timescales and causes conformity pressures (where conformity is incompatible with generativity).

Thus, a question that is more often useful than "what causes generativity", is "what blocks generativity".

Quoting How to Read a Book (1940), page 284 (chapter 18, "How to Read Philosophy"):

"Children ask magnificent questions. "Why are people?" "What makes the cat tick?" "What's the world's first name?" "Did God have a reason for creating the earth?" Out of the mouths of babes comes, if not wisdom, at least the search for it. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it stops there, too.

The child is a natural questioner. It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult. Adults do not lose the curiosity that seems to be a native human trait, but their curiosity deteriorates in quality. They want to know whether something is so, not why. But children's questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia.

What happens between the nursery and college to turn the How of questions off, or, rather, to turn it into the duller channels of adult curiosity about matters of fact? A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers. It is easy enough to learn the answers. But to develop actively inquisitive minds, alive with real questions, profound questions-that is another story.

Why should we have to try to develop such minds, when children are born with them? Somewhere along the line, adults must fail somehow to sustain the infant's curiosity at its original depth. School itself, perhaps, dulls the mind-by the dead weight of rote learning, much of which may be necessary. The failure is probably even more the parents' fault. We so often tell a child there is no answer, even when one is available, or demand that he ask no more questions. We thinly conceal our irritation when baffled by the apparently unanswerable query. All this discourages the child. He may get the impression that it is impolite to be too inquisitive. Human inquisitiveness is never killed; but it is soon debased to the sort of questions asked by most college students, who, like the adults they are soon to become, ask only for information.

We have no solution for this problem; we are certainly not so brash as to think we can tell you how to answer the profound and wondrous questions that children put. But we do want you to recognize that one of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask. The ability to retain the child's view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare-and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking.

We are not required to think as children in order to understand existence. Children certainly do not, and cannot, understand it-if, indeed, anyone can. But we must be able to see as children see, to wonder as they wonder, to ask as they ask. The complexities of adult life get in the way of the truth. The great philosophers have always been able to clear away the complexities and see simple distinctions-simple once they are stated, vastly difficult before. If we are to follow them we too must be childishly simple in our questions-and maturely wise in our replies.

Which is, again, consistent with the picture that humans start generative, and various social forces (especially coercive ones like school, and adults being annoyed at being asked questions, as in diplomat social norms) dim or extinguish the fire of curiosity.

See also: The order of the soul, Better babblers

As a follow-up, note that there is some tension between raw, unencumbered generativity, and the requirement to communicate ideas to others. Communication is essential, as this allows many more to work on the same problems, be inspired by each other's ideas, and so on.

The goal in shaping an intellectual community is to attain intellectual standards without intellectual homogeneity. Some aspects of the intellectual space, such as language, some truth conditions, some discourse norms, and so on, must be standardized to allow productive communication. However, when such standardization is attained through more wide-ranging intellectual conformity, the result is imitative non-generativity, as is seen in nearly all academic fields right now.

The goal is intersubjectivity, rather than pure subjectivity (isolated perspectives) or objectivity (a single standardized perspective): the ability for substantially different perspectives to communicate with each other, and reach common knowledge on some (but, necessarily, not all) facts that can be expressed in both perspectives.

3Raemon1yThanks! I think the answer you gave is a pretty decent introduction to the topic. And I agree with the general framework/desiderata you go on to describe here for an intellectually generative space.
7Wei_Dai1yDoes anyone know why Bell Labs didn't take over the (research) world, either by absorbing more and more researchers or by other organizations or countries copying its model?
8habryka1yI think Bell Labs was on track to doing that until A&T was split apart in an anti-trust action which basically forced Bell Labs to split into multiple organizations, which I've heard destroyed almost all of its culture and access to talent. (Not very confident of this, but that's my current best model)
7Wei_Dai1yI guess part of the reason must be that AT&T was supporting Bell Labs with its monopoly profits, and that's part of the "secret sauce" that none of the post-split organizations could inherit. What about other monopoly-supported research labs (such as Microsoft Research) though, whose leaders must have Bells Labs in mind as a model? Seems like there's still something we don't understand?
7ryan_b1yAs a matter of historical origination, Microsoft (and Apple) looked much more closely at Xerox/PARC then at Bell Labs. As I understand the story, Microsoft Research was supposed to be a more tightly applied and business-oriented version of PARC, which itself was more applied than Bell Labs. It’s worth considering that Microsoft Research was established shortly before the modern cost-cutting phase of the corporation, and the average lifespan has been plummeting the entire time. AT&T lasted 100+ years, the average corporate lifespan is now expected to shrink to 10. We’ll need a different organizational form to permit the long view, I think.
7Wei_Dai1yI included "countries" in my original question and I think some countries (e.g., China) probably have the necessary long view, and probably wants to replicate Bell Labs (in, e.g., the Chinese Academy of Sciences), and must be missing some other element of what made it so successful.
4ryan_b1yI considered the government question, because I think that as an institution they clearly can execute the long view, and I also agree that governments like China’s even seem to have the long view culturally ingrained. I don’t know what the answer is, but I am confident it has more than one component, because I can identify two from the American government research example. The first is drawn from the history of PARC again: when JC Licklider was getting funding through ARPA (which built the community that eventually was transported almost wholesale to PARC) he broke from the traditional government funding model of short-term grants on a project basis by requesting long-term grants on a person basis. I think that if the old grant model was still in effect, even if everything else stayed the same, they would have been far less productive. The second is the War on Cancer, which was a political event that heavily impacted the way funding worked across research in the United States. Normally increased resources are considered a good thing, but in this case it came with a bunch of process changes attached: namely researches had to be able to explain how cancer treatment would benefit before they got the funds. I expect that there is always some probability of a large external event like this disrupting the incentives, even if they were in excellent shape before. To summarize, I think it is very hard for any institution to definitely not do what they would normally do, and then even if they succeed an unexpected change may be forced upon them anyway.
2ChristianKl1yIf Bell Labs succeeded because there was little social coercion, the Chinese will have a hard time replicating it with their collectivist culture. Paying researchers based on their ability to publish papers in journals with high impact factor the way the Chinese do seems also a system that creates bad incentives.
3Raemon1yStill leaves somewhat of a question of whether/why no one else has succeeded. Maybe putting it together in the first place is just hard though.
3Douglas_Knight1yIn 1956, AT&T was banned from selling anything other than telecom. I assume that's why Shockley left to found his semiconductor company that year. I'm unclear on whether it could license patents, but its existing patents were all seized and put in the public domain. AT&T still had a lot of internal needs for computers, so it kept funding research.
5G Gordon Worley III1yThis already captures a lot, but I would just add to it something about where the babbling or natural generative stuff comes from that gets pruned by social forces. My experience of thinking is very much one of random stuff coming up from the deep, and during meditation or other periods where I'm relaxed and letting rather than controlling, more of that stuff is free to come up. We could model this as a kind of suppression that's normally going on that gets removed by creating conditions where it turns off. Under those conditions, I can sometimes also get something like more creativity by changing something in my mind that causes it to pull "deeper cuts", or ideas less obviously related to what's happening right now. It's sort of like entering a waking dream state where random stuff fires, even more random than what is normally possible, and then while getting there means I can't process it all that well, if I'm very careful I can catch it, come back from the dream-like state, and examine it more closely to see if there's anything there. None of this is a thorough explanation of what's going on, but it's worth saying that in a model that's about how creativity is suppressed, we can still ask where is the creativity coming from in the first place. Removing suppression is an important first step to increasing generativity, but then once we've done that we are still left wondering where the core process of generating ideas comes from and how to work with it.

I like this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb5oIIPO62g

BTW, I'm not a fan of the word "generativity". I don't understand how it's different from "creativity" and I haven't heard it used the way this thread uses it outside of rationalist circles.

BTW, I’m not a fan of the word “generativity”. I don’t understand how it’s different from “creativity” and I haven’t heard it used the way this thread uses it outside of rationalist circles.

Seconding this. Needless propagation of jargon is bad.

But even if anyone here thinks this bit of jargon is necessary, nevertheless it is very bad to use jargon without having defined it first. If you insist on using jargon, write a definition! (It needn’t be precise, or intensional, but it has to communicate what you mean by the word, such that someone who’s not encountered the concept before, can understand you.)

Otherwise we get the absolute worst of both worlds: writing made inscrutable by jargon, but without the benefit of clarity and precision for those who know the jargon’s meaning—because there is no one who knows the meaning (possibly not even a term’s original user).

EDIT: Needless to say, the practice of hyperlinking to the definition whenever you use a new, less-used, or unusually tricky term of jargon, ought to be considered mandatory on a forum like this.

5Ruby1yIt does seem that "creativity" could technically be used instead. A guess for why someone initiated "intellectual generativity" instead is that creativity primarily has connotations of the creative arts: painting, fiction, poetry, music. So when I think of someone being "intellectual creative", I'm imagining them coming up with lots of interesting, zany hypotheses. "Generative" has less of that connotation to me, it's more about just having lots of intellectual output.

Yes, yes, this is all fine, but do you see the problem? Say I read the OP, I ask “what does ‘generativity’ mean”—and your response is to speculate on what you think when you hear the term, to “think out loud” about connotations and so forth.

So this is what you think of when you hear it, because… why? No particular reason, just, this is what associations the term happens to trigger in your mind. What does the OP mean by it? The same thing? Probably not. But what? How do we know? What does anyone else who reads the post think of when they read it? Something else entirely, different from what you think when you read it, and from what the OP meant? Quite possibly!

I hardly think I need to point out that this is an extremely sub-optimal way to communicate anything of any importance, or anything of the least complexity or rigor, or—god forbid!—anything that is both important and complex and/or rigorous.

Compare what happens if I write a post about, say, optimization processes. “What on earth is an ‘optimization process’,” asks a reader; and I respond:

Link 1 Link 2 Link 3 (etc., etc.)

(Or, of course, I could’ve included those links in my post in the first place.)

“Aha!” says the reader, “I se

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2Ruby1yI see the problem. As you identified, there are two questions here. 1) Is it necessary to have new jargon here? Can't we just say "creativity"? 2) Assuming new jargon is warranted, how do we ensure it is properly defined and introduced? I was addressing the first question, though I completely agree the second is awfully important. I'm not sure how much of a definition is warranted at this put, but I do thing the OP should have offered at least a few sentences describing the thing rather than introducing solely as a term which is often used in their circle.

I actually think people who have lots of intellectual output do tend to come up with lots of interesting, zany hypotheses--some of which end up looking obvious in retrospect. They don't necessarily present their work as zany when they're trying to get prestigious journals to publish it. But when I read great inventors describing their process, this comes up in different forms. Here's Claude Shannon:

Another approach for a given problem is to try to restate it in just as many different forms as you can. Change the words. Change the viewpoint. Look at it from every possible angle. After you’ve done that, you can try to look at it from several angles at the same time and perhaps you can get an insight into the real basic issues of the problem, so that you can correlate the important factors and come out with the solution. It’s difficult really to do this, but it is important that you do. If you don’t, it is very easy to get into ruts of mental thinking. You start with a problem here and you go around a circle here and if you could only get over to this point, perhaps you would see your way clear; but you can’t break loose from certain mental blocks which are holding you in certain

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2Ruby1yGood comment. Strong upvote.
4habryka1yHuh, apparently generativity has an existing weird psychodynamic definition [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generativity]:
5Raemon1yAny chance you could write up a summary of the video? I'm not sure the definitions I can come up with "creativity" and "generativity" are that obviously distinct, but I feel like I have particular associations with creativity, and different associations with generativity. A property I associate with generativity (curious if others think of it that way) is that it's sort of self reinforcing once it exists. When I type "generativity" into google, it autofills "generativity vs stagnation." (apparently this is because it's part of a particular psychological theory [https://www.verywellmind.com/generativity-versus-stagnation-2795734], although I think the dichotomy makes sense independent of that). When I type "creativity vs" into google it autofills a few things like "creativity vs innovation" and "creativity vs logic" and "creativity vs productivity." And I think this is getting at something important. The connotations of creativity are generally contrasted with particular other ways of being productive, whereas the contrast of generativity is "not being generative" – being more like a dead zombie that can shamble forward but cannot create anything new. Contrasted with a healthy ecosystem with lush soil, flowing water, lots of flora and fauna that are fecund and which can feed on each other.

I suspect an important input is finding/cultivating conditions for generative pairings among people working in an area.

1 Related Questions

5ChristianKl1yThat's an interesting skill. Out of the top of my head, there's no book that comes to mind on how to ask good questions. CFAR also doesn't seem to have a question module as far as I know.
4MakoYass1yIn light of my reply here ("so I guess even children don't know how to ask good questions"), I wonder if they're reaching for something more than answers, maybe my impulse to tell them they shouldn't ask questions they don't really care about the answers to, is actually well placed. Maybe that's the point. Maybe they want to learn about asking questions, and the process can't start to mature until you let them know that they're kind of doing it wrong. (I'm aware that there's a real risk, if this theory is wrong, of making the child explore less freely than they're supposed to, which I will try to hold in regard.)
1Pattern1yIf we assume it has a purpose.. how does learning work? What needs learning? 1) Theories of how people learn: Repetition. 2) A good way to acquire information in theory: get information from multiple sources, and see what matches up. 3) Some knowledge we might take for granted. Perhaps: what topics are taboo, words, sounds, grammatical structure - we might suppose that knowing how to ask questions (Like where the word why goes in the sentence,) will fall out of this (if they get it wrong, it's an opportunity to find out/be corrected). The process in question doesn't sound super effective (to us): 1) Unless it's optimizing for repetition. 2) Unless it's optimizing for multiple sources of knowledge. 3) Unless it's a way of finding out basic things we take for granted, or what's taboo.
3MakoYass1yWhy would any working cognitive process require repetition? The feeling I get when I see that is that the process doesn't know enough about what its pursuing to get there efficiently, and it might never. Sometimes a cognition doesnt know much about what it's pursuing due to low conscious integration.. sometimes I guess I have to accept it's just because of whatever ignorance puts it in the position of pursuing a thing. We could hardly expect, for instance, a person looking for the key to a box in an object archive, to ask for a list of keys of a particular length, because they wouldn't know how long the key is, nor would they ask for keys with a particular number of peaks, for they could not know how many points it has, they can maybe give us an estimate of its diameter, or its age, but their position as a key-seeker means that there are certain Good Questions that they necessarily cannot know to ask. Their search may seem repetitive, but repetition is not the point. Our job as the archivist is to help them to narrow the list of candidates to the fewest possible.
1Pattern1yI should have been more specific: Memorization. (Part of speaking any language fluently is knowing words, how to say them, and what they mean - and knowing it fast.)
1MakoYass1yAye, I suppose the answer is; many cognitive processes in humans need repetition because they seem to be a bit broken? (Are there theories about why human memory (heck, higher animal memory in general) is so... rough?) Since hypermnesics do exist, my theory is that that used to be a common phenotype, but our consciousness was flawed, it was too much power, we became neurotic, or something, and all evolution could do to sort it out was to cripple it.
7Viliam1yYup, similar with my child. Maybe the first time the question is motivated by actual curiosity, but the following 99 repetitions of the same question have to be motivated by something else. Most questions I get are repetitions of something that was already asked and already answered, and the child actually remembers the answer.