Koestler Reloaded


“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

Arthur Koestler

I’ve had an interest in Koestler’s theories of creativity for many years – as a young man, one of the books on my parents’ shelves was “The Act of Creation”, an intriguing, thickish volume, and the ideas in that book have continued to carry weight with me throughout my life, partly perhaps by impressing themselves upon a mind which was at that time fairly free of prior imprints.

In the next few years I came across ideas which were more mainstream, even trendy, within the fields of philosophy and literary theory, especially those of the school known as Russian Formalism, which also appealed to me. (I write about Russian Formalism elsewhere on this site.) However, none of this stuff really led me to jettison Koestler’s ideas, and in this article, I want to make good on my positive evaluation of Koestler by giving a reasonable synopsis of his ideas, then moving on to a consideration of these in relation to those of other schools of thought and their relevance today.

Arthur Koestler was an early rebel against behaviourism, the consensus in psychology in the post-war years, and was writing before what we now know of as the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology had properly got underway. Arguably, Koestler’s attempts at a new synthesis were premature, which may partially account for his works falling into what I regard as an undeserved neglect. I’ve been re-reading Koestler recently, and once again have felt awe at his skill as a writer. If my presentation here seems rather skeletal, I would recommend that the reader at least dip into any of the books here considered and witness Koestler’s lively, witty, erudite, indeed polymathic range.

After, in the earlier part of his career, concentrating on novels and political thought, Koestler’s focus shifted towards psychological concerns, which resulted in a sort of trilogy of works – “The Sleepwalkers”, “The Act of Creation” and “The Ghost in the Machine”, plus a shorter volume summarizing these works, “Janus, A Summing Up”. It is also worth looking at a short paper delivered to a symposium, “Some General Properties of Self-Regulating Open Hierarchic Order”.


The Sleepwalkers is, to use its subtitle, “A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe” – an extremely readable history of the development of science. I’m not going to concentrate on that work here, but for now will note that it indicates a convergence of Koestler’s views with those of Thomas Kuhn, stressing the importance of revolutionary shifts in perspective within the development of science, and challenging ideas of science as gradual development based on the slow accumulation of data.

The Act of Creation will be my main focus in this article. The Act of Creation places the earlier work of The Sleepwalkers within a threesome – Scientific Discovery is considered as one of three related phenomena, the other two being Humour and Art. The Act of Creation, though one volume, is divided into two “books”:

The first “book” divides into three parts – “The Jester” (humour), “The Sage” (science) and “The Artist” (which covers both verbal and visual creation). I want to give an adequate overview, here, of the entirety of Koestler’s later thought, but my focus will be on the “verbal creation” segment of the third part of the first “book” of this volume, for obvious reasons.

The second “book” deals with more technical issues, and is omitted from many publications of the volume; it is worth being aware of this if you are going to get a copy.

The Ghost in the Machine. If The Act of Creation is a consideration of the glory of mankind, his creativity, The Ghost in the Machine deals with the obverse of this: man’s predicament, brought about by his tendencies towards destructiveness, which, given his present level of technological development, now threaten his survival as a species. But The Ghost in the Machine also gives a more thorough development of Koestler’s systems thinking; it is here that the considerations of the often-omitted Book 2 of The  Act of Creation are given a more refined expression (probably the main reason for such later omission), and where the term “holon” is first used, though the idea is anticipated in The Act of Creation.


In combatting what Koestler saw as the pernicious influence of behaviourism and reductionism on the human sciences, he did have a resource in the developing field of Systems Theory, and in my view made a major contribution to that field.  Central to his contribution is the notion of the Holon, a term he coins in The Ghost in the Machine, but which is anticipated in his earlier works; in The Act of Creation, the holon was the sub-whole. The holon is Janus-faced, looking two ways – it is simultaneously a whole and a part, the “(w)hol(e)-” morpheme indicating the whole, and the “-on” morpheme indicating the part, by analogy with physical particles such as proton, neutron, electron. The holon is related to the insight, considered central in holistic and systems thinking, that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, first noted by Aristotle.

The concept of the holon is closely related to Koestler’s concern that we grasp the importance of hierarchy in our understanding of the world – or at least, the biological world.  Thus, each holon is made up of holons, and in turn is itself a component of a larger holon; the vision here is of a vast, nested array of holons arranged hierarchically.

The nested structure of holons within hierarchies should be familiar to us from diagrams we come across in many fields which take the form of a tree-like structure: departments to divisions to teams within a company, biological divisions from body to system to organ to tissue to cell, and so on. Koestler terms this feature “arborization”. However, he also mentions a complementary feature, “reticulation”, which is the interlocking of branches of a hierarchy with those of another hierarchy; “arborization” is a vertical feature, “reticulation” a horizontal feature. It seems to me that “reticulation” is quite a complex notion which needs some unpacking. More than one hierarchy can be in the same space, somewhat like the entanglement of privet bushes; perhaps the intertwining of the various systems of the body can give us a mental picture of this – the skeletal, nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, etc. systems. I was tempted to skip consideration of this difficult concept, but think it may be important to our understanding of the concept of bisociation, which will move to centre-stage later in this article.

The Act of Creation seems to slip too easily between two forms of hierarchy -a control hierarchy (which I believe is roughly equivalent to what we now call a functional hierarchy) and a structural hierarchy (often called a holarchy). These two forms of hierarchy are more explicitly defined in the later work, The Ghost in the Machine, and it seems that Koestler becomes clearer as his thought develops. The way I remember the distinction is by thinking of a control hierarchy by the paradigm of the organisation of the armed forces: private, sergeant, officer, captain, major, up to field marshal. A structural hierarchy can be remembered by the paradigm of a living organism: cell, tissue, organ, system (e.g. the circulatory system).

The concept of control hierarchy can raise issues, or have unpleasant connotations, for those of us of a liberal or democratic bent, perhaps not helped by my military example, but the ubiquity of control hierarchies in nature and in mechanical control systems seems to me to make the concept invaluable. It’s application to human systems – societies and organizations – also seems undeniable. A consideration of how the concept of control hierarchy can and should be articulated with our democratic ideals is beyond the scope of this paper.

The holon has a dual aspect, featuring both –

– self-asserting tendencies

– self-transcending, participatory, or integrative tendencies.

For human beings, this duality, though displayed in many ways, takes a particularly salient form in the division of the autonomous nervous system into two systems, the adrenal-sympathetic, and the parasympathetic, and these two aspects of our physiological system are our bodily version of the part / whole duality, the former representing the self-assertive tendencies seen in fight or flight, and the latter the self-transcending tendencies seen in reverie, weeping, etc. These two metabolic systems operate in tension, and each pole of this duality governs a different set of emotions.

The behaviour of each holon is governed by a code, which determines a matrix.

The code consists of the rules, or constraints, which govern the behaviour of each holon, in a hierarchically nested fashion. It is the “rules of the game”, actually a complex set of rules and sub-rules.

The matrix is the space of possible realizations of the code – the possibilities of actions which the code constrains. The codes are described as fixed and invariant, whereas the matrix is adaptable. The most sensible interpretation I can give of the concept of the matrix is that it is a result of the combination of code and strategy, where code is pre-set, but strategy takes notice of affordances and constraints imposed by the wider world. If the code is the rules, the matrix is the pattern of possibilities within those rules. On this understanding,

Code + Strategy = Matrix

We have considered holons as rule-governed entities, but in the human world, rules can become inadequate to the tasks being faced, and too much rigidity in our rule systems can become a danger. It is with this that we move to a consideration of how we can get beyond existing rules, entrenched habits, sub-optimal routines. This leads us on to Koestler’s treatment of creativity.

The Act of Creation features as a frontispiece a diagram (shown at the top of this article) which has a triptych division between three domains of creativity – Humour, Discovery, Art. It may be as well to take a while studying this diagram, as it is a succinct expression of Koestler’s insight.

Bisociation is the core concept of Koestler’s approach to creativity. Bisociation is the bringing into relation of two matrices, and this relation can take three different forms, which correspond to the three domains of humour, discovery and art.

With humour, we have a clash of two frames of reference, an incongruity, a sort of explosion because of incompatibility. With discovery, looking at a problem domain with the perhaps fortuitous resources of the patterns from another domain, leads to a synthesis of matrices, a more powerful theory than hitherto. With art, and we include here verbal art, which is the focus of my interests, the two matrices are maintained in a tension, a juxtaposition.

Koestler starts his exploration of creativity by considering humour; if for Freud dreams were the royal road to the unconscious, for Koestler, the jester leads the way to an understanding of the creative process. This is partly because humour is such a basic and all-pervasive aspect of human behaviour, in contrast to the more high-flown processes of scientific discovery or artistic endeavour, and partly because there is such a clear physiological accompaniment to humour in the laughter reflex, smiling, etc.

_____________BELOW HERE UNDER CONSTRUCTION______________

Act of Creation p.38

Differentiation of structure and integration of function [similar to Spencer and Durkheim]

Emergence of more differentiated and specialized structures

p.43 – input -> code

p.43       perceiving          Bartlett

p.44 single matrix, limitations -> bisociation

increased complexity -> increased risk of breakdown -> draw back to leap -> creativity

“Habits have varying degrees of flexibility; if often repeated under unchanging conditions, in a monotonous environment, they tend to become rigid and automatized. But even an elastic strait-jacket is still a strait-jacket if the patient has no possibility of getting out of it. Behaviourism, the dominant school in contemporary psychology, is inclined to take a view of man which reduces him to the station of that patient, and the human condition to that of a conditioned automaton. I believe that view to be depressingly true up to a point. The argument of this book starts at the point where, I believe, it ceases to be true.

“There are two ways of escaping our more or less automatized routines of thinking and behaving. The first, of course, is the plunge into dreaming or dream-like states, when the codes of rational thinking are suspended. The other way is also an escape — from boredom, stagnation, intellectual predicaments, and emotional frustration — but an escape in the opposite direction; it is signalled by the spontaneous flash of insight which shows a familiar situation or event in a new light, and elicits a new response to it. The bisociative act connects previously unconnected matrices of experience; it makes us ‘understand what it is to be awake, to be living on several planes at once’ (to quote T. S. Eliot, somewhat out of context).”

“The first way of escape is a regression to earlier, more primitive levels of ideation, exemplified in the language of the dream; the second an ascent to a new, more complex level of mental evolution. Though seemingly opposed, the two processes will turn out to be intimately related.” p. 44-5

On Islands and Waterways

Fluid / ocean -> islands -> waterways

Higher level of development, higher turn of the spiral

Participation – magic

Distinguish animism from anthropomorphism



Bisociation of real and imaginary

The Power of Illusion

The Value of Illusion

The Dynamics of Illusion

Escapism and Catharsis

both at the same time

seeing bisociation only as that between high and low

bisociation of now to other

self to self-transcendent

Identification and Magic

Actor with character

Spectator with character

The Dawn of Literature

Rhythm and Rhyme

Pulsation [very physicalistic]

Pulsation – pattern

” ‘The superimposition of two systems: thought and metre,’ wrote Proust, ‘is a primary element of ordered complexity, that is to say, of beauty.’ … this superimposition – in our jargon, the bisociation of rhythm and meaning …” p.312



“Some images seem to appeal more to the intellect than to emotion because of their logical and didactic character – but nevertheless evoke an emotive response:

And how dieth the wise man? as the fool     (Ecclesiastes)

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.     (Cymbeline)

When Adam dolve and Eve span,

Who was then a gentleman? (John Ball)

“Each of these quotes may be described as a particular illustration of a general truth: the first and second affirm that all men must die, the third proclaims that all men are equal. If we wish to be pedantic, we can enumerate the various bisociative techniques which enter into them: sense and sound in the last two; or in the first two, the joining of habitually incompatible opposites in the focal concepts ‘dying’ and ‘dust’. We may further note the archaic, or archetypal, resonances of Adam, Eve, the sage, the fool, and the golden lads. Finally, the technique of condensation and implication in the third quote poses a kind of naïve riddle which enhances its effect. But when all these points are made, the main feature which the three quotes share remains their didactic intent of driving home a message, of demonstrating a universal law by means of concrete imagery.” p. 325 – 6

One wishes that Koestler had indulged more in pedantry at this point, as he might have fleshed out the scope and limits of a bisociative literary criticism

Discoveries of art derive from the sudden transfer of attention to another with a higher emotive potential p. 328


Originality, emphasis, economy

Selection, exaggeration, simplification

Selective emphasis

“sudden shifts of attention and displacements of emphasis” p. 334

“deviates from the conventional norm”

“familiar” p.336

Emphasis                             implicitness

Selection                             economy

Exaggeration                     allusive

Simplification                   oblique


“compelling the recipient to work it out for himself” p.337

Implied – “folded in”

Infolding / economy – “leaving out” p.339

Obliquity, compression, 7 types of ambiguity

Compression and ambiguity condense

“effort from the reader” p. 339

Rhythm / meter [infolded]  implied sub-structure   surprise

Audience must –




Summary p. 343

Character and Plot


Collision of frames of reference

Integrations and Confrontations

Archetypes [add from here to plots document]

“two contexts …ascending gradient”

Cataloguing Plots

Puppets and Strings

The Belly of the Whale

The Night Journey

The Guilt of Jonah

The Root and the Flower

The Tightrope

Force of habit – trivial plane    convention   exploratory drive p.363


Absolutes                           –                        tangible, finite, concrete, familiar


” The locus in quo of human creativity is always on the line of intersection between two planes; and in the highest forms of creativity between the Tragic or Absolute, and the Trivial Plane.” p. 365


Conceptual Blending


About David Ruaune

My main interests are philosophy, psychology and semiotics.
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One Response to Koestler Reloaded

  1. Pingback: Aesthetics | David Ruaune's Blog

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