Creativity Explorer

The Art of Thought

In 2014 Graham Wallas’ classic ‘Art of Thought’ (1926) was republished. Open any serious book on creativity, from psychology to design, and you will find Wallas in the reference list. Ever read a blog on ‘Why we are most creative in the shower’, or something with a similar title, that comes from Wallas’ theory. Maybe you have heard of the ‘creative process’ in terms of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification. That’s Wallas.

Quick and dirty, anno 2019 Wallas’ theory is explained as follows:

In the Preparation stage you consciously work on a problem. In the Incubation stage only the subconscious somehow works on the problem. Then a solution comes to the conscious, that moment is accompanied with the feeling of Illumination. And that solution needs to be verified, does the solution you came up with truly solve the problem, hence Verification. This is the creative process.

As with many classics, many authors refer to this classic through an other book. Anno 2019 a reference to Wallas might be a reference of a reference of a reference etc. And before you know it, the main argument of the original is lost and only one simple to remember issue survives. In this case the four stages of the creative process, as we call it (Wallas calls it the assocations process, just saying..).

Let’s go back to the source

You know that feeling when you finish a book, close the cover, hold it in front of you, and you think: ‘WOW!’? I had that. But not for the obvious reasons that this book gave me a completely new insight on creativity. It is the writer that is inspiring. Wallas was an educationalist and social psychologist with visionary ideas on education. I need to remind myself constantly that this book is almost a hundred years old, especially in the third part of the book in which he discusses how to educate Thinking. I keep picturing this city with smoke and factories, blacked faces from the mine work, children sitting in a classroom with a strict teacher in front of them. And Wallas fighting in the frontline against this way of teaching. I wish that Wallas was alive and that I could here is opinion about creativity and education nowadays…

But let me start at the beginning before jumping to the third part.

Some general remarks

Firstly, it is not an easy read. It is not like the management books or even the scientific books we can read today. Long sentences, many komma’s and since I am no native speaker I had to look up some words, like ‘volition’ (which has nothing to do with speed as I first thought, but with ‘will’, Google translate…).

Secondly, the title of the book is The Art of Thought, and not something like ‘The Stages of a Creative Process’. That is definitely a hint that the book is not only about the four stages of the creative proces but about, well as the title already says, about How to Think. Actually, only a small part in the book dedicated to this process.

12 chapters, 3 sections

The book exists out of 12 chapter that I think kan be divided into three section:

  1. ‘What is the Art of thought?’
  2. ‘How is the Art of Thought’ influenced?
  3. ‘How to nurture and develop the Art of Thought?’

I will discuss the first part the most elaborately, since that is leads up the four stages of the creative process. I’ll be very short on the second part and I will do a lot of quoting on the third part.

What is the Art of Thought?

Wallas does not give a specific definition. He firstly gives his opinion about Thinking (chapter 1 & 2). He focusses on the ‘human organism’ in chapter one and ‘human concioucsness’ in chapter 2. These to concepts are important because:

the conception of human organism and human conciousness best indicates the general facts with which such an art must deal…” (p 37),

‘such an art’ refers to Thinking.

He doesn’t like the popular metaphor that the human are machines. I guess he would also disagree with the computer metaphor some use nowadays. He sees the human being as a an organism and a system of living elements. According to Wallas:

the aim of the art of thought is an improved co-ordination of these elements in the process of thought” (p vi).

According to Wallas consciousness and unconsciousness is not a matter of black and white. It is a grey scale. He also identifies quasi-consciousness, the sort of consciousness you might experience when you are pretty drunk. And dissociated consciousness or co-consciousness, the sort of consciousness that a person might experience during hypnoses: being conscious and unconsciousness at the same time.

In the context of his ideas on the creative process it is important to mention that ‘free association’, happens in the unconsciousnness, according to Wallas of course. To exercise the Art of Thought, one should not only observe your consciousness but you should also learn to tap into your unconsciouness and observe it better.

Chapter three is about “the ‘natural’ thought-process which such an art must attempt to modify” p37.

To make case for his idea about the natural thought-proces, he introduces two men whose theories form the basis of Wallas’ ‘Stages of Control’ (=the creative process as we call in it nowadays). The first is Varendonck, a Belgian scholar who wrote ‘The Psychology of Day-Dreams’ (1921). The second is Poincaré, French philosopher/mathematician who wrote ‘Science and Method’ (1914). Varendonck analysed his own thinking before, during and after day-dreams. Poincaré kept a diary in which he wrote down how he came up with ideas for mathematical solutions.

Without using complex definitions, the most important take-away for Wallas is that both Varendonck and Poincaré support the idea of finding new associations in a more unconcious state. And the Art of Thought is trying to modify this process, which he refers to as the ‘natural’ thought process.

Chapters one to three lead to chapter four: the ‘Stages of Control’. Here come the famous four stages that he refers to as the association process: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. He justifies these stages with examples from Varendonck and Poincaré.

Interestingly, Wallas mentions a fifth stage: Intimation. Intimation is the ‘tip of the tongue feeling’. It is the feeling you almost know the answer. It happens not in your subconsciousness and not in your consciousness but in your ‘fringe-consciousness’ as he calls it, which means somewhere in between. Intimation is the stage when incubation almost comes to surface and leads to illumination. Somehow intimation got lost as years of referencing went by…

How is the Art of Thought influenced?

In the second part of the book, chapter 5 to 9, Wallas gives body to his theory on the Art of Thought. The influence of emotion on Thought, the (dis)advantages of habits on Thought, the role of effort and energy on Thought, and different types of Thought. The latter is mainly about the influence of culture (ex. Englishmen think differently than Frenchmen because of their cultural background).

The ‘different levels of conciousness’ and ‘natural associations to improve thinking’ return in each of these chapters. Sometimes he refers to one of the stages of control, most often to incubation and intimation.

How to nurture and develop the Art of Thought?

The third part was the most inspiring I think. It is about how to nurture and develop the art of thought.  Wallas was also an educationist and he had a clear vision on eduction that is still valid in these days.

I going to quote a lot of texts…

Chapter 10, about ‘the thinker at school’, is the starting point for his oration on education.

“I shall discuss the art of education as a section of the art of thought, that is to say, I shall ask how far a teacher can hope to increase the future output of creative thought by those thinkers who as students pass throught his hands. For that pupose it will be best to start with a mental picture, not of an educational system or a series of statistical curves, but of some supernormal hum being who has actually added to the intellectual heritage of mankind.” (pp131).

21st century: forget spread sheets, look first at how great thinkers were educated.

And so he takes Plato for example and pictures him in Acient Greece, where he grew up, what he did during the day and how he was educated. As a little boy he played naked in the sun, and when he was old enough he went to the gymnasium. In summers he explored the outside and all the richness of nature and culture in Acient Greece, including Socrates:

“And one day, after his public admission as a citizen, he was free to sit with shining eyes at the feet of Socrates in a corner of the Agora, to argue with friend during walks up th Ilyssus Vally as to nature nature of man and God and The State, or to stay up for half the night writing the stilted love-poems and discourses at which in later years he would laugh; and so, after many travels, and with no clear division between his life as student, and teacher, and statesman, he became the most influential thinker in all history.” (pp 132-133).

Yes that is one sentence. And doesn’t it sound romantic.

Then he pictures Plato in his time.

“If Plato were born to-day[….]he would probably live in one of the meanly uniform houses of a city street, and be the child of parents with few traditions of culture. Nothing in his daily surroundings would stimulate in him the passion of truth and beauty which the Athenian temples and porticoes, and the eager talkers and traders and poets and orators, and the valleys and hills and the coast of Attica stimulated in the earlier Plato.” pp 133


“Most of that which Plato of Athens learnt at first hand from nature and mankind, Plato of London or New Yourk must learn, af at all, at second hand, from books and machines.”p133.

And in the next sentence comes the profecy:

‘The great industrial nations may perhaps in the next hundred years rebuild their cities, and scatter electrically-driven industries over the country-side. But, for good or evil, we shall never return to the ‘natural’ short-rande environment of Plato’s Athens.” p133.

Wallas points out the amount of information that Plato can obtain in 1926 is so much greater than in his own time, there is no other way than learning it from second hand. Then he questions, how could we help Plato doing this?

Wallas does not believe in leaving it all to the childs curiosity;

it “shows that the best way to do things is not the way which is most likely to occur to one unaided mind” p. For example, if a child shows no interest in reading, should he not learn to read anyway?” p134.


“If, however, we accept responsibility for showing a child what we believe is the best way to develop his power of thought, we must try ourselves to be clear on what we mean by ‘best’. Teaching is to ‘compromise between the powers and needs of the child and those of the future adult.” p135.

“One of the most difficult elements in this compromise is the question how far and at what age the teacher should aim at teaching the pupil to stimulate his mental energy by conscious and voluntary effort; and how far mental energy should be left to grow out of the pupil’s own spontaneous ‘urge’.” p136.

Then he discusses that the intelligent child need to be extra stimulated.

Then he turns to the examination.

‘The examination system, as practised in England, has many obvious dangers; examination-passing is apt to become an end in itself, both for teacher and for student; and the nervous strain which follows from the realization that the opportunities of one’s whole future life may depend on the effort of a few days is often harmful.” p137.

He also sees the advantage that this examination might be the first time the student is really pushed to give an effort.

He discusses the importance of leisure at school because it will give the students the incubation time they need to come to illumination.

Chapther 11 and 12

In chapter 11 he discusses the public education system (in England).He makes an argument for education in England to stimulate smart kids. And that it is more difficult for an English child of working-class origin to become a creative thinker than for a child of middle-class origin. Simply because their inmediate surroudings does not stimulate the child:

“The ordinary working-class home contains few books, and is too crowded and noisy for much leisure and day-dreaming. The father spends the day in sever manual labour, is too tired in the evening to answer the questions of a clever child, and has little intellectual experience of his own; the mother either goes out to work or spends the day in the housework.”p154.

He discusses until what minimum age children should attend school and the probability of political parties voting in favor or against the increase from fourteen to sixteen. He think this will happen in the near future and history shows he was right.

In chapter 12 he discusses the role of a teacher and whether a teacher should be a content expert/practitioner or a teaching expert. For example, in learning to paint, should the teacher be a good painter himself?

He likes the idea of teachers who hold sabbaticals in which they return to practice. Or teachers that are part-time practicioners. He explains the pro’s and con’s of teachers that are good at teaching but have no practical experience, and of teachers with a lot of practical experience but lack good teaching skills. A good mix would be the solution. I guess that is still valid.

I’m no educationalist, nor pedagogue. I am a mother in a phase of  deciding to which primary school we need to send our son. And I guess everything Wallas refers to, almost 100 years ago, is still very valid these days. You sort of wonder why we, ‘the smart adults’, the ones creating the education system, hold on to some teaching methods that were maybe already outdates almost one hundred years ago…

Now let set some things straight

  • Wallas NEVER refers to the stages of control as the creative process. He calls it the association process. Though he does imply that creative thinkers have mastered the Art of Thought and are good at this association process.
  • The stages of control are based on two theories that are both based on self assessment. You can ask yourself if that is scientifically sound.
  • Until now there is NO evidence that Incubation exists. However, Incubation is extremely difficult to measure. So, just because there is no scientific evidence, doesn’t per se mean Incubation doesn’t exist.
  • Wallas refers to a fifth stage, Intimation, quite important but I guess not important enough according to scholars using his theory…


Reading this book shows me again how important it is to go back to the source. I think this book is not a call for creativity, it is a call for being human, in a natural environment and educating that human by following his curiosity. Amen to that. 

But remember, this is my interpretation of this book. If you want the ‘truth’ you are going to have to read it yourself. I advise you to do so.



March 7, 2019Article by: Willemijn Brouwer



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