Creative Destruction: Portrait of an Idea

by Venkat on February 6, 2008

The phrase creative destruction has resonated with me since I first heard it, and since then, it has been an organizing magnet in my mind for a variety of ideas. I was reminded of the concept again this weekend while reading William Duggan’s Strategic Intuition, which mentioned Joseph Schumpeter as a source of inspiration. Visually, I associate the phrase most with Escher’s etching, Liberation, which shows a triangular tessellation transforming into a flock of birds. As the eye travels up the etching, the beauty of the original pattern must be destroyed in order that the new pattern may emerge

Escher Liberation

(All M.C. Escher works (c) 2008 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission. ):

I don’t know when I first heard the phrase, but I first used it in the frontispiece of my PhD thesis. Here are the three quotes I put there, back in 2003, when I was searching for just the right sort of imagery to give my research the right-brained starting point it needed. My first quote was a basic, bald statement due to Schumpeter:

“Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”

– Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

I followed that up with a Rabindranath Tagore bit that I’d found somewhere (update: Googling rediscovered the ‘somewhere’ — on the frontispiece of Hugo Reinert’s draft version of a paper on Creative Destruction which seems to have finally appeared in the collection: Friedrich Nietzsche: Economy and Society), and for which, to this day, I haven’t found a citation (update: Hail! Google books; a work-colleague, Tom K., dug the reference out for me — the extract is from Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, which appears in Radice’s translation of selections from Tagore — so much for the detractors of Google’s book scanning project: plain Googling did not get me the source).

From the heart of all matter
Comes the anguished cry
Wake, wake, great Siva,
Our body grows weary
Of its law-fixed path,
Give us new form
Sing our destruction,
That we gain new lifeā€¦

– Rabindranath Tagore

And concluded the Grand Opening of my Immortal Thesis with a dash of Nietzsche:

“[H]ow could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!”

– Freidrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Dover Thrift Editions)

Curiously, I haven’t read any of these (something I don’t mind admitting, since I actually read a lot more of the books I quote than most people). For me creative-destruction has always been a right-brained sort of thing. In fact I almost titled my thesis “The Creation and Destruction of Teams” but I decided that was way too ponderous and self-important, even for me, and settled for the more prosaic “Team Formation and Breakup in Multiagent Systems.” But throughout the process of doing the research and writing up the results, the metaphor of creative destruction and the associated imagery was in my mind. Sometimes I dreamed of swarms of airplanes making and breaking formation (formation flight was one of the applications I worked on).

But looking further back, I can see that my first serious infatuation with the idea goes further back to a beautiful Urdu poem by Ali Sardar Jaffri, Mera Safar, ably translated by Philip Nikolayev. Nowhere else have I encountered the idea captured with such poetic precision. If you know Hindi/Urdu, reading the original is well worth it.

The infatuation continues — creative destruction is at the heart of my latest research at work.

A Possible History of the Idea

A long time ago, I read on the Web one speculative history of the idea of creative destruction that traced it from a particular form of a school of Saivaite philosophy called Kashmir Saivism through Schopenauer, through to Nietzsche and finally to the most familiar name associated with it today: Schumpeter. It is curious that this abstract idea went from religious philosophy, through metaphysics and finally to economics. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story were apocryphal — the basic abstraction of renewal and change as continuous creation and destruction is pretty elemental, and I’d expect it to have been rediscovered multiple times.

Certainly the idea is certainly a favorite in classical Indian metaphysics, and mostly approached through the metaphor of Siva (usually characterized as the destructive aspect of the creator-preserver-destroyer trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Siva, but, I am told by more knowledgeable people, better understood as symbolizing continuous renewal through creative-destruction). Alain Danielou seems to have written a lot on this topic, including a book relating Siva to Dionysius, and I’ve seen references to the idea in comments by people like Camille Paglia.

Elsewhere, both Hegel and Nietzsche seem to have had this idea in their head (the former particularly through what we now know as the Hegelian dialectic). I suspect it is also at the heart of the methodological anarchy model of discovery proposed by Feyerabend in Against Method. In short, there is probably enough to this idea to fuel a dozen PhDs.

But curiously, I’ve always felt a little reluctant to go read all this stuff. To me, the idea of creative destruction is so fundamental and basic — practically axiomatic, that I am wary of contaminating my raw intuition of the idea with a lot of postmodern (or for that matter, Vedantic) verbiage. In a way, monosyllabic gym-jocks making cryptic remarks about muscles being torn down and rebuilt stronger get it better than academics do. I fear the magic of the idea may disappear if I over-analyze it.

SS November 30, 2009 at 12:14 am

It’s a nice read, I relly appreciate the leads on the origins of Creative Destruction. I am studying Schumpeter in Economics ight now, and we glossed over Hegel a month back. I didn’t see the linkage there, or the ‘phoenix’ metaphor. We always view creative destruction in econ as two isolated, simultaneous events- creation here, destruction there; and on the whole (macro vew) it’s all ok, or better than before, or worse than than before (which is true is the point of contention)
Thanks again!

BP January 22, 2010 at 6:47 am

Thanks for the thoughtful post! I like the connection with Escher’s Liberation, in particular.

jeet February 14, 2010 at 8:47 am

I loved the Tagore quote about creative destruction. Thanks.

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