Louis Sullivan’s Idea: Every Problem Contains & Suggests its Own Solution

Architect Sherri Tracinski and Shrikant will be discussing Louis Sullivan’s idea: “Every problem contains and suggests its own solution.”

We will be talking about the section L: “Creative Impulse” from Kindergarten Chats. Read the full text (4 pages) here on 52LivingIdeas.com blog below. Feel free to comment or ask questions in the comments section of the blog post. Reading is not required but highly recommended.

If you did not attend introductory Meetup on Louis Sullivan’s Ideas with Sherri & Shrikant, please watch it as a background for this Meetup here: https://youtu.be/oM8vbQQ-4MU

Get your copy of Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats here: https://www.amazon.com/Kindergarten-Chats-Other-Writings-Revised/dp/1614275858 .

[This text is reproduced from Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats. This is the copyright free version from archives.org website. Please excuse the typos generated by text recognition software. I strongly recommend you buy the print copy of the book here & Watch “Louis Sullivan’s Ideas: An Introduction below ]

Inasmuch as you will have problems to meet and solve, let me give you this pointer: Every problem contains and suggests its own solution. Don’t waste time looking anywhere else for it. In this mental attitude, in this mood of understanding, lies the technical beginning of the art of expression.

L. The Creative Impulse

You have a singular habit of assuming, when you suddenly make a compact statement, novel in character, that I am capable of digesting it at once. For instance, I am still puzzling over your statement that every problem contains and suggests its own solution; and that to seek the solution elsewhere is a waste of time. Now I can’t see that a problem contains its solution; still less can I see that it suggests it.

I admit the impeachment. It is likely to happen, when one has given years of thought to a particular subject, that his working idea concerning it is apt to concentrate into a statement so terse that, while axiomatic to himself, it is not self-evident to others.

That is just where I stand: it is not self-evident to me. My training tended the other way. And yet the suggestion excites my vivid curiosity. It sounds neat if nothing more.

I have come to regard as valuable those truths only which are universal. And it is a bit surprising to note how many truths are universal or may be expanded into a universal application. I don’t suppose that anyone who succeeds in solving a problem really goes out of it for the solution; and this assumption doubtless also accounts for innumerable failures. And the failures certainly are self-evident: the world is filled with debris of this sort. Particularly is this characteristic of the intellectuals. The unsophisticated man is often better qualified to go straight to the core of a matter: by a process of feeling to sense its reality. Now to give a very simple case: if you are given a peanut-pod and the problem is to find the peanut, you simply open the pod and there is your peanut. The conditions are extremely simple, but the truth is there: the germ of a universal truth, which, with sufficiently extended experience will formulate itself in an axiom, or what scientists call a law: for to scientists, truths are laws : in which little word you may incidentally note the survival of an autocratic notion of the universe.

If we gradually enlarge our problem, we find its husk of conditions becoming complicated, and its contained germ of solution less and less obvious. But when we have solved our problem by confining our attention to it, we find the “law” holds good. And when we have had further experience, we become aware that the very nature of the limiting conditions suggests to us what must be the nature and the limitations of the solution. If you are searching for a peanut you come to know by experience that you will not find it within the burr of a chestnut. Thus a given problem takes on the character of individuality, of identity. And you become aware that your solution must partake of that identity. If you come across a problem which does not possess an identity, you know by such token that the problem is not a problem but a figment. As the problem becomes more complex it becomes the more necessary to know all the conditions, to have all the data, and especially to make sure as to the limitations. Now suppose we extend the problem to its broad human limit and pose it as the problem of Democracy. The conditions seem enormously complicated and complex, and sternly limited by what is called human nature; the solution not only doubtful but nowhere in sight. Yet, let us but patiently stick to our “law,” and we finally, perhaps after many years, penetrate this vast husk of humanity and fictions, and find the germ of the solution to be individual man himself, and the fundamental nature of man within him. Having discovered one man, his spirit and his powers, we have discovered all men. Having discovered man, the problem reverses, takes on a new, a constructive aspect; an aspect and purpose bom of the desire to create. So I will leave you to make your own specific applications of the “law” as the need arises, and proceed to talk about what is uppermost in my mind, and yet which will grow rather naturally out of your inquiry. And, by the way, what sort of problem do you fancy you presented, in your precious self, when first you came to me?

What I want to talk about concerns this query: What underlies man’s desire to create? It surely must have in it much of the nature of his problems.

To begin with, man must originally have had the notion that he could make rather than that he could create. His idea was to do something, to fashion something, for his immediate use; to satisfy his immediate physical wants. And this germinal notion still survives, in its simplicty, through all the complexities of ensuing civilizations, up to the present day of our calendar. Hence we may assume as a basis that the idea of doing something came into being before the idea of creating something. That man the worker, in biological sequence, preceded man the inquirer, the thinker, the poet — the creator. We are probably justified, moreover, in believing that the power to work and the power of emotion, while contemporaneous in man, were not equally satisfied, that in man’s emotional nature lay a germ, an unshapen idea, which gradually grew in assertiveness within him and sought outward realization, This germ was the inarticulate beginning of the desire to express himself wholly; the earliest indication of his need of an art of expression; the latent beginning of the

Now, the particularly delicate point involved is: Why did man wish to create? Was it not that he felt lonely? That he desired emotional, psychic companionship? Was not this subdued and shadowy anxiety, a problem shaping for him, gradually but vaguely pressing for solution? Now, how did early man solve this unique problem which would prostrate a modern mind if it were suddenly new? Still guided emotionally by instinct, he sought the solution by instinct, and found it precisely where it was — within himself. He did not formulate laws on the subject; he simply acted out his instinct — his instinct of reproduction. He infused his bare work with the quality of his emotions and thus found in them the companionship he yearned for — because they were of himself. His growing intellect might have gone on satisfying his physical needs and amplifying their expression. Instinct alone, in inspiring the work of his hand and his intellect, could satisfy the craving of his heart, the hunger of his soul. Thus man unconsciously began to create in his own image. His work slowly grew in power of impulse, in power of expression. As civilizations arose, man’s work in those outwardly differing civilizations evinced his temperamental variation. In some, the intellectual force predominates, in others, the emotions. Seldom have they approached a balance. Never did they achieve it. For such achievement was beyond the range of the feudal mind. It lies in the domain of sanity.

In our own day, sadly enough, as I have told you, Instinct has departed, in form if not in substance. To its beautifully varied powers we, unconscious of their origin, give many beautiful names; to the primal impulse which we emptily call instinct we apply terms of obloquy and reproach. And we do this, not because we are overcivilized, but because we are half-civilized. We have given to intellect a loose rein, utterly regardless or ignorant of the fact that in the end it would surely run amuck and attempt to drive us like sheep over the precipice or into the morass of social suicide.

Now, therefore, arises again, this time for us, the selfsame problem that confronted early man. There exists in us the same power to make something, the same vague, instinctive yearning for emotional and psychic companionship, the same inarticulate desire to image ourselves forth. But intellect has long held repressive sway, while Instinct has been biding its time. We have been “practical” so long that what we have imaged forth is relatively monstrous, and by sane standards unreal, untrue to man’s oneness : true only to his dualism. Modem man is a traitor to himself in suppressing one-half of himself. In a measure he realizes this, and makes attempts at betterment, as he calls it, feeble, miscellaneous, and misdirected, employing but a minute part of his power in endeavoring to effect that consummation he so devotedly worships and which he calls Compromise. In other words, he is attempting the impossible task of eating his cake and keeping it. It is true that he is constantly putting forth multitudinous intellectual images of himself and the unique character of these works indicates the corresponding status of his intellectual reach. The fact that he is not putting forth equal works based on instinct shows as clearly his intention that the intellect shall continue to dominate the heart: that he is practical. Therefore modern man’s attempts at solving the basic problem of life have been unsuccessful, because he has looked everywhere for a solution, or a suggestion of solution, except within the problem itself.

It is always fatal to a solution to approach a problem with a preconception or fixed attitude of mind; with a mind made up as to what the nature of the solution will be, must be, ought to be, shall be. And yet modem man has made this specific, particularly grave blunder. He has begun by smrounding the husk containing the germ of solution — a husk already thick enough — with a fibrous super-husk of intellectual misconceptions concerning man, his powers and his relation to his fellow man. In other words, he has attempted to solve a problem wholly altruistic in nature by the application of methods wholly selfish and therefore external in nature. In fact, we might pause here to say that man, throughout his history, has preponderatingly sought explanations in the external instead of seeking them as he should, in the internal. This mental attitude accounts accurately for the phenomenon that man projected out of himself that vast sombre and inexorable image of himself which he has called Fate.

The man of the past has shown to us his power to create multiform images of himself in his feudal status. These images arose in actuality of physical form, or as marvelous airy fabrics of his emotional dreams, his spiritual hunger for companionship, directly from the need, the impulse, to create. Yet he did not know (though doubtless he may have felt) that these many things he created, these many systems he created, the many gods he created, were but sublime projections of himself into the outer world; which creations, as visioned forth by him, awakened a reaction within his inner world; and that, in his simultaneous outer and inner world he found the companionship he sought; he felt at home among the family of images of himself — his veritable progeny. And thus his civilizations, with all their contained institutions, were the collective image of the multitudes, the instinctive unconscious output of their powers, the visible glorifying symbol which the voice of nature Instinct told them was theirs, but which Intellect assured them in their waking, toiling hours could not possibly be of them but was a gift to them from on high. And as the lowly as well as the highborn were under the sway of intellect, the multitudes believed and consented. Hence there is not and never was such thing (except in passive moments) as a government existing independently of the consent of the governed. The feudal governments, past and present, have rested upon the foundation [of the] feudal thought of the people. Our civilizations have thus been superstructures erected upon such intellectually and emotionally ethereal, yet physical solid, foundation.

However — and let this be particularly noted — when the massive thought of the multitudes changes, the civilizations, the institutions supported and sustained by that thought, correspondingly change with it, for no civilization, no institution, can long exist after the creative impulse, the emotional desire, the intellectual consent of the multitudes, is withdrawn. For such civilization has by such token ceased to be their image. It no longer responds to their dreams. Or, it may be, their dream fades, and the image fades or is destroyed. Usually in past times these changes have progressed slowly. In modem times there is a visible tendency toward acceleration. And, be it further noted that in all the glory of the past, man had not solved the problem of man.

Now comes to us a new yearning, a new sense of loneliness, a new anxiety for companionship. The old images, the old gods, the old procedures no longer satisfy. Slowly there is awakening and stirring in modern man, a new desire, a new, a vaster creative impulse, a new movement of instinct. This is what makes the aspect of our world today so thrilling, so dramatic, so potent in new solutions, in new creations. The thought of modern man is swiftly shaping itself, with self-impelling power, upon the new-appearing center of gravity within himself; about a new conjunction of Intellect and emotion, a new assertion of Instinct, a new and concentrated creative impulse; a new desire to see his new self imaged in new institutions, giving him new satisfaction, a new sense of fulfilled companionship. Engrossed now in the analytical stage, he soon will enter the constructive stage. For the creative impulse, intimately subjective in origin, fulfills its function in objective realities.

All this may seem a digression from our main theme, but I have made it purposely, that you may locate wide boundaries and concentrate upon simple initiatives. That you may see the day that man will soon, with open eyes, find himself confronted by portentous images of himself which he will reluctantly recognize as such. That with selfsame open eyes he will recognize his prudery and prurience of intellect in extenso and, for his own healing, will become ashamed.

Furthermore, while what I have said may cause our art to seem insignificantly small in comparison, we may easily note, in concentrating our thought upon it, that it is indissolubly a part of the larger undertaking, and in our application thereto of an analytical creative impulse phasing into a synthetic, constructive, creative impulse, we are doing our special work in connection with the greatest adventure the spirit of man ever has entered.

So let your art be of, for and by this new creative impulse of our day, that it may in due time put forth true images of man’s free spirit.

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