Creation: a making or forming of something, as it were, out of nothing Edward Phillips, The New World of Words
Edward Phillips's attempt to define creation in 1671 highlights a number of issues that are central to developments in thinking about creativity, knowledge and artistic innovation during the seventeenth century. His idea of creating ‘something’ from ‘nothing’ implies, at one level, absolute novelty: a lack of precedence, a complete rupture with and effacement of a past state or experience; something appears where once there was emptiness or blankness. Simultaneously, however, the emphasis on ‘making’ and especially ‘forming’ suggests that there are materials to be moulded: existing matter to be reshaped into something new; Phillips suggests that creation has to be made from something, even as this ‘some-thing’ is described as ‘no-thing’. This ambivalence – the ‘as it were’ in the definition – hints at the multiple concepts and interpretations of creativity that existed in the seventeenth century.
In the early modern period – particularly in the realm of epistemology – creation was understood both in terms of reshaping, translating and reconfiguring that which exists and as the production of fresh entities ‘out of nothing’. Seventeenth-century theories of creativity seem to emanate from precisely this tension between novelty and precedent, between the purity of the new and the foundation of the old.