What is fruitfulness?

Nick was asked by an old colleague to provide a simple, universally applicable definition of fruitfulness.

Earlier, I would have pointed to Thomas Kuhn’s paper on theory choice, where fruitfulness, along with accuracy, consistency, scope and simplicity, was a characteristic that might make a theory more attractive to a scientist, depending (scandalously!) on that scientist’s taste in theories. About fruitfulness Kuhn said “a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known.” In a footnote he added “The last criterion, fruitfulness, deserves more emphasis than it has yet received. A scientist choosing between two theories ordinarily knows that his decision will have a bearing on his subsequent research career. Of course he is especially attracted by a theory that promises the concrete successes for which scientists are ordinarily rewarded.” He could have added the point that a fruitful theory is likely to win attention from other scientists seeking fertile ground for their own work, and consequently generating citations, the currency of academia.

But Nick uses the term “fruitful” in a distinctly different and more interesting sense. His usage goes beyond simply showing new phenomena or connections among known phenomena, or even pointing to new areas to research. What he means is close to what I’ve talked about in terms of conceiving what was, prior to the conception, inconceivable — a conception which frees insoluble problems to solve themselves.

Nick, however is less interested in the production of novel solutions, than he is in the discovery of novel problems. Of course, each novel problem has the potential to yield novel solutions. But, also, inside novel solutions are the seeds of an unforeseen novel problems. Fruitful production produces products that contain the seeds of future production. (No wonder we call fruit “produce”.) It is like Hegel turned inside-out, where instead of new ideas containing the seeds of their destruction converging to one Absolute, they instead contain the seeds of invention diverging to an infinite Plurality. Where Hegel sees decaying fruit, Nick sees another generation of sapling born to effloresce.

Since Nick gave the word “fruitful” this new tilt, Susan and I have both adopted it, and it has become a household term in our odd household.

Of course, I had to go on and name a philosophy whose aim is fruitfulness “fructivism” — a word with unavoidable phonetic associations with other reproductive language, which polite souls see as a drawback, but for me seals the deal.

So, given this conception of fruitfulness, how can we define fruitfulness simply, universally (meaning not only for philosophers or design innovators) and accessibly?

Yesterday, Nick and I collaborated on this problem. We worked iteratively, starting with the essential elements — conceptions, reconceptions, unforeseeability/surprise, novelty, an inexhaustible, perpetual process of production, creativity generativity — and we spiraled in on a two-word definition.

Spiral 1: The generation of new practical possibilities through reconception of a problem space.

Spiral 2: Creativity born of conception of what was inconceivable.

Spiral 3: Reconceptive creativity. Creative reconception.

Spiral 4: Generative reconception.


The more I think about fruitfulness and fructivism the more I realize that its significance exceeds its definition. At its unsayable core is a taste — a taste for inexhaustible possibility, for non-determination, for radical unpredictability, for freedom.

I feel certain the last two generations of Americans have been deprived of this feeling and are starving for it without even knowing it. A taste of it will go up like a spark in a granary.

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