Originality: What is a reformulation? (Part II)

In my last post, I claimed that originality amounts to nothing but the reformulation of theses or arguments. Although that might sound dismissive, I’m afraid I have to say quite a bit more about the topic of originality. So more posts will follow in due course. It worries me that such a central concept is still much in the grip of an unfounded genius cult. Being as unclear as the notion of clarity itself, it creates anxieties in students and gives undue power to examiners and reviewers. On the other hand, I would like to stress that I think very highly of reformulations and thus of what I call originality. In what follows, I’d like to say a bit more about reformulations.

Let me start with a clarification. I’m talking about originality in philosophy. Once you move outside that narrow field, there are more ways of being original. Already historians of philosophy, for example, can be original by starting to work on a new text, a forgotten author or by invoking new technology such as distant reading. Moreover. recombinations of technologies and traditional approaches in the humanities can bring about a lot of new insights. But there are limits. Once we return to the business of asking questions and giving reasons, we are back to our linguistic basis. – Let’s now move on to reformulations.

Before any reformulation can count as original, it has to count as rational, at least in the sense that it is accepted by our interlocutors. To count as rational, any formulation has to meet three agreement constraints. One’s claim has to agree

(1) with facts (i.e. non-textual phenomena)

(2) with oneself (i.e. with one’s own other beliefs etc.)

(3) with others (fellow academics, canons, authorities)

Constraint (3) is crucial. I might assume to be in agreement with facts or myself as much as I want, being rational is a matter of being in agreement with a community. This is why originality can’t completely transcend the community. Being original is not something you can ascribe to yourself; it’s the community that attributes that status to you.

Within these constraints, we might encounter various kinds of reformulations. Starting from a repetition (in a different context), a reformulation might be a variation, an opposition (in the sense that saying “not-p” requires saying “p”) or a recontextualisation. In this sense you might say that Descartes’ cogito is a variation on Augustine’s cogito, or that Walter Chatton’s anti-razor is an original opposition to William of Ockham’s razor. What makes these items original? I’d say it’s the fact that these theses have been given a decided new twist or turn. Their originality can be seen, as it were, because the initial thesis is still identifiable. They changed the topic or direction of the conversation while remaining in agreement with a community.

Personally, I think the most interesting cases of originality occur when a claim is reformulated such that it is received by different communities. The point is that constraint (3) might work for more than one community. I can think of quite a number of cases where this happened. John Locke combined bits of an Aristotelian theory of language with Pufendorf’s political theory. This way, his theory of language became relevant for different philosophical topics and communities. Another example is Robert Brandom’s reformulation of (a Habermasian) Kant and Hegel that migrated into new communities, even in Germany. The most recent (and for me rather impressive) example is David Livingstone Smith’s reformulation of Ruth Millikan’s teleosemantics within the context of a theory of ideology. (By contrast, I find that attempts to shun another community are often rather uninspiring: hello, continental-analytic divide…)

So, yes, I’m not trying to be dismissive when construing originality as a kind of reformulation. Quite the contrary! But I find it helpful to consider the social constraints that govern the notion of rationality and originality, not least to explore the possibilities of transcending or merging communities.


On a personal note, given the time of the year, I’ll have to reduce the frequency of my posts for the following weeks. But I’ll be back soon with more on these issues.

Originality? – Don’t make a fool of yourself! (Part I)

What is originality? I have been studying and even teaching philosophy for quite some time now, but I still don’t know what fellow philosophers really mean when they say that something is original. Kurt Flasch, my thesis advisor in the nineties, used to say that you become original once you forget where you’ve read your claims. I am myself a bit more positive. I think one can be original in finding a good reformulation of an existing claim or argument. But that’s all there is to it, really. So if you think that originality has to do with novelty, think again.

Why do I believe that originality is not about novelty? Well, I assume that philosophy is an on-going conversation. And in a conversation, conversational rules apply. Reformulating a point is great. It might highlight unexpected aspects or trigger interesting associations. But don’t start talking about things that don’t relate to the current exchange. People will just think you’re weird.

I’m not saying this to discourage anyone from trying to be original. But originality is always listed as a crucial assessment criterion, no matter whether it’s about student essays, PhD dissertations or grant applications. Yet, as far as I can see it doesn’t amount to more than this: reviewer has not thought of the idea in quite those terms. – Again, that’s fine. But let’s be clear about what it amounts to.

When I ask students what they want to achieve in their work, they often reply that they wish to say something original. In order to find out what they mean by that, I have designed a little test. I let them write a small paragraph on a topic of their choice. When I look at what they’ve written, I almost always find something that sounds like it’s coming straight out of a handbook on the issue. – Why, I ask, did you write this? We knew that already. A particularly ambitious and honest student once replied: “Well, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.” – I guess that is what it comes down to. Wanting to be original might just mean wanting to belong. Belong to that that club in which everyone is original.

Procrastination as conversation, really?

Writing the first post to my blog, I hesitated a lot. Should I really say this? Should I put it like that? – My point was that such hesitations can be seen as conversations with our potential readers and former selves. You might burst out with an idea and then refine it in the light of second thoughts or amend it because you remember someone saying that this idea was no good. If we take our hesitations seriously, they might actually turn into interesting philosophy. Why? Because hesitations are often dialogical and such dialogues display more of the actual thought process, providing refinements that sharpen our understanding of an issue. In the following, I’d like to give some hints at what this might mean and how this can be turned into writing.

Let me give you an example: Initially I wrote above “My point was that procrastination can be seen as a conversation … ” – But then I thought: No, what I mean is hesitation. – But in my last post I also spoke of procrastination, didn’t I? So is procrastination a form of hesitation? – Well, I suppose some is and some isn’t. So, some forms of procrastination might qualify (I guess watching telly doesn’t qualify, but reading blog posts or staring into the distance might). So, sometimes when I procrastinate I engage in a dialogue. — OK, this is a lame example. But now you’ve seen more of my thought process than in the first paragraph. The upshot is: Not only hesitation but also some forms of procrastination might be dialogical. You wouldn’t have got that refinement, had I not added this paragraph. Now, if you want a really thrilling example of the phenomenon, go and read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations again. – Still, you might ask: what’s so great about hesitation?

I said that hesitation is dialogical. But dialogical writing, it seems, isn’t much encouraged in academia. So how can this idea be applied? – One of my greatest worries in writing was and often still is that I can’t say everything at once. I’m not joking! Having to write a paragraph about x and leave you, dear reader, with the idea that this is really all I have to say about x might be embarrassing. To amend this impression before it could even arise, I initially wrote very long paragraphs. Yes, horrible. But then I noticed that other people don’t do this. Good writers have no qualms to say very little or even something blatantly false about x. How do they get away with it? – Well, they write a second paragraph! And then they challenge what they said in the beginning. This simple scheme of thesis-question-refinement-question does not only display a thought process but often provides very intriguing refinements. (If you look at scholastic quaestiones you can see how it’s turned into a labyrinthic art.)

Of course, this is a simple technique of implementing dialogue. But it can be applied easily to regular papers without having to bring in Theaitetos or Socrates. What’s tricky about it is that some readers still stop reading after the first paragraph…

Procrastinating? Hesitating as engaging in conversation

Great timing… While most of you are on holiday, I’m starting a blog on (writing) philosophy. Yes, I know! There are so many blogs, even on philosophy, and we don’t really need another one… Actually, I’m just finalising a book, but since that’s rather scary and torturous, I thought about my new book project called Handling Ideas: it’s supposed to be a (fairly popular, yes!) book about understanding, expressing and applying ideas. And since that is scary, too, why not start by writing about writing instead? Also, it’s 37 degrees in Groningen.

On a more serious note (don’t think you can skip this!), I think that the practice of philosophy and writing are intimately connected. You all know how long the distance between the thought in your head and the page or screen in front of you really is. And you already know that before you actually finish this damn sentence that you started crafting yesterday, you’ll soon rush to the delete button to change a few words again…

Writing, that is amongst other things: deciding on the ultimate way of expressing a thought, is scary for many of us, but I think that it is an integral part of an important process: when we rush to change a word before we settle on a formulation, we actually engage in a conversation with our readers and former selves. You might think something along the lines of “you won’t like this, so…” or “why did I come up with that?” or “no, I should have put this differently.” – But what is actually going on in these moments? – I think that what we often call procrastination or hesitation is part of a conversational exchange or thought process: it’s part of practising philosophy. It’s all the back and forth that you might remember from Plato’s dialogues. Just a little less elaborate perhaps, but certainly just as interesting.

More often than not, these conversations are suppressed, though. They might seem imperfect or whatever. So in many of the following posts I would like to invite you and myself to bring these conversations to the fore. There are excellent guides on writing and philosophy, but most of them aim at good products. I’m more interested in the doubtful stages that all too often fall through the cracks. This concerns both the writing and the actual philosophy.

In keeping with the conversational spirit, I not only hope for comments on posts but for many guest posts. Enjoy the summer and see you around!


PS. I’d like to thank my former student assistant César Reigosa. It was in conversation with him that I decided to settle on the title “Handling Ideas”.