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.

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