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.

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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.