The Philosophy of Originality:
Vignettes

by Ralph Dumain

"I am the originator." — Little Richard


I have always been suspicious of all the fuss over Gramsci. The very word "organic" would be enough to make me reach for my gun if I had one. I get a very negative feeling about Gramsci from reading the treatment of him in Martin Jay's Marxism and Totality, confirming my worst suspicions. I once probed a Gramsci scholar about Gramsci's view of intellectuals, with questions about independence, originality, and the generation of novel ideas, i.e. not merely concerning the social organization of the transmission of existing ideas. I could not get any clear answers, though my interlocutor was intrigued by my questions. I got the feeling he never thought through those issues before, which would hardly surprise me, as I've detected certain problems he has in achieving his own intellectual independence. Jay says that Gramsci leaves no room for independent, free-floating intellectuals, the only kind of intellectual I respect. That is enough to condemn Gramsci's contemporary groupies, if not Gramsci himself. Free your inner Stalin. (2 October 2003)


You asked:

Is there a "philosophical type" of mind, just as there is an "artistic type" and a "mechanically inclinded type"? I myself am very good a learning foreign languages—but abstract ideas throw me if they become too difficult. I assume there is such a type of mind, but how do you cultivate it? How do you learn to understand abstract ideas? Or is this something that can't be taught, just as an artist and an auto mechanic can't explain their abilities?

This is actually a profound question, not easy to get a handle on. Obviously, there are aspects of the philosophical mind that can be taught. On a deeper level, though, there is something about the talent of thinking philosophically (which should not be reduced to the ability to think logically or abstractly), which eludes formalization. The formal education of philosophy is like that of other fields: certain techniques are transmitted, but in developing the X factor—creativity, depth, and originality—you're on your own. This is like learning just about any other field. Take classical music, which is basically organized as a technocratic enterprise. Of course, the ideal is to evolve beyond a mere technician, but the constipated conception of music embedded in the organizational culture of classical music (as opposed to jazz, for example) means the infinite reproduction of the same old stuff with technical perfection, and if you develop into an exceptional interpreter or maybe even an original composer, that's an added plus, but that is not what gets organized technocratically.

The "philosophical mind" presents an analogous problem. Technical proficiency takes ability and the cultivation of that ability. Not everybody can do it. One is at a loss without technical proficiency in any field, and clearly, this is something that can be and is cultivated in a formal, disciplined manner. Compare the number of formally educated people in any field in the world today as compared to the mere handfuls of geniuses who worked out various abstract concepts a few centuries ago. But there is another talent, which gets cultivated at best only partially by the bureaucratic organization of knowledge—the ability to take a situation and know how to go about analyzing it with depth and perspicuity. Professors representing various schools of thought organize their students' ability to do this in defined ways, but judging from the academics I deal with, they have not succeeded very admirably.

So I think your question has to be answered on at least two levels. Implicitly I addressed the second of these levels—where the X factor operates—in my criticism of popularization and my vague characterization of philosophy as the conceptual negation of immediacy. Thinking through concepts and parroting philosophical positions are not synonymous. Dissatisfaction with presented concepts necessitates cultivation of the ability to think negatively, to resist the immediate pull of the formulations one confronts, to seek out deeper patternings and conceptual structures. This is what a philosophical type of mind means to me. (8 October 2003)


Sometimes I think the philosophical mind is born, not made, yet several qualifications are needed. I have found over the decades a number of uneducated people with acute instincts for philosophical reflection and/or critical thought. However, the exercise of such propensities and abilities is a highly uneven affair. Whatever is behind these propensities, it does not reduce down to logical thinking or even abstract thinking. And, one could say, it doesn't always reach up to them either. As in any ability, this one is used with practice. But how does an uneducated person get to practice and refine one's capacity for philosophical reflection? Well, usually, it only gets developed in specific areas, such as critical reflection on everyday life and human behavior, rebellion against religious belief, anticlericalism, criticism of politics and social institutions. Within delimited areas of contention uneducated people are capable of articulating not only arguments but the principles behind their arguments. They tend to be brilliant at coining aphorisms, proverbs, and turns of phrase, thinking metaphorically/ But rarely are they capable of sustaining consistent abstract reflection across the spectrum of thought. And without some kind of abstract terminology—having words like "epistemology" for example—their ability to systematize is limited. The question of practice involves a number of ways of interacting with others. People tend to think in inner speech, abbreviating rather than explicitly elaborating logical constructs, relying on intuitive pattern recognition to fill in the gaps in their explicit logical reasoning. Improving one's skills at articulating one's concepts could involve talking to oneself, but actually demands interaction with others through speaking or writing. One also needs input from others whether through written texts or intelligent conversation.

This may seem obvious enough, but we should be philosophical about it and interrogate the obvious, as that is where all the profound questions are to be found. We also need to examine the formal educational process more closely. I have suggested that learning how to think philosophically is not just regurgitating descriptions of other people's ideas, but thinking through them and struggling with them. This struggle itself needs to be theorized. The bureaucratic context in which academic subjects are taught does not foster such analysis. Have you ever sat in an introductory philosophy class feeling depressed? Something is missing in the transmission of the philosophical canon. The art of mediating between the abstract and the concrete is not taught. The poor student is at a terrible disadvantage in confronting intricately developed abstract systems, starting out with only his/her own comparatively vague sense of reality as a guide. While self-transformation is also a desirable outcome, the struggle is to maintain control of the process of digestion, to learn how to swallow other people's ideas and keep them from swallowing you. (12 October 2003)


Hence, as I argued [previously], there are at least two levels to think about in formulating a conception of the philosophical mind. One is the dimension of philosophy (or any other discipline) that can be formally taught, the other is that X-factor in the individual that motivates thinking beyond what is given; the fount of creativity, originality, or thinking organically from within. (21 December 2003)


I stayed up all night reading or skimming the first 400 pages of Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. I was totally fascinated by his account of philosophical developments within the various cultures he treats. There is much that is quite plausible about his account of intellectual life, even his idea of the sociological dimension of the inner thought processes of thinkers as they sit by themselves. But there is also a point at which I balk at the extreme sociologism of his perspective. He partakes of the sociological mentality par excellence, which is a creepy one.

To some extent his perspective threatens mine. After an exasperating seminar in New York in July 1997 with a group of well-trained but hopeless grad students, I coined the phrase "reality is not who you know." I think there is something Collins misses in his hyper-gregarious account. I think that perhaps his own originality may be limited, so he doesn't understand completely how creative thought functions in the 20th century where mass literacy and the availability of information changes the nature and amount of networking required—though he claims otherwise—to do original thinking.

Would his model would apply to the development of C.L.R. James, for example? Would it explain why the development of James's ideas after James is so pathetic? Perhaps, as James studies has no substantive social structure to give it any coherence except for the various trends that the mediocre scholars who inhabit it hook it up to: postcolonial studies, transnational American Studies, etc.—totally artificial paradigms that colonize rather than expand upon the original material. My own original thinking is bound up with some kind of networking but a very different kind, otherwise originality on my part would be impossible. Collins writes of the necessity of face-to-face encounters; e-mail will never do the trick. I disagree. While to some extent face-to-face encounters helped me—with my deceased colleague, primarily, who shared a common understanding of our project but hardly the same theoretical apparatus—I have done much better with e-mail, or even phone conversations, than face-to-face contact, which is primarily useful as a source of irritation to stimulate my oppositional creative juices. I find that excessive socialibility is doing great harm to the development of intellectuals. Intellectual independence has disappeared among a generation brought up on music videos. (18 January 2004)


There is a qualitative dimension to creative thinking which Collins fails to capture. How does one learn how to see things differently, based on different assumptions? Can one merely will originality into existence, seeking distinction? This seems to be the way it works in France, where there is no escaping centralization, elitism, and the reign of cultural capital. I think a person working in complete isolation is going to be severely limited, but I see solitude as a plus factor just as much as gregariousness. Collins does take the factor of solitary reading and writing into account, but he always insist that society is still there in one's mental conversation with oneself. While this is true in some sense, what is missing from his account is the qualitative nature of the struggle between one's perception of the world and the prevailing mindset. In a way Collins perpetuates the star system even while demystifying it. For him the star is really the social network, not the individual. But has Collins ever had the experience of being able to perceive things that other people cannot? Has he ever questioned the basic assumptions of people around him? Or is he, as you suggest, a product of his own field?

I say this because I do have this experience, being completely alone in the James world without having anyone in it I can trust or reliably communicate with now that my friend is dead. And in fact, James himself suffered the consequences of psychological isolation which the mystique around him only exacerbated, as there was no way of socially objectifying his methods beyond a certain point, given the limitations of the people around him and his own incompetence in organizing his life. Various people carried on his research programme in selected areas, such as black history, but core areas have not been developed. This is partly due to the lack of availability of key texts, but mostly due to the inability of intellectuals to face up to the aspects of James's work that condemns them. Believe you me, I am going to write about this. My experience at Dartmouth in 2002 sealed it all for me. And there is no worse group of shits than the academic left, who are even worse in combination than academia and the left separately. (18 January 2004)


From a Letter to an African-American Physicist

(1) I find your argument for affirmative action unimpeachable, but I myself avoid using the word "diversity" like the plague. I find the word ideologically encoded in an objectionable way, not to mention its euphemistic aura. Once upon a time we used words that presumably meant what they said; "equal opportunity" is such a term. But what really is "diversity"? In my view the word carries the subtext of a cosmetic intervention that makes something that looks bad look better. It's not about equalizing opportunity, i.e. from the vantage point of those in need of opportunity, but it's about keeping up appearances, from the standpoint of institutions who need to better their image. And ultimately, it is equal opportunity that matters, perhaps even social equality that matters (if we want to be more ambitious than the current political climate allows), but "diversity" as an ideal is a pseudo-concept.

(2) I notice also that your reasoning on the basis of a biological analogy contains some interesting discrepancies. Physics is an essentially acultural object of study, and as you note, scientific achievement is a matter of individual capability, hence biological or cultural diversity is irrelevant to the conduct of physics. (You will remember how Einstein was the victim of volkish thinking about science in Nazi Germany.) Rock and roll (or better yet jazz) is a cultural product, hence the diversity of aesthetic traditions is relevant. The only way that diversity applies in the case of physics is the diversity of individuals within the talent pool of potential physicists, which of course is artificially reduced by arbitrary exclusion of substantial subsets of the population. You recognize this as well, but the analogy with biological and cultural phenomena clashes with the argument for maximizing the opportunities for individual merit to show itself.

(3) What distinct set of perceptions and abilities could members of a minority group bring to physics, rather than generic abilities required to excel in the field? Let's use Albert Einstein as an example to explore this issue. Are there any distinctive attributes of Jewish culture that Einstein brought to the problems of physics? Einstein named certain attributes of the Jewish tradition he celebrated, but note that none of them are religious or ethnic in character. Other than a particular embrace of these generic attributes, what distinctive angle of approach could there be? I believe there is only one answer: the experience of being an outsider. In the 18th century, Jews in Germany (then divided into separate principalities) were effectively excluded from participation in the professions and national cultural life. By the end of the 19th century they had practically taken over. As outsiders they had advanced from a nondescript position to command the avant garde positions in every field (which gave them a special place in the cultural sphere as an object of the Nazi reaction). As the history of Jewish intellectual contributions shows, it is the outsider status that provides the impetus toward innovation and originality. The drive is there, the passion is there, and the casting aside of tradition and inhibition to go for the ultimate.

Have we seen this drive somewhere else? Richard Wright wrote (in 1953) that with the end of segregation blacks would develop a psychology like the Jews. As it happens, the place he wrote it was in a novel called The Outsider. (18 April 2004)


[In the midst of an argument on Popper, the topic of originality came up, I suppose in connection with how conjectures are generated.] I think it is more important for me to write up my thoughts on creativity, or I should say, originality, based on a number of conclusions I came to in the 1970s based on reflections from my immersion in the Buffalo arts community. (10 December 2004)


I don't believe any educational system, certainly not the field of philosophy, in which no professional philosophers have ever shown evidence they even understand the issue, has asked themselves this most fundamental of questions, as the entire institutional framework of intellectual socialization is organized against asking the most obvious, hence most profound, of questions.

I created some of the confusion which my remark above generated, by importing one argument into another:

(1) the relationship between the individual and publicly instituted (and taught/learned) systems of thought;

(2) the problem of differing frames of reference in communication between individuals, and the nature of differences in meaning.

In my comments above, about the lack of awareness of philosophers as teachers, I do not claim any inability of theirs to address fundamental philosophical issues, but I am calling attention to their seeming neglect of a problem so simple and obvious it can easily be overlooked precisely because of the institutional setting in which teaching takes place: the nature of the assimilation of concepts by individuals. You'd think teachers would be constantly aware of this, but I have my doubts. The problem applies not only to philosophy, but, I'm convinced, to other fields, such as music. And this is related to another question: wherefrom arises creativity, originality? You teach a class of people, some succeed and move onward in the field of study, others fail, lose interest, do other things. There is a selection process. The basic mandate is for the student to master the material. Perhaps one day (s)he will make an original contribution to the field, but that is her/his problem. A teacher can always hope to clarify concepts not understood by the student, but in the individual struggle with concepts there is an X factor, an X factor which for some students may eventually lead to an original perspective on the part of the student as (s)he wrestles with conceptions which which (s)he feels uneasy. This is so obvious, but given that educational institutions are dedicated to the reproduction of the existing system as they are to original research, it is easy to gloss over this fundamental question. Intellectual and cultural historians create taxonomies and order and explain traditions and their evolution. However, originality involves both discontinuity and continuity. How does one taxonomize the discontinuities upon which innovations are built?

I maintain that this is a question that pertains not only to people who make publicly recognizable novel contributions (the first to discover this, invent that, think this), but to everyone struggling to develop an autonomous perspective, which is not necessarily to produce something not already in existence (which cannot simply be done at will), but to assimilate some body of knowledge and make it one's own. For every recognized innovator, there are thousands who reinvent the wheel: they are no less creative, but nobody cares, because it's been done and the proper awards and acknowledgements have been made, either to the firsts or others who stole from the firsts and got credit.

The struggle seems to be most important to a philosophical perspective, which affects us more intimately than most, since we must leave it up to others to produce and verify knowledge in most areas. But we are all stuck with having one world view or another, explicitly or tacitly, and even the denial of having one is a world view and a characteristic ("end of") ideology at that.

Now in the communication of meanings to others, there are both private and public components to meaning. Those who have successfully internalized standardizing meanings, theories, bodies of thought, will be able to communicate publicly available doctrines with some accuracy and explicitly indicate their individual takes on those ideas, even with the caveat that there are multiple interpretations of some competing body of thought. At the other extreme, there are uneducated people who nevertheless come up with ideas (I've met many) and you can see them struggling with the invention of their own terms and ways of articulating themselves. From the receiver's standpoint, it becomes evident that one must pay close attention to (1) individually created meanings outside of standardized frameworks, (2) the actual struggle of the individual to articulate intuitively felt notions. (In contradistinction, it is not honest to pass off publicly codified doctrines (which are public and hence rationally criticizable) as expression of one's own ineffable experience.)

It is not a question of intellectuals being "puppets." It is more a question of fish not seeing the water they're swimming in. A teacher may want everyone to learn and do well in class, but the selection process means that the process of assimilation yields results—some move upward in a particular specialized hierarchy, others do not. But, upon deeper, reflection, it is not a process that should be taken for granted. Not surprisingly, as philosophy is not just any body of theory or knowledge, but the very process of reflection itself.

The question of situatedness and its relation to ideological blindness deserves to be taken up separately. The opposition of the god's-eye view and Nietzsche's perspectivism is another of those false oppositions. (19 January 2005)


With philosophy, more than just about every other area, everything is a problem and nothing is routine. Philosophy is constantly biting its own tail.

I have said philosophy partakes of both the characteristics of science and literature. The scientific ideal is essential from my standpoint, but philosophy does not progress unilinearly; we keep returning to founding texts over and over. In this respect philosophy has much in common with literary criticism, which also includes 'scientific' and subjective interpretative components, and whose object eternally requires revisitation and reinterpretation. Competence in literary criticism is also similar to competence in philosophy. Specialized expertise is involved, and yet interpretation at some point transgresses the objective basis of expertise which we call scholarship. We can I think rank expertise in objective scholarly matters, but ranking credibility in matters of interpretation, while also possible, is much dodgier.

My own personal approach as a freelance dilettante for decades is one of problem-solving: I begin by posing a question, usually with some hunch or hypothesis to explore. Then I delve into background to get relevant information that bears on my hypothesis and see how it works out. There is always the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy, finding what one already thinks is there. (Note ongoing discussion on authorial intent.) Yet, the ability to formulate insightful questions—especially fundamental questions—can take us a long way into unfamiliar territory.

This has implications for education, esp. the abuse inflicted on graduate students in the course of the social reproduction of academic institutions. Intellectual socialization promotes both conformity and originality; the problem is that the scope of originality is too often dictated by conformity. The irony is that disciplines that abound with theories of criticism are themselves conformist to the core. This is a deeply alienated scenario. I have never met anyone who studied Foucault, for instance, that I could stand to be in the same room with. I've now had over a dozen years of intensive engagement with people in academia in the humanities and social sciences, and what a mess it is, what a mess. And there are many people who are making themselves a place in it and are still frustrated by prevailing trends. I have a great deal of respect for genuine expertise; I rely on it as we all do. The key is to learn how to be a discriminating consumer. In this department, we only learn the hard way. (20 February 2005)

Compiled & edited 18 April 2005
©2005 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


18 April 2005
50th Anniversary of the Death of Albert Einstein


original essays:

Originality Blues: Tales of the ‘70s

Originality, Cultural Capital, and Class Distinction

Solitude: Vignettes

Wisdom and Abstract Thought

Antonio Gramsci, Organic Intellectuals, and the Division of Labor

The Partial Sociology of Philosophies: The Historical Perspective of Randall Collins (An Unfinished Review)
by Ralph Dumain

Wisdom, Philosophy & Everyday Life — Theoretical Perspectives: An Unconventional Guide

offsite:

'Originality' art quotations

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges

Pierre Menard (fictional character) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Ch. 2. Borges Studies Online


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