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Marcus: Relative to what Green says, isn't the real question about Einstein (for example) whether he was *trying* to be original? If he was just trying to get to the truth, and what seemed true to him happened to be original, that doesn't go against Green's point. The fact that he was *accused* of trying to be original for originality's sake doesn't mean that that's what he *was* trying to do. (Though if your point was simply that we should be careful about criticizing people for just trying to be original and not pursuing the truth, I'd be inclined to agree. I'm not sure how easy it is to tell from someone's writings what their intentions were.)

Marcus Arvan

NK: Yes! Your parenthetical hits the nail on the head.

I would add that I think we should be careful criticizing people for "just trying to be original" not just because it is difficult to discern their intentions - but because our very judgment of their intentions may be colored by our own prejudices of what the truth *is*. This seemed to be what went on with Einstein's (many) vehement critics. They jumped immediately to the conclusion that he was seeking originality rather than truth *because* (in the worldview) his theories couldn't possibly be true!

I would also caution against being hostile to originality in one's own work.

If one is so hung up on saying things *seem* true within the dominant paradigms of one's era (viz. premises that are widely accepted), you may back yourself into a philosophically or scientifically regressive perspective. You may fail to take risks on ideas that may well *be* true even thought they don't seem that way given the dominant paradigms of one's era (including the paradigm one is steeped in oneself!).

Here again, Einstein is a very good example. As many biographies on him point out, many other theorists (Mach, Poincare, etc.) almost got to relativity *far* before Einstein (decades even). They all made some headway into relativity but then essentially backed off, coming to the conclusion, "That can't possibly be true!", and abandoned it. Einstein was the one who thought, "Why not!?", and when he followed the consequences of the absolute speed of light to its inexorable conclusion, he ended up making true predictions. To put it another way (using language I have read in multiple biographies), the theorists before him (Mach, Poincare, etc.) just didn't have the *nerve* to take relativity as something that could actually be true.

This is why I think it is so vital not to be hostile to originality. Many (if not all) original theoretical ideas that turned out to be true *seemed* patently false when first proposed. Just ask the Aristotelian physicists who famously hounded Galileo out of the University of Pisa, and Copernicus' critics. Fixating too much on what "seems true" can prevent one from coming up with the next original idea that *is* true.


Marcus: I'm still inclined to think that you're misinterpreting Green. Granted, I haven't read the whole interview, so maybe I'm the one misinterpreting. But in any case: My suspicion is that Einstein wasn't *pursuing* originality, but that he was pursuing truth. As you put it, others had considered the possibility of relativity, but rejected it, on the grounds that, as they thought, it couldn't possibly be true. What Einstein did was take more seriously than they had the fact that no one had actually *shown* that it couldn't be true.

This seems to me to be a kind of originality that will frequently result from a genuine desire to get at the truth––and, more specifically, from a desire not to throw out hypotheses that haven't actually been *shown* not to be true. What this suggests is that, if you have the thought "Everyone else seems to reject this view, but their reasons, insofar as they bother to give any, don't seem very good," you ought to pursue it (given time and energy and expertise and so on). But you ought to pursue it not in order to be original (or because no one else is pursuing it) but simply because you don't yet see why it's not worth pursuing.

On this way of seeing things, there's a difference between just coming up with new ideas for the sake of coming up with new ideas and coming up with new ideas in a genuine attempt to come to an adequate understanding of some phenomenon.

Perhaps you didn't mean to be taking a different view. But a lot of what you've said here suggests that you think considerations of originality ought themselves to play a role our decisions of what to pursue (the idea being that, if an idea is original, i.e., not one that others are pursuing, that is *in itself* a prima facie good reason to pursue it). If that is what you mean to be saying, I'm not convinced. If it's not, I think what you've said here is potentially misleading (it's misleading me, at any rate).

Marcus Arvan

Hi NK: thanks for the follow-up. Yeah, I didn’t mean to defend a different view. Like I said in the OP, I think I agree with the basic content of what Green said in the interview. What I guess I maybe I differ (if at all) is in terms of attitude—regarding our ability to reliably discriminate ex ante whether we are pursuing something merely original or whether we are pursuing something likely to be true. Poincare, Mach, and Einstein were all pursuing things they thought were true—but in the case of the former two, their unwillingness to take seriously something they *thought* was probably false precluded them from discovering something original that was in fact true. Long story short, I think agree with Green in principle. I just think the principle (“only pursue original things in pursuit of truth”) can play itself out in problematic ways if one is too confident in one’s ability to predict what is likely to be true. Does that make sense? Conversely, I think “adoring originality” can—if one is otherwise seeking truth—can be a kind of attitude that fosters an open mind about what might be true (viz. Einstein’s attitude compared to the others).

A Philosopher

NK and Marcus, I see at least two ways to square your points of view.

First, NK seems to be focused on those producing the theories, Marcus on those evaluating them. It can both be true that one ought not seek originality *for its own sake* as they produce theories, and that one shouldn't use originality as a lazy criticism when evaluating a theory.

Second, Marcus brings out the fact that originality in a theory very often coincides with the rejection of some basic (perhaps implicit) assumption of the field. When Marcus talks about "seeking originality", that seems to amount to "seeking out hidden assumptions to reject". Of course, you could do this in a pernicious way that's not apt to lead to truth, e.g. throwing out a premise at random. But you could seek originality in a more principled way, as NK suggests happened with Einstein: e.g., rejecting implicit assumptions which aren't well supported. So we can seek out truth by seeking out originality in this better way.


I might be reading too much, or the wrong thing, into your talk of "adoring originality." But I guess I worry a bit that trying to be original, or even just being drawn to originality (as such), tends to crowd out an important kind of intellectual discipline.

And, in a way, what you say about Einstein suggests that he wasn't so much original (others had considered relatively, after all) as persistent, or something like that.

Or here's another way of putting it: I think I just want to insist on a sharp distinction between three different attitudes: (i) adoring originality, (ii) being indifferent to originality, and (iii) being opposed to originality. I was taking Green to be endorsing (ii) (as I do), and you to be endorsing (i). The crucial point, in these terms, that objecting to the adoration of originality doesn't amount to any kind of opposition to originality.


A Philosopher: Yes, that sounds exactly right to me!

Marcus Arvan

NK: agreed! :)

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