Originality

I’ll start with some unoriginal thoughts on originality here, because I think they lead to an interesting conclusion. Originality is an important intellectual virtue. In some, it looks more like a vice, because some people do not control their interest in being original by a metavirtue that recommends a decent balance between the impetus toward originality and the desire for sane and rational belief. Even so, traits don’t cease to be virtues just because they are out of balance in some individuals. So let’s stick with the idea that originality is a virtue.

It is not a truth-conducive virtue, however.

It doesn’t make beliefs displaying originality likely to be true, and I doubt that it even raises the probability of such beliefs. That is, I doubt that the probability of truth of a belief that results from originality is greater than the probability of truth of a belief not resulting from originality. I’m inclined to think that originality is truth-inhibiting instead of truth-conducive. When I think about paradigm instances of original ideas, they are almost always false. They are interesting in spite of being false, perhaps because they open up new ways of thinking or new regions of logical space to think about, and perhaps the truth is found in these areas or the new ways of thinking hold prospects for getting to the truth that were unlikely without these new ways.

The question is what to make of this information. One might suspect, as I have done elsewhere, that the above is a threat to the fundamentality of time-slice concepts in epistemology: concepts such as rationality whose value and nature can be accounted for at some particular time t. Another idea is to turn in the direction of social epistemology, to emphasize the point that from a value-driven perspective, what is important for socially embedded beings might be different from what is important for an individual abstracted from his or her social setting. Both claims assume, of course, that originality is one of the more significant intellectual virtues, and that claim might be mistaken. I’m inclined, though, to acquiesce to my cultural milieu on this one: it is important and there are epistemological lessons to be learned from its importance that have not yet been investigated.


Comments

Originality — 21 Comments

  1. A work worth reading in this regard from the AI perspective is Margaret Boden’s The creative mind: myths and mechanisms (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990). In it she distinguishes between “deep” and “combinatorial” originality, or novelty, of ideas. She uses it in a kind of selectionist account of what makes novelty successful, or in these terms, truth conducive. A deep novelty is one that expands the combinatorial space of ideas, while a superficial novelty is one that recombines ideas or possible ideas in an existing space. What makes them truth-bearers is that they have a high (pragmatic) fitness, which can only be known a posteriori.

  2. Hi Jon,

    Are you thinking that the virtue of originality does not increase objective probability of truth? Another way of thinking about this virtue is that it’s coherence increasing. In the some paradigm cases of originality (string theory, for example) there are two well-established but incompatible theories that are then shown to be consistent. Originality, at least when it’s good, often produces deep-going explanation, which increases the coherence of one’s beliefs.

  3. Hi, first time poster, long time reader,

    I’m not sure why you say that originality is not truth conducive. To be sure, an agent that is skilled at coming up with original hypotheses, and who adopts each of these original hypotheses as soon as he imagines them, will probably have very many false beliefs. But, that’s not the only way to take advantage of originaliy.

    Here’s an overly simplified story that might explain how originality can be truth conducive. Take two agents, one of whom is skilled at coming up with original hypotheses and novel explanations for known phenomena, the other of whom is not. Suppose they both practice some version of inference to the best explanation. So, given a body of evidence, they’ll tend to believe the best available explanation of that evidence (assuming the best explanation is good enough, that the next best explanation is significantly worse, etc.). If they’re both equally skilled at evaluating the merits of competing explanations, then the agent who is more original will tend to have more true beliefs (that is, assuming that better explanations to in fact tend to be true. a big assumption, of course). This is because when the agent’s faculty of originality comes up with a poor explanation of the evidence, the agent does not believe it, but when it comes up with the best explanation (at least among the available candidates), he does. The unoriginal agent, on the other hand, will often be stuck believing some relatively poor explanation, because he cannot come up with the better one. So, originality can expand the space of available hypotheses, thus lowering the probability that the best explanation is the best of a bad lot, and making it easier to obtain true beliefs via inference to the best explanation.

    While I think this story is oversimplified and wrong in a number of details, I think the basic idea is right, and it gives us some idea of how a faculty of originality could be truth conducive, even for a single agent not embedded in some social pursuit of truth.

  4. I wonder if it’s worth here drawing a distinction between originality and what I would call “insightfulness.” I have tried (so far unsuccesfully) to say something insightful about insightfulness in a paper that is languishing at the moment, and I think it is very closely related, but perhaps still distinct from “originality.” If by originality we mean something like “out of the ordinary” or “not the way most people would think about it,” then Jon’s point seems right–there’s no reason to suppose that thinking in such a way is likely to yield truths.

    But at the same time, all the comments given to Jon’s post, especially Daniel’s, seem right as well. Some people have the ability to see deep connections and possible explanations that more conventional minds miss. Is the property exhibited by those people rightly called originality? Perhaps, but I think it is more appropriate to call them insightful. They are not *merely* creative. They are not merely good at cooking up unusual or unconventional ideas. The people that the comments above are referring to are people whose unconventional ideas tend to provide plausible deep explanations of accepted phenomena.

    As has alrady been mentioned, it is still up for grabs whether explanatory power or depth is itself truth-conducive, but this addresses, I think, Jon’s worry about time-slice epistemic concepts. Explanatory power and/or depth can be assessed at a moment, and having a particular insight can immediately improve one’ “score” in this regard. Thus, if we separate the truth-conduciveness issue from the time-slice issue, I think we can reconcile insightfulness, at least, with time-slice epistemic assessments.

    So where does that leave mere originality? I’m not convinced that it is an unconditional epistemic good. If one’s penchant for thinking “outside the box” tends to help one pose insightful hypotheses, then it’s an epistemically desrable trait. Otherwise, I think the value of originality is like the value of creativity. It is more obviously at home in aesthetics than in epistemology.

  5. Suppose that, other things being equal, people who possess intellectual originality are less likely to believe truths than people who don’t. (I don’t accept this supposition, partly for the reasons that Daniel Greco outlined above, but let that pass.)

    Still, couldn’t originality be a virtue because of its truth-conduciveness for the community of inquirers? The more original thinkers there are in our midst, the more likely it is that we sober unoriginal thinkers will believe truths. That’s because we will have to find reasons to reject the various original hypotheses, and the investigation of such reasons will lead us to believe truths than we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.

  6. Ram, I agree with the social point you make–that’s what I was hinting at about what might be important in social contexts that needn’t be important from an individual standpoint. Of course, the claim you make doesn’t have any hope of being necessarily true, but that’s just the general fact-of-life for realistic epistemology.

  7. Daniel (and Ram), my claim, of course, wasn’t that originality can’t be truth-conducive, nor that it is truth-resistant, but only that it isn’t truth-conducive. I can imagine worlds very much like ours in which original ideas are more often true than banal ones, and I can imagine worlds very much like ours in which banal ideas are more often true than original ones. If we control for factors that lead people to prize being original (desire for fame, etc.), we *might* get a positive result that in worlds like ours, originality motivated only be a love of truth is truth-conducive. In favor of such a claim is Daniel’s second explanation; contrary to such a claim is his first paragraph about the possibility of doxastic profligacy.

    The last point suggests imposing more controls: rid the subjects of our study of all intellectual vices, including such profligacy, and then see whether original viewpoints are more likely to be true than unoriginal ones. I don’t know what to predict here, but I’m generally pessimistic about such claims. Willing to be surprised, though!

  8. Ted and Wayne, nice ideas here. To get justification-conduciveness, though, we’ll have to control for non-epistemic motivations, just as we’d have to in order to test the truth-conduciveness claim. I suspect, Wayne, that insight and originality overlap, so that some insightful thoughts are original and others are just Ben Franklin-esque aphorisms… ­čÖé

  9. I researched into the link between schizophrenia and genius hoping to explain why schizophrenia seems to have been in the human gene pool for over 80 000 years with a fairly constant prevalence of 1%. One evolutionary explaination is that although schizophrenics have more false beliefs that is normal, they also have more original beliefs. A supply and demand view of the value of ideas will show that an original and true idea is worth much more than a run of the mill true idea. The increase in value comes from the simple fact that one does not need to think of unoriginal ideas at all, one can pick them up off other people. Philosophers tend to be fonder of truth than value, but if there is no value to be had from an idea, it doesn’t really matter whether it is true or false.

  10. I’m not quite sure where logic is even supposed to lie within John’s argument. He informs us, first, that he fancies the conclusion that originality is truth-inhibiting; then he admits that original ideas “open up new ways of thinking or new regions of logical space to think about”. (Not an original point, mind you; John Stuart Mill could have, and did, tell us all this.) Given that this new logical space gives us new conceptual tools with which we may reinforce pre-existing truths, what on Earth could Prof. Kvanvig be getting at? It’s hard to tell whether or not he’s even serious.

    Anyway, this post raises a more interesting topic: a new strain of anti-intellectualism which resides in certain corners of academic life. I speak mostly of one unfortunate byproduct of contemporary scholarship, which emphasizes the correct interpretation of antecedent texts (often using very poor and clumsy instruments) and turns a blind eye to matters of soundness and cogency. In other words, for certain people, the history of philosophy has become all that there is to philosophy; scholarship more important than the use of the mind.

    Exaggerated emphasis on scholarship is a form of anti-intellectualism. And it can be truth-inhibiting when taken to extremes. For reason is goal-directed; and while truth-seeking is one goal, there are others which can lie behind truth-seeking, and which distort facts with shoddy interpretations. For example, reputations are formed by staying true to one’s opinions across a career. Thus, people in institutions have strong incentives to defend their projects — sometimes even in spite of cogent reasons to abandon those positions [esp. so long as popularity is on their side, which is not difficult to secure if one is congenial, properly vetted, and has an ear for rhetoric]. Similarly, the correct interpretation and recitation of a small set of canonical texts is just plain easier than actual consideration of novel content. Once you have the experience, you’re set to sit back and rest in between conferences. This practice of intellectual hygeine is, in the short run, merely truth-apathetic, and can be cut short by a well-placed jolt of indignance; but once the little vices of intellectual life transform into an out-and-out culture, as they will in the long run if permitted, it yeilds a populace of zombie-philosophers who need an argument to be properly footnoted before they work up the effort to turn their brains in the appropriate direction.

    Originality of thought is required to provide possible counter-arguments and counter-interpretations in the face of these two sins (among others). And it’s not like this is news. Really, sometimes I think that genuinely great philosophers, usually emeritus, commit themselves to philosophical howlers just out of a desire to inspire the kind of defiance towards mulch-headedness which is a prerequisite to excellence. But nevertheless, for every genuinely great philosopher, you will find a number of persons who either don’t see the bigger picture for what it is, or couldn’t care less about it. The former are just naive; while the latter are, without question, anti-intellectuals.

  11. Hi, Jon. I like the blog a lot. Here is a proposal.
    Like other terms for virtues (e.g. courage), ┬źoriginality┬╗ is normally applied in a generally positive and praising context, but the implicature of praise might be weakened or cancelled. We tend not to describe a Nazi butcher as courageous, though he might have been good at looking death in the face. Courage implies lack of fear in the pursuit of good, or, at worst, neutral things.
    Similarly, full originality implies innovation in pursuing the goal of the domain: an original painter is innovative in producing aesthetically worthy paintings, and an original scientist is innovative in pursuing goals of research. Truth and explanatory power might be prominent among them.
    Mere originality is just producing new stuff: the implicature of excellence in achieveing the goal is cancelled.
    So, mere epistemic originality has nothing to do with the truth of the final product, but full originality does.

  12. Hi, Wayne
    if I understand it correctly, insighfulness is connected to originality, but is less sensitive to “who is the first” to have an insight. My high-school philosophy teacher was insightful, but most of the stuff he figured out has already been published somewhere, in languages he could not read. This made him less original, or completely unoriginal, but not less insightful for that matter.
    So, insightfulness might be an almost present-time slice virtue (I just had this nice insight a minute ago), but originality is not (whether my insight was original depends on what other people thought, and more importantly, failed to think before).
    I am inclined to say that insighfulness might be essential for epistemic originality, but does not entail it.

  13. (Forgive me for my bad English). Hard to tell if a particular philosopher – or rather, philosophy-professional – is naive or simply anti-intellectual : wouldn’t Socrates say both are naive? Anyway, I’m not upholding this view, and I’d rather bring something else from Mr Mahogany’s comment to your attention: ‘For reason is goal-directed; and while truth-seeking is one goal, there are others which can lie behind truth-seeking, and which distort facts with shoddy interpretations.’ I think this could define what originality is, as long as you consider that truth-seeking is a very imprecise notion – although it must rely to some extent on a shared common sense – and couldn’t, thus formulated, be followed as a goal. Originality, in philosophy and science alike, would be the ‘sub-goals’ truth-seeking involves. This view eliminates most of the difference between insight (‘I think this makes sense, let’s look closer…’)and originality : the latter has simply less in common with the known concerns or methods (which are concerns to philosophers)! Yet originality as a goal can be truth-inhibiting when exagerated, by wanting to make your point at all cost ; or by forgetting what the truth would look like (common sense’s role, I’d say, but what I’m sure of is that it would have to precede truth-seeking’s ‘sub-goals’). This hasty hypothesis is not that strong, nor is it original.

  14. (Forgive me for my bad English). Hard to tell if a particular philosopher – or rather, philosophy-professional – is naive or simply anti-intellectual : wouldn’t Socrates say both are naive? Anyway, I’m not upholding this view, and I’d rather bring something else from Mr Mahogany’s comment to your attention: ‘For reason is goal-directed; and while truth-seeking is one goal, there are others which can lie behind truth-seeking, and which distort facts with shoddy interpretations.’ I think this could define what originality is, as long as you consider that truth-seeking is a very imprecise notion – although it must rely to some extent on a shared common sense – and couldn’t, thus formulated, be followed as a goal. Originality, in philosophy and science alike, would be the ‘sub-goals’ truth-seeking involves. This view eliminates most of the difference between insight (‘I think this makes sense, let’s look closer…’)and originality : the latter has simply less in common with the known concerns or methods (which are concerns to philosophers)! Yet originality as a goal can be truth-inhibiting when exagerated, by wanting to make your point at all cost ; or by forgetting what the truth would look like (common sense’s role, I’d say, but what I’m sure of is that it would have to precede truth-seeking’s ‘sub-goals’). This hasty hypothesis is not that strong, nor is it original.

  15. (Forgive me for my bad English). Hard to tell if a particular philosopher – or rather, philosophy-professional – is naive or simply anti-intellectual : wouldn’t Socrates say both are naive? Anyway, I’m not upholding this view, and I’d rather bring something else from Mr Mahogany’s comment to your attention: ‘For reason is goal-directed; and while truth-seeking is one goal, there are others which can lie behind truth-seeking, and which distort facts with shoddy interpretations.’ I think this could define what originality is, as long as you consider that truth-seeking is a very imprecise notion – although it must rely to some extent on a shared common sense – and couldn’t, thus formulated, be followed as a goal. Originality, in philosophy and science alike, would be the ‘sub-goals’ truth-seeking involves. This view eliminates most of the difference between insight (‘I think this makes sense, let’s look closer…’)and originality : the latter has simply less in common with the known concerns or methods (which are concerns to philosophers)! Yet originality as a goal can be truth-inhibiting when exagerated, by wanting to make your point at all cost ; or by forgetting what the truth would look like (common sense’s role, I’d say, but what I’m sure of is that it would have to precede truth-seeking’s ‘sub-goals’). This hasty hypothesis is not that strong, nor is it original.

  16. (Forgive me for my bad English). Hard to tell if a particular philosopher – or rather, philosophy-professional – is naive or simply anti-intellectual : wouldn’t Socrates say both are naive? Anyway, I’m not upholding this view, and I’d rather bring something else from Mr Mahogany’s comment to your attention: ‘For reason is goal-directed; and while truth-seeking is one goal, there are others which can lie behind truth-seeking, and which distort facts with shoddy interpretations.’ I think this could define what originality is, as long as you consider that truth-seeking is a very imprecise notion – although it must rely to some extent on a shared common sense – and couldn’t, thus formulated, be followed as a goal. Originality, in philosophy and science alike, would be the ‘sub-goals’ truth-seeking involves. This view eliminates most of the difference between insight (‘I think this makes sense, let’s look closer…’)and originality : the latter has simply less in common with the known concerns or methods (which are concerns to philosophers)! Yet originality as a goal can be truth-inhibiting when exagerated, by wanting to make your point at all cost ; or by forgetting what the truth would look like (common sense’s role, I’d say, but what I’m sure of is that it would have to precede truth-seeking’s ‘sub-goals’). This hasty hypothesis is not that strong, nor is it original.

  17. Nenad, that’s a nice proposal, and would get me out of my pessimistic tendency about the relation between truth and originality. I agree on the data you cite as well, though I wonder if there are pragmatic forces at work regarding usage that lead to the data. That is, I wonder whether our hesitance to describe something aimed at bad ends as courage tells us something about courage itself or rather something about about how easy it is to miscommunicate when we use what are generally evaluatively positive concepts in such cases. The positive character of virtue would thus generate an expectation that one was conveying approval of the behavior in question, leading to our hesitance. But the hesitance is based in pragmatic features of language use, rather than in the fact that such behavior directed at bad ends is not really courageous.

  18. Jonny, that’s an interesting point and quite congenial to the idea that originality is more significant from the perspective of social epistemology than from more traditional approaches.

  19. As with all cognitive abilities, the ability to be original can help an agent who wants to believe truth to better achieve this goal. However, an agent who places a non-truth-oriented goal of originality on his beliefs, perhaps in order to show off this ability to others, may well move his beliefs further from truth.

  20. Robin, it’s important to stay away from focusing merely upon the individual’s beliefs. What matters, in many cases, is their social impact. A person who believes obviously ludicrous things is extremely valuable when they are vocal about it, because they make the correctness of their archnemesis more obvious and relevant. Truth through foolery and all that.

    And that’s just one argument (courtesy of Mill). The more important argument is that insightful original opinion redeems the institution of academia from its own systemic (unavoidable) anti-intellectual tendencies. Without avenue for original research, university is transformed into high school, professors are demoted to teachers. Whatever one’s sentiments are on this subject, the reality of the situation is that staunch conservatism is dysfunctional with respect to the purpose of academia.

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