Friday, 6 July 2007


Originality has in many ways become “the intellectual pest of our time” [1]. The paramount desire for originality means that truth is of secondary concern, and in some cases, of no concern at all. A man beset thereby seeks to establish his extraordinariness, and, in striving thereafter, he may even refuse to recognise truth too ordinary for his purpose.
It is the most foolish of all errors for young people of good intelligence to imagine that they will forfeit their originality if they acknowledge truth already acknowledged by others. [2]
Striving after originality gives off a reek of desperate mediocrity. [3] If that were its sole result, however, then we should live quite peaceably with pinched and pegged noses; but the fact is that it gives rise also to the silliest conceptions, which have nothing to recommend them and would not be set in print, were it not that they drew attention to the author’s standing as above that of the ordinary man.
Whatever has the air of a paradox, and is contrary to the first and most unprejudiced notions of mankind, is often greedily embraced by philosophers, as shewing the superiority of their science, which cou’d discover opinions so remote from vulgar conception. [4]
It is on account of the esteemed and almost mythic status that geniuses have attained — and on account of all the popular stories told about them which ignore the graft and the strict mastery and which concentrate instead on the fancies and oddities — that there are now so many men who, though possessing no rare talent or sensibility, let alone genius, declare themselves dissatisfied with the boundaries of their discipline, and who thereupon proceed to “transgress the boundaries” with all the grace and intelligence of a gas escaping from a swamp.
[1] [“die jetzige geistige Pest”.] Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Krefeld: Scerpe-Verlag, 1948), p.132.
[2] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, tr. E.Stopp (London: Penguin Books, 1998), §.254, p.29.
[3] “One must possess originality, not ‘strive for it’.” [“Originalität muß man haben, nicht ‘danach streben’.”] Jacob Burckhardt, op.cit., p.133.
[4] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Dover Publications, 2003), p.19. “The essential thing is not that there be many truths in a work, but that no truth be abused.” Joseph Joubert, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert, tr. P. Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005), Year 1787, p.10.


J.K. Baltzersen said...

Well said, as so often is the case with you, "Deogolwulf."

I might add: If one pursues originality in form, rather than in content, one is likely to be much less inclined to sacrifice truth.

Anonymous said...

The problem is particularly severe in the Universities, where Science commands prestige, and intrinsically concerns novelty. The tradesmen in the other disciplines feel that they must pursue "research" that is in some way comparable. Much of it is best greeted with derision.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hey! This post says nothing that hasn't already been said before! Many times!

Don't you guys have anything new and original to say?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Deogolwulf said...

Thank you, Mr Baltzersen. I think you're right.

Quite so, dearieme.

We're damned hidebound buggers, Prof. Hodges. (That might be both original and true.)

John S. Bolton said...

The problem may actually be one of requiring some trivial originality, when superior knowledge, objectively demonstrated, would serve far better the advancement of civilization. By now, there is no difficulty in producing computer-generated originality of wrong answers, and this capacity is itself a refutation of the 'diversity-value' of micro-originality of new untruths. So I argued in a piece called Diversity:
The Anti-Merit People, which probably contains some unintentional originality.

Anonymous said...

Originality consists in trying to be like everybody else --and failing. ~
Raymond Radiguet