Jul 30, 2018, 05:58AM

How to be Original

Practice cocking an eyebrow.

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Bored with your own mechanical conventionality? Haven’t had an original idea for generations? More like everyone else than anyone else? Want to be greeted around the office as inimitable, incomparable, potentially lethal? Now, two-time author Crispin Sartwell, Ph.D., shares his secrets for generating poems, political positions, beats, scientific theories, and fried foods unlike any the world has ever known. How much would you expect to pay for the secrets of originality itself? For a limited time, you pay just indefinitely many low, low installments of $19.99 and pariah status.

It appears immodest purporting to teach originality, which seems tantamount to teaching creativity or even genius. That would imply that I regard myself as an original. Only a grotesque egomaniac would say that about himself, so I merely remark that you don’t have to be a mountain to write about geography, and you should never listen to what any artist says about art; only non-artists have the necessary distance. Nevertheless, in myriad dimensions, I’m a stunningly original figure.

As a philosopher (ahem) my best-known idea is that knowledge is merely true belief: if you believe x and x is true, then you know it. Before I was escorted out of the room, professors tried to decide whether anyone had taken that position before, exactly. Not since before Plato, maybe, was the verdict, and it’s a damn good thing too. It hit me in my epistemology seminar in grad school, where the professor, Jim Cargile, started with the basic idea that knowledge is justified true belief. “Pretty much everybody agrees on that part,” he said, “though some pragmatists [he pointed at the ceiling, which was the floor of his colleague Richard Rorty’s office] want to delete the truth condition, and make knowledge merely justified belief.”

My hand, ever probing for a hole, shot up. “Has anyone suggested taking out the justification condition, or just defining knowledge as true belief?”

“I don’t think so, or at least not quite that baldly, because the position would be ridiculous and evil.” So then I was off to the races. For the next five years I refined the point, developed squadrons of arguments for it, presented it to an auditorium at the APA and published it in The Journal of Philosophy. It’s a pretty darn good and beautifully simple idea, and I still defend it. On the other hand, the epistemology establishment kept me from publishing the book about it and kind of drummed me out of the profession. For years, philosophy grad students at the University of Arizona were given the assignment of refuting my argument, to establish their rudimentary logical competence with regard to an obviously fallacious argument. I was a year-by-year professor of all sorts of things for decades before I finally wormed my way back to the bottom end of the philosophy minor leagues.

So that’s how you do it: look for a hole in the taxonomy, the position no one takes, the assumption no one has doubted, what people haven’t painted pictures of yet or what sort of possible paint they’ve never used. One in a thousand original people is greeted as world-changing genius. The rest get exiled to Siberia, but perhaps you could inch toward originality here and there without too much compromise of your safety.

No one can indemnify you against the terrible price you’re liable to pay. Generally, people praise originality, and they praise a few dead original people. But they try to ignore original people in their actual proximity, and if that proves difficult, try to annihilate them. To be original is to say what no one else is saying, paint what no one else is painting, hypothesize what no one else has hypothesized. By definition, originality sets you apart from your social group. The ostracizing follows from the self-exile. 

If you’re still up for it, the first few moves are pretty obvious. People think originality comes from deep within, from some sort of primordial creative faculty that some people have and some people lack, but really it’s extremely socially constrained, a matter of contrast. So the first thing you have to do is familiarize yourself with some subject, some material, some aspect or dimension of life, with enough intimacy to be exquisitely aware of what most people, or most people near you, believe about it, or how they act in situations like this: how they dress or walk or eat, or whatever it may be. Or if there are seven different sorts of people in these regards, or seven different theories of knowledge, or seven different political ideologies, you should develop a set of pigeon-holes or categories. Build a little system for understanding possibilities: a taxonomy of positions, or outfits, or musical styles.

In the golden era of original genius, this is just how people proceeded. Manet needed to know exactly what the academic painters of his era were doing; then he had to do something else, or the opposite, as he understood that. Then Monet had to find an unoccupied niche, and Cezanne, and Gauguin. They were looking at each other, and asking what was wrong, or what was missing, or what they could delete, or how they could become famous or exceed what had gone before. The answer is always that there’s plenty left to do. This idea that all the great ideas have been thought or all the great moves in painting have been made is just horseshit; it’s going to turn out—if anything turns out—that we’re just getting started.

Let’s say you believe what most people more or less like yourself believe, politically. Most people don’t try to generate a bunch of fresh ideas about politics; they tend to buy some flavor of left or rightism off the shelf and echo what people in their demographic say. It’s pretty easy: start by picking holes in your own position. Imagine what a smart person who disagreed with you might say. You may well be semi-conscious of the weak points you’re glossing over, or of the places where the arguments could use a patch, or you may vaguely cognize that a particular reason you yourself have given is not particularly convincing. Maybe find a safe friend (if there any such people left) and have a Devil’s advocate workout; pick holes in each other’s favorite arguments. Think of it as strengthening your own side.

But then, do the opposite of Devil’s advocating: be sure that what you’re saying is sincere, that you endorse each sentence as you agree with the consensus opinion. Follow out your own misgivings. Resolve to say, if only to yourself, what you actually believe, and expect that this will come apart from what most people around you believe. Or just ask yourself what someone might say who was performing this exercise and in fact found himself disagreeing. Become aware of when you’re agreeing with people because you like them or want their approval, or when you are putting forward some image or argument because you want people to agree or to vote a certain way; then see whether there’s an anti-social cuss within who’s throwing doubt here and there and who doesn’t really care what most people think. Listen to that cuss.

Try becoming conscious of the assumptions on which everyone’s operating. For example, the left and right seem to share the presumption that government in general is legitimate or inevitable; the question is about the details of governance. Do they have good enough reasons to think that? Start throwing out basic doubts. What form of government has never been tried or described? Categorize those that’ve been tried; look for holes in the taxonomy. What inadequately-probed assumptions do both string theory and its alternatives (oh, loop quantum gravity, for example), have in common and how might they be undermined? You might find a new account popping out from that exercise, one according to which paying me infinitely many installments of $19.99 is perfectly possible. Many scientists—Stephen Hawking, for one—appear to accept Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is preferable. But what if the simplest explanation is no more likely to be true, overall, than an extremely baroque one? Let’s think about that and see what happens.

Start with the obvious truth that most people, including yourself, are wrong about most things. Pull back from your admiration of the people you admire and register that they might be wrong in important respects, if the admirable people of the past are any guide. Experiment with the idea that most of what most people say they love sucks, or at least entertain the idea that people are wrong or insincere. No one is as good as everyone seems to think Beyoncé is, for example, and the social cost you pay for doubting it doesn’t, in itself, make it true. Practice cocking an eyebrow. Cultivate the conviction that a position that constitutes a consensus is likely held for social reasons rather than because people are trying to believe the truth. Nurture some epistemic suspicion and pick spots to stop nodding along, at least internally. Practice saying things like this to yourself: I am neither on the left nor the right; I am not an expressionist and not a minimalist; I am not string theorist or loop gravitationalist. Do some rejecting. Admire no human being unconditionally; agree with no human being fully; show some pride. Clear some ground on which you can plant something.

Cultivating originality is cultivating a kind of social skepticism, and this starts with social distance. Ask yourself if you’re ready for that. In truth, many people could be original, but they consciously or semi-consciously or unconsciously prevent themselves from doing it. Perhaps that’s necessary for social cohesion, or is the essence of social cohesion, and it can be dangerous to mess with that too much. But I also imagine that you could release it in little dabs. Even if you really do feel painfully conventional or unoriginal, I’m saying that the innovator already lurks within if you can want it.

Originality in itself is not enough, and if you start merely by rejecting what everyone around you is saying, there’s no telling where you might end up. I’ve made mistakes by reflexively rejecting the consensus, and though I want to hold on to that about myself, I also want to temper it. For too long, I was skeptical about climate change, for example, because everyone around me seemed to be trying to drive it into my skull with a sledgehammer. I was wrong there, but right about knowledge, and it’s not the end of the world either way.

Anyway, the point can’t be sheer, perverse, insane originality, though even that can be a relief from the tedium of conformity. As I’ve matured, I’ve tried to tone down the mere perverse rejectionism for its own sake, or to try to figure out how it can be turned to use. Destruction might be a precondition of creation, but then you’ve got to try to build something on or with the rubble. 

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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