Perils of Originality

Perils of Originality

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset I should confess that this may be something of a self-justification. I am not one whose ideas have been or have been meant to be original. At first this was just a plain matter of circumstance. Too many of the thoughts that I had were clearly unoriginal yet had a lot of merit. So why aim for originality, then? On its own, it occurred to me in time, being original is no virtue.

As I went through my several stages of formal education I noticed that there was a lot of praise issued for anything original yet apart from that the ideas in question didn’t appear to be very worthwhile. They were on the order of trivial novelty items instead of important insights, findings, discoveries or such. In graduate school, especially, where we all had to come up with reasonably interesting topics for our doctoral dissertations, I noticed that while original enough, most of the topics were pretty pointless. Comparing Wittgenstein with Heidegger or Sartre with Feyerabend? So what?

In time I figured that this kind of graduate school work had more to do with habit than merit. Somehow there were simply too many people trying to come up with something no one has discussed, so originality served as a substitute for value. But maybe it was just that I wasn’t coming up with anything that was original, especially since I wasn’t trying. It was more important and interesting to me to be right, to land on an idea that made good sense, fit the facts and solved a problem. Get it right was my motto, more than find something novel.

I did think I came up with one novel thing in my first book, the one taking apart the ideas of the Harvard behaviorist psychologists B. F. Skinner (The Pseudoscience of B. F. Skinner, 1973). I called it “the blow-up fallacy.” It involved finding something true about a small thing and then elevating it into a major thing but sacrificing the truth in the process. Even this wasn’t quite original since it just amounted to the old fallacy of invalid extrapolation or hasty generalization.

Later on I did think of something that seemed to be novel enough, though not all that important, truth be told. I figured out that nostalgia held out appeal mainly because when people remember past situations in their lives, they rarely if ever include the anxiety they experienced about the future. After all, by the time they were recalling those past situations, the future had passed by and the anxieties went away. So why bother recalling them? It would merely be a fly in the ointment, ruining the memory. But it ran the risk, of course, of not recalling the past correctly, accurately, of committing “the good old days fallacy.” And it lead to the tendency, nicely pointed out by Woody Allen in his recent movie, Midnight in Paris, of believing that the past had been so very nice.

There is only one other matter I thought of that may be original with me, though I cannot be sure. This has to do with trying to provide an explanation of economic problems when one is examining a mixed economy like most of those in Western countries. During the recent financial fiasco a lot of people were arguing that their favorite scapegoat is responsible for it all, namely, free market capitalism (even while such a system wasn’t anywhere in evidence during the period in question).

It occurred to me that providing a proper explanation for the fiasco was a bit like trying to find the cause of food poisoning after one has eaten a bunch of items on one of those Scandinavian ferry boats with a smorgasbord for each meal. Too many possible causes! It will take a long time to trace the culprit, especially with all that seafood one is likely to have consumed. Mixed economies contain elements of a great variety of economic systems and which of these or which combination lead to problems isn’t simple to figure out.

OK, no big deal. But perhaps original. And perhaps my own idea about originality also qualifies as such. But again, probably no big deal.

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