Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Originality in philosophy

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Yesterday, I was sitting outside a cafe chatting to a couple of fellow philosophers and we got to discussing the extent to which philosophers build upon the work of others. Particularly, we talked about how students’ expectations of the requirement for originality are simply too demanding and unrealistic. Often, students think that to be original they must say something completely new when the reality is that good, original scholarship is more likely to be taking another philosopher’s work in a new direction, developing a thought, or drawing together concepts which have previously been considered apart. For example, my work on defending non-human animals applies concepts of other-defence to the idea of animal rights – each is a familiar topic, but few people have tied the two literatures together. In the course of our chat, I remarked that whenever I think I’ve had an original idea I later discover that some long dead Greek had it well before I ever did – curse those Greeks and their philosophical brilliance.

I still had this conversation in mind today whilst re-reading Plato’s Protagoras in a quiet moment between papers (I’m presently in Zurich for the Society for Applied Philosophy’s annual conference). Reading Protagoras I was delighted to find that the ancient Greeks experienced the same sorts of familiar academic occurances as we do. One of my pet hates is when a philosophical discussion moves from being an argument about an idea to an argument about whether the originator of the idea meant this, that, or the other. I went to one seminar where a discussion on the Kantian notion of respect disintegrated as scholars argued over the meaning implied by punctuation in a Kantian text, argued over which translation they should use, and then lapsed into German, took out German dictionaries, and squabbled over contested intentions of meaning. The original normative argument was abandoned. I’m not saying that such discussion doesn’t have it’s place, or that it’s always uninteresting, but I’m sure many others will have experienced similar frustrations. So, I couldn’t help smiling when I read the following by Plato:

‘…  a company like this of ours, and men such as we profess to be, do not require the help of another’s voice, or of the poets whom you cannot interrogate about meaning of what they are saying; people who cite them declaring, some that the poet has meaning, and others that he has another, and the point which is in dispute can never be decided. This sort of entertainment they decline, and prefer to talk with one another, and put one another to the proof in conversation. And these are the models which I desire that you and I should imitate. Leaving the poets, and keeping to ourselves, let us try the mettle of one another and make proof of the truth in conversation.’

Truly, like this quote, there is nothing new under the sun.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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