Thursday, November 15, 2012

What is originality?

Now I will play my tune, one which I did not hear as a child. Or maybe I heard it and forgot.
(John Abercrombie, jazz musician)

Western scholars run the risk to be misled by the rhetorics of originality when they judge about Indian philosophy and the contribution of each thinker.

We like what is new and "original", but only insofar as we can relate to it because it is also familiar (I guess: 95 percent familiar and 5 percent new). An "invention" is first of all a "discovery" (in-venio) and what is "original" is "originary". Indian thinkers just had a different narrative about it.

On originality see also this post.


Vidya Jayaraman said...

This may be a slight digression from the idea of this post..

A related thought on "originality", that I have had for a while
is whether we should also subject the work of today's scholars to
the similar if not the same yardstick of originality that we
apply to older works.

Questions regarding scholarly contributions in terms of original
/new insight on a topic / text as opposed to translations,
summarizations of existing material translated into English
and very minor critical editions of textual material etc.
While methodological improvements and critical editions
are valuable for their sake, they still leave open the
question of original insight - ie the idea that the future will
look at the present the same way the present looks at the past.

Phillip said...

I don't think you can legislate originality, can you. The people who do originality with regard to Sanskrit texts must already be doing it, somewhere, if not in the academy. No one within the academy is likely to want to change the academic approach to originality because it would be suicide: too many people would have nowhere to go.

elisa freschi said...

@Vidya, I am not sure I understand your concluding remark. I am generally surprised by the general academic idea that critical editions are less worthy than "original work". In fact, critical editions are not a mechanical work, but rather require a critical insight onto the text, the same kind of insight through which one would be able to write about the same text. And if insight is lacking in the former, it can be lacking also in the latter.

elisa freschi said...

@Aśvamitra, I was not arguing about doing original work in Sanskrit, but about judging about the originality in Sanskrit works. Why do we state that, e.g., Jayanta was "not original" because he commented on previous texts, whereas Mill was "original" because he did not comment on his forerunners' work? Both have been deeply influenced and possibly only the form differs. In India the étiquette made one acknowledge with pride one's sources, whereas in post-Descartes' Europe the étiquette led authors to act as if they were all original thinkers…

Vidya Jayaraman said...

I agree with the general principle that originality is subjective, cannot be legislated etc.

Critical editions are extremely important and I certainly did not intend to devalue the effort required to produce them at all. But it is also true that they are limited in that they can offer marginal enhancements on a subject area esp in the absence of multiple mss copies etc. My point is that if we were to survey the amount of work produced over the last 25-50 years or so the number of critical editions and translations far exceeds the output of work which offer new or additional insight on a topic. This is no different from historical work - texts which marginally or incrementally improve a subject area are many while truly insightful texts are few. There is only one aṣṭādhyāyi or mahābhāṣyā whereas there are many rearrangements.
This is why I raised the issue of using different yardsticks to judge contemporary work as opposed to historical work and think this aspect needs some amount of self-reflection. Then again, acknowledging one's sources and departing from that to make an original point is also possible so acknowledgement / quoting may or may not tie in with originality all the time..

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

Originality is simply being the first person to 'say' something - i.e. being the origin of an expression (by extension an expression in any media).

Westerners are prone to brood upon originality partly because of their obsession with their own origins (which is shared by most cultures I think), but also because originality bestows property rights and social status.

Being aboriginal gives prior claim to land and resources - though this is not always respected. Able Tasman "discovered" New Zealand in the 1640s, but the Polynesians beat him by more than 600 years. Darwin is credited with the saying "survival of the fittest", but it was actually Herbert Spencer who first used the expression. Darwin was arguable more innovative than Spencer however.

One's whole status as a modern day Academic rests on making a substantial original contribution, with no requirement for innovation. This is why so many dissertations are extremely boring - they are original in the sense of being first, but not original in terms of being innovative. One need not be innovative to be an academic. Indeed someone has to do the boring work to complete the picture hinted at by the innovators.

Very few people are innovative, but almost every sentence spoken is original, even the boring ones.

As historians of Indian ideas we are in a bind because we simply cannot know the origin of any ancient work. The history of ancient texts is always ambiguous. Though we can and frequently do point to the first occurrence of an expression.

I'm often interested in trying to track how an idea propagates and changes as it does so - because this process interests me, not because it is of intrinsic value. But when one's sources are ±500 years in time and are known to be the product of a centuries old oral tradition one must step very carefully amongst the chronological minefields.

It's not an original thought, since others have expressed it, but I do find contributions such as Windwheels's quite painful to read. I can mentally note that he is off topic and abusive and remind myself not to read his contributions, but you'd be doing everyone a favour by not publishing abuse in the first place. Cut it off at the origin.

There is a saying that dates from the early days of internet interactions: "Don't feed the troll." According to Know Your Meme: "the earliest known mention of the word 'troll' on record can be found in a post on the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban from December 14th, 1992. Of course the troll is an old Germanic character who predates the internet by centuries, but someone used the word in a new context in 1992 - both original and innovative.

Best Wishes

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Considered from the viewpoint of Advaita Vedānta, the notion of originality is closely connected with the notion of authority. On this, the Vedānta Paribhāṣā is worth quoting at length:

[पू.प.] ननु क्षणिकत्वाभावेऽपि वियदादिप्रपञ्चवदुत्पत्तिमत्त्वेन परमेश्वरकर्तृकतया पौरुषेयत्वादपौरुषेयत्वं वेदानामिति तव सिद्धान्तो भज्यते इति चेत् ।

[उ.प.] न । न हि तावत् पुरुषेण उच्चार्यमाणत्वं पौरुषेयत्वं, गुरुमतेऽप्यध्यापकपरम्परया पौरुषेयत्वापत्तेः। नापि पुरुषाधीनोत्पत्तिकत्वं पौरुषेयत्वं, नैयायिकाभिमतपौरुषेयत्वानुमानेऽस्मदादिना सिद्धसाधनापत्तेः। किन्तु सजातीयोच्चारणानपेक्षोच्चारणविषयत्वम् । तथा च सर्गाद्यकाले परमेश्वरः पूर्वसर्गसिद्धवेदानुपूर्वीसमानानुपूर्वीकं वेदं विरचितवान्, न तु तद्विजातीयं वेदमिति न सजातीयोच्चारणानपेक्षिच्चारणविषयत्वं पौरुषेयत्वं वेदस्य। भारतादीनान्तु सजातीयोच्चारणमनपेक्ष्यैवोच्चारणमिति तेषां पौरुषेयत्वम्। एवं पौरुषेयापौरुषेयभेदेन द्विविध आगमो निरूपितः।


“Objection: Although the Vedas are not momentary, yet, on account of their having an origin like the ether and other phenomenal things, and being connected with a person in that they are the handiwork of God, your tenet that they are not connected with a person would be shattered.

Reply : No. In the first place, connection with a person does not mean being uttered by a person, for even according to the school of the Teacher, the Vedas would be connected with persons, being handed down from one teacher to another. Nor does connection with a person mean having an origin due to a person, for that inference about the personal origin of the Vedas which is approved by the logicians is condemned by our school as proving what is already established. But it is being the object of utterance that is independent of any utterance of the same kind. For instance, in the beginning of cosmic projection, the Lord produced Vedas having a sequence of words similar to that which had already existed in the Vedas in the previous cosmic projection, and not Vedas of a different type. Hence the Vedas, not being the object of utterance that is independent of any utterance of the same kind, are not connected with a person. The utterance of the Mahābhārata etc., however, is not at all dependent on any utterance of the same kind. Hnce they are connected with a person. Thus two kinds of verbal testimony have been determined, viz. that which is connected with a person, and that which is not.” (pp. 114-116, Vedānta Paribhāṣā of Dharmarāja Adhvarīndra, Translated and annotated by Swāmī Mādhavānanda, With a Foreword by Dr. S. N. Dasgupta, Eleventh Impression, May 2008)

The underlined portions clearly point to the fact that an objective view of originality and authorship is taken here. This stands diametrically opposite to the subjective view that is generally maintained with reference to issues of originality and authorship.

However, as an unorthodox interpreter, I would like to interpret the line, ‘But it is being the object of utterance that is independent of any utterance of the same kind’, as follows:

Here ‘independent of utterance of the same kind’ offers two levels: verbal and semantic. A text, like a traditional Sanskrit commentary on a text, is original both verbally (i.e. in respect of disturbing the original verbal sequence of the text it seeks to interpret) and semantically (in as much as it amplifies the meaning of the text. This is also true for such basic commentaries as are meant for merely paraphrasing the text. This is because, when gotvam is paraphrased as sāsnāvattvam, a cow is not merely denoted thereby, but also the invariable features characterising it are expressed.)

Unknown said...

On issues of originality and re-use of texts, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (1913), says the following in a letter written to Prof. Jagadish Bhattacharya, dated 19th June, 1940:

“It is indeed hard to find such a poet, whose works are not afflicted by plagiarism, and they inflict its tendency upon others too; but they do authenticate the goods so smuggled.” (my translation)

Again in a conversation with the famous musicologist, Dilip Kumar Roy, dated 29th March 1925 he remarked:

“Don’t we learn English? Do we not? Why do we? Not to copy English literature into our language. Rather to make productive the innate self-energy of our own language and literature by making it drink the essence of the other. During the Renaissance, English literature got a momentum from Italy, but its awakening was its very own. Most of the contents of Shakespeare’s plays are foreign importations, but on that score it cannot be said Shakespeare’s writings are smuggled goods in English literature…. Neither by translation, nor by copying is real aesthetic delectability created; as much in literature, as in music.” (translation mine).

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