Earlier this year I watched two swallows feeding their chicks. When mom or dad returned to the nest, the hatchlings jostled for attention, pushing each other aside, their bright yellow throats agape. Sometimes I think we humans are no different in our clamor for recognition.
In my writings I’ve sometimes advanced philosophical notions. To be honest, I hoped readers would be impressed (though there was never any evidence that they were). What I didn’t understand was that my musings were mere sketches of sophisticated philosophies worked out long ago by others. Since my education was in the sciences, not the humanities, as a youth I never studied the history of ideas. Having now dabbled in the subject, I feel a bit chagrined but also–oddly–less alone.
Why did old ideas arise as if newly conceived? I can think of several possibilities, including:
- Sometime in my life I heard them stated, and they later occurred to me without my remembering the earlier exposure.
- They have so influenced our culture that they’re bound to occur to any modern who ponders the nature of reality.
- The ideas reflects truths that exist in nature itself, and so are destined to be discovered by sincere seekers.
Probably all these factors have been at play, to varying degrees.
The problem of unoriginality was driven home when a reader informed me that in 1928 John Maynard Keynes predicted that someday everyone would work only part time–the same idea I floated in my last entry.
Which brings me back to the subject of that last essay: our obsession with productivity. Moderns feel driven to accomplish. I doubt, however, that many of us want to produce anonymously. We demand credit for our work. But in the realm of ideas, how rational is this expectation? Do ideas belong to individuals? Or might they better be viewed as collective expressions or universal patterns?
And what is the point of mental exploration? Is it to gain fame and fortune? Or is it to advance civilization?
A quarter-century ago, my research career ended when I uncovered a crucial relationship but was robbed of credit. During a study of how particle-beam radiation for ocular melanoma promotes cataract, I collected data that demonstrated the cause of post-treatment glaucoma. This severe complication causes pain, blindness, and sometimes loss of the eye. For years investigators at our institution had attempted, without success, to find the reason for this adverse outcome. My data solved the problem but proved embarrassing to the center, since if it had been collected and analyzed earlier, many eyes would have been saved. The Director delayed my work’s publication.
A few years later I was shown a manuscript others had written based on my efforts, but my name wasn’t on it. I managed to get myself listed as an author, though only as fifth out of seven. For those not familiar with how the system works, such billing suggests a trivial role.
This wasn’t my first disappointment as a researcher, but I decided it would be my last. I devoted myself to clinical rather than experimental work. What took years for me to notice, however, was that my investigation benefitted patients even though I didn’t receive credit for it. Improving outcomes should have mattered more to me than gaining recognition, but in my egotism I lost sight of the true reason for the effort.
When the reader sent me the information about Keynes, he and I exchanged messages about intellectual property. These days people claim authorship of ideas, but ideas get built by communities, not individuals. Plus, it appears that many are discovered, not created. Does Einstein, for all his accomplishment, deserve credit for the relationship between mass and energy? No. Only for being the first to identify it. Yet in today’s environment, it would hardly surprise us if a theorist submitted a patent application.
Citations make sense when conclusions depend on empirical findings. But concepts arise from the interplay between observation, language, and culture. They often occur to multiple people, either simultaneously or repeatedly. We lay claim to them only out of our desire to be noticed, to feel superior, to gain materially.
Yesterday I listened to a recording of Alan Watts discussing Taoist philosophy. He translated the term wu wei as ‘non-striving.’ I had heard it translated before as ‘non-doing,’ but Watts probably captures the original meaning better. One finds greater ease–and may even contribute more–by responding to a call rather than leading a charge.
This may mean relinquishing claims; it may require recognizing oneself as a mere droplet in the wide waters of humanity. For in our movements we embody the larger currents, even when we imagine we are charting our own course. We lose the pride of feeling superior, but we gain the reassurance of belonging to the whole.
Gonna make you, make you, make you notice…