Clerestory

Originality

October 10, 2019

Why is originality so highly valued? What does it mean to be original?

If you’ve had a great idea, wouldn’t you want it to be related to a gamut of good ideas from other people, rather than being something totally unrelated to what has come before?

If it were totally unrelated, how could it even be understood? Aren’t all good ideas relational? What would Einstein’s formula mean, in the absence of ideas of what mass and energy are?

Or is it that originality of expression is valued? But surely that’s tautological — virtually all expression is original. Excluding quotations and plagiarism, it’s quite rare for even a phrase of any complexity to be repeated by another writer. A few sentences would be rarer still, and a paragraph must be astronomical. Anything longer than that would be pushing infinite monkey territory.

And yet I do feel the urge to say: “No, this is different. This is something that hasn’t been said before.” Whence this urge?


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.