In Defense of Unoriginal Thoughts

Unoriginal thinking is one of the greatest of human technologies.

Coming up with all of your own ideas is as wasteful and as making your own wheels, grinding your own flour, and digging your own wells for water.

We live in a world with a division of labor that gives us access to untold varieties of goods and services which others have specialized in making. The same things that give rise to a division of labor for good and services also give rise to a world with a division of labor for ideas.

Thank God we don’t all have to reinvent the wheel in considering economic theory, metaphysics, chemistry, psychology, religion, and so on. Others have come before us who have specialized and spent their whole lives working on questions in these fields. The effect? We all have access to much greater knowledge and therefore a much stronger basis for drawing our own conclusions.

And yet most people will instantly discount an argument or idea they disagree with if the idea’s presenter “simply copied” the idea from somewhere else.

The Unoriginality Critics

We frequently hear “unoriginality critics” say the following in disagreements:

“You just think that because Heidegger said it.”

“You just acquired that theory word for word from Simone de Beauvoir, a known socialist.” 

“You’re just saying that because you read it in The Wealth of Nations somewhere.”

“You just believe that because your sociology professor harped on it constantly.”

Presumably, according to these critics, one must have developed one’s theories about phenomenology, women’s rights, economics, and business in a vacuum.

These are weak, face-palm worthy criticisms. Of course we pick up our ideas from other people. Of course other people communicate through mediums like words and audio and video. Why does that change anything about the quality of the argument? Absolutely nothing.

These “unoriginality critic” questions certainly allow many people an opportunity to avoid considering an argument on its own merits. They shut down a conversation by erecting border walls and trade tariffs around discussions (“only locally-made ideas allowed!”). They’re primarily targeted at de-centering the self-confidence and questioning the intelligence of the speaker. They certainly don’t advance a discussion about truth.

What Matters About Ideas

Does the argument or idea hold weight and help us align ourselves with reality? Has the holder of the idea considered the idea for its merits? These are the only questions we should be asking in every conversation about truth. Instead, we’ve made the free-trade, fast-moving marketplace of ideas into something more like a contest. We compete on our ability to obscure the sources of ideas instead of celebrating that we have so many sources to pull from.

If we truly think that copying ideas from other sources is bad, we should cheer the burning of libraries. But we don’t, because that’s a different level of stupid. Try moving to a deserted island without the Internet and rebuilding even a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of one percent of the accumulated knowledge of one teeny-tiny, laughably-specialized discipline. You could spend your whole life on it. It wouldn’t be enough.

Truth isn’t about ego. It’s not about how smart you are. It’s not about how original you are at all. Frankly, my dear, reality doesn’t give a damn about these things.

Your Sources Are Just Sources

Just because someone you don’t like or haven’t heard of says something does not mean it can be dismissed out of hand. Just because someone adopts an idea largely formulated and presented by someone else does not mean the idea is inferior. It doesn’t matter if the source of your idea is Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Adolf Hitler, Deepak Chopra, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Jesus, Richard Dawkins, or any other controversial figure you want to name. If the idea is good, the idea is good. Sources are just sources.

Now look, if you’re adopting ideas from someone else because you crave their approval, you’re drawn to their personality, or they’re on your ideological “team,” you’re not doing your job as a thinker. If the idea is bad, the idea is bad. You have to do the work of thinking and evaluating yourself. You should be on guard against elevating a thinker to the status of a guru, who cannot be questioned and must always be right. There’s usually a reason why people do this, and it’s not because the would-be guru is particularly rigorous in the epistemic foundations of his or her ideas.

However, I really don’t think this concern is the source of what the “unoriginality critics” are trying to do. They usually don’t know how to think either. If you’re primarily rejecting ideas because you dislike or loathe the personalities or reputations or ideological “team” affiliations of the people who postulated the ideas originally, you are also not doing your job as a thinker. Drop the act. You’re also not thinking – you’re group-sorting.

A Way Forward

The ideas published on the Internet would already take thousands of lifetimes for even a cursory glance of each. If all goes well and we humans don’t annihilate ourselves, we’ll have the Internet or something like it far into the future.

We have to get over ourselves. We have to learn how to deal with the fact that we primarily get our ideas from other people, or else we’ll miss out on everything a modern world (of ideas) can offer us.

Embrace the division of labor in ideas. Throw yourself into the idea trade. Learn how to buy and sell your ideas without resorting to shame or fraud or fallacies like the “unoriginality” ad hominem. Life is too short and truth is too valuable for us to be snobs about remixing work other people have created before us.

“Civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.”

— F. A. Hayek


James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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