Thursday, September 11, 2014

Intellectual Property

One thing that has persistently fascinated me is the manner in which ideas refuse to be owned, despite our attempts to claim them (e.g. Newton and Leibniz fighting over calculus, Darwin and Wallace over natural selection). My own research consistently discovers people saying utterly ridiculous things about individual responsibility (e.g. "Plato is largely responsible" for some trope that runs thick through culture before and after him). It seems to me that ideas find people: a really powerful idea will find more than one person (over and over, as people bump into the circumstances that enable it).

I once tried to express this insight to a fellow student (in grad school), and his response was to worry that I would steal his research--and claim it for myself--as though my assertion that I could never really own an idea amounted to an excuse to lie (about ideas that might not even have occurred to me). I was surprised by this (and a little saddened, honestly, that I presented myself so poorly to this person that he came away from our encounter taking me for a thief). For me, the reality that I don't really own ideas is one that invites honesty and openness rather than the reverse. I don't care if you steal my ideas: I relinquish them as assets that I control. I cultivate ideas not because they make me rich or famous or respected (famous in the right places), but because I enjoy thinking--and want to do it mindfully. If there were no external fame and glory in my work as a thinker, I would still do it--and have "a real job" on the side, as so many other thinkers (more skilled than I) have in the past. To live by one's wits is fundamentally, for me, to be an honest charlatan. I see that I claim a kind of superiority over my own thoughts that I don't really possess. I see that thoughts possess me at least as much as I possess them. I see that it is silly to worship me when I am possessed by a thought that society judges to be cool (for whatever reason: the judgement of society, even learned society, is always at some point absurd). I feel this very deeply. I hope I can learn to express it without coming off as some kind of sleazeball (the academic version of an empty suit).

Every good idea I have, including the one for which I get credit (and tenure and κλέος ἄφθιτον), is one that someone else has probably also had (or will have, with as much claim to originality as I). Seeing this reality, I cannot take too much credit for my ideas. This does not predispose me to take credit for your ideas, but to take less credit, and give less, for the mere possession and expression of an idea. Ideas are valuable. People are valuable. People are not valuable to me because of their ideas, but because of their character (the way they use those ideas). This means that I am very comfortable sharing ideas with people whose character I would never adopt. I can think with Hitler, or Lenin, or Osama bin Laden, or anyone, really. I can see their ideas with the realization that these are present, powerful, and real to them--and perhaps to me. But I cannot then act as they do. I must keep my actions, my responses to ideas, filtered by character.

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