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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Increasingly in the course of my academic work, I come to appreciate the fact that thought leads many people, independently, down the same path. For instance, my work flow commonly takes the form of blasting down a paragraph or more, then spending an extensive period of time reading all the associated literature because I know that somebody else will have had most of these thoughts before and it is a prerequisite of academic work that I know my antecedents.

This seems, in some senses, quite a strange way to go about things. After all, I came to the same conclusion as the originator but I merely happen to have had the misfortune of being born after them, for which I cannot really be blamed. Two of the theorists on whom I am working, albeit in a mode diametrically opposed to one another, came to a similar formulation. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, in the preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “Indeed what I have here written makes no claim to novelty in points of detail; and therefore I give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before my by another.” Conversely, Theodor Adorno theorised knowledge, after Walter Benjamin, in a non-proprietorial manner (Benjamin, “Epistemo-Critical Prologue”; Wilson, 64-74).

A realisation of this principle would go quite a long way to resolving the ridiculous notion of patents, particularly in the computer software world, where it is a race to file the most obvious solution. As Ross Wilson puts it in his excellent volume on Adorno: “The rights to 'intellectual property' enshrined in patent and copyright law are only the clearest expressions of the view that knowledge is possession” (Wilson, 71). Knowledge is not property because, if it is, then patents are theft. If I am capable of spontaneously generating an idea which you previously had, then it is a new idea, not one which you can claim was yours unless you can decisively prove that I was aware of your idea and was just claiming it was my own. If I grew a crop of the same type as grown in your field, you could not argue that I should not be allowed to eat that crop because it was yours (I am aware that there are attempts to patent certain types of GM crop).

While I appreciate that, in academia, it is necessary to know one's antecedents in order to demonstrate that one's contribution is novel, there seems to have been a lost balance between respect for the re-generation of what we collectively know by individuals and their right to perform that regeneration, and the never-ending nominalistic burden of naming the greats.

References

Benjamin, Walter, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. by John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977).
Wilson, Ross, Theodor Adorno (London: Routledge, 2007).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

Featured image by Jill under a CC-BY license.