in search of Truly Original Ideas

Three and a half centuries before Christ, Plato outlined his conception of a great society in The Republic.

The important decisions are made by “philosopher-kings”—an overclass who arguably represent Plato’s idea of human perfection.

The philosopher-kings train both their bodies and their minds—like Leonardo da Vinci, or a young American hoping to attend Harvard. The pinnacle of their education is geometry.

Although circles don’t actually exist, one can conceive of a circle and Plato thinks there’s something important about that.

Taking the reins back from Plato: what I’ve found in my life is that concepts I learn, feelings I feel, stories I hear, experiences I remember, newspaper crap or history books I read — all inputs expand my own private languageAlmost like adding elements to a basis?  Doug Hofstadter told a story that illustrates “personal metaphors” well.

As I learn more mathematics, I find my internal vocabulary expanding quite a lot — faster than through any other learning activity, and definitely faster than just-experiencing life passively. (“Personal” and “private”really are the right words for it; sharing these thoughts is really hard! Hence the writing.)


That’s background. Now, on to the topic of originality.

Question: Are there any truly new ideas? I sometimes sense that a few Big Ideas occur to many, many people, and that the history of philosophy is just an exercise in rehashing them through different filters. I got the same feeling reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, a work of speculative fiction that spans several millennia and displays what I felt was a 16-year-old history nerd’s overly simplistic view of the broad trends of history.

Is there any music that isn’t totally derivative of something else? Questions like that turn artists to LSD in search of originality.

I have a different suggestion: there are truly new ideas today, ideas that demonstrably could never have occurred to Plato, and they come from 20th-century mathematics. (I’m not saying there aren’t new ideas elsewhere—just that with the mathematical ideas it’s quite clear that nobody could have thought of them before.) So we of the 21st century essentially have a reserve of raw idea-ore which we can mine and smelt for use in some creative pursuit—even if it’s just thinking about life differently.


I’m sort of relying on the Edward Gorey theory of creativity here: that people don’t necessarily generate original ideas, but they can filter their sensory input, and refilter / resample their internal dynamics, and still make output that’s visibly different than everything else that’s come before.

Does a unique piece of music count as original, even if it’s just a convex combination of musics that previously existed? In the biopic about him, Philip Glass described his music as a fusion of East and West (like ragas and haute couture strict piano).

In that case, throwing some indisputably new ideas into the hopper (adding more orthogonal elements to the basis) has to increase the volume of the space of potential outputs.

About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
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