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Monday, October 22, 2018

Conflicts are the lifeblood of the intellectual world

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, notes that creativity is not a trait of groups; it is mostly the outcome of an individual working alone, usually for several hours of the day. However, the philosophers who do original work are mostly unable to effectively propagate their own ideas. Their work becomes known to the world through the mouth and pen of the network of several lesser known philosophers (supporters as well as rivals).

This means that to be influential, a philosopher needs not only a group of intellectual supporters who dedicate their lives to further developing and propagating his ideas, but also a group of determined intellectual rivals whose focus is on exposing the problems in his ideas. The greater the rivalry between the supporters and rivals, the greater becomes the scope of the ideas that have been developed by the original philosopher. Philosophy thrives when there is rivalry and argumentation.

According to Randall, the output of a creative mind gets disseminated in society through a process of opposition and synthesis. Here’s an excerpt from his The Sociology of Philosophies (Chapter 3, "Partitioning Attention Space: The Case of Ancient Greece"; Page 80 - 81):
Creativity involves new combinations of ideas arising from existing ones, or new ideas structured by opposition to older ones. Conflicts are the lifeblood of the intellectual world. This is rarely recognized by intellectuals in the heat of action. Their focus is on truth, and they attack their predecessors and compatriots for failing to arrive at it. The theme recurs across the millennia, from Heraclitus to the Vienna Circle to the foundationalist controversies of today. Kant’s version was to complain about the sorry state of metaphysics, allegedly once queen of the sciences. This is a ritual incantation, a preparation for battle, for there is no previous period in which metaphysics rules serenely without disagreements.  
The crucial feature of creativity is to identify an unsolved problem, and to convince one’s peers of the importance of solving it. It is typical for intellectuals to create problems at the very moment they solve them. In India the issue of how to escape from the bonds of karma did not exist until the Buddhists proposed a means of escape. Epicurus made fear of the gods an issue at the same time that he propounded a solution to these fears. Kant discovered that science was threatened when he announced a Copernican revolution to end the threat.  
A single philosopher in isolation rarely develops a new issue or a new way of resolving it; this usually happens to two or more philosophers in the same generation but rival lineages. The emergence of new problems is part of the transformation of the whole intellectual problem space. The underlying dynamic is a struggle over intellectual territory of limited size. Creativity occurs both as this space opens up and as it closes down; the result is two kinds of intellectual innovation, by opposition and by synthesis.

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