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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Ideas are Not a Substitute for Creativity

A first-century AD bust of Cicero
Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, shows that the creativity of cultures which import philosophical ideas often gets stifled, whereas the creativity of the cultures which export philosophical ideas is likely to get stimulated. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 8, “Tensions of Indigenous and Imported Ideas: Islam, Judaism, Christendom”:
Translating philosophical texts from a foreign culture inhibits creative philosophy among the receivers. When the eminent figures in the philosophical community are the translators or expositors of alien philosophies, their imported capital becomes a substitute for creating their own. This does not violate the structural principles of the intellectual field but follows from them. Under the law of small numbers, there is room for three to six positions to command public attention; it does not matter whether these are filled up by new creations or come from abroad. Presenting a foreign philosophy can preempt one of these slots. Where there is little competition from others, the chief idea importers become energy stars, pseudo-creators in their own right. 
Consider the reputation of Cicero, in the generation when Greek philosophy made its first impact on the Roman intellectual world. Not himself a translator of texts (that was a low-status activity of slaves), he was patron of the slave-curators and editors of Greek manuscripts, and reaped the fame of the Greek philosophers by expounding several of them with literary polish for his Roman audience. Varro did much the same for Greek science. Lucretius was the competitive counterweight to Cicero in his generation, giving literary expression to Epicurean philosophy, the one major Greek position Cicero did not appropriate. Rounding out the range of oppositions of the Roman intellectual community were their first Stoics. There were no indigenous creators, as the entire field was divided up among the idea importers.

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