Departments

Reinvention

Sometimes the most effective insult is the one that is not obviously insulting. First you are insulted; then you insult yourself with the awareness of your own ignorance. But some insults are insulting only by convention. This is the case with reinvention. “You’ve reinvented the wheel!” But why not reinvent the wheel? You might learn something.

Reinvention is either repetition or reconception. Repetition achieves the same result by the same method; reconception achieves the same result by a new method. Repetition, while it may be valuable for the repeater, is valueless in itself; reconception is valuable in itself because it adds to understanding.

Repetition is valueless in itself because it is wasteful. It has value for only three conditions: first, where the desired invention is unattainable, but its use is familiar; second, where the idea of the invention travels faster or more freely than its workings, and can be reinvented more efficiently than obtained; and third, when the waste of reinvention is outweighed by the desire for the habit of invention. The third value is mine.

Invention is not itself a faculty, but it is the simplest combination of the faculties, employing reason, memory, and imagination in equal proportions. That old threefold scheme is incidental – any division will do; what matters is the equality of its parts. Invention is that use of the mind which is limited not by the power of its parts, but by the speed and life of its connections; not by its strength, but by its agility.

Invention requires practice; but because it is an act of all faculties, the usual methods of practice – set problems, which exclude memory; études, which exclude imagination; and exercises, which exclude reason – cannot develop it. It must grow with a round habit, equal on all sides. For this, it requires real problems: problems that arise in useful work and productive projects.

Yet most of the problems we encounter in our work and projects have already been solved. For the sake of efficiency, speed, and husbanding our mortal time, research and reuse are usually the right choice for any problem considered alone. But what of problem-solving generally? Invention is a habit; and there is no habit of invention without reinvention.

Reinvention is valuable for the reinventor, as practice. But in itself, an act of reinvention can be valuable in two ways: the public value of a new approach; and the private value of understanding. And these values, though independent, may coexist.

The value of a new approach is obvious in mathematics, since only in mathematics is the result of each approach demonstrably the same. Transcendent numbers transcend the awkward operational definitions by which human beings named them – the ratio of diameter to circumference, the rate of interest perpetually compounded – they are rediscovered again and again, the world’s true eternal conspiracy, everything traces back to them, they are behind all the fronts, inside all the shells and shadows. The sums of infinite series, the falling of coins on grids, the charted growth of flowers – there are an infinity of ways to reinvent them, and every way adds to our mastery of the world by revealing new shapes under which these our permanent companions can be found – culminating in the glorious abridgment of Euler’s identity.

In the spectrum of intellect mathematics is usually placed at one extreme, poetry at the other; but here, in the uses of reinvention, these extremes touch. All poetry is the reinvention of poetry; reinvention on new models and in new contexts: some new model perception (a flea, a red wheelbarrow), some new model interaction (the death of a lutenist god, the speech of a leech-gatherer), some new modeling context (splendor in the grass, dark Satanic mills, the worshipers who must tighten the bolts unwarned). And poems are not alone: much of technology has been reinvented: what was built on rumor before the plans arrived, like the cotton gin; what was reinvented blindly to avoid infringement of a patent, like the PC.

The private value of reinvention is to advance understanding. The simplest form is the imperative to recast another’s thoughts in your own words. But this is not really students’ business. By rephrasing students better remember another’s understanding; but by reinvention one better understands. Indeed, where the strictures of licensing and regulation, and the friction of custom and community, outweigh the benefit in study and imitation, the rational course is to reinvent what you would know, instead of learning it. The hard parts are done already: you know that it is possible, what it is good for, why it is needful; the usual limits of human ability and conditions of human fallibility hold; the work is a matter of filling in blanks, which can usually be spliced with pieces of other disciplines.

All intellectual activities can be divided into those where reinvention is useful and those where reinvention is necessary. Those in which reinvention is useful but not necessary are the sciences and design; those in which reinvention is necessary are the arts, and the professions.

There are new things to be done in science, new discoveries to be made, new instruments leading to new worlds of exploration; and there are new things to be done in design, new needs to answer, new patterns to define. Here the effort of reinvention could always be applied otherwise.

But in the arts and the professions nothing is really new. To choose two, there is nothing new in literature or law. We cannot add new behaviors to those that Homer and Shakespeare knew; we cannot add new patterns to those that Aristotle and Machiavelli documented. If something in literature or law appears to be new, then it is gibberish, or it is deceit, or you do not understand it. Nothing can be done in either that is not an reinvention; yet we must do both, and for the same reasons: partly because life commands it, as it commands the yearly reinvention of flowers; but more because we who desperately need them cannot otherwise have them.

The criticism of literature and the philosophy of law do not create and do not decide law or literature; they cannot in themselves save or sustain anything. Shakespeare, however praised, without imitators and refactors, would be forgotten; a constitution, however respected, without reinterpreters and reformers, would obsolesce.

One generation passes away; what they loved and revered we cannot learn to love and revere from them. Their love is dust in the ground, their reverence collects dust in attics. We can love the life they loved and obey the law they obeyed only for our own sake; we must reinvent them, not even to maintain them, but just to learn to see them. We cannot see how the world was built for us until we have rebuilt it for ourselves, knowing that all we build we build only for those who come after us to tear down.