RE Limits of Empirical Method LO5898

David C. Walden (
Thu, 29 Feb 1996 03:46:28 -0600

Replying to LO5885 --

In Limits of Empirical Method LO5885 Dave Birren said:=20
>I don't want to seem cynical here, but to advance the proposal that in
>recorded history there have been very, very few truly original ideas.=20
>Humans are far more adaptable than they are original. That's how we
>generally show our creativity, by assembling old ideas in new ways, which
>is empiricism at its best.=20

The first chapter of the book _Photography Until Now_ by John Szarkowski,
Museum of Modern Art, 1989, includes a wonderful account of the long and
complicated prehistory of the invention of photography. The invention of
photography is sometimes simplictically credited to Daguerre in about
1840, but as Szarkowski shows, was also really the result of the efforts
of many people before and after Daguerre. Szarkowski starts with the
following statement.

"Invention -- the name by which we call devices that seem fundamentally
new -- are almost always born out of a process that is more like farming
than magic. From a complex ecology of ideas and circumstances that
includes the condition of the intellectual soil, the political climate,
and the sophistication of the seed, the suggestion of new possibilities

:Radical disruptions have long prior histories. After many incremental
successes and nominal failures, a new idea (which is generally not so new
an idea), gains a measure of success that lifts it over the threshold into
visibility, at which point it is given a name and begins its official
history. ...

"It is futile to try to identify the inventor of mechanical printing,
or the steam enginer, or the airplance, since, [as Abbott Payson Usher
said in _A History of Mechanical Invention_, Harvard University Press,
1929, pp-65-68], "cultural achievement is a social accmplishment based
on the accumulation of many small acts of insight by individuals." Mr.
Usher surely did not mean to suggest that each of these acts was of equal
importance, but rather that the most imaginative and thrilling of them
stood on the shoulders of a thousand easier contributions."

[The Usher book that Szarkowski quotes is also available as a Dover


Dave Walden, 280 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02116 At home: phone and fax 617-437-7139, email At CQM: phone 617-873-8971, fax 617-873-8980, email

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