A paper by a junior scholar greatly impressed me. I thought it should be published. A distinguished philosopher did not share my view: ‘It’s warmed-over Rawls,’ he wrote, in a curt letter of rejection.
Now, I could see for myself that the central claim of the paper wasn’t completely new. But it was, I thought, completely true. And its case for a familiar truth was different from—though not inconsistent with—other arguments to the same conclusion. So why the obsession with the new?
This misery has company elsewhere, including in the social sciences. I do not only mean that, when others try to replicate famous ‘findings’, they cannot get the same results. I mean that hardly anyone tries to replicate anything. You can see why. Replication is expensive and unoriginal. Editors do not fight over a paper that argues that the findings of an earlier paper are all correct. Hence, there is a high prior probability that a lot of what finds its way into print is rubbish. (And then that rubbish is cited, and the citations re-cited, by philosophers who want their work to be ‘continuous with’ the advanced social sciences.)
In the humanities we do not have the excuse that originality is cheaper than replication. Admittedly, some of our work is not truth-apt, and some that is truth-apt is not truth-oriented (for instance, because it is bullshit). But I imagine that most of us hope that our claims about things like justice or law are, if not true, then true-ish. Yet our collective behaviour reveals a strong preference for the new over the (merely) true.
In my own fields, the pursuit of novelty has bad effects: one can be pretty sure that the next general theory of law will be more daft than the last one. And in moral and political philosophy writers continually ‘discover’ principles that no one in the history of humanity ever heard of.
The novelty-fetish has further knock-on effects. It isn’t enough for ideas to be new; others need to acknowledge that they are new, so small novelties get over-emphasised, and the errors of past writers exaggerated. No longer are others merely mistaken, misguided, or muddled—their claims must be ‘ridiculous’, ‘disgraceful’, or ‘ludicrous’. These epithets have various meanings, but they have a common use. They are all ways of pleading, ‘Don’t read him! Read me, me, ME!’
Though not excusable, this is understandable. Most of us write for a serious audience of a few hundred, of whom maybe a couple of dozen actually engage our work. (Legal and political theorists who imagine they have ‘impact’ in the halls of power, or even literature, mostly live in a hall of mirrors.) To lose a few precious readers to the judgment that our work is warmed-over Rawls (or Mill, or Marx…) feels like an amputation without anaesthetic.
We need to get over that. David Hume exaggerated when he wrote of political philosophy that, ‘New discoveries are not to be expected in these matters.’ But he was not ridiculously, ludicrously, or disgracefully mistaken. Here as elsewhere, Hume was mostly right—though with some one-sided over-emphasis. And there was nothing new in that either.