Innovation: an exchange

On 11 May 2013, Prof. Benoît Godin of INRS Montreal wrote to me about my book. I had not come across him or his work on innovation in history. He disagreed with one of my basic premises – that the Greeks must have, at some times and in some cases, espoused innovation i.e. they did not just experience novelty, they innovated. His email initiated an exchange between us, in which perhaps neither of us felt the other was getting the point. In my case, I felt that he was unaware of the extent to which my book itself addresses his objections, even if he disagrees with what it argues. I present the exchange here, amalgamating and lightly editing some of the emails simply for the sake of readability.

Dear Armand:

Congratulations on your book, which I’ve just finished reading. I write to you because I do research on the Intellectual History of Innovation. A book is in progress and will be published in 2014 in London. If I had one main comment to make on your book which, I repeat, I have enjoyed very much, it is the missing distinction between novelty (which you discuss at length) and innovation (kainotomia). I always say that novelty was to many extents accepted (almost) everywhere and in (almost) every sphere of society in the past, but not “innovation” (see my Working Paper at www.csiic.ca: Innovation and Conceptual innovation in Ancient Greece). For someone versed in intellectual history and the study of innovation, this is an important distinction which explains the fate of the concept of innovation for centuries to come: a pejorative and contested concept (having nothing to do with technology), until the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Benoît Godin

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Dear Benoît:

Thank you for writing and I’m glad that you enjoyed the book! I’m not sure why you miss the distinction of which you speak. While my title clearly indicates that this is a book about ‘the New’ and about ‘Novelty’, I write about ‘innovation’ in many places, starting with p. 25, where I propose it to be a subset of ‘novelty’. In other words, innovation is about ‘the new’ in some partial sense, specifically relating to the creation of the new or the appearance of its creation. The whole of my Chapter 7 deals with what may come closest to technological innovation in ancient Greece, though Greek innovations such as the alphabet, literary genres, representational art and so on are dealt with throughout in various chapters. As I point out, the Greek sources were less concerned to tell us about technological innovation than about other kinds of cultural innovation. The rejection of ‘innovationism’ by many in subsequent centuries (e.g. Copernicus talks of renovatio, alluded to on my p. 30) was not as wholesale among the Greeks as scholars have supposed (see my Ch. 2, passim).

I don’t use ‘innovation’ and ‘novelty’ interchangeably: I specifically argue that innovation is a subset of novelty. Please see my para on p. 19, where I write “some things are called ‘innovative’ but are not so; others are novel but are not innovations”. As you will recognise, I spend a lot of time discussing what distinctions are important and possible, even if I say that in practice they were often elided (and some degree of elision may be inevitable). 

Armand

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Dear Armand:

You suggest that “innovation is about ‘the new’ in some partial sense, specifially relating to the creation of the new or the appearance of its creation”. Well, may I suggest in turn that this is definitively our modern understanding. I agree. However, to the Greeks and until recently (Roman and later Latin writers, ecclesiasts (Reformation), political revolutionaries (17-18th century), critics of the English and French socialists, projectors), innovation is subversive and has nothing to do with “creativity/originality”. Innovation is “introducing change to the established order” (religious, political and social order). In Ancient Greece, one finds the word in political works or works on politics, not poetry, “science”, etc.

Benoît

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Dear Benoît:

While I broadly agree with your thesis, I think it can be risky to generalise, and I try to avoid it. I offer specific evidence for the Greeks’ understanding of innovation as ‘technological’ in a very similar sense to the 20th century usage – see e.g. pp. 180-183. Of course there are differences in application, because they hadn’t invented modern technology, nor did they value or write about such invention much – though it is incorrect to say they don’t talk about it at all, since they did talk about it sometimes as the evidence I cite indicates. It was not just in the political sphere: one finds it in discussions of armour, ships, artillery etc., as well as very evidently music (see my Ch. 8, pp. 201-6).

Armand

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Dear Armand:

Sorry if I have generalized in my email. I always try to avoid it in my work. 1. I know you have made a distinction between novelty and innovation (but not the one I have emphasized). Yet, I feel that you do not always keep to the distinction and you bring some modern connotation to kainotomia. The definition of innovation you give is a modern one (p. 25); poets and artists as innovators (p. 56) yes, but in the MODERN sense; not called as such at the time; Khoirilos’ literary innovation (p. 60), in the modern sense again. I could multiply the examples, but please do not take this too personally. 2. At the time, innovation is a bad word. Again, it is a matter of “statistics”: the uses of kainotomia are “political” MOST of the time. 3. Of course I agree: there was technological innovation in Ancient Greece, although not called as such (kainotomia). I repeat my distinction: novelty in politics, “technology”, music, etc. YES (as you document widely), innovation NO. Because innovation is not newness but newness of a contested kind.

Benoît

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Dear Benoît:

The whole point of my music chapter (8) is to show that the ‘new music’ was highly contested – because it was explicitly innovative. Of course one can pick examples where I use the word ‘innovation’ in a modern sense, but there are others (and even those) where adjectives like kainon and kainotomon are actually applicable, and are used positively and in progressivist terms; hence my objections to generalisations of the kind that van Groningen made. Moreover one should not, I think, give undue lexical focus to the noun kainotomia alone: the use of adjectives like kainon is equally loaded and possibly even more indicative of innovation (after all, the root meaning of kainotomia appears to be from the context of mining, which is only about finding new seams of metal but not innovative techniques etc.) When, for example, Timotheus says ‘my kaina are better’ (p. 201) he is talking about his highly contested and subversive forms of new modulation, melodisation and so on. This is not just novelty, it is genuine innovation, if in a cultural/artistic domain; he is a deliberate and self-conscious innovator. Of course he is using the word kainon provocatively, since some (but not all) of his hearers might have been inclined to react negatively to the term (as the Spartans are said to have done).

My overall viewpoint, after thinking about the whole subject for the past few decades, is that the ancient sources offer the tip of an iceberg. If that tip shows that even a few people thought that kainotomia was progressive and could be functionally useful, there were hundreds of others who probably did so, even if the general view was that it was disruptive and dangerous. I think it can be shown that something akin to our concept of innovation, as potentially portending progress in technology, medicine and the arts, was first broached in 5th-century Greece, whether or not the word kainotomia is found applied.

Armand

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Dear Armand:

Again: novelty yes, innovation NO. 1) To be sure, novelty (kainos) is frequently contested, I do not deny, but there are many uses in the positive and neutral sense too, as you discuss. 2) This is different for innovation (kainotomia) which is negative. If you ever find positive uses of kainotomia (including the verb, etc.) in addition to the very few I have identified in my paper, let me know. Of course, we may speculate that many writings have disappear that carry a different connotation, but this is speculation. This is more than a semantic issue, and I am sure that you understand this (your book is full of such distinctions). As an intellectual historian, my question is: Innovation is not used as a positive concept for centuries because it is a bad word (this episode of history is forgotten by almost every people today, because of our dominant representation of innovation as technological innovation). The connotation has changed gradually in the last 200 years only, particularly the last 50 years. Why? If one goes back to the Greeks, one finds that innovation (kainotomia) refers to subversion (that same meaning that it has in the 20th century, but in a positive light now: real innovation is radical or revolutionary innovation, to many; of course, I do not agree with this). The Romans’ verb novare has a similar pejorative meaning as kainotomein, while novitas is like the Greeks’ novelty. A similar distinction again then. In-novatio got into the vocabulary at about the 4th century, but was used regularly after the Reformation only, then in politics, etc., always in a negative sense (with very few exceptions).

I repeat: this is not just semantics. Innovation (as change to the established order) is forbidden. Plato and Aristotle deny innovation (kainotomia is used in terms political), Livy talks of innovation in political and subversive terms, Edward VI in England issued a Declaration Against Those That Do Innouate (1548), etc.etc. It is a difficult distinction and I always have to insist to make people understand. We are so accustomed to our modern way of thinking about innovation. About Timotheus you say: “it is genuine innovation, if in a cultural/artistic domain; he is a deliberate and self-conscious innovator”. In a MODERN sense again, yes. You wrote: ‘new music’ was highly contested – because it was explicitly innovative? Right, but innovative because political (or effects on the political order).

Benoît

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Dear Benoît:

As you say, there are at least a few instances of kainotomia being used in a positive sense. This is enough for us to recognise that at least some Greeks understood the concept of innovating as progressive — even if it was politically disruptive. I agree that this is not the norm, but I would argue that we are talking about a social or psychological attitude evinced by our texts, rather than a conceptual distinction. (I refer to what I say on p. 6, with the footnotes, about the lexical issue). How does one explain the Hippocratic aversion to to kainon? — this is clearly not a political matter.

Armand

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Dear Armand:

We may never agree completely although, I think, we understand each others’ point. Your interest is novelty (innovation?), broadly defined. Mine is innovation as a specific concept (not as a thing), which has a specific history with precise usages, distinct from that of novelty. Your book is a reference that I will cite in my future papers when I need to support the case that novelty is/was everywhere (contrary to innovation :).

You write: “How does one explain the Hippocratic aversion to to kainon? – this is clearly not a political matter”. It all depends on how you define the political order. If I remember well, Plato discusses how new music (or changes in education) has “political” effects: young peoples do not respect the laws and customs.

Benoît

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Dear Benoît:

May I suggest that you are perhaps unduly straitjacketing the ancient notion of kainotomia, based on the kind of texts that give it negative political connotations rather than on those that do otherwise? Of course Plato and Aristotle have both a generally philosophical and political aversion to kainotomia – yet Aristotle praises Plato for being philosophically kainotomon (p.36), which is of course true. Much of my project is to find the interstices in traditional views of ancient Greeks which point to deeper and more personal realities that are not evident. My book would not be innovative if it didn’t contest standard views of the matter…

Armand

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Dear Armand:

Right. Aristotle’s kainotomon is one of the FEW occurences of the word in a positive manner, as I mention in my paper. Straitjacketing? Yes, 2,500 years of straitjacketing (by the Greek Fathers, the Catholic Church, philosophers and historians, encyclopedists, political and social pamphleters, etc.). I have documented this at length: one paper on religion (reformation and after); another in politics (English and French revolutions); yet another in social change (socialism), etc., etc. The straitjacketing is not mine. I just try to understand it. I should have added: the political revolutionaries NEVER thought of naming themselves innovators (although they were, in the ancient and modern sense), neither did they call their innovation an innovation. To make their case acceptable, they needed to avoid a bad word.

Benoît

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Dear Benoît:

Re straitjacketing, I think we might agree that subsequent scholarship too has done that. Since we cannot universalise 20th or 21st century attitudes to innovation (though we might make general statements), why would we think of doing so about the Greeks? Attitudes differ and change depending on circumstances – and times. The selective survival of sources is bound to favour a generalisation of ancient attitudes as non-innovationist, but there are layers beneath that we can glimpse if we choose. I think it can be shown that there was a genuinely ‘innovationist’ moment in the late fifth century. And one might add that if one wants to try to understand the straitjacketing of subsequent centuries, one might show that those writers (and selectors) were anti-innovationist, even if their original subjects were not. I make this somewhat ad hominem point about van Groningen on p. 42 (Dodds cited in my footnote says something similar).

Armand

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Dear Armand:

Here is a proposal which may summarize our thought towards each other. 1. You “accuse” me of straitjacketing. I replied that it is rather centuries of talks on innovation that are straitjacketing instead. I try to understand this history. 2. I “accuse” you of Whiggish history: bringing into Greek history a modern understanding of novelty as creative, and forgetting 2,500 years of history between Ancient Greece and modernity. Resolution! We may have concentrated, to different extents, on one and only one of the ancient meanings of novelty (or innovation). 1) At the time, novelty had many meanings (as today), including the creative. Moderns focus on this meaning. 2) Innovation had many meanings too, the dominant one (statistically) being the political. Subsequent writers have concentrated on this one, until the 20th century.

What do you mean by “innovationist”? Innovation (kainotomia) or creativity? I repeat: we have to beware, innvoation has a very specific meaning at the time. They were innovationsts but refuse to talk of it in these terms. What translation of Plato’s Laws (and other Greek texts) have you used? Do you mention somewhere in the book? I miss it. If I look at p. 101 of your book, the translation from Plato’s Laws seems very strange. Just to take one example: “innovator” is not in the Greek original. Linguistic inflation!? Somewhere in one of my papers I suggest that we should be very critical of translators who may translate a word for another because of the modern ‘aura’ of the latter.

Benoît

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Dear Benoît

I think I cover much of this in my book already, and that you don’t agree! We are coming from different viewpoints. Your viewpoint would suggest that mine is incorrect, whereas my viewpoint suggests that yours may need modifying.

Re translation: where I use published translations in the book I cite the translators by name. But if one knows Greek, many translations are unsatisfactory either in sense or tone, and should be adapted. I am not impressed by all the translations you use in your articles because they don’t accurately represent the immediacy and clarity of the Greek text. Nor do I claim that all my translations are ideal. This is a linguistic and cultural issue: there is no word in Greek for e.g. ‘artistic’, ‘religious’, ‘traditionalistic’, ‘proud’, ‘original’…yet the Greeks (some Greeks) could be all these things and they knew it, and often they expressed these ideas clearly enough even if not with words that are exactly equivalent (see p. 4 with f/n 11). It is not about changing the ‘aura’ but about being clear about what they mean. If you know how you would have to translate these words or ideas into ancient Greek, you know when to use such words when translating into English. (An alternative would be to cite everything only in Greek, but not everyone has studied the language for over 40 years. So translations must strive to be an accurate approximation to what is meant, and to the tone, register, and implication of the original).

You ask what I mean by ‘innovationist’. This is a key concept in my book (defined on p. 2 and elsewhere), but maybe an example would help. Timotheus says ‘my kaina are better’ – of course he doesn’t say ‘I am innovationist’ but from all we know of him it is clear that he and his statement are innovationist. He is innovating and he knows it – and so were other ancient Greeks. I recognise this challenges a standard thesis about Greeks’ cultural understanding of the notion. But I think my book marshals the evidence, and that it is compelling. All I hoped to show is that there is ample evidence to critique the standard view, and that helps to explain some of the Greek successes in innovation. I do not say that the innovationist view was either widespread, nor that it lasted or had influence beyond where we find evidence for it. I don’t believe in Whiggish history — I would not propose a steady advance from non-innovationist to innovationist or vice versa, because I think human beings are irregular and endlessly variable and part of the interest of historical investigation is to discover that variability.

Armand

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Dear Armand:

You write that my “viewpoint would suggest that your’s is incorrect”. Not at all. I just think one has to be careful not to bring contemporary usages and representations to the his interpretations of the past. Our interests are just different: mine is innovation (a kind of novelty), yours is novelty (which includes innovation). For example, when I ask “what do you mean by innovationist”, I am asking: do you mean the modern representation of innovation (creativity/originality), which may of course may have existed in Ancient Greece too, or the then ‘dominant’ Greek meaning of innovation (in contrast to ‘mere’ novelty, I insist). Innovation is a word loaded with such positive values today that we have to be careful using it for discussing the past. As I said, for 2,500 years the word had nothing to do with creativity/originality. It was a linguistic weapon against an enemy and against change. Since my interest is innovation, I look first in Greek texts for the word, then I study the ‘concept’ in the discourses and context of the time. Translating improperly a word as ‘innovation’ or ‘innovator’ was exactly what many translators did in the 16-17th century England simply to emphasize a case against innovation. This is why I say that your translation is not fidèle. A word is added which does not exist in the text. The idea of ‘innovativeness’ is in the text perhaps, but not that of innovation, which has nothing (with few exceptions) to do with innovativeness at the time. I agree, every translation is imperfect. This is why I always work with many, and use the one that translate ‘innovation’ literally.

I may not have insisted enough (although I suggested to you already): ‘Innovativeness’ as you call it (a much contemporary word, as many others like innovational, innovativity, …) exists from the beginning of humanity, including Greeks, and is accepted in many social spheres, as you study. But (statistically) ‘innovation’ has a very different meaning and is confined to the ‘political’ sphere and has remained so for centuries. G.E.R. Lloyd who you cite at several occasions has a similar understanding of innovation to mine: political (including revolutions). See p. 81, footnote 110.

Benoît

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Dear Benoît:

Most scholars have supposed that innovation is largely confined to the political sphere because they have tended to focus on the political authors. When one starts to look at medicine, music, technology etc. the impression is different.

Armand

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Dear Armand:

Keep in mind and think about this important distinction I suggest. Until very recently, innovation is not novelty or newness in the sense of creativity/originality. The connotation of innovation (kainotomia) is negative and subversive most of the time. As a matter of fact, medicine, music, technology are dealt with many different words for ‘novelty’ as well as other concepts, many of them you have studied. But there is no use of kainotomia. The reason is simple: innovation is not creativity. In contrast, politics and issues regarding the social order (a very large field) are discussed with ‘innovation’.

It is not just because scholars have concentrated on political authors (in fact NO scholar has written on innovation and political writers, except writing very short paragraphs like Lloyd did). It is rather a fact that the word exist in these writings only (mainly). If you ever find uses of kainotomia in music, medicine, etc., let me know. But I think yesterday you haven’t. Today, biologists talk of animal innovation. Crazy! Just a metaphor.

Benoît

About Armand D'Angour

Fellow and Tutor in Classics, Jesus College Oxford.
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