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Novelty and originality

Novelty is defined as 'the quality of being new and fresh and interesting, ' 'a new or unusual experience or occurrence' (Collins). Novelty is an essential element in most definitions of creativity. However, this concept is not self-evident and a few reservations should be made to elucidate its meaning and applicability.

What exists now is what will be in the future,

and what has been done is what will be done;

thus there is nothing really new on earth.

Is there anything about which someone can say, "Look at this! It is new!"?

It was already done long ago, before our time.

No one remembers the former events,

nor will anyone remember the future events that are yet to happen;

they will not be remembered by the future generations.

(Ecclesiastes, 1: 9-11)

Are these words of wisdom out of date or can they be applied to our time, which celebrates originality and is so enthusiastic to everything new?

When we are speaking about something as new, it is useful to ask ourselves for whom precisely it is new. When a child stains paper with colours or rhymes words delighting his parents by his creativity, these activities are original only in the sense that the child learns skills that are new for him. However, these pictures are not original in a broader cultural context. When teenagers discover the joy of sex, it is new only for them, but for the human race at large it is something that 'was already done long ago, before our time.' On the other hand, people can generally agree that some philosophical or scientific ideas, technical inventions or works of art are novel and original because they open new dimensions of reality and give new ways of practice that were not present before.

Thus, one must distinguish between relative and absolute, or subjective and objective novelty (Arieti, 1976). Subjective novelty is the apperception of something as being new by an individual person or a group of persons; objective novelty is something that is new for all humanity in its development through ages. It is unlikely, however, that even the most knowing and knowledgeable person boldly say that he knows everything that was before and take liberty to judge things from this standpoint. Hence, it follows that we never can be fully confident that something is objectively new; thus, any forms of novelty are subjective or at least intersubjective, that is relative and probabilistic.

The sensation of novelty largely depends on the breadth of vision and the depth of memory. That which seems new for a young girl may not be such for an old man. The depth of memory in covering the news on TV or newspapers rarely exceeds a few months. In what they sell as 'new, ' 'original' and 'unprecedented, ' a historian, philologist or psychologist may easily find recurrent patterns that were in use many ages ago. When Mikhail L. Gasparov, a Russian classic philologist, translator and researcher in verse prosody, was once asked by a journalist about his attitude to Stalinist repressions, he began his answer as follows: "We who went through the Peloponnesian wars..." This was not pretentiousness or extravagance but rather an effect of different depth of the historic memory, which make the deeds of ancient time as much more vivid and significant as the events of the recent past. When Arieti (1976) criticizes Jung saying that his analysis of archetypes reminds him of archaeological excavations and fails to explain the quality of novelty of the creative work, he misses the point by someway. The new and the old are not two completely different entities but rather the two sides of a coin. The new is always based on what was before and the one appears through another like the water under the ice for those who can see. Was, then, Ecclesiastes right, and the new is only a by-product of oblivion and ignorance?

Self-aware artists, writers, scientists and other creators and innovators have always acknowledged the relativity of novelty. Newton acknowledged standing "on the shoulders of giants" in science. Goethe who was both a poet and a scientist asked the question, "What is invention, and who can say that he invented something?" and answered himself, "It is an utter foolishness to swagger about precedence. Not to admit oneself, after all, a plagiarist is just a senseless fanfaronade". The historian Thomas Carlyle maintained that "the merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity." Mandelstam writing about a skald, who "will compose again somebody else's song and will utter it as its own" described how poetry is created. T.S. Eliot said that the difference between a good poet and a bad one is that the first steals consciously while the second steals unconsciously. And a contemporary inventor holds that the main thing that one should have to invent is a big database.

However, if even one accepts the fact of borrowing ideas and material in creativity, one usually can distinguish - intuitively or rationally - new from old, original from banal. What is then the nature of perceived novelty? Arieti (1996: 4) points out, "Whereas theologians and religious people in general believe that God's creation comes ex nihilo, from special and temporal nothingness, human creativity uses what is already existing and available and changes it in unpredictable ways". These 'unpredictable ways' may include: the creation of forms that are not in use in the creator's environment, the combination of the common elements into a singular structure, the deformation of the habitual form, a shift of function in which the object is used and so forth. Thus, taxonomy of novelty turns into taxonomy of transformations.

But transformations are also finite and countable. A scrupulous analysis of both banal and original objects and works can reveal recurrent structures on which they are based, whatever different their surface manifestations can be. Here alchemy converges with structuralism, philosophy of history with psychoanalysis, popular wisdom with exact sciences. In any of these cases, the attention shifts from the striking, unexpected and novel to the recurrent, anticipated, and old. The dialectics of new and old thus applies not only to the material but also to the principles of its transformation. Plurality is reduced to recurrence; that what appeared utterly new turns out to be only a variation of an old theme. Newton's discovery of the law of gravity, Jung's theory of the archetypes of human psyche and Propp's (Propp, Wagner and Scott, 1969) analysis of the morphology of fairy tales all follow this line. This also applies to the study of history and sociology which reveal cycles and other forms of recurrent patterns in civilizations and societies (Sorokin, 1957; Sztompka, 1993). Even the study of creativity that is based on the presumption of novelty aims to reveal the universal laws of its generation and to explain how original works are produced by using the old material and known procedures.

To conclude, originality is not a decisive feature of creative work and novelty in creativity is always based on what has been created before. Moreover, perception of what is new is context dependent - novelty is recognized in contrast with what is considered old; the same thing can be perceived as either new or old depending, using a term from Gestalt theory, on how the figure/ground border is drawn. At the temporal plane, the perception of novelty depends on the difference between the perceived object and its antecedents. Novelty is thus a function of change. The old can become the new again if it is preceded by something different; hence the phenomenon of recurrence. Therefore, the concept of novelty should not be taken for granted; levels, aspects and types of novelty should be distinguished.

A historical approach to novelty implies that it is understood in terms of contrast (with a context) and transformation (of what was borrowed). Borrowing and recurring structures are considered as the elements of novelty production. The dialectics of the old and the new in creativity accounts for both continuity and discontinuity in the historical process.

Novelty and originality. Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity Research / Compiled and edited by Eugene Gorny., 2007.
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