Re-inventing Invention

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  1. Habits continue because they are endorsed by beliefs, assumptions, blind spots and myths that are yet to be challenged.
  2. Some habits can be seen as (or resemble) genres of practice.
  3. Genres of practice shape the outcomes of our actions.
  4. By investigating / challenging / re-designing a genre of practice we may trigger a paradigm change
  5. In this case our focus is on invention as a genre.

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"One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. It seems, in such cases, that one is present at his own unconscious work, made partially perceptible to the over-excited consciousness, yet without having changed its nature. Then we vaguely comprehend what distinguishes the two mechanisms or, if you wish, the working methods of the two egos." Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) - Poincaré, H., & Halsted, G. B., (1902-08)


  • We define (the meaning and genre of) invention as the cognitive art of conceiving a unique and innovative entity
    • (e.g. a novel idea, device, method, composition or process).

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  1. We are challenging and re-thinking some of the received assumptions that sustain the 'genre' of invention.
  2. Invention is often exemplified as a product, gadget, or technical widget.
    • This may reveal a technocentric attitude
      • i.e. the assumption that it is mainly technology that shapes 'progress'
  3. A tendency to identify it in the logic of 'problem-to-solution'
    • i.e. the invention is perceived as having been shaped by, and therefore complements, a particular problem.
  4. A tendency to expect a single 'product', or 'gadget', rather than a set of interconnected events, or processes.

Chambers 1908 Archimedean Screw


  1. Humans became uniquely resourceful and imaginative since we separated from chimpanzees.
  2. In Plato's day (b. 427BC-), ideas were assumed to have come from God.
  3. The Roman poet Horace used the phrase "Dare to know" or "Dare to be wise" (Sapere aude) in 20BC
    • see Kant's later adoption of the term (1784).
  4. The 'eureka moment' was an idea that came from a story about Archimedes (287-212 BC)
    • After St. Augustus (354-430AD) it also came to mean "inspiration, talent".
    • It refers to a single, critical and defining moment of epiphany often associated with invention.
    • Latin verb genui, genitus, "to bring into being, create, produce"
    • (i.e. exceptional individuals were associated with this ability).
    • e.g. Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, or Albert Einstein.
  5. But, before John Locke, invention was not seen as a special event of individual humans
    • Locke (1632–1704) argued that “the mind can furnish the understanding with ideas” (1689).
    • Kant’s famous phrase ‘dare to know’ (1784) probably inspired Apple slogans.
  6. The modern genre of 'invention' was popularised after the 18th century
    • public fascination for tales of genius?
    • eccentric inventor always having 'lightbulb' moments
    • creates one 'silver bullet' or world-saving widget.
  7. After 18th c it meant a combination of ‘talents’ & ‘inborn nature’.
    • It was cited by Immanuel Kant in his (1784) essay "Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?".
    • Kant answered this question by saying that "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity."
    • He argued that this immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage to use one's reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another.
    • Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) believed that ‘Genius’ was someone unique and self-styled.
    • e.g. he would find it difficult to adapt to the ‘normal’ world (Schopenhauer: ).
  8. Lord Byron (1788-1824) added a frisson of celebrity:
    • E.g. “My life is more important than my art”. (source?)
  9. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) spoke of 'Der Übermensch’ (1883)
    • He described the human potential to create a New Order via the ‘will to power’ and a creative spirit.
    • This included a readiness to reject ideals/moral codes.
  10. (G.B. Shaw, 1903) popularised some of these ideas in his play 'Man and Superman'.
    • “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
  11. The myth of creative genius was also harnessed/exploited by some artists to enhance their status and career.
    • "I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait." (Salvador Dali - 1904-1989)
    • "I do not seek, I find" - Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
  12. Psychiatry, psychology and neurological (e.g. brain) research added to the mystique
  13. Creativity Harnessed to Economic Growth:
    • (1997) Apple introduces the slogan "Think Different".
    • (probably inspired by earlier thinkers - see entries for Kant and Horace.)
    • Richard Florida, “The Creative Class” (2002)
    • “I don’t do context” - (Frank Gehry, 2005).
    • John Howkins, “The Creative Economy” (2002).
    • Ignore Everybody’ (MacLeod, 2009)
    • ‘Relentless Innovation’ (Phillips, 2011).

Invention as Mental (re)Combination

  1. Arthur Koestler (1905 –1983) describes creativity in combinatorial terms
    • i.e. the result of combining two, or more, apparently incompatible frames of thought ("matrices").
    • “When two independent matrices of perception or reasoning interact with each other the result...is either a collision ending in laughter, or their fusion in a new intellectual synthesis.” (Koestler, 1964)
    • What he calls "bisociation" is only, in effect, a process of imaginative 'recombination'.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi (b. 1934-) speaks of redomaining
    • This goes further than seeing the act of invention as the (re)combination of a few things.
    • i.e. it describes changes that occur across different levels
    • He defines creativity as any act… that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.”
    • (? unconstrained by boundaries of genre, specialism, meaning, or practice?).
  2. This idea may encourage us to assume that paradigm change is feasible.

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