The ‘Anxiety of Influence’ and Scientific Discovery

In his essay on scientific discovery, ‘Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science’, Oliver Sacks writes:

Darwin was at pains to say that he had no forerunners, that the idea of evolution was not in the air. Newton, despite his famous comment about ‘standing on the shoulders of giant,’ also denied such forerunners. This ‘anxiety of influence‘ (which Harold Bloom has discussed powerfully in regard to the history of poetry) is a potent force in the history of science as well. One may have to believe others are wrong; one may have to, as Bloom insists, misunderstand others, in order to successfully develop and unfold one’s own ideas. (‘Every talent,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘must unfold itself in fighting.’) [links added]

The persistent worries–in science and elsewhere–about being ‘scooped’ and the unending desire to be ‘original’ are reinforced, of course, by romantic notions of the ‘author’ and ‘creativity.’ In the aesthetic and moral domain that is engendered by such concerns, no sin is more unforgivable than to permit the provenance of one’s work to be visible; its traces must be kicked over and buried. Novelty is the aspirational peak; the discovery or invention must represent a singularity of sorts. An unoriginal work is irredeemably sullied.

The modern political economy of academic work–the structural apparatus of universities, grant agencies, promotion and tenure–has not helped either. It still sets much store by ‘originality’ and, what, for lack of a better word, one must describe as ‘individuality’: the notion that co-authored work is somehow inferior to ‘solo’ work, that it betrays an inferior work ethic, that only ‘lazy’ people need ‘help’ in producing their work. In this regard, the multi-author publications now so common in science reflect a welcome trend: they have acknowledged for a long time now that science is a collective enterprise. (Those who read biographies and histories of the early Nobel Prize winners in the sciences will often find awards made to those who headed groups of researchers.)

The desire to be original that is genuinely productive and which Sacks, Bloom and Nietzsche allude to above means that in the struggle to fight against influence, against one’s artistic and intellectual forebears, the writer, the artist, the scientist can seek out new directions of inquiry that may lead to ever more fruitful and interesting endeavors. This still may not  result in something ‘original’ for the putative explorer might only stumble onto yet another beaten path. But so long as he is ignorant of this, his anxiety may cease and permit the unveiling of his work.

Note #1: Quoting Nietzsche above reminds us of Freud’s ‘anxiety of influence’:

According to Ernest Jones, biographer and personal acquaintance of Sigmund Freud, Freud frequently referred to Nietzsche as having “more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live”. Yet Jones also reports that Freud emphatically denied that Nietzsche’s writings influenced his own psychological discoveries.

Ronald Lehrer’s Nietzsche’s Presence in Freud’s Life and Thought (SUNY Press, 1994) provides a detailed analysis of this famous relationship.

Note #2: Sacks excerpt taken from Hidden Histories of Science, Robert B. Silvers, A New York Review of Books Book, New York 1995.

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