The Role of Inventions in the Humanities

The entrenched understanding of humanities as an endless and often recursive commentary on life or as a way of structuring historical, social, and cultural processes often hinders the humanitarians themselves. The productivity of their work and their ability to disseminate their ideas would expand if they were to change some basic premises and alter their views of familiar things.

Discovery is the product of knowledge – the adaptation of mind to reality. Invention is the product of creativity – the adaption of reality to mind.

Just as knowledge can be divided into three branches (natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities), inventions fall into three categories as well: scientific-technological, socio-political (including economics and law), and humanistic. The latter are the least recognized and explored, although they are as important for cultural evolution as technological inventions are for material progress.

Scientific-technological inventions include: railroads, aviation, vaccinations, hybridization, antibiotics, astronautics, holography, the atomic bomb, computing, the Internet, and the iPhone.

A socio-political invention is a new law, institution, or procedure that radically changes modes of social behavior and establishes new forms of human interaction and organization. Examples include: constitutions, parliaments, trade unions, boy scouts, suffrage, communism, Zionism, Feminism, the Red Cross, the Olympic Games, the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

No less than natural or social sciences, the humanities need inventions and inventors. We ask the natural sciences about the technical potential of a discovery. Equally legitimate is the question of whether a humanistic idea or theory is able to generate a new cultural movement or an artistic style. Based on this idea, is it possible to create a new intellectual community, literary group, or creative environment?

A humanistic invention is a new idea that contains the potential of its own realization in the form of cultural practices, intellectual movements, and forms of creative cooperation. Humanistic inventions encompass culture in its entirety and can be divided into these domains:

Language: the Cyrillic and Armenian alphabets, artificial international languages, orthographic reforms, and neologisms and idioms;

Literature: Neoclassicism, Romanticism, the Gothic novel, Naturalism, Symbolism, Futurism, Socialist Realism, and Surrealism;

Art and Music: Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Art Deco, Bauhaus, atonality, jazz, rock music, Neorealism, pop art, and readymades;

Philosophy: dialectics, Utopia, the ‘overman’ (Übermensch), semiotics, phenomenology, existentialism, postmodernism, and deconstruction;

Psychology: psychoanalysis, behaviorism, stream of consciousness, the Rorschach test, multiple intelligences, and Enneagram;

Religion: Kabbalah (The Zohar), Protestantism, Methodism, Deism, Pantheism, Mormonism, and Bahai.

Some inventions can be attributed to the following mixed categories:

Techno-Humanistic: photography, cinema, computer games, and hypertext.

Socio-Humanistic: dandyism, hippies, punks, emo, goths, and other youth subcultures.

The vast majority of inventions have individual creators. This emphasizes the creative nature of even those disciplines, genres, and trends that seem to have existed forever and emerged spontaneously of their own accord.

When it comes to humanities, it is much more difficult than in any technical field to highlight the elements of an invention. Inventions in humanities are not granted patents – although it would be worth introducing the custom and the institution with the aim to reward the author, if only psychologically

As is clear from this brief inventory, the transformative humanities should be distinguished from the so-called applied humanities. The latter include arts management, librarianship, media and museum studies, archiving and digitalizing practices, etc. The applied humanities aim to make culture accessible to the public, to enlighten and educate society at large, and to popularize the results of research, but this task is radically different from the field of humanistic inventions that transform the very subjects of scholarship: languages, arts, literature, human beliefs, worldviews, and psychology.

Invention in the humanities should be distinguished from creativity as such. Even a great literary work is not always an invention – and vice versa, a work that is far from being a masterpiece can become an invention. For example, Anna Karenina (1878) is Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus and perhaps the greatest novel in history, but it is not an invention. Nikolay Karamzin’s ‘Poor Liza’ (1792) – though a much more modest, unpretentious, didactic, and sensitive story – was the invention of a new literary direction, Russian Sentimentalism. From the viewpoint of literary aesthetics, Charles Dickens’ novels were the highest achievement of 19th-century English prose, but other writers turned out to be even more successful inventors. Walter Scott invented the historical novel genre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein laid the foundation for the science fiction genre.

Invention is not the creation of a given work, but rather a certain principle or technique that can be used in the creation of many works. Therefore, great inventions often happen to be imperfect accomplishments – in technology as well as in literature or philosophy. The first steam engines, phones, cars, planes, and computers were primitive works of technical art that could not match the sophistication of their descendants, but this did not prevent them from becoming great inventions. The first photos and movies were aesthetically weak, but they created new types and genres of artistic creativity. An invention often occurs in the form of a sketch, a rough draft, an experiment, a hypothesis, i.e., a not fully realized idea, which only becomes a more developed and perfect embodiment much later, with other authors.

A worthwhile experiment would be to build a repository of new ideas in the humanities that would accept electronic preprints for circulation, even before professional journals decide on their publication. Such a database for physics, mathematics, and other hard sciences exists at the Cornell University Library under the world-famous address: It was established in 1991, and now contains about 1 million publications. Almost all scientific papers, across many fields, are self-archived there. Many e-prints have also been published in professional journals, but some works, including the most influential papers, remain only as e-prints and are never published in a peer-reviewed journal. For example, Grigori Perelman’s famous Poincaré conjecture in 2002 has remained an electronic preprint although it was later awarded the Fields Medal in 2006 and received the Millennium Prize in 2010.

Imagine if Perelman had been a philosopher, a linguist, or a literary scholar rather than a mathematician. How would we have learned about his breakthrough if it had not been accepted to a professional journal? It would take building a similar archive of E-ideas in the humanities, or a Repository of Humanistic Imaginaries. Or perhaps even an Inventory of Humanistic Inventions, given that humanistic inventions could be clearly defined. The task of the repository or inventory would be to present new ideas in the most direct and condensed form, and to provide a public forum for their discussion1.

Mikhail Epstein is linguist, philosopher, and professor of cultural theory and Russian literature at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) and Durham University (UK). He is also Director of the Centre for Humanities Innovation (Durham University). He is the author of 30 books and over 700 articles and essays, many of which are translated into 19 languages.

1 See ‘Repository of New Ideas’ at the website of the Centre for Humanities Innovation of Durham University:

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