On Reinventing the Wheel[1]

David Tuggy

SIL

Proverbially, it is not considered a good thing to reinvent the wheel. This idea is of course applied in a number of ways. One pervasive application is what we might call the Past Scholarship tradition, the idea that true scholarship consists first of all in knowing what others have said on a topic of interest, and that only after a deep if not exhaustive consideration of their points of view does one have the right to speak on the topic oneself. For scholars in this tradition, it is a cardinal sin to advance a point of view without giving due credit to those who have said something similar in the past, or at least giving respectful reasons for disagreeing with those who have said something rather different. In any case, the gist of the proverb is that true progress will be achieved by building on the solid foundations laid by others, and that trying to start over again from scratch is unavoidably wasteful of time and energy.

Proverbs notoriously express non-exclusive truths, ideas whose opposites also have some degree of validity. There sometimes is even a contrary proverb to express that opposite truth.[2] You should look before you leap, for instance, but then he who hesitates is lost,[3] and although it is true that birds of a feather flock together, it is also true that opposites attract. Similarly there is truth in the notion that reinventing the wheel is a bad idea, but I think that there is also truth in the notion that there is value in it. And while I respect the Past Scholarship tradition I must confess to a degree of impatience with it. I willingly admit that this probably reflects negatively more on myself than on the tradition, and I will not argue with anyone who may want to say that my impatience bespeaks laziness on my part, an unwillingness to pay the toll rightly exacted of those who want to earn the right to be heard. But I will protest vigorously if they say that is all that it bespeaks. It is true that there is an inefficiency in reinventing wheels, but it is also true that there are some unexpected advantages, I would even call them efficiencies, in doing it, and they also should be considered.

The following points are not particularly in order of importance. Perhaps point 4 is the weightiest, though I find that all of them influence me considerably.

  • 1. There is not time in one life to do everything. Certainly there is not time to research exhaustively what everyone else has ever said about a topic of interest. The idea that thought is not worthwhile unless you first determine who else has thought it previously, where and when, stymies worthwhile thought.

         The foregoing is especially true for amateurs, those who have other commitments or interests which prevent them from spending full time pursuing the topic at issue.

  • 2. Given that there is not time to do everything, why not do what is fun? For some of us, it is more fun to investigate an area of knowledge ourselves than to research what others have said about it. We have plenty of other commitments and interests ready to crowd out this one, and we are more likely to pursue this one productively if it is fun for us to do so.[4]

         Paul Ricoeur,[5] Bob Longacre tells me, claims that solid scientific advances are achieved only when there is an element of fun in the pursuit of them. I do not find this at all surprising. In this sense, even professionals will do better science if they are amateurs, lovers of their subject-matter.

  • 3. Overexposure to someone else’s ideas too early in the process of an investigation can so channel your own thinking as to blind you to other, possibly fruitful, ways of approaching the subject.

  • 4. If you reinvent the wheel, either it will resemble previously-invented wheels or it will not.
  • a. Where it does resemble them, you have provided independent confirmation that there is something right about the design of the wheels, very likely something that corresponds to the reality of what you are dealing with.
    b. Where your wheel differs from someone else’s, one of them is likely to prove superior to the other.
    (i) If your wheel is better, then you have made a discovery. Science has progressed.
    (ii) If the other wheel is better, then you can improve your wheel, and see what it takes to get it to work as well as the other fellow’s.[6] You will also have provided independent confirmation that the other design is a good one (if not the only right one), and gained an enhanced appreciation for it.
    c. If the wheels are different but both work equally well, then you have shown that there is more than one good way to roll. Again, Science has progressed.
    d. In any case, you will, in the process of tangling with the primary data of wheel-design, have acquired the background necessary to constructively evaluate wheels, whether your own or someone else’s. The time you invested was not wasted. Reinventing wheels is an efficient way to learn deeply.[7], [8]

  • 5. Who first said something is not as important as whether it is right. Who gets the credit is not as important as whether the idea works. Sins of failure to give credit where credit is due are deplorable, to be sure; but when they spring from ignorance or even carelessness rather than from credit-hogging or glory-stealing, they are relatively venial. Failure to think for oneself on a topic, or tangle with the data for oneself in an area of research, is at least equally culpable. We should value those scholars who think creatively, particularly those who re-think creatively, as well as those who carefully and accurately track down attributions and attestations.

I am not, of course, advocating always re-inventing every possible wheel. That would be the ridiculous extreme. But I am advocating what Chesterton called “the reasonable right of the amateur” to re-invent wheels whenever it seems fun, and I think it will ultimately, in a surprising proportion of cases, even prove practical.



Notes


[1] This squib was requested by and is dedicated to Bob Longacre, who thought these ideas worth sharing with a wider audience than I had given them.

[2] This truth is itself proverbial: “For every axiom there is an equal and opposite re-axiom” (—Anon.)

[3] A relatively recent expression of the same paradox (again from that prolific sage Anon.) has it that: “It’s the early bird that gets the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.”

[4] This consideration leads, of course, to the attitude that if someone else finds more fun in researching who said what on a topic in the past, that is just fine. More power to them, different strokes for different folks, and each to his own.

[5] As is fitting in a squib on this topic, I don’t have a better reference than “somewhere in his three-volume work Time and Narrative.”

[6] You may well, of course, decide that your wheel isn’t going anywhere and abandon your design work. If it’s no longer fun to pursue it, that’s OK.

[7] A friend who is a professional programmer says that often, even when he knows there is a software “wheel” out there that he could use to perform a particular function, it is more time- and cost-effective for him to write his own routines from scratch, because then he knows them thoroughly and they won’t waylay him with any nasty surprises. It takes far more time to try to understand someone else’s code in the same depth and be able to use it as efficiently and accurately.

[8] John Milton Gregory wrote (somewhere in The Seven Laws of Teaching, 1884 or so): “Knowledge cannot be passed like a material substance from one mind to another, for thoughts are not objects which may be held and handled. … Ideas must be rethought, experience must be re-experienced.” One might paraphrase, to some extent accurately: “Wheels must be reinvented”.

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