The Meaning of Authorship

Cicero said that philosophers decry glory yet, at the same time, put their names on their books. It is a charge of irony that extends not only to the philosophers, but possibly to Cicero himself, and most importantly, to this current piece of philosophy.

Yet, at the same time, if you notice, there is no name placed on it. It is a collection of ideas, put together seemingly by individuals, one or many, quickly or slowly, with in depth or perfunctory reflection. The mistakes and insights (often one and the same) are there for anyone to find. They aren’t obstructed by the reputation of an author.

The irony, rather, is found in the performance of scholarly reference, which signals that Cicero and, by association, the current document are meant to be taken seriously. Since the current piece is authorless, there is no ‘holist’ citation (since authored pieces as wholes are self-citation), though the possibility of internal citation is still open. In either case the idea does not speak for itself. The reader is not meant merely to think about the idea. The idea qua citation has distinct content. The idea must be received through the practice of citation. It references norms of a community, contributes to legitimizing a literature, and, perhaps most important, says something about the author.

Imbedded in citation is a host of assumptions—namely, the idea that people are proprietors of ideas, that authorship is rightfully conflated with authority, and that it is necessary to pay formalized homage, superficially yet visibly, to (some of) the people whose ideas we “use.”

Are the assumptions more than mere superstitions? What does it mean to own an idea, to “come up with” one? (Come up from where, one must ask?) Why the preoccupation with authority? Considering the meaning of citation forces us to consider the meaning of authorship itself.

The concept of authorship is treated as trivial or mundane. Hence it is unproblematic. Or rather, the concept is often not treated at all. If it is treated, it is treated by people—in books with names on and in them. So there is an unavoidable self-reflexivity. It is on this point that the current piece attempts to speak: it exists, and hence it must have an author. It is an analytic truth: authors author pieces; all pieces are authored.

Yet the current piece is authorless.

An urgent point: it is not the case that the current piece is anonymous. An anonymous author makes their presence known and participates in authorship in a way that is well known by the audience. They simply withhold their name (for a time). No name is withheld from the current piece of philosophy. It is a challenge to the idea of authorship in both content and form, in theory and practice. It is aware of the self-reflexivity of any treatment of authorship and embraces the apparent paradox found in the attempt to subvert what is seemingly an analytic truth. “Not anonymous” strikes as a simple double negative. The piece carves out the category of ‘authorlessness’.

On another level, authoring is taken to consist of the activity of dispensing something that you have, something that is yours, into a form that can be consumed by others. If the ideas are not yours, you must “give credit” via citation. Paradoxically, ideas are public private property.   

Treating ideas like personal property leads predictably to the generation of a market. (Or does the progression flow the other way?) It is only natural then that people would move to meet and manufacture demand as inventors. People come to speak commonly of their preferences for certain authors, not preferences for certain ideas (a brand loyalty, as it were). Since the market generates poverty, people will steal. And in time, people will consolidate power, which enables them to steal from the powerless with impunity. The hallmarks of a market are there.  

The “marketplace of ideas” has moved from being an analogy to being a sector of the literal market. We sell our ideas for money. We aspire to fame. We seek our advantage in the economy of footnotes. But one wonders whether the currency of exchange is not all counterfeit or, at the very least, fiat. Does the idea do what the vendor says it will?

The inertia of the market pushes us along, despite our suspicions. The inertia becomes law. The law becomes our personal opinion. We forget our suspicions. If not explicitly in our words, then in our practices, we abide. We would consider ourselves charlatans if we peddled our own ideas. And we are thieves if we discourse in the ideas of others. But who are these others besides charlatans themselves? They are, at their best, the best borrowers who write themselves checks signed with other peoples’ names. Footnotes. References. Citations that might free us from the charlatan/thief paradox.

These are the trappings neath which the master charlatan hides his charlatanism. They are the snake oil that cures whatever would ail the would be author, and hides his authority behind that of yet another authority, a name, a practice, or both.

An inventor of names and characters, himself a name and character, expressed his distaste of the practice of claiming ideas this way:

All ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously, drawn from a million outside sources and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

What an original idea! Style, not content, is the substance of a person’s writing. Otherwise, someone would have to put a references for every line. And yet, what a tacit Platonism! We discover the ideas, we do not have them. We are inventors of ourselves, never of knowledge, never of the content of our thoughts. What greater irony is there than to find an original idea to be the reincarnation of an idea of Plato’s! (Or rather, an idea of one of Plato’s interlocutors, none of whom serve as principal “mouthpiece” for Plato’s originality) The omnipresent political and social setting of Plato’s dialogues stand as a perfect example of the political and social provenance of ideas. Plato’s frequent appearance in footnotes shows, paradoxically, that philosophy is indeed a footnote to him. Yet we forget what stares directly at us from his pages.

Who can point to a moment of unprompted, uncaused, unprecedented inspiration, no matter how much the exigencies of the market would have us delude ourselves? We are rememberers all—rememberers of glorious books we’ve studied, past conversations, the synthesis of our lives, and the experiences that formed us (to the full extent of which we can never know). One might write: “Thoughts are publicly ambient, not privately cogitated.”

But everyone is style, and on the basis of style and fashion, ideas are put under a name. And this, like signing a financial contract, commodifies them, and co-modifies them, according to the personal style of the signator. The buyer then takes in the ideas as if the style is mere packaging for the originality. If the ideas don’t strike as original, the author is branded as derivative or worse.

Yet if a document could pass from less original to more original by degrees, as if originality were a quantity, not a quality or form, would we find ourselves any less subject to the superstitious belief in the authority of the author over his ideas? Suppose instead that novelty were the essence of authorship, which is the opposite extreme, and the dialectical opponent of what is quoted above. How could any text, speech or post be deemed original? What if the addition of a person’s substance—the style—were the only identifiable, and, indeed, “personal property” that one could add to a text, to the ideas themselves? Then, the mere fact of writing would liberate every idea from the marketplace in which it was found by virtue of the irreducibility of the individual to the class. The currency would become no more than printed paper. The repetition of ideas would, in effect, guarantee that each author would be the sole proprietor of what he says and thinks. Originality would be had so cheaply, the marketplace would be boarded up. Or something else could be built in its place. A “true community” might form.

So the Vim will conduct an experiment in authorlessness. The idea is not original. If it were, since this piece of philosophy has no author, there would be no one to whom the idea could or should be ascribed. But more broadly, either the ideas here expressed do not attach to individuals, in which case it would be a mistake to sign names, or they attach to individuals so completely that a signature would be redundant.

In any case, the pieces are to be read differently. They are written as more accurate demonstrations of philosophical thought: developing, not definitive; communal, not individualistic. They are, ideally, improvements on how philosophical thought has tended: aware of the political and moral assumptions at the core of the practice of writing philosophy; rejecting the notion of the ownership of ideas, or, at least, meaning to render it unnecessary; embracing the idea that what matters most is the idea, not recognition.

The merits of the project, in the end, need not be tied to any evaluation of the assumptions built into authorship. If the critiques of the assumptions are unfounded, the current piece of philosophy still stands as an alternative to the politics of the market.

Although there is the possibility of such conceptual independence, embedded in the idea of authorlessness is a protest of the trend within philosophy and politics towards the adulation of high-powered individuals who have become famous for the brilliance they display in writing that bears their name. Or, a protest against those individuals whose most shining and brilliant feat in writing is the signing of their names.logo-red

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Authorship”

  1. I like the idea a lot and will probably give it a try down the road, as I write more and more philosophy. Reading this, though, a thought occurred to me: in today’s marketplace, having a brand that people can identify with is paramount to visibility. Without a strong brand, even the best ideas and analyses will get lost in the sea of information that is now available at everyone’s fingertips. It has brought me to ask the following question: how would one go about publishing authorless pieces while also building up a brand, so that these ideas find their public? I always argued that good ideas should be defended and that people who have the power to bring attention to these ideas have a moral duty to do so. So would publishing authorless pieces be a disservice to the ideas they express if it hinders the visibility of said pieces?


    1. This idea got your attention, Thomas! But, you make a good point. I wonder, though, whether the idea of selling an idea under a brand is not, in essence, sophistical.


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