Friday, October 20, 2017

The Psychopathology of Plagiarism

Plagiarism, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary, is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”. Etymologically, the word “plagiarist” has its roots in Latin; the Romans used the word “plagiarius” to mean “kidnapper”, and “plagium” to mean “kidnapping”.

Music to accompany the entry: Tom Lehrer "Lobachevsky".

   I have been personally affected by acts of plagiarism on several occasions, and this made me feel like being robbed of my work, with my creativity ‘kidnapped’, in broad daylight. The latest was the case of Professor Julian Young, which has been discussed in one of my blog entries, as well as debated extensively on the internet by other academics.

   Influence cannot always be sharply separated from confluence. As Plato observed in Meno, knowledge is often rooted in recollection, and we learn what we already know, if subliminally. Schopenhauer is frequently thought to have been influenced by Buddhism, and yet he arrived at many of his ‘Buddhistic’ ideas before being introduced to the Eastern philosophies. Wagner, who became besotted by Schopenhauer, had made ‘Schopenhauerian’ observations before he had read his philosophy (see Magee’s books on Schopenhauer and Wagner). Nietzsche had reached several ‘Dostoevskyian’ insights before he discovered Dostoevsky’s writings in 1887. Schopenhauer’s ‘Vedic’ idea that “force and substance are inseparable because at the bottom they are one” prefigured the mass-energy equivalence formula of Einstein. And yet, as Einstein’s biography informs, he had avidly read Schopenhauer.

   Every period in history has its distinct preoccupations, and this is called der Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the time’. Several creative minds converge on very similar concepts. Only very few, if any, ideas are completely new; as Hegel proclaimed “in Nature, there happens nothing new under the sun”. From my personal experience, when I was working on my rediagnosis of Nietzsche’s mental illness, I was almost certain that someone else was working on this issue at the same time. And sure enough, there were two clinicians revising his diagnosis: one in France and one in the USA. Independently, all three of us reached the same conclusion that Nietzsche did not have syphilis, proposed different diagnoses and published our findings in close proximity (please see my blog entry “Nietzsche and Bipolar Disorder”). Another example, incomparably more important, of this simultaneous convergence of original, independently reached ideas is the case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Their concept of natural selection may have been one of the most influential ideas of the millennium. They corresponded and collaborated with each other, even though Darwin became considerably more famous. Neither was a plagiarist; they were both children of their Zeitgeist! This is in sharp contrast to Professor Young, who failed to respond to the email I sent him soon after the publication of his book Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (2010). In my email, I pointed out that ‘his’ diagnosis was exactly the same as mine, only 10 years later. I later reviewed his book in Philosophy Now.

   In my paper “Freud’s Burden of Debt to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer”, I have demonstrated that Freud plagiarised a great deal from these two thinkers. And not only ideas, but words too. His highly ambivalent attitude to those who might have been perceived as progenitors of his ideas led him to produce incompatible statements and outright lies. For instance, he wrote to his friend Fliess in February 1900: “I have just acquired Nietzsche, in whom I hope to find the words for many things which are still mute in me...” But when he was confronted about the similarities between his ideas and those of Nietzsche during the meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in April 1908, he denied ever having read him. He also emphasised that he could not get beyond the first page of Nietzsche’s work because the philosopher’s intuitive insights were so close to his own, which were the result of “laborious investigations” of psychoanalysis. However, it is clear that Freud had not arrived at his insights from observations of his patients. Quite the opposite! He coerced his patients to conform to his a priori ideas. (for more on Freud’s lies, please see Cioffi’s book Was Freud a Liar?). In his brilliant book Why Freud was Wrong, Richard Webster proposes an attractive theory that parents’ excessive love and high expectations may produce a massive sense of debt and guilt in a child. Freud received adulation and privileges from his parents who expected him to go far in life. From an early age, he was groomed – particularly by his mother – to be a genius. When the chasm between expectations and aptitude becomes too wide, it creates a debt that is impossible to repay, and such a burden of debt is bound to turn into guilt. One of Freud’s notorious ideas was ‘criminal from the sense of guilt’, an idea taken directly from Nietzsche, whom he acknowledged on this occasion. In German, die Schuld means both debt and guilt. To beat Freud with his own stick, I suggest that it was this sense of debt/guilt that drove him to plagiarism. He became ‘a criminal from the sense of guilt’! Freud wanted to be remembered by posterity as an unassailable ‘solver of riddles’, a heroic, lone begetter of a new school of thought. And he managed to persuade a considerable number of his followers that he was. However, his philosophising abilities were not in the league of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, and by acknowledging his debt to them, he may have felt obliged to engage in a philosophical debate with these giants. He was unlikely to have emerged victorious following such a confrontation and thus chose to deny any connection.

   Another pathogenic factor leading to plagiarism can be a sense of rivalry with another person whose creativity is in the same area as the plagiarist’s ambition. This fills him (and it is usually ‘him’!) with a strong desire to dominate over such a rival at all costs. Freud’s rivalrous drive may have been ignited by him being born an uncle to his nephew (who was an offspring of his father’s first marriage), which led to a confusion in hierarchy. Such rivalry can then be augmented by an experience of failure. Freud, who was a rather mediocre student, failed to gain an academic position in Vienna and the recognition he so much craved. Hence, plagiarism can offer a solution to a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy. Or can it?

   A more recent case is that of Professor Persaud, the golden boy of media psychiatry, who was found to have plagiarised case reports of other psychiatrists and then excused his actions as a ‘cut and paste’ job. Read an article in The Guardian. In my case, Professor Young’s excuse was that he had never read my article with Nietzsche’s diagnosis and that it was suggested to him by a friend ophthalmologist. It is quite astonishing that an ophthalmologist felt confident to diagnose Nietzsche’s mental condition! Predictably, this friend refused to engage in any correspondence with me.

   What ultimately defines plagiarism is a lie. A feeble, childish lie. It is the denial of ever having read the work of the other, despite glaring parallels. And yet, even assuming that the plagiarist had not read it, he should have read it. Such a denial forms the core of Freud’s plagiarism and also of Professor Julian Young’s. The latter not only plagiarised my diagnosis but lifted entire paragraphs from a book of another biographer, Curtis Cate. Read an article in The Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, I have not studied the biographies of Young or Persaud themselves to see whether my other observations on the psychopathology of plagiarism are applicable in their cases.

   One must consider cryptomnesia as a possible explanation for some instances of plagiarism. This is the phenomenon of a long-forgotten memory resurfacing into consciousness, yet being perceived as new and original. Jung discusses it in relation to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and points to some similarities between his text and that of Justinus Kerner (a Swabian poet and ghost storyteller), whom Nietzsche probably read more than two decades previously. A disturbing image of a figure descending into a hellish volcano appears in both texts, with some identical verbal expressions. But the source of that image can be traced even further back. Around the same time, Nietzsche also read and much admired Hölderlin’s poem “The Death of Empedocles” about a philosopher who had flung himself into the flames of Etna. Kerner was a fervent admirer of Hölderlin and that poem may have been the original source of inspiration for him, and for Nietzsche.

   Plagiarists have a conscious will to deceive, and not only once. They are recidivists and repeat their ‘crime’ many times over. Also, rather like shoplifters, who usually have more than enough money in their pockets to pay for whatever they steal, plagiarists can afford to do honestly what they plagiarise. But they seem to get a thrill from their gamble with fate. Sooner or later, like most gamblers, they lose. What might be propelling their plagiaristic activity is envy combined with ‘introjective identification’. At the height of their ‘plagiaristic moment’, they may identify so deeply with the other person’s original idea that they become deluded and perceive it as their own. Some people can be very prolific but totally unoriginal, and they find stealing less painful than acknowledging the mediocrity of their mind.

   All creative minds ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, a concept attributed to Bernard de Chartres and advanced by Isaac Newton. If every creative mind wanted to discover the mysteries of the universe de novo, humanity would never have made the spectacular progress that it has. Perhaps we would have collectively reached the stage of Australopithecus, at best! But the old myth that a genius is someone whose original ideas come out of his head in the manner of Athena coming out of Zeus’s head hinders an honest acknowledgement of these ‘shoulders’.