Epistemology of Innovation

prismI recently ran across an outstanding blog and series of articles by Bruce A. Vojak, Associate Dean for Administration and an Adjunct Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. Vojak deals with the epistemology of innovation. Epistemology is mostly an academic term, not yet usurped by Silicon Valley spin doctors, which basically means the study of knowledge and its justification – in other words, what we know, how we know it, and how we know we know it. So it follows that Vojak’s intent is to challenge readers to reflect on the practice of innovation and on how practitioners come to know what to do today in order to innovate successfully.

Incidentally, Vojak uses the popular term, “breakthrough innovation” – as we all do. I’ve been somewhat skeptical that this term can really carry much epistemic weight. It is popular among innovation advocates, but I’m not sure it has any theoretical – thus predictive – value. Even Judy Estrin, a Silicon Valley visionary for whom I have great respect, differentiates breakthrough from other innovation only in terms of historical marketplace success. Thus it seems to me that breakthrough can only be applied to an innovation in retrospect. In this sense it may be rare that prospective innovators can know whether they are pursuing continuous innovation or the breakthrough variety. Why set your sights low? In any case, Vojak is much more knowledgeable on the topic than I, and I’ll enjoy seeing where he goes with the breakthrough distinction that he develops somewhat in his So, what’s the big idea?. Vojak offers that breakthrough innovators are systems thinkers.

The articles by Vojak that I’m most thrilled with, contrasting the minds of contemporary innovators, are entitled “Patriarchs of Contemporary Innovation.” He’s released two of these this month:  Newton & Goethe and Socrates & Hegel. I love these for many reasons including good subjects, concisely covered, flowing logically in a non-academic tone; but especially because they assign a very broad scope to innovation, contrasting the tunnel vision of the tech press.

In  Newton & Goethe, Vojak looks at what can be learned from contrasting the two contemporary (with each other) thinkers. The objective Newton used a mathematical description of color, saw color as external to humans, reduced color into components (his famous prism experiment), and was a detached and dispassionate observer of it – the classic empiricist. For the subjective Goethe, color is something that humans do (it’s in our perception). Goethe was attached to color’s beauty; color is an experiential matter. In this sense, Newton is an analyst and Goethe is a design-thinker. Vojak then proposes that one role of an innovator is be able to hold both perspectives and to know when each is appropriate. Contrast this mature perspective with the magic-creative-powers BS peddled by Silicon Valley’s hockers of Design Thinking.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689Because of my interest in history of science/philosophy of science, one aspect of Newton & Goethe got me thinking along a bit of tangent, but I think a rather interesting one. Vojak contrasts the romanticism and metaphysics of Goethe with the naturalism and empiricism of Newton, the “mastery of them that know.” But even Newton’s empiricism went only so far. Despite his having revealed what he called “true causes” and “universal truths,” his responses to his peers on what gravity actually was suggest that he never sought justification (in the epistemological sense) for his theories.  “Gravity is the finger of God,” said Newton.

Newton was not a scientist, and we should avoid calling him that for reasons beyond the fact that the term did not exist in his day. He was a natural philosopher. When his rival continental natural philosophers – the disciples of Descartes – demanded explanation for force at a distance (how gravity pulls with no rope), Newton replied something along the lines of that gravity means what the equation says. For Newton there was no need to correlate experience with something behind the experience. This attitude seems natural today, with our post-Einstein, post-quantum-mechanics perspective, but certainly was rightly seen by the emerging naturalists of Newton’s day as a theological-holdout basis for denying any interest in understanding reality.

In my view, history shortchanges us a bit by not bothering to mention that only 20% of Newton’s writings were in math and physics, the rest being theology and various forms of spooky knowledge. As presented in modern textbooks, Newton doesn’t seem like the type who would spend years seeking divine secrets revealed in the proportions of biblical structures, yet he did. Newton helped himself to Design Thinking at times.

None of this opposes any of Vojak’s contrast of Newton and Goethe; I just find it fascinating that even in Newton’s day, there was quite a bit of thinking on the opposite side of Newton from Goethe.

I highly recommend Vojak’s very accessible blog and articles on the illinois.edu site to anyone seeking some fresh air on the topic of innovation.


  1. You’re So Wrong, Richard Feynman | The Multidisciplinarian
  2. The Expression of Phenomenology in Business | Transition Consciousness

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