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SavoirFaire's avatar

What are the limits of the word "invention" (see details)?

Asked by SavoirFaire (27761points) November 30th, 2011

Inventions are often contrasted with discoveries. The former are things that we bring into existence, whereas the latter are things we find that already exist. This can’t be all there is to the distinction, however, as we don’t say that we invent children, even though they do not exist before we create them.

The real inspiration for this question, though, is an episode of Futurama in which Prof. Farnsworth wistfully considers what might have been if he had invented what he calls the “Fing-Longer” (pic). Does having a fully developed idea of something and how to make it count as inventing that thing? And is this the kind of thing we would call an invention in the first place?

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14 Answers

zensky's avatar

I like the question, I understand the question. I don’t have an answer except my gut feeling – never. I think we’ll run out of world before we run out of inventions.

Having said that, I don’t have a problem with the use of the term invention for its intent; there are other terms for the birth of children. There are 1,000,000 words in English, and counting. Why be limited?

marinelife's avatar

We do not invent children, because we do not consciously put the components together to create them. Creating children is a biological process.

As to the Professor, it depends on what “Fing-Longer” is. Is it a substance that you put on your finger that elongates it? (Yes, invention.) Is it an artificial finger elongator? (Yes, invention.) Is it a genetic manipulation that makes our finger grow longer? No, not an invention.

picante's avatar

A very thought-provoking question, indeed! Here are my thoughts: I think the term “invention” is overused in modern times. We humans find ourselves quite inventive. Really, in many cases, the term “innovation”—a new use for something—makes more sense.

Tangible goods are often innovated through a combination of our inventive minds and exisiting technolgies, processes and ingredients.

To do better job at answering your question, I’m in favor of tempering our use of the word “invention” to a narrower usage and finding the right terms for the “creation” of other things.

CWOTUS's avatar

The Fing-Longer genetic manipulation may not be an ‘invention’, per se, but I’ll bet Monsanto has engineers working on it now, with an aim to secure the patent.

wundayatta's avatar

We discover what already exists. We invent what does not already exist. The Finglonger does not already exist. A genetically modified vegetable does not exist until we invent it. The genes that allow us to invent it are already there. Unless we manipulate the insides of a gene.

This doesn’t seem so difficult to me. Is there something I’m missing?

flutherother's avatar

The word invention is fairly well understood I would have thought. If in doubt the Patent Office will put you right and tell you if your idea is as original as you think it is.

YoBob's avatar

Funny, I just had a conversation with a bunch of boy scouts working on their inventing merit badge about this very topic last night. I really think the key component of anything that can be called an invention is innovation. The item one invents may contain some radical new never before conceived of concept. However, there are many excellent inventions that consist of nothing more than combining well known concepts and materials in a new and novel way. In either case it is the innovation itself that is the key component of an invention and not the discrete parts used in it’s construction.

LuckyGuy's avatar

If Monsanto changes the name to “Thing-longer” they’re much more likely to make a fortune. I’d buy some of that!

Monsanto stock, silly. What did you think I meant?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta The distinction cannot be merely a matter of prior existence or no prior existence, as I point out in the original question. We do not invent children, after all, but they lack prior existence. It has been suggested by @marinelife that conscious construction of components must therefore be part of the concept of invention. Yet the Fing-Longer does not seem like an invention to me. While it may be new, it strikes me as somehow not creative enough to count as a proper invention. It’s just a glove with a long index finger, after all. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’d like to be convinced. Thus my asking about the conceptual boundaries of what is and what is not properly an invention.

@flutherother The conversation here has already suggested that the word “invention” is not fairly well understood. We have disagreement, and thus the concept isn’t as clear as we might think. Contra_ the ordinary language philosophers, then, it seems that competent word usage is not all there is to understanding. Perhaps there are boundary cases that would confound even the US Patent Office (or its counterpart in other countries—not all of which consider the same things to fall under their jurisdiction). So again, I thought I’d ask about the conceptual boundaries of invention.

@YoBob Yes, innovation seems like another factor we might want to build into the concept. A very good point, I think. And as you say, the prior existence of an invention’s components may be less important to what we consider an invention (and perhaps what we consider to be a good invention) the greater the innovation is. So we need to keep in mind that originality can consist in rethinking the familiar in unfamiliar ways.

wundayatta's avatar

But children do exist in the form of egg and sperm. They are created through a process that does not require cognition on the part of humans. It just happens whether it is planned or not. In fact, it takes an invention to stop children. If we follow naturally processes without intervening, children will occur without being invented. Genetically modified children do require human intervention.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta An egg and a sperm are no more a child prior to fertilization and development than a tree is a bookcase prior to being cut into boards and assembled. Regardless, the rest of what you say only proves my point: merely bringing something into existence that did not previously exist is insufficient for invention. You yourself added an extra factor—cognition or planning—meaning that your original repetition of the “we invent what does not already exist” standard cannot be the whole story. I am glad you now agree, but that was my point from the beginning.

wundayatta's avatar

Ok, @SavoirFaire. Yet, sometimes children are brought into life with planning. So that’s not the whole story, either.

Shall I put it this way? I know it when I see it!

YoBob's avatar

@wundayatta and @SavoirFaire – There is no innovation involved in making a child (well, ok, perhaps during the conception, but not the actual combining of the components), thus no invention.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta Fair enough! Maybe family resemblance will be the only way to cover the whole spectrum.

@YoBob Indeed. That’s one reason I like your addition of that component as a necessary condition. I wonder if maybe we’ll only be able to specify necessary conditions, though, and not sufficient conditions. I’ll have to think about it more.

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