Plagiarism and Intertextuality

A Response to UChicago Philosophy Professor Agnes Callard’s Essay in The Point Magazine “Is Plagiarism Wrong?” (2019) //

By Andrew Stahl //

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay “Philip Massinger.” Defenses of plagiarism – increasingly common – frequently invoke Eliot’s maxim; one might add Virgil’s rebuke to his critics: “Why don’t they try the same thefts? If they do they’ll find it’s easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than to steal a line from Homer.” No artist can create in a vacuum, nor can a work of art have meaning in one: all art exists in a lineage (or perhaps a web) of influence. Even Shakespeare based his plays on previous stories, and Proust wrote pastiches before composing his masterpiece. Plagiarism in philosophy was common as late as Hume’s writings – philosophers would rehearse the arguments of those before them, often in direct, but unsourced, quotes. 

Before discussing the ethics of plagiarism, however, we must note that the concept is inapplicable to certain forms of art and storytelling. In folk music, for example, or in so-called “primitive art,” works often do not have an identified author or authorship is not recognized as a relevant concept. So a particular conception of authorship is required for plagiarism to meaningfully apply. This seems to be true even in cases where, despite the presence of identified authors, plagiarism was not recognized, as in the case of philosophical and theological writings of the Middle Ages on. Plagiarism was not a moral category for these authors, but the retrospective charge of plagiarism makes sense in reference to these works because of the features of their authorship, in contrast to some folk music traditions, where a plagiarism charge seems incoherent. 

Agnes Callard, in her essay “Is Plagiarism Wrong?”, argues that “there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a system where we stop crediting the original sources of an idea… There is no moral bedrock in which prohibition of plagiarism is inscribed.” We can now see that, if Callard is wrong, one condition on the “moral bedrock” of plagiarism is a particular notion of authorship. Callard marshals several strong arguments for her position, namely, that plagiarism rules protect the interests of the powerful, that no harm is done through plagiarism, that no one is entitled to gratitude for their work, and that single authorship is a myth. Rather than take her argument point by point – some of which I believe work, some of which I find dubious – I will present what I take to be a fundamental distinction, missing in most discussions of plagiarism, which I believe captures what is worth holding onto in Callard’s argument. 

Why must poets mature before they can steal? Why is stealing a line of Homer’s so difficult? Richard F. Thomas, in his book Why Bob Dylan Matters, makes the following distinction:

intertextuality is as far as you can get from plagiarism, which is a practice meant to escape notice. Plagiarism is about passing off as your own what belongs to others. In contrast, the most powerful and evocative instances of intertextuality enrich a work precisely because, when the reader or listener notices the layered text and recognizes what the artist is reusing, that recognition activates the context of the stolen object, thereby deepening meaning in the new text.

Plagiarism tries to disappear, intertextuality calls attention to itself; plagiarism does not build on the meaning of the original, intertextuality adds new layers of meaning. Intertextuality allows the artist to acknowledge and make reference to a particular tradition, while simultaneously adding something original to it. They can thus stand in a more complex relationship to their tradition, be it one of criticism, irony, reverence and so on. Plagiarism does none of this. There seem to be two differences, then, which might be summed up as follows. (I) Intention: plagiarism wants to be invisible; intertextuality, for its full purpose to be comprehended, must be noticed. (II) Meaning: plagiarism adds no new meaning to the plagiarized work; intertextuality does. (Also note that here intention seems inseparable from meaning, but that we can distinguish them for clarity for now.) The difficulty is in making the words of another one’s own, not in the sense of ownership – which Callard rightly notes is not relevant to plagiarism – but to a coherent whole which is different from the original. 

This definition applies equally to art and academic writing, both of which necessarily stand in some relation (in the case of academia, usually critical) to some tradition. This conception of the distinction between intertextuality and plagiarism allows us to retain Callard’s insight that no piece of writing is created alone – it is edited by others, and also necessarily inspired by and in dialogue with them. And it makes sense of the condition on authorship laid out earlier.

But so far I have failed to touch on the basic question: What is the harm of plagiarism? In academia, the answer is clear; tenure prospects are limited, so failing to cite someone’s work measurably harms their career. But if you don’t own your idea in the first place, this reply begs the question. What we need is an answer to Callard’s question: why is it morally important who wrote something first? The material wrongs that arise from plagiarism are obvious; but it is primarily presumed to be an intellectual crime. So our account of the moral wrong must focus on what is intellectually suspect about plagiarism. It is clearly not that the words are property – plagiarism operates extralegally – or even, as Callard makes clear, that they are akin to property. As Eliot and Virgil make clear, there is good to be had in borrowing the words of others. Even exact copies of previous works can have distinct artistic merit, which may include Callard’s youthful rewriting of a Shel Silverstein poem; see Jorge Luis Borges’s fantastic story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” for a similar example. But I want to say that the merit of these works is once again intertextual: the meaning of them changes and, at least in Pierre Menard’s case, the source of inspiration is obvious. 

Where I disagree with Callard is in thinking that people do deserve credit for their work, that one’s sources and inspirations deserve to be acknowledged, as she herself does in the “Acknowledgements” section of her essay. Rosalind Franklin was done a wrong beyond the stunting of her career when Watson and Crick failed to credit her work. Thomas would have been done a wrong if I had taken his argument without credit. This is not because they own their work, or because they were solely responsible for it – it is because they did the hard work of creating something new in their respective traditions. Explicating this intuition is difficult (perhaps we need a better metaphor than stealing for the harm done). My only hope is that distinguishing between plagiarism and intertextuality as I have can hold on to what is appealing in Callard’s argument, while leaving some room for a positive account of the harm of plagiarism.

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