Through the various ways of knowing, a knower classifies knowledge into certain disciplines, which then become known as areas of knowledge. The essential question then becomes: where do these areas of knowledge come from? Are they discovered or are they invented? Discovery is the act of uncovering an existing piece of information. Invention is the creation of a device or process that might be based on existing facts or models.
In the 17th century, the discovery of relationships such as electron attraction and repulsion, magnetic poles, and electric force led to the concept of static electricity. Consequently, the discovery of electricity led to the invention and birth of technology and electronics in the 19th and 20th centuries. A philosopher might argue that discovery is the existence of the laws of nature and the human notion to discover and describe them whereas invention disregards the laws of nature and essentially, is an estimate of a concept that is intangible. Philosophy constructs a fine line between discovery and invention, however, through the example above, it can be understood that there is always a gray area present between the black and white of discovery and invention, which could be investigated further in the exploration of the areas of knowledge history, the arts, and mathematics.
History is the study of the past that is reconstructed through pieces of evidence and their significance to the human race. Fundamentally, history is an area of knowledge that is based on discovery in the form of historical records such as inscriptions, documents, texts, and so forth. These records, however, can even be expressed in a different ways. Most historical records that refer to periods more than a thousand years old are in a different language. It is in the interpretation of these languages where discovery is lost and invention is born, along with the interpretation of events. In order to translate a language or interpret an event, reason and emotion are often used as tools.
The existence of the ancient Egyptian civilization was discovered through the archeological expeditions conducted in Egypt, which resulted in the discovery of pyramids, jewels, hieroglyphs, and much more. There are two theories that are currently present. The Arabic deciphering of hieroglyphs that occurred in the 9th century was based on phonetics in the language. The most accepted translation of hieroglyphs, conducted by Jean-Francois Champollion in the 19th century, was based on alphabetic and syllabic observations. Which one is correct? Both set of scholars used reason to reach a conclusion. As far as we know, hieroglyphs could tell stories leading to new facts we haven't even considered because we haven't been able to correctly decipher the language.
Invention's role in history is also shown through emotion. Certain pieces of information are left out from history books that might change the perception of readers. The most known example is the massacre at Nanking, which is considered to be one of the most ruthless acts of human aggression, conducted by the Japanese in Nanking during the Japanese invasion of China. Discovered evidence suggests that theft, rape, murder, and other war crimes were committed in the city. The Japanese are very strongly in denial of this chapter in their history and thus, have erased any record of this massacre in Japanese history textbooks. Some citizens of Japan are completely unaware that this event actually took place. Unknowingly, history leads to interpretation and misinterpretation of facts that are presented by evidence.
Some might argue that history is strictly a discovery because of the presence of facts and evidence to support theories. This may be true, since very few historical claims are made without concrete confirmation. However, history textbooks are still written by man. Languages are still translated by man. History is the interpretation of events of humans by humans. Therefore, depending on the perception of the knower, history could be classified as a discovery and an invention or an invention of theories created on the basis of discovery.
The most obvious connection between discovery and invention is seen in the arts. The arts have progressed through time, from cave paintings to the works of Vincent van Gogh, from Baroque music to country tunes, from Greek theater to Stanislavsky's theory, etc. The arts are a broad area of knowledge that includes many subjects of study. A work of art is certainly an invention created by an artist. However, the message the artist conveys is most definitely a discovery that existed before and is used in the piece. The message developed in a piece comes from the perception and emotion of the knower, or artist, in this case.
Pablo Picasso perceived the world around him in a different way, which led him to invent the artistic form cubism. As we learn in IB Theater Arts, Bertolt Brecht perceived acting as alienating the audience from the actor as a way to convey his message, which led to the invention of Epic Theater. In a recent example, modern interpretations of music and dance vary from artist to artist. Each artist has a purpose in their own creation. Through their perception, artists use discoveries, which are themes in their works, to invent methods of portraying their art.
The claim always exists that art is a representation of what the mind pictures, and thus, an invention. However, one has to note that the inspiration that occurs in the mind is derived from ideas and opinions that have been discovered by the artist. According to novelist Marcel Proust, "the real voyage of discovery consists no in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." The arts involve the intention of the artist, which is discovery. The form of expression of an artist, however, is indeed an invention.
Mathematics is another area of knowledge in which the overlap between discovery and invention is seen. Mathematics is a subject area that includes arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and calculus. Mathematics is based on observations and relationships that exist in nature. However, it is primarily a way of expressing these observations, which might be considered as a new language through which mathematicians explain certain occurrences. Besides the creation of a language, reason is used to explain these relationships.
Arithmetic is the most basic form of mathematics. Logically, if five groups of stones arranged in groups of three are placed on a table, an observer would say that in total, there are fifteen stones and five groups. Mathematics helps communicate this concept through the idea that three multiplied by five results in the quantity fifteen. Mathematics is a means of communication through which mathematicians clarify basic ideas. In a more complex example, the Pythagorean Theorem seeks to explain that in a right triangle, the sum of the length of the sides squared is equal to the length of the hypotenuse squared. Pythagoras did not simply invent this. He observed the relationship in nature and explained the phenomenon using a mathematical equation. If one looks at flight of stairs and measures the lengths of the right triangle formed by the height of the flight and the distance away from the initial point, the Pythagorean Theorem works perfectly well. In an even more complex example, Isaac Newton invented calculus, which is a field of study within mathematics centered on limits, differentiation, and integration. Newton established his study based on certain relationships he found in natural physics. The concept that velocity is the rate of change of displacement and acceleration is the rate of change of velocity was always present. It was Newton who used reasoning to invent a means of communicating these connections that later became known as calculus.
There is always the argument that the whole field of mathematics is an invention because humans needed a way to count. People might ask "why is two plus two four?" and then answer "because we want it to be". However, through reason and logic, two pens put next to two pens result in a total of four pens. In relation to the claim that numbers were created as a means of counting, we forget that we have created several ways of communicating the same relationship. Roman numerals are a prime example. They were also a means of counting, similar to the Arabic numbers we use today. However, they were used to express the same relationships modern numbers attempt to explain. Two and two made four to the Romans and it makes four to us. The trends in nature of mathematics have always existed. It is their discovery that mathematics explains through the invention of a language or means of communication, whether it is in Roman numerals or Arabic numbers.
The distinction between discovery and invention is seldom clear. The idea that both these notions, in relation to areas of knowledge, are intertwined must be acknowledged. In most cases, as shown in the areas history, the arts, and mathematics, invention is the final product of initial discovery. Therefore, in discussing the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered while others are invented, there is always an aspect in the origins of areas of knowledge that provokes the theory that maybe an area of knowledge could contain characteristics of both, a discovery and an invention. As biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi puts it, "Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought."
- Richard van de Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006)