For centuries, innovation was a political and contested concept and linguistic weapon used against one's enemy. To support their case, opponents of innovation made use of arguments from ethos and pathos to give power and sustenance to their criticisms and to challenge the innovators. However, since the nineteenth century the arguments have changed completely. Innovation gradually got rehabilitated. This article looks at one type of rehabilitation: the semantic rehabilitation. People started to reread history and to redescribe what innovation is. What was bad innovation became good innovation because of long-lasting and beneficial effects, so it was believed.
A Study in the Rehabilitation of a Concept
A View from Natural Philosophy
Our present understanding of innovation is closely linked to science and research on the one hand and economy and industry on the other. It has not always been so. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the concept was mainly used in religious and political discourses. In these contexts, actors used it in a pejorative sense. Innovation, imagined as a radical transformation, was considered a peril to the established social order. Such was natural philosophers’ understanding. Th is article documents Francis Bacon’s work as an eminent example of such a representation. To Bacon, natural philosophy and innovation are two distinct spheres of activity. It is documented that Bacon’s uses of the concept of innovation are found mainly in political, legal, and moral writings, not natural philosophy, because to Bacon and all others of his time, innovation is political.
Innovation is a key concept of modernity. It acquired its lettres de noblesse in the twentieth century, thanks to or because of economics and technology. However, for centuries the concept was essentially pejorative. How can we explain this connotation? This article suggests that one of the crucial moments is the Reformation. Using official documents of the time, the article studies the vocabulary of the English Reformation and documents the meanings and the uses made of innovation. The article suggests that innovation served two functions or purposes: an injunction (not to innovate) and an accusation of non-conformity. Thereafter, innovation became a linguistic tool of polemic.