NaBloPoMo: Ideas

11/07/2010 By Shawn Burns

Let’s talk about ideas. I have ideas, you have ideas. We all, apparently, have ideas.

We did not always believe this.

The term “idea” used to just refer to the Platonic Ideas, the heavenly forms that existed in a realm of thought and that expressed the fundamental nature of objects. The Idea of Man was the essence of Man that all men shared. When we thought about a particular man we were put in cognitive contact with the Form, the general essence, and it was through this contact that we could know anything about the man.

By the Middle Ages Platonic thinkers following Augustine had transferred these Ideas from a realm of thought to God’s mind. So when we perceived or thought of a man we were somehow put in touch with God’s Idea of the man.

There is a brief literary history of the term “idea” in the late 16th and early 17th century, where it begins to be used as a personal item rather than something in God’s mind. Writers began using it to refer sometimes to emotions.

But it was not until Descartes that “idea” began to take on a meaning more like “representation or thought in the mind of the thinker”. For Descartes the mind was a thinking substance, and a substance has modes, ways of being, and the modes of a thinking substance, for Descartes, were ideas. Ideas were just the ways the mind could be. Confusingly, Descartes also uses language that makes it sound more like the mind is a container for ideas.

Contemporarily we share this confusion between thinking of an idea as a way for the mind to be, and something the mind contains. Neuroscience describing the firing of neurons in response to inputs leads us to think of an idea as a way for the mind (brain, in this case) to be; folk psychology, which expresses human cognition in terms of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, leads us to think of ideas as something contained within the mind.

What do you think?