The Great Conversation:
Idea—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

The pendulum of Western thought continues to swing between Plato and Aristotle, yet from radically different pivots ...

Go here for Part I.

Between the Medieval period and the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, both the ideas people thought about and their understanding of ideas as such shifted substantially. Though the general atmosphere of the Scholastics had turned toward Aristotle and a kind of moderate empiricism (exemplified principally by Averroes and Aquinas), the Renaissance saw a resurgence of older Neo-Platonic philosophy, often with a pronounced mystical or magical bent. This continued in both the Catholic and Protestant regions of Europe, and it is not entirely a coincidence that this was also the period when witch hunts were at their peak throughout the continent.

Whether or not it was directly caused by the flowering of Platonism, it was at this juncture that Descartes’ work emerged and became important. In search of absolute certainty, Descartes sought to explore the most radical possibilities of doubt, on the premise that anything that held up to such doubt must be reliable. Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I exist,” was just such a maxim; from there, he re-built the universe, on the hypothesis that even if his senses and so forth were not trustworthy, he must be getting his ideas about the world from somewhere, and that he himself was not an adequate explanation for the world he perceived. In this way, his concept of innate ideas partly resembles Plato; but where Plato brought in the Forms to explain metaphysics, Descartes placed epistemology at the center. This shift, from studying reality first and foremost to studying the mind itself—changing focus from the light to the eye, if you will—was seismic. Nearly all subsequent Western thought has begun with epistemology rather than metaphysics, irrespective of the methods, emphases, and conclusions of the philosopher in question.

In any case, Descartes (arguably) founded the tradition of idealism in modern Europe. In general, idealist philosophies tend to proceed from theoretical premises that are posited a priori, on logical or mathematical grounds; idealists are often skeptical of our power to know much, if anything, about the material world or the essences of things. Existence, for idealists, tends to mean being present to a mind or minds. Many of the great German philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fall into this tradition, such as Gottfried Leibniz, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer. Perhaps the most extreme of all idealists was Bishop George Berkeley, who asserted that “to be is to be perceived,” and that we cannot know anything about matter—not even whether it exists—but can only experience our perceptions.

Immanuel Kant was one of the most important idealists in European thought. Kant believed that, while we can experience material things (what he called the phenomenal realm), we cannot know them as they are in themselves; we can only have ideas about them that we seem forced to believe (these ideas form what he called the noumenal aspect of our experience). For instance, it seems impossible to disbelieve that matter occupies space, but both matter and space are noumena which we can only construct theories about. God, if he exists, might know these things “directly,” but minds like ours cannot.

If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.

The whole idealist tradition, however, is only one side of the history of modern thought about ideas. Idealism is typically contrasted with realism (not to be confused with the Medieval realism we discussed last week), a family of schools of thought whose principal common trait is the idea that things exist independently of minds. John Locke’s famous statement that the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate without innate content, is typical of realism. This outlook often goes together with an empiricist approach to epistemology, which, in a curious convergence with idealism, sometimes leads to its own version of skepticism; David Hume’s caution about our power to identify causality correctly is an example of this skepticism. One form of realism that has wielded a great deal of popular influence in the last century or two is scientism, the idea that the scientific method is the only way of obtaining truth, or at least that it gets us the only truths worth knowing. The term is perhaps a little unfair, since it is not necessarily endorsed by most actual scientists, but the thing the name points to does exist and wield influence.

This leads us to another offshoot of the idea of ideas: semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and communication. Much of the discipline is concerned with linguistics, but humans communicate in many other ways, and semiotics deals with these as well: customs, symbols, and rituals are all ways of conveying meaning that don’t necessarily use words—a wedding ring, for example, indicates the idea of marriage whether the person who sees the ring was there to hear the spouses make their mutual pledge or not. Whether and to what extent ideas themselves are signs is part of the field of semiotics.

Lastly, we may consider three closely related modern fields: existentialism, phenomenology, and psychology. All three are intimately concerned with human experience. Existentialism tends to revolve around establishing a given experience or emotional state as the defining trait of humanity; phenomenology focuses on the processes of consciousness and knowledge; psychology looks at the human mind more medically, seeking to grasp its normal and abnormal patterns in order to help deal with disorders and traumas. Despite their divergent concerns, however, all three define human experience in terms of preconceived ideas, from emotion to practical function to health. Perhaps the Platonic notion that the Forms came first, despite its difficulties, is finally inescapable.

Suggested reading:
René Descartes, Meditation on the Method
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations
G. E. Moore, A Defense of Common Sense
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Walker Percy, Lost In the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book


If you liked this post, check out some of our other posts on the Great Conversation, like this one on the concept of theology or this one on the idea of tyranny, or take a look at the reading list afforded to us by our founder Jeremy Tate’s interview with Dr. Cornel West on our weekly podcast, Anchored.

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