Language and Communication

What is an Idea?

I don’t have a scientific answer to that question. I’m sure one or several such accounts exist (leave some in the comments if you know!) but I’m more interested in the phenomenology of an idea, a map of the experience of having one.

I tend to think about the world of ideas as an electro-magnetic field that hums between objects and events. There are many points of affinity or attraction between objects and events, potential connections to be made, but they are only actualized when these objects and events come into spatial and/or temporal proximity to one another and to a particular human person (at least as far as we know). When a connection like this snaps into place, we call that event an idea.

I don’t know if there’s any truth to this but it does feel that way from time to time. I figure I must be blind to most of the connections that exist between things because I have had enough experiences in which I am suddenly able to see a connection only because I have, seemingly by chance, read one book at the same time as another, or had a certain conversation soon after seeing a certain painting etc. Ideas always feel serendipitous, like stumbling upon something that was there before I got there.

In other words, I want to avoid the conception that ideas are fabrications – connections that have no basis in reality, completely invented – which is where the image of the field comes from. Connections between everything exist in a kind of weak form that doesn’t necessarily mean very much, but the possibility for meaning really is out there in the world. It’s not invented. On the other hand, though, I don’t want to give an idea some kind of metaphysical existence in itself either. In part this is because an idea independent of a human person “having” that idea is not something that we could understand since this would require somehow being able to step outside human experience. This is impossible. And so I think of an idea as an event, an actualization that must take place “in” a person, when two or more things come into proximity to one another and to a person with all of his or her other associations.

I suspect that I think of ideas in this way, between the personal and the universal, as a way to try to account for the strange type of experience that an idea is. On the one hand, it is something that seems to happen to us, to come to us from beyond ourselves and we can identify at least some of the components that compose or catalyze it as independent of our existence. Yet on the other hand, an idea also seems intensely personal. Its significance is so much connected to our own personal history, in either addressing a problem on which we have been ruminating or enlightening a situation we did not understand, that it can sometimes even be very difficult to communicate it to anyone else.

In fact, in order to communicate an idea at all it must be codified and contextualized into something other than an idea – a theory, a hypothesis, an interpretation, a story, an image, a metaphor, an invention, a solution, a proverb. These frameworks that make ideas meaningful to the world are very rarely the same as the contexts in which an idea appears to the person who communicates it. For a couple of years I wasn’t really able to talk about my research to others at all. I hadn’t sufficiently translated the idea into a framework that could be communicated (and in some ways I am still looking for a framework that would more helpfully connect to the human condition). The response of others upon hearing about my research is often to ask how I came to it, in other words to ask how I “had” the idea. I am always rather unhappy to answer the question because the answer is personal in a very uninteresting sort of way. I don’t mean that it’s private; it just doesn’t connect to much of the human condition and so is always less illuminating and interesting than people hope it will be.

So I think it’s debatable whether an idea itself can ever be shared as itself. This is the irony. We feel that an idea is an idea and not a random mental event precisely because it connects us in some way to the larger universe. Yet in order to communicate this connection, to make it real, we have to translate it out of the parochial context of its happening and into a meaningfully-shared framework. The connection happens for us, and then we spend days, weeks, months, or years trying to help other people to enter into that connection by appealing to a framework in which the connection actually happens to others as a connection, whether by making a really good story, a really clear theory, or a really gripping picture.

As an aside, the phenomenology of ideas that I seem to be developing here is very different than what Merleau-Ponty thinks of ideas. Since I had his book, Phenomenology of Perception, near by I had a peek at what he thinks:

Like the object, the idea purports to be the same for everybody, valid in all times and places, and the individuation of an object in an objective point of time and space finally appears as the expression of a universal positing power. I am no longer concerned with my body, nor with time, nor with the world, as I experience them in ante-predicative knowledge, in the inner communion that I have with them. I now refer to my body only as an idea, to the universe as idea, to the idea of space and the idea of time. Thus ‘objective’ thought (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is formed – being that of common sense and of science – which finally causes us to lose contact with perceptual experience, of which it is nevertheless the outcome and the natural sequel (70).

In other words, he doesn’t seem to like ideas very much. They are abstractions from the more organic way in which we encounter the world in terms of particularities. This seems rather a shame since most of us encounter ideas as rather wonderful experiences, precisely as connections rather than abstractions. In fact, I think the reason for Merleau-Ponty’s antipathy is that he is actually not here doing phenomenology at all. This is not a phenomenology of ideas, ideas as events, but a description of the idea in the abstract – as people describe or use the word, not necessarily as how they experience it. I have been actually suggesting the opposite of Merleau-Ponty, that phenomenologically, ideas are in fact intensely personal, perceptual, and particular events.

Merleau-Ponty claims that an idea is the natural sequel to perceptual experience that causes one to lose touch with that experience. This is what does not convince me. This seems like an awfully loose association between perceptual experience and idea – that it is merely a sequel, that one kicks away the ladder of perception once one has reached the idea. It seems to me, instead, that the idea is more embedded in perceptual experience than Merleau-Ponty allows and that it is in fact the attempt to translate the idea into something more that causes one to lose touch with that experience, rather than the idea itself that causes this.

But even this is not a given. All good communications of ideas must return to the particulars of perceptual experience. This is the hallmark of good fiction and poetry and art. Likewise, even a good abstract treatise is probably good in significant part due to clarity of communication, which relies on specific examples, examples, in other words, from perceptual experience. The relationship of the idea to perception and to the self-world relationship is therefore not one of stepping-beyond, of abstraction, but of oscillation. An idea is a particular form of perceptual experience that invites you into a suspension from such experience only to throw you back in again in attempts to communicate it.

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