Do we have any idea what ‘an idea’ is?

It is virtually impossible to ask the question ‘what exactly is an idea’ without thinking, immediately, of Plato. In his Dialogues Plato used ‘idea’ to mean at least three things. We can talk of ‘the idea of beauty’: all things beautiful must have something in common that makes them beautiful, they all share the idea of beauty. Therefore, in every beautiful thing the idea of beauty is present, and it is what makes it beautiful. Here ‘idea’ refers to a universal quality or form in the mind. Secondly, the idea can, in Plato’s work, also be a paradigm: then ‘the idea of beauty’ refers to something which itself is more beautiful than anything else. It then stands for the perfect, against which all the other beautiful things are set off. Thirdly, Plato’s ‘idea’ can also be a purpose, or an end, to approach as perfectly as possible. The main point is that to Plato ‘the world of ideas’ is a separate reality, and a more fundamental reality than ‘the world of phenomena’. All visible things or known moral rules are reflections of the world of ideas. The fleeting thing mirrors the eternal idea. We have the individual human, who is a mortal, and we have the idea ‘human’, which is eternal. Or, we have the individual act of generosity (which is fleeting) and we have the idea ‘good’ (which is eternal).

Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between ideas and phenomena was very different. To him only the individual human being (or the individual act of generosity) really existed. ‘Man’ or ‘humanity’ as a general idea is no more than an abstraction, or a name, which only exists in our thoughts; ideas for Aristotle therefore do not constitute a reality per se.

In Medieval philosophy this dichotomy (Plato versus Aristotle) lived on in the extended debates between realism (the reales, followers of Plato who claimed that the idea is an objective reality) and nominalism (claiming, like Aristotle, that the idea is but a name or nomen). The implication of realism is that general categories and values exist as a reality outside of human consciousness. In nominalism they are confined to consciousness. During the Middle Ages philosophy was dominated by the reales.

From Descartes onward, however, the ‘idea’ is generally seen as a mental content, a mind’s construction, existing in the mind. The idea became the human representation of the objective reality of phenomena. While Descartes thought that fundamental ideas like ‘the good’ and ‘the true’ are inherited, Locke reconnected ideas to empirical observation. Ever since Kant the human subject as a creator or constructor of ideas and thoughts has taken centre stage: our knowledge does not give us access to the Ding an sich, but concerns the things as they have been structured by a priori ideas in our reasoning. In spite of its strong influence, this Kantian idealism has been contradicted by several philosophers, especially in the first decades of the twentieth century, who caused a revival of – new forms of – realism.

I believe the historian of ideas should be well aware of this very old philosophical debate on the status of ideas (and of thought and human knowledge). However, this doesn’t mean that the historian could not find reasons to introduce his own definition of ideas. Ideas as a force in history deserve to be studied, whether they are seen as a distinct reality in their own right, or as constructions of and in the mind. History itself is an idea (mental construction) as well as an objectification of time (or duration). None of Plato’s definitions of the idea (the universalist, the paradigmatic, nor the teleological) seems to apply to the idea of history. Maybe history has to be seen as a sui generis.

The archaeology of thought

In The Order of Things (1966) Michel Foucault said he applied an ‘archaeological’ method to analyse the history of thought. His reason to do so was his conviction that ‘systems of thought’ (the subject of his teaching assignment) are governed by certain rules other than those of grammar and logic; rules that are not a part of the consciousness of the individual subject, because they define the system of conceptual possibilities, which determine the boundaries of thought and knowledge deemed possible, or impossible, in a certain period and a particular domain.

Because these rules governing the ‘discursive formations’ at a given time in history cannot be found in the individual’s intellectual products, they have to be excavated, Foucault thought. His ‘archaeology of thought’ tended to disregard, deliberately, the separate human subject as the fountain of historical ideas. It is more fruitful, according to Foucault, to focus on whatever structured the way people in the past were thinking. The task of the historian of ideas, then, would be to unearth these complexes (or fragments) of structuring rules that, together, constituted the mental order (or thinking-mould) of a former age.

Ernst Jünger remarked that archaeology is a science dedicated to pain. What he meant is that, when the archaeologist uncovers in old layers of the earth the remains of former empires and civilisations of which we no longer even know the names, he will realize – painfully – what has been lost, forever. Mourning becomes the site of excavation. (On Pain, 1934).

This has much to do with Foucault’s conviction that, in studying the systems of thought of former centuries, we will hit upon major discontinuities, which to a certain degree – working from present day premises – prevent our understanding this old culture and its products. The implication of the archaeology of knowledge is that one often is confronted with lost civilisations, even when studying periods (like the seventeenth century) we formerly believed to be rather close to our present time.

Eventually Foucault discovered that the archaeological method he applied had a fundamental weakness. It could compare one ‘discursive formation’ to another, bringing out the differences. But it could not show or explain what caused the transition from one system of thought to another. So Foucault decided to add another method: genealogy. In using this concept he was thinking of Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. What the genealogical analysis adds to the archaeological unearthing of the fundamental structures of a system of thought is: reconstructing how it resulted from unforeseen turns in history. Thus genealogy supplemented the structuralism of archaeology with the contingent course of history. Both methods were intended to contradict the modernist view of continuous trends, inevitably unfolding in history as if it were a rational process. Foucault remained the ‘anti-Hegel’.

Discourse and culture

Every culture has its own way of ‘speaking’. Within the general frames of logic and grammar, it applies its own rules of reasoning, has distinctive ways of using language, its own favoured stories and style of storytelling. All this comes together in the discourse (or discours in French) of a culture. It is not primarily an aesthetic construction; its objective and result is the regulation of human behaviour, of intercourse in society, and of the way its institutions operate and justify themselves. This means that discourse is not just communication, but an indispensable part of the exercise and legitimation of power. The discourse largely determines the relations between people.

A culture’s view of reality, its ideas on the limits of human perception, and its believes about the proper use of language form a whole, which distinguishes the culture from previous or later historical periods and their culture. The changing outlook on science from one period to another is a major component of what defines a culture and a culture’s characteristic discourse. Canguilhem and Foucault (among others) have stressed the importance of discontinuities in the way the sciences develop, denying that there is a continuous progress in science’s evolution.

Verstehen: understanding what the ideas of others mean

Of course, Verstehen is the German word for understanding. It is a way of knowing through the expressions of others. Therefore it can be called an indirect way of knowing. The direct way of knowing is that of the empirical sciences: observation and using causal explanation. Verstehen is an important supplement to empirical knowledge. It allows us to understand meanings and values, or the purpose of something. It should, however, not be confused with empathy, which basically is a psychological skill, directed toward a person. Verstehen, however, is an intellectual skill, directed toward a text or a work of art, which is external to me (not my own).
The theory of Verstehen has been developed by the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) on the basis of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. For the history of ideas Verstehen is of great importance, both in the sense of ‘understanding’ and of ‘interpretation’. To be sure, the working of ideas (the way they influence other people and lead to certain results) can be observed. Nonetheless, the historian of ideas cannot do without the ability to come to grips with, and deeply understand, what other persons wrote, said, and created.

From gene to meme

The concept ‘meme’ (from the Greek mimema, imitated thing) was introduced by biologist Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene (1976). His central message was that, following Darwin’s theory, we can look at evolution by natural selection from the angle of the individual (the traditional way), but also from the angle of the gene. We are created by our genes, Mr Dawkins argues, and our genes are survivors in a competitive battle that, for some of them, has been going on for a million years or more. A successful gene is ruthlessly selfish in trying to achieve its own goals. Genes can adopt certain altruistic behaviour, but only if this is the best way to reach its selfish goals. All this, says Mr Dawkins, is a statement of fact (about how evolution actually works), not a moral statement of what ought to be the case.

He added to his book a chapter on ‘Memes: the new replicators’. It opened a discussion whether, and how, the spreading of ideas and cultural aspects can (or even should) be explained on the basis of evolutionary principles. According to Dawkins the meme, like the gene, evolves in accordance with the principles of natural selection: random variation, differences in fitness between ‘units’, selective pressure and selection, mutation, and hereditary transmission or replication. The meme, in Dawkins’ view, is a unit or building-block (comparable to the gene, but not identical) that transmits by means of replication. His original definition of a meme is not very specific: “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. He mentioned some examples of memes: tunes, ideas, fashions in clothes, ways of making pots, or the belief in a life after death.

While genes propagate themselves from a parent-body to a child-body via sperm or egg, memes propagate themselves by ‘leaping’ from brain to brain via processes of imitation. What Dawkins basically says is that, taking the example of a tune, cultural transmission and evolution do not operate through the conscious person hearing, learning and repeating the tune (or teaching it to his children); instead it is the tune-meme that (as selfish in wanting to survive as the gene is) propagates itself. Though the conscious person is doing the imitating, it is the meme as a replicator that is the proper agent. Dawkins explicitly added, therefore, that a meme is a real living structure, physically taking root in the brain. In a similar way as I may sniff up a bacillus, which then like a parasite plants itself in my body and gives me a cold, I may sniff up some idea or tune, which as a meme then plants itself in my brain, staying there, forever changing my mental disposition, and waiting for an opportunity to replicate itself into another brain. It is not difficult to see that Dawkins’ advanced biology in a way ‘materialised’ Plato’s concept of a separate world of ideas.

A meme needs the human brain, and the human memory, to ‘live on’. In this, it is no different from any separate element from collective memory, which is passed on by means of social learning or imitation. The famous biologist Ernst Mayr remarked that, in his view, the ‘meme’ is an unnecessary synonym for ‘a concept’; for concepts, too, it holds true that they are not restricted to one person and are often in use for several generations or even for many centuries, being successfully transmitted again and again. So why would we need the meme, Mayr asked?

Memes can, and do, cluster. A political ideology is seen as a cluster of memes (a ‘meme complex’) replicating and adapting together. This would imply that, like all memes, political ideologies or doctrines are hereditary. However, as we know, people regularly free themselves from a doctrine, or change over to another one, which means that the concept of heredity loses much of its force.

Because the meme theory links heredity to the transmission of ideas and thoughts, and also assumes that in the process the mental abilities of humans improve, it introduces an element of Lamarckism in its Darwinian lay out.

Dawkins’ meme concept has received prominent support from E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett. On the other hand it has received severe criticism from John Gray and Ernst Mayr.

Although it is most interesting as a subject of speculation, I see several reasons to criticize the concept. To begin with, the meme as a replicator is all about copying and imitation. That takes away the idea’s originality. Dawkins does allow for the combination and recombination by a person of different memes to construct new ones. However, such (re)combination seriously inflates originality, turning the conviction of having found an original idea, all by oneself, into an illusion. Religious ‘convictions’ too are, in this view, mere combinations of existing memes, which more or less denies the possibility of genuine religious feeling. Here we see what biological reductionism does. For some reason, Dawkins believes it is necessary to reject a social or cultural explanation of learning, idea-transmission, or the forming of believes, in favour of a biological explanation. Such biological reductionism is, of course, not forbidden, but there should be a convincing reason for it.

Proponents of the meme theory seem to think that the simpler the meme, the faster it will propagate. This can mean two things: a ‘race to the bottom’ (because the simple ideas have an advantage over complex ones, and the most complex ones will be eliminated), or some kind of ‘digitalisation’ of ideas (splitting them up into small units, or ‘digits’).

A major weakness of the theory, I believe, is that it is not at all clear about the relation between a meme and an idea. Sometimes the idea is seen as a sort of a meme; and sometimes the idea is designated as the stimulus leading to the transmission of a meme. At other times one gains the impression that the meme is the transmitter (a unit of transport) and the idea the content that is being transmitted. Dawkins himself seems to believe that a meme can be a hereditary unit (replicator) as well as an idea. This, however, would mean that the idea would no longer be something you can, freely, accept or reject, or feel rather indifferent about, or return to after an earlier rejection. Ideas are mind changes, they are fluid or plastic. Even the idea we copy from someone else we still can change as we will, to be able to call it our own. A previous indoctrination can be broken, as experience shows.

Maybe the most interesting part of Dawkins’ vision is his remark that, because of man’s cultural evolution by means of this new replicator (the meme), an evolutionary change is achieved at a pace previously unknown. This speeding up of evolution obviously translates into increasing cultural complexity. But how can this growing complexity of ideas be explained if mental evolution is still – as Dawkins seems to think – bound by the original and slow mechanisms of material evolution?

Episteme and Paradigm

‘Episteme’ derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘knowledge’ or ‘science’. Plato used the term to mean: justified or true knowledge, in contrast to mere opinion or belief. In the work of Foucault épistème has a somewhat different meaning: he makes it refer to a historical complex (or apparatus, or framework) of statements, assumptions, concepts, and fundamental ideas used – consciously as well as automatically – to define the kind of knowledge that is deemed possible. Thus, the episteme operates as a structure of thought. (Remember that Foucault at the Collège de France was professor of the ‘History of Systems of Thought’). Every historical time, and each culture, lives in its own truth-construction, its own set of rules to be followed in order to produce valid thought.

This doesn’t mean that all the humans of a certain period are, in an absolute sense, the prisoners of their episteme. Sometimes a ‘clearing’ (as Heidegger called it) is reached, as an opening to new discursive possibilities. Gaston Bachelard spoke of an ‘epistemological rupture’, which occurs whenever in the sciences the epistemological obstacles of a current episteme are being torn down, or burst under the influence of some new fundamental discovery. Because the episteme sometimes is a theory (concerning the conditions necessary for knowledge to be possible) it can be superseded by another theory; and because the episteme sometimes is a practice (a current way to define what statements in science and philosophy are possible), it is possible to break it. Of course epistemes also consist of tacit assumptions, which are not easy to recognise, nor to break away from.

It may be obvious by now that the concept of episteme as employed by Foucault does have a certain similarity to the notion of paradigm as Thomas Kuhn has used it. Kuhn seems to be most interested in the ‘paradigm’ that at a certain time is dominant in the world of science, and how then a shift in the dominant model of science occurs. Going back to its Greek origin, paradigm refers to a previous pattern which is held to be exemplary (in the sense that present patterns of thought or actions are measured against it). Kuhn used Newton’s Principia as an illustration of what he meant when speaking of a ‘paradigm’ in science: Newton offered a framework of concepts, procedures and results within which future work by other scientists was to be done, while, therefore, these scientists would have to adopt to the structuring influence of Newton’s framework. This makes a scientific paradigm a universally recognised scientific achievement that, for a time, provides model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners (to follow Kuhn’s own definition).

These scientists then operate within what is seen as, for the time being, ‘normal science’. This ‘normal science’ (the dominant practice in investigation and experimentation) has a conditioning and disciplining influence on one or more generations of scientific researchers. Evidence that falls outside the current paradigm, or contradicts it, will often be neglected. This, generally speaking, is not the result of ill will; a certain paradigm achieves its status as example and mould because it accords well with the then dominant way of viewing reality. Whatever falls outside the paradigm is an anomaly, not only for disturbing the dominant mould of science, but also for seeming to be out of step with the broadly accepted definition of reality in general. However, as the number of anomalies gradually grows, a point will be reached, sooner or later, when the dominant paradigm will, in a scientific revolution, be dethroned.

Foucault’s episteme is not restricted to the community of scientists, and its dominance may not at all be apparent. Several epistemes may exist simultaneously. Besides, whereas the assumptions inherent in the paradigm are part of the way science is practised, the assumptions in the episteme are more of a philosophic and linguistic nature: what can we know, and what can we speak of. These fundamental questions will receive very different answers before or after the Renaissance, before or after Kant and subjective rationalism, before or after Freud and psychology.