Ideas Again

23 December 2009


Last June in Literary Serendipity I wrote about my good fortune in happening upon a volume of Gibbon available as a book on tape at the library. The same library (the northwest Portland branch of the Multnomah County library) has yielded me a further pleasure. I found a series of lectures at the library titled Ideas that Shaped Mankind: A Concise History of Human Thought, one of The Modern Scholar series published by Recorded Books, and delivered by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who has a wonderfully expressive speaking voice with an accent as decidedly English as his name is decidedly un-English.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

I really enjoyed these lectures, which I listened through twice in their entirety, not least because the speaker’s orientation on some matters is so close to my own perspective. Even when I disagree with a book or a lecture I can get something out of it — sometimes I get a lot out of it, and find the opposition stimulating — but I often feel that I have to go to war against the author when I strongly disagree. I feel the need to define my position in opposition to that with which I disagree. As I said, this can be stimulating and the spur to writing. But it is also nice, on occasion, to listen to something that does not go against the grain.

This is not to say that I agreed with everything Fernández-Armesto said. Far from it. The potted accounts of philosophical ideas in the later lectures were the weakest parts of the course. But I especially liked the early lectures with their focus on prehistory and the recognition that human beings have been cognitively modern since the emergence of anatomically modern man with homo sapiens sapiens. This has been a theme of much interest to me in recent years, and it is one that Fernández-Armesto nicely develops in his lectures. Also of central importance to me is the role of ideas in human history, which, as should be evident from the title of the lecture, was Fernández-Armesto’s central concern in these talks.

Fernández-Armesto likes to surprise his listeners, and one way of doing so was to single out cannibalism as the first significant idea in human history. It is always entertaining when a speaker has a bit of fun with his audience to shock them out of complacency; we all need this, intellectually more than anything else. Fernández-Armesto argues that cannibalism is perhaps the earliest human idea because it occurs in a ritual context and is not usually associated with necessity or the avoidance of starvation. I think that he is right in this, but I also think that his use of cannibalism as an idea that has shaped mankind requires, for the sake of clarity, that a distinction be made between embodied ideas and abstract ideas.

Hans Staden, a German soldier who traveled to what is now Brazil, claimed that the Tupinambá people with whom he was in contact were cannibals who practiced the killing, preparing and eating of war captives: an instance (at times disputed) of ritualized cannibalism in historical times.

This is an important distinction, and I intend to return to it in future posts. The practice of cannibalism in a ritual context in prehistory points to an abstract idea that can be made explicit at a later time (as Fernández-Armesto makes it explicit as an idea in his lecture), but as it originally appears in history cannibalism is a thoroughly embodied idea. Let me give another example to try to shed a little more light on embodied ideas.

Mysticism, like cannibalism, is an embodied idea.

Mysticism strikes me as a perfect example of an embodied idea. Most mystics, and certainly the earliest mystics in history, did not argue that direct, immediate, and personal experience of the divine was possible; mystics, rather, themselves claimed to have had experiences that could be described as direct, immediate, and personal experiences of the divine, and in so far as their claims were considered valid the idea of mysticism is shown to be a live option in human history. We know (if we do know) that direct, immediate, and personal experience of the divine is possible because this possibility has been concretely embodied in the person of the mystic.

At the other extreme end of the spectrum of ideas, not contradicting but rather complementing embodied ideas, are abstract ideas. What exactly is an abstract idea? The term has a long history, and because abstract ideas have a history they have been defined in more than one way. Husserl, who titled one of his major works Ideas (in three volumes), often recurred to what he called an “idea in the Kantian sense.” What did he mean by this? Kant took some trouble to attempt to define exactly what he meant by an idea. In the Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote:

A perception which relates solely to the subject as a modification of its state, is a sensation (sensatio), an objective perception is a cognition (cognitio). A cognition is either an intuition or a conception (intuitus vel conceptus). The former has an immediate relation to the object and is singular and individual; the latter has but a mediate relation, by means of a characteristic mark which may be common to several things. A conception is either empirical or pure. A pure conception, in so far as it has its origin in the understanding alone, and is not the conception of a pure sensuous image, is called notion. A conception formed from notions, which transcends the possibility of experience, is an idea, or a conception of reason.

In the next section, and more briefly, Kant wrote:

By idea I understand the necessary concept of reason, to which the senses can supply no corresponding object.

I think this is what Husserl meant when he referred to an idea in the Kantian sense, and it is a conception that can be entertained apart from the specific context of Kant’s thought: what we have above called an abstract idea is an idea that has no counterpart in sensory experience. An idea in this sense is unique to the intellect. Also, this definition of an abstract idea suggests a formulation of non-abstract ideas: a non-abstract idea is an idea that does have a definite counterpart in sensory experience. If we liked, we could so define embodied ideas.

Is there any such thing as an abstract idea? Well, the above is only a sketch and only the bare beginning of an adequate account of ideas and the distinction between abstract ideas and embodied ideas. But we will point out here that even if one were to engage in a more rigorous analysis and insist on a more fine-grained account, and if the principles one adopted for such an account were formulated so as to reduce most ideas that we think of as being abstract to non-abstract ideas, if we pause and reflect we will see that even if our existing stock of ideas is not abstract, we will have the idea of an idea that is abstract. In other words, even if there are no ideas in the Kantian sense, there is still the idea of an idea in the Kantian sense, so that minimally we can conclude that there is at least one abstract idea. This, then, shows us the validity of the possibility of abstract ideas, and once this validity is established a more sympathetic account (i.e., an account less empiricist in its presuppositions) will find abstract ideas throughout our experience.

In his famous and influential essay “What is Cantor’s Continuum Problem?” Kurt Gödel dealt with some of the issues implied above about abstract objects, and in so considering the nature of the abstract objects contemplated in logic and mathematics suggested a supremely abstract idea:

That something besides the sensations actually is immediately given follows (independently of mathematics) from the fact that even our ideas referring to physical objects contain constituents qualitatively different from sensations or mere combinations of sensations, e.g., the idea of object itself, whereas on the other hand, by our thinking we cannot create any qualitatively new elements, but only reproduce and combine those that are given.

The idea of object itself, and not the idea of any particular object, is something that we all have occasion to use, and some — like logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers — use all the time. And yet, despite its apparent familiarity, no where in experience will you find an object simpliciter. You will find particular objects aplenty, but object itself remains a supremely abstract idea that cannot be naturalized without doing the idea violence and changing it beyond recognition.

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Kurt Gödel, one of the greatest abstract thinkers of all time.

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