Defunct Ideas

11 January 2010

Monday


Coronation of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile at Reims in 1223; a miniature from the Grandes Chroniques de France, painted in the 1450s, and replete with the symbolism of the age, a tribute to medieval ideas.

A few days ago in Ideas: Blindness and Illusion I discussed the adequacy of conceptual schemes and ontological inventories of the furniture of the universe. There I suggested that a rigorous adherence to both the principle of parsimony — avoiding ontological indulgences — and the principle of adequacy — avoiding ontological impoverishment — would yield us the most accurate result in terms of seeing the world for what it is, neither more nor less than what it is.

This, of course, is a great over-simplification and obviously inadequate. For starters, there is no definite number of things in the world, including the fact that there is no definite number of ideas in the world. I can think of at least three reasons for this (there may be others, but this is what occurs to me as I write). A rigorous definition of what constitutes an individual would be necessary to be a rigorous inventory of the number and kind of individuals that exist. It is by no means obvious what is an individual and what is not. This is a function of vagueness. Also connected with vagueness, even given a definition of what constitutes an individual, there will be many cases that, due to vagueness, are ambiguous. Lastly, and certainly not least, the inventory of the world is not static, but dynamic.

The world is not frozen in any one state of affairs. If we consider populations of biological entities, for example, we know that there are always some individuals being born while other individuals are dying. Populations can be stable, but they must be viewed statistically in terms of averages and approximations. There is no Platonic form of the number of people on the planet. You can make that number precise by formulating a number of conventions, but the number would be constantly changing and the conventions adopted would in some cases be arbitrary.

What holds for human bodies also holds for ideas, with some exceptions (you can count this as an example of naturalism’s minimalist materialism that I have written about on several occasions). There is no fixed number of ideas, but ideas grow in number disproportionately to populations of non-abstract objects. Plato was nearly right on this, at least: ideas, once they emerge, are nearly eternal.

There are probably a few cases when ideas have emerged in history, played a role in human societies, and then disappeared, but we cannot prove this. Once an idea enters circulation, even if it is later abandoned, any record of the idea preserves that idea. In the earliest portions of human history, especially in prehistory (when, by definition, there are no written records that might preserve the ideas that enjoyed currency in early societies), an idea may have been conceived and subsequently lost to the vast stretches of time that have since intervened. It is likely that ideas were lost to history during the Greek dark ages, when the art of writing disappeared in places and had to be reinvented. Societies at this stage of development (think of the heroic world of Homer) had reached a stage of sophistication and complexity that many ideas would have been in circulation, but these societies hadn’t yet reached the stability or resilience of contemporary civilization, and thus much may have been lost to history.

Since the beginning of the historical period proper, few ideas have been lost to history once they entered general circulation. If an individual hits on a great idea but forgets it, or does not communicate it, or the papers upon which he wrote it were scattered, burned, or lost upon his death, countless ideas of this sort may be and are still being lost to history. But once an idea enters Popper’s third world and takes on a life of its own, beyond the mind of a particular individual, our present information technologies will preserve such an idea indefinitely. There is no reason to believe that, if civilization lasts (and maintains its continuity) for another ten thousand or even a hundred thousand years, some future individual would not be able to educate themselves in the ideas in circulation, for example, in Elizabethan England.

Which, at last, brings us to defunct ideas. Just because an idea has been preserved, and any interested, sentient party (not even necessarily human) can, through appropriate research, form an adequate conception of the idea, does not mean that that idea is a living option. An idea that has fallen out of use, no longer widely circulates in current human societies, and which is no longer a force in shaping the lives of individuals or populations, I call a defunct idea. (We could, alternatively, call them dead ideas, by analogy with dead languages, i.e., languages of which there is scholarly knowledge but which are no longer spoken by a population.)

There are many defunct ideas. For example, I would say that the idea of the divine right of kings (and some of the ideas clustered with it, like royal absolutism) is a defunct idea. Certainly there are those who still believe in individuals being divinely anointed for some purpose in life, and certainly there are still kings that rule countries (though not many any more), but as a topic that has the power to move men to passionate debate and armed conflict, the divine right of kings is no longer a “mover and shaker” in the world of ideas. All we need do is compare it to an idea that truly has currency — like democracy, communism, or revolution — to understand the difference.

Some of the ideas closely clustered with the idea of the divine right of kings, such as constitutionalism, are not defunct. In fact, they are very much alive because they won out in the historical contest between a dying idea and an emerging idea. In the early modern period, royal absolutism was an old idea, and while still an idea that would later reach its apogee under Louis XIV in France, it was nevertheless already a dying idea. At the same time, constitutionalism, as an alternative to monarchical government, was a new and exciting idea, at times as weak and as defenseless as a new-born babe, but soon enough to grow into its maturity and to replace the dying ideas of the medieval past.

We need to here distinguish further between ideas that are properly defunct and ideas that are points of reference for contemporary societies (ideas that are, in other words, embodied ideas) but are not made explicit. Such implicit ideas would include classic Enlightenment conceptions such as the perfectibility of man. If you asked the typical man-in-the-street today about the perfectibility of man, he probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about. But if you explained the idea, he would almost certainly have an opinion on it one way or the other. In other words, even if it is not given an explicit formulation, the perfectibility of man is a live option in today’s world. People not only think about it, they respond to it and may well have strong feelings about it.

As civilization continues in existence, retaining its continuity of tradition, the list of defunct ideas will and must grow. It is not likely that once an idea becomes defunct that it can reenter circulation, but is possible, over the long term, that societies could change so dramatically that a once-defunct idea could again rise from the dead and take an active role in society. It could be argued that the emergence of religious fundamentalism at the end of the twentieth century represents the recrudescence of a defunct idea. Many scholars of fundamentalism insist upon the modernity of this historical development, and I have some sympathy with this position, but it could be argued that the idea behind fundamentalism is that of fideism, and that fideism is a perennial idea.

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