Putting Ideas First

1 June 2010


We can make a distinction within our ideas between those ideas that preceded their concrete realization and those ideas that were formulated after the fact in order to express something already in existence. Civilization and industrialized society both preceded in fact the explicit formulation of an idea of either. The idea of air travel far preceded its realization in fact, and it was because of the appeal of the idea that the effort was made to realize it in fact.

Given this distinction, we cannot say, with Hegel, that the owl of Minerva only takes flight with the setting of the sun. This is only true for ideas that follow their concrete realization. In this case, it is the idea that is expected and desired. At least often, the idea is already given to us, and it is the realization of the idea that is awaited, expected, desired, longed for, and sought with poignant intensity.

One could say with Hegel that, at least in philosophy, the realization of a given reality precedes its conceptual formulation, and what is philosophy but the search for conceptual formulations? But even here, in purely theoretical thought, at least as often it is the philosopher’s careful parsing of ideas that leads us to realize that something is possible that had not previously been conceived. As William Blake wrote, “What is now proved was once only imagined.”

Ideas in and of themselves, without any examplar in the world, can be powerful. And examples, as yet mute, as yet unformulated as an idea in the abstract, can be equally as powerful. One cannot privilege one over the other; theory and practice are bound together. But there is a bias in our ordinary thinking, empirically-bound as it is, such that we readily grasp the idea of a concrete example as a “proof of concept” while the contrary notion of an idea as a “proof of realization” (or perhaps it would be better to say “proof of possibility”) is unfamiliar, foreign, alien. Even Hegel, that most abstract of philosophers who thought that ordinary thinking was bound up with abstractions, with his motif of the owl of Minerva taking flight with the setting of the sun, follows the common order of thinking.

Wherever there is a habit, a convention, an ordinary or accepted way of doing things, it is worthwhile to try — at least try — to do the opposite for a while and see how things go. Maybe, in so trying, we will discover the reasons that lie behind and beneath the convention. But we may also discover that the convention is mere convention and that its contravention is not unthinkable. Thus I suggest as a conceptual exercise the putting of ideas first and judging the world in terms of what ideas show to be possible, rather than judging ideas in terms of what the world shows to be possible.

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