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Where Do Ideas Come From?

Updated on February 25, 2011

Idea in psychology and philosophy, the thought of, or conscious reference to, something not present at the moment in sensation.

For the psychologist an idea is a mental event with a character or its own.

For the philosopher concerned with epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, an idea is a means of knowing, and it is studied through the objects of which it makes us aware.



The psychological study of ideas has produced many conflicting theories. One point would probably be agreed upon: the use of ideas comes at a later stage of an individual's development than sensations or' perceptions. In sensation we are directly aware of some quality, such as red or pain. In perception we take some object to be present on the ground of a sensation, as when we recognize an object in the sky as an airplane through sensing its sound, shape, and motion.

An idea differs from a perception in being less detailed, less intense, less dependent on the stimulation of sense organs, and more completely under our control But ideas are already at work in perception. Strictly speaking, we do not see or hear an airplane; we see a shape or hear a noise that carries with it the suggestion that the object is a plane, a suggestion drawn from past experience. So far as animals use ideas, they are probably confined to ideas of this kind, which are tied to what is given in sense. Human beings can use ideas independently of these ties; they can "look before and after and pine for what is not." This use of "free" ideas marks the chief distinction between man and animal. It opens the way to language; it makes possible memory of the past and planning for the future; it is the condition of history, science, and religion.

Ideas have usually been studied through introspection, that is, the direct inspection of one's own mental states. But this approach has led to a curious diversity in the description of ideas. David Hume in the 18th century, followed in more recent times by E. B. Titchener, thought that ideas are images, or fainter copies of sensations. But how, in that case, can we use abstract ideas such as those of number, justice, or man? These are not things of which images can be formed. Some writers of eminence, for example, T. H. Huxley in the 19th century, have thought that the abstract idea of man consists of a "compound photograph," in which the differing features of individual men cancel each other out, while the common features enforce each other.

But George Berkeley in the 18th century had already shown that this could not be correct, since the common properties of all types of men cannot in the nature of the case be pictured.

This conclusion led to two different lines of reflection. On the one hand, Robert S. Woodworth in the 20th century and other psychologists put forward the notion of "imageless thought," the recall of absent objects without the immediate use of either words or imagery. But the attempt to describe this kind of thought proved barren, and partly in reaction against it J. B. Watson offered his behavioristic psychology. At first disregarding the existence of ideas, Watson later denied their existence altogether, reducing ideas to words, spoken aloud or under the breath. Tills theory was not accepted by most psychologists, but it was revived in a modified form by Gilbert Ryle, who maintained in Concept of Mind (1949) that ideas are "dispositions" to respond in certain ways through speech or action.


To the plain man it may seem curious that experts should disagree so widely. But this disagreement arises from genuine difficulties. The reader can test these difficulties for himself by thinking successively of two objects say the Sphinx and a circle-and asking himself what his ideas are like. If he refuses to identify them either with his images or with the objects themselves, he will probably be at a loss to find what distinguishes the ideas. Because of such difficulties, many inquirers have abandoned the attempt to describe ideas, distinguishing them instead through their objects. This approach is that of logic and the theory of knowledge. In logic, two kinds of idea have been recognized: concrete, referring to things or persons; and abstract, referring to attributes or relations. Concrete ideas (and sometimes abstract ideas also) have been divided into three further types: singular ideas, referring to a J?,articular person or thing (for example, "Caesar'); collective ideas, referring to a group conceived as a unit (for example, "the Supreme Court"); and general ideas (for example, "man" or "triangle").

Plato, Locke, and Hegel. The study of ideas through their objects is of deep interest to philosophers, since the kinds of ideas will reflect the kinds of being in the world. The theories of Plato, Locke, and Hegel have been especially influential. The most famous is that of Plato" who meant by an idea not a state of mind but a peculiar kind of object-for example, a triangle.

The triangle, as a geometer conceives it, has no particular size or thickness of line or place of existence and has never been seen by anyone.

Plato regarded it, nevertheless, as not only real but far more real than any triangle that could be seen with the eye. All particular triangles are instances of this ideal one and are real only so far as they embody it. It is this ideal figure that is connected by reason with other figures in the system we call geometry. Not only figures, but all things, if we saw aright, would be seen to have these ideal essences. And if the philosopher is to understand the world, he must fix the eye of his mind on these ideas and work out their connections with one another. He will find that they form a system of which the visible world is but a pale reflection. The influence of this theory may be seen in such widely differing places as the Gospel of St. John and the mysticism of Plotinus.

Locke's contribution was simpler. By an idea he meant "whatever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks." To be conscious is to be aware of something-the blue of the sky a table, a chair. Locke, strangely enough, called all such objects "ideas" because he believed them all to exist equally in our minds. One's sensation of blue is no doubt caused by something in the outer world (a vibration presumably) but the blue that one directly experiences is merely a result in his consciousness of the stimulation of his body. So it is of all one's direct experiences.

This conception of the idea laid theĀ  foundation for British idealism. If all that we directly experience consists of our own ideas, how can we ever know whether they resemble their outer causes, or even, with certainty, whether they have such causes at all? We seem to be confined within the circle of our own ideas. By pressing such speculations Berkeley and Hume arrived at idealistic conclusions far beyond anything Locke had foreseen.

Hegel's view was closer to Plato's than to Locke's. He held that the reality of things is to be found, not in sense impressions, but in the ideas, or conceptions, of reason. These are so linked together that we cannot understand any one of them unless we also grasp its connections, just as we can attach no meaning to "3" except as related to "2" and "4." Ultimately we will find every idea so related to others that we can fully grasp it only in its relation to all the rest. If we grasp it in this way, we find ourselves in possession of an all-inclusive system, in which all the facts are linked by logical connections to all the rest. The whole will then constitute a single comprehensive thought, and accordingly Hegel called it "the absolute idea."

This idea is the universe regarded as an intelligible system, of which every idea in the ordinary sense, and every existent thing, is a comparatively unreal fragment.

Later Theories of Ideas

Of later theories of ideas the most important is that of the "logical positivists" of the early 20th century. They criticized most philosophers of the past, holding that many of their leading ideas are only pseudo-ideas without any definite meaning. Nothing is easier, according to the logical positivists, than to deceive oneself into supposing that one is thinking when one is merely using words emotively, and it is important therefore to devise a test that will tell us when our ideas are truly significant and when not.

Such a test was attempted in the famous "verifiability theory of meaning." According to the logical positivists, the meaning of any idea that is, what it refers to-is that which will verify it, or assure us of its truth. The only type of experience this school will admit as verifying an idea is presence in sense. Thus their prescription reads: if you want to test whether your idea is meaningful and, if so, just what it means, ask yourself what sense experience will serve to verify it. If you can find such an experience, that is what the idea means; if you cannot, the idea is meaningless. When this test is applied to the leading ideas of metaphysics, such as the soul, God, the existence of an unperceived world, the Hegelian absolute, and many others, the conclusion is promptly drawn that they have no meaning at all, since they refer to nothing that can be given in sense. This conclusion has been vigorously contested, not only by metaphysicians and theologians, but also by many scientists, who have insisted that protons and electrons can be talked of meaningfully, even though they can never be sensed.

The positivists have repeatedly revised their theory in the attempt to meet such criticism, but no statement of it has yet been formulated upon which philosophers generally, or indeed the positivists themselves, have been able to agree. The question "What makes ideas significant?" has proved as difficult for the philosophers as "What is the nature of ideas?" has proved for the psychologists.


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