« The Joy of Setting Fires (and the Joy of life in General) | Main | Speed Traps »

Ideas

I am home today for a Brazilian holiday. If it stops raining, I will go run.  In the meantime I am thinking about how ideas get developed.

Simply having good ideas is easy.  Developing them into integrating them into meaningful systems is hard and making them operationally useful is even harder than that.  And then there is the problem of communicating to others.  Idea creators are rarely the ones who can make them work.  Of course, everything takes time and there are lots of distractions along the way.  

We have a marketplace of ideas.  I understand that term is a little cliché, but I think it fits.  But I think we need to think of the marketplace is broader terms and include the element of time.  In the short term, both products and ideas compete in something almost like a zero sum game.  I buy more Coke and less Pepsi. But the longer term is much more dynamic.  New products are introduced; old ones change. Some products disappear, but something very much like them fills their market niche and you could see how the new one is related to the old one.  In the long run, it is very much NOT a zero sum game.  It is a vast interaction with everything and everyone reacting and changing to the others.  Products in markets tend to improve over time, or at least they better serve current needs and the best markets have lots of diverse participants.   

Like products in a dynamic market, ideas do not merely compete. Instead they develop and change in response to conditions and each other. Unlike physical products, ideas can merge in create whole new combinations. Historians of ideas like to trace the ancestry.  They make categories to differentiate the “species”. Sometimes trace the way back to ancient Greece or Ancient China; the more PC include supposed contributions by pre-literate cultures.  The lineages make sense and they are compelling, but they are wrong if taken too literally.  The historian not only tells the story, but also creates it.  In fact, the lives of ideas are much more chaotic than any story can capture, since everybody has a different hybrid of even the simplest concept.  

I understand that there is no such thing as linear causality in any even reasonably complex in system.  Everything is subject to complex feedback loops with the cause affected by the effect.  It rarely makes any practical sense to trace an idea to its origin.  At best it is like tracing a river to its source.  They say, for example, that Lake Itasca in Minnesota is the source of the Mississippi, but only a few drops of water that reach the Gulf of Mexico actually came from Lake Itasca and w/o water from additional sources, the river would never make it even as far as Bemidji.  Ideas are like that.  Even the best idea cannot get past Bemidji unless they are carried along by others.

So John Maynard Keynes was correct in principle when he wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,”   but he was exhibiting more than a bit of intellectual arrogance when he assumed that the “practical men” are simply vessels for the ideas or that the ideas came down to them in a clear line; he also overestimated the role of individual ideas and thinkers.  

We are used to thinking of ideas as coming from one wise person (or maybe a wise guy). Whole branches of ideology traced back to a single individual sometimes even named after them. We have Platonism, Marxism or Confucianism.  But how much are they really the product of their eponymous creator?   Not really very much.  How can we know? Think about how many varieties there are of any long-established “ism” and how they change over time.  Plato has been dead for more than two millennia. Presumably he is no longer editing his work, so they changes in interpretation cannot be his.  

Good philosophies are group projects, produced by interactions among individuals often over time, sometimes generations.  This allows the accumulated wisdom of people from different places and times to be put into the balance.   They evolve.  And the best do it while accomplishing the ostensibly contradictory task of maintaining and changing traditions.

Nothing new here, I guess. Just some thoughts on a rainy morning.


Hosting by Yahoo!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)