Monday, July 17, 2006

What is the existential status of an idea?

Each of the Greats (that is philosophers with an attempt at a complete ontology like Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, &c.) have some place in the universe for ideas. Ideas exist, but to what degree they exist? Can we rank existence? Philosophers often try.


A woman looks as a page of a book. Perhaps it is written in the language of the observer. These marks on the page are nothing but ink on paper. They have no intrinsic meaning, yet when combined with the observer, somehow the observer converts them into ideas. This is a very strange process. Where does the idea reside?

The idea no longer resides in the author; our hypothetical author is dead two thousand years.

Can the idea reside in the ink? Surely not in the ink alone; the ink can take on almost any number of forms, yet only when placed in a specific structure will it be comprehensible to a particular reader. It must reside somehow in the page and the ink together. Yet, it is not that either. The page can burn to ashes and still be all there, yet no longer comprehensible. There is something in the structure of ink and paper combined in a specific way which makes the idea comprehensible. But it is not an active idea. The page cannot act on its own, and the idea is unrealized if the page remains unread. So, the idea cannot reside in the page alone.

Can the idea reside in the observer? Surely not! What does the observer know before reading the page? She knows how to read, how to interoperate the scribbles on the page. She knows the common meanings of these scribbles. But she does not yet contain the idea that is written on the page. She acquires that by viewing the page in a particular way. So, the idea cannot reside in her until after she reads the page.

It is something in the process that makes the inert idea on the page become the active idea in the mind. But in what way does the idea exist before it is read?


Can thought exist without a thinker? Descartes said no! In fact, in my studies thus far, only Spinoza appears to have thought existing independent of thinker, and sharing the same existential status of physical objects. Descartes starting point is that he knows he exists because he has doubts and to doubt requires a doubter. I doubt that. Or should I say; there doubt that exists which contains within it the idea of myself doubting.

2 comments:

Peter Wong said...

"But in what way does the idea exist before it is read?"

I think, the components of the idea are in the observer, but needs to be assembled by the observer. Take your blog entry, what is the existential status of an idea

First we need concepts, meanings, and language to formulate those concepts. This blog would have no meaning to people who don't read English, who can't guess English from other European languages, much less those who don't have language. Then once we have language, concepts, and meanings; we can construct them in certain ways, which we call ideas.

Literature asks us, through language, to take words (with meanings) and concepts to construct an idea. Literature is the how-to manual to construct ideas.

Hell, another explanation is Plato's recollection theory but bah!

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As for Descartes and Spinoza: You're right about Descartes' fallacy: he presupposes existence to prove existence:

His famous
I think therefore I exist

presupposes "I" (a purely idealistic concept) to a particular:

[X] thinks
I am [X]
====
I think

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Spinoza is just a "God-intoxicated man".

Reasoning E'Bert said...

Interesting. I'm still not convinced that ideas require language to have. They do require it to share (or some form of commonly understood communication - hand jesters, facial expressions (like a smile)) with others.

Haven't you ever had an idea which you just couldn't form into words so to share with another in a way they could understand?