Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Can ideas travel?

Keeping up the travel theme, I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'Can ideas travel?'

It's not unusual to speak of ideas moving from era to era, country to country: Plato from Athens to Africa or Rome, for example. But can notions actually move? The reality is more complicated. A sample:
If Hume is right—and the general picture is convincing—then ideas cannot actually take trips. Humans can ride galleys to Londinium or jets to London; books can be shipped from warehouse to study, museum to library reading room. And these movements introduce us to new impressions, which prompt new ideas. But these ideas stay exactly where they are: within us. 
This does not mean that thinking happens inside minds, a ‘ghost in the machine’, to use Gilbert Ryle’s phrase from The Concept of Mind. It means that ideas arise in thinking beings, who are inescapably limited: situated in a given time and place, with a first-person perspective on the world. And because of this, ideas cannot take holidays—they are tangled up in the creaturely situations of the people who have them. 
For example, Plato had ideas over two millennia ago. These prompted him to write The Republic. His writings were copied by scribes, those scrolls were copied and translated into Latin, new codexes were designed and printed and, after centuries, various editions in various languages were digitised and downloaded—including the public domain one on my phone. At no point did Plato’s ideas become public, strictly speaking. Plato’s inscriptions caused impressions, which were transformed into complex ideas. And just as importantly, these became different ideas, from his early Academy students like Aristotle, to a Neo-Platonist like Plotinus, to a Christian theologian like Augustine. 
The point is not that we cannot think about Plato’s ideas. The point is that they are not Plato’s ideas, if this means some ethereal stuff that continues from fourth century Athens to today. Instead, we have to create and recreate notions, which we associate with yet another concept: ‘Plato’. Likewise, I put together the idea of London from scattered impressions of the city, and invent all that I have not witnessed. Many ideas of nineteenth century London, gained from Henry James’s English Hours, are all second-hand, fabricated from the raw materials of Melbourne: fog, carriages, sculleries. In fact, James himself had to do this, making do with invention. ‘Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot,’ he wrote in the essay “London”, ‘but in imagination, and by a constant mental act of reference the sympathizing resident inhabits the whole…’. 
In short: to say that ideas travel is shorthand for a more complicated to-and-fro. Similar concepts occur in more than one place and time, often with similar influences. Ideas go nowhere. This does not mean that philosophical continuity is bogus: from Hume to me, for example. It means we have to be aware of the subtle play of experience behind the notions. When we pick up a book like Hume’s Treatise, we cannot simply unpack the pages to find bubble-wrapped ideas: we render them as we read, informed by a lifetime of perception.

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