I’ve long thought the Marxist view of ideas — which says, in a nutshell, that ideas are basically fake, that they don’t have any real impact or influence, that any ideology (system of ideas) is actually just a mask for the true moving powers of society, which are purely material and economic — is ridiculous, false, and self-serving for the regimes that have tried to implement it. In short, it’s bullshit. I’ve also thought it unfortunate that in modern America this viewpoint has in many cases become entrenched among people who, often in the absence of any knowledge of its historical origin, like to read all ideas, and therefore all art, literature, and religion, as nothing but legitimations or expressions of power struggles based on race, class, and gender. (For a recent lament about this trend in college English departments, see The Wall Street Journal and Joseph Epstein’s “What Killed English Lit.“) (For a takedown of Epstein’s piece, see the response to it from Matthew Cheney at The Mumpsimus.)
So it’s nice to come across some recent mainstream writings that do a nice job of advancing the opposite — and truer — understanding, which is that ideas really are real. For a non-mainstream look at the same idea, I invite you to Google various combinations of “daimonic reality,” “imaginal realm,” “henri corbin,” “carl jung,” “psychic objectivity,” and related terms.
The autonomous life of ideas
To my mind the [claim that it’s a philosophical error to attribute real cultural influence to ideas] contain[s] a philosophical error of its own. This [is] materialism, the crudest of doctrines: the belief that human nature can be reduced to a single element, which is material force or interest. Whole schools of thought stand on the materialist assumption, and anyone can see why. A glance at today’s news or at random periods of the past ought to show that economic and other concrete factors normally do play a decisive role in driving world events. Still, if you allow your glance to linger awhile, you might notice that other factors sometimes figure in as well. Now and then, people act on their beliefs. Sometimes beliefs change.
A second glance might reveal still another reality. You might notice that, once in a blue moon, people’s beliefs tilt against their material interests, and they act on those beliefs even so. A third glance might reveal something more remarkable still. You might notice that, every few hundred years, some extraordinary person introduces a new idea or doctrine into the world, and the new idea somehow swells into a gigantic force of its own, without any obvious connection to material factors, and the world changes shape. These are outbreaks of the unpredictable. The outbreaks demonstrate that, for all the power and influence of material forces, the history of ideas has an autonomous life of its own, sometimes with the hugest of consequences.
The rise of Christianity — to cite a non-trivial example — does not lend itself to any obvious material explanations … I think that, in the cases of Christianity and Islam alike, you have to recognize the independent force of the founding figure and his personality and doctrine — which is to say, the power of an idea.
Full story at The New Republic: “From September 11 to the Arab Spring: Do Ideas Matter?” — Paul Berman Aug. 24, 2011
“A parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants”
Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1965 for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, proposed an analogy: just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an “abstract kingdom” rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas. “Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms,” he wrote. “Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.” Ideas have “spreading power,” he noted—“infectivity, as it were”—and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people. The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry had put forward a similar notion several years earlier, arguing that ideas are “just as real” as the neurons they inhabit.
… “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” [Richard] Dawkins proclaimed near the end of his first book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. “It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.” That “soup” is human culture; the vector of transmission is language, and the spawning ground is the brain. For this bodiless replicator itself, Dawkins proposed a name. He called it the meme.
… Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us — not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth’s organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception. We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them. When a jingle lingers in our ears, or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?
Full story at Smithsonian.com: “What Defines a Meme?” — James Gleick, May 2011
The most resilient parasite
Relatedly — and significantly — it’s nice to see a culture-wide recognition of the profound power of ideas being promulgated by massively popular movies with dialogue like this: “What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”