In the big picture, ideas don’t matter as much as people like me try to pretend. Obviously, in some broad sense, some ideas matter very much to some people, sometimes. But even in those cases where ideas matter in big ways, the practical, material circumstances have to be just right, and it is what’s done with the idea that ends up mattering. Had Martin Luther come up with his idea (Protestantism) in a century earlier, it probably wouldn’t have mattered; had the theses he nailed to the door become only a topic of discussion among reading clubs, it wouldn’t have mattered. As it was, the idea came at the right time – people with political and economic power needed an excuse to drive out the authority of the church – and it was taken up as a rallying cry in a social movement. His idea was like a key – but the lock mechanism had to be set, and there had to be a motive to open the door.
The reason we think ideas matter is that they sure seem to bring about change in our daily lives. Lately I’ve had the idea that I need a new laptop, and (regrettably) that idea has been directing my focus and my actions with all the power of a giant magnet. I can’t resist its attractive pull; I shop and shop and read reviews and assess and re-assess and on and on. If I had to diagnose what has been determining the actions of my life over the last few days, I would have to say it’s the idea that I need a new laptop. Then, when I try to distract myself by reflecting philosophically on what determines the course of history, I end up asking what big idea was determining the lives of those who lived long ago, as if entire populations are driven by ideas in the way I’m driven by the idea that I need a laptop. (Did I mention I think I need a laptop? See! It’s irresistible!)
But societies aren’t great big individuals, and they are not driven, as a whole, by ideas. They are usually pushed around by forces they have no idea of, like changes in climate, economic conditions, population pressures, etc. (It’s only in recent times that we’ve had any kind of measured records and knowledge of such forces.) That’s true for individuals as well, of course. I think I’m driven by my idea that I need a new laptop, but that idea is probably just some disguise for some other thing that’s pushing me along: desire for change, subliminal advertising, some nagging bur of self-loathing that I think will be removed with a new gadget, etc. In our societies and in ourselves, we usually don’t know what is doing the pushing and pulling.
In his Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett recommends a method he calls heterophenomenology when it comes to handling people’s introspective reports of their own experience. Dennett’s idea is that we can’t really trust what people say about the character of their own experience; but we can trust them to report what they believe they are experiencing. So, if I am looking at one of those clever pictures that make it seem as if parts are moving, I will declare that I see motion. Now it would be wrong-headed to try to find the part of the brain that introduces motion to the visual stimuli, in order to put on a moving “show” for my inner observer. What we should do instead is explain why I end up with the belief that parts in the picture are moving, and we can do this without ever adding motion to nonmoving elements of our visual experience. I don’t really see the motion; I only believe that I do. What we end up saying and believing about our experience, and what we actually experience, are different things.
I mention this because I think a similar kind of heterophenomenology should be employed in the history and philosophy of ideas. Suppose we are studying 16th-century German events, and as we read records and pamphlets from the time we can’t help but notice there’s a lot of talk about the relation between a believer and God, about the eucharist, about the nature of the priesthood, etc. “My goodness!” we’ll say. “Ideas sure were important to these people!” And, yes, these people did believe that these ideas were important, and the causes behind their efforts. But – as certified historio-heterophenomenologists – we should ask what is really going on, and explain why these people end up saying so much about these ideas. What social institutions and practices were tagged by these ideas? How would lives change if certain ideas were rejected or adopted, and how would these changes affect the material well-being of the people involved? What is the reality behind all this talk of ideas? What actual conditions caused these folks to believe everything hinged on a set of ideas?
This approach may be known generally as Marxism, but it really is simply pragmatism (which is Marxism, shorn of prophecy). The real meaning behind any idea is what effect it has on action and material well-being – the “cash value” of a belief, as William James called it. People may say blah-blah, or blabby-blah; we won’t know what either means until we see how those sounds are connected with changes in behavior. It’s an exaggeration, but an illuminating one, to go so far as to say that all this babble about ideas is pure epiphenomenon: chatter that bubbles up out of real processes but does not contribute causally to the proceedings. I have to call it an exaggeration, since I do believe that, from time to time, ideas do matter. It’s just that they matter far less than we commonly suppose. And the material conditions have to be right.
(P.S. – I bought a new laptop.)