What is an idea? On the one hand, it is tempting to say that there can be no explanation without appeal to a special intensional dimension, a protected pocket of our existence that holds meanings. After all, we think ideas; we cannot see them, weigh them, or bat them over the fence. Ideas are intrinsically inward, like any element of consciousness.
But on the other hand, ideas are bound up with what we would do or say under their influence. Anything that makes no difference isn’t anything. An idea, when entertained, might be seen as a policy proposal: from here on out, let’s talk and act as if X were true. And, especially when it comes to philosophical ideas, how we talk is the principal way in which ideas change us: “Now that I embrace materialism, I shall say this about religion, and that about free will,” and so on. It may not make any difference as to where I buy my gas or how often I exercise. Perhaps that is what makes an idea metaphysical – it only affects how I talk.
I know this is thoroughly behaviorist, understanding ideas only as the ways in which they are evidenced in observable behavior. But I’m drawn to it – meaning I am continually brought back to make more words about it (that is, about behaviorism, or Marx-ish pragmatism). But why should I be making these words as opposed to others? Why am I not compelled to make other words, words associated with idealism, for example (in fact, wasn’t I compelled to make those words only a couple of months ago?)? Most of the words I make are made here in the Canyon Road Institute for Humanistic Studies, and they don’t travel far beyond its walls, and a few blog readers, at most. It’s hard to believe that I’m making sets of words (idealism, behaviorism) for any social reasons. I could just as well be making words about centaurs or pirate ships. (And sometimes I do!)
The obvious answer is that I’m making these words because they matter to me. I’m interested in them, and they are meaningful and important to me. And these are all internal metrics: once again, pockets of meaningfulness. But I can ask again: why are they meaningful? What difference do they really make in my life, beyond how I type?
Perhaps they matter for social reasons after all. For I have several larger projects and larger ambitions – books and such – and these projects have broader social impact, and affect how people behave toward me and what they say about me. (Or this is one of my lifestyle-sustaining delusions, at any rate.) These ideas of idealism and behaviorism end up being proposals for what words I will make in these larger projects. So, in short, I’m trying to make myself into a certain sort of publically-known intellectual, and stewing over what words to make affects my success in this project. It’s difficult to make this more concrete without advertising the utter silliness of it all. “If I latch onto the behaviorist proposal, I shall be invited to swanky materialist parties on the east and west coasts; if I embrace the idealist proposal, I’ll get to travel to Europe and give talks at old, stony universities.” I know, this isn’t at all right, and it isn’t even remotely plausible, but something like it captures the absurd motivational structure leading to my making of words. These policy decisions about word production affect which groups I get to hang with, or at least how I am placed in other people’s minds. If this isn’t what drives me, what is?
Well, here’s a crazy idea. What if I simply want to understand what is true? Or, short of that, what I think? What if I’m not as ridiculous as the last paragraph suggests, and I just want to try to assemble my knowledge and experience and feelings into a vaguely coherent perspective? I write and post because I’ve found that this is a good way of exploring what I think; more details, problems, and questions emerge from this quasi-public process than if I were to just stare off into space and think.
Is there some behaviorist account of why I should want to “understand what is true”? I’m sure there is; but I suspect it will take me back to the swanky-party/stony-castle aspirations of two paragraphs ago, and they still seem to me ill-fitting and silly. Maybe there isn’t any actual goal that motivates me, and I’m only habituated (through decades of conditioning) to act as if I care about philosophical truth? My schooling brainwashed me into thinking that typing words in a lonely shed is a meaningful activity? Well, that’s possible, I suppose, though (again) ill-fitting and silly. It seems to me more plausible to take this “concern for truth” just as it appears. If behaviorism has difficulty making sense of it, then perhaps I am learning of the shortcomings of behaviorism. Perhaps there really are ideas, and they really are meaningful, in ways other than how they cash out in observable behavior. How about that as a proposal?