The Trouble with Ideas. Some thoughts on the nature(s) of ideas. #27 #cong18


I’ve some notion that our idea of what ideas are is limited. We (and I’ve been more guilty than most) think of them as things when we should think of them more as a process. Ideas are good (can be great, sometimes awful) but can crowd out other forms of knowing and ways of being creative.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. We think of ideas as abstract things.  Think of them as verbs and processes as well.
  2. Ideas are only one way of knowing about the world and when we focus particularly on having ideas we lose the other ways of knowing and being creative.
  3. If we’re full of ideas we’ve no space to be receptive to other forms of knowing and creating new meaning. (Close the 500 browser tabs)
  4. To learn and to see anew sometimes means becoming lost first and to dwell on the wellspring of our experience.

About Dermot Casey:

Dermot is a husband of one and father of three. He’s trying to live in his body as much as his head these days to find some more space. When not writing blogposts for Congregation he takes a critical look at startup ideas on a daily basis while looking to invest in early stage companies at NDRC.


Contacting Dermot Casey:

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By Dermot Casey.

I started writing about “Notions” that particularly Irish reaction to ideas which aims to make sure that people are not getting above themselves –

“pilates, ‘twas far from pilates that we were raised”

“ah sur yer man has notions”

I wrote a few paragraphs of an outline, but it aside and now can’t find the outline. I haven’t a notion of where those notes went.

I was stuck. I had no idea what to write about. Brief panic as I was sure that there was an idea on ideas there somewhere. Something out there at the edge of awareness, that I hadn’t quite grasped and the harder I tried to grasp the harder that it became.  It wasn’t helped by seeing the posts going up on the Congregation website. There are lots of good interesting thought provoking ideas there.

I thought about it a little (and a lot). Looked at the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition of Idea “Gk = look, semblance, form, kind” “An archetype, a pattern, a standard”Mental image or conception” etc. (And the definition of Notion “a concept, an idea”). Not much inspiration.

Then in early October Paul Romer jointly won the Nobel Prize in Economics* for work on “the Idea of Ideas”.There is a great summary of it by Chad Jones [1] The tl;drversion was summed up by Thomas Jefferson a few hundred years ago as “He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.

Ideas. Great things, ideas. Though when you think about it ideas are a very different to things. They’re really not even things. Though we like to think about them as things.  I can have a cup of tea but can I have an idea?  If I have the cup of tea you can’t have the same cup of tea, but as Romer and Jefferson pointed out we can both have the same idea.  Playing around with the Irish word for idea brought me to the saying “bhuail smaoineamh mé” “An idea struck me” or almost literally “a thought had me”. Which is an interesting way of thinking about ideas. An almost physical process of having an idea. And maybe we can both have the idea but it’s different for each of us.

This is one of the challenges with ideas. We  think of them as things that are and can be separate from people. I am someone who spends a lot of time inside his head, inside of books looking at and thinking about ideas. As a kid my favourite place in the world was inside a library. Even now my favourite building in the world is a library (the Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire).  Libraries and books (and the internet) are a great way of expanding the mind and the horizon of the world. What could be wrong with that (aside from the 500 browser tabs I appear to have open at any point in time)?

One part of the problem is being separated physically from the world and this abstraction into pure forms. Ideas like knowledge come from interaction with the world and that is physical as well as mental and in comes in different forms mentally, emotionally and socially. Ideas can act as filter of how we see the world. Even how we see ourselves. Even the idea of an idea acts as its own filter. Go back to that definition of ideas “an archetype, a pattern”. Ideas can frame our world and frame our thinking and that’s a problem when we separate them from the context of the world. (Especially when we raise up the deftness of thought that comes from sometimes smart ideas that are decontextualized). And I think there is something critical about who we are as humans in this.

I’ll come back to Congregation 18 weighting a little less than I did last year. One of the ideas at Cong last year was Gerry Duffy asked to do one thing each of the three days over the weekend and using a little red dot as a trigger for that. My thought was to do a walk each day. I put the red dot on the back of my phone, where a year later it’s still visible, poking out from the phone cover near the camera.  The idea of walking every day translated into stopping using the lift in work and walking the three floors to my desk any number of times every day (the bathrooms in my building are on the ground floor). A year on I’m still doing. A few months later the idea translated into a regular exercise routine.

As I was thinking about the ‘trouble with ideas” I googled the phrase and got 94 results. The first result on led me to a wonderful video with Robert Rowland Smith. He similarly points out that there are other ways of knowing about the world that are equally important to ideas, that ideas keep us in our heads with abstractions that are not real that there are other sources of innovation and inspiration of art and culture beyond the ideas in our head.

Because we tie ourselves into an ideas as objects (‘the idea went over my head’, ‘I didn’t grasp the idea’ etc) we too often lose other dimensions of thought and other ways of knowing and being.  To oversimplify it we need to stop thinking of ideas as nouns and start thinking of them as verbs, as a process. Language and the ideas expressed through language don’t convey meaning, they afford meaning, in the sense that meaning as a process enacts rather than represents. Ideas and communication are about evoking meaning not transferring it, a process not a thing. That flame that is burns as a lighted taper is transferred from one person to another is different because each person, each taper is different.

We all bring our meaning. Its why a theme based on the word Ideas can evoke such rich and varied and wonderful responses from people.

Rowland Smith also brought another problem home to me. In looking at different forms of thought he describes how we need to create space for what he calls ‘the solus’ the creative energy within all of us. He also talks about the need to get away from the idea of “having ideas” and to explore the idea of being open and getting lost in something, noting the problem that “if you keep topped up with ideas you’ll never open up to receiving new things.”  To really receive you need to empty yourself out and create space first. To let the thoughts have you. And that is the real problem of my 500 open browser tabs.

I am so full so often there isn’t enough openness to really let new things in. I skim, rather than read. Pay partial rather than full attention to this. And gradually I’ve becoming aware of this. Earlier this year I’ve deleted my Facebook account and tapered my usage of twitter, though probably not enough.  And to really open myself up often I need to get stuck and stop to create some space to enable the “bhuail smaoineamh mé”

I wrote this from a place of stuckness, being a little bit lost, rediscovered some old things and found and crystallised some new ideas along the way. It’s a pattern that I have seen before but has taken me a while to really understand, to recognise and give meaning to it. To learn and to see anew sometimes means becoming lost first.

It is part of the reason that I love Congregation. Cong is a space of renewal a place to be open and to give and to receive. The first year I came to Cong I came in that right frame of mind. Receptive and open and drank deep in the meaning that was there. In the years since I’ve learned that everyone who comes to Cong has an something interesting that I can learn from it only I can get out of my own way and properly pay attention to it and to them.

Not everything will resonate but frames will be shifted, sometimes long after the weekend has ended, and a mind once stretched by new ideas never returns to its original dimensions and the soul enriched by new experiences will be forever better for it. Or maybe I’m just having notions. You’ll tell me the meaning of this piece for you.


*  Technically there is no Nobel Prize in Economics. Its full title is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel because Alfred Nobel didn’t think Economics was important enough for a Nobel but some bankers got notions and managed to link their prize closely enough to the Nobel that everyone has the idea that Nobel offered a prize in Economics.

[1] Chad Jones piece on Paul Romer’s Nobel win

Robert Rowland Smiths piece on Ideas can be found here

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