A Short Piece Featured in (RE)CONSTRUCTING “A IS A” BY O.G. ROSE

Why Do We Need a Balance Between Ideas and Experiences?

This might seem self-evident, but a quick reflection can help cement the point.

Photo by Mar Cerdeira

Considering the following:

1. What we don’t experience, we can only consider in light of “our ideas of.”

2. What we experience, we can consider in light of “our idea and experience of.”

3. Ideas cannot be about themselves. Try to think of something that has nothing to do with something you’ve experienced. A unicorn? That’s a combination of a horse with a horn, both of which you’ve (probably) experienced. A time traveling space station? That consists of shapes and colors and likely resembles a machine you’ve seen. Also, you’re familiar with time.

4. There is no such thing as a “pure idea,” meaning an idea that isn’t “like” the experienceable at all.

5. What we don’t experience (like a unicorn), we consider “through” a combination of other experiences we’ve undergone and decide that the thing we haven’t experienced is probably “like that.” But lacking direct experience, we really don’t have much ground to be confident in such assessments.

6. All ideas are combinations of ideas/thinking and experience/perception. Therefore, without experience/perception, ideas can’t even be themselves. The less experiences we have, the more we run the risk of lacking the material ideas need to be thought, like a builder who forgot to purchase enough bricks for the construction site.

We need a balance between thinking and action because ideas are impossible without experiences, which basically means we probably can’t even think well without them. This suggests the wisdom of Hume in claiming we need to be “embedded” in a “common life.” Ideas seem to suggest to us in our very experience of them that they want to be “grounded,” given the reality that they are “composed” out of things we experience: colors, shapes, wings, voices, feet, computer screens, laughter — I could go on. Personally, I have never once had an idea that I saw absolutely no “image” or “likeness” with something in the world which I experienced. This being the case, there is reason to think that, if I lack experiences (perhaps due to closemindedness, a failure to travel, boredom, etc.) then I will lack the necessary “building blocks” for thinking well.

The very fact that ideas are composed out of “perception materials” suggests that thinking needs perception to construct ideas: where experience is lacking, so too will be ideas. It is not an “either/or” relationship as is often suggested, say by personality tests that label some people as “thinkers” and others as “doers.” Furthermore, a variety of experiences will prove necessary for us to think well: if all we do is think sitting alone in a library, sure, we’ll be garnering the experiences of the pages, the faint lighting from the ceiling, the soft whispers — but these experiences will not be “diverse” enough to cover our “building needs.” If our experiences are too “range or type bound,” we might have some “wood,” per se, for the construction of our “intellectual home,” but if we also need metal and tiling, we’ll find ourselves out of luck. At the same time, if we gather up “steel” and “nuclear reactors,” we might find ourselves gathering material we don’t need for our construction, so it’s not the case that any and all experiences will necessary prove “constructive” for the life of the mind. Which materials are useful and which aren’t though require paying attention and wisdom, which are subjects for another time.

At the same time, we also need ideas precisely to have experiences that can then provide “material” for constructing “intellectual homes.” If I never have the idea to visit the Grand Canyon, then I will never have an experience of the Grand Canyon that I can then store in my mind to use for thinking. Additionally, if I never have the idea to build an airplane, I could never experience the airplane to absorb it into my imagination. Sure, I can think about an airplane I never experience, but personally I find myself unable to think about everything that’s involved in an actual airplane.

Ideas are about the world, but they are also made “in the image and likeness” of the world: it’s a dialectical relationship. Imagination derives itself from the non-imagined, and the non-imagined can then be shaped by creators, artists, inventors, and the like into the “image and likeness” of the imagined. Both feed one another, but perhaps in our “Disembodied Age,” still haunted by Descartes, we are more likely to err on the side of ideas than experiences. Hopefully, the point here is clear that we can’t do either well without the other.

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