Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Father of the idea

I remember being part of a discussion on the possible emergence of democracy in what was then referred to as "Red China".  Someone asked who, or from what source, the Chinese would get the idea of democracy, often said to be exemplified by the way America conducts itself.  The question seemed nutty to me.  It seemed to imply that people need examples in order to be able to get an idea.

I admit that examples, analogies and metaphors can be a big help.  We learned in the history of psychology class that there has been a long debate about the getting of ideas.  If we are born as the famous tabula rasa ,  (which is usually translated as "blank slate" but I think means "shaved or smooth slate", the state of being without thoughts, images, or instincts) totally open to experience as it comes, we face the famous question of "Are we formed by our natures or by our nurtures?"

I listen to professors and intellectuals state that Aristotle or Pascal or somebody was the father of this idea or that idea.  I have my doubts.  I understand that scholars and investigators can't find any statement of a given idea earlier that such and such a date, and that after that date, several commentators made statements about the idea in question.  But I am deeply suspicious that all the thinkers and writers and speakers after a given instance were aware of and motivated by the so-called "father" of the notion.

I think that sometimes an idea is a natural development of human situations and conditions and is in the local air.  The book "Books that Changed the World" states that each of the books cited had predecessors that just didn't grab much attention and successors that just didn't last either.  One particular book, whether it is in the area of national power or germ theory or whatever, happens to catch fire and get lots of attention.  But it doesn't really follow that everyone who had the idea got it from the big daddy or the first enunciater of the notion.  

In "The Roots of Coincidence" by Arthur Koestler, he mentions experiments where people sat at group tables in a large ballroom and drew sketches and doodles.  In some parts of the room, very similar drawings emerged without any explanation or communication between people.

People can think and they do.  Generally, all scholars agree that Newton and Leibnitz created the calculus independently.
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