In common usage and in philosophy, ideas are the results of thought. Also in philosophy, ideas can also be mental representational images of some object. Many philosophers have considered ideas to be a fundamental ontological category of being. The capacity to create and understand the meaning of ideas is considered to be an essential and defining feature of human beings. In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place. A new or an original idea can often lead to innovation.
The word idea comes from Greek ἰδέα idea “form, pattern,” from the root of ἰδεῖν idein, “to see.”
Innate and adventitious ideas
One view on the nature of ideas is that there exist some ideas which can be general and abstract that they could not have arisen as a representation of an object of our perception but rather were in some sense always present. These are distinguished from which are images or concepts which are accompanied by the judgment that they are caused or occasioned by an external object.
Plato in Ancient Greece was one of the earliest philosophers to provide a detailed discussion of ideas and of the thinking process. Plato argued in dialogues such as the Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, and Timaeus that there is a realm of ideas or forms, which exist independently of anyone who may have thoughts on these ideas, and it is the ideas which distinguish mere opinion from knowledge, for unlike material things which are transient and liable to contrary properties, ideas are unchanging and nothing but just what they are. Consequently, Plato seems to assert forcefully that material things can only be the objects of opinion; real knowledge can only be had of unchanging ideas. Furthermore, ideas for Plato appear to serve as universals; consider the following passage from the Republic:
Descartes often wrote of the meaning of idea as an image or representation, often but not necessarily “in the mind”, which was well known in the vernacular. Despite that Descartes is usually credited with the invention of the non-Platonic use of the term, he at first followed this vernacular use.b In his Meditations on First Philosophy he says, “Some of my thoughts are like images of things, and it is to these alone that the name ‘idea’ properly belongs.” He sometimes maintained that ideas were innate and uses of the term idea diverge from the original primary scholastic use. He provides multiple non-equivalent definitions of the term, uses it to refer to as many as six distinct kinds of entities, and divides ideas inconsistently into various genetic categories. For him knowledge took the form of ideas and philosophical investigation is the deep consideration of these entities.
In striking contrast to Plato’s use of idea is that of John Locke. In his Introduction to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke defines idea as “that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking; and I could not avoid frequently using it.” He said he regarded the book necessary to examine our own abilities and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. In his philosophy other outstanding figures followed in his footsteps — Hume and Kant in the 18th century, Arthur Schopenhauer in the 19th century, and Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Popper in the 20th century.
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