Ideas Matter

In a Boston Review article of September 22, 2014, Claude Fischer asks, Do Ideas Matter? And he answers his own question, saying, yes, “…ideas matter—are material—in part because they change the material world. Believing in them changes reality for the believing individuals and often for others as well.”

Just recently Paul Krugman in this connection had this to say: “I’d like to believe that ideas and evidence matter, at least a bit. Otherwise, what am I doing with my life?” And just today he introduced this new idea that Amazon while not so far anyway, a monopolist, or dominant seller with the power to raise prices, is instead a monopsonist, or dominant buyer with the power to push prices down.

But back to Fischer, who writes that, “…self-fulfilling prophecies are not all powerful, that the world does set limits.” And I would add that science has shown us over and over again that reality will indeed collapse an idea, especially if the idea is wrong about reality. But all too often wrong ideas remain, often doing great damage to believers and non-believers alike.

For example:

1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotomania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. Image: Wikimedia commons.

About this Fischer writes:

Ideas about reality continue to have huge effects on our lives. But there is another way in which an idea can matter—by reshaping reality in its image. An idea, even one that incorrectly describes the world, can become a true description because people take it to be so and act accordingly. Ideas can be, as the great sociologist Robert K. Merton labeled them, self-fulfilling prophecies.

Prominent examples can be found in psychology. Over the last two centuries medical practitioners have identified problems such as melancholia, neurasthenia, hysteria, nostalgia, and hyperactivity. Some conditions had their heydays and then disappeared. But their codifications almost certainly led more doctors to diagnose and more patients to experience those syndromes.

Simply by being exposed to an idea, doctors are prompted to see more cases and patients are prompted to enact the diagnoses.

Well so much for Fischer and the Boston Review. But one needn’t look far afield to see myriad examples of what he is talking about, of just how much ideas, and probably too often wrong ideas, do influence our actions.

To take just two examples from the recent headlines, Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian territory by force of arms and ISIS or Daesh’s (as the French would have it, not to gift them the honorific term “State,” ) seizure of land, cities, and towns from Syria and Iraq to recreate a Middle Ages Caliphate in today’s Middle East.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim,
Vladimir Putin

How do we understand both actions, because our idea, or ideas of what is going on will pretty much determine our responses. Now while there may not be as many ideas or explanations regarding Putin and Jihadist aggression as there are observers or people watching there are many.

One of them, seemingly favored by our own government, is that ISIS is a cancer, is evil, and must be destroyed, although not by our boots on the ground but by our bombs from the air. As for Putin he has gone too far and must be stopped, again not by boots on the ground but by economic sanctions.

But what if what was driving both Putin and ISIS was something entirely different from our ideas as to why they they do what they do, in Isis’s case massacring captured combatants and decapitating Western hostages?

There are many other explanatory ideas out there. In regard to Putin he was trying to protect native Russian peoples living in the Ukraine and who were being persecuted by the corrupt Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Or he was simply resisting the apparent attempt by NATO to encircle the Russian Federation with its arms and men. Or he was trying to give back to the Russian people some of the real sense of pride lost with the downfall of the Soviet Union. Or any number of other explanatory ideas or reasons.

Similarly in respect to ISIS. First of all the evil/cancer position of our government doesn’t stand up under inspection for many of us. I don’t even believe there is such a thing as evil, even seeing beheadings of journalists and healthcare workers by the ISIS Jihadi. Such acts could very well be logical, understandable parts of an overall Jihadist strategy to remake the world. And regarding remaking the world wouldn’t most of us today, or in earlier periods, agree that such is always needed?


And furthermore, regarding the young men and women from our own liberal democracies who are going to the Middle East and joining themselves to the blacked clothed armies of ISIS, isn’t the idea that they are doing so, not so that they themselves become a part of what does seem indiscriminate killing and slaughter, but to be a part of the remake of the world beginning with the destruction of the thoroughly decadent and corrupt West?

In other words aren’t there any number of better explanations of what were watching on our televisions than naked aggression and evil? Wouldn’t you agree that we don’t yet know what is really going on in the eastern Ukrainian land that some of the players would call Novorossiya, or in the ancient lands and villages along the Euphrates River in Syria and Iraq.


And isn’t there a great irony here in that we would bomb the Jihadists into oblivion, carry out an evil act without really understanding who they are, and why they do what they do? How do we carry out bombing runs so easily when invariably innocent civilians, if there are those still remaining following the flight of hundreds of thousands, will die?

Is it the idea that ISIS is evil incarnate that enables us to do so? When in August of 1945 we bombed the inhabitants of Nagasaki and Hiroshima into oblivion it certainly wasn’t because we ever considered the Japanese people to be evil. It was to protect our own soldiers by bringing about an earlier ending to the war. What is the rational for our actions now in the Middle East?

In both instances, in regard to both Putin and ISIS, it’s all about ideas, our ideas of what is happening. There are many ideas and at the moment the many of them are battling it out among themselves, and it’s not yet clear if there are any winners among them, if we’ll ever discover convincing explanations for what is happening.

Somehow to see Putin as Hitler redux, and ISIS as an evil growth or cancer doesn’t seem to be all that helpful. With better ideas or better understanding as to what is really going on in these areas of the world, and elsewhere, we might then be on the way to something better than what too often ends up as war and destruction with accompanying deaths of the innocent.

Finally, just today I read Tomis Kapitan who writing in the Times is saying much the same thing:

“…by stifling inquiry into causes, the rhetoric of “terror” actually increases the likelihood of terrorism. First, it magnifies the effect of terrorist actions by heightening the fear among the target population. If we demonize the terrorists, if we portray them as evil, irrational beings devoid of a moral sense, we amplify the fear and alarm generated by terrorist incidents, even when this is one of the political objectives of the perpetrators.

Does in fact the rhetoric of aggression, of evil actually increase the likelihood of aggression and evil? Or to cite again Robert K. Merton ideas can and do become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s