End of big ideas? A post-idea world? I don't think so.

Read this, and ask yourself if you believe it, that our forebears were smarter than we are “because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did.”

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé…. It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.

[From The Elusive Big Idea, by Neal Gabler in the NYTimes, 8/13/2011]

Do you believe the writer’s words? That’s a big idea itself, that ideas are “smaller,” don’t matter. And in any case how would you ever prove it? I have to stick with the remark of Paul Krugman who said, “I’d like to believe that ideas and evidence matter, at least a bit. Otherwise, what am I doing with my life?”

Ideas do matter to me. I could even make a case, as others have, for their being all there is. (I take Krugman’s “without evidence” to mean that in that case ideas would be only opinions.)

Without ideas, without thought, life would be unbearable. Could that have been the plight of humanity during some 50,000 years, right up until the first paleolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Sulawesi, and elsewhere, in places still undiscovered? I would propose the big idea that ideas not only still matter but were what made homo sapiens sapiens.

And I don’t think I and Krugman are much different from the mass of humanity, let alone the members of my own family. Sure, as the writer says, “science, evidence, logical argument and debate,” although they haven’t lost the battle, in many people’s lives may come in a distant second to “superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.”

Now that’s an idea we’re still fighting about, with words, and with guns. The idea that the well of new ideas has run dry, and instead we have the truth, or rather the plural, truths. But the source, the wellspring of ideas, will only dry up with the death of the last man. For neither words nor guns will ever be enough to bring that about.

So why would the writer, Neal Gabler, ever use the expression, “a post-idea world”? There can’t be such a world, not in the Gulag, not in the China of Mao, not in corporate America, not in Putin’s Russia, not in nanny Europe. There may very well have been more ideas exchanged while seated about a kitchen table in Stalin’s Russia than in any other period of Russian history. 

Then what could Gabler ever mean by ideas getting smaller? Ideas are big and small? Aren’t they rather good or bad, well or not well supported by the “evidence”? Perhaps smaller refers not to the size of the idea, but to the sheer number of them, to the fact that there are now so many more ideas out there, and mostly thanks to the internet.

The big guy sitting next to you at the bar is no smaller than when you see him walking in the street from the 104th. floor of One World Trade Center. Ideas are like that and only seem smaller as the distance between them and you increases.

Furthermore there are probably as many ideas as there are people out there, probably many more. Perhaps it’s because there are so many ideas that Gabler says we don’t care as much about ideas as did our forbears. A kind of idea inflation. But where is the evidence for that? Isn’t he only giving us his opinion, that is an idea without evidence. Now, a Post-Opinion world, that’s a big idea.


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