Our most abstract concepts emerged as solutions to our needs | Aeon Essays
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Friedrich Nietzsche grumbled that, when it came to identifying the origins of lofty ideas, philosophers had a tendency to be led astray by their own respect for them. In dealing with what they felt were the ‘highest concepts’, the ‘last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality’, they had reverently placed them ‘at the beginning as the beginning’, convinced that the higher could never have grown out of the lower: Plato’s eternal Forms, the mind of God, Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world – they had all served as cradles to higher concepts, offering them a suitably distinguished pedigree.
Truth, knowledge, justice – to understand how our loftiest abstractions earn their keep, trace them to their practical origins
"Ideas, Mr Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!’ scoffed a hard-headed businessman over dinner with Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian essayist and historian of the French Revolution. The businessman had had enough of Carlyle’s endless droning on about ideas – what do ideas matter anyway? Carlyle shot back: ‘There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas.
But to insist that higher concepts were bound to have higher origins, Nietzsche thought, was to let one’s respect for those ideas get in the way of a truthful understanding of them. If, after the ‘Death of God’ and the advent of Darwinism, we were successfully to ‘translate humanity back into nature’, as Nietzsche’s felicitous rallying cry had it, we needed to trace seemingly transcendent ideas such as knowledge, truth or justice to their roots in human concerns ...
Having knowledge is practically useful, but why would we also need the concept of knowledge? The dog who knows where his food is seems fine without the concept of knowledge, so long as he’s not called upon to give a commencement address. And yet the concepts of knowledge, truth or justice appear to have been important enough to emerge across different cultures and endure over the ages. Why, then, did we ever come to think in these terms?
The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.’ Ideas have consequences. Of course, Carlyle picked an easy case. He was referring to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract (1762), a book brimming with incendiary political ideas that went on to fire up the leaders of the French Revolution. But the case for the practical importance of ideas is much harder to make for ideas that are more redolent of idle magniloquence than of revolutionary action. What of grand abstractions, with which our minds are stocked, such as knowledge, truth or justice?
These are so entrenched that it is difficult to imagine doing without them. Yet it’s even more difficult to pin down just what useful practical difference they make to our lives. What exactly is the point of these ideas? Unlike ideas of air, food and water that allow us to think about the everyday resources we need to survive, the venerable notions of knowledge, truth or justice don’t obviously cater to practical needs. On the contrary, these exalted ideals draw our gaze away from practical pursuits. They are imbued with grandeur because of their superb indifference to mundane human concerns.
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