What is Idea
In the plainest sense, the Greek concept Idea indicates form. This is a simple, and ostensibly clear, definition, yet it does not bring out the underlying philosophical depth of the concept. For what is form? From what is it distinguished? In what way is it unique? To which areas of activity does it connect? And, perhaps most importantly, why is it so significant for man’s self-definition?
By way of negation, it may be said that form is all that substance is not. Whereas substance generally indicates that which man can grasp through his senses: the taste of an apple, seeing objects around us, a gentle, loving touch – form indicates that which human understanding is able to determine, or arrange, through its own powers: for example, the ability to solve a mathematical equation, or the possibility of establishing moral norms for ourselves, and defining who should lead our society, and how.
Whereas substance refers to sensory data that is, by its nature, unstable and changeable, and is true at a very specific time and place, there are many who see knowledge of form as an aspiration toward knowledge that is certain, permanent and universal, that is, which is true in all instances, at all times, and for all of people. It was the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, in the 4th century BCE, who argued that the idea is an essence that exists in and of itself, independent of our consciousness (even if our consciousness is the only means that we have of achieving knowledge of that idea), and it serves as the basis for the material world surrounding us which, at best, is an imitation that “takes on a part” of the idea. For example, there is a difference between thinking about a “table” in general, and perceiving a specific writing desk, one that fits in the corner, is brown in color, has two legs and five drawers, and which represents only a small fraction of all possibilities for the meaning of “table.” Others, such as the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, saw ideas as concepts which may never be perceived directly as part of our daily experience, but which play a directing (regulating) role for our actions in the day-to-day world. Take, for example, the understanding that people are always likely to choose evil, to fight and to demonstrate infinite stupidity and wickedness, and yet there is room for an idea of eternal peace that will guide their path and offer the possibility, even if only theoretical, of hope for such a world.
Even if we do not follow the path of Platonic or Kantian idealism, it is clear that, assuming the argument that man is an entity with rational capabilities (albeit partial or limited), and given that rationality he has the ability to act logically, and that the fundamentals of logic are concepts – that is, ideas – then we need to conclude that the study of ideas and their derivatives (ideologies, perceptions, arguments, statements) plays an important role in the understanding of man. Ideas form the conceptual basis for all our actions, for example, the way in which we shape our political and cultural identity, or our attitudes toward faith and religion, or – if we aspire to carry out academic research – the assumptions with which we set forth on our journey to investigate all possible fields of knowledge. Young people who therefore wish to know this strange, yet fascinating, entity known as man, should first get to know the ideas that go together with and shape his activity.