Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Clinical: Approaches · Group therapy · Techniques · Types of problem · Areas of specialism · Taxonomies · Therapeutic issues · Modes of delivery · Model translation project · Personal experiences ·

An idea is a thought or process formed by the mind. Human capability to contemplate ideas is associated with the ability of reasoning, self-reflection, and of the ability to acquire and apply intellect. Further, ideas give rise to actual concepts, or mind generalisations, which are the basis for any kind of knowledge whether science or philosophy.

In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflex, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place.


In philosophy, there is scarcely any term which has been used with so many different shades of meaning. The view that ideas exist in a realm separate or distinct from real life is referred to as innate ideas. Another view holds that we only discover ideas in the same way that we discover the real world, from personal experiences. The view that humans acquire all or almost all their behavioral traits from nurture (life experiences) is known as tabula rasa ("blank slate"). Most of the confusions in the way of ideas arise at least in part from the use of the term "idea" to cover both the representation percept and the object of conceptual thought. This can be illustrated in terms of the doctrines of innate ideas, "concrete ideas verses abstract ideas", as well as "simple ideas verses complex ideas". [1]


Plato was one of the earliest philosophers to provide a detailed discussion of ideas. He considered the concept of idea in the realm of metaphysics and it's implications for epistemology. He asserted that there is realm of Forms or Ideas, which exist independently of anyone who may have thought of these ideas. Material things are then imperfect and transient reflections or instantiations of the perfect and unchanging ideas. From this it follows that these Ideas are the principal reality (see also idealism). In contrast to the individual objects of sense experience, which undergo constant change and flux, Plato held that ideas are perfect, eternal, and immutable. Consequently, Plato considered that knowledge of material things is not really knowledge; real knowledge can only be had of unchanging ideas.

René Descartes

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. In spite of the fact that Descartes is usually credited with the invention of the non-Platonic use of the term, we find him at first following 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 [2] 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. [1] For him knowledge took the form of ideas and philosophical investigation is the deep consideration of these ideas. Many times however his thoughts of knowledge and ideas were like those of Plotinus and Neoplatonism. In Neoplatonism the Intelligence (Nous) is the true first principle -- the determinate, referential 'foundation' (arkhe) -- of all existents; for it is not a self-sufficient entity like the One, but rather possesses the ability or capacity to contemplate both the One, as its prior, as well as its own thoughts, which Plotinus identifies with the Platonic Ideas or Forms (eide)[2]. A non-philosophical definition of Nous is good sense (a.k.a. "common sense"). Descartes is quoted as saying, "Of all things, good sense is the most fairly distributed: everyone thinks he is so well supplied with it that even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other respect never desire more of it than they already have."[3]

John Locke

In striking contrast to Plato’s use of idea [3] is that of John Locke in his masterpiece Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the Introduction where he defines idea as "It being 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. Locke always believed in good sense - not pushing things to extremes and on taking fully into account the plain facts of the matter. He considered his common sense ideas "good-tempered, moderate, and down-to-earth." c

David Hume

Hume differs from Locke by limiting "idea" to the more or less vague mental reconstructions of perceptions, the perceptual process being described as an "impression."[4] Hume shared with Locke the basic empiricist premise that it is only from life experiences (whether our own or other's) that out knowledge of the existence of anything outside of ourselves can be ultimately derived. We shall carry on doing what we are prompted to do by our emotional drives of all kinds. In choosing the means to those ends we shall follow our accustomed association of ideas.d Hume is quoted as saying: "Reason is the slave of the passions."

File:Printing4 Walk of Ideas Berlin.JPG

"Modern Book Printing" from the Walk of Ideas

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant defines an "idea" as opposed to a "concept". "Regulator ideas" are ideals that one must tend towards, but by definition may not be completely realized. Liberty, according to Kant, is an idea. The autonomy of the rational and universal subject is opposed to the determinism of the empirical subject.[5] Kant felt that it is precisely in knowing its limits that philosophy exists. The business of philosophy he thought was not to give rules, but to analyze the private judgements of good common sense.e

Rudolf Steiner

Whereas Kant declares limits to knowledge ("we can never know the thing in itself"), in his epistemological work, Rudolf Steiner sees ideas as "objects of experience" which the mind apprehends, much as the eye apprehends light. In "Goethean Science" (1883), he declares, "Thinking… is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colors and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas." He holds this to be the premise upon which Goethe made his natural-scientific observations.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wundt widens the term from Kant's usage to include conscious representation of some object or process of the external world. In so doing, he includes not only ideas of memory and imagination, but also perceptual processes, whereas other psychologists confine the term to the first two groups. One of Wundt's main concerns was to investigate conscious processes in their own context by experiment and introspection. He regarded both of these as exact methods, interrelated in that experimentation created optimal conditions for introspection. Where the experimental method failed, he turned to other objectively valuable aids, specifically to those products of cultural communal life which lead one to infer particular mental motives. Outstanding among these are speech, myth, and social custom. Wundt designed the basic mental activity apperception - a unifying function which should be understood as an activity of the will. Many aspects of his empirical physiological psychology are used today. One is his principles of mutually enhanced contrasts and of assimilation and dissimilation (i.e. in color and form perception and his advocacy of objective methods of expression and of recording results, especially in language. Another is the principle of heterogony of ends - that multiply motivated acts lead to unintended side effects which in turn become motives for new actions.[6]

Charles Sanders Peirce

C. S. Peirce published the first full statement of pragmatism in his important works "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878) and "The Fixation of Belief" (1877) [7]. In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" he proposed that a clear idea (in his study he uses concept and idea as synonymic) is defined as one, when it is apprehended such as it will be recognized wherever it is met, and no other will be mistaken for it. If it fails of this clearness, it is said to be obscure. He argued that to understand an idea clearly we should ask ourselves what difference its application would make to our evaluation of a proposed solution to the problem at hand. Pragmatism (a term he appropriated for use in this context), he defended, was a method for ascertaining the meaning of terms (as a theory of meaning). The originality of his ideas is in their rejection of what was accepted as a view and understanding of knowledge by scientists for some 250 years, i.e. that, he pointed, knowledge was an impersonal fact. Peirce contended that we acquire knowledge as participants, not as spectators. He felt "the real" is which, sooner or later, information acquired through ideas and knowledge with the application of logical reasoning would finally result in. He also published many papers on logic in relation to ideas.

G. F. Stout and J. M. Baldwin

G. F. Stout and J. M. Baldwin, in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology [4], define "idea" as "the reproduction with a more or less adequate image, of an object not actually present to the senses." They point out that an idea and a perception are by various authorities contrasted in various ways. "Difference in degree of intensity", "comparative absence of bodily movement on the part of the subject", "comparative dependence on mental activity", are suggested by psychologists as characteristic of an idea as compared with a perception.

It should be observed that an idea, in the narrower and generally accepted sense of a mental reproduction, is frequently composite. That is, as in the example given above of the idea of chair, a great many objects, differing materially in detail, all call a single idea. When a man, for example, has obtained an idea of chairs in general by comparison with which he can say "This is a chair, that is a stool", he has what is known as an "abstract idea" distinct from the reproduction in his mind of any particular chair (see abstraction). Furthermore a complex idea may not have any corresponding physical object, though its particular constituent elements may severally be the reproductions of actual perceptions. Thus the idea of a centaur is a complex mental picture composed of the ideas of man and horse, that of a mermaid of a woman and a fish.

In anthropology and the social sciences

Diffusion studies explore the spread of ideas from culture to culture. Some anthropological theories hold that all cultures imitate ideas from one or a few original cultures, the Adam of the Bible or several cultural circles that overlap. Evolutionary diffusion theory holds that cultures are influenced by one another, but that similar ideas can be developed in isolation.

In mid-20th century, social scientists began to study how and why ideas spread from one person or culture to another. Everett Rogers pioneered diffusion of innovations studies, using research to prove factors in adoption and profiles of adopters of ideas. In 1976, Richard Dawkins suggested applying biological evolutionary theories to spread of ideas. He coined the term 'meme' to describe an abstract unit of selection, equivalent to the gene in evolutionary biology.


Dr. Samuel Johnson

James Boswell recorded Dr.Samuel Johnson' s opinion about ideas. Johnson claimed that they are mental images or internal visual pictures. As such, they have no relation to words or the concepts which are designated by verbal names.

He was particularly indignant against the almost universal use of the word idea in the sense of notion or opinion, when it is clear that idea can only signify something of which an image can be formed in the mind. We may have an idea or image of a mountain, a tree, a building; but we cannot surely have an idea or image of an argument or proposition. Yet we hear the sages of the law 'delivering their ideas upon the question under consideration;' and the first speakers in parliament 'entirely coinciding in the idea which has been ably stated by an honourable member;' — or 'reprobating an idea unconstitutional, and fraught with the most dangerous consequences to a great and free country.' Johnson called this 'modern cant.'

— Boswell's Life of Johnson, Tuesday, 23 September 1777

Validity of ideas

In the objective worth of our ideas there remains the problem of the validity. As all cognition is by ideas, it is obvious that the question of the validity of our ideas in this broad sense is that of the truth of our knowledge as a whole. Otherwise to dispute this is to take up the position of scepticism. This has often been pointed out as a means intellectual suicide. Any chain of reasoning (common sense) by which it is attempted to demonstrate the falsity of our ideas has to employ the very concept of ideas itself. Then insofar as it demands assent to the conclusion, it implies belief in the validity of all the ideas employed in the premises of the argument.

To assent the fundamental mathematical and logical axioms, including that of the principle of contradiction, implies admission of the truth of the ideas expressed in these principles. With respect to the objective worth of ideas, as involved in perception generally, the question raised is that of the existence of an independent material world comprising other human beings. The idealism of David Hume and John Stuart Mill would lead logically to solipsism (the denial of any others besides ourselves). The main foundation of all idealism and scepticism is the assumption (explicit or implicit), that the mind can never know what is outside of itself. This is to say that an idea as a cognition can never go outside of itself. This can be further expressed as we can never reach to and mentally apprehend anything outside of anything of what is actually a present state of our own consciousness.

  • First, this is based on a prior assumption for which no real proof is or can be given
  • Second, it is not only not self-evident, but directly contrary to what our mind affirms to be our direct intellectual experience.

What is possible for a human mind to apprehend cannot be laid down beforehand. It must be ascertained by careful observations and by study of the process of cognition. This postulates that the mind cannot apprehend or cognize any reality existing outside of itself and is not only a self-evident proposition, it is directly contrary to what such observation and the testimony of mankind affirms to be our actual intellectual experience.

John Stuart Mill and most extreme idealists have to admit the validity of memory and expectation. This is to say that in every act of memory or expectation which refers to any experience outside the present instant, our cognition is transcending the present modifications of the mind and judging about reality beyond and distinct from the present states of consciousness. Considering the question as specially concerned with universal concepts, only the theory of moderate realism adopted by Aristotle and Saint Thomas can claim to guarantee objective value to our ideas. According to the nominalist and conceptualist theories there is no true correlate in rerum naturâ corresponding to the universal term.

Mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and the rest claim that their universal propositions are true and deal with realities. It is involved in the very notion of science that the physical laws formulated by the mind do mirror the working of agents in the external universe. The general terms of these sciences and the ideas which they signify have objective correlatives in the common natures and essences of the objects with which these sciences deal. Otherwise these general statements are unreal and each science is nothing more than a consistently arranged system of barren propositions deduced from empty arbitrary definitions. These postulates then have no more genuine objective value than any other coherently devised scheme of artificial symbols standing for imaginary beings. However the fruitfulness of science and the constant verifications of its predictions are incompatible with such a hypothesis.[5]

Relationship of ideas to modern legal time- and scope-limited monopolies

Main article: intellectual property
Main article: idea-expression divide

Relationship between ideas and patents

On Susceptibility to Exclusive Property

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 13 August 1813

"It has been pretended by some, (and in England especially,) that inventors have a natural and exclusive right to their inventions, and not merely for their own lives, but inheritable to their heirs. But while it is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all, it would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors. It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance.

By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it, but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property.

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices."

To protect the cause of invention and innovation, the legal constructions of Copyrights and Patents was established. Patent law regulates various aspects related to the functional manifestation of inventions based on new ideas or an incremental improvements to existing ones. Thus, patents have a direct relationship to ideas.

Relationship between ideas and copyrights

In some cases, authors can be granted limited legal monopolies on the manner in which certain works are expressed. This is known colloquially as copyright, although the term intellectual property is used mistakenly in place of copyright. Copyright law regulating the aforementioned monopolies generally does not cover the actual ideas. The law does not bestow the legal status of property upon ideas per se. Instead, laws purport to regulate events related to the usage, copying, production, sale and other forms of exploitation of the fundamental expression of a work, that may or may not carry ideas. Copyright law is fundamentally different to patent law in this respect: patents do grant monopolies on ideas (more on this below).

A copyright is meant to regulate some aspects of the usage of expressions of a work, not an idea. Thus, copyrights have a negative relationship to ideas.

Work means a tangible medium of expression. It may be an original or derivative work of art, be it literary, dramatic, musical recitation, artistic, related to sound recording, etc. In (at least) countries adhering to the Berne Convention, copyright automatically starts covering the work upon the original creation and fixation thereof, without any extra steps. While creation usually involves an idea, the idea in itself does not suffice for the purposes of claiming copyright.

Relationship of ideas to confidentiality agreements

Confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements are legal instruments that assist corporations and individuals in keeping ideas from escaping to the general public. Generally, these instruments are covered by contract law.

See also

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Ideas may have more about this subject.

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: This page uses content from the English-language version of Wikiversity. The original article was at {{{1}}}. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with Psychology Wiki, the text of Wikiversity is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.

External links

idea for design office The example


  • Paul Natorp, Platons Ideenlehre (Leipzig 1930)
  • W.D. Ross, Plato's Theory of Ideas (Oxford 1951)
  • M.H. Carre, Realists and Nominalists (Oxford 1946)
  • Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas (New York 2001)
  • J. W. Yolton, John Locke and the Way of Ideas (Oxford 1956)
  • E. Garin, La Theorie de I'idee suivant I'ecole thomiste (Paris 1932)
  • Peter Watson, Ideas: a history from fire to Freud, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London 2005).
  • A.G. Balz, Idea and Essence in the Philosophy of Hobbes and Spinoza (New York 1918)
  • William Rose Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia 1965, Library of Congress Card No. 65-12510
  • Melchert, Norman (2002). The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-19-517510-7.


  1. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, MacMillian Publishing Company, New York, 1973 ISBN 0028949501 ISBN 978-0028949505 Vol 4: 120 - 121
  2. Vol 4: 196 - 198
  3. Vol 4: 487 - 503
  4. Vol 4: 74 - 90
  5. Vol 4: 305 - 324
  6. Vol 8: 349 -351
  7. Pierce's pragmatism
- Nous
¹ Volume IV 1a, 3a
² Volume IV 4a, 5a
³ Volume IV 32 - 37
- Ideas
Idea of God
Chain of Being
aka The Story of Philosophy, Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-7894-7994-X
(subtitled on cover: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Philosophy)
a Plato, pages 11 - 17, 24 - 31, 42, 50, 59, 77, 142, 144, 150
b Descartes, pages 78, 84 - 89, 91, 95, 102, 136 - 137, 190, 191
c Locke, pages 59 - 61, 102 - 109, 122 - 124, 142, 185
d Hume, pages 61, 103, 112 - 117, 142 - 143, 155, 185
e Kant, pages 9, 38, 57, 87, 103, 119, 131 - 137, 149, 182
f Pierce, pages 61, How to Make Our Ideas Clear 186 - 187 and 189
g Saint Augustine, pages 30, 144; City of God 51, 52, 53 and The Confessions 50, 51, 52
- additional in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas for Saint Augustine and Neo-Platonism
h Stoics, pages 22, 40, 44; The governing philosophy of the Roman Empire on pages 46 - 47.
- additional in Dictionary of the History of Ideas for Stoics, also here, and here, and here.
  • The Reader's Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition 1965, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Library of Congress No. 65-12510
An Encyclopedia of World Literature
¹apage 774 Plato (c.427-348 BC)
²apage 779 Francesco Petrarca
³apage 770 Charles Sanders Peirce
¹bpage 849 the Renaissance
  • This article incorporates text from the old Catholic Encyclopedia of 1914, a publication now in the public domain.
  • This article incorporates text from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, a publication now in the public domain.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).