Idea (from Greek ἰδέα idea “form, pattern,” from the root of ἰδεῖν idein, “to see”) is a term used since the dawn of philosophy, originally indicating a primordial and substantial essence, but today has taken on a narrower meaning in the common language, generally referring to a representation or a “drawing” of the mind; original evidence that allows to catch the things in their own truth.

According to Plato, alongside the sensory perception that gives us the sensory things subject to change, there is a second view that allows us to grasp the ideas as exemplary forms or perfect and unchanging models, in which the sensory things participate by constituting themselves as more or less adequate copies of them. Thus, for Plato, ideas indicate unity in the face of multiplicity, being in the face of becoming, perfection and true reality in the face of what more or less participates in this perfection and has a derived reality: knowledge of ideas is knowledge of things in their truth. Ideas have for Plato an ontological and logical meaning at the same time, they are principles of reality and intelligibility of things. This double meaning is preserved by Aristotle, who conceives the ideas as forms immanent to the individual substantiality of things themselves, capable of implementing the potentiality intrinsic to the matter that identifies them. True knowledge for Aristotle is that capable of grasping the form in matter through the procedure of abstraction that is rooted in the agent intellect.

Alongside beings composed of matter and form, power and act, Aristotle finally admits God as a form devoid of matter, or pure act, at this point retaining the Platonic element of transcendence. Plotinus and his followers return to the original Platonic conception, insisting on the character of exemplary perfection of ideas: they conceive of the world of ideas or “intelligible world” as the internal object of divine thought. This conception was resumed by St. Augustine in the Christian creationist perspective: ideas, the object of divine intelligence, are the exemplary forms or reasons according to which all things that are born and die are formed. It had wide diffusion in the period of Patristics and Scholasticism.

St. Thomas faced the crucial problem for Christian speculation of the relationship between the multiplicity of ideas and the unity of the divine essence and resolved it by stating that the ideas are multiple only for creatures, while in God they retain their unity. In this way Platonic exemplarism did not clash with the Aristotelian requirement to recognize full reality to individual substances. In Greek and Christian philosophy ideas have first of all an ontological meaning (and only subordinately logical or gnoseological); in modern philosophy (with few exceptions) the exclusively logical or gnoseological meaning prevails instead. This can be seen in both rationalism and empiricism, the two main currents of modern philosophy.

For Descartes (representative of rationalism), ideas are resolved in acts of the human mind capable of representing things; for Locke (representative of empiricism), ideas, “immediate objects of the spirit”, are images of things. In this gnoseologistic horizon, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the famous question of the origin and value of ideas was discussed: rationalists advocate for innatism and dogmatism (ideas are “innate” to the human mind and their knowledge is at the same time knowledge of the real by virtue of an assumed agreement between idea and reality); empiricists, on the other hand, support the derivation of ideas from sensory experience, with skeptical outcomes: for example, Hume states that ideas derived from sensory impressions do not transcend the subjectivity of the latter.

Kant distinguishes ideas from the concepts of the intellect and the forms of intuition: while concepts and intuitive forms become the object of knowledge, ideas are simply regulatory ideals capable of ensuring unity and extension to the research.

The ontological meaning of ideas returns with Hegel, but the Hegelian ontology is distinguished from the Platonic one for its dynamic character and the immanence of the idea to reality (“what is real is rational and what is rational is real”) and from the Christian one for the refusal of creationism and the reality of the finite. In a certain sense in Hegel the logical moment of the idea expands and absorbs in itself the ontological one: the idea is in fact the logos, reason itself in its dialectical unfolding of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which is the substance of all reality; the philosophical system therefore includes the study of the idea in itself or Logic (of the logical framework of reality), the study of the idea outside itself or Philosophy of Nature, the study of the idea in itself and for itself or Philosophy of Spirit (which includes the world of history and its apotheosis in the eternal).

In contemporary philosophy, in which the crisis of Hegelism is consummated, the logical or gnoseological meaning of the term prevails, especially in philosophical pragmatism and certain analytic philosophy.

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