For all the complexities of our world the system by which we construct it is rather simple. The word possesses certain physical properties that allow it to manifest physically for observation. We can see and hear it in the world, and those qualities allow us to share ideas through it. The meaning of a world as it physically appears is arbitrary; its meaning arises solely out of a mutual understanding of the idea the word supposes to represent. Because the connection between words and ideas is arbitrary, they must form out of a shared understanding based on shared physical exposure. Other animals exhibit this same trait, though as far as we can tell, their thoughts are not as complex. Birds tweet to one another, frogs ribbit, crickets chirp. These sounds convey a message meant to be understood by the receiving party. In what we generally understanding as thinking, data is processed as the mind draws connections and judgments between what it is experiencing and previous experience. Proposing to purposely represent an idea, the word triggers in the receiver’s mind and idea strictly based on his interpretation of that word and the thoughts it stirs.
Definitions are fluid, different contexts will change a word’s meaning, and some words mean very different things to different people. When thinking about the idea of slavery, for example, I experience the burden of the white man’s guilt over the possibility that some of my forefathers might have exploited slaves, but for descendents of African slaves the term will probably conjure images of oppressive white men. The characteristic difference in skin tone only serves to remind of our different heritages. But these details are all only accidents to the idea of slavery, which in its most broad sense refers to losing one’s autonomous freedom to an external object. St. Augustine purported that in valuing corporeal objects, we enslave ourselves to things less perfect then God, and promoted the voluntary enslavement of oneself to the perfect God. In the horrific novel Dracula Braum Stoker satirizes Christian theology: eternal life is attainable, but only by giving oneself to an undead abomination from the nether regions of some strange foreign land. Clearly the idea of slavery depends on perception.
As we are constantly reminded, our understanding is not perfect. Although the content of a given notion may not correspond to a reality it supposes to represent, it exists in the form of idea. Formulating an idea into words creates in it a tangible quality. Regardless whether the idea is true or not, the words representing it are real; other people can think it. I write this blog primarily in response to questions concerning the reality of race and stereotypes. By breaking humanity into ethnocentric racial molds, the average person is able to make blanket generalizations about his environment. A rather basic yet arguably inclusive racial dichotomy might break down blacks, whites, Asians, Mexicans, brown people, and islanders. Anyone I meet would surely fall into one or more of these invented categories. From this crude analysis I could then make certain judgments based on preconceived thoughts I have cultivated regarding each race. I populate my ideas for the characteristics belonging to the group identity I have mentally constructed by observing the behavior of individuals of whom I deem respective members. Brown people are terrorists. Mexicans are illegal. White people are the best. Glad we’re all in agreement.
These ignorant claims establish artificial boundaries. But strange enough, because these invented categories draw from observable characteristics established as criteria, they have content. Because I have been exposed to the concept of race, I cannot turn a blind eye to it as an idea. This draws on themes alluded to in the film Inception. “When I say don’t think about rhinoceros what do you think of?” “Rhinoceros.” While we can attribute to an idea the property of it not accurately reflect the object it hopes to describe, once it has been conceived we cannot attribute to it the property of not existing as an idea. Once and idea has been formulated, it exists as an idea. That I have been exposed to the doctrine of Christianity means that if I find myself in Hell after I die, I could only blame myself for not believing. This is the idea I’m forced to entertain. Even if I refuse to believe in race, it would serve me disservice to turn a blind eye to the content of the idea. Asians will always be Asians because whenever I see the word I know who is being referred to. Likewise, whenever I see an Asian, one judgment my mind will make is to associate him with Asians.
One thing that I find interesting is the way in which we make judgments about our ideas. Ideas take many forms, and as we have noted, are not always accurate. While ideas may not accurately reflect what they describe, is there any hope that our conceptions could ever align with the actual world? If so, would it then not also be the case that every idea has a corresponding and correct idea about it? If an idea didn’t accurately reflect a truth in the world, would there necessarily have to be an idea explaining why this is so? This post is a jumble and I commend anyone willing to attempt to make sense of it.