The Decline of Ideas in the Post-Enlightenment Era

14Aug11

The Elusive Big Idea

Top row from left: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Archives of the California Institute of Technology, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Neal Boenzi/The New York Times. Bottom row from left: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images, Associated Press, Tim Gidal/Picture Post — Getty Images, Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images

Top row from left: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver and Betty Friedan. Bottom row from left: Charles R. Drew, Germaine Greer, John Maynard Keynes and Marshall McLuhan.

August 13, 2011     –      The Elusive Big Idea     –     By NEAL GABLER

Neal Gabler is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California and the author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

THE July/August issue of The Atlantic trumpets the “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” Take a deep breath. The ideas include “The Players Own the Game” (No. 12), “Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was” (No. 6), “Nothing Stays Secret” (No. 2), and the very biggest idea of the year, “The Rise of the Middle Class — Just Not Ours,” which refers to growing economies in Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Now exhale. It may strike you that none of these ideas seem particularly breathtaking. In fact, none of them are ideas. They are more on the order of observations. But one can’t really fault The Atlantic for mistaking commonplaces for intellectual vision. Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was.

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.

Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.

The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.

There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.

But these factors, which began decades ago, were more likely harbingers of an approaching post-idea world than the chief causes of it. The real cause may be information itself. It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.

We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.

And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

Marx pointed out the relationship between the means of production and our social and political systems. Freud taught us to explore our minds as a way of understanding our emotions and behaviors. Einstein rewrote physics. More recently, McLuhan theorized about the nature of modern communication and its effect on modern life. These ideas enabled us to get our minds around our existence and attempt to answer the big, daunting questions of our lives.

But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to. Read the rest of the article at: http://tinyurl.com/3lsudb3

Bright Ideas!

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One Response to “The Decline of Ideas in the Post-Enlightenment Era”

  1. This article and this kind of thinking are self-fulfilling prophesies. If the media is the message, then if the media’s message is “[b]old ideas are almost passé,” then people may believe it and refuse to generate bold ideas for fear of being considered passé.

    Neal Gabler’s message is similar to the media message that the book is dead. The book, the one you hold in your hands and manually flip the pages, is alive and well. Gabler mentions “[a] big idea [that] captured the cover of Time — ‘Is God Dead?'” Richard Dawkins answers that question in _The God Delusion_, and Christopher Hitchens tells us that _God is Not Great_ and that religion poisons everything.

    Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris, along with many other outspoken atheists, have fundamentally change[d] the ways we look at and think about the world. Another great idea, “You Can Be Good Without God,” has “ignite[d] fires of debate” and may win the the battle against “superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.”


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