And I Will Give You The World
Bill Long 12/8/07
The Next Generation of Transformative Thinkers*
[The companion essay, "Give Me Five Minutes," is here.]
The purpose of this essay is to give advice to those of you who would like to aspire to become thinkers who transform the world's ideas and, thus, the world. I am writing this especially to those of you in your student years (of whatever age), who are confident of your abilties, have a yearning to make a contribution to this world and wouldn't mind someone a little older (well, a lot older) suggesting some things on how you can get there. What I give you here is definitely not all the advice you need; many others are more able than I in guiding you through some of the perils of office or professional politics, for example. But I will guide you here on how to approach, think about, learn and express ideas. Indeed, if you want to transform the world's ideas in the future, you need to have a sense of where ideas come from, how to understand them, criticize them, express them and transform them. This essay will get you started.
Thesis # 1--Learn the Context of the Idea
If some author suggests an idea that you think is a good one, discover where the idea came from. It usually didn't come from the fertile mind of the author; it is derived from other sources. Another way of putting this is to look at writers/scholars like the Demiurge in Plato's Timaeus. The Demiurge looked around, found various materials lying here and there and, with them, fashioned this world. That is what really creative people do; they take "material" that is lying around and make new things out of it. So, the first task you need to set for yourself is to discover the deep context of a writer's/scholars ideas. This may be as simple as pointing to civil rights legislation in the 1960s as influencing some African-American leaders today or to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as shaping some of the modern environmental movement.
But often the genesis and description of the ideas is a little harder to discover. For this you might have to study the person's biography to learn what s/he has read or who influenced him/her. Idea people of the next generation will also increasingly want to look to important life experiences that shape the reasons why or the way people express ideas. For example, a "breakthrough" moment in understanding Plato's Republic might be when you read Letter VII and realize that Plato probably wrote the Republic in a funk--as a result of a sense of personal failure in the political realm. So, he decided to create an alternative universe, a parallel world, so to speak, where he could have his players doing what they wanted to do--principally because he couldn't do this in real life.
I don't want to give the impression that I am partial to Plato here. You could do the same with St. Paul (as I try to do in many of my Biblical expositions on his Epistles) or Cicero (as I do in some of my essays on him) or other figures. The point is that people's lives often give clues to the development of ideas for them. But often, as I suggested above, it is certain events in the life of a nation, people or group that shapes the way a scholar sees things and explains why certain ideas are important to him/her. One is on good grounds for arguing, for example, that the experience of Jews in 1933-1945, especially in Europe, not only contributed directly to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 but still substantially influences the way most Jews in the West define their interests today. You have to understand, then, the genesis of ideas.
Thesis # 2--Learn the Texts Which Contain the Idea
My first point emphasized the "context" or "world/s" out of which the idea came. This point stresses the actual texts or written materials that express the idea. If you want to change the way the world thinks about things, you should probably be adept at reading texts. To be adept at reading means that you have a sense of how to read the author and how to present, in your own words, the way that his/her ideas are expressed. In that connection, if you read Plato's Republic and wanted to explain his concept of the forms, you would need to be able to explain how Book VII of the Republic fits into his overall purposes in the Republic as well as what Book VII actually says (the three illustrations of the concept of the the forms--the cave, line, sun). Or, to put the matter differently, if you wanted to explain the meaning of the 14th Amendment, you would need to read and master the records of the discussion of the Congressional committee appointed late in 1865 to consider shaping that Amendment.
While I am on this point, I want to say a word about mastery of a subject. Many young people get the idea that if you just have some verbal facility and have a few concepts or theories from a field, that you have learned what you need to know. Theories or theoretical concepts can be pernicious in this regard in that they can be used as a replacement for mastering data. The biggest mistake that many young people who would love to be transformative intellects make is that they think that theory "carries" you. In fact, it doesn't. Mastery of material carries you, and then learning the theory is so easy you almost don't need to spend much time on it. The hard work of study is learning enough of Cicero's life, for example, that you can understand why he wrote his philosophical works, when he wrote them, what forces in his own life were leading him to do so and then what he was trying to accomplish through them.
Let me say one other thing. Professors who oversee Ph. D. programs may be impressed by your verbal facility or your ability to juggle some theoretical concepts, but if they heard you recite 30 facts about an important person who shaped the field, and how these facts contributed to the development of his/her ideas, you will be shooed into the finest Ph. D. programs in America... probably with a big scholarship. You should master data because the rest of your colleagues will be learning only theory. But the future will go to those who are deeply acquainted with and have mastered the facts of lives, history, and the contexts of ideas.
Thesis # 3--Develop a Sense of Humor
This isn't a sine qua non, but it helps. People adopt ideas in our age primarily through persuasion. We generally don't convert at the point of swords anymore. This means that we must study to learn the means of persuasion in our own day. Aristotle's Rhetoric is somewhat out of date, but his basic point is incontrovertible--we must seek the places or sources where arguments reside and decide which fits best in making our case. Humor is generally not much used in presentations, but it does tend to get an audience in a frame of mind to listen to you.
Thesis # 4--Learn How To Express The Idea
You first develop your own ideas only when you have learned to express someone else's ideas sympathetically. Life just seems to work that way. It doesn't really give you the privilege of its ears until you have first given your ears to other people. In learning how to express someone else's idea(s), it is helpful is to write and speak with brevity, clarity, and energy. Sort of like in a mini-essay (smile). But, if you can't express it in one short essay, do it in two or three or four. Just be sure that you know enough to be able to break down the idea into its component parts, and then explain it. My site ought to be a good model for how to do that on ideas. For example, my essays explaining Kanner's or Asperger's basic essays on autism should help you there. In any case, make those three words your goal as you write--be brief, be clear, and be expressive. Write as if you are trying to write to a smart high school student. If you do so, your description of someone else will be understood and even welcomed. And then, the world will be ready to hear your big idea...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long