Do we expect too much from ideas? - RSA

Blog: Do we expect too much from ideas?


  • Social brain
  • Cognition
  • Spirituality

If you’ve ever had experience of psychotherapy you’ll be used to being asked how you feel about something. You typically start by explaining your emotions, but soon you realise you’re not feeling anything at all. You’re just talking.

So the therapist sometimes tries to help by asking where you feel the feeling and you locate it somewhere in your body. Usually you’re not totally sure, but when you attend to the feeling and not your thoughts about it, it becomes obvious that explaining it away in your usual idiom is not going to help, so the therapist often asks: This feeling; what’s it like?

At this point your language becomes metaphorical. It’s heavy, you say, or it’s like a wound, or it’s very young, and sometimes you may even think it has a colour. Sometimes you speak this way and know you sound completely mad, and yet you feel you are approaching the shores of sanity, not leaving them.

What’s going on here? 

When he spoke at the RSA last year Iain McGilchrist quoted American philosopher Eugene Gendlin who specializes on attending to what the body tells us: 

We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there’s much else besides. 

In the context, Iain added: “perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’.”

This point became salient in a conversation I had with the Philosopher Robert Rowland Smith about ideas. Robert was trying to make his case for why ideas might be overrated and at one point said, quite emphatically: “The soul doesn’t care about ideas”.

As with most therapeutic insight, I knew what he meant. In Spiritualise, which I wrote during 2014, I tried to make sense of what might be meant by ‘the soul’ in a relatively secular context; the discussion can be found on pages 76-78 of our report, Spiritualise. The main point is that the conventional wisdom among most scientists and analytic philosophers that the soul is mostly a religious and pre-modern folksy notion that makes no sense with respect to modern understandings of our evolved bodies and brains is profoundly limited and limiting. Losing ‘the soul’ means losing an essential reference point for qualities of human experience that are deeply valuable, not just despite but because they are inherently difficult to articulate.

Theologian Keith Ward puts it like this:

The whole point of talking of the soul is to remind ourselves constantly that we transcend all the conditions of our material existence; that we are always more than the sum of our chemicals, our electrons, our social roles or our genes…We transcend them precisely in being indefinable, always more than can be seen or described, subjects of experience and action, unique and irreplaceable.

In this respect, ‘Soul’ is not anti-scientific, it’s anti-scientistic; it is consistent with a respect for the scientific method but challenges scientific overreach into philosophy and ideology. From a materialist perspective Nicholas Humphrey argues that humans actually live in ‘the soul niche’ and he means niche in the conventional ecological sense of the term – the environment to which we are adapted. “Trout live in rivers, gorillas in forests, bedbugs in beds. Humans live in soul land.” Humphrey adds that ‘Soul land’ is a territory of the spirit and also that this spiritual territory is not only where humans live, but also where they give of their best. 

This embrace of ambiguity is transgressive in important ways, as is Robert’s claim that the soul doesn’t care about ideas. I was glad to be able to give Robert a chance to further develop his case about the limitations of ideas at an RSA Thursday event earlier this year called Beyond Ideas the genesis of which – he was kind to acknowledge- was his involvement with our Spirituality project. 

Some key claims I have harvested from the transcript include the notion that ideas almost by definition “aren’t real”…they take place in our heads. They have the quality of speculation. They are often about the future and the past…Ideas somehow are not connected to reality. Ideas are actually “cousins of the lie”. They are not grounded in the real. When we report on ideas we are not reporting on facts. We are reporting on something whose relationship to reality is somewhat tenuous.

Robert developed this point by considering ideas in the context of four main ways of seeing:

  1. Ideas based – ‘google glasses’; world as a screen in front of you giving bites of information; a mediated environment- we’re not looking directly. For instance in relationships what tends to go wrong is when each partner has an idea of the other partner and that idea becomes intolerable…sees every action through the lens of that idea. We’re working hermeneutically- interpreting it; as opposed to phenomenologically – “It’s much harder for human beings to experience the world than to interpret it.” We all do this, all the time.
  2. Data view of the world- no interpretations. Just report what we see, without adding anything. When James Joyce taught writing classes- instead of asking students to produce florid poetry or literary descriptions he simply asked them to note down what’s in the room. This is surprisingly hard! Our instinct is always to somewhat narrate, and add more than necessary. 
  3. ‘Hazing for’ – you begin to understand the whole better precisely because you lose focus- your understanding increases precisely because you’re not seeing such a detailed picture – shifting from an ideas space to a more intuitive space… a bit like seeing things in hindsight.
  4. ‘A Meta way of seeing’- in a situation where we rise above the chess board and see ourselves on the board…occasionally we get the opportunity to see ourselves as part of the scene in which we are part – we see not only the whole but our place in the whole…spares us from the anxiety of interpreting the world.

In the context of RSA’s ‘Power to Create’ worldview, Robert’s insight is particularly provocative. In his experience of working with ostensibly creative people he has noticed that they often live as if waiting for ideas, but squander most of their creativity as a result.  The heart of creativity, Robert believes is finding our ‘solos’, by which he means our unique take on the world – “we have to follow a path that is not anybody elses…we have to allow ourselves to become as peculiar as we all are.” Before we can get to that point we often have to allow ourselves to get completely lost – a process or experience he calls ‘perdition’ – a place of real stuckness, lostness…”Unless you feel truly lost you are not empty enough to receive… and you may just end of recycling what’s already in the zeitgeist.”

Finally, the notion that ideas might in some way be overrated begs the question of what forms of inquiry might we pursue that allow us to go ‘beyond ideas’? One such approach is constellations therapy, an approach based on somatic and intuitive inquiry that has informed both my last two reports for the RSA. Mindfulness is arguably also an attempt to get back in touch with unmediated experience as is Gendlin’s focussing. And then of course there are many forms of art and music that transcend ‘ideas’. As Robert puts it: “If you see how you see; if you notice how you notice, you can understand that ideas are not the only way to see the world.”

I have lived most of my life immersed in ideas, but I think Robert is on to something important. Whether it’s ‘predistribution’ or ‘postcapitalism’ or ‘power to create’ or whatever, ideas may not be our salvation after all. For me, it follows that we need to get better at knowing not only what we think, or think we think, but also what we notice and feel, and then find ways to communicate and act on that in ways that are valid and authoritative. Easier said than done!

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. From 2016, after six wonderful years at the RSA, he will begin a new venture, co-founding his own institute – Perspectiva - which will examine public policy challenges by integrating systems, souls and society; connecting the evolution of the political economy to relationships and the inner world.

You can reach him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson

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