While listening to Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual podcast, it struck me that (and I’ve heard this before but it didn’t settle with the kind of weight it does now) there’s a real sense that ideas are actual things operating in the world, as in not just in the minds of people, but as in being nearly autonomous things themselves–things with agency; things that impose themselves on people’s minds and either persuade them to think a certain way, or maybe they seek to nestle inside the neural pathways so deeply that the thinker believes all his ideas originate in his own mind.
Ideas can be like water, which depends on passive force to carve its canyons. As with water, time is of no concern to ideas; they will arise when conditions are suitable, unbidden and essentially unopposed. On the podcast, Crispin’s guest was talking about a historical moment, and he referred to an idea as having “crept in.” So ideas can also be like critters, scurrying in when the door’s left open and unattended, setting up residence in the wall and forcing the homeowner to reckon with their presence.
I think of the Jewish mystical concept of the golem, which, in the most reductive way I could possibly explain it, is a figure made from clay who is then spoken to life by its maker (think Adam in the biblical account of creation, except instead of God speaking a little clay man to life, a rabbi does it). Golems don’t have the agency of a human; they are created for specific functions, such as protecting cities or any number of its creator’s biddings. But whatever it does, it’s out there, animate and self-starting, like a sentient being, but not quite.
In the real world, can we imagine ideas being like this? We generate them, and they remain in the environment–out and about, ranging here and there, waiting for the right moment to assert themselves. Imagine it: at your work, in your house, at the store, and along the highway, ideas are there, put there by us but hidden from view. They sit in the room with you, ready to pounce.