Great Ideas: Working Definitions and Clarifications

It’s obvious, once the question is asked, that people value “great ideas” for a variety of reasons. But perhaps a general definition may still be possible.

Great Ideas are those which will not let us (collectively) go—or which we can’t seem to let go—and which shape our sense of collective identity.

It’s all too obvious that this only takes us so far. But that may be far enough to clarify things a bit more.

Certain Great Ideas are of the “I know ’em when I see ’em” variety: liberty, democracy, monotheism, rationalism, science, community—these are our course keywords—love, progress, (indoor plumbing, sliced bread,) etc. We then see that we have at least two levels of analysis: this level of the recognition of greatness; and the level at which we ask questions about why we recognize a certain idea as “great.” I’ve already alluded to a number of the criteria we use to recognize “greatness.”

There is also the problem of extracting “great ideas” from their contexts, or of identifying “great texts” which give us a clear view of the idea. This clarity may be, and often is, tied closely to a particular individual’s conception. Such concepts are inevitably “signed,” so that we talk about Jefferson’s idea of “liberty,” by which we mean something different than John Adam’s idea (or John Winthrop’s idea, or King George’s idea. . . ) Sometimes, it is worth making generalizations about a region and/or era, as when we talk about the “puritan idea of liberty”—but we do have to exercise care in this regard. The debates that we have looked at demonstrate that even within small, relatively homogenous communities, unanimity on important issues was seldom complete. (John Cotton differs just enough from John Wheelright so that one is exiled and the other oversees the exiling. John Cotton differs just enough from John Winthrop that he comes close, for a little while, to sharing Wheelright’s fate.) As long as we’re clear when we’re making generalizations, and they are appropriate to the kind of question we are addressing, there’s no problem. But we need always to keep in mind that generalizations are just that.

We also need to recognize that “great ideas” frequently play themselves out in complex combinations. The “puritan idea of liberty” doesn’t just relate to liberty. It is a crystalization of thought about liberty, authority, equality, hierarchy, religion, civil government, etc. Sometimes, we think there’s nothing in these ideas that has anything to do with us, simply because we don’t share the whole puritan worldview. But, for example, all of us still have to choose between “natual liberty” and “federal liberty.” We have to decide if the mere removal of constraints is enough to make people free, or if, perhaps, we think people should only be free in particular ways. We have to make decisions about the extent to which my freedom can be allowed to interfere with yours. By looking at the ways in which colonial New Englanders dealt with, or fairled to adequately deal with, this choice, we have an opportunity to look beyond the specific context to more general applications. We may also catch a glimpse of where our own values originated.

This last point is very important, for the reason that we are always dealing with values which we have inherited. We never get to build our own world from scratch, and there is nothing that keeps a hold on us like the problems that multiple generations of our ancestors have not been able to adequately address. At one level, we don’t get to pick what is a Great Idea. Those ideas are simply part of our environment and upbringing, and they shape our “common sense.” We’re responsible for them, in the sense that our societies give to them an importance which we can’t deny without also denying our membership in those societies. Reshaping them, and solving the problems associated with them, is social or (small-p) political work. That kind of work demands that we have, or establish, a common language and understanding—or at least make good progress in that direction. And one of the assumptions of the Great Ideas course is that those shared cultural assumptions, shared cultural memory, is being lost—through indifference to “the classics” and through the laudable but culturally risky process of rapidly expanding the “canon” to include otherwise excluded perspectives.

On the one hand, Great Ideas are our inheritance—whether we like it or not.

On the other, those same Great Ideas tend to encourage us to make those ideas our own, to whatever extent is necessary to pursue, say, Liberty or Democracy.

So we’re reading some texts that we’ve been told are “great.” And we’re reading a few more that might be great, because they seem to address the small group of inescapably great guiding ideas. And, in the process we hope to gain enough familiarity and ease with these texts and the clusters of ideas they present, to start to make the ideas our own, and start to have our own thoughts about “greatness. “

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.