How we Think About Ideas Determines What we do With Them

Framework for ideas
Much of our ability to connect with others hinges upon communication. We think about something to say, our mind encodes it, then we transmit it and someone on the other end decodes it. Understanding is based upon a common framework that determines meaning.

Each culture has its reference points. Within it metaphors structure the way we think and talk. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.

In Metaphors we Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say metaphors are pervasive in our everyday lives and they influence not just language, but also our thoughts and actions. Take for example how we think about theories and ideas by examining how we express them in English.

Theories (and arguments) are Buildings

Is that the foundation for your theory? The theory needs more support. The argument is shaky. We need some more facts or the argument will fall apart. We need to construct a strong argument for that. I haven't' figured out yet what the form of the argument will be. Here are some facts to shore up the theory. We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments. The theory will stand or fall on the strength of that argument. The argument collapsed. They exploded his latest theory. We will show that theory to be without foundation. So far we have put together only the framework of the theory.

We call people who create new ways of approaching a discipline of thought foundational thinkers.

Beyond representing the capacity to “the act or outcome of grasping the inward or hidden nature of things or of perceiving in an intuitive manner,” the definition of insight says we have the ability to penetrate and grasp the true nature of something.

Then we chew over it.

Ideas are Food

What he said left a bad taste in my mouth. All this paper has in it are raw facts, half-baked ideas, and warmed-over theories. There are too many facts here for me to digest them all. I just can't swallow that claim. That argument smells fishy. Let me stew over that for a while. Now there's a theory you can really sink your teeth into. We need to let that idea percolate for a while. That's food for thought. He's a voracious reader. We don't need to spoon-feed our students. He devoured the book. Let's let the idea simmer on the back burner for a while. This is the meaty part of the paper. Let that idea jell for a while. That idea has been fermenting for years.

In life or death situations we use metaphors that represent ideas as living things.

Ideas are People

The theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous number of ideas in physics. He is the father of modern biology. Whose brainchild was that? Look at what his ideas have spawned. Those ideas died off in the Middle Ages. His ideas will live on forever. Cognitive psychology is still in its infancy. That's an idea that ought to be resurrected. Where did you dig up that idea? He breathed new life into that idea.

What happens when we kill an idea in this construct?

Ideas are Plants

His ideas have finally come to fruition. That idea died on the vine. That's a budding theory. It will take years for that idea to come to full flower. He views chemistry as a mere offshoot of physics. Mathematics has many branches. The seeds of his great ideas were planted in his youth. She has a fertile imagination. Here's an idea that I'd like to plant in your mind. He has a barren mind.

We also think of ideas as part of commerce.

Ideas are Products

We're really turning (churning, cranking, grinding) out new ideas. We've generated a lot of ideas this week. He produces new ideas at an astounding rate. His intellectual productivity has decreased in recent years. We need to take the rough edges off that idea, hone it down, smooth it out. It's a rough idea; it needs to be refined.

Ideas are Commodities

It's important how you package your ideas. He won't buy that. That idea just won't sell. There is always a market for good ideas. That's a worthless idea. He's been a source of valuable ideas. I wouldn't give a plugged nickel for that idea. Your ideas don't have a chance in the intellectual marketplace.

Ideas are Resources

He ran out of ideas. Don't waste your thoughts on small projects. Let's pool our ideas. He's a resourceful man. We've used up all our ideas. That's a useless idea. That idea will go a long way.

Ideas are Money

Let me put my two cents' worth. He's rich with ideas. That book is a treasure trove of ideas. He has a wealth of ideas.

Or tools.

Ideas are Cutting Instruments

That's an incisive idea. That cuts right to the heart of the matter. That was a cutting remark. He's sharp. He has a razor wit. He has a keen mind. She cut his argument to ribbons.

Many contemporary conversations focus on the newness and trendiness quality of ideas.

Ideas are Fashions

That idea went out of style years ago. I hear sociology is in these days. Marxism is currently fashionable in Western Europe. That idea is old hat! That's an outdated idea. What are the new trends in English criticism? Old-fashioned notions have no place in today's society. He keeps up-to-date by reading the New York Review of books. Berkeley is a center of avant-garde thought. Semiotics has become quite chic. The idea of revolution is not longer invogue in the United States. The transformational grammar craze hit the United States in the mid-sixties and has just made it to Europe.

When we look at “understanding as seeing”:

Ideas are Light-Sources; Discourse is a Light-Medium

I see what you're saying. It looks different from my point of view. What is your outlook on that? I view it differently. Now I've got the whole picture. Let me point something out to you. That's an insightful idea. That was a brilliant remark. The argument is clear. It was a murky discussion. Could you elucidate your remarks? It's a transparent argument. The discussion was opaque.

Our word choices create entire worlds in the minds and imagination of the people we talk with — how we think about ideas determines what we end up doing with them. A good metaphor quotient helps us become more deliberate in how we approach the creative process.


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]

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