The Idea of Ideas

By Michael Alan Prestwood

A new look at epistemology. First published in "30 Philosophers."
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Abstract: The Idea of Ideas was first published in 30 Philosophers: A New Look at Timeless Ideas. The following includes selected excerpts from Chapter 18: “Peter Abelard and Universals.” In this new look at epistemology, it defines ideas as all thought starting with perception and categorizes them into empirical, rational, and irrational. It also contends that ideas are limited by reality and are therefore discovered rather than created. While Hume’s Fork provides a powerful two-tine lens of reality, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism offers an equally valuable three-tine approach, highlighting the crucial split between the material world and our ideas about it. The Idea of Ideas extends and clarifies beyond both, solving the problem of Hume’s Fork while simplifying and clarifying beyond Kant’s Transcendental Idealism.

separator, divider, HRUnlocking the Ideas Already There: How Discovery Trumps Invention

The Idea of Ideas argues against the idea that humans invent ideas, proposing instead that they are discovered. It defines ideas as encompassing all thought stemming from perception and categorizes them as empirical, rational, and irrational. 

Let’s explore.

What is the nature of reality? You may have heard of Plato and his “realm of Forms”. This is a place he believed exists beyond our physical world, where everything we know – and even what we don’t – has its perfect “form”. This article introduces the concept of the “Idea of Ideas”. In the simplest terms, this concept tells us that all things, objects and concepts exist, waiting to be found and used by us, rather than being created from scratch by our minds or existing in a magical realm of Forms.

Take bicycles as an example. We didn’t invent the idea of bicycles, we simply found out how to put together the parts to make one. Likewise, justice is a concept we found, labelled, and started using – it exists as an idea in reality, not just our minds. Even invisible things like microwaves existed before we knew about them. When Percy Spencer’s candy bar melted near a magnetron, he didn’t invent microwaves. They were already there. He just discovered that they could cook food. The actual microwave oven that followed was a new recipe, a social construct, built using these pre-existing ingredients.

Now, think about law. We didn’t invent law as an idea, we just found ways to use already existing principles like justice, fairness, and human rights, and created different recipes of law like civil, common, and religious law. The same goes for money. Money is a social construct. We all agree to believe in it and make systems around it. But the idea of money is just another recipe, using pre-existing ingredients like trade, bargaining, and value. Even in fiction, authors like J.K. Rowling didn’t invent the idea of magic or the concept of a hero’s journey. She just discovered these ideas and wrote a new recipe in the form of the Harry Potter series.

So, when we talk about “discovering” and “inventing”, we mean two related but distinct things. Discovering means finding things that exist objectively, like justice or microwaves. Inventing means arranging these discovered things in unique ways, like laws or microwave ovens. It’s like a chef making a new soup recipe. They don’t create the ingredients, they just find new ways to put them together. Every creative act is a new recipe using ingredients that were already there in reality.

Interestingly, even though there are an infinite number of recipes we can come up with, the ingredients for these recipes are limited by reality. We can only combine and rearrange the things that exist in reality to come up with new ideas. So, every idea we can think of, already exists. If we can think about it, it’s already out there as a potential combination of existing things, waiting to be discovered.

This isn’t just philosophical, it’s scientific too. For instance, every physics theory that was or will be, exists whether or not anyone ever discovers it. The basic components exist in reality right now, waiting for us to find, label, and use them. When we shift from the empirical (based on observation or experience) to the experiential (based on events or situations that someone has experienced), we can understand this better. Abstract things like justice or fairness may not be physically tangible, but their presence can be felt in our lives and societies.

Think about the link between physical objects and abstract ideas. The microwave oven is a physical object that can be seen and touched. But its existence and use were influenced by abstract ideas like convenience and speed. These abstract ideas are part of our reality, even if they can’t be physically measured.

In a nutshell, the Idea of Ideas is about recognizing that everything we think, invent, or discover is essentially just a new recipe using ingredients that have always existed in reality. We’re not creating these ingredients, we’re just finding new ways to use them.

Definitions

Now that we are getting metaphysical, we need a bit more precision and define specifically what we are talking about. Do not get caught up in these definitions, just let me paint you a picture. You can always come back if you wish to clarify. For our exploration let’s start by defining realms in general and specifically our Material World.

The empirical, rational, and irrational sets of ideas, illustrating how these concepts exist independently in the Material World. From scientific instruments and geometric shapes to abstract art, this image emphasizes the coexistence and interplay of these diverse ideas, forming the foundation of our understanding and cognitive frameworks.

The property of being red is a universal because it is shared by all red objects, even though the objects themselves are distinct from one another. Universals are things like properties that belong to more than one thing like the color or height attribute of bicycles. To be clear, the category of bikes is not a universal, but the properties of bikes are universals. A traditional definition goes something like this:

Universals are the abstract entities, the properties, actions, and relations, that are shared by, but may transcend, multiple concrete objects and/or abstract entities. They can be explored within specific classes or ideas, across them, or even independently of them.

A realm is a conceptual domain that can exist within, beyond, or as the Material World encompassing a distinct group of entities, and laws.

The Material World refers to the physical realm or the tangible aspects of reality that we can perceive through our senses directly or through tools indirectly.

Concrete Objects are things that exist in the Material World; occupy space and time, and can be interacted with directly or indirectly.

Abstract Entities are things that are not located in space and time in the same way as concrete objects; and cannot be observed or measured through our senses or by physical instruments.

Empirical Entities are things that, while abstract, are linked to observable or measurable phenomena in the Material World. They may be directly perceived through our senses (Sensory) or detected with the use of tools or instruments (Nonsensory).

Sensory Entities are thins which we can directly perceive with our senses.

Nonsensory Entities are things that, although not directly perceptible by our senses, can be detected or measured using scientific tools that extend our sensory capabilities.

Rational Entities are things not connected to any detectable phenomena in the material world and are supported by a valid and consistent logical argument.

Irrational Entities are things not connected to any detectable phenomena in the material world and are not supported by a valid and consistent logical argument.

The focus for us is on the nature and existence of properties, actions, and relations of both concrete objects and abstract entities. For instance, both animals and insects have evolved the ability to see, engaging in the action of perceiving objects, which we label as visible light. Hence, the debate includes both the act of seeing and the thing perceived, visible light. In simple terms,

The Problem of Universals explores whether universals exist independently of the things that possess them, whether within the confines of the Material World or beyond.

The color of a cat’s hair, brown or black, is an example of a universal. So are the actions a cat performs, like running, speaking, and eating. The question is, do these things exist separate from the cat? Are they somehow connected? What does it mean for something to be running? Does red exist beyond its manifestation in things like a flower, bicycle, or blood?

Detailed Explanation: The Idea of Ideas

Plato firmly believed in the existence of a realm of Forms. Historical evidence suggests that Plato posited multiple realms beyond the Material World. These realms include the realm of Forms, the realm of Hades, where souls face judgment, and the heaven-like realm of the Isle of the Blessed.

For those who approach reality from a scientific-oriented Direct Realist perspective, the theory of Forms may seem far-fetched or unsupported. However, it is intriguing to consider whether there is a concept that serves a similar purpose in the scientific framework. This leads us to contemplate the notion of the Idea of Ideas.

The Idea of Ideas asserts that concrete objects and abstract entities exist in the Material World, independent of the minds of sentient beings who can discover, label, and use them in recipes that already exist.

It suggests that these conceptual entities exist objectively, waiting to be discovered rather than created by human thought. They form the fundamental fabric of reality, and our role is to uncover and understand them, assigning labels and using them. People do not invent gravity, or microwaves, they discover, label, and create new recipes that use them.

Concrete objects exist in whole, Empirical Entities link to observable or measurable phenomena that exists in the Material World, and Rational and Irrational Entities exist as ideas. All awaiting discovery, labelling, and using in the minds of sentient beings. Concrete things, like bicycles, simply and always exist in whole. While purely rational things, like justice, are fundamental ideas of reality that sentient beings have discovered, labelled, and use—they exist as ideas in reality and in the minds of sentient beings. The other two types of Abstract Entities are Sensory and Nonsensory which link to observable or measurable things that exist; this includes sensory things like the color red, and nonsensory things like invisible microwaves.

The Idea of Ideas includes abstract entities. People do not invent the idea of law; rather, they utilize fundamental concepts that already exist. They create new recipes of law, such as civil, common, and religious, which are further employed within other systems, including American Law, Sharia Law, and Chinese Legalism. The ingredients of these recipes include justice, fairness, societal norms, moral codes, human rights, and individual liberties. These are intrinsic aspects of social living, imprinted on the canvas of human consciousness. They are the unwritten rules, the silent codes of conduct, the invisible guiding principles that steer our behavior and societal interactions.

Each of these ingredients already existed as a fundamental ingredient of reality. They are not physical entities, yet they hold an omnipresence in our shared consciousness, permeating every aspect of human society. Just as gravity pulls the planets in their orbits, these invisible principles shape the trajectory of civilizations, guiding us towards order, justice, and harmony. They are the foundations upon which we build our societies, the threads that weave the rich tapestry of human culture and civilization.

The Idea of Ideas, surprisingly, applies to fiction too. Writers do not invent new characters, they take existing concepts and use them to assemble a new character, a new recipe. Authors take universally recognized concepts such as fear, terror, darkness, and the unknown, and they craft these elements into new forms. When J.K. Rowling penned the Harry Potter series, she didn’t invent the idea of magic, good versus evil, or the concept of a hero’s journey. These are age-old universals that have been around for centuries, if not millennia. What Rowling did was to assemble these concepts into a new recipe, one that has captivated readers worldwide.

Discovery versus Invention

Discovery refers to the uncovering or realization of existing elements in reality. These elements can be concrete objects, like physical phenomena, or abstract entities, like the principles of justice or fairness. When we say something has been “discovered,” we mean it has been found to exist objectively, independent of human consciousness. This process aligns with the conventional understanding of discovery.

However, the term “invented” is redefined subtly in implication and degree of credit. Invention is not the creation of something entirely new, but rather the unique arrangement or utilization of already discovered elements. New inventions are new in the same sense that a new recipe for soup is new. An invention is a unique recipe formed from pre-existing ingredients. For instance, the microwave oven is an invention that utilized the previously discovered phenomena of microwaves. Percy Spencer did not invent microwaves nor cooking with microwaves. His “invention” is that he was a brilliant chef that put together a new recipe he called the microwave oven.

Infinite Recipes, Finite Ingredients

Aren’t the recipes tied to societal evolution? Drawing a parallel to the concept of infinity in mathematics, the Idea of Ideas suggests that just as numbers exist infinitely, so too do “recipes.” In the same way that we know certain numbers have never been contemplated by any sentient being, we can know there are “recipes” that have yet to be discovered by any mind. Specific recipes like American Law and legal ingredients like justice and fairness are not mere reflections of societal evolution, they exist objectively in a realm of infinite possibilities, waiting to be discovered, labeled, and used. They exist as possibilities, regardless of whether they’ve been written down, calculated, or conceptualized by sentient beings.

Aristotle’s Empiricism versus Plato’s Rationalism

The Idea of Ideas approaches the challenge of proving the existence of abstract entities by encouraging us to shift our perspective from empirical to experiential—from Aristotle to Plato. While empirical evidence is key in substantiating the existence of concrete objects, abstract entities like justice or fairness are best understood through their manifestations in human experiences and societies.

Abstract entities can be identified and characterized by the roles they play in our collective consciousness and actions. They are not validated by their physical existence but rather by the consistent patterns of their influence. For instance, justice may not have a physical form to touch or measure, but its presence is indicated when fairness is served in a societal dispute. Similarly, the existence of fairness is manifested when an equitable distribution of resources or opportunities is witnessed in a community.

The Interplay of Concrete and Abstract

The back-and-forth of concrete objects and abstract entities has complicated and confused the problem of universals. In this framework, both concrete objects and abstract entities serve crucial roles in our understanding of the world. Concrete objects, like the microwave oven, represent physical objects or empirical realities that exist in our material world. They can be observed, measured, and physically interacted with. However, their existence, use, and the discovery of their potential applications are all influenced by abstract entities.

Ideas and What they Represent

The ingredients, the underlying principles or notions, are understood as concrete objects and abstract entities that exist independently of their specifically manifested recipes. The manifestations themselves are contingent upon the creative minds that realize them. For instance, consider the character Harry Potter. He is a representation of various universals, including heroism, magic, good versus evil, etc. In the context of the Idea of Ideas, these underlying principles exist independently of the character. They are universals that have been recognized and represented in countless forms across human history.

However, Harry Potter as a specific embodiment of these ideas – a young wizard with a lightning-shaped scar, attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and combating the dark wizard Voldemort – did not exist independently of J.K. Rowling’s creative process. The specific recipe, the form, story, and universe that these ideas took were created by her. They emerged from her unique combination, interpretation, and expression of these universals. All creative works are essentially unique combinations or reconstructions of existing elements whether or not those elements were discovered, labelled, and used prior to the new recipe.

While the Idea of Ideas may not have a specific name in philosophical literature, it resonates with age-old debates about the nature of reality, abstract ideas, and even with the problem of universals. In this framework the concrete objects, abstract entities, and all potential recipes possess a reality beyond subjective human thought, existing in reality and potential reality. In this sense, one might argue that Plato, in a very different way than what he presented, was on the right track.

What about fiction?

The Idea of Ideas also has implications for fiction, or what could be referred to as Fictional Entities. When writers create new characters or spin narratives, they are not truly inventing from nothing. Instead, they are using existing concepts and ingredients that reside within our collective consciousness, and assembling these elements into unique configurations – in essence, new recipes.

This image captures a spectrum of irrational ideas, ranging from new speculative concepts to beliefs and disproven theories. The scene includes visual elements such as mythical creatures like unicorns, astrological symbols, and other icons representing disproven or untestable theories like flat Earth.

Consider universally recognized concepts such as fear, heroism, magic, the unknown, or the timeless theme of good versus evil. Authors, like J.K. Rowling, take these abstract entities and weave them into a form that is at once novel and familiar. When Rowling penned the Harry Potter series, she didn’t invent the idea of magic, nor did she originate the concept of a hero’s journey or the struggle between light and dark. These are age-old universals, intrinsic aspects of our shared human story. What Rowling achieved was the orchestration of these universals into a unique recipe – one that resonated with millions of readers worldwide.

The interaction between fiction and reality is complex, with elements of the concrete, empirical, and rational permeating the seemingly irrational realm of fiction. Take, for example, the character Harry Potter. He is a composite of various universals, including courage, adventure, friendship, and sacrifice, all set within the context of a magical world.

These underlying principles exist independently of Harry. They are universals that have found expression in countless forms across human history. But the specific incarnation of Harry Potter – a young wizard with a lightning-shaped scar, attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and engaging in a metaphysical battle against the dark wizard Voldemort – was not pre-existing. This specific assembly of universal elements – the character, the story, and the universe they inhabit – emerged from Rowling’s creative process.

It’s important to note that while the universals utilized in the crafting of a story may pre-exist in the collective consciousness, the specific assembly, interpretation, and expression of these universals into a narrative – the precise recipe – is unique to the author. In other words, the character of Harry Potter, while composed of existing universal elements, did not exist prior to Rowling’s imaginative assembly.

This exploration of fiction underscores the Idea of Ideas’ applicability beyond purely ‘real’ or ‘rational’ entities. It suggests that even in the realm of the imagination, we are engaging with aspects of reality – though in a more abstract, symbolically-imbued manner.

Dealing with Mythological and Religious Entities

Interestingly, the Idea of Ideas also extends to mythological and religious entities. These entities often take forms such as gods, deities, devils, heavenly realms, and mythic places like Valhalla. Just as with fictional entities, these are not entirely novel constructs. Rather, they are assemblies of pre-existing ideas, beliefs, and concepts from our shared human consciousness.

When religions construct the image of a deity like God, or mythologies portray places like Valhalla, they are not creating these entities out of thin air. Instead, they are weaving together various universals such as love, justice, power, courage, valor, or the afterlife – aspects that have been recognized and represented across human history. Their specific assemblages in the form of God or Valhalla are unique interpretations and expressions within their respective religious or cultural contexts.

God, for instance, in many monotheistic religions, is often depicted as a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient entity – a representation of concepts such as absolute love, justice, and mercy. These concepts pre-exist the specific deity but are combined in a unique way that resonates with followers of these faiths. Similarly, Valhalla, in Norse mythology, is a hall where heroes slain in battle are said to dwell in the afterlife. It represents universals like heroism, valor, and a particular conception of the afterlife.

The interplay between fiction and these mythological and religious entities is evident. Like Harry Potter, these entities embody pre-existing universals in a specific manner, intricately tied to their cultural or religious context. Yet, they are also different. While fictional entities are often acknowledged as human creations, religious and mythological entities are typically treated within their traditions as being real in some sense, often beyond empirical or rational examination.

In essence, while both fictional entities and religious or mythological entities draw from a similar well of universal concepts, the manner in which they are perceived and engaged with often differs, reflecting the complexity and diversity of human thought and cultural practices.

Aristotle’s Empiricism versus Plato’s Rationalism

The distinction between Aristotle’s empiricism and Plato’s rationalism has been a focal point of philosophical discussions throughout history. The Idea of Ideas approaches the challenge of understanding abstract entities by encouraging a shift from empirical to experiential—from Aristotle to Plato. Empirical evidence is pivotal in substantiating concrete objects, but rational entities like justice or fairness are best grasped through their manifestations in human experiences and societies.

In many ways, this theory suggests that both Plato, with his realm of Forms, and Hinduism, with its concept of Maya, are on the right track. The realm of Forms mirrors the latent ideas of this theory—ideas that linger unobserved until an observer acknowledges them. Simultaneously, the Hindu idea of Maya, indicating the world’s illusory nature, supports the view that our interpretations of the material world are transient mental constructs. Plato emphasized reason as a means to discern reality’s truth and transcend the illusion of the physical realm. Maya in Hindu philosophy too alludes to the fleeting nature of our worldly perceptions. The crux of this theory resonates with these historical notions: while the material world remains steady, our interpretations of it are fluid, subjective, and ever-evolving.

“Only through the use of reason can the truth of reality be understood, and the illusion of the physical world be transcended.”—Plato, circa 350 BCE.

Abstract entities are defined and characterized by their roles within our collective consciousness and actions. They aren’t affirmed by physical existence but by their consistent influential patterns. For example, while justice lacks a tangible form, its presence emerges when a society resolves disputes fairly. Similarly, fairness is apparent when resources or opportunities are equitably distributed in a community.

The enduring existence of such abstract entities is hinted at by their pervasiveness across diverse cultures and times. Despite different societies interpreting and applying concepts like justice differently, their foundational essence remains steadfast. This consistent nature, independent of specific societal contexts, underscores their existence beyond mere human constructs. This perspective transition, from empirical verification to experiential validation for rational entities, offers a means to understand and validate their independent existence.

The Interplay of Concrete and Abstract

The Idea of Ideas approaches the challenge of proving the existence of abstract entities by encouraging us to shift our perspective from empirical to experiential—from Aristotle to Plato. While empirical evidence is key in substantiating the existence of concrete objects and empirical entities, rational entities like justice or fairness are best understood through their manifestations in human experiences and societies.

In a way, this theory is saying that both Plato, with his realm of Forms, and Hinduism, with their illusory concept of Maya, are correct. Both Plato, with his realm of Forms, and Hinduism, with its concept of Maya, offer insights that align with this perspective. The realm of Forms parallels the latent ideas of this theory—ideas that exist in an ungrasped state until recognized by an observer. The Hindu concept of Maya, which alludes to the world’s illusory nature, echoes the idea that our perceptions and interpretations of the material world are transient and ever-shifting mental constructs.

Plato, in his teachings, emphasized the importance of reason to discern the truth of reality and to rise above the illusion of the physical world. Similarly, Maya in Hindu philosophy speaks to the transient nature of our worldly perceptions. These historical concepts resonate with the core of this theory: while the material world is constant, our individual and cultural interpretations of it are fluid, subjective, and ever-evolving. In his native tongue, Plato once said something like,

“Only through the use of reason can the truth of reality be understood, and the illusion of the physical world be transcended.”—Plato, circa 350 BCE.

Rational entities can be identified and characterized by the roles they play in our collective consciousness and actions. They are not validated by their physical existence but rather by the consistent patterns of their influence. For instance, justice may not have a physical form to touch or measure, but its presence is indicated when fairness is served in a societal dispute. Similarly, the existence of fairness is manifested when an equitable distribution of resources or opportunities is witnessed in a community.

The independent existence of abstract entities is suggested through the cross-cultural and temporal pervasiveness of such concepts. Despite the variations in how different societies and times interpret and implement justice or fairness, the underlying essence remains consistent. This universality of these abstract entities, independent of specific cultural or societal contexts, indicates their existence beyond mere human construct. This shift in perspective from empirical verification to experiential validation for rational entities, offers a rational way to understand and demonstrate the independent existence of them.

Cards: Concrete and Illusory

In a practical sense, you can imagine the material world as a solid foundation for our interpretation of it. Yes, our cards representing concrete objects is a look at them from a particular view, sure, easy, solid. The rest of the cards fall in line with a more traditional understanding of “abstract.” These other cards represent mental constructs that exist in our minds that help us understand the world we live in. The one type of abstract card that is “debatable” is empirical entities. Cards that refer to universals. The cards that Plato, Aristotle, Abelard, and many others keep arguing about. In this theory, those cards are just mental constructs but so are use and interaction with concrete objects. Our complete model is essentially four levels of abstraction: concrete, empirical, rational, and irrational.

The split between the material world, the universe and its absolute truths, and our ideas about it. Our ideas might come very close to absolute truth but are always fallible.

Types of Beings and their Minds

When this theory refers to “beings”, it’s referring to any entity with advanced cognitive abilities whether here on Earth or not, as well as certain advanced AI systems. Central to this theory is the notion that mental constructs, ideas, exist in minds as a tool for organizing and comprehending the world. These constructs can range from simple to complex.

Beings can be broadly classified into non-sentient and sentient categories. Non-sentient beings lack sensory perceptions and include inanimate objects like rocks and tables. Sentient beings, capable of sensory experiences, further subdivide into simple sentient, conscious, and self-aware groups. Simple sentient beings, such as earthworms and insects, react to their surroundings and display rudimentary sensations like pain or pleasure. However, they do not possess higher cognitive processes and are neither conscious nor self-aware. Conscious beings, like dogs or birds, interact with their environment, exhibit advanced decision-making, problem-solving, and emotions, but lack the capacity to form abstract mental constructs. They might anticipate future events, such as expecting a treat, but cannot create mental constructs that encapsulate broader realities.

Self-aware beings stand out for their ability to create intricate ideas rooted in consciousness and self-awareness. Such beings can introspect, reflecting on their thoughts and actions. This category primarily consists of humans, and potentially some higher primates, dolphins, and elephants. All these beings demonstrate self-awareness traits, from mirror self-recognition to empathy and abstract contemplation. Some birds, notably corvids, and even certain insects like bees, show advanced cognitive behavior. Whether they fit into the self-aware category remains a topic for scientific exploration. Furthermore, due to their capability to interpret and employ abstract notions, advanced AI systems might also fit this category. The line between these systems’ advanced pattern-recognition capabilities and genuine self-awareness is still blurred and remains a subject of intense research and debate.

This theory does not apply to all beings. Let’s take ants as an example. They interact with the world through their senses similar to us—they perceive and react. Unlike humans though, ants don’t contemplate deeper meanings. This theory is built on mental constructs, and since ants don’t engage in such intellectual contemplation, the theory doesn’t apply to them.

The human ego often obstructs our understanding. This is clear when individuals, discovering or using universal concepts, elevate themselves, claiming to have conjured something entirely new out of the void like a god, rather than simply recognizing what already exists. We are more akin to inventors than to gods. We innovate within the constraints of the existing universe. Ideas arise from the fundamental fabric of reality, and our role is to understand and label them. Humans didn’t invent microwaves from a void; they discovered existing things in the universe and used them. If a microwave oven wasn’t possible to create, we couldn’t create one.

–map/TST

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The Idea of Ideas is one of the Five Thought Tools which is part of the TST Framework. The TST Framework is a critical thinking framework and part of humanity’s evolution of human thought. My new book tells the full story of our best ideas…

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By Mike Prestwood
Natural Philosopher

Mike’s throwback title simply means he writes about philosophy, science, critical thinking, and history with a focus on exploring boundaries and intersections. While his focus is on our rational ideas about empirical observations, he does enjoy dabbling in the irrational. His exploration of the empirical led him to develop his Idea of Ideas which allows him to understand what is empirical, rational, and irrational as well as to easily understand what is empirically true, rational true, and irrationally false.

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