According to Aristotle all human beings by nature desire to know or understand. Given the ignorance and vacuity of the many, it would be understandable to accuse Aristotle of naiveté. But those who have read Aristotle know that he was well aware of the failings and limitation of human being. The key phrase in Aristotle’s thesis are the words “by nature.” Human being, by its very inner constitution and essence is intellectual being, that is, human being is animated by a dynamic spirit of inquiry. Human being thinks — human being contemplates, defines, judges, argues, questions, explains, critics, experiments, et cetera. Indeed the human condition is pervaded by thinking, or to put it more simply “ideas.”
First, human existence is pervaded by “ideas” — thoughts, beliefs, questions, judgments, arguments, definitions, et cetera. The human condition unfolds against the horizon of ideas. Indeed, this thesis cannot be disputed without proving the point: making an argument that arguments are not part of human existence is obviously self-defeating. Clearly, no reader or student could engage with this thesis without thinking, believing, questioning, et cetera.
Ideas are an essential part of the human condition, from scientific theories and theological dogmas to ethical judgments and creative plans, human beings live and move in a world of ideas. Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to human experience, but at least on the face of it, ideas are a defining and irreducible element of being human. And again, any argument to the contrary will employ ideas and in doing so will demonstrate the thesis. It follows that any understanding of the human condition presupposes a searching analysis of ideas. Ideas are a fact of human existence; they are an irreducible element of the human condition.
Second, ideas have consequences. Our ideas about truth, education, value, evidence, fairness, reality, justice, friendship, learning, and trust profoundly impact our lives and relationships. Of course, there are critics who dispute this claim; some say that our lives are not impacted by our beliefs; our lives are determined entirely by physiological and environmental factors that are entirely out of our control. In this perspective, ideas are merely the ephemeral, accidental byproduct of more basic physical processes. There is much to say against this view, but it is not necessary to enter this dispute here, although it must be said that it cuts directly against common experience, and therefore, it bears the burden of evidence. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to refute psychological determinism at this point for the very simple reason that any argument on its behalf presupposes that ideas may point us to reality, which only supports the thesis that ideas have consequences. At least they may signify reality truly or falsely.
But more broadly, the prima facie deliverance of experience is this: ideas influence our passions, emotions, relationships, and decisions. Our ideas about fairness and human dignity impact views on politics, immigration policies, etc. Ideas about friendship, love, and trust influence our marriages, friendships, and other relationships. Further examples of the role of ideas in human experience could be easily multiplied.
Now to be sure, there are other consequential aspects of the human condition including temperament, emotions, habit, and environment, but it would be mistaken to speak of these factors as if they were unrelated to ideas. This is far from the case as shall be amply described in what follows. At this point, it is sufficient to observe that there is little reason to think that ideas are somehow unrelated to these other factors of human experience. Indeed, on first blush, it would seem that ideas, temperament, emotions etc. are deeply interrelated.
So let it be stipulated: ideas have consequences; they impact our lives. Indeed if our ideas are confused and misguided then it is likely that our lives will be confused and misguided. Bad ideas and bad choices often go hand and hand.
In addition, it should be conceded that some ideas are more important than others. The modern inclination against hierarchy and differentiation is likely to react negatively to this assertion, but this should not be so.
By “important,” I simply mean that some ideas are more basic than others. Some are foundational, others secondary; some are axiomatic, others derived; some significant, and others trivial or peripheral. By making this distinction, I do not presently intend to propose a universally, objective set of foundational ideas. Rather, in the life and experience of each person, one should find that some ideas hold or more central place over others.
Every reflective person should be in the position to identify the ideas that animate his life; we can almost always identify a collection of ideas that are decisive for a person’s character and way of life. Ideas that serve as orientation points on a compass and enable someone to map out the journey of life. Ideas of this sort are classically called first principles. Generally, first principles concern truth, goodness, or being and taken together they form what some philosophers refer to as a person’s worldview. Worldview matters; first principles matter. In fact, every decision, relationship, and feeling presupposes or implies, explicitly or implicitly some understanding of truth, goodness, and being. We live in a world of ideas and if you want to understand your life and guide it wisely you need to examine your worldview. You need to ask yourself serious questions about your values, your interpretation of the world, and why you believe what you believe. Your mind matters.
Remember: Socrates taught that the unexamined life is not worth living.