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In philosophy, ideas are usually construed as mental representational images of some object. Ideas can also be abstract concepts that do not present as mental images. Many philosophers have considered ideas to be a fundamental ontological category of being. The capacity to create and understand the meaning of ideas is considered to be an essential and defining feature of human beings. In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place.
One view on the nature of ideas is that there exist some ideas (called innate ideas) which are so general and abstract that they could not have arisen as a representation of any object of our perception, but rather were in some sense always present. These are distinguished from adventitious ideas which are images or concepts which are accompanied by the judgment that they are caused or occasioned by an external object.
Another view holds that we only discover ideas in the same way that we discover the real world, from personal experiences. The view that humans acquire all or almost all their behavioral traits from nurture (life experiences) is known as tabula rasa ("blank slate"). Most of the confusions in the way of ideas arise at least in part from the use of the term "idea" to cover both the representation percept and the object of conceptual thought. This can be illustrated in terms of the doctrines of innate ideas, "concrete ideas versus abstract ideas", as well as "simple ideas versus complex ideas".
Plato was one of the earliest philosophers to provide a detailed discussion of ideas (it must be noted that in Plato's Greek the word idea carries a rather different sense from our modern English term). Plato argued in dialogues such as the Phadeo, Symposium, Republic, and Timaeus that there is a realm of ideas or forms (eidei), which exist independently of anyone who may have thoughts of these ideas, and it is the ideas which distinguish mere opinion from knowledge, for unlike material things which are transient and liable to contrary properties, ideas are unchanging and nothing but just what they are. Consequently, Plato seems to assert that material things can only be the objects of opinion; real knowledge can only be had of unchanging ideas. Furthermore, ideas for Plato appear to serve as universals; consider the following passage from the Republic:
"We both assert that there are," I said, "and distinguish in speech, many fair things, many good things, and so on for each kind of thing."
"Yes, so we do."
"And we also assert that there is a fair itself, a good itself, and so on for all things that we set down as many. Now, again, we refer to them as one idea of each as though the idea were one; and we address it as that which really is."
"That's so.""And, moreover, we say that the former are seen, but not intellected, while the ideas are intellected but not seen."—Plato, Bk. VI 507b-c
Descartes often wrote of the meaning of idea as an image or representation, often but not necessarily "in the mind", which was well known in the vernacular. Despite that Descartes is usually credited with the invention of the non-Platonic use of the term, he at first followed this vernacular use.b In his Meditations on First Philosophy he says, "Some of my thoughts are like images of things, and it is to these alone that the name 'idea' properly belongs." He sometimes maintained that ideas were innate and uses of the term idea diverge from the original primary scholastic use. He provides multiple non-equivalent definitions of the term, uses it to refer to as many as six distinct kinds of entities, and divides ideas inconsistently into various genetic categories.  For him knowledge took the form of ideas and philosophical investigation is the deep consideration of these entities.
In striking contrast to Plato's use of idea is that of John Locke. In his Introduction to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke defines idea as "that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking; and I could not avoid frequently using it." He said he regarded the book necessary to examine our own abilities and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. In his philosophy other outstanding figures followed in his footsteps—Hume and Kant in the 18th century, Arthur Schopenhauer in the 19th century, and Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Popper in the 20th century. Locke always believed in good sense—not pushing things to extremes and on taking fully into account the plain facts of the matter. He considered his common sense ideas "good-tempered, moderate, and down-to-earth."
Hume differs from Locke by limiting idea to the more or less vague mental reconstructions of perceptions, the perceptual process being described as an "impression." Hume shared with Locke the basic empiricist premise that it is only from life experiences (whether their own or others') that humans' knowledge of the existence of anything outside of themselves can be ultimately derived, that they shall carry on doing what they are prompted to do by their emotional drives of varying kinds. In choosing the means to those ends, they shall follow their accustomed associations of ideas.d Hume has contended and defended the notion that "reason alone is merely the 'slave of the passions'."
Immanuel Kant defines an idea as opposed to a concept. "Regulator ideas" are ideals that one must tend towards, but by definition may not be completely realized. Liberty, according to Kant, is an idea. The autonomy of the rational and universal subject is opposed to the determinism of the empirical subject. Kant felt that it is precisely in knowing its limits that philosophy exists. The business of philosophy he thought was not to give rules, but to analyze the private judgements of good common sense.e
Whereas Kant declares limits to knowledge ("we can never know the thing in itself"), in his epistemological work, Rudolf Steiner sees ideas as "objects of experience" which the mind apprehends, much as the eye apprehends light. In Goethean Science (1883), he declares, "Thinking ... is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colors and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas." He holds this to be the premise upon which Goethe made his natural-scientific observations.
Wundt widens the term from Kant's usage to include conscious representation of some object or process of the external world. In so doing, he includes not only ideas of memory and imagination, but also perceptual processes, whereas other psychologists confine the term to the first two groups. One of Wundt's main concerns was to investigate conscious processes in their own context by experiment and introspection. He regarded both of these as exact methods, interrelated in that experimentation created optimal conditions for introspection. Where the experimental method failed, he turned to other objectively valuable aids, specifically to those products of cultural communal life which lead one to infer particular mental motives. Outstanding among these are speech, myth, and social custom. Wundt designed the basic mental activity apperception—a unifying function which should be understood as an activity of the will. Many aspects of his empirical physiological psychology are used today. One is his principles of mutually enhanced contrasts and of assimilation and dissimilation (i.e. in color and form perception and his advocacy of objective methods of expression and of recording results, especially in language. Another is the principle of heterogony of ends—that multiply motivated acts lead to unintended side effects which in turn become motives for new actions.
C. S. Peirce published the first full statement of pragmatism in his important works "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878) and "The Fixation of Belief" (1877). In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" he proposed that a clear idea (in his study he uses concept and idea as synonymic) is defined as one, when it is apprehended such as it will be recognized wherever it is met, and no other will be mistaken for it. If it fails of this clearness, it is said to be obscure. He argued that to understand an idea clearly we should ask ourselves what difference its application would make to our evaluation of a proposed solution to the problem at hand. Pragmatism (a term he appropriated for use in this context), he defended, was a method for ascertaining the meaning of terms (as a theory of meaning). The originality of his ideas is in their rejection of what was accepted as a view and understanding of knowledge by scientists for some 250 years, i.e. that, he pointed, knowledge was an impersonal fact. Peirce contended that we acquire knowledge as participants, not as spectators. He felt "the real" is which, sooner or later, information acquired through ideas and knowledge with the application of logical reasoning would finally result in. He also published many papers on logic in relation to ideas.
G. F. Stout and J. M. Baldwin, in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology , define idea as "the reproduction with a more or less adequate image, of an object not actually present to the senses." They point out that an idea and a perception are by various authorities contrasted in various ways. "Difference in degree of intensity", "comparative absence of bodily movement on the part of the subject", "comparative dependence on mental activity", are suggested by psychologists as characteristic of an idea as compared with a perception.
It should be observed that an idea, in the narrower and generally accepted sense of a mental reproduction, is frequently composite. That is, as in the example given above of the idea of chair, a great many objects, differing materially in detail, all call a single idea. When a man, for example, has obtained an idea of chairs in general by comparison with which he can say "This is a chair, that is a stool", he has what is known as an "abstract idea" distinct from the reproduction in his mind of any particular chair (see abstraction). Furthermore a complex idea may not have any corresponding physical object, though its particular constituent elements may severally be the reproductions of actual perceptions. Thus the idea of a centaur is a complex mental picture composed of the ideas of man and horse, that of a mermaid of a woman and a fish.
Diffusion studies explore the spread of ideas from culture to culture. Some anthropological theories hold that all cultures imitate ideas from one or a few original cultures, the Adam of the Bible, or several cultural circles that overlap. Evolutionary diffusion theory holds that cultures are influenced by one another but that similar ideas can be developed in isolation.
In the mid-20th century, social scientists began to study how and why ideas spread from one person or culture to another. Everett Rogers pioneered diffusion of innovations studies, using research to prove factors in adoption and profiles of adopters of ideas. In 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggested applying biological evolutionary theories to the spread of ideas. He coined the term meme to describe an abstract unit of selection, equivalent to the gene in evolutionary biology.
James Boswell recorded Samuel Johnson's opinion about ideas. Johnson claimed that they are mental images or internal visual pictures. As such, they have no relation to words or the concepts which are designated by verbal names.
He was particularly indignant against the almost universal use of the word idea in the sense of notion or opinion, when it is clear that idea can only signify something of which an image can be formed in the mind. We may have an idea or image of a mountain, a tree, a building; but we cannot surely have an idea or image of an argument or proposition. Yet we hear the sages of the law 'delivering their ideas upon the question under consideration;' and the first speakers in parliament 'entirely coinciding in the idea which has been ably stated by an honourable member;' — or 'reprobating an idea unconstitutional, and fraught with the most dangerous consequences to a great and free country.' Johnson called this 'modern cant.'
— Boswell's Life of Johnson, Tuesday, 23 September 1777
To protect the cause of invention and innovation, the legal constructions of Copyrights and Patents was established. Patent law regulates various aspects related to the functional manifestation of inventions based on new ideas or incremental improvements to existing ones. Thus, patents have a direct relationship to ideas.
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In some cases, authors can be granted limited legal monopolies on the manner in which certain works are expressed. This is known colloquially as copyright, although the term intellectual property is used mistakenly in place of copyright. Copyright law regulating the aforementioned monopolies generally does not cover the actual ideas. The law does not bestow the legal status of property upon ideas per se. Instead, laws purport to regulate events related to the usage, copying, production, sale and other forms of exploitation of the fundamental expression of a work, that may or may not carry ideas. Copyright law is fundamentally different from patent law in this respect: patents do grant monopolies on ideas (more on this below).
A copyright is meant to regulate some aspects of the usage of expressions of a work, not an idea. Thus, copyrights have a negative relationship to ideas.
Work means a tangible medium of expression. It may be an original or derivative work of art, be it literary, dramatic, musical recitation, artistic, related to sound recording, etc. In (at least) countries adhering to the Berne Convention, copyright automatically starts covering the work upon the original creation and fixation thereof, without any extra steps. While creation usually involves an idea, the idea in itself does not suffice for the purposes of claiming copyright.
Confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements are legal instruments that assist corporations and individuals in keeping ideas from escaping to the general public. Generally, these instruments are covered by contract law.
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