summarize Wayne C. Booth’s “What Is an Idea?” (reprinted below) and then answer the following question for evaluation: Do you agree or disagree with Booth’s explanation of the phenomenon commonly described as “writer’s block”?
“What Is an Idea?”
Wayne C. Booth
“I’ve got an idea; let’s go get a hamburger.” “All right, now, as sales representatives we must brainstorm for ideas to increase profits.” “The way Ray flatters the boss gives you the idea he’s bucking for a promotion, doesn’t it?” “Hey, listen to this; I’ve just had an idea for attaching the boat to the top of the car without having to buy a carrier.” “The idea of good defense is to keep pressure on the other team without committing errors ourselves.” “What did you say that set of books was called? The Great Ideas? What does that mean?”
The word idea, as you can see, is used in a great many ways. In most of the examples above it means something like “intention,” “opinion,” or “mental image.” The “idea” of going for a hamburger is really a mental picture of a possible action, just as the “idea” of a boat carrier is a mental image of a mechanical device. The “ideas” of good defense and Ray the flatterer are really opinions held by the speakers, while the appeal for “ideas” about how to increase profits is really an appeal for opinions (which may also involve mental images) from fellow workers. None of these examples, however, encompasses the meaning of “idea” as it has always been used by those who engage in serious discussions of politics, history, intellectual movements, and social affairs. Even the last example, an allusion to the famous set of books edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago, does not yet express an idea; it only directs us toward a source where ideas may be encountered.
These uses of “idea” are entirely appropriate in their contexts. Words play different roles at different times. One can “fish” for either trout or compliments, and a scalp, an executive, and a toilet (in the Navy) are all “heads.” Usually, these different uses have overlapping, not opposed, meanings. For example, we wouldn’t know what fishing for compliments meant unless we already knew what fishing for trout meant; and the “heads” we just referred to are all indications of position or place. In the same way, the different uses of the word idea overlap. Even the most enduring ideas may appear to some as “mere opinion.” What, then, does idea mean in the context of serious talk, and what keeps some opinions and mental images from being ideas in our sense?
Three central features distinguish an idea From other kinds of mental products:
1. An idea is always connected to other ideas that lead to it, follow from it, or somehow support it. Like a family member, an idea always exists amid a network of ancestors, parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins. An idea could no more spring into existence by itself than a plant could grow without a seed, soil, and a suitable environment. For example, the idea that acts of racial discrimination are immoral grows out of and is surrounded by a complex of other, related ideas about the nature of human beings and the nature of moral conduct:
a. Racial differences are irrelevant to human nature.b. The sort of respect that is due to any human being as a human being is due equally to all human beings.
c. It is immoral to deny to any human being the rights and privileges due to every human being.
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