Why do ideas become fads

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

The Interpretation Of Dreams was a blockbuster in its time; Decline Of The West similarly so.  So what happened?

Ideas and philosophies lose popularity for many reasons (e.g. they might be wrong) but maybe something else drives their obsolescence. When a book first comes out everyone reads it with interest, and form their own opinions as they try to apply the ideas to themselves and their world.  But then other people write about it, and soon those books of criticism (not to mention the shorter articles) outnumber and overwhelm the primary source, so that within a generation people only read other people’s opinions of those ideas.

A trivial example.  Regardless of whether he was right, it’s undeniable that The Interpretation Of Dreams had a huge impact on the western world when it was read.  Now, everyone knows Freud was way off; yet I’ve never met anyone who has actually read The Interpretation Of Dreams.   “Well, I’ve read parts.”  Most people know Freud was wrong because fairly unsophisticated thinkers have explained him away in language more fitting to the newer generation; the antithesis used updated market research.

What would happen if everyone suddenly went back to the originals?  The response is that we’d immediately realize it is nonsense because people know more about such things, but it begs the question: what things? How do you know? What would happen if the originals themselves were re-written in a modern style?

 

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16 Responses to Why do ideas become fads

  1. Guy Fox says:

    What would happen if the originals themselves were re-written in a modern style?

    To a certain extent, that’s exactly what does happen. Pop culture example: take Metropolis, update the effects & technology, fill it with contemporary aspirational imagery, catch it up with post-xyz philosophy, and take it from industrial capitalism to service-based consumerism, and you’ve pretty much got the Matrix. Everything’s a remix, right?

    The same thing happens with high-brow, ivory tower ideas. Thudydides’ ideas have been semi-deliberately recapitulated in several variations, Kant’s too.

    So how do you tell commentary on the original from a modern rewrite? That’s the trick. Turn the dial n+1 degrees, and you’ve got something new that looks like ‘commentary/riff on’, but if you turn it only n degrees, you’ve got a ‘rewrite’. How much is n? Take the dial metaphor a step further: repeat this process until you’ve turned it 180 degrees, and you’ve got the idea’s antithesis (behaviourism in Freud’s case, no?). Turn it a further 180 degrees. Now do you have the antithesis of the antithesis, or is it a rewrite of the original? How would you tell?

  2. stiffbreeze says:

    I like your theory on why within a generation, the love of a primary source book can dwindle and its ideas fade. It seems appropriate for academia, but does it hold given a pop-culture bestseller example of today? Aren’t books like The Secret or Outliers (or the Bible I guess) being read by those who want to believe such ideas? Won’t those people just go on believing those books until days end?

    And is the audience for counter-publications today too small for publishers to underwrite? (considering our short memories and strong dissonance avoidance) Aren’t the (web-based) articles of criticism for these two books being read only by those who already think they’re crap?

  3. stiffbreeze says:

    I like your theory on why within a generation, the love of a primary source book can dwindle and its ideas fade. It seems appropriate for academia, but does it hold given a pop-culture bestseller example of today? Aren’t books like The Secret or Outliers (or the Bible I guess) being read by those who want to believe such ideas? Won’t those people just go on believing those books until days end?

    And is the audience for counter-publications today too small for publishers to underwrite? (considering our short memories and strong dissonance avoidance) Aren’t the (web-based) articles of criticism for these two books being read only by those who already think they’re crap?

  4. JohnJ says:

    If you want to go back to originals, you pretty much have to start with Plato and Aristotle. Almost everything is derived from their ideas.

  5. jez says:

    Ideas that are backed up by science are rewritten in every new textbook. It is not science if this doesn’t happen. Then it doesn’t matter whether people read the originals or not since those are just guesses anyway.

  6. Red says:

    I’ve read The Interpretation of Dreams….

  7. Madison says:

    Perhaps ideas are like trucker hats…the more people wear them, the less hip/valuable they appear…hindsight/appropriate distance gives us amazing powers of perception.

  8. economizt says:

    Then what about a Partial Object book club?

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