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Do ideas have genealogies?

Published on 24 April 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a recent essay,[1] the Italian philosopher Giorgio AGAMBEN outlines the “genealogy” of the concept called dispositif,[2] tracing it to Hegel and other precursors. I was perplexed.

One of the origins of the term is in genetics. It describes the transmission of information – encoded in DNA – from one generation to the next. The replication is complete and faithful, but for transcription errors. While using the term, Agamben mentions in passing the Plato never defined the term “idea.” Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that all of Western Philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. One wonders how one can annotate faithfully and copiously an undefined concept.

The analogy implies that information is granular and is replicated – but for errors. Words – be they written or spoken – are symbols, conveying but a fraction of the original thought. Far from being templates for replication and expression in a new mind, such information is at best shadows or ruins of the original. “Chinese whispers” is a well-liked parlor game.

The analogy also implies a one-on-one transmission. Ideas, on the other hand, are often transmitted one-to-many.[3] Ideas often spread virally – or not at all. We do not have the plodding shift of gene frequency in a population typical of Darwinian evolution.

The genetic descent involves at best mixing of two sets of genes. There is no a priori limit to the number of sources coming together in the process of cultural transmission. In fact much, I would even say most of the information is conveyed collaterally or incidentally to other purposes. Association trumps signification.

In genetics, the offspring is the “passive” recipient of their parents’ genes. In cultural transmission, however, reception is the key. What one receives is less important than what one does with it, transforming it, or striking out into new thought.Ideas and culture are plastic, not granular. .

Another source of the term could be cultural “pedigree,” a weaker form of a causal chain. The problem here is our tendency to foreground one author at the expense of all others. It is a “connecting the dots” retrospectively – mostly a search for authority, rather than origins. In philosophy, tracing an idea back to Plato is a sure winner. This approach also foregrounds the age-old topos that everything has a “beginning” – the “act of creation” from which everything else springs or the “once upon a time” with which all tales begin. We intuitively shy away from stories that somehow get lost in the mists of time. They feel unsatisfactory.

If we question genealogy – how do ideas emerge and are transmitted?

Of course, I would not dare to put up a theory – I’m too confused for that. I might, however, look askance at theory and ask reality for suggestions. While vacationing on the Greek island of Hydra, I found this pointer:


This photo shows the entrance to a ramshackle house in a hamlet at some distance from the town. It is located at the foot of steps leading to a large Orthodox church. When I passed by the first time, a dour elderly lady sat out in front. Atop the left gate post, one notes a crude statuette, probably of Confucius. To the right, we have a Guanyin Buddhist figure.

How these two images from the Sinic cultures arrived on this island and came to have a place of honor in this house, I don’t know. Nor do I know what it means for the people who live there, or the neighbors. The figurines are there, however. I would not be surprised if, a couple of decades from now, some form of cult to them were to emerge, possibly garbling fragments of their original meaning with local lore. The key issue would be the experience. If the people who put up these statuettes perceived them as “useful” – a vague term for experience – they will adopt the icons as cult object of some sort.

Chris WICKHAM, a medieval historian, has researched in painstaking detail the emergence of Italian city communes in the XIIth century.[4] Here is what he has to say: “The communes at their inception were very informal bodies.” They were inchoate political structures. The citizens “were most likely making it up as they went along; they may well have thought of themselves as simply modifying earlier forms of political practice.”[5] (pg.19) A good example here is the term “consul,” which in the age of the communes referred to a “regularly rotating set of magistracies, chosen or at least validated by a conscious urban collectivity; with a de facto autonomy of action for the city and its magistrates, including in warfare and justice, and eventually taxation and legislation.” (pg. 85) The term had been around for a good hundred years, however, as a “general sense” for city leader. It was an empty shell. The experience of emerging self-government and the ensuing institutions gave meaning, depth and content to the term. The chain of causation, if one dares to use arrows, was from experience to institutions to the concept, not the other way around.

Experience precedes the idea. Or put it another way, ideas consolidate and give better coherence to experience. Ideas are always tributary to the latter. In genetic terminology, this process would be more akin to Lamarckian than Darwinian evolution.


[1] Giorgio AGAMBEN (2003): Che cos’è un dispositivo? Nottetempo, Roma.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispositif

[3] Nicolas Claidière, Thomas C. Scott-Phillips, Dan Sperber (2015): How Darwinian is cultural evolution? DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0368 Published 31 March 2014.

[4] Chris WICKHAM (2015): Sleepwalking into a new world. The emerg3ence of Italian city communes in the twelfth century. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[5] Regrettably, the term “sleepwalking into a world” in the title suggests a pre-existing set of institutions, discovered here by chance. This is not the case: experience made them up. If at all, it ia a case of convergent evolution (convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches).

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