People Don't Have Ideas

People don't have ideas. Ideas have people.
— Carl Jung

Some of the most memorable ideas are also the simplest. This is certainly true for the quote above which is attributed to Carl Jung1 as it has been ever present in my mind for at least the last year, and probably a little bit longer. This concept rings true in a number of ways and does answer to some degree the question of why well-crafted ideas are both viral and seemingly immortal. Religion is a perfect example of this, as are many causes that people can easily evangelise.

There is a question that stemmed from this Jungian idea I've been struggling to answer: If ideas have people, is free will an illusion perpetrated by ideas in an effort to protect themselves from extinction?

Two or three times a week I find myself sitting at the desk, focusing intently on a problem, when an incipient idea begins forming in the back of my head. It is often a tiny nudge. Something along the lines of the memory of a flavour that triggers the tongue to bristle in anticipation. After some time, the nudge becomes something more concrete, such as a more complete memory of the last time I enjoyed that flavour. Soon the memory expands to include additional details, such as a rumbling stomach, a certain degree of anxiety, and maybe even some muscular restlessness. What began as a faint echo a short time before has morphed into a full-blown desire and plan to leave the house, walk to the nearby convenience store, pick up a large chocolate chip cookie, and eat it in a nearby park while listening to a podcast and generally enjoying myself a little too much.

The idea is enticing, and I generally succumb to the desire for an unhealthy snack at least once a week. Regardless of how alluring a mental image might be, I'd be a fool to capitulate every time some concept leapt into my head. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to rob a bank, steal a car, grab the gun from a passing police officer, or any other idiotic activity that would result in serious jail time if I were lucky. Just because these ideas enter my head does not mean I must do them. Is this a sign of free will or just a rational fear of consequences?

Free will is meaningless without options. These options come in the form of ideas. Thanks to the power of written and oral language, ideas can spread from person to person in the blink of an eye. Some ideas are good and some are clearly not. So we judge the options ahead of us and the one that brings the greatest reward, be it in the immediate or distant future, wins.

This does not sound very much like "free will" to me, but instead an act of prioritisation. Which ideas are more appealing than the others? Choose the top-most option and carry on.

This quote has been bouncing around my skull for quite some time, so I wanted to better understand it. To better understand something I can write, talk, or continue to think. I chose to write, as it allows for more nuanced thought. While writing, the ideas were mulled and considered from several angles, particularly the remark about free will, which is why its included in the concept above. I generally write for the blog, for myself in Evernote, or for later consideration with pen and paper in a notebook. I chose the blog, as it would solve the question of "what to write about today?" as well as encourage a little discourse on the subject. Both of these benefit me greatly, so was the best option.

What was free about this aside from the freedom the idea has now that other people will read the quote and perhaps think about it? The concept is still in my head, and now it's in yours. Is the "freedom" I feel just a serotonin release provided by the idea as it ventured beyond the confines of my cranium to yours?

I don't know.


  1. One could argue that the origin for this quote is from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book Demons, which was first published in 1872.