I just responded to a comment on an old post. At the time I was thinking about Richard Dawkins and his concept of a 'meme'.

That is any concept that lives rent-free in the minds of humans and evolves and multiplies like a living entity. It was pointed out to me that this is in some ways reminiscent of Plato's 'ideal chair'.

Plato suggests that the meme is ideal, and any poor physical recreation of the meme is simply an 'object'. We can consider this a sort of Platonic Dualism.

But how does idealism generally deal with discovery?

For example, we know now (thanks to Van Leeuwenhoek) that there are tiny little animals that we can't see with the naked eye, but clearly, we didn't know that beforehand. We can experience only a vanishingly small fraction of the universe.

This seems to trash Plato's idealism, but perhaps not Descartes', etc.

How do idealists generally deal with things which appear as objects in 'objective reality' first, and only then become ideal?

I ask this because it seems as if there will be a definitive answer.

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    Why is what we do or do not know beforehand relevant to its ideal existence? It is not like our limited minds have much access to the Platonic realm. Plato generally suggests that we are led to "recollecting" its more obscure recesses by sensible imitations of forms there that we encounter here (hence the utility of diagrams in geometry). This is elaborated in Theaetetus. And sensible brute facts are produced by Plato's material "receptacle" of forms, see What does sensible images being "not material but spatial" mean in Plato's theory?
    – Conifold
    Dec 9, 2021 at 13:11
  • @Conifold In that post Plato says "That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state". That seems like a tacit admission that objective reality exists?
    – Richard
    Dec 9, 2021 at 13:21
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    I think you have a wrong idea of what "idealism" means. The word's association with something subjective is recent and limited usage. The standard meaning is asserting that the building blocks of reality are ideal rather than material, but they can be as objective as it gets. Plato's is such an "objective idealism", and he is not tacit about it at all. Platonic forms are the ultimate objective reality entirely independent of any individual minds that apprehend them by intelligence and reason (if they are lucky and enlightened enough).
    – Conifold
    Dec 9, 2021 at 13:34
  • "How do idealists generally deal with things which appear as objects in 'objective reality' first, and only then become ideal?" Plato proposes the reverse; ideas truly (and objectively) exist in the immaterial realm of Forms and only materialise themselves in the world as their pale reflections. Memes could be thought of as absolute ideas that, once instantiated, are relative– immanent and imperfect (i.e. related to something, like a subject, space, time and perspective). Dec 9, 2021 at 13:40
  • @Conifold I think there's a difference between Plato's idealism more modern idealism, but clearly the latter derives from the former in a nicely recursive manner. The 'ideal' of idealism existed all along just waiting for discovery in its many forms (Kantian, Cartesian..). In the manner Plato describes it, objective reality (it seems to me) is indistinguishable from a modern materialist objective reality, just with the twist that our minds are pre-loaded with a full index of all objective reality, but this knowledge is inaccessible? I suppose I am struggling with Idealism. always have.
    – Richard
    Dec 9, 2021 at 13:58

2 Answers 2


As espoused by Richard Dawkins, the materialist concept of a meme is much weaker ontologically than Platonic ideas. Memes are merely artefacts of evolution that are socially created due to human's second natures (human as a social being). They are transmittable pieces of information like an idea or behaviour which is shared between the members of society and their subsequent generations.

Since memes are a scientific concept within biology, they aren't supposed to exist immaterially as eternal archetypes, blueprints, or anything else beforehand, which was Plato's claim. Therefore, memes can disappear with the collapse of civilisations, change of cultural factors, or due to simply poor reproductive capacity. This is not true for the Platonic ideas as they exist eternally (immutably) and cannot be destroyed.

Reductionists and eliminativists like Dawkins or Dennett don't necessarily think that memes are immaterial. Far from it. They would be keen to show that a meme is some analyzable information contained in some area of the brain, from which it is transmitted via physical/verbal interaction between humans. Those are not "ideas" in the Platonic sense, but naturalistic constructs.

How do idealists generally deal with things which appear as objects in 'objective reality' first, and only then become ideal?

I understand that you mean that when a meme forms within society, it begins to "exist" as an idea. Yet, however it might exist, it wouldn't be in the Platonic sense, which is immutable; beyond space and time. Platonic ideas are not subject to change or becoming. What you describe seems closest to a form of nominalism and/or emergentism in which new things are born into this universe creatively, and exist without cessation, even if their physical vessels (humans or brains) die out.

I am not well-familiar with any such position in philosophy that best describes this. In psychology, the concept of Jungian archetypes can be one example that you can look up, but I am not that certain. (But maybe others might know better). In physics, Robert B. Laughlin seems to believe that the 'emergence of new things' is the most basic primitive feature of the universe.

  • You are right that memes are not external to material objective reality. I had been imagining they were, but at no point are they genuinely massless. Even when being transmitted from one human to another memes have mass, except maybe by flags using semaphore, but even then they require energy. But this being the case it lands me back at square one, and I suppose it's the old old question of whether the realm of the ideal and the realm of the object are one and the same.
    – Richard
    Dec 9, 2021 at 16:19

It is important to distinguish between small p platonism -- the belief in the existence of abstract objects, and large P Platonism -- the belief that Plationic Forms are the most fundamental aspect of reality. Per the philosopher surveys -- the majority of philosphers believe in one or another form of small p plationism.

I say one form or another, because small p platonism is just the acceptance of SOME kind of abstract object realism, and whether that is Objective Morality, math realism, logic realism, information realism, function/algorithm realism (functionalism in philosophy of mind is platonic, which Jaegwon Kim points out in his critique of supervenience), acceptance of one does not require acceptance of all.

How one fits platonism into an ontology is also not necessarily uniform for small p platonists. Current physicalists are generally not MONISTS about ontology. See Melnyck: https://www.amazon.com/Physicalist-Manifesto-Thoroughly-Materialism-Philosophy/dp/0521827116/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1HE6Q2L5IUZ12&keywords=physicalist+manifesto&qid=1641751800&sprefix=physicalist+manifesto%2Caps%2C138&sr=8-1, Stoljar: https://www.amazon.com/Physicalism-Problems-Philosophy-Daniel-Stoljar/dp/0415452627/ref=sr_1_3?crid=3ANOGUZE7L2F2&keywords=physicalism&qid=1641751881&sprefix=physicist+%2Caps%2C175&sr=8-3 and Papineau: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265149272_The_Rise_of_Physicalism

All of these physicalists (and near physicalists -- Stoljar abandoned physicalism as a result of his study of it but has strong near-physicalist inclinations still) admit to the existence of the non-physical, and even agree that the non-physical may be causal on the physical. They just hold that physicalism requires at some point in such a causal history, one can trace a non-physical cause back to a physical cause. This would allow a platonic real to be either emergent from physicalism (hence tracing its causal history to physics), OR prior exiting, but only interactive to the material in a derivative way.

Most math realists today hold that infinite maths exist, and mathematicians discover pre-existing math. This is also a newly developing consensus among logicians, that logic is infinite, and logicians discover it: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/think/article/abs/guide-to-logical-pluralism-for-nonlogicians/EDFDFA1C9EB65DB71848DABD6B12D877

The most coherent ontological view that I have seen supporting independent platonism is Frege's 3-world model. Popper also adopted 3 worlds as an ontological view, and provides a good summary of how he saw the ontology working in this lecture; https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_resources/documents/a-to-z/p/popper80.pdf. Note in Popper's view, consciousness is emergent from matter, but then operates with causal INdependence from its initial substrate. Abstract ideas include ALL of math, logic, information, morality, ideas, memes, and science hypotheses. These all pre-exist, and are discovered by us. Abstractions cannot be interactive with matter directly, and are only interactive through the medium of consciousness.

The SEP entry on abstract objects assumes that Frege and Popper's assumption that abstract objects cannot be causal on matter must be true. Note however that modern physicalists do not require this even of physicalism, and platonism can involve abstract to matter causation. This is particularly true in the practice of theoretical physicists. A popular minority view among such theoreticians is that math actually is what physics reduces to. IE that everything physical actually is mathematics (physicalism therefore reduces to a version of idealism). A less explicitly idealist version of this is the belief that math constrains and infers the physical. This weaker dependence is the reasoning that Sean Carroll gives for accepting the Everett "interpretation" of quantum mechanics - the other universes are there in the math, therefore since ethe math works, he thinks they're actually existing!

This is a long discussion but I hope it explains how small p platonism can work. Both emergence, and pre-existence are possible with it, but emergence is generally for the strata, not each object. Platonic objects are generally seen as discovered, rather than created individually.

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