William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician/poet who had written "no ideas, but in things," a line in one of his poems. He believed in spare use of language, allowing the reader to become engaged in the interpretation of meaning, but in this curt phrase, his meaning was clear. An intelligent analysis and review can be found here, written by Ed Wycliffe
The historical context will show that Williams meant for poetry to focus on objects rather than mere concepts, on actual things rather than abstract characteristics of things. The mention of any object creates a visualized idea in our minds—we form an image of the thing. This does not happen at the mention of abstractions, like “truth”, or “memory”. Abstract words do not create images in the mind. Only “things” create visual images. Things can be tangible, such as a wheel barrow. Or things can be a behavior, such as a sidelong glance. The image of a thing creates an idea of what the thing means in the context it is used. Hence there are “no ideas, but in things” according to Williams.If we really wanted the American culture to blossom, and for our economy to surge into an American renewal, it would be by empowering the arts in school, so that children would be exposed to method as well as knowledge. We need to bring artists into schools, to teach things like calligraphy, book making, woodworking, gardening, much more music, cooking and the like, and we need to use those creative expressions as the foundation of all other subjects. Writing? Give the kids something to write about? Math? Give the kids real problems to figure out. Our students will arise to exceed our expectations.
Aldous Huxley in his essay Heaven and Hell, notes (as have others) that the only metaphors available to us for the exploration of abstract concepts (like heaven and hell) come from the concrete reality in which we live. This is the same point that George Lakoff makes in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. If we want children to be creative beyond their kindergarten years, we must give them the tools for it. Metaphors provide the basis of all human creativity, and those metaphors must of necessity be drawn from real tools, real processes, real understanding of concrete phenomenon, for the ideas that have merit are drawn from reality, from the experience of things.
When we understand the role the hands play in human development, in the growth of character, intelligence and creativity, we also understand the role of the arts and the necessity of bringing an increasing number of artists into schools and applying their hands (and minds) in the education of our children. Of no surprise to my regular readers, understanding the role of the hands in education also provides a clear rationale for woodworking education. Woodworking in schools is still important despite the concerted effort of many school administrators to do away with it.
Make, fix, create, and extend to others the opportunity to learn likewise.