VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Four Problems with Master Plans: (1 & 2) Precision & Imprecision, part two, Verstand and Begriff

Calvin on Verstand and Begriff
Two different kinds of thinking lead to two different kinds of processes for creating order, which lead to two different forms of order: (1) Verstand-thinking leads to mechanistic processes (such as master planning and hierarchical decision-making), which leads to mechanistic order; (2) Begriff-thinking leads to living processes, which lead to organic order.

In part one we introduced Verstand-thinking; let's turn now to Begriff-thinking. Begriff-thinking is easiest to introduce by its differences from Verstand-thinking. To understand what a Begriff is, you have to understand what a Verstand is, and the clearest way to explain that is to explain what a Verstand is not.

A Verstand is not the most powerful, rigorous, logical form of an idea. It only seems that way to someone who does not understand a subject. Likewise, at first, Verstand-thinking seems like a powerful process of thinking. Because it is so abstract ("All things are mechanisms; all mechanisms are made of parts; ergo, all things are made of parts.") it covers a lot of ground in just a few statements, which makes it seem more efficient and expressive. Because it is so abstract, it lends itself to logical deduction, which also makes it seem more rational and rigorous.

Ironically, though, a Verstand is the kind of idea you have about things you do not understand. The kind of person who would think "All black people are lazy and stupid" is the kind of person who does not much about black people, who may not really know any of them. The same applies to any abstract statement ("All conservatives are . . ." or "All project managers are . . ."); these are the ingredients with which ignorant people "think" about things they know little or nothing about. Lacking experience or evidence, they try to compensate with abstract ideas that feel powerful to them - but that usually lead them to false conclusions because they are so irreal.

It is not the universality ("all" or "none" or "always" or "never") that makes such ideas Verstands. It is the vague certainty of them, the empty, one-dimensional force of them. There's not much to them because they were formed in an experience vacuum, pulled together out of fancies, prejudices, and wishful thinking, but structured in the form of logical assertions to make them easy to use to deduce more Verstand-ideas. The ease with which they lend themselves to rigorous, logical processes of thinking is used to obscure the lack of rigor in the ideas themselves, as though math and logic can compensate for false and largely empty premises.

Above all, Verstand reasoning cannot make bad ideas into good ones. To understand the world you need Begriffs, not Verstands, but there is no rigorous process of deduction or analysis that can produce a Begriff from a Verstand; you only get more Verstands and remain trapped in an empty, abstract, false world.

Thomas Henry Huxley, 1825-1895
However, there is a completely different, irrational process by which you can create Begriffs out of Verstands, by which bad ideas can lead to good ones. It's the process of gaining real-world experience. As any experienced person will tell you, the process of gaining experience does not follow a script or logical syllogism, and the conclusions you reach through experience often cannot be described to someone who has not gone through those same experiences. Until you've had a lot of your proud, beautiful Verstands beaten to pieces by reality, you simply cannot imagine how wrong you are.

"The great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." -- T.H. Huxley, Presidential Address at the British Association, "Biogenesis and abiogenesis" (1870)

Consider the job you're best at of all the things you do, the thing you actually are an expert in, the thing you've spent decades learning to be great at. You weren't always an expert. Once upon a time, you were a newbie who wanted to do that job. The kinds of ideas you had about that job before you did it were mostly Verstand-ideas. The kinds of ideas you have about it now are mostly Begriff-ideas. The endless painful lessons taught by experience beat Verstand-ideas out of their smooth but false abstract shapes into more complex and difficult-to-describe but vastly more accurate shapes until they began to match reality, until they began to become Begriff-ideas.

Verstand-thinking in action.
That's why experienced people often grin at each other when they listen to the proud boasting claims of someone inexperienced. Journeymen and masters have been initiated into the world of Begriffs, so they know just how wrong the apprentice is. They also know just how immune he is to learning from more experienced people. They know, as a result, that the arrogant newbie has decades of painful disillusionment ahead of him on the road to mastery. He will not willingly give up the seductive power of Verstand-thinking. It's going to have to be beaten out of him by his own repeated failures, until he reluctantly gives in and begins letting reality shape his ideas into Begriffs.

I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham. -- Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (1960)

That's where Begriffs come from, which as you can see is very different from where Verstands come from. By now, you may be starting to see how their very different sources can lead to very different processes for creating order. Next post we'll put the spotlight squarely on Begriff-ideas and Begriff-thinking so you can better appreciate why they lead to organic order.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Four Problems with Master Plans: (1 & 2) Precision & Imprecision, part one: Verstand

On 19 August 2009, I began a series of posts on Christopher Alexander's writings about organic order from his groundbreaking and underappreciated book, The Oregon Experiment ( My series ran until 24 November 2009 (, when I summarized the series to date before turning to an exploration of fluxus quo.

Christopher Alexander (photo by Jerry Telfer)
In a typical rejection of the idea that old is bad and new is good, I'm turning back the clock to resume my series.

We left off in the middle of a discussion of four problems with master plans. We have discussed (1) precision and (2) imprecision. Before continuing on to (3) alienation, we need to take a closer look at why master plans are both too precise and also not precise enough.

The problem is a pressing one, because ever since the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act (1996) the main federal VISTA adopters (VA and IHS) have done most of their VISTA development through contracts awarded and administered through the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). This method of software development requires that the federal agency in question specifies at the outset the outcome for which they are contracting. Every federal VISTA-development contract begins, de facto, with a master plan.

So why do the plans that VA and IHS try to use to develop VISTA lead them to both too much precision and too little?

In The Oregon Experiment, Christopher Alexander answers thusly: because master plans reduce developers, users, planners, and project managers to prophets, to predicting the future, to trying to decide in advance how things will turn out. We suck at prophecy. Any system of organization that requires us to be prophets steers us toward our weaknesses, makes failures of us, because we rarely know at the outset how things will turn out in the end.

Alexander's right, and that's the easiest way to explain what's wrong with master plans, but there is another explanation, another way to look at the problem.

Hegel (steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling)
In Die Philosophie des Geistes [The Philosophy of the Mind/Spirit, 1816-1830], German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel makes a distinction between two different kinds of thinking that produce different results. In English we can't easily make this distinction, because we lack the words to express the difference, but in German Hegel was able to show just how different these two kinds of thinking are. One of these kinds - Verstand - is used in the production of abstract master plans; the other - Begriff - is used in concrete, user-driven development.

As Hegel defines the terms, Verstand is a left-brain process of analysis, in which the whole is analyzed into parts. Verstand sees the whole as merely the sum of its parts, attempts to comprehend it through identification of those parts, attempts to control it through the manipulation of those parts. This fragmenting perspective on wholistic, organic systems invites Verstand to try to deduce knowledge about the whole through a process of logical derivations from a priori assumptions (such as what the parts are that supposedly make up the whole). It's like trying to understand the world if your only tool for investigation is a knife, good only for chopping things into pieces and rearranging them on the table.

Toaster, made of parts (photo by Conavan Govan)
The problem is that neither life nor living systems are logical syllogisms, nor are they puzzles. Organic order cannot be understood through dissection. Living systems are not composed of components, of discrete parts; you cannot remove your arm and then put it back on without doing terrible violence to yourself. It only looks like a part, and only to the Verstand process of thinking, which sees all things as abstract, manipulable parts. A cat is not a toaster, but that's how the Verstand mode of thinking sees a cat, or a house, or a software system, or a human being.

With Verstand we cannot model living systems without doing such violence to them that we deeply miscomprehend them. The grotesque inadequacies and distortions of the clumsy, clanking mechanisms by which Verstand insists on trying to understand organic order creates false distinctions between what are only aspects of a vast, organic whole. Further, while attending to these false distinctions it also misses whole swaths of vital meaning that do not present themselves in the Verstand-friendly forms of parts or facts or axioms or deductions. From the resulting homunculus, Verstand then tries to draw logical inferences about the optimal future state, then builds plans to try to reach that false future through mechanistic means and logical deduction. Even before the plan is written, the battle has already been lost because the planners are not dealing with reality but with Verstand's blinkered, mechanistic conception of reality. It's as though the master-planning process begins by putting on one-dimensional glasses, and then drawing up plans based on the linear, cartoon  world that results.

"Keep that up and I'll bite one of your parts."
As a man is, so he sees. With Verstand, we see a logical puzzle, a mechanism, which no living system is. In other words, it isn't just that when we draw up master plans we are looking at the real world and unable to foresee its future. With the Verstand processes of thinking, we are not even looking at the real world. We are looking instead at the world of abstract ideas, which is awash with distortions and falsehood.

This is why master plans are paradoxically both too precise and not precise enough. The key to avoiding this paradox is to avoid using Verstand thought processes when dealing with complex, organic order.

Fortunately, human beings are also equipped from birth with an alternative mode of thinking, with Begriff. In part two we'll show how to distinguish the two and how to use them in their proper spheres.