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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.

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