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The emptiness of thinking and the richness of experience

August 16, 2011

I’d like to comment on Keith’s comment about my notion in my first guest post that ideas in themselves are empty. I agree that many ideas lack substance not because they are empty in themselves, but because they have not been fully thought through. Even when they have, however, they remain just ideas. There was a nice report on research into the evolutionary function of reasoning a few months ago, which posited that thinking had developed to win arguments about decisions post factum. My sense that this is true is reinforced whenever I listen to people’s opinions (something I try to avoid as much as possible), and get caught up in the infinite progresses and regresses of reason Kant warned us about which they engender (the sound and the fury, signifying nothing, of Shakespeare and Faulkner).

What interests me is the process that takes place prior to thinking. Or, put differently, how thinking might be understood as but the superficial manifestation of physical processes on a higher level of abstraction. When I do change processes in companies, breaking down strategy into practical initiatives is infinitely more difficult (it is logically simple, but never really works) than picking up on the tacit knowledge of the people doing the work, i.e. on their lived experience, and to refine that knowledge into policy and strategy (a lot of hard work, but very fruitful). In this second approach, the priority of experience is respected, and thinking adds refinement and consciousness to what people already know (something which works well as long as it has management buy-in and support).

Thinking that sees its function as making conscious lived experience adds genuine value. It does so by introducing useful distinctions into the undifferentiated mass of experience, thereby giving us influence over what we do. On a second level, thinking allows us to test our distinctions against reality with experiments, which produce second order experience and provide additional food for further refinement through reflection in a trial and error process of conscious evolution.

A colleague of mine likes to make a distinction between “decision” and “decisiveness.” Decisions are intellectual. They are usually model-based, and are ultimately inconsequential (or, they often produce catastrophic consequences, but these are usually framed as having been unintentional, showing how irrelevant the thinking which led to them was). Decisiveness is not something we can do, but is much more something that happens to us. I experience it as coming from our tacit knowledge, and it is less something we think about than something which we know. We experience decisive action as deeply embedded in reality, such that reality moves with it of its own accord because, I suspect, our decisiveness is part of that reality. (What exposes pseudo-decisiveness is the way it seems to skip off reality and reveal itself as posturing without connection to any deeper sense of what is needed).

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