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The tyrrany of the abstract symbolic

June 24, 2010

“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it”

Working with daughter on her Philosophy revision resulted in my digging deeper into material I hadn’t really looked at in years. Daughter in contrast has become party girl again with the end of exams!   Either way, I ended up going back to the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle and was reminded of the key quote above and its implications.

The quote links the two intellectual virtues of sophia and phronesis. The first of these Sophia, often translated as wisdom, is the ability to think about he world in a scientific way, to understand and discover universal truths. Phronesis is practical wisdom, the ability to make decisions in the field under fire and is based on a mixture of skill and ability. Aristotle links this with prudence and its a precondition for being virtuous. The key quote here is this:

If we think about apprentice models of knowledge transfer, we see the importance of acquiring experience over time for both knowledge transfer and development of the field as a whole. The key complexity concept of safe-fail experimental interventions involves the specific creation of an ecology in which experience is gained by both success and tolerable failure. Resilient strategies assume learning through failure and fast recovery. Contrast that with the simplistic approach to complex situations involved in the sick stigma cult and the focus of knowledge management on the hopeless task of making tacit knowledge explicit. There are links here to my earlier post on modeling which excited comment; models attempt to create the general, they too often fail to represent the particular.

Of course we also need reflective capability, but management education in the main fails in both respects. Instead of providing future managers with a basic education in philosophy, anthropology, evolutionary models of self-organistion, exaptation, cognitive science etc. etc. it focus on abstracting into the symbolic experience evidenced by cases. Material that can only be really learnt by doing, by dialectical engagement through praxis. We are failing those students in the virtues of wisdom and practice.

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