From the Center for Peripheral Studies (OAC Branch). After Lance, the sky's the limit!

The papers discussed in our online seminars are often excellent, but this one is apocalyptic, as well as being an exercise in fine writing. Lee Drummond was once a Chicago anthropology PhD specialising in the Caribbean and later in San Diego's tourist attractions. He taught at McGill University for over a decade before retiring to the wilderness (Palm Springs!). July and August there are his winter when he withdraws into his airconditioned study to avoid the heat. The OAC is a principal beneficiary of this aestivation, as witnessed by the paper attached here. All I can say is you gotta read it, whether or not you participate in the seminar.

Lee's point of departure is Lance Armstrong's confession on the Oprah Winfrey show. The man who perhaps deserves to be known as the greatest American athlete ever admitted taking performance enhancing drugs, thereby triggering an intense public outcry. Lee deconstructs what he takes to be a key feature of the American ideology, the opposition of nature to culture, showing that biology and technology have been inextricably woven together throughout human evolution and even before. If it is impossible to identify the unequal influence of technology in sporting performance, what about other areas of cultural achievement, like literature for example? Should Hemingway's Nobel prize be taken away or Coleridge's poetry eliminated from the canon because they wrote under the influence of mind-altering substances?

Not content with this reductio ad absurdum, Lee then launches into a savage critique of American civilization and of the cultural anthropology it has spawned. Drawing on Marx's happy phrasing in the 18th Brumaire, he argues that the American tragedy (New World genocide) now reappears as farce (reality TV shows), one of which actually replayed the former in a grotesque reenactment of the competitive ideal. Anthropology tends to celebrate cultural achievement around the world, whereas in Lee's view, the current state of American society suggests that culture may be a disease killing off its carriers just as their ancestors once killed off the original inhabitants of what passes for the land of the American dream.

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You write of scientists, "They have no scientific words for referring to natural systems in their natural state." I agree. But I have to ask, do you have some? If so, please share them.

As I understand it, abstraction and simplification are the heart of modern science. Why? Because not being God, scientists can't ever grasp the whole world at once. Modeling is just a way to bite off a bit that is chewable in hopes of learning something useful. If you check out Scott Page'sexcellent course on modelling, you will see that he begins with George E. Box's famous remark, "‘Essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful’. The course is devoted to different types of models and when they are and aren't useful. You will find no assumption in what Page teaches that models are fixed in stone and the world must conform to them. 

Admittedly, models are like theologies. When people take them too seriously, those people become obnoxious and can cause real trouble. Market fundamentalism, based on simplistic understanding of economics, is an excellent case in point. For a more concrete example, check out Wired's story "Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street." But generic or concrete, the problem isn't the models. It's people who see them as Truth, instead of educated guesses about what might be going on.  If you can tell us how to get rid of those, that would be a huge contribution.



"But generic or concrete, the problem isn't the models. It's people who see them as Truth, instead of educated guesses about what might be going on.  If you can tell us how to get rid of those, that would be a huge contribution."

As I recall, we've already been over this territory in this discussion.  What lies "beyond" models/logic/dialectics *and* "systems" is implied by Keith's remark about how our problems are "metaphysical" (i.e. the "home of truth.")  Over-reliance on models, just like thinking of natural processes as "systems" (which they are not in any definable/quantifiable fashion), begins with a fundamental lack of *metaphysical* clarity in our culture.

You have backed into all this by saying "because not being God."  The simple anthropological "fact" is that humans get in big trouble when God (and, therefore, truth) is removed from the discussion.  This is, I suspect, why "emergence" has been so popular of late.  As best I can tell, it has no definition and can't be measured -- yet it is commonly used when describing all sorts of "systems."  It is presumed to be an "animating" principle which takes on God-like qualities (in a "pantheistic" way), thus addressing what is really a failure to grapple with the underlying metaphysics of our lives.  This failure has produced a very deep cultural crisis in the "West."

This "crisis of principles" was acutely felt after WW II, leading to the publishing (in Dutch) of Fred Polak's 1953 "Image of the Future" (which focuses on the collapse of Protestant "metaphysics," particularly as expressed in terms of *final* causality, aka "the future.")  As I have argued elsewhere, Marxism is Protestant.  Indeed, all "utopian" schemes share the (often unstated) drive to "get back to the Garden" -- based on Protestant *reading* of the (printed) Bible.

The most dangerous versions of such principles are what could be termed "Puritan."  You can find this sensibility wherever people believe that "purity" can and should be achieved on earth -- personally or socially.  These are the "theologies" that are *like* models (but certainly not the whole range of theologies by any means).  These are the approaches that deliberately "leave things out," from a metaphysical standpoint.

Science, as we have come to define it over the past 300+ years, is a Protestant and *utopian* exercise. As we all recall, the "problem" with the Catholics was that they were "anti-science" and "superstitious."  Remember Galileo?

The metaphysical context for the 17th century Royal Society of London was "radical millennarianism."  These people overwhelmingly believed in an imminent 2nd Coming.  The closest "tribal" echo we have of those times are the Mormons (or, more accurately, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) -- a group that descends more-or-less directly from the 17th century English Civil Wars.

As such, science *hides* its metaphysics behind notions like "progress" and "evolution."  The "purity" (or "perfection") that is really the goal is typically left unstated.  Instead, the superficial discussion its all about "useful" and "practical."

This relentless quest for "purity" is what I find in Gregory Bateson's work.  While nominally an "atheist" (descended from a long-line of English scientific atheists), Bateson couldn't just leave it alone.  His "unity of mind," which he unabashedly derives from Carl Jung's own *gnostic* musings, is a metaphysics fitting for a pre-Christian Mystery "initiate."  This is why he was so closely associated with LSD experiments.  He apparently believed in, indeed participated in, the "refining fire."

This is, I suspect, the origin of his urge to eliminate humanity -- which, as we all know, is anything but "pure."  The "conscious purpose" which he caricatures in the essay is the Protestant "metaphysics of progress" that has already collapsed in his lifetime, following two world wars. What he proposes as a substitute is a Mystery metaphysics in which the "spark of the divine" is being sought.  I suspect that it is the hunt for this same "spark" that drives the fascination with "complexity" so prevalent today.

We cannot forget that Bateson's father was a leading geneticist in the age of *eugenics* -- another use of science to "purify" humanity.  My guess is that Bateson's use of psychology (and psychedelic drugs) is the sequel to trying to use genetics to eliminate the "unfit."

In contrast, Wiener, who wanted to "rescue" humanity, with all of its impure "flaws," had a very different metaphysics.  Nominally a Kansas-born secular Jew, he was "home-schooled" by his father, Leo Wiener, a Slavic philologist, from whom he picked up a sense of Russian Orthodox metaphysics -- giving him, in a round-about way, a pre-printing press Christian sensibility in which we are all "sinners" and "purity" is neither possible nor desirable.

What I believe was happening in the clash between Wiener and Bateson/McCullough/Foerster was a clash of metaphysics -- in an age underpinned by a deep "crisis of principles."

The "solution" to all this is bring our metaphysics out into the daylight.  We all have some.  What do we *truly* believe?  Where do we place our FAITH?  What is it and what does it mean for our *present* . . . ??

John,  Oh yes, I have lots of quite valid and useful words a scientist can use for referring to the natural systems they study...  The difference is essentially to switch from one's "theoretical mindset" to one's "experiential mindset"... something we do all the time but don't connect.   To be more clear, what I'm referring to is also the difference between the characteristically "male" and the characteristically "female" approaches to life.   I don't mean to say that thinking of the world experientially is *exclusively* a female trait, but just that it can't be converted into a logical construct, which is what male thinking tends to default to.  

The origin is probably the very natural difference of viewpoint, between the complex non-verbal relationship work of holistically caring for home and family for women, versus the conceptual strategizing work of facing external challenges to feed and protect a family for men.   My "Hestian" feminist view also notes how for many centuries the latter "control mind" has increasingly taken over the public spheres of society, with men and their families becoming enslaved to serving the rules of authoritarian rulers/owners, demanding adherence to their rules for their servants to use the lord's power to multiply their power, on the pain of exclusion or worse.   Not understanding the systems that took over our lives we just made incremental "compromises". 

To me, modern society seems to have made a big important partial "compromise", of making the conquest obsessed cultures we're part of more "inclusive", with more and more people treated as "family", though still allowing the whole to continue exploiting others exponentially as part of the deal...  It's clearly a very incomplete compromise.  I think that understanding that kind of complex compromise is possible, and perhaps only if, we learn to use "words of home" as absolute references to nature, while we treat the "words of theory" as sometimes useful boundary conditions, like navigation instruments instead of as nature

Even an abstract thinking person might marvel at how smoothly they themselves mentally jump between quite different terminologies and worldviews, like the radically different worldviews used when talking; to your mom, about your sports team, to your real friends, in your office, about the media culture, when swept up by the media culture, in practical theory, in meta-theory.. etc.   Each of these seem to present different frameworks for interpreting the natural world.  The one we use at home appears to be the original, and the foundation others branch from, and to still matter more to us than any other.  

So reconnecting science with the language of home could be seen as "reconnecting it with its roots".   That could be done by recognizing theory as discussing boundary conditions for the absolutes of nature we normally talk about at home, and the use of the latter to help point to essentials theory evidently missing, like how to make a home with ever expanding conquest of your neighbors!

Put abstractly, the essential difference is between 1) words defined conceptually in terms of other words, and 2) words defined by referring to the self-defining things and relationships found in the world we are part of.   One defines words in closed terms, as abstract REPRESENTATIONS OF things in the world, useful only if every mind has the same definitions and accepts the substitution of the abstract for the natural, like accepting "unit" defined as a number.  The other defines words in open terms, as directed REFERENCES TO things of the world, useful to any listener turning their attention to their environment to independently consider the things and relationships referred to, like accepting "unit" as defined by pointing to a group of people with the understanding that one is referring to their organization as a group.      

I might have shortened the response, but ... might have left out stuff too.   Hope it clear.

John, An afterthought, George Box's that all models are wrong (also elegantly stated by John Sterman at MIT) can be reversed to say "even when models are wrong they can be quite useful", IFF you change them from being understood as representing rather than as referring to their subjects.  It's a big jump, possible with a very small step it seems!   ;-)


While it's understandable that your sources might want to refer to these alternative ways of approaching the world as "male" and "female," my guess is that is fundamentally incorrect and a reflection of how the current "environment" casts these issues as rooted in "gender" -- which it is not.

More likely, given the history of these topics, are the distinctions that were drawn earlier in this discussion between "grammar" and "dialectics" (referring to the Classical Trivium as the primary educational convention for roughly 2000 years on the West) or maybe "poetry" and "prose" or perhaps "right brain" and "left brain" or even "logic" and "analogy."

The problem we are dealing with is a poverty of metaphysics, not a basic contrast between men and women -- who are equally capable of being impoverished in this respect.

Outside of the West, where the left-brained/dialectical/prose/logic component became dominant a few hundred years ago, other cultures don't seem to have quite the same problems.  Which, of course, is why this couldn't possibly be a "male/female" issue but rather a specific issue with a particular "culture" at a particular moment in its history.

The Chinese Yin/Yang is another version of this topic and, while there are certainly "gender" components that are identified with each "side," few imagine these qualities as exclusively one or the other and, reflected in how that symbol is drawn, it is the complementarity as well as the necessity for balance that is often emphasized.

Mark,  I agree it’s not primarily a gender difference to use words “defined by experience” or use words “defined by other words”.  I used the example to illustrate the ancient roots and cultural importance, as well as the kinds of social disconnects that it can cause.  For example, if one person defines all their words conceptually and another experientially, when they talk each would speak and listen to words while understanding different meanings for them, and often may not realize it.  

It’s a difference between two ways of thinking that appears to have evolved over a long time, probably many thousands of years.   The biological ability to think either way might have developed with our other special social talents, our richly expressive faces, voices and body movements, for sharing our rich emotional lives and establish our complex social relationships.  The social specialization that gave different social roles to people with different mental talents surely came before the first complex technological societies, seemingly five thousand years ago.

The traces of a gender divide between women using more non-verbal environmental learning and men more conceptual rule following learning seem to go back thousands of years too, at least to the earliest written records of Greek culture.  I'm using it here as evidence of two somewhat separate ways of thinking, that separate their ways of word use, for the purpose of discussing how to connect them.  

Experientially learned word meanings appear to be the root meanings of language, and languages with conceptually defined words improvised from those root meanings, but in isolation, the way the scientific meaning for “particle” uses a word from natural language and scientific meanings exclusive to the ideology of the science.   Science is based on defining rules for the boundary conditions observed for natural subjects, then separated in making theory by defining the rules without  reference to the subjects modeled, representing the theory as what nature does, rather than the bounds within which nature seems to work.  The latter interpretation would reconnect scientific and natural language, and make the subject of science the study of nature rather than the study of abstract models unable to learn by experience.

As you suggest, yes, a systems principle like this might well connect with others.    Yin and Yang would apply but I’m not sure how.   I see Yin and Yang as expressing the deep meaning of dualities like "active & passive" as seen in the universal coupling of "environment & system" or “cup & water”.  I’m not sure that fits why conceptual knowledge as a development from experiential knowledge, each with different properties.  It’s an example of "development in stages", not a polarity of opposites needing each other, though they certainly can be highly productive when working well together.  

That a disconnect between scientific and natural language for the same things is also a good example of what Bateson was referring to, in pointing to the "error of purposive thinking [when man] disregards the systemic nature of the world with which we must deal".   The illusion that a mental model gives you the whole world in your head, lacking any way to refer to its own environment or to the living complex systems it is connected to, represents is a great handicap.  So our attempts at purposeful behavior turn out totally purposeless in reality rather often.   That's my sense of what he's saying in that article, not that he’s "setting 'conscious purpose' against 'nature' ". 

Glad to see you mention in reply to John above that: "What lies "beyond" models/logic/dialectics *and* 'systems' " has been part of the earlier thread too.    I do hope it is gaining traction generally, and not just coming up to be tossed out again and again, as in the past!   Finding subjects to start people thinking both ways is a trick.  


The dream of knowing that precedes and transcends language is a very old one. In China, Confucian philosophers asserted the need for "the rectification of names," insisting that language should be used properly, while taking imperial examinations that tested their ability to write poetry. Daoists countered by pointing to the opening verse of the Dao De Jing [Classic of the Way and Virtue], who authorship is attributed to Lao-tzu. Literally hundreds of attempts have been made to translate that first verse, yet new translations continue to appear, demonstrating the core of its message about the relation between the World (what can be said) and the Dao (the Way, which always escapes definition). Here is one which I just found on the Internet

The Tao that can be known is not Tao.
The substance of the World is only a name for Tao.
Tao is all that exists and may exist;
The World is only a map of what exists and may exist.

One experiences without Self to sense the World,
And experiences with Self to understand the World.
The two experiences are the same within Tao;
They are distinct only within the World.
Neither experience conveys Tao
Which is infinitely greater and more subtle than the World.

That the poem says "Tao" instead of "Dao" is a difference only in how the Chinese is romanized. "Tao" is the old Wade-Giles romanization now largely superseded by Pinyin, the official romanization in the PRC, in which the same Chinese character is written "Dao." 

Personally, I consider myself both a scientist and a Daoist. From both perspectives I know full well that while I must try to speak as precisely as possible, what I say will always be insufficient to say all that might be said. I admire precision in both mathematical and poetic modes, where the former abstracts from reality to the point of emptiness to articulate a purely formal structure, while the latter chooses words to allude to possibilities that cannot be stated directly without being overly simplistic. 

Returning to anthropology and the history of science, I think first of Edward Sapir, who remarks in Language that every word in every human language represents an abstraction. We say "tree" in English, and the meaning of the term is not any particular tree, but a class whose members satisfy whatever criteria we evoke by saying "tree." This is as true of the poet's "tree" as it is of the scientist's "tree." The word is the same. Only the usage is different. One directs our attention to the criteria we call a definition. The other directs it instead to whatever particular tree we imagine in the context of the particular poem we are reading. 

Yes, science is one-sided in its search for clarity. But that search has changed the world dramatically, while the poet's words remain at best a source of occasional inspiration and personal pleasure.

And historically speaking, we know why science embraces clarity. There is no other method that works as well for getting  quarrelsome human beings to agree on what they are talking about. It is worth remembering that the scientific method as defined in the 17th century was, sociologically speaking, a way to enable Europeans of a great variety of religious and political persuasions, survivors of on-going wars in which the axe, the rack, and burning at the stake were the price of losing an argument, to find at least a few things that intelligent but still bloody-minded people could talk about without killing each other. In this respect, the rules of scientific writing in the neutral, third-person passive resemble the use of honorifics in democratic legislatures, where the etiquette imposed on the language helps to prevent literal vendetta and massacres. 

That the result is a narrowing of understanding is a familiar theme. I encountered it first in A.N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, then again in Gerald Weinberg's An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. The importance of understanding the human element, the fact that humans carry around different models of what is going on in their heads and that these must be sorted out before large-scale organizations can improve the way they are run is articulated in Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes Soft Systems Methodology in Action and Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline. 

The suggestion that there must be a better way to achieve mutual understanding is also familiar, and takes many forms: appeals to empathy, art, religion, even metaphysics. But the historical record to date suggests that science is, after all, like democracy as described by Winston Churchill—an imperfect system but nonetheless better than any current alternative. This scientist/Daoist/pragmatist can live with that. Which is pretty much all I have left to add to this discussion. 



John,  I’d like to respond to your comment of October 11; as usual I’m awfully slow at this e-seminar business.  You write, 


I read tragic tales of genius crushed by a soul-destroying state and think of all those other geniuses for whom the state has provided extraordinary opportunities.
. . .

You mention Lance Armstrong and Bobby Fischer. I'll counter with Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein. And what about Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Sergey Brin? Or remarkable people in a whole bunch of other fields who don't seem crushed at all by the wealth and celebrity they've achieved?. . .

When reliability was the number one demand, that fine old Japanese saying, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down" made a lot of sense. It still does for repetitive, physical labor jobs like flipping burgers. But it's no accident that publications like The Harvard Business Review and Fast Company are full of stories about the difficulty of attracting and keeping the talent that businesses need for innovation or that concepts like "design thinking" and "abduction" have become buzzwords. This is the world we have to comprehend and sweeping romantic rants about the poor oppressed genius don't, I'm afraid, get us very far. . .

. . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


. . . sweeping romantic rants about the poor oppressed genius don't, I'm afraid, get us very far. . .


You were commenting on my earlier piece in which I argued that genius constitutes a major problem for society, because societies in general are organized to slot ordinary people into a well-defined scheme, and are not set up to deal with extraordinary individuals.  I went on to suggest that phenomenal variation is the norm in a human population, especially over time (as in, back to the Upper Paleolithic).  My most important point there was that to speak of an objective, in situ “humanity” or “human species” is an empty, if comforting abstraction.  There is no “we” which encompasses Upper Paleolithic shaman-artists and ourselves, nor even – my perhaps radical extension of that idea – extraordinary individuals such as Lance Armstrong, Bobby Fischer, Chuck Yeager, Stu Ungar, Ted Kaczynski, J. Wayne Gacy, or (the usual suspects), Albert Einstein, Keith’s hero Kant, my hero Nietzsche, Mark’s hero Norbert Wiener, and other assorted late-and-greats.  Although I didn’t mention it in that earlier piece, I find support for my view in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences: Individuals possess wildly different aptitudes, some remarkably developed, so that there is no question of ranking them as a group.  The “No Child Left Behind” concept of a single, standard intelligence is, as we agree, a ludicrous effort to deal with the tremendous diversity millions of children represent.    

   There are two things about your Comment that I don’t understand.  First, I don’t think my Comment qualifies as a “rant,” romantic or otherwise.  Although I am not on Facebook, Twitter, or other so-called “social media” websites (which I would characterize, for several reasons, as “anti-social media”)  from what I’ve seen and heard I really don’t think my remarks – wacky (or, for you, stereotyped) as they may seem, meet the standards of a “rant” in today’s Webiverse.  Second, be that as it may, it seriously misconstrues my argument to take it as a lament for “the poor oppressed genius” “crushed by a soul-destroying state.” 

    I do think that persons with extraordinary abilities (who demonstrate those abilities by performing extraordinary acts, whether we label those acts “good” or “evil”) often have a tough time of it, even those “good” individuals, at the hands of a society run by mediocrities for the mediocre.  Some may find it strange (“my little horse” as well) that I mention Einstein in the same passage as a coke-addicted card shark, a mad bomber, and a serial killer, but such individuals are “outliers” (from your book citation) who chart the ever-shifting contours of what we are pleased to call “humanity.”  No one – well maybe some folks, ok, maybe a lot of folks, but not me – would claim that there is some standard (that word again) or norm by which we can identify a core, a kernel, a set of distinguishing features of that entity we call “humanity.”  I’d argue it can’t be done, no more (for those readers familiar with my creole / cultural continuum thesis) than a schoolteacher can insist on a “correct English” and punish those students who get it “wrong.”  Again, that refrain of our culture: surveiller et punir.   

    I don’t for a minute dispute the fact that some individuals’ exceptional abilities, far from alienating society-at-large, are welcomed and hugely rewarded by the multitudes (or by those corporations you mention that value “design thinking” and “abduction” – Peirce would be proud).  The boy billionaires who came up with the ideas for Facebook and Twitter are hardly the model for the “poor oppressed genius,” but they are exceptional, and as much a boundary-defying rarity as Ted Kaczynski or J. Wayne Gacy.  Ditto for the here much-discussed Steve Jobs, who somehow distinguished himself from the legion of pimply-faced garage geeks diddling themselves and their motherboards in complete obscurity. 

    However, the image of the successful genius you endorse does go against the grain of our traditional concept, handed down from ancient Greece, of the hero destined for a tragic end or (particularly in our modern, media-saturated times) a flawed career.  Lance Armstrong and Bobby Fischer exemplify the modern-day hero; they are not Achilles, but neither are they Steve Jobs.  They meet the end the Fates assign them for their hubris.  In your Comment quoted above, you propose Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein as counter examples to the view you attribute to me of the “poor oppressed genius” as definitive of the type.  True, they found success and managed to preserve their reputations, but you need to be careful here.  It’s unsteady ground.  After Feynman’s work on the Manhattan Project (heroic? despicable? – isn’t it a judgment call?) he taught at Cornell for several years.  During that time a favorite pastime of his was hanging out in the school cafeteria, hitting on pretty coeds by offering to help them with their math homework.  Imagine: this behavior at a time when universities were still very much institutions in loco parentis; female students were virtually under lock and key in college dorms, and even an innuendo of hanky-panky between teacher and student was grounds for that teacher’s dismissal.  Yet, Feynman had helped in a big way to build the Big Bomb that saved America, so they cut him some slack.  Suppose that kind of behavior were to occur in these politically correct times; shrill accusations of sexual harassment would spread like wildfire.  No teacher, no matter how distinguished, would be immune to severe sanctions.  Feynman did not share Lance Armstrong’s fate, but that was largely the luck of the draw. 

    Even Einstein, that avuncular icon of genius, needed some of Feynman’s luck.  He happened to be visiting the United States in early 1933, when the democratically elected party of Adolf Hitler came to power.  Einstein delayed his return, while Nazi gangs seized his property and staged a public burning of his writing.  Had he been in residence in Berlin, there would have been another “poor oppressed genius” to add to our list.  And then there were his all-too-human flaws.  His sister Maja, reminiscing about her childhood, mentioned that it was good to have a hard head when your older brother was a genius.  A little childhood rage?  Prior to their marriage, Einstein and his future wife Mileva conceived a child in 1901.  Clinging to a patent office job after failing to secure university employment (who would hire such a loser?), Albert sent Mileva packing, home to her parents in Serbia.  A daughter, Lieserl, was born there, and by 1903 the infant was either dead of scarlet fever or adopted.  Einstein apparently never laid eyes on the child.  But then, he was just a couple of years away from the “Miracle Year” of 1905, and he had a few physics papers to write.  Perhaps just a bit of Lance Armstrong’s and Bobby Fischer’s all-consuming obsession with a goal lurked in the heart of our favorite genial genius? 

    Finally, to reiterate the point I made in my “genius” piece, I would suggest that the accomplishments of genius far outweigh the personal idiosyncrasies that accompany them.  Thus, in answer to the cry of public outrage over Lance Armstrong’s drug use, I would voice the contrary:  Who cares if he used drugs?  His performances were still phenomenal events, unmatched by any of the pack of other, lesser riders who came before and, probably, who will follow.  As for Feynman:  Who cares if he was a randy young goat, a satyr who preyed on young girls?  His theory of quantum electrodynamics is still a towering monument of the intellect (whether human or post-human).  And Einstein?  What does it matter if he was something of a cad?  Even if he had been an unspeakable cad?  How can you begin to weigh the behavior of a compromised, all-too-human man against the creation of the general theory of relativity? 

    Ezra Pound, a genius with his own personal devils (a couple of which almost got him hanged – Ezra had some rather peculiar political views), took this line of thought to its extreme (definitely not warm and fuzzy) conclusion: 


Humanity is the rich effluvium, it is the waste and the manure and the soil, and from it grows the tree of the arts.


    I leave it to the reader to assign ratios to those three ingredients (and do be sure about the definition of “effluvium” – poets tend to use words in precise ways). 

    Things are never simple. 


Or: Who cares if Wernher von Braun used slave labour in his V2 rocket factories  - he was the man who got America to the moon?

ad absurdum arguments aren't that helpful, but the core issue here is that bureaucracy harms and helps in the organisation of society, in the mean time it also engenders things like IQ testing (which began as an extension of civil service exams - you need to find people capable of doing certain tasks). It turns out that the averages IQ tests produce are largely useless for any practical purpose, though they make some people happy. Your suggestion here, Lee, reminds me of Margaret Mead in Keep Your Powder Dry - a book she wrote during the war. American democracy throws up phenomena such as everyone in school receiving a grade as close to 'A' as possible because attempts to discriminate between people come to seem anti-democratic. I also think of Riesman's Lonely Crowd where he argues that the kind of individualism prevalent in America has shifted from an 'inner-directed' to an 'other-directed' form - once individualism was a hidden relationship between one person and their divinity, now it is can only be demonstrated efficaciously through the capacity to win friends and influence your uncle; (or gain 'likes' on a facebook account). I wonder if it is worth considering changes in the meaning of individualism as an aspect of your account?


We agree. Things are never, ever simple. We can, however, follow the suggestion of Clifford Geertz in the opening paragraph of "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man," and try to come up with accounts whose complexity more closely approximates what we are talking about while retaining the clarity that simplistic accounts appear to offer. Trying to figure out how to do that is my particular hobby horse. That doesn't to me imply automatic rejection of simplistic accounts — which often reveal something of interest that had previously gone unnoticed. It means comparing various accounts and seeing where they overlap in richer, thicker descriptions than any one of them offers alone. Should you be interested, my most sustained and successful attempt in this direction is an article called "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language," in american ethnologist, No. 1, 1995. 


Allow me once again to recommend a look at Robert Bellah, et al's Habits of the Heart, in which Bellah and his colleagues identify and analyze four types of American individualism: two in the classic mode in which the source of ultimate value, God or the Nation, is located outside of the individual and two in the newer mode in which the source of ultimate value is located within the individual, in calculated rational choice or deeply felt emotion. 

All,    There are important anthropological differences often visible in the "natural selection" of what "genius" gets stifled and what gets well received and multiplied.   One important one is seen in the frequent social exclusion of people who raise legitimate questions about the group myths that provide cohesion for social networks.  

I think that could be traced to "what's missing" from conceptual thinking, generally, that conceptual models rely on internal definitions, and so naturally exclude and offer no way to either represent or refer to the natural forms of the complex relationships they model, or to their contexts.   It seems to lead social groups to just harden their adherence to myths they can't know how to defend, when they are challenged.   As social cohesion is one of the most basic ways humans have always used for "defining realty", a society that uses conceptual thinking to form its self-identity would be giving itself a great "natural handicap", of tending to mental rigidity in response to change.

There's an awfully important and long history of scientific denialism that seems to reflect that too.  multiple generations of scientists I'm personally familiar with have come and gone, raising questions about the natural limits of our using the earth to multiply our uses of the earth, and our need to then manage systems of multiplying complexity to keep it going, facing swelling internal and external conflict. Time and again, the need to understand the systemic nature of nature the questions about that expose are brought to public and professional attention.  Time and again those questions are either just quietly, or very noisily, just "erased" from social consciousness as "inappropriate".

Is that just a "romantic rant about the poor oppressed genius"??   ;-)   We may well need social exclusion to "clean up" unimportant issues that might clutter our social world, but should we be using it to erase from our consciousness the context in which we exist too??  It seems to turn John's reference to mankind's ancient

"dream of knowing that precedes and transcends language",

into a quite remarkable kind of great hidden "fallacy of knowing" too, doesn't it?  

It seems to turn conceptual thinking, our "queen of mental disciplines", into a bit of sly self-deception if you are not careful, a handy way to create certainty by excluding most of the world one's thinking refers to.  It clearly becomes very dangerous if equated with being the nature of the world it shuts out, as modern physics literally defines its terms.  Given our apparent 'innocence" about the hazard, maybe it's more like an addictive 'shortcut' that humans come to choose by preference?   The problem doesn't seem to be with the usefulness of models, but with the "transference" that may follow pattern recognition, as idealization of some pattern results in the discarding of all connections with the context.   

I think it fits with lots of historical examples, and of course, the amazing confusion of confused thinking our highly advanced society has produced today. 

John,    In your reply today you expressed admiration for science for its power get quarrelsome people to agree on things, and real impact on our lives.   I can't say I disagree at all with that, especially when you compare it to the study of mystical principles and politics and things.   But we've also been discussing what science is missing.

It's easy to understand that an apple from a tree is one of the things not possible to get into the mind of a human. Only images of that apple, and generalizations about apple images, reduced to rules or generalized as recollections, can be literally got into our heads, as pale reflections of the originals.   That reduction of science to a study of feint images, and that loss of equivalence, is generally not acknowledged in discussing how science works.   Science uses "observation" to reduce the things of nature to "data" with no organization, filtering out the complex organization and contexts of relationships of the originals, before making  the abstractions of scientific theory. 

That reduction actually matters a lot, affecting the material fidelity and authenticity of theory for representing the things that theory symbolizes.   The greatest effect is on science itself, and its ability to help us understand our planet and lives.  Limited to studying the information we gather, and abstractions of it we seem to make in our own image, science is disassociated from the study of our actual planet and lives, studying pale imitations of what we see how to interpret.

Reduced to a study of symbolic rules for nature, science only looks for things to study that can be reduced to symbolic rules, patterns that can be generalized mathematically.  That excludes from study of the kinds of rich and changing patterns that occur individually, among other things.   It exchanges clarity for definable general patterns for total statistical vagueness about individual cases, that when looked at often expose intricately organized behavior quite unlike mathematics.   Really important things like the bursts of local complex system development needed for energy uses in nature to begin, for example, get totally overlooked.  Such individually original system development, occurring as "growth processes" that build on themselves spontaneously, just don’t make sense described as following equations. 

In your reply of yesterday, you seemed to acknowledge some of that, saying:

You write of scientists, "They have no scientific words for referring to natural systems in their natural state." I agree. But I have to ask, do you have some?   If so, please share them.

If the language of science has come to not have words for the systems of nature, is there merit in my suggestion of ways to correct that?   My approach wouldn’t violate any useful feature of science, just turn the attention of science to what other people assume is the subject anyway, the study of nature as we find it.  It would start with acknowledging that science would not change a bit to think of it as a study of the things of nature we collect our information from.   A look at how science already uses natural language is what then suggests that what science studies must be the things of nature that natural language refers to, the drifts, dreams and dances of things, *interpreted* (not defined) with scientific language. 

If science is a language for interpreting naturally occurring things, not just a study of abstract symbols, a great new range of ways to study the things of nature can open up, with new technique invented where needed.   My own best contribution seems to be my realizing that emerging organization in individually occurring systems is exposed in their histories of development, found in their changing flows, the "continuity" of the record, not in the “data” read as disconnected dots.    

Wouldn't it be nice if such a step could actually be made?



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