Collective? Individual? Both? How should we think about thinking?

Just found an interesting piece titled "Good Group Think" on eighteen chains.com. Resurrects some shrewd observations by Karl Mannheim, from Ideology and Utopia. Most of what we think we learn from others. We add a bit and pass it on. Tracing the routes is a project called the sociology of knowledge. Enjoy. Reflect. Respond. Pass it on.

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Comment by John McCreery on February 10, 2014 at 4:07pm

Larry, I really like that

 "Useful" translates as "temporarily sustainable".

It points to the need to carefully examine the conditions that affect sustainability. That is when we need ethnography instead of philosophical speculation. The speculation may be useful if it points to interesting questions or generates fresh insights. But so long as it remains confined to toy examples without the complexities of real life the odds of reaching even temporarily sustainable conclusions is low.

Comment by Larry Stout on February 9, 2014 at 4:13pm

As always, John, your remarks are seminal and evocative.  Case in point: "different groups find particular models useful".

This brings to mind organic evolution and ecological niches.  Although some biologists speak of "perfect" adaptation -- of, say, an insect species to an orchid species and vice versa -- the ultimate imperfection of such adaptation is demonstrated by the simple fact that all lineages either come to an ultimate dead end or evolve into something different (i.e., adopt a new model).  "Useful" translates as "temporarily sustainable".  Dinosaurs are extinct (excepting, of course, those that adopted the series of "models" known as birds).  As the poet wrote, "Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf / And I don't feel so well myself".

Comment by Larry Stout on February 9, 2014 at 3:41pm

When I say, "largely self-contained" I did not mean "largely different"; I meant open to occasional, normally minor, revisions based on further experiences.  Quite apparently, the unique-in-detail Weltanschauungs of different people commonly have very considerable overlap. Yours and mine evince some considerable overlap; yet, achieving mutual understanding obviously requires some work, and our respective understandings are never quite perfect.  Semantic barriers are never entirely demolished.  If everything were cut and dried, life would be intolerably boring!  (That's why I dread going to heaven.)

Comment by John McCreery on February 9, 2014 at 3:25pm

Larry, I think we pretty much agree, especially when you write, "The preponderance of human thought -- philosophy, literature, politics, economics -- is characterized by grossly oversimplified inferences of cause-and-effect relationships." But it's like George Box said about models: "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful." The question that interests me are the often highly specific and context-bound conditions under which different groups find particular models useful. 

 
Where we might disagree is that I don't buy the notion that every flying -blind individual has a largely self-contained Weltanschaung." There's a lot of overlap, and the overlap is what makes groups and collective action possible. The overlap doesn't have to be total; just big enough to cover the business at hand. How much is in the realm of cultural variation. 
 
Japanese anthropologist Chie Nakane provides a lovely example. A student of Raymond Firth, she did her fieldwork in India. Later, in her Japanese Society she remarked on how startled she was as a young Japanese woman to discover that Indian parents were seemed largely indifferent to what their children were thinking and feeling, so long as they behaved properly. She saw a strong contrast here with Japanese parents and other Japanese authority figures, who wanted and tried to insist on uniformity in thought and feeling as well as behaviour. 
Comment by Larry Stout on February 9, 2014 at 1:24pm

"Because" does indeed mean a lot of different things to different people in different circumstances.  This is merely a reflection of the innumerable "if/then" inferences people make as a consequence of their peculiar, idiosyncratical experiences.  But in every case it ultimately translates as a perceptive "this because of that".  Our thinking is geared to identification of causal chains.  I did not, of course, mean to imply that the cause-and-effect relationships people perceive are always accurate.  They are largely accurate with regard to such primitively adaptive matters as, "If I strike a block of this kind of rock [say, obsidian] with another, harder stone at such-and-such angle, then I usually obtain a smaller bladelike piece, which I can further fashion into a usable spear point." And, "When I grind seeds with obsidian, the rock breaks and splinters: obsidian is not usable for grindstones." Because causation -- beyond a proximate cause, and in its further posterior ramifications -- is not a simple, linear operation (like falling dominoes), and because our powers of discernment are limited, search for ultimate or first causes is futile (and frustrating!), so people routinely resort to drawing an arbitrary line and conveniently (but wrongly) begin thinking/discourse with A>B>C>...etc., simply ignoring consideration of what caused A.  Thus, we have, "It is true because the Bible tells me so." < "The Bible is true because it is the inspired word of God." < [Tacitly: It is the inspired word of God because my coreligionists and I believe that.] < [They believe that normally because of "accident" of birth into a family/community/culture that had adopted such belief.] < Etc., etc., etc...ad infinitum.  The preponderance of human thought -- philosophy, literature, politics, economics -- is characterized by grossly oversimplified inferences of cause-and-effect relationships.  Evolution has suited human beings to be reproductively successful small bands of widely spaced hunter-gatherers.  Beyond that capacity, we are overextended and "flying blind".  But, in the mind of every flying-blind individual is some largely self-contained Weltanschauung cobbled together out of cause-and-effect observations, experiences, with various constructs as the glue.

Comment by John McCreery on February 9, 2014 at 11:18am

Because...the Bible tells me so.

Because...it has always seemed to work for me.

Because...When in Rome....

Because...it's the law.

Because...I have assembled evidence that I and those like me will find persuasive.

Because...A jury will consider the case proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Because...a peer reviewed journal has accepted my description of my research and conclusions, which are properly qualified in light of the available data...

If "because" implies causation, then causation appears to mean a lot of different things....hmmmm....

Comment by Larry Stout on February 8, 2014 at 7:45pm

The essence of rationality is recognition of causation as a universal principle -- both abstractly, and insofar as possible, specifically (which isn't in fact very far).  Quite a number of very bright people in various disciplines have discounted the notion of "free will", translating as personal agency totally independent of foregoing or ambient circumstances -- essentially something without causes.  Those who insist on seeing "free will" routinely resort to semantic chicanery by claiming that "cause" and "influence" are distinct, and that "influence" does not negate the notion of "free will".  Essentially, though, "free will" boils down to supposing a superhuman capacity of humans to function as a "first cause".  At the roots of "Western thought" we have the ancient Greeks and Romans, who to all appearances entertained no such notion as "free will", which was, in fact, a contrivance of St. Augustine in his attempts to rationalize oddly cobbled Christian dogma.  More and more, neuroscientists discover that our conscious thought (including so-called "decision-making") is only a hysteretic outcome of unconscious mental processes governed entirely by conditioning (experience) and vagaries (themselves all caused by something) of physico-chemical conditions and processes of the brain and nervous system.  As a philosopher once said, "There's no such thing as knowledge, just belief."  "Learning", then, is the taking on of beliefs.  If we ask someone why he/she did something, or believes something, the response always begins with the word "beCAUSE": this expression stems from our ultimate, intuitive reliance on causation in our efforts to understand the various worlds of our individual experiences.  I never tire of quoting Bertrand Russell, who wrote: "Exponents of free will maintain that a man can, by dint of will-power, refrain from becoming drunk, but they do not maintain that after a man is drunk he can say 'British Constitution" as well as when he is sober."

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