Monday, 18 June 2012

Forms of thought and conviviality

I've just returned from a conference on the topic of "How scientific can the study of society be in the context of economics and business studies" in Marseille which I have found fascinating and highly relevant to my thinking about technology and education. I had spent the first part of the week in Brussels at a meeting for the iTEC project, and putting these two events together has given me lots to think about.

The group in Marseille largely approach economics from heterodox positions. That means no simple assumptions about mainstream economic categories and certainly it means a critique of capitalism.  At the heart of this critique, Critical Realism has played a major role in driving a branch of inquiry into social ontology, which has been promoted by Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group.

My paper was about abstraction and time, and how even the best-intentioned economic critique employs abstractions which are far removed from the real experiences of those they relate to, and which have the greatest causal bearing on the types of decisions that are ultimately made. In short, the experience of individuals in committee meetings - whether they are bored, coerced, frightened, etc - have the greatest impact on the quality of policy decisions which emerge from those meetings. Critical abstraction may help in identifying the questions that need to be asked, but ultimately, critical abstractions are usually only shared among academics.

What I am particularly interested in is how absence plays a role in the formation both of critical thought and in the experience generally. Our thinking takes a form not just through the logical consistency of its arguments, but because of unspecifiable absences or constraints which operate on its development - for example, our personal histories, ambitions, politics, the room we meet in, and so on. Although of course, some of these might be identifiable, as soon as they are identified, then our thinking takes on a new direction, and absences also have a bearing on that. Reflecting after my presentation in response to a comment from one of the participants, Heidegger's language of 'enframing' sums this up rather well.  He says in "A question concerning technology":
Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is one of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary.
I think this is what I am talking about. But I have tried to be more specific about this 'way' or the 'forming' of questioning by absence by using Von Foester's Eigenform idea (see In thinking about the recursive moments of the production of an eigenform, the way in which the motion of the eigenform may depend on absence in the environment is what is interesting me. In my presentation I started to draw this:

(I'm not sure that my audience understood this... and I'm still feeling my way... although feeling my way through recursion and absence!) What I didn't get as far as saying was that I think this 'forming' of thinking necessitates conviviality. I started my presentation by asking participants to draw their emotions in response to a piece of music (Debussy's 'Reflets dans l'Eau').. this was a way of highlighting the difference between abstraction and experience.

In fact I could have done more than that. Because what I think this kind of activity produces is a shared awareness of absence. The big problem with abstraction as I see it is that it can only occur within one head.. any other head that encounters an abstraction has to be taught.. and that process goes on against the context of its own absences: things get corrupted easily because each person has their own absences which shape their own ways of thinking.

When individuals do an activity together (like listening to music and drawing), they recognise a common absence. This combined with the rules of the activity mean that the form of their collective thought follows a coordinated pattern. In turn, that means that the positioning between one person and the next is more open, accepting and appreciative that it usually is when there is an 'expert' in the room. So this would look like:

It is this requirement for the co-emergence of eigenforms of thought and the appreciation of forms of experience which is where I would like to see management science moving. Transformative praxis, which is the goal of Critical Realism, cannot - I think - be achieved through abstraction alone. What needs to be changed in order to transform praxis is the positioning between people. For that to change, an awareness of the absences that are shared is important, so that forms of thought can be coordinated. Only in this way can many brains think as one brain. And I think that technology has an important role to play both in the establishment of meaningful activity for this to happen, and in the creation of absences which lead to the specific forms of thought which lead us to so much trouble at the moment.

Finally, there's something to say about meaning and ethics here. Meaning, I believe, relates to anticipation. Convivial experiences are meaningful precisely because the shared awareness of absence means that a mutual acknowledgement of the constraints of thinking and action lead to a shared sense of anticipation of the actions of one another. The meaningfulness of the environment creates the conditions for 'doing the right thing' which, under the conditions of pathological positioning, fear, and so on, is extremely difficult. But the very least we would hope for is that those in committee meetings 'do the right thing': but poor positioning, and a failure to appreciate the absences that are shared makes that frighteningly difficult.

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