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Wisdom -- to be elicited dynamically through metaphor?


Psychodynamics of collective engagement with polyhedral value configurations (Part #9)


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As a psychologist, Isabel Clarke (Madness, Mystery and the Survival of God, 2008) asks a fundamental question, previously framed by Arthur Koestler:

How come human beings are so clever, and at the same time, so stupid? This question is vital to the joint survival of ourselves and our planet as we know it. The question is intimately bound up with the way we relate to our environment as well as to ourselves....What our world urgently needs at this critical juncture is not only analysis of what is wrong, but direction on how to go forward in a more healthy relationship, both with ourselves and with our environment. (Four Ways to Meet the Ecological Challenge (after Matthew Fox) a psychologist's perspective, Network Review, August 2008)

A concluding comment on the Human Values Project (whose title had been extended to Human Values and Wisdom Project) cited the conclusion of a Club of Rome study for UNESCO (Bertrand Schneider, In Search of a Wisdom for the World: the role of ethical values in education, 1987) to the effect that:

Successful development is very closely bound up with society's capacity to learn.... The role of communication and the revolution it is bringing about in the transmission of ideas may radically transform the problem of ethical values -- but the whole question needs careful thought and the will to succeed....
Nor is the objective equally obvious to everyone. With the modern world as it is, the search for wisdom will not necessarily strike people as a priority issue and many will be sceptical and ironical. Nevertheless, all are invited to lay the foundations for a new humanism that will enable the peoples of tomorrow to live together harmoniously.

The project commentary offered an extensive checklist (Wisdom and requisite variety) of possible sources of "wisdom" together with the reservations that might be associated with each. However in the 220 pages of the UNESCO World Report Towards Knowledge Societies: UNESCO World Report (2005) only a single reference is made to wisdom, despite its apparent significance for the future:

Young people are bound to play a major role because they are often among the first to use new technologies and to help establish them as familiar features of everyday life. But older people also have an important part to play. They possess the experience required to offset the relative superficiality of 'real-time' communication and remind us that knowledge is but a road to wisdom.

"New thinking": The need for a new cognitive mode has been frequently expressed in terms of the need for "new thinking". At the time of writing this is evident in the following examples:

  • the Russia-Georgia crisis and the perception on behalf of the EU by French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner that: We have to invent a new language with regard to Russia. That is what the European Union is trying to do. (18 August 2008)
  • what might be recognized as a similar need for the EU to invent a "new language" to respond to the Irish "No" vote on the Lisbon Reform Treaty, and by extension to respond to those peoples in Europe that are less than enchanted by the EU and its bulldozer democracy as epitomized by avoidance of democratic consultation
  • the certitudes with which technical "solutions" to the challenge of climate change (whether warming or cooling) are being proposed

For such as Edward de Bono new thinking implies a different logical mode (I Am Right, You Are Wrong: From This to the New Renaissance: From Rock Logic to Water Logic, 1990). He has instigated the creation of a World Council for New Thinking. For Magoroh Maruyama it is a question of "polyocular vision" (Polyocular Vision or Subunderstanding, Organization Studies, 2004). For Jennifer Gidley (The Evolution of Consciousness as a Planetary Imperative: an integration of integral views. Integral Review, 5, 2007), as noted above:

However, the growing awareness of a potential planetary crisis has highlighted the significance of finding new ways of thinking, if humankind is to move through our current complex challenges.

The challenge of values is how understanding of them is to be fruitfully related to whatever is to be understood by wisdom appropriate to strategic governance in the 21st century -- at all levels of society.

Role of metaphor: The argument above suggests that values are best understood through metaphor rather than verbal articulations -- then falsely held to constitute a meaningful description. This is best exemplified in the extreme case of values which science claims to recognize and measure quantitatively, such as "speed", "solidity", "time". For in such cases they are typically valued as participatory experiences. In the case of the set of fundamental "values" indicated by the Chinese BaGua, for example, their elusive nature is carefully alluded to through non-exhaustive metaphor rather than claiming closure of a necessarily premature nature. It might then be argued that the more fundamental the value experience, the more multi-facetted the metaphor that can be usefully called upon.

The following insight of Kenneth Boulding (Ecodynamics; a new theory of societal evolution. 1978) with regard to the integrity of an individual might then be seen as equally relevant, if not more so, to the wisdom providing the ethical integrity of a set of values in practice:

Our consciousness of the unity of the self in the middle of a vast complexity of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the unity of a group, organization, department, discipline, or science. If personification is only a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors -- we might be one ourselves. (p. 345)

Sets of values configured to offer a context for wisdom may then be fruitfully understood metaphorically as the "spokes" in the quote above from Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching):

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub. It is the centre hole that makes it useful...
Therefore profit comes from what is there; Usefulness from what is not there. 

"Unsaying" and "Unknowing" : The challenge of any new language, supportive of a greater degree of wisdom, may then be better understood as the challenge of "unsaying" characteristic of apophatic discourse, rather than the declarative mode so characteristic of science -- except at its most fundamental (Being What You Want: problematic kataphatic identity vs. potential of apophatic identity?, 2008). Configurations of values, centred on "unknowing", might then offer an appropriately fruitful context for better questions and governance based on negative capability in the sense to which the poet John Keats alluded:

.., it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

From such a perspective, the "solutions" to terrorism deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are indicative of the problematic consequences of excessive confidence in "knowing" what might be appropriate -- ignoring the lessons of history, in this case. It would be unfortunate if similar technical confidence was confidently deployed in response to climate change, for example -- ignoring other lessons. Certain combinations of overconfidence and the silence of the "unsaid" can clearly imply strategic disaster (Global Strategic Implications of the "Unsaid": from myth-making towards a "wisdom society", 2003).

Dialogue: Given the expected complexities and turbulence of the 21st century, it is arguably far too late to seek simplistic consensus. or expect to impose agreement through conventions, with respect to morals, ethics and values. Greater subtlety is called for to which aesthetics offers many pointers, if only in the Japanese understanding of the value of "perfection" as being the "harmony of imperfections". The insights of Kinhide Mushakoji into the need to hold the 4-fold logical relationship (A, not-A, A-and-not-A, neither-A-nor-not-A) are of relevance to the recognition and assertion of values (Global Issues and Interparadigmatic Dialogue, 1988).

The challenge, as in the case of the World Academy of Art and Science, for example, is the incapacity to dialogue over highly problematic issues on which opinions are deeply divided. Rising to the occasion is then achieved by rising above it and framing it as unworthy of collective attention. In this way those from whom others expect wisdom imply that they have no collective wisdom to contribute of relevance to any ongoing crisis.

But this also points to the challenge of what such bodies do perceive as meriting their attention  and to which they believe they can fruitfully contribute -- and of the nature of the dialogue that might  then prove fruitful. The challenge seems to be that worthy people do not engage in dialogue on matters on which they are likely to disagree. This may be appropriate but it then implies that disagreement can only be handled (by others) through rather primitive processes of dialogue.

Such circumstances merit the insight of a World Academy of Art and Science (of Disagreement) ! It would seem that worthy people are called upon to improve the modalities of disagreement with which others are frequently obliged to struggle.

Information overload vs Wisdom: The emerging knowledge society is already characterized by a massive degree of information overload, whether for policy-makers, specialists, or those engaged in any learning process. Values may indeed be considered as fundamental to filtering and prioritizing such information.

The challenge lies in how to configure insight more appropriately -- minimizing dependence on lengthy texts that are merely symptomatic of the problem of how to configure it more meaningfully and more engagingly (Coherent Policy-making Beyond the Information Barrier: circumventing dependence on access, classification, penetration, dissemination, property, surveillance, interpretation, disinformation, and credibility, 1999).

The main argument for animated polyhedral configurations is that they facilitate intuitive understanding of complexity -- enhanced by the aesthetic connectivity between topoi with which people are engaged in value terms. The challenge from a policy science perspective has long been recognized (Computer-aided Visualization of Psycho-social Structures Peace as an evolving balance of conceptual and organizational relationships, 1971).

"Why do we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatizing imaginations. They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstractions. They are at their best in deliberations that encourage contextuality by a varied repertory of means and where an immediate sense of time, space and figure is retained".
(Harold D Lasswell. The transition toward more sophisticated procedures. In: Davis B Bobrow and J L Scwartz (Eds). Computers and the Policy-making Community; applications to international relations. Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 307-314)

Dynamics of wisdom? If wisdom is to be fruitfully characterized in terms of a capacity to respond dynamically to value dilemmas reflected in strategic dilemmas, this frames the challenge as corresponding to that of inappropriate association of values with their static verbal articulation, especially when taken in isolation. In this sense wisdom is not for "grasping" as a thing of some kind to be possessed. It is more appropriately expressed in movement -- possibly to be recognized as elegant as well as skilled -- through turbulent conditions in which reconfiguration of cognitive resources is the key. It might then be framed as "dancing" with reality -- as speculatively explored with respect to a Union of the Whys.

The flexibility necessary for such movement through reconfiguration depends on a form of central cognitive emptiness open to surprise and avoiding premature closure. The challenge for dialogue, as a form of movement and dance, is however to achieve a degree of convergence and closure when appropriate, such as to engage resources effectively in strategic initiatives. In a knowledge society this is exemplified by the title of a study by Orrin Klapp (Opening and Closing; strategies of information adaptation in society, 1978).

These characteristics are consonant with the transformation of polyhedral configurations of topoi that elicit, individually and together, a degree of cognitive engagement and focus beyond that associated with static conventional verbal articulations.

What is out there:
word, thing, rose is
only prose.
To become life
it must flow as poetry
from the dark pain of the soul
(Antonio de Nicolas, Do Not Tell Me Words)


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