All entries for Tuesday 22 March 2005

March 22, 2005

Kant's Creative Philosophy

Follow-up to What Is Philosophy? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

…and similarly, the title of Deleuze's book on Kant's Critical Philosophy is ironic. Kant didn't really do the critical thing, looking to complete a philosophical tradition by re-examining and correcting its grounding. Deleuze is interested in the way in which Kant invents entirely new ways of thinking, entirely different concepts – is in fact one of the most creative of philosophers.

Using a blog as a particular type of mental bucket

You can use a blog as a bucket for thoughts and experiences that are not yet fully dealt with or considered. This is an important technique. You can empty them from your mind, whilst being assured that they won't disappear entirely. Later, you can return to them and try to process them. Processing means:

  • discarding them as useless;
  • connecting them up with other thoughts;
  • planning further actions to be taken on the thoughts;
  • building them into a wider argument or project;
  • expanding them further to be revisited at a later date;
  • just putting them into incubation.

You can do this with an old-fashioned paper notebook, but a blog has some key advantages:

  1. it can be shared, groups of people can do the work of sorting through and processing the thoughts, leaving helpful comments or writing linked entries – blogs are shareable thinking, but best suited to that early indiscriminate stage of thinking about something;
  2. it has a nice format that forces you to write neatly;
  3. you can link your thoughts to web pages outside of the blog (link them to news items, other people's blogs, module web pages, learning objects – hopefully one day calendar items, words in glossaries, concept maps);
  4. you can link your entries through time;
  5. you can categorise your entries (keywords and links to glossaries would extend this further);
  6. you can easily include images and diagrams – take photos of whiteboard drawings and upload them;
  7. you can edit your entries and comments, deleting the junk;
  8. you can easily reuse text from a blog in another document without having to type it back in – I just wrote the first paragraph of my thesis in my blog!).

The downside of using a blog for this is that it doesn't quite feel as safe and personal as a paper notebook. But Warwick Blogs has features that help you to feel that sense of ownership.

So how do you use a blog in this way? The key is to just get stuff down into it, without having to think too much right away. The virtue of blogging, and of Warwick Blogs in particular, is its speed. Worry about processing the stuff later, when you need to (to help with a decision, writing a more formal text, or a presentation). For now, just get it off your mind. Some advice:

  • don't treat it as a container for finished products (there are other places for them);
  • don't record trivial stuff that should only be a single phrase in a simple list of stuff (a simple list bucket);
  • don't use it for recording well-formed project tasks or actions that need doing, use a proper project log, plan or some other project task bucket for that;
  • don't assume that you have to identify exactly what each entry is for or what it is about (don't worry to much about categorisation);
  • don't think that you have to be right all the time, or sound like you know what you are talking about (if you are worried about looking stupid through your blog, limit access to your entries);
  • record real-world events, even when they refer to many distinct concepts, people, or projects;
  • use well identified keywords (put them in bold) to identify the references to distinct concepts, people and projects when mixed together in a single entry (better keyword idenitfication system please!);
  • if you can't record your notes directly into your blog (more wifi please) then have a system for getting them down or on a pda, then adding them to your blog;
  • if you really do have to write a rant, try to be honest about the events that caused it, otherwise that particular piece of history will be irretrievably lost;
  • be a little disciplined about processing (or at least re-reading) the stuff you put in your blog.

And finally:

  • just blog it.

What is philosophy? – cognitive development, thought experiments, apparatus of extended cognition

Psychology diagrams the internal, mental and neuro-chemical constraints that limit how we think. Sociology diagrams the external, social constraints that limit how we think. Philosophy is different, it seeks new ways to think that go beyond those constraints. It looks for these by experimenting with and inventing the materials of our extended cognitive apparatus: the technology of thought (for example, new ways of writing that enable new concepts to be thought). In this way, as for Nietzsche, the thought experiment (the activity at the heart of philosophy) is not simply a matter of applying a familiar technology of thought to a familar set of concepts, combining them in a new way. Rather, it sets out to invent new concepts through the development and application of a new technology of thought. What kind of experiment is carried out by a child (or other learner) to move to a new way of thinking (not just a new concept)? A new technology of thought must be adopted. Cognitive development is in this way, driven by Nietzschean thought experiments.

A model of constraints only ever maps out an algorithm, programme or expression that repeats itself. It can only account for the emergence of that algorithm from another greater algorithm that contains entirely the conditions of its production. As such, disciplines other than philosophy are not able to account for or make possible creativity in thought. Or at least they cannot do so unless they become philosophical (speculative, experimental). Philosophy is the practice of speculation, experiment, risk. It goes beyond constraints.

Concept Mapping – an agile presentation and thinking tool

Writing about ETech day 1: Passionate users from Autology: John Dale's blog

Concept-mapping is really good. I've used it in a way similar to that described by John, basing a presentation around a map. There is a very good reason for doing so. It is a technique of thinking, writing and presenting that provides a significant cognitive advantage. As John notes, it doesn't force you into an overly linear discourse in the explication of an argument.

Why is such linearity bad? The form of the argument often becomes more important than the argument itself. The need to keep the text on track, moving along, linear, over-rides the content that it is trying to develop. This leads to:

  1. A suppression of subtle details, which when considered properly, turn out to be much more important;
  2. A suppression of connections and their implications. For example, if strand A of the argument relies upon strand B (which has already been introduced, or which is to be explicated later), the implications of accepting strand B in the service of strand A are not necessarily clear. It should be easy for the presenter or the audience to understand what is at risk by implication when accepting or rejecting part of an argument;
  3. A suppression of feedback. The audience or the presenter may identify a weakness or previously unknown aspect of one strand of an argument. It may be the case that the new point is trivial, or belongs somewhere else in the argument. It can therefore be passed over. However, without being able to see the connections, implications and weightings, the judgement concerning the triviality of the new issue is made without proper consideration. The tendency is to ignore the new point, to avoid the possibility that its consideration might de-rail the linear progression of the argument, consequently leaving a big scarey hole.

I have seen this happen in many philosophy presentations. You can even see it in the texts of many good philosophers, although one suspects that they are well-aware of the power of the linear form, and use it cunningly. Ironically, many texts that are written about the philosophers of non-linearity, principally Deleuze and Guattari, are horribly linear and just
downright oppressive. Their own works are famously not linear. In fact I suspect that they used some kind of methodology akin to concept-mapping (the consistency of their very complex conceptual assemblages over 40 years of work suggests that they had some kind of system other than text).

The result of linearity dominating is often merely a sense of disatisfaction amongst the audience. But occassionally someone decides that contriving with the presenter to keep things on track would result in having to accept just too many significantly wrong assumptions. Things then turn nasty.

More seriously, in arguments that are used to support projects, policies and expenditures, the linear form may result in expensive and disruptive mistakes.

So what is the alternative? A technique that MindManager supports is as follows:

  1. Create a map that records everything you know about the topic, starting with a top level set of nodes, and drilling down into the detail through several levels. Nodes can easily be moved around, edited, deleted and added, so develpoment is rapid and responsive;
  2. In the presentation, start with only the top level nodes open, the lower level nodes are all closed (easy with MindManager). Either this top-level is uncontroversial, or provides some work for the more detailed levels to do in justifying the top-level carve-up of the topic (remember, its easy to move or edit nodes, so you don't have to be too concerned about getting things wrong and having to respond to feedback as the presentation progresses).
  3. Do a high-level pass through the top nodes, giving an understanding of the basic distinctions uppon which the presentation is based – look for problems at the top level! Don't gloss over them – if you do, the audience won't be with you;
  4. If there is an issue with the top level nodes, open up the next level and see if the detail contained in them can be used to resolve the top level problem. Keep drilling down into detail if necessary. Jump across nodes to show how different components at the different levels are connected transversally;
  5. If no problem is found at the top level, do a pass through the second level of nodes, again looking for problems.
  6. Keep going lower until you run out of time or everyone is satisfied.

This should result in thoroughness, bringing the audience along more succesfully. It also allows for the presentation to flexibly and genuinely respond to problems and new ideas, without the possibility of it being entirely waisted by an unforeseen issue (remember, you can re-draw the map as you go along). The presentation can, in this way, be much more productive. In fact we could say that with this approach there aren't problems or difficulties, only opportunities (as Ted Simon would say, "interuptions are the journey").