The Friday Fillip: What’s the Big Idea?

When I was younger I had a fondness for big ideas — or, a few of them, at least. Only natural in a tyro trying to learn how to dance to the ineffable ruck and roil of life itself and looking for some Arthur Murray guidance.

Now, Big Ideas are potentially dangerous, as that originating interesting concept expands to a full-blown idea, idea inflates to Big Idea, which in turn can bloat to ideology, gripping the mind and wresting all awareness away from the pragmatic to the programmatic. Perhaps I’m too intellectually lazy ever to have worked my way up that ladder towards true conviction — at least for any length of time. But some few oldies but goodies have stayed with me, despite their unfashionability (then and now), as having been really useful in understanding the human comedy, my own stand-up role most importantly.

Let me set out three of these Big Ideas– and invite you to report on any expansive, explanatory ideas (notions?) that may have proved useful or important to you in your intellectual life. All three of mine have to do with human psychology — which is to say, why and how we act as we do.

(Aside: It has always puzzled and irritated me that law — academic law, certainly — cathected to economics, that most impovrished of social psychologies and, until recently, the one that regularly got it wrong or not at all. I do get the money-loves-money link, and I understand that politically law is the . . . handmaiden, shall we say, of business. But I’ve never understood the obstinate reluctance to examine individual and social psychology in a discipline that, purportedly at least, deals with anticipation, prediction and control of human conduct. /Aside)

My first big idea was that of tacit knowledge, a theme developed by that polymath, Michael Polyani, way back in the late fifities in his books Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension. Since this is a fillip, big ideas get mashed here to bite-size, and so I’m only mildly uncomfortable in condensing his idea to this: we know more than we can say — and that “tacit” knowledge is valuable, indeed essential. The paradigm examples — a couple will suffice — are: our ability to recognize our friend’s face from among the miens of the world’s many billions yet be unable to say explicitly enough about that face to let you perform the same unerring feat; and our learned ability to ride a bicycle (or read an X-ray — or analyze a legal judgment, for that matter), which skill cannot be inculcated via instructions alone. Elevating personal knowledge to something of the same level as scientific knowledge was an important step for me.

Then came a notion from that strange and important psychiatrist, Carl Jung, for whom sex was not all. His charting of psychological types made a great deal of sense to me — and still does. These have to do with the more or less sterotypical ways in which individuals come to grips with the phenomenal world. These have been subsumed — and elaborated up the ladder — in the Myers-Briggs copyrighted world of psychological testing; but I still prefer the original, simpler analysis (particularly as expounded by Daryl Sharp). Which — fillip-bite — goes like this:

jung(There’s no right way up on this; simply arbitrary; though it’s helpful to put a person’s most well-developed function at the top.) Each of us is located somewhere on these axes, i.e. somewhere in the circle. The thinking-feelling axis is about “judging” and means to describe a propensity for making judgments based on a “reflective, linear process that coalesces into a particular judgment.” If you have a more well developed function along one axis, it’s likely that the opposing function will be less well developed, leading to potential friction with your opposites. The other axis means to describe perception — how we grasp the world. Some have a highly developed sensory awareness (others can lack a sensation function: always lost, e.g., can’t recall where they put the doodad. . .) and some at the other “extrememe” inuit the world, simply “knowing” that such and so is the way things are, without evidently troubling empirical data. (I myself am a raving intuitive, something, I discovered eventually, that’s not the most suited to teaching and researching law, where stepping patiently from dry stone to dry stone along a pathway is the more valued ability.)

Overlaid above this is Jung’s distinction between extroverts and introverts — about which much has been written lately. Each “type” operates, shall we say, these four functions a bit differently, multiplying the variables enough to make this scheme a loosely fitting garment that can come in handy when puzzled or stymied by another’s behaviour but can also easily be removed and hung away most of the time.

Finally, I adopted a schema developed by Jane Jacobs in her book Systems of Survival. Written as a Platonic dialogue, which I found off-putting, the book argues for two incompatible coherent sets — she calls them syndromes — of moral values that govern work: the guardian syndrome and the commercial syndrome. Typically, one adopts either set; and mixing and matching is not only difficult but may be highly improbable if not impossible.

Here, from Wikipedia, are the two syndromes with their value clusters:

Moral Precepts
Guardian Syndrome

Shun trading
Exert prowess
Be obedient and disciplined
Adhere to tradition
Respect hierarchy
Be loyal
Take vengeance
Deceive for the sake of the task
Make rich use of leisure
Be ostentatious
Dispense largesse
Be exclusive
Show fortitude
Be fatalistic
Treasure honor

Commerce Syndrome

Shun force
Be efficient
Be open to inventiveness and novelty
Use initiative and enterprise
Come to voluntary agreements
Respect contracts
Dissent for the sake of the task
Be industrious
Be thrifty
Invest for productive purposes
Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
Promote comfort and convenience
Be optimistic
Be honest

I was brought up under the guardian syndrome and have had a good deal of difficulty in my life learning to understand and respect the commerce folks’ values. But having a statement of them put parallel to (many of) my own, forced me to acknowledge their merit and let me see where my discomfort with them may have come from. I also find intriguing here the possible — partial — mapping of this division onto the traditional legal division of barrister and solicitor, to say nothing of the whopping divide between the corporate commercial practice of law and the approach (criminal law as typical) concerned more with “justice.”

What mental garment have you found useful in your path through the world? Let’s hear about some of your more loosely fitting ones, mental constructs that you’re conscious of and can don or doff as the occasion demands.

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