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Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Simon Critchley, describing G.W.F. Hegel’s theory of religion:

Hegel will say that the divine is not the object of religious consciousness, but substance made real in the world as action and community. The divine for Hegel is not “Oh, is there a God? And, oh, how many attributes does he have? And is he up there, or is he in my head?” This is nothing to do with religion; this is some sort of windy speculation. The divine is community, for Hegel. Community in its action, in its life: that’s what’s Hegel’s after. If Hegel is a Christian thinker, as I think he is […] what Christianity means is the life of the community.

Mark Renton, the smack-head protagonist of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting:

Tom Curzon, the counsellor fae the drugs agency, a guy wi a social work rather than a medical background […] feels that ma concept ay success and failure only operates on an individual rather than an individual and societal level. […] So, according tae Tom, it’s nae good tellin us that ah’ve done well in ma exams, or got a good job, or got off wi a nice burd; that kind ay acclaim means nowt tae us. Of course, ah enjoy these things at the time, or for themselves, but their value cannae be sustained because there’s nae recognition ay the society which values them. What Tom’s trying tae say, ah suppose, is that ah dinnae gie a fuck.

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Specific, measurable

If you’ve ever worked for a company with an officious HR department, you will probably have been told of the importance of setting yourself SMART objectives.

SMART, in this context, is an acronym. It would have to be, really, wouldn’t it? I mean, if you found yourself in an organization where this sort of thing is taken with extreme seriousness then the genuinely smart thing would probably be to get out of there. As an acronym SMART can stand (if you go by Wikipedia and some simple arithmetic) for over three thousand combinations of words. However, we only need to concern ourselves with the most commonly given first two words: “specific” and “measurable”.

Before going any further I should probably admit that personally I’ve never got on well with things of this sort: objective setting and so forth. They may sometimes be helpful, perhaps as catalysts for useful conversations, and even when they’re not I can accept them as harmless nonsense. My hunch, however, is that they are most useful for very ambitious people, whereas I’m more motivated by curiosity than thoughts of promotion. This is hardly an unusual attitude in the software industry, so it generally hasn’t caused me any trouble. This is why I feel free to do things like discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect when asked to rate my own abilities or, as I will be doing here, telling the story of BP and the balanced scorecard.
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the_moment_of_clarity

I have a fondness for connections that bridge seemingly disparate worlds. Examples? Well, early on in my programming career I read Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception in a bid to figure out how developer-written documentation might work better. I was also intrigued by the inventor of the Pomodoro technique®, a personal productivity system, claiming inspiration from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I’ve even, on occasion, tried to get “personal development” types interested in stylistic similarities between language used in certain forms of hypnotherapy and the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett.

In a similar vein, I’ve been intrigued by Hubert Dreyfus as a cross-world interloper. Dreyfus, an academic philosopher, had a surprise hit on iTunes with podcasts of his lectures (particularly popular with long-distance truck drivers, it seems). He has an odd double reputation in the world of computing. To some he is a hate figure on account of his critique, first made when he was at MIT in the 1960s, of rule-based Artificial Intelligence. This came from an insistence of the primacy of skilled behaviour over abstract cognition. His subsequent investigations into the phenomenon of skill acquisition subsequently gave him his other reputation: the “Dreyfus Model” is now used in parts of the industry for professional development. I’m sure there are people who don’t realize that it’s the same Dreyfus in both cases.

All of which leads me, in a rather meandering way, to another unexpected connection: business consultants who read Heidegger, specifically Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen of ReD Associates who’s book The Moment of Clarity: Using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems was recently been published by Harvard Business Review. In it, they promote ideas and methods from anthropology and sociology as a way for businesses to do better by “getting people right”. They also draw on the so-called “continental” tradition in modern philosophy, centred on Martin Heidegger. Foucault, Gadamer and Dreyfus all get their mentions. (Nothing on Beckett: you can’t have everything…)
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A long time ago, when I was an undergraduate, I studied a module about Artificial Intelligence and philosophy of mind. It covered Searle’s Chinese Room argument, the Turing test, traditional AI vs connectionism. That sort of thing.

I think the main consequence of this was a realisation that I preferred intellectual history to that kind of philosophy. The impression I got was that debates trying to sort out the relation between “the body” and “the mind” didn’t appear either to have achieved their aim or to have said much of interest along the way. Better to relate a course of events and a line of thought. But that’s by the by.

One of the ideas mentioned in this course was that “the mind” was a Turing machine. I thought I had a pretty good argument for saying it wasn’t, but I never had the opportunity to state it. Now, let me see: how did it go again?
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One criticism of contemporary life is the tendency to treat everything, and everyone, as a resource to be optimized and exploited. This was part of the idea behind Ian Bogost’s satire on Zynga-style social games, Cow Clicker:

In social games, friends aren’t really friends; they are mere resources. And not just resources for the player, but also for the game developer, who relies on insipid, “viral” aspects of a design to make a system replicate.

Now, it’s one thing to treat someone like a resource, but it’s something else to use that sort of language about someone with their knowledge, even to their face. Yet it happens. It really is quite bizarre.
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Stress as an idea

In a sort of continuation of the theme of embodied and environmental cognition, here’s a quote from Michael Bond’s review of One Nation Under Stress by Dana Baker (in this week’s New Scientist):

The original medical definition [of stress], which, as its derivation from mechanics suggests is concerned specifically with an organism’s response to external pressures, has all but vanished from view. […] The focus has turned inward, from environmental causes to medical solutions and what individuals should do to cope.

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These days, now that I’m a card-carrying God-botherer, I find Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth a bit too cynical for my tastes.

That said, the book was quite an eye-opener as a history of management theory; especially when read in conjunction with Kiechel’s The Lords of Strategy. And the original essay still has a certain charm. Consider this:

As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger!

There has been the odd occasion when I’ve read everyone’s favourite Nazi windbag philosopher, for fun. Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding an occasion that’s sufficiently odd.
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