Saturday, March 17, 2018


361. Incomplete specification

In the preceding items in this blog I have been following Graham Harman (and Tristan Garcia) in the idea that a thing has two dimensions: ‘what is in it’ (components), and ‘what it is in’ (its use, effects). In item 358 I followed Harman in the claim that one cannot completely specify anything. How ‘deep down’ would you go ‘inside’? Down to molecules, or further ‘down’ into ‘strings’? ‘Outside’, use, effects and experience are relative to context and to users, and open-ended, with new possibilities and uses emerging. I also mentioned the notion of ‘tacit knowledge’, where one can be competent in some practice without being able to catch it in complete protocols. That applies to bakers, engineers, doctors, comedians, and politicians.

In the literature on business and organization there is a stream of literature on ‘communities of practice’, where this is studied. To master the practice, people must engage in such a community for a time to master the tacit knowledge involved.

Often, one should not even TRY to specify something as much as possible, but leave it unspecified, in part, on purpose. That arises in the Aristotelian notion of the exemplar and the notion of the enthememe, discussed by Harman[i]. One form of the exemplar is the role model. Rather than even trying to give a complete specification of an activity one gives an example to imitate. The advantage of that is that it leaves room for interpretation, style and improvisation, which enhances motivation.

This is related to the notion of trust, which entails giving room for action, not imposing everything, accepting the risk of error or misunderstanding involved.

The implication, not widely known, or ignored, by regulators, is that the practice cannot be caught in closed protocols to eliminate error and fully codify best practices. Some slack must be allowed to deal with the tacitness of knowledge, the richness of professional practice, its variability due to the creativity of practitioners, the emergence of new problems and opportunities.

The exclusively analytic view, with the pretense of full paraphrase, specification, yields an atomization of work, organization, and communities, the loss of a sense of properties of the whole, emergence, of what is added in the whole, which is part of intrinsic value of action and participation.

In my discussions of meaning, in his blog, I proposed the notion of sense as the way in which one classifies, sees an object, as a chair, say. It entails a set, a repertoire, of connotations that are largely personal, subjective, collected along one’s individual path of life.

The enthememe gives a mere pointer that triggers one to pick one’s own choice of connotations. That gives more room, more freedom, an appeal to one’s own signification, as a trigger to select from one’s own repertoire of connotations, bringing the intended point ‘closer to home’, which is agreeable. A joke is no fun when you explain the point of it. Art mobilises creativity of signification rather than giving a specification or explanation.     

Harman gives Socrates as an exemplar. I have long been irritated by his unwillingness to commit himself to an answer to the riddles he poses (in Plato’s dialogues), acting only as a midwife (in maieutics) helping to give birth to ideas or assumptions by the interlocutors. After Harman, I see the point of it: there is never a final, correct answer.

In the practical wisdom, phronesis, of Aristotle, one cannot supply universal moral recipes since moral judgement depends on contingencies, where different virtues have to be weighed against each other depending on the specific context. There also one can only learn from the exemplary mastery and tacit knowledge of an experienced judge.  

When I was teaching at universities, students demanded recipes, and I had to explain that such universal recipes don’t exist and at a university students had to learn to make their own recipes depending on the situation at hand.

In this blog I want to offer an ontology which takes change and variety, needed for change, as the crux of existence. This is in line with my arguments throughout this blog, in my discussion of the change of meaning along the hermeneutic circle, my approach to universals and their particulars, and the cycle of discovery that I proposed. In this area, I have also used ideas from Wittgenstein (the later, of the Philosophical Investigations), such as meaning as use and language games. However, the shortcoming here of the game as a paradigm is that games have fixed rules, while here rules may change. How that can be is the central challenge.  

What does all this do to the proposals, in this blog, for truth as warranted assertibility, and debatable ethics? The warrant, of a proposition or ethical judgement, consists of such considerations as relevance, intent, available information, perspective, and enabling and constraining conditions, which all depend on the context. This includes arguments of fact, logic, meaning, workability, plausibility, and metaphor. Plausibility is coherence in a wider whole. Metaphor serves to loosen thought, to see something from a different perspective.     

The analytic, scientific perspective can appear as an ingredient in the pragmatic whole. Mathematics can help to contribute rigour of argument, given basic assumptions or axioms whose relevance and adequacy depend on the wider warrant of the context. Philosophy can help science in its embedding in a wider whole. The pragmatic, the consideration of what ‘the thing is in’, is primary, to decide what is relevant in the potential of the analytic, in ‘what is in it’.


[i] Graham Harman, 2018, Object-oriented ontology; A new theory of everything, Penguin.