Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 65! Knowing and Not Knowing — Creativity Outside...
Good Morning to those waking up early to the winter night and the last full moon of the year — the cold moon. It is still lingering high in the late night sky as we wander into words.
The long nights are a good time to dwell on matters of meaning, knowing and creating. This week we have been reflecting quite a bit on the relation between knowledge and creativity— where we left you last week. What is knowledge — and how is new knowledge created in innovation?
There is a famous paradox of knowledge that goes back to the classical Greeks known as Meno’s paradox: you can only inquire about what you already know, for if you did not know it you would not know what to inquire about. Thus inquiry is unnecessary as you already know it, and gaining radically new knowledge is impossible because you would not even know where to begin— knowledge is always already there...
Innovation and creativity involve the production of genuinely new knowledge and thus face a similar paradox. For the Greeks this paradox resolves itself quite easily because they had a fixed and closed conception of reality: for them all knowledge was pre-established and existed in a parallel immaterial realm of the “ideals”. Learning was simply gaining access to this realm and the conceptual space of the genuinely new simply did not exist. This is an important historical and ontological dimension of the question that should not be overlooked. And it is a dimension that has haunted and perverted the evolution of the very short history of the western concept of creativity.
The western intellectual tradition emerges from this answer and its context. Knowledge in general in its most ideal form is still considered today to be something immaterial, abstract, universal and non-contextual. This is despite a radical ontological shift away from an understanding of reality as fixed. This western historical way of understanding things is connected to a unified series of fundamentally problematic binary oppositions that are still with us— true - false, immaterial - material, mind - body, being - becoming. And a key aspect of getting creativity to work is working our way out of this ontology at a very pragmatic level.
Meno’s paradox of learning and knowing is connected to the creativity paradox: the radically new cannot be thought, because thinking — ideating — can only draw upon existing knowledge, concepts, imaginations, representations — all of which are inherently conservative. So how is the genuinely new possible if it cannot be thought?
The way out of these paradoxes is linked. The processes by which the new emerges — whether in the form of knowledge, things, being or environments is similar. But the path there is convoluted by our history…
Over the 20th century this classical model of true knowledge as immaterial, unchanging, abstract and universal was challenged and refined. One of the most notable critiques in the English speaking realm is the work of Micheal Polanyi (1891-1976) a Hungarian-British Chemist and Philosopher who late in life turned to the question of creativity and knowledge. As a scientist he was deeply interested in the question of how scientists make “discoveries” — come to new knowledge (a critical form of invention and creativity). And in the 1950’s he began a formal inquiry into “how science works”. This work began in the 1950’s is emerging alongside the work of Thomas Kuhn and others who are also critical rethinking what science does in relation to questions of creativity and knowledge production (we wrote about Kuhn and the relation of his concept of Paradigm Shifts to creative processes in Volume 53.). Both Polanyi and Kuhn were writing in opposition to the positivist view of that science preceded by impartial observation, deduction and falsification. For Polanyi — the practice of science is never impartial — there is always an implicit personal component that is necessary for any engagement and development of an experimental hypothesis.
His argument for all knowledge having a personal component is shaped by the Cold War context and his commitment to a view that freedom and individuality are conjoined. Here it is interesting to contrast this Kuhn who focuses far more on the intersubjective dimensions of innovation and knowledge production. It is also interesting to note that it is this same milieu that the American creativity industry is also beginning and heavily influenced and is also fundamentally shaped by cold-war ideologies of freedom and creativity being a battle between liberating individualism vs stifling collectivism.
At the end of this phase of research into how the sciences work he publishes in 1966 the wonderful, short and highly influential book: The Tacit Dimension where he explicitly focuses on questions of knowledge. He begins from the simple and profound observation: “we know more than we can say”. From this he makes the claim that knowledge is binary — and that there is a second important form of knowledge: tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is not the only form of knowledge, in fact one cannot understand the explicit without first considering the tacit.
Explicit knowledge is something that can be clearly articulated, represented and communicated. And tacit knowledge is a form of knowing that cannot easily be communicated as it is the ability to do things without being able to say exactly how one knows to do it. The classical examples of this are things like riding a bicycle or using a tool. We know how to ride a bicycle but we cannot easily or even fully say how we do it. For Polanyi all forms of explicit knowledge rest upon and emerge from tacit knowledge.
Within the field of knowledge management this has been developed into the influential Nonaka-Takeuchi model of how tacit knowledge can be converted into explicit knowledge.
One critical question to ask is this even possible? Is tacit knowledge something that can be made explicit? And further, is it even possible to understand so-called explicit knowledge without some implicit background? These are questions that we will come back to.
Polanyi offers an important corrective to the classical western model of knowledge. And he does both highlight the fact that there is a very important dimension of knowing that cannot be made explicit, and he raises the question that perhaps all knowledge is not fully explicable. But Polanyi's approach to knowledge is one that ultimately maintains the problematic binaries of the western classical model: the duality of explicit and tacit mirror and ultimately reinforces the mind - body, conscious-unconscious, immaterial -material dualities that haunt the western tradition. And through this tacit knowledge becomes something like an implicit belief structure underpinning our more explicit forms of knowledge. Knowledge stays within the individual and ultimately stays immaterial, ahistorical and universal. All of which are ultimately highly debilitating in regards to innovation and the development of creative processes.
The question of knowledge and creativity and their seemingly inherent paradoxes need to be approached in a different manner— and from different traditions.
Looking carefully at, and talking about things in a detached manner does not disclose what things are (knowledge) or what they could become (innovation).
Understanding — creating and knowing what things are, comes about in and of skillfully using things — and ultimately it remains in and of these practices to an important and critical degree.
Let’s begin with a very mundane example: typing— I’m pretty good at typing — I know how to type quickly but I cannot tell you where each letter is on the keyboard. And I cannot do this despite being able to type at a reasonable speed without looking. I can even sense when I have made an error and correct it without looking or thinking. This skill — this “know-how” is in and of my body as a whole without reflection or explicit cognition. And it is a process that has changed my body — musculature, finger agility, posture, motor skills, specific forms of coordination, balance, tendons and much else has been physically changed in gaining this skill — this is know-how. I have the distinct body — embodiment of a “typist”.
This set of embodied skills is both nested and interconnected and bleeds into the environment that supports them. It would be quite difficult, and make little sense, to parse out each aspect for they come and function as a holistic package. But it is important nonetheless to recognize that the tools (keypad, screen, tablet, alphabet, writing, reading, etc.) and their environmental context (floors, tables, chairs, consistent light, heating and cooling systems, internet, books, discourse, etc…) is a critical part of my embodied meaningful action. This know-how is not a tacit belief structure, nor is it simply embodied, but extended via tools and embedded in an environment. It not only requires each but it is of the whole.
But we need to take this further, these embodied, embedded and extended emergent skills are not neutral. Knowledge rests in & emerges from the embodied interactions with the most mundane & ubiquitous sorts of things such as rooms, tables, writing, & reading that have a specific and profound shaping power. And it is this dimension — the ontological dimension that is most often overlooked by those that follow from Micheal Polanyi.
What is the shaping power of things and practices? This is the question of “what is technology?”
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) who was born in the empty windswept prairies of Canada at the turn of the 20th century and went on to become one of the most significant thinkers on technology, defined our most basic and pervasive technologies not as discreet things but as the “medium” (hence the now ubiquitous term “media”) in which we come to be who we are. Basic technologies (such as writing/typing) acting as a medium “work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, & social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments…”
McLuhan connected such technologies directly to how we are embodied seeing them as both extensions & co-producers of human faculties whether mental or physical (the beginning of the emergence of meaningful skillful embodied activity). Technologies by altering our habits & practices — our environment — provokes in us new logics of sense perception & habitual action which transformatively alter the way we act, sense & think at an immediate level.
We sense and engage directly in the world co-shaped in this manner perceiving directly what it “affords” us. Our world is never “the world” some distanced neutral world of physical stuff— it always already shows up as meaningful in a specific manner. This is what Heidegger terms the “disclosedness” of the world— it is always already there in a meaningful way for us.
What was McLuhan’s example for this logic of technology? It was the very mundane technology of the alphabet, writing & reading: Looking at the shift from pre-literate to literate societies McLuhan says that with reading’s focus on perception “the eye replaces the ear”. We “see” this all around us in how we talk about knowing: “I see what you mean” “I can’t quite grasp what you are saying” “It appears to me…”
McLuhan explains it this way: Writing is “a medium that depends solely on the eye for comprehension: the alphabet is constructed of arbitrary bits “strung together in a line… bead-like… Its use fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environment in visual and spatial terms… Visual space becomes uniform, continuous, and connected… Rationality came to depend upon the presentation of connected & sequential facts or concepts…”
McLuhan goes on to make the argument that “until writing was invented people lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless… speech is a social chart of this bog.
The goose quill put an end to talk. It abolished mystery; it gave architecture and towns; it brought roads and armies… It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind…”
Here he is at his polemical and prophetic best, but he is making an important point — technology — tools and their use radically and totally change us — they are not simply neutral aids, extensions or reflections of our minds. Doing things with things is inevitably radically transformative — creative in ways that have nothing to do with what we think or can know. No one invented writing, and no one writing could know in advance what form of world would emerge from its use.
The important point for innovation & change in general, is that:
Focusing internally on individuals — on human minds & mindsets will not get at how our most pervasive and general forms of knowing and meaning emerge. We have to work at the level of holistic contextual embodiments with tools, habits, practices and environments.
The paradox of new knowledge disappears when it is understood to emerge from and be in and of the relational dynamics of an environment, with embodied skilled tool users experimenting and stabilizing affordances to open up new ways of sensing and being.
The creativity paradox equally dissolves when we recognize that the new equally emerges from a situated experimental embodied practice of environment and tools making practices that in turn transformatively ontologically shape the users in ways that exceed knowing and prediction.
Our skillful mundane engagement with tools opens up a world — a unique way of doing & knowing. Our everyday lives are composed of endless interwoven similar skills that together give rise to a way of life. This interwoven know-how gives rise to & supports more explicit forms of knowledge, but is itself not cognitive, nor can it be translated into concepts. It remains specifically embodied, contextually embedded, materially distributed & comes into being only in action (enacted). One could argue that these “”mindless” everyday coping skills are the basis of all intelligibility” (Dreyfus paraphrasing Heidegger).
This everyday form of primary ontological sense-making is not something that can be made fully explicit such that it can show up in a board-room brain-storming session, be explicated in a knowledge-management protocol, or discussed at a table during a creativity workshop. It is also not what Polanyi termed “tacit knowledge” — some set of implicit beliefs & knowledge that underpins explicit knowledge. It is more and quite different from this.
To engage with creative processes we need to work experimentally at the level of skillful knowhow. This requires different skills than those that are most often activated in innovation contexts (talking, writing, narrating, abstracting, ideating, conceptualizing). What is required are ways to experiment with the totality of environmentally embedded and tool based skillful doing: and in this we are critically disclosing worlds, & changing modalities of embodiment, habits, practices, tools, environments etc.
Why is it so difficult to understand that thinking, knowing and creativity necessarily extend beyond the brain?
Why is it so hard to both comprehend that we are embodied creatures for whom thinking, knowing and creativity emerge from the midst of doing things with things in specific environments?
There is a continuing ever present blind-spot in our most general approach to knowing and innovating— one that persists despite all the evidence to the contrary — we still act as if thinking happens exclusively in the head in immaterial and universal ways.
For creativity and innovation this blind spot is particularly crippling. For the more we are oblivious to our embodied, embedded, extended and enactive ontological reality of doing-thinking in an already meaningful context the more we are forced back into forms of ideation and an immaterial realm of concepts. But we know that ideas are inherently conservative — You cannot ideate the radically new.
The deep logic of this blind spot is part of our general culture's sedimented habits, practices, tools and environments. For the most part it rarely surfaces as a problem — how can it if it is our tools, practices, embodiments and environments? It too rarely becomes an explicit question.
But when it does — the logic is so pervasive that ironically the answer is usually to do more ideation — just better— perhaps we can be more “abductive” than deductive...
Now it is not that thinking itself is the problem — there is nothing inherently wrong with deduction, induction or abduction or any other form of thinking. The fundamental problem is that we have structurally divorced thinking from deliberately embodied forms of doing with things and our environment — where things and practices are given agency, and where we understand that we are already of a specific world (at an ontological level).
How to proceed? A key aspect of moving out of this blind spot is to critically and deliberately deconstruct, refuse and replace the language, concepts, environments, embodiments and tools of our historical western ontology of the thinking=head=creativity binary world.
Given that knowing rests upon and emerges out of environments + embodied habits and practices + tools — we need to experimentally challenge and transform our embodied, embedded, extended and enactive habits, concepts, tools and environments. This means concretely transforming physical environments, and tools alongside habits and practices — challenging and changing our thinking alone is simply a symptom of this profound blind-spot and makes any attempt at change fleeting in its impact (that buzz that lasts for a couple days after an innovation workshop).
1. Refuse the Ideation Model: How should we begin instead? The early stage process of innovation will need to be deeply engaged and not withdrawn into the realm of ideas occurring in boardrooms and workshops.
Engagement is about doing. Not executing a pre-determined plan — but developing ways of joining environments and tools and sensing the context/situation that is of interest. This involves probing, sensing, shifting, probing sensing adapting — an open attunement.
No thinking but in making.
2. Continue to Actively Refuse: Engagement cannot lead directly to the new. Engagement needs to also be a form of critical disclosure — what is the given logic of the world that is emergent from the environment and practices you are engaging? How can this be actively refused — blocked at the level of practices, embodiments, tools and environments?
Fall in love with your area of interest and not an existing way of being, knowing and doing (ontology).
3. Develop new practices of Doing-Thinking: Make and co-emerge with new tools, environments, habits, practices and embodiments (assemblages). Let what emerges feedforward. Allow novel forms of knowing, thinking and sensing to emerge — protect these from what you are actively refusing.
Keep your difference alive and invent new problems worth having for worlds worth making.
4. Be Vague and Abstract: Favor vague and abstract directions over concrete plans. Make sure these can transform as the process gains an agency distinct from your initial impetus.
We can think of these as dynamic and ever evolving “horizons” and general “headings”.
5. Be Active, Responsive & Open: Radical Innovation processes of any kind are not linear, they do not operate in a closed and wholly deterministic manner. In collaboration with others— people, concepts, environments, tools, practices, habits etc. a novel you and a novel world (ontologically distinct) will perhaps emerge— this will be qualitatively new.
Trust the process
Well! Have an astonishing week outside of yourself experimenting towards what you cannot know with all that is more than you!
Till Volume 66,
Emergent Futures Lab
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