All posts by Dominik Lukeš

No back row, no corridor: Metaphors for online teaching and learning

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Publication note

An earlier version of this was published in the Oxford Magazine No 422.  This post expands certain sections based on questions and feedback I received following the first publication of the piece. It is also available on Medium.

The state of digital dislocation

The current state of digital dislocation is forcing us to reevaluate what is the essence of teaching and learning. The “grammar of schooling” [1] has been taken away from us and we are forced to learn a new dialect by immersion with just a few phrasebooks, hastily pulled off the shelf, to guide us. Digital teaching is still teaching but it is teaching with an accent, one where we’re still trying to acquire enough fluency and idiomaticity to feel completely at home. When we add to it the culture shock of being in a new situation without any of the familiar cues, sights, sounds and smells of our native environment, it is not surprising that many people are feeling stressed and long for a swift return to “normal”. But it is also no surprise that many others are examining the current situation and finding the new land to be one of endless opportunity and thinking of establishing a permanent residence or at least buying a holiday home.

At one extreme, we are hearing voices calling online learning “clearly inferior,” lacking the essential personal contact that defines the University experience and asking whether the cost, expressed in fees, is too high. At the other pole, we hear “online teaching is clearly better,” doing away with all the distractions and deadweight of spaces, commutes and providing the focus so essential to learning. The same person can find themselves taking either position depending on the stage of culture shock they are living through at the moment. Both of these perspectives were reflected in an eloquent summary by Ray Williamson from the Oxford Student Union in a recent issue of the Oxford Magazine.[2] Here, I’d like to elaborate on what is at stake and look at ways of conceptualising the different perspectives.

Making sense of digital with affordance metaphors

I suggest that the two divergent views can best be reconciled when we contrast the affordances of the physical and virtual environments in which teaching and learning take place. By affordances I mean those features of the environment that present themselves to us for direct action and interaction and thus make the world around us meaningful and define what it means to live in the space we’re in. Affordance is a concept fundamental to design thinking and interaction and ignoring them is the most frequent cause of failure both in digital and physical products. [3]

The best way I found to bring the contrast between the physical and the virtual into focus are two metaphors that can be summarised as “No back row” and “No corridor”.

“No back row”

“No back row” expresses mostly the potential of the online experience to be positive for learning: the digital space is the great equaliser, no student is left hiding in the dark corner of the room, everybody’s contribution is coming from the front. This leads to higher engagement with the study material, and better learning. It is so powerful that the American online course provider 2U trademarked the slogan as part of their corporate philosophy [4]. Of course, just because it has the potential to be beneficial for learning, it doesn’t mean that we can just put the same course online and get its benefits. We have to design the online courses to take advantage of this. Nor should we be mislead by the visual metaphor of the Zoom call that 2U use on their corporate page. This applies to an entirely forum-based course, as well. The very fact that they have to engage with the content may put additional demands and stresses on students that will require support. This is in addition to the issues that are captured by the ‘no corridor’ metaphor.

“No corridor”

“No corridor” reflects the largely negative aspects of the virtual when contrasted with face to face. It reflects the lack of physical and social space connecting the learning situations. There are no natural landmarks to guide us, no flow of the crowd to follow. Everything has to be scheduled, bookmarked or emailed. There is little serendipity and no feeling of just “being there”. This makes it easy for a student to disappear and find themselves in “no row” at all. The physical space is doing a lot of work that is beyond the conscious notice of educators and programme administrators and allows them to be less specific in their instructions and leave things to ‘work themselves’ out without realising it. Their planning may be meticulous and painstaking but it is always framed by what the space affords them when it is filled with students, signs, and other signals that may feel almost subliminal. This can be easily seen when we compare the instructions students receive before arrival (what to bring, where to come, what to expect) and when they arrive which may be as little as a time table followed by ad-hoc announcements. And this comparison may gives clues to some aspects of mitigating the downsides of ‘no corridor’.

Affordances of the physical vs virtual

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Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Luckily, we can mitigate the downsides of the virtual and amplify its benefits, if we pay careful attention to the affordances of the physical. There are successful ways of making up for the lack of the corridor’s hidden contribution to the learning process but we must avoid taking the normal environment in which learning takes place for granted. We rightly focus on personal relationships as essential to learning but as we saw above it is easy to underestimate the power of the spaces in which they are situated.

In the physical space, it is much easier to just follow the flow of the environment and learn, without realising it, by reflecting others’ reactions to it. There are spaces laid out so obviously that our use of them passes completely beneath any level of conscious notice. We do not need to deliberate on how to open doors, sit facing the speaker, not to sit in a seat already occupied. And where there are issues (locked doors, missing markers, drilling outside the window), we have established scripts for coping and frames for interpreting them.

None of these features are present in the virtual environment. Every action (at least initially), requires the effort of directed attention. We need to learn the “interfaces” of Zoom, establish routines of where to ‘find the link to join’, keep track of bookmarks for the learning materials, and manage actual time for virtual events and assignment deadlines. All of this virtual effort is taking place in an actual physical environment where we are the only person engaging in the activity. What’s worse, when we study or teach virtually, we do not appear to the world around us any different from when we idly browse the web or are binge-watching a TV show. We then have to negotiate with that environment and people in it in ways that travelling to ‘school’ or the ‘library’ does for us without any words having to be exchanged other than ‘I’m going to class’.

It’s no wonder many are finding themselves more stressed, tired and downright disoriented. But equally, to no one’s surprise, there are many who are thriving without the extra burden of the physical space which they may have found too overwhelming, full of distractions and uncertainties. We know that not all students cherish the demands of the physical spaces into which attending a university thrusts them; those who only feel comfortable huddled in the back row or for whom passage through the corridor is an exercise fraught with anxiety. Universities have ample built-in support structures and processes (albeit imperfect) for the latter but none for the former.

For a successful online learning experience

Yet, we know that it is possible to build a sense of “being there” in fully virtual environments and it is also possible to establish durable personal support relationships. This was possible even before the rise of Zoom or Teams as the success of Open University can attest but now it is even more within reach. Perhaps the most powerful indications of this are coming from the successes of telemedicine and even online psychotherapy. Many patients are finding that their one-on-one experience with a therapist is enhanced without the stressful overhead of travel, sitting in waiting rooms, walking through crowds, etc. [6]

Telemedicine also shows the way when we think about the heterogeneity of needs and inclinations. It is clearly not always appropriate to conduct therapeutic interventions over Skype but it is sufficient or even superior in more instances than may have been thought before the current situation made them a necessity. Do we think that education is radically different, here?

What does a University have to do to make the most of the benefits of ‘no back row’ and minimise the downsides of ‘no corridor’? What does the individual educator? The solutions are surprisingly simple and non-technical. Above all, we need to realise how much we can leave unsaid because the physical environment says it for us and then make it explicit in the virtual setting. We need to communicate more clearly and more frequently. We need to design the virtual learning spaces to minimize unnecessary cognitive load, structure information better, pay attention to navigation and consistency. We need to constantly fine-tune the balance between information overload and not enough information. We need to build structures that support the students who are struggling with the technological as well as personal aspects of learning.

New roles for the relationship business

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

But ultimately and most importantly, we need to realise that educational institutions are not in the information business, they are in the relationship business (to borrow a metaphor from the media critic Jeff Jarvis [5]). It is easy to deploy an army of learning technologists and media production specialists, and think we’ve done virtual teaching justice. But online teaching requires other support roles and activities than just those leading to the deployment of “tech”.

There need to be roles whose main job it is to make sure students are opening the right virtual doors and sitting facing the right way in the virtual learning spaces. There need to be roles that pay attention to the real physical spaces and social situations on the other side of the Zoom call. When students are on campus, so much of this is done for us by the affordances of the space built up over centuries and so ingrained into our conceptual and perceptual systems that interacting with them feels to be a matter of instinct.

When all we have is emails, forum posts, webcams and the screen, we need to put in additional work to make up for this. Over time, it will come to seem as natural as what we have now but not without the initial effort. For instance, it is not anyone’s job to explicitly make sure students socialise with others in the physical environment. We don’t ask students if they “went out for a drink” with others when they’re on campus, but perhaps, it needs to be somebody’s job in the virtual situation. [7]

Sources of learning

Luckily, we have ample models of successful practice to draw on. The Open University is one such, Oxford’s own Continuing Education department is another. Private online education providers such as GetSmarter / 2U, who provided the first part of the metaphor, are others.

As far back as 2009 before Zoom or video conferencing, I taught a module on language and education in a physical setting followed a year later by a similar module in a fully online course for teachers. I was struck, when reading the final essays, how much more the online students seem to have engaged with the subject.

In the physical space, I had a feeling of engagement during my seminars with the students. But the ‘feedback’ I was getting from them hid the relative shallowness and unevenness of their engagement. I never saw the online students in person, so I had to design the course to get this feedback in other ways and I could easily see where all individual students were and guide them back in the right direction if they seemed to be floundering. It was more work for me and them but the learning gains were there to see.

The lessons of this anecdote are supported by research evidence and by experiences of educators the world over [8]. We do not need to provide inferior experiences to students just because they are not in the same room as us.

Eventually the world of university teaching and learning will return to “normal” but we should be mindful that culture shock happens on returning home, as well.[9] We can take advantage of what we learned during this forced sojourn in digital lands to develop a more robust bi-cultural approach to teaching by blending the best of both worlds.

Footnotes

[1] Tyack, D.B. and Cuban, L., 1995. Tinkering toward utopia: a century of public school reform. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass ; London.

[2] Williams, R. 2020. “Students and remote learning” Oxford Magazine, 421, Trinity.

[3] Norman, D.A., 2013. The design of everyday things. Basic books, New York, N.Y.

[4] No Back Row | 2U [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://cdn2.2u.com/about/no-back-row/ (accessed 6.8.20).

[5] Jarvis, J., 2012. What the media can learn from Facebook. The Guardian, 15 February 2012, sec. Media Network. https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2012/feb/15/what-media-learn-facebook.

[6] These two recent pieces summarise the pros and cons of mental and physical health interventions and point to relevant research.

Joyce, N., 2020. Online therapy having its moment, bringing insights on how to expand mental health services going forward [WWW Document]. The Conversation. URL http://theconversation.com/online-therapy-having-its-moment-bringing-insights-on-how-to-expand-mental-health-services-going-forward-136374 (accessed 6.8.20).

Novella, S. 2020. It’s Time for Telehealth. NeuroLogica Blog. URL https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/its-time-for-telehealth/ (accessed 6.8.20).

[7] Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., 2018. An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning 22. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

[8] The following systematic reviews show that online higher education is at least as effective as offline education when it comes to learning outcomes.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., Jones, K., 2009. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, US Department of Education. US Department of Education.

Nguyen, T., 2015. The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons 11, 11.

Pei, L., Wu, H., 2019. Does online learning work better than offline learning in undergraduate medical education? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Med Educ Online 24. https://doi.org/10.1080/10872981.2019.1666538

[9] Gaw, K.F., 2000. Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 24, 83–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0147-1767(99)00024-3

It’s not personal, it’s family: Kin, strangers, guests, and the complexity of social obligation

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Brooks on the alternatives to nuclear family

Tyler Cowen called the extended essay by David Brooks called ‘The nuclear family was a mistake’ a “so far the best essay of the year with many fine and subtle points”. And he’s not wrong. Brooks who has frequently been caught embellishing data to make a point does a very good job with his sources. And most importantly he transcends his natural middle-of-the-road conservative leanings to modify his views to fit the data rather than the other way around.

His portrayal of the current social environment is well worth reading and rereading:

“If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options.”

But he avoids and indeed criticises the conservative instinct to demand a return to the traditional family:

“Social conservatives insist that we can bring the nuclear family back. But the conditions that made for stable nuclear families in the 1950s are never returning. Conservatives have nothing to say to the kid whose dad has split, whose mom has had three other kids with different dads; “go live in a nuclear family” is really not relevant advice.”

And he also points out the deficiencies in the liberal response:

“Progressives, meanwhile, still talk like self-expressive individualists of the 1970s: People should have the freedom to pick whatever family form works for them. And, of course, they should. But many of the new family forms do not work well for most people—and while progressive elites say that all family structures are fine, their own behavior suggests that they believe otherwise.”

His summary feels very apt to the situation (although it is important to note, that there are many progressive thinkers who are much closer to his ideas than he admits):

“while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental”

Brooks also very aptly formulates the current state as a paradox:

“Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible.”

In fact, the solution he proposes, created, forged families – a redefinition of kin, is more socially progressive than conservative.

“This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin. It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”

This is an essentially progressive vision tinged with a fair bit of the conservative communitarian nostalgia. It is the same nostalgia for the imaginary of togetherness that drove ‘Bowling alone’ to such popularity 20 years ago. It is neither venal, moralistic, nor unrealistic. Brooks is merely describing what exists and has always existed in one way or another. He then takes a turn reminiscent of Margaret Mead and says, let’s make that the new normal. And he seems to find the sweet spot that has the potential of becoming a meeting point for the utopian imaginaries of both conservatives and progressives.

What Brooks leaves out are the limits of these family-like structures when it comes to dealing with those outside them. And unsurprisingly he also fails to mention the possible role the state can and perhaps must play in tying them together.

Brooks does an admirable job of engaging with the anthropological literature. He does not just insert the obligatory James C Scott reference so beloved of certain kind of libertarian thinker, he reads more widely and more deeply. But, as always, there’s more. Here I’d like to bring in some more anthropological perspectives to enrich and somewhat complicate Brooks’ vision. This is not to negate what he says or dismiss it as erroneous. All I’m trying to do is expand the picture slightly.

Kin, guests and strangers: From baseline communism to complex webs of social obligation

The one anthropologist he does not mention is David Graeber. Graeber called the kind of mutuality Brooks is after ‘baseline communism’. When communism is defined as ‘to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities’ it is often decried as unworkable because it ignores human proclivities for cheating. But, in fact, as Graeber points out, it describes perfectly one very familiar environment: the family. Communism is not a question of property, it’s a question of obligation from one to the many and the many to the one. This always exists on some sort of spectrum. As Graeber describes, there’s never complete abandonment of private property (even in the most egalitarian societies, there are some things people can call their own), nor complete abandonment of supporting people’s needs (even hard-nosed captains of industry will give each other breaks under certain conditions).

This obligation is unconditional but it is also constrained. To help us understand the constraints, we could simplify the sources of obligation by dividing the social world into three classes: ‘kin’, ‘guests’, and ‘strangers’. Kin and strangers are mostly stable categories whereas ‘guests’ are inherently dynamic and transient. ‘Guest’ is a stranger who becomes temporary ‘kin’ in the sense that the obligations for ensuring the wellbeing of ‘kin’ transfer to them on a limited basis but often in a ‘lavish’ manner. One of the inventions of the ‘post-industrial world’ is our ability to deal with ‘strangers’ without having to confer kin-like privileges on them. The ability to associate and collaborate with strangers who are not your guests is what made industrial capitalism as we know it possible.

But it is also what makes socialism possible. Once the complex webs of mutual support through extended kin networks have been torn up, the state can step in and substitute for this obligation. When many progressives talk about the duty of care of the state (or smaller collectives), they essentially claim this sort of familial role for the state. Conservatives, on the other hand, view the state more as a meeting ground for groups of strangers. For them, the state as such should have no power to treat anyone as guests.

This tension is present even in socialist-leaning countries such as Sweden or Germany which are willing to provide for their citizens – who are otherwise strangers to each other – some of the kind of support traditionally reserved for kin. They are also willing to provide hospitality to new arrivals but very much as guests. What they are struggling with is the process of conferring the kin-status on these guests.

Brooks mentions how many captives of the Native American nations in the 1700s did not want to return back to the ‘civilised’ world from which they were taken. But he omits to mention that these groups often had elaborate ways of transferring strangers from captives to guests to kin. Be it through marriage or adoption, even enslaved war captives could (sometimes enmasse) made into ‘one of us’. Japan, for instance, still widely practices ‘adult adoption’ which was also very common in Ancient Rome and is one of the ways of achieving this that is not available to the state.

Brooks talks about what was lost and he is not wrong. He is also not blind to the fact that the support the kin networks provided was often opperessive and frequently rested disproportionately on women. But he still perceives it from the perspective of a homestead – he talks about the individual groups as if they floated in a vaccuum.

This is where Brooks would have benefited from engaing with another precursor of his thinking Karl Polanyi. Polanyi critiqued our view of the industrial revolution as merely a matter of technology plus capital. He wrote his magnum opus ‘The Great Transformation’ over 80 years ago – long before the 1950s ushered in the nuclear family revolution Brooks blames on current ills. Polanyi traces the problem much further back to the needs of early industrial capitalism. And he also relies on the ethnography of his day to contrast the ‘mutual support’ of traditional societies with the manufactured individualism of the industrial age.

The emotional pull of the ‘mutuality of being’: For good or for ill

Polanyi does not dwell on the emotional aspects of the material support networks but the nostalgia is clearly there. Brooks, on the other hand, can’t get over the emotional impact of personally experiencing being a member of the kind of group of mutual support that he proposes. And he is not wrong to point out the strong emotional pull of the mutuality of the neighbourhood. Nobody does it better than 2PAC when he sings about the feelings of returning to his old problematic neighborhood in ‘My Block’.

My neighborhood ain’t the same
Cause all these little babies goin crazy and they sufferin in the game
And I swear it’s like a trap
But I ain’t given up on the hood it’s all good when I go back
Hoes show me love, niggaz give me props
Forever hop cause it don’t stop… on my block

and talking about what it’s like being away:

In my heart, I felt alone out here on my own
I close my eyes and picture home… on my block

Brooks quotes ethnographers such as Marshall Sahlins and Monica Wilson on the ineffable nature of the connection within kin groups. People in them experience “a mutuality of being” (Sahlins) and are almost ‘mystically dependent’ (Wilson) on one another. This is easy to overlook in more institutionally focused accounts of ‘kinship’, so Brooks is right to emphasize it but it’s not all there is.

The emotional support mutuality provides is well known and is present even in situations where it is harmful to the individuals. In describing a materially and, by his account, mentally and socially deprived society in a remote Apalchian community, Robert Edgerton, reports:

Despite the absence of any kind of ritual, ceremony, or community-wide activities, these people were fiercely loyal to their hollow and their way of life. Even those few who could emigrate, like a boy Gazaway took away from the hollow for a brief period of schooling, preferred to remain in Duddie’s Branch. They could also express great love for members of their families, and even for an outsider like Gazaway. They had pride, dignity, courage, and generosity.

The affective power of the nearly mystical ‘mutuality of being’ can exert a strong attractive force on a reader who is not enmeshed in such strong ties. This makes it easy to forget, that tightly-knit communities are not always idylic:

“some small-scale populations do not effectively solve the problems they face, and sometimes the very culture that should sustain them and enhance their well-being instead produces fear, apathy, isolation, and degradation.” from Sick Societies by Robert Edgerton

Edgerton also has an agenda of his own but his account is an important antidote to the opiate of anthropological utopia.

My main point is that while the emotional impact of mutuality is substantial, it alone is not enough to account for all the elements that we see in the tripartite ‘kin/guest/strager’ distinction. And neither are social norms as traditionally conceived; viz norms being the combination of unwritten rules, explicit laws, and various forms of enforcement. It is instead a cognitive perception of how the world is. It’s not that people fulfil obligations because of fear of sanctions. It’s because they cannot imagine not doing so. It is simply against a very basic fabric of their being.

It’s not personal, it’s family: Ties that moor us and bind us

I spent six month working on projects in Timor-Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, where people frequently don’t have enough food during certain times of the year. Yet, there is almost no homelessness and festivals are common even in the poor areas. How can this be? The answer is extended family. The Timorese large family networks provide material and emotional support for all their members.

But this also makes working on projects quite difficult. The Timorese are no less intelligent or competent than any other people I’ve worked with. But their family always comes first. We’re not talking just about sick children or bereavements but also festivals and other family gatherings – which are not infrequent. Combined with what often seems like a sudden appearance of these events, running projects when a key staff member can disappear at a moment’s notice is often a frustrating experience.

And it’s not even that the person wants ‘go to a fun party’ instead of doing ‘dull work’. Often attending such events can be both emotionally and materially draining. Resisting the pull of the social obligation is like resisting gravity. Sometimes it keeps us grounded, sometimes it throws us flat on our face. To help my non-Timorese colleagues conceptualise this better, I came up with the mantra: “it’s not personal, it’s family”. In the same way that the American “it’s not personal, it’s business” is used to explain or excuse behavior against the norms of sociability, so can the Timorese “it’s not personal, it’s family” be helpful to understand the sort of behavior that the individualistic mindset perceives as a breach of contract.

This, of course, is not unique to Timor-Leste, nor is it unknown in the cross-cultural literature. These family networks can also be harnessed to economic benefit in the capitalist system. Many of the successes of the East and South East Asian diasporas around the world are due in large part to their ability to harness the mutuality of support across long distances. A small enterprise that can rely on the virtually free labor and trustworthy sources of credit or supplies provided by kin has a larger chance of success, particularly is the boundary between the work and personal life is very flexible. And the kin can expect mutual support back – extending across the globe through remittances and other forms of support. Not based on a simply return-on-investment calculus but on bonds unconditional mutuality.

But these same networks often do not work as well when it comes to economic production in environments where there are not enough strangers to work as a buffer. The same Cambodian or Vietnamese entrepreneurs who are successful in California or the Czech Republic struggle to achieve the same success in their home environment. This is not because they are any less industrious or surrounded by sloth when at home. It is because it is harder to escape the totality of obligations up close.

James C Scott observed that small shopkeepers in many parts of the world are often strangers (often of different ethnic or linguistic origin) who are not tied to local structures of kindship and obligation. It is impossible to run a small shop if it is impossible to refuse to simply give food to people with whom you have a strong bond. This is certainly true in Timor-Leste where many of the small local enterprises struggle.

This is common around the world, so much so that many of the small loan arrangements that have become popular in the development area function less as a way of advancing capital and more as a way of putting capital out of reach of kinship obligations. As another exmple, Leo Howe reports that many of the people working in the hospitality industry in Bali are actually Javanese because the native Balinese cannot be relied on to be always available. This is not because they are ‘unreliable’ in some essentially flawed way but because their obligation to family (often ritual) is too great to suspend through a contract with strangers. Marshall Sahlins’ essay on ‘Stranger Kings’ shows that this applies even to choosing to submit to a ruler.

The strong ties with kin and weak ties with non-kin can cause even greater problems which is why we find such elaborate hospitality rituals around the world. Tourists often misinterpret these under the heading of ‘oh, the people are so friendly here’ but in fact, this is a function of the culture not having a norm around dealing with strangers that does not rely on the notion of guest as temporary kin.

The ancient Greek concept of ‘xenia’ – hospitality to strangers can be very illustrative. We know the root from ‘xenophobia’ but the Latin equivalent gave us both hospitality and hostility. Xenia not only dictates extraordinary measures to take care of guests but it also strictly regulates the behavior of those same guests. Breaking the rules of hospitality has been the source of many problems from the Trojan War to the blood feuds in modern Albania – for instance, as described in Kadare’s “Broken April”.

These are not inevitable consequences of the sort of groupings Brooks is describing and advocating for. Not is he unaware of potential internal problems. But when the entire world is structured through strong kin-like ties, we have not just created an archipellago of utopias – as some in the Seasteading movement seem to imagine – we have a world that is fundamentally different from what we know. The demands of the trade-centred world dependent on industrial production and industrialised aggriculture cannot be entirely ignored in this vision.

Conclusion: The kin, the strangers, and the state

In conclusion,these rough sketches are not meant to diminish Brooks’ contribution. If I were asked to come up with an alternative to the nuclear family, it is almost exactly, what I would propose. Many ethnographic accounts of impoverished communities all over the world show that these networks often emerge organically. And we should be doing as much as possible to normalize them. They are not some lesser, last resort alternatives to the nuclear family. They are both natural and can be healthy and robust. But they don’t exist in a vacuum and are themselves not static nor do are they uniformly idyllic. There are cracks the size of valleys between them and sometimes even within them. And it’s very easy for individuals to fall through those.

That’s where we still must see a role for the state to protect both individuals and groups from falling to the ground without a safety net as well as adjudicate the parameters of their encounter. At the moment, the state support structure is entirely structured around the schemas and scripts of the nuclear family on the one hand, and the contract between strangers on the other. It needs to recognise a wider range of support networks and obligations which is only possible if we reframe the notion of family. Such reframings are always long and do not progress in a linearly predictable fashion. Brooks’ essay is an undeniably valuable contribution to this process. So despite any quibbles and caveats, I’m all for it.

How to actually write a sentence: The building blocks of written language

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Some time ago, Thomas Basbøll followed up his excellent post on how to write a paragraph with a much more daring endeavour on how to write a sentence. And while the post is a pleasure to read, I think it did not quite overcome the challenge the author stated at the start:

“it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph.”

Indeed, it is much more difficult to talk about the mechanics of writing the sentence because we generally want to forget we are composing a sentence, whereas we want to focus on the fact we are composing a paragraph. In this, writing a sentence is much like riding a bicycle. You cannot really do it successfully while attending to every aspect of the process. Basbøll’s metaphor here is very apt:

“it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.”

The problem with his solution, though, is that it only focused on the role of the sentence in the process of expressing ideas rather than the mechanics of putting a sentence together. This is because a sentence is an artificial construct. We think of it as a natural unit but, in fact, it is only an accident of history that we’ve started dividing chunks of text with full stops and beginning them with capital letters.

The sentence is just one way of articulating a thought. It could be a list. A phrase. Or a whole stream-of-consiousness story. But through conventions, we think of all of these as inferior kinds of writing. Expressing ourselves ‘in complete sentences’ has been agreed to be the hallmark of educated expression. And whether we agree with it or not, sentence is what we’re stuck with.

What is a sentence?

There is much debate in linguistics as to what is the foundational building block of language. It could be a phoneme (sound), syllable (much more natural in speech), word (unit of meaning), utterance or text (one chunk of speech with a message). It could also be a phrase. But by far the best candidate is a clause – a unit with one predicate and one subject – even if it is not always easy to define exactly what predicates and subjects are. But whatever the basic building block of language may be, sentence is definitely not it. It’s not even a unit in conversational speech but despite its visual significance, it is not really the basic building block of written language either.

This is because the boundaries of a sentence are completely arbitrary. They are simply there for the convenience of visual processing. The preceding 2 sentences could just as easily have been one. And many people would insist that they would be better as one and then argue over the proper rules of punctuation.

The real problem, and the one Basbøll is actually writing about, is how to express one’s thoughts through writing in a way that generates mental representations in the mind of the reader that are as close as possible to those of the writer. He illustrates it nicely with a quote from Orwell:

“As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head.”

There is something in this. We might argue that at least what is written represents what is in the writer’s head. But often our written words are just an echo of what was in one’s mind rather than a rendering of a mental image. Who has not had the experience of reading something they have written and not being completely certain what they meant by it?

So, making sure you build the right image in the reader’s mind with your words is excellect advice. But where Orwell, Basbøll’s essay and many others come up short is in explaining how to go about stringing those words together in just the right way so that they can trigger the right image in the reader’s mind. In this post, I’d like to suggest some ways in which we actually may go about learning to write a sentence to achieve this aim.

Dual articulation, riding the bike and Krashen’s monitor

But before we go any further, let’s look a bit more closely at the nature of the difficulty identified by Basbøll. That is: What we really want is to express ideas, not craft sentences. We want to go effortlessly from idea to sentence or better still from idea to paragraph. But we have to pass through many intermediate steps before we get there. Choosing words, calling up their spelling, deciding on their relative placement, whether we should add any endings, and then telling our fingers to type them. It’s even more complex in speech, where we have to arrange our mouths, tongues and teeth into complex configurations and coordinate all of that with the work of the lungs and the epiglottis.

In other words, before we can articulate a thought, we have to articulate a lot of other things. This has been called the ‘dual articulation’ of language. Dual articulation is one of the most underappreciated aspects of language. It is what makes non-native language learning so hard. And writing is certainly not native to any of us.

We spend a lot of time trying to learn all the rules of articulating words and sentences. But in order to successfully and fluently articulate ideas (which is what language is there for after all), we have to make the complex process of articulation of all the building blocks of language disappear. If we were to attend to all aspects of it, we would be permanently tongue-tied.

This is an experience that any learner of a foreign language has had when trying to use their newly acquired knowledge outside the classroom. Stephen Krashen has proposed the monitor hypothesis where the goal of language acquisition is to reduce the role of the grammatical monitor. In the same way that native speakers not only do not pay attention to how they put words and sentences together, learners must get rid of this additional burden. Speaking a language then is just like riding a bike. If you pay attention to all the tiny movements that are involved in peddaling while keeping balance, you fall off. But equally, if you miss any of them out, you fall off, as well.

So what are we, who want to teach others to write sentences, to do? On the one hand, we have to tell them about the principles of sentence structure that they were not able to suss out from their own reading. But on the other hand, we have to lead them to completely forget about all of them when they most matter and just write.

Writing as editing and editing as reading

Luckily, writing is not as ephemeral and fast flowing as speaking. We can always come back to a sentence we wrote and change it beyond all recognition. So, to teach somebody how to write is really teaching them how to edit. And a big part of teaching somebody how to edit, is to teach them about what to pay attention to when reading.

To be clear, a fluent writer can formulate a sentence without much need for further editing. But editing is a process through which such facility can be acquired. And even the most expert writers will need to come back and edit some of their sentences.

What does an editor pay attention to? They will tell you that they look at two things: 1. does the sentence make sense and 2. does it flow from the previous sentences and into those that follow. They will also look at more formal aspects such as spelling, undue repetition of words, stylistic appropriateness, etc. But 1 and 2 (sometimes also called coherence and cohesion) are the fundamental structural jobs a sentence has to perform.

How to craft a sentence

This finally brings us to the ultimate aim of this post. How to actually put a sentence together. This is, of course, impossible to cover in a single blog post. There are shelves in libraries around the world groaning under the weight of volumes that barely scratch the surface of all the aspects of a well-crafted sentence. Yet, people have managed to become competent or even admired writers despite all that. So, there must be way.

Learning to craft a sentence

It is important that aspiring writers think about the learning process as much as about the actual components of a sentence. And the process is very simple:

  1. When you read something, spend at least some of the time, looking at how it is put together. If this is not what you naturally do, set aside some time to do this as part of your reading.
  2. Form hypotheses about the rules the author used and then try them out yourself. It does not matter whether these hypotheses are correct ‘grammatical’ rules or even whether they look like grammatical rules. It just matters that you can do something with them.
  3. Leave what you wrote sit for a while and then come back to it. Read it again and see if it still makes sense. Then go back and look at how what you wrote differs from what you intended. And also compare this with other writing.
  4. Read things out loud or have them read to you (e.g. by text to speech). This will sometimes allow you to notice things about the text that you may skip over when reading silently.
  5. Do this a lot.

With that in mind, let’s finally have a look at some of the things you have to know about how to write a sentence.

Making a sentence make sense – Coherence

For a sentence to fulfil its ideational function, it has to make sense. This means that the sentence must not only contain the idea you want to express, it must not get in the way of that idea. When you’re editing your sentences to make sure they make sense, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible to read the sentence in other ways? Sometimes, when a sentence comes out of your head, you are blinded to its other possible meanings. Read it out loud, or ask your software to read it out loud for you.
  • Have you chosen the right words? This seems obvious but choosing the words that mean what you want to say is not a given.
  • Are the subjects of the clauses linked clearly to their verbs? Or, is it clear what the verbs in your sentence are describing? Conversely, is it clear what is happening to the nouns in your sentence? A simple test is to try to reduce the clauses in your sentence just to underlying verb and noun pair (or subject and predicate). Then keep adding the other words until the sentence is back together. If this sounds like old-fashioned parsing, it’s because it is. But sometimes it is necessary to strip your sentence bare and then slowly add only the necessary components back. Often it is the only way to make a sentence that got away from you make sense again.
  • Have you compressed too much into a single sentence? Can you expect that your readers have the same background and can take a hint?
  • Is it clear what the pronouns refer to? When you’re writing, your subject is very active in your head. So, it is very common to keep using pronouns or other vague words to refer to what you’re talking about. It is safer to use pronouns a bit more sparingly and repeat more often. While there’s a lot of research in this area, there is no one rule for how to do this right. But most of us were warned against repetition by our teachers, so a good rule of thumb is to repeat a bit more often than you feel comfortable.
  • Have you used the keywords in the right context? Sometimes words have multiple meanings and the one you are trying to express may not be the one most readers associate with it. Perhaps the best tool to help you here is a corpus. The iWeb corpus is a great tool for checking how words are used.

Making a sentence hold together – Cohesion

But even if your sentences make sense and use all the appropriate conventions, they still have to hold together and fit in with the rest of the text. This is often the easiest problem to overlook because you have an overall picture of the text in your mind, so it all flows perfectly in your head.

But your reader will have to build a picture of the text from scratch. And, also, they may not always read perfectly linearly, so even a sentence read out of context should make it clear where it relates to what came before.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re editing a sentence:

  • Have I made the right logical connections? If one thing is caused by another, is there a ‘because’ or a similar conjunction to make the link explicit?
  • Have I not put too much distance between closely related things? Long parentheticals can be fun but make it very easy for the reader (as well as the writer) to get lost.
  • Have I focused the reader on the right point? The topic (or known information) of a sentence is usually at the beginning and the focus (or new information) should come at the end.
  • Have I given the reader too much work to parse the sentence? If so, can I make it easier by splitting the sentence into shorter chunks?
  • Can I move some things to a later sentence?
  • Have I expressed a clear link to what came previously?
  • Have I placed the sentences in the right order? Don’t be afraid to move a sentence to the end to make sure the key information comes earlier.

A useful tool to use here is the Hemingway Editor. It will highlight sentences that are too long. Now, in many genres, such as academic writing, long sentences are not always a problem. They’re almost the expectation. But a sentence that goes on too long should be a signal to you, that you may not have expressed your idea clearly. I find that my long sentences are often just piles of ideas that need to be taken apart and given more air.

Making a sentence communicate what you want how you want it: Genre and style

Even if your sentence makes sense, your reader must be willing to try to read it. This means that you must meet as many of their expectations as possible so that they can focus on the meaning. You do this by conforming as closely as possible to the conventions of the genre you work within. If you do break these conventions, make sure you’re doing it for a reason.

If you’re writing an academic essay, stay within the [register] of academic language. This is where the various guides on academic English come in. They break down language into communicative functions like argumentation, persuasion or disagreement. And then they give you lots of appropriate phrases to achieve that function.

This is also where you need to do a lot of targetted reading in the area you want to write in. Don’t just read for content, read with an eye on the way people express themselves. Narrow your area as much as you can.

For example, there’s not just one ‘academic English’. Each little subdiscipline has its own conventions, so it’s worth paying attention to those. One piece of advice given is, before you submit a paper to a journal, read other papers that had already been published there. They will give you a clue as to the expectations. This applies at all levels, not just the sentence.

There are technical tools that can help you. For instance, you can paste your text to the Analyze tool on AcademicVocabulary.info and check the words you used against a corpus of academic writing.

Writing and editing process tips

Finally, here are some tips about the process of writing and editing your text at the level of a sentence.

  • Don’t edit every sentence independently – only edit when you’ve written several of them to make sure they hang together.
  • Feel free to delete a sentence. Often, once we’ve written something, we feel possessive about it. But often, deleting something can be very helpful. Like pruning a tree.
  • Feel free to split a sentence in two or three. Sometimes, it will give you space to express yourself more clearly. But sometimes, it will just give your reader a visual cue that a new idea is coming. Or at least some space to take a breath.
  • By the same token, don’t be afraid to start or end a sentence with a preposition or a conjunction. It’s much better than twisting yourself around.
  • Don’t be too scared of long sentences. Sometimes, joining two shorter sentences together makes the text flow better.

Reflections and conclusions

The abiding concern of anyone telling somebody else how to write is whether they themselves measure up to what they preach. Or at least, it should be. We know that Orwell used more passives than average while advising against them, Strunk and White used many of the same constructions they advised against, and the Plain English campaign proponents don’t always use simple language.

Equally, I cannot guarantee that every sentence in this guide is a paragon of what a well-crafted sentence should be. I know my limits. I tend to write more than needed and not cut out enough having learned my English syntax at the feet of PG Wodehouse. But demonstrating perfection at the level of the sentence is not the point of this post, and neither should that be the aim of most writers. The aim is to get the point across and then to move on.

But the most important conclusion is that hesitant writers must pay attention to the learning process. It is not possible to explicitly follow all the tiny little rules for putting together a sentence. You must internalise the shapes and bigger chunks, so that you can focus on experessing your ideas. This can only be achieved through deliberate practice. And editing what you wrote is the most crucial part of that practice. Great writers have great editors, or if they’re poor, they’re their own great editors.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Potemkin wisdoms, phronesis and Pixar: How wise sayings protect us from meaning

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TL;DR

This is an exploration of the difference between wisdom and practical wisdom (phronesis) triggered by this quote from a talk by Ed Catmull:

“Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use this statement, and not have to have the fear of changing behavior.”

The main lesson is: if we confuse understanding with repeating its summary, we hollow out its meaning and can no longer rely on it to inform what we do.  

It explains why adopting even great advice often does not result in success. It explains why most charismatic reforms fail when spread out more widely. It explains why adopting even Catmull’s advice may not make you into Pixar.

Why are advice books so often free of content?

Ed Catmull was an engineer suddenly put in charge of a company, so he did what engineers do. He went looking for a manual on how to run a business. In his words (slightly edited from transcript with punctuation inserted):

“I had to learn a lot about business quickly and I hadn’t gone to any school so I just read a lot of books and there were a few bits and pieces but I got to say, for the most part, I didn’t get a lot of traction with them.”

His solution:

“So I said, well maybe the problem is I just got to get to the essence of them. There’s a service that gets the summaries of business books so I tried that. And that was actually an amazing experience, because, in reading the essence of the books, I realized they were content-free.”

But maybe the problem was not in the business books themselves:

“What’s going on here? Is it the fact that the book doesn’t have any content, which is probably true in many cases, or is it that you can’t take some of these things and reduce them in a meaningful way?”

When it’s more important to say than to do

But Catmull was not interested in the nature of understanding. What bothered him was that the principles, once reduced to a slogan, made it impossible to determine practical success. Or rather, that you couldn’t tell who was actually good at something by the principles they espoused. It started in the film industry where the accepted wisdom was that ‘story is the most important thing’ about a film, but as Catmull discovered:

 “… every studio says the same thing. Everybody says the stories are the most important thing, even if the story was drivel. It might be true, in fact it is true, but it doesn’t affect behavior. …  It’s one of those things that is true and you agree it is true and you say it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

He found the same thing in architecture when he worked on building projects. Everybody agrees that you should design buildings “inside out” but that applies to architects of great buildings as well as the ones of awful buildings.  On its own, this may be an observation many people have made – the Dilbert cartoon series is based precisely on the fact that we all recognize what people talking in empty phrases sound like. But Catmull’s formulation of it is very striking and less glib:

“The phrase [designing buildings inside out] is important to this community, it just does not have any effect on behavior.”

Early on in his talk Catmull asked what is more important “good ideas or good people”, this seems to point in the direction of ‘good ideas’ not being very important if they don’t help people do better things. But it also shows that ideas are tied to their expressions and those expressions play many more roles in their communities than communicating what the ideas are about. They tie their communities together through the ritualistic profession of creeds that signify belonging. It is more important that people ‘agree with’ or ‘proclaim’ the phrases than embody them through actions. (This, of course, has a long history in religious reform. Or educational reform. I recently gave a talk exploring how the term ‘pedagogy first’ is mostly absent of meaning on which actions can be based.)

Compressing ideas renders them meaningless

None of this will be news to anybody who has ever worked for a big institution (University, corporation, Government department). Catmull expressed this very starkly in what I would consider a key quote from his whole talk:

“Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use this statement, and not have to have the fear of changing behavior.”

This can even be used very strategically. In my research on personalisation I ‘discovered’ that people were quite strategically looking through all the things they were already doing and trying to label them as ‘personalisation’. Often, in conversations about how to apply new methods, more time is spent on ‘labeling’ different activities than thinking about what to do. Catmull’s experience is the same:

“I see this over and over again. I can summarize some of these things, but the real issue is what do we do?”

But this is not just an issue with ideas being diluted through institutionalisation. It is a cry for help about the very possibility of making ideas mean anything at all. What good are great ideas if nobody can do anything with them. Many of the ideas “we all agree with” are expressions of genuine ‘wisdom’ but by the process of spreading them, we hollow out their content. And what we end up is wisdom painted on top of an empty box. We even have a story about this: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

Potemkin village, Potemkin wisdom

But an even better story than the one about a naked Emperor is the one about General Potemkin and his villages.

I grew up in a communist dictatorship and calling something a Potemkin’s village was  common when reflecting  on the propaganda of the regime. The phrase referred to a Russian general who created fake facades on buildings in villages so that the visiting Empress would think that they were prosperous and all was well in her realm. These facades could be moved from village to village, so as the Empress and her retinue travelled around, they could appreciate the quality of her government.

Pithy summaries of great ideas are like facades of beautiful buildings. They first appear as expressions of joy at the greatness of the structure inside. But unless we actually go in, walk through the rooms and corridors, or even better, live in them for a while, the greatness of the building is just an assumption. But we don’t always have the time to go in all the great buildings we see, and we definitely don’t have the time to live in them. So, when our own building is crumbling inside and out, we find it much easier to just paint the outside of it. Then anybody walking by will think it’s a great building and maybe we’ll even convince ourselves that the building is great.

Thus we create Potemkin’s wisdoms. Slogans we take from from one situation to another and paint them over whatever is actually happening. Unlike Potemkin, we don’t do it to deceive the Empress. From the outside, we see the beauty of the building, the truth of the idea. We want to embody that truth, so we paint it on top of what we do and admire it from afar. We are deceiving ourselves. But after a while the reality shines through the peeling paint and we go out looking for a new facade. This is the cycle of the hidden utopia.

The fundamental paradox of understanding

The reason this resonated with me to the point of tracking down the transcript of the talk is that this is a topic that I’ve been grappling with for almost 30 years. I’ve been returning to the question of understanding complex issues through summaries ever since I heard the Czech philosopher Peter Rezek ask why did philosophers write these long books when we can then just talk about them in what is essentially aphorisms? Rezek’s answer (if I remember it correctly) was that we need to read the complete books, but he also wanted to explore the underlying tension.

The tension is that we (and this is me, not Rezek, speaking) can only really access the content of great books retroactively through reductions our mind creates in the process of understanding. Of course, the process of reading the book also changes the conceptual landscape of our mind against which any understanding is viewed. But when we try to recall that understanding and employ it in further thinking, we draw on those aphorisms and hope that the accompanying change in landscape contains all the important components to fill the pithy phrase back up with meaning. But often that is not that case. The time of use what was understood and the time of applying that understanding are far removed. But even if they were not, the understanding was always partial to begin with.

We also need to distinguish between understanding as the ability to draw the same inferences as the author of a text versus understanding as a moment of enlightenment. Enlightenment is a single event, but understanding is a process. We are often almost ecstatically aware of the moment at which we finally ‘got’ something. But the tedious process of developing the kind of understanding we might actually do something useful with happens largely under the radar of our consciousness. We see understanding and explanation in charismatic terms but the actual achievement of it is a matter of routine.

Wisdom contra Phronesis

And then, Catmull adds the dimension of ‘understanding as a social obligation’. This is very much reminiscent of the pragmatist notion of truth. We only signal understanding through action in front of our peers. And by far the easiest action is that of repeating an accepted Shibboleth. Elezier Yudkowski has aptly called the sort of thing that happens in school guessing the teacher’s password.   When Catmull says “this phrase is important to the community,” he is talking about such a password. But, then, he observes, “it has no impact on behavior”. What he is after is what the ancient Greeks called “phronesis”, a practical wisdom. The sort of wisdom one can only gain through experience informed by knowledge. But this kind of knowledge cannot be expressed through a summary. Or perhaps not even communicated at all.

The Greeks helpfully differentiate between sophia (wisdom), phronesis (practical wisdom), episteme (knowledge) and techne (skill, craft) – although this was a lot more complicated with many more distinctions floating about. So if we are after the sort of judgment that comes from phronesis and has to be acquired rather than taught, what of the other forms of knowledge? Do they play no role at all? We certainly want people to know things (episteme) and be able to do things (techne), but do we really need them to be wise (sophia)? What if wisdom is only the ability to make pronouncements that are essentially empty of content on which one could base behavior?

In that case, wisdom is a ritualistic social function. We need wise people to tell us things like ‘measure once, cut twice’ or ‘paralysis through analysis’ to show us what we are as a community. And because these pearls of wisdom fit any situation in one way or another, it is not difficult to find them profoundly true without thinking about their emptiness. They give us the same sense of instantly gratifying insight that horoscopes and star signs do. When we read a description of our star sign, it can give us an almost euphoric sense of recognition of ourselves as being part of a bigger universe. In the same way, reading a wise saying, or a business book, can give us a glimpse of that sense of oneness with the world that gnostics or yogis must feel. We get to feel wise, in the know, with it – we finally got it.

And it is this feeling that Catmull warns against. In the preface to his book, he says:

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

This might be the very definition of phronesis – acknowledgement of the fact that understanding is a process without an end. And that it has an emotional dimension. Understanding is not a question of insight but a matter of practical never-ending work. We can use wisdom – such as ‘understanding is a process’ as a catalyst for the actual work that’s necessary. But on its own, it’s just an ornament that we put on something to make it look better than it is.

Practical wisdom in the face of the complexity of understanding

But is it enough to read Catmull’s book or listen to his talk? We can follow his advice step by step and still fail in our aims. What happens to his wisdom (phronesis) when applied to his own pronouncements? Do they have any content at all when divorced from their original context? I’ve spent over 2000 words so far exploring their implications and I’m barely scratching the surface. We can say ‘what he says makes sense’ but it is actually us making it sense out of his words and our situation.

The problem is that our intuitions about meaning are wrong. When we reflect on language (metacognition), our reflections take the form of that builds on a schema that very closely resembles a dictionary. In a physical sense, a dictionary puts meanings next to the words that express it. As if words were just little pointers to meaning. At its most schematic, this schema takes on the shape of one to one correspondence: fromage = cheese, dog = [picture of dog]. In certain contexts, we can acknowledge homophony or polysemy: dog = 1. animal, 2. food. At its most sophisticated, we imagine the right-hand side of a dictionary as an encyclopedia.

But that is not how words are used. We do not just put them next to each other and easily combine their meanings. For instance, when we apply adjectives to nouns, we don’t just add up the two meanings as we do with 1 + 1 = 2. Yellow cheese and yellow dog will seem superficially the same – ‘yellow’ + thing = yellow thing. But that is only at the highest level of abstraction. If we actually want language to communicate something somebody can draw some useful inferences from, a lot more has to happen. The yellow of cheese is very different from the yellow of the Sun or a crayon. Also, it is an expected color. But the yellow of a dog is an unusual colour. We can call it blond or something but we do not expect it to be the same as that of cheese. If we see the words ‘yellow dog’ we may expect a picture of an animal or an animal that has been covered with yellow paint. Also, when we cut a block of cheese in half, we expect the color to be more or less uniform throughout. The vet performing a surgery on a ‘yellow’ dog (whether blond or painted) would be extremely surprised to find the dog to be yellow on the inside.

What does this have to do with anything? Only that, if applying the simple label of ‘yellow’ to simple nouns like ‘cheese’ or ‘dog’ is this complicated, how can we expect to simply apply complicated labels like ‘we acknowledge we will always have problems’ to complicated institutions like ‘Pixar’ or ‘Coca Cola’ or ‘Bob’s Bodega’?

Because of the complexity of meaning making, people understand the same words applied to the same situations differently. This is such a fundamental fact of everyday life as to be considered trivial. So obvious that it barely deserves a mention. But if it is so obvious, why is it completely absent from our basic schema of meaning and understanding? Why don’t we add this to our consideration when we say things like ‘people need to be more considerate’? Our common reaction on hearing something like that is to agree. But instead we should be asking “what do you mean?”  What does a ‘considerate person’ look like in your head? What are your schemas and scenarios? In the same way we might ask somebody “what do you mean by ‘yellow dog’?”

But, of course, most of the time we cannot. Conversation would be impossible. Indeed, life would be impossible if we couldn’t rely rough schematic understandings. Instead, we make sense of things as we go along. Sometimes we do ask for clarification, but usually we look for cues, or just nod along and hope it will all make sense in the end. With very complex meanings – such as famous principles – we often just assume an underlying structure that was never there – like the Empress looking at a facade of an empty building.

When I say ‘understanding is a process’ and ‘knowledge is social’, I mean exactly that. We build up meanings as we go along, make assumptions, ask questions, hope somebody else knows what that means, and so on. That is exactly what happens when somebody reads a book like Camull’s – they start building images that they then share with others and hope to come to some sort of understanding. And part of that understanding will be ‘Catmull ran Pixar, his words will make us more like Pixar’ and ‘Catmull only ever ran Pixar, what does he know about my neck of the woods’ and ‘I just want this meeting to be over so I can go get lunch’.

Catmull himself was aware of the problem and instituted processes at Pixar that tried to break up the routines of meaning making and trigger less schematic reflection. But what happens if somebody who is not Catmull – doesn’t have his style, his conviction, his understanding of what he actually means – in short his ‘charisma’? We are back to Dilbert! All through history, charismatic reforms have failed when applied across larger numbers of peoples and institutions. The followers of St Francis of Assissi soon start acquiring possessions in his name. Revolutionary leaders fighting to overthrow oppression soon become the oppressors. Teachers fired up by philosophies of empowering the child soon start spending most of their time taking attendance and marking homework.

Unfortunately, it’s even more complicated than just people misunderstanding the wisdom of those imbued with the virtue of phronesis. We cannot even be sure that those who have the requisite practical wisdom even understand it themselves. They may be telling us about it but may be misdescribing their own understanding by applying idiosyncratic interpretations to common schemas. Or sometimes they’re just saying stuff to justify something that happened mostly outside their control.

I once heard an executive bragging that he turned around a failing company by making everybody count the number of paperclips they were using. This, according to him, got everybody to focus on costs and led to a turn around in the company’s balance sheet. On the surface, this is a plausible story, and we even have common sense wisdom in the form of ‘look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves’. But on second’s reflection, it is utterly implausible. He and lots of others most likely did a lot of other things and the stupid counting of paper clips just got in the way. We can imagine another executive coming in and saying ‘focus on what’s important’ or as the folk wisdom has it ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. Just like Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple.

So we should be skeptical of Catmull’s sine qua nons in his talk and in his book. Lots of successful and creative companies succeeded doing exactly the opposite of what he recommends. But even if his prescriptions may only work sometimes, his description of what happens, when we brandish slogans as shields, is still the best we got. His solution is to be a sort of every day philosopher, and he’s not the only one to advocate for this – Richard Rorty and John Elliott are two others I can think of. But practical philosophy is too easily confused with professional philosophy – thinking pretty thoughts and expressing them in pretty words.

However, just declaring ‘everyone should be a practical philosopher’ is not enough. Philosophers may ask questions like ‘what do you mean by that’, but because most of the time, they have those same intuitions about meaning as something you find in a dictionary, these questions lead nowhere. The philosopher’s love of wisdom is often the love of a lexicographer enamoured of putting words next to their definitions. These sorts of questions only have value if what we seek is phronesis and not sophia. Practical wisdom, judgement in the context of actual collective endeavour. Unsatisfactorily, it is a process without an outcome. It can never end in a dictionary entry which can at best capture it frozen in time. And, if that is that we end up with, then all we have is a phrase we can carry around with us as a shield to protect us from actually changing what we do. Or to close with Catmull’s words:

“Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use this statement, and not have to have the fear of changing behavior.”

Background

Many years ago I heard John Siracusa on a podcast say something like “nothing hides problem like success” when talking about issues with Apple’s software when the company was hitting $1 billion in market value. It immediately made sense to me. It is hard to try to give advice to people who are successful at something. But recently I had the urge to track down the origin of the quote and after a bit of searching I discovered that John got it from Pixar’s then President Ed Catmull’s 2009 talk at Stanford. I watched it and realised that it is relevant much more broadly than just as a source of one pithy phrase. In fact, it had at least 2 important insights.

  1. Success hides problems
  2. When powerful ideas are encapsulated in pithy sayings, they lose their power to change behavior

I went looking for the first but it’s the second one that was the inspiration to write the above.

Postscript

I found it interesting that the summary of Catmull’s talk published by Stanford where he gave this talk skirted the first and completely ignored the second insight. But without the second, the first one is meaningless. It will just sit there being numbly repeated by all, nodding along with its wisdom and doing nothing about it.

I had a quick look at Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc, and he elaborates on the second point in chapter 3 with more examples and metaphors. The metaphor I found most apt is the one of a suitcase but I only read it after I finished this post so it was too late  to work it.

“Imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. The handle is “Trust the Process” or “Story Is King”—a pithy statement that seems, on the face of it, to stand for so much more. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often, we grab the handle and—without realizing it—walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.”

So you think you have a historical analogy? Revisionist history and anthropology reading list

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What is this about

How badly we’re getting history

While the world of history and anthropology of the last 30-40 years has completely redrawn the picture of our past, the common perception of the overall shape of history and the development of humanity is still firmly rooted in the view that took hold in the 1800s’ mixture of enlightenment and romanticism.

On this view, we are the pinnacle of development, the logical and inevitable outcome of all that came before us. The development of what is us, the changes in history and culture, can be traced in a straight line from the primitive of the past to the sophisticated of the present. From the savage to the civilized (even if we may eschew these for more polite terms).

But nothing could be farther away from the truth. The shape of global history looks nothing like what we have in our minds from textbooks and popular culture. For a start, it is a lot more complicated, circuitous and fuzzy than we might imagine. That won’t surprise many people. Things are always more complicated when looked at closely. But what I would suggest is that the popular image has completely misplaced the centre of gravity of historical and cultural development. It is the universe before Copernicus and Gallileo, it is the physics before Einstein and Heisenberg.

Yet, all we need to find the right balance is readily available in print, online lectures and courses. We just need to seek it out.

What is on this list

In this post, I compiled what I consider key books of the last 20 years (with a few older exceptions) that can help anyone get a better picture of the history of human politics and culture. And through that history, we can also see the balance of the present better.

Not all these books are flawless and they all bring new biases into the picture. No doubt, they too, will eventually be subject to revision as new perspectives open up. Also, they don’t entirely reject all that came before them. They simply provide a better balance and shine light in important blind spots.

I can imagine that many people reading any one of these books might feel compelled to reject them as outliers. But together, they are hard to ignore. They come from different perspectives and disciplines, yet, they complement and reinforce each other.

This was originally meant to be a short list of a few key works but as I was going through my notes, I kept adding new ones. I tried to keep the list to books that synthesize larger areas rather than histories or ethnographies of individual societies even though, these can often be as illustrative.

Most of these books are histories or contain historical data. Yet, many are written by anthropologists or historians with a distinctly anthropological point of view. This very much reflects my personal bias towards the ethnographic.

I divided the list into 2 sections: 1. Easy reads for a general audience and 2. Dense and extensive works for specialists. But in this, I was very much going by intuition.

I decided to provide some illustrative quotes for each book but I went a bit too far with some of them. At the same time, I could have quoted many more important passages. Remember, they all make much more sense in context.

Where available, I also provided links to podcasts or online lectures by the authors. I also compiled a YouTube playlist with key videos which I will keep up-to-date as I discover more.

I would also recommend to anybody that they listen to the New Books Network podcasts. I find those from the New Books in History, Milirary History, South Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, Anthropology and Genocide studies particularly illuminating and would recommend that anybody goes through the archive, as well.

What are the key lessons

This section was rewritten based on Reddit comments.

The overarching message of these books is one of anti-reductionism. They do not look for inevitable overarching trends but they do show repeating patterns. The key points that stand out to me as a lesson to take away from reading these books could be:

  • The global dominance of Western-European culture and politics is a lot more recent than our history books taught us pretty much starting with the Industrial Revolution and not completed until the end of the 19th century.
  • The balance of global history lies in the East rather than the West. Even those we consider the roots of our civilisation (Rome, Greeks) looked to the East.
  • We are blinkered by focusing our perspective on civilizational artifacts such as architecture and writing. This leads us to overlook important political and social units that outnumbered those we can see at any one point in history.
  • The role of the state throughout history was much more complex and uncertain than it may seem from today’s perspective. It was much weaker, less stable and more transient. And it was also not nearly as attractive to its subjects – ie. walls were often built more to keep people in than out.
  • We cannot view the ‘hunter gatherers’ and other ‘pre-technological’ societies of today as remnants of previous evolutionary stages of history. They are as much part of modernity as the technologically-dependent urban centres we know.

Who should read this

  • Anyone who thinks ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ is the last word in historical analysis.
  • Rationalists, economists and futurists. I very much enjoy listening to podcasts like EconTalk and Rationally Speaking. But whenever they or their guests make any points regarding history, I cannot but cringe.
  • Anyone who makes historical analogies based on what they learned in school.
  • When I last worked with Peace Corps volunteers, I shared some of these books with them and they were well received. So I think many development and international policy workers would also benefit.
  • Curriculum reformers in the mould of Michael Gove or Pat Buchanan.

Easy, accessible reads

I felt the books in this section are more accessible and aimed at audiences outside the strict confines of their discipline. Some of them are fairly popular accounts but they are all sufficiently scholarly that it is possible to track down their sources and confront them with alternative perspectives. None of them are by popularisers in the vein of Gladwell or Pinker.

‘Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States’ by James C Scott, 2018

Scott is best known for ‘Seeing Like a State’ but this is a much more important and in many ways better book. His main thesis is ‘Everything we thought about the invention of agriculture and its role in the formation of early civilisations is wrong.’

In this book, Scott summarises recent decades of research on the emergence of agriculture and emergence of early states and finds that we cannot trust any of our assumptions. The early states were temporary, partial and patchy. They cannot be seen as a final stage in some sort of a process of social evolution. A point elaborated by Yoffee below in greater detail.

My main impression from this book is how recent the dominance of state control is. Until about 1500, most people lived outside the control of the great civilisational behemoths. And this was, for many of them, a conscious choice. As Scott described in his earlier book ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ (also well worth a read).

Similarly to Diamond, Scott also focuses on the importance of certain crops but from the perspective of their utility for taxation. This point is elaborated in Graeber’s ‘Debt’ (see below).

You can see Scott speak about many of these points in several lectures.

Note: I wrote a review of this book for the Czech daily Lidové noviny.

Illustrative quotes

“Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.”

“In unreflective use, “collapse” denotes the civilizational tragedy of a great early kingdom being brought low, along with its cultural achievements. We should pause before adopting this usage. Many kingdoms were, in fact, confederations of smaller settlements, and “collapse” might mean no more than that they have, once again, fragmented into their constituent parts, perhaps to reassemble later. In the case of reduced rainfall and crop yields, “collapse” might mean a fairly routine dispersal to deal with periodic climate variation. Even in the case of, say, flight or rebellion against taxes, corvée labor, or conscription, might we not celebrate—or at least not deplore—the destruction of an oppressive social order?”

“until the past four hundred years, one-third of the globe was still occupied by hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, and independent horticulturalists, while states, being essentially agrarian, were confined largely to that small portion of the globe suitable for cultivation. Much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector.”

“Where grain, and therefore agrarian taxes, stopped, there too did the state’s power begin to degrade. The power of the early Chinese states was confined to the arable drainage basins of the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers. […] The territory of the Roman Empire, for all its imperial ambitions, did not extend much beyond the grain line.”

much that passes as collapse as, rather, a disassembly of larger but more fragile political units into their smaller and often more stable components.

‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’ by Matthew Restall, 2003

The title of the book says it all. Almost anything we say (and Jared Diamond said) about the likes of Columbus, Cortez or Pizarro is wrong. Factually and structurally. Perhaps the most important myth Restall presents is that of ‘completion’. The Spanish and later other conquests were more a case of expanding enclaves and negotiations. To imagine the conquistadors as ruling a geographic area in the same way a modern state governs its territory is completely misleading. This is also a point repeated in Yoffee and Scott with respect to ‘ancient civilisations’.

The other point made by Restall is the complete dependence of the European invaders on local political aliances and the relative ineffectiveness and ultimate irrelevance of their ‘technology’. We see this expanded in Thornton and Sherman into other contexts

You can hear Restall talk about many of the same themes in an interview about his more recent book “When Montesuma met Cortez” in this New Books Podcast.

There is also an illustrated lecture available on YouTube that covers the same topics.

Illustrative quotes

“Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended.”

“Only very gradually did community autonomy erode under demographic and political pressures from non-native populations. From the native perspective, therefore, the Conquest was not a dramatic singular event, symbolized by any one incident or moment, as it was for Spaniards. Rather, the Spanish invasion and colonial rule were part of a larger, protracted process of negotiation and accommodation.”

‘Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order’ by Jason Sharman, 2019

The central thesis here is that the relationship between the European conquerors and the conquered around the world was very different from the traditional stories. It was not sudden overwhelming military force but gradual exploitation of local political conditions taking place over the course of centuries that resulted in the world we see today.

Most importantly, the thesis of political competition in Europe resulting in European dominance by 1800 purely through superiority of Western military technology is completely dismantled. European weapons made little difference until the 1800s. Updated based on Reddit comments.

Sharman is a political scientist, so perhaps could be accused of moonlighting outside his core expertise, but we’ll see that this thesis is repeated again and again in many of the other books on this list from various perspectives.

I could not find any videos or audio recordings of Sharman about the book. But I’m sure some will appear, soon.

Key quote

‘Europeans did not enjoy any significant military superiority vis-à-vis non-Western opponents in the early modern era, even in Europe. Expansion was as much a story of European deference and subordination as one of dominance. Rather than state armies or navies, the vanguards of expansion were small bands of adventurers or chartered companies, who relied on the cultivation of local allies.’

‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan, 2015

‘The Silk Roads’ is the history of the world that should be the core textbook for anyone interested in the balance of events. It provides the same correction to the shape of history that an alternative projection gives to the distortions taught to us by the Mercator of school atlases.

Frankopan’s book on the First Crusade is also extremely eye-opening and worth a read. It is the one that most balances the perspectives of east, west and the Byzantines.

Here are some places where you can see Frankopan talk about his book:

Jerry Brotton’s ‘This Orient Isle’ could be thought of as a companion book in that it rethinks the position of Britain in this newly rebalanced history. You can watch Brotton talk about his 2016 book ‘in an online lecture. Brotton’s ‘History of the World in 12 Maps’ also adds new perspectives on the orientation of the world.

Illustrative quotes

We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.

Rome’s transition into an empire had little to do with Europe or with establishing control across a continent that was poorly supplied with the kind of resources and cities that were honeypots of consumers and taxpayers. What propelled Rome into a new era was its reorientation towards the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Rome’s success and its glory stemmed from its seizure of Egypt in the first instance, and then from setting its anchor in the east – in Asia.

the ancient world was much more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think. Seeing Rome as the progenitor of western Europe overlooks the fact that it consistently looked to and in many ways was shaped by influences from the east.

Cities like Merv, Gundesāpūr and even Kashgar, the oasis town that was the entry point to China, had archbishops long before Canterbury did. These were major Christian centres many centuries before the first missionaries reached Poland or Scandinavia.

Baghdad is closer to Jerusalem than to Athens, while Teheran is nearer the Holy Land than Rome, and Samarkand is closer to it than Paris and London.

‘Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane’ by F. Frederick Starr, 2013

Starr’s book was a real revelation. I had spent a lot of time in Central Asia and read some history of the region. But other than Samarkand, all of that history has now been lost. And I didn’t get a sense that the people living in the region knew much about it.

Much like Davies in ‘Vanished Kingdoms’ in Europe, Starr shows on a global scale how even major civilisations with real impact can disappear without much trace. But even more importantly, he shows that the trajectory of ‘modern’ intellectual development was much more complex than most people believe.

You can see Starr talk about his book in this online lecture.

Illustrative quotes

“This was truly an Age of Enlightenment, several centuries of cultural flowering during which Central Asia was the intellectual hub of the world. India, China, the Middle East, and Europe all boasted rich traditions in the realm of ideas, but during the four or five centuries around AD 1000 it was Central Asia, the one world region that touched all these other centers, that surged to the fore. It bridged time as well as geography, in the process becoming the great link between antiquity and the modern world.”

“every major Central Asian city at the time boasted one or more libraries, some of them governmental and others private.”

“Above all, Central Asia was a land of cities. Long before the Arab invasion, the most renowned Greek geographer, Strabo, writing in the first century BC, described the Central Asian heartland as ‘a land of 1,000 cities.’”

“At the Merv oasis the outermost rampart ran for more than 155 miles, three times the length of Hadrian’s Wall separating England from Scotland. At least ten days would have been required to cover this distance on camelback.”

‘Genghiz Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ by Jack Weatherford, 2004

Jack Weatherford’s portrayal of the Mongol conquests is definitely not non-partisan. He’s with the Mongols. Nevertheless, he opens important vistas about the foundations of modern interconnectedness. This is a good complement to Starr’s covering of the preceding period in the same region.

Here’s a video lecture by Weatherford about some aspects of this story.

Illustrative quotes

In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years. Genghis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons, conquered the most densely populated civilizations of the thirteenth century. Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.

The majority of people today live in countries conquered by the Mongols; on the modern map, Genghis Kahn’s conquests include thirty countries with well over 3 billion people.

Genghis Khan’s empire connected and amalgamated the many civilizations around him into a new world order. At the time of his birth in 1162, the Old World consisted of a series of regional civilizations each of which could claim virtually no knowledge of any civilization beyond its closest neighbor. No one in China had heard of Europe, and no one in Europe had heard of China, and, so far as is known, no person had made the journey from one to the other. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them with diplomatic and commercial contacts that still remain unbroken.

‘Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’ by James W. Loewen, 1995

This book is slightly outside the scope of this list, but I thought it would be of interest to those who were educated in the American school system. But many of its points apply to all school history books. It will open your eyes to how little you can trust to what you learned in school and what was then reinforced through popular cultural reflection of history.

Here’s an extended interview with the author.

Illustrative quotes

“Many history textbooks list up-to-the-minute secondary sources in their bibliographies, yet the narratives remain totally traditional unaffected by recent research.”

“Most Americans tend automatically to equate educated with informed or tolerant. Traditional purveyors of social studies and American history seize upon precisely this belief to rationalize their enterprise, claiming that history courses lead to a more enlightened citizenry. The Vietnam exercise suggests the opposite is more likely true.”

Comprehensive and/or less accessible

These books require more serious commitment and possibly some comfort with reading relatively dense historical and ethnographic accounts. They are not necessarily poorly written or full of jargon but they are not primarily aimed at an audience too far outside the profession of the author (except ‘Debt’ which I included here because it is so long).

‘A Cultural History of the Atlantic World: 1250 – 1820’ by John K. Thornton, 2012

This is a truly impressive historical synthesis that covers an extensive geographic area as well as a significant stretch of time. It provides detailed elaborations of the central thesis of Sharman’s and Restall’s books and should be consulted every time we feel like we want to make a general statement about the developments in that region and in that time. Which we do all the time.

A podcast interview about this book from the New Books Network will give a good sense of what the book is about.

You can also hear Thornton speak on a related topic in this YouTube lecture on the Slave trade.

Illustrative quotes

“Europeans did not possess decisive advantages over any of the people they met, even though their sailing craft were indeed capable of nautical achievements that no other culture up to that time was able to perform.”

“there was really no economic Third World at the time of European expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, if one uses proxy measures of average quality of life as a guide. The crucial quality-of-life determinant was, in fact, social and economic stratification.”

“African states had the upper hand if the game of force was to be played. Although Europeans often fortified their “factories,” as trading posts were usually called, these fortifications could not resist an attack by determined African authorities.”

“Slow-firing weapons cannot allow small numbers of people to defeat larger numbers unless other factors are in play.”

“Cavalry are most effective only when massed in sufficient numbers to inflict sustained casualties on fleeing infantry, and the dozens and on occasion low hundreds of mounted men in Spanish service did not meet this decisive threshold. Native Americans were reasonably quick in establishing tactical countermeasures against the horsemen after the initial encounters.”

‘Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations’ by Norman Yoffee, 2005

This was perhaps the most embarrassingly eye-opening book for me given that I started out my early adult life by studying Egyptology. Yoffee, building on his work and that of others, shows the limits of what a so-called ‘ancient civilisation’ was and could have been. Collapses and interregna were all much less of tragedies for all involved – point made by Scott in a more accessible way. His reimagining of the position of Hammurabi as a political and literary rather than a legal document was just one of the many myths that this book burst for me.

Norman Yoffee speaks about new perspectives on the collapse summarizing his more recent work.

Illustrative quotes

“[Myth of the archaic states include:] (1) the earliest states were basically all the same kind of thing (whereas bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all varied within their types considerably);(2) ancient states were totalitarian regimes, ruled by despots who monopolized the flow of goods, services, and information and imposed “true” law and order on their powerless citizens; (3) the earliest states enclosed large regions and were territorially integrated; (4) typologies should and can be devised in order to measure societies in a ladder of progressiveness; (5) prehistoric representatives of these social types can be correlated, by analogy, with modern societies reported by ethnographers; and (6) structural changes in political and economic systems were the engines for, and are hence necessary and sufficient conditions that explain, the evolution of the earliest states.”

That the laws of Hammurabi were copied in Mesopotamian schools for over a millennium after Hammurabi’s death attests to the literary success of the composition and has nothing to do with its juridical applicability. […] There is no mention of the code of Hammurabi in the thousands of legal documents that date to his reign and those of his immediate successors.

Order could not survive the frequent shocks it suffered if people were not able to construct the institutions of legitimacy and to determine the quality of illegitimacy. Legitimacy normally invokes the past as something that is absolute and that acts as a point of reference for the present, normally by transmuting the past into some form of the present.

‘Debt: The First Five Thousand Years’ by David Graeber, 2011

I think this is perhaps the best intro to modern anthropological thinking in general. It is very readable and accessible but also very comprehensive. It certainly has its agenda but Graeber tells a convincing story that undermines the classical thinking about the role of exchange in maintaining civilisations. It is easy to get bogged down in the discussions about the nature of money when discussing this book but what it really does is show the great variety of ways in which people relate to each other.

Graeber gave a lecture on his book at Google which is available on YouTube. But this book works best when read as a whole.

Illustrative quotes

there is good reason to believe that barter is not a particularly ancient phenomenon at all, but has only really become widespread in modern times. Certainly in most of the cases we know about, it takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around.

Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation—the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land.

“Kingdoms rise and fall; they also strengthen and weaken; governments may make their presence known in people’s lives quite sporadically, and many people in history were never entirely clear whose government they were actually in. … It’s only the modern state, with its elaborate border controls and social policies, that enables us to imagine “society” in this way, as a single bounded entity.”

there are three main moral principles on which economic relations can be founded, all of which occur in any human society, and which I will call communism, hierarchy, and exchange.

“communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now—that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently.

“baseline communism”: the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply.

In many periods—from imperial Rome to medieval China—probably the most important relationships, at least in towns and cities, were those of patronage.

‘Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of Nations’ by Norman Davies, 2010

Most of the books on the list focus on forgotten, misunderstood or ignored aspects of global history or culture. But Davies shows that even in our own backyard, entire kingdoms vanished without a trace in our consciousness. Perhaps, I should have chosen his ‘Europe: A History’ which is also revisionist in that it places Europe’s cultural, geographic and historical center of gravity much further east and south than is typical. But I found this book much more revelatory and impactful for the purposes of this list.

Davies gave a lecture about his book at the LSEwhich is available as a recording.

A brief interview with Davies about this book is available on YouTube.

Illustrative quotes

“As soon as great powers arise, whether the United States in the twentieth century or China in the twenty-first, the call goes out for offerings on American History or Chinese History, and siren voices sing that today’s important countries are also those whose past is most deserving of examination, that a more comprehensive spectrum of historical knowledge can be safely ignored.”

Most importantly, students of history need to be constantly reminded of the transience of power, for transience is one of the fundamental characteristics both of the human condition and of the political order.

Popular memory-making plays many tricks. One of them may be called ‘the foreshortening of time’. Peering back into the past, contemporary Europeans see modern history in the foreground, medieval history in the middle distance, and the post-Roman twilight as a faint strip along the far horizon.

One has to put aside the popular notion that language and culture are endlessly passed on from generation to generation, rather as if ‘Scottishness’ or ‘Englishness’ were essential constituents of some national genetic code.

To all who have been seduced by the concept of ‘Western Civilization’, therefore, the Byzantine Empire appears as the antithesis – the butt, the scapegoat, the pariah, the undesirable ‘other’.6 Although it formed part of a story that lasted longer than any other kingdom or empire in Europe’s past, and contains in its record a full panoply of all the virtues, vices and banalities that the centuries can muster, it has been subjected in modern times to a campaign of denigration of unparalleled virulence and duration.

‘The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’ by Chris Wickham, 2009

The ‘Fall of Rome’ and the subsequent ‘dark ages’ have been one of the big obsessions of historical introspection for centuries. They are the frequent source domain of civilizational analogies even though, as Chris Wickham shows, almost nothing we think of as a given holds up. This book is just one of many in recent historical scholarship that revisits the notion of the dark ages and shines a light on the period of ‘late Rome’ as seen from the perspective of its own time. Of course, many controversies remain but the change in emphasis seems incontrovertible. There are echoes of similar points in the early chapters of Davies’ ‘Vanished Kingdoms’.

I could not find any lectures on the subject by Wickham but some of these questions were raised in this panel he chaired on the middle ages.

Note: I wrote a review of this book for the Czech daily Lidové noviny.

There are also a number of lecture series on this period that reflect the latest scholarship in The Great Courses from the Teaching Company that are available via Audible, as well. I particularly recommend those by Kenneth Harl.

Illustrative quotes

“Anyone in 1000 looking for future industrialization would have put bets on the economy of Egypt, not of the Rhineland and Low Countries, and that of Lancashire would have seemed like a joke.”

Byzantine ‘national identity’ has not been much considered by historians, for that empire was the ancestor of no modern nation state, but it is arguable that it was the most developed in Europe at the end of our period.

the East remained politically and fiscally strong, and eastern Mediterranean commerce was as active in 600 as in 400.

Far from ‘corruption’ being an element of Roman weakness, this vast network of favours was one of the main elements that made the empire work. It was when patronage failed that there was trouble.

The Persian state was almost as large as the Roman empire, extending eastwards into central Asia and what is now Afghanistan; it is much less well documented than the Roman empire, but it, too, was held together by a complex tax system, although it had a powerful military aristocracy as well, unlike Rome.

‘The Anthropology of Eastern Religions: Ideas, Organizations, and Constituencies’ by Murray Leaf, 2014

This was a late addition to this list and it is an imperfect volume in that, as one reviewer put it: “[its] worthwhile aims are met unevenly, resulting in a book that is certainly informed and informative, but often inconsistent in tone and level of analysis.” But I think its core message in chapter one of religion as a social institution which has much more in common with others than traditional religious studies would have us believe.

I couldn’t find any interviews or lectures. But I believe that this interview with Russell McCutcheon about the limits of religious studies would provide a useful complement.

Illustrative quotes

The world religions are complex social phenomena. They use ideas of several different kinds. They include substantial systems of physical infrastructure. They have provisions for economic support. They embody their own systems of scholarship. They produce propaganda and they are politically important in many different ways. From time to time their leaders in various places have commanded armies and conducted wars. This cannot be explained simply by reviewing them as so many sets of beliefs.

The most conspicuous problem in contemporary comparative religion is that they underrate diversity. […] One result is to overstate what the major religions have in common with each other while understating or ignoring what they have in common with traditions considered non-religious.

The general class of cultural phenomena to which world religions belong can be described as large-scale, translocal, multi-organizational, professionalized cultural complexes.

Virtually all Japanese have recourse to the ideas and organizations of Buddhism and Shinto, and for the most part this is also true of Confucianism. […] Japanese parks are Shinto and the system of Shinto shrines in Japan has much the same place in Japanese emotional life as the system of national parks does for Americans. Confucian ideas are important in administrative and professional contexts.

‘Europe and the People without History’ by Eric R Wolf, 1982

This is the oldest book on the list and it has inspired many others.

Unlike Graeber, reading Wolf is hard going. This is certainly for the committed but it repays the effort. Even just looking at the maps showing the intricate trade routes going from the heart of Africa to the Baltic Sea is eye-opening.

Wolf’s central point is also the central point all the authors on this list return to again and again. We invented history based on the things that were easy to see. But this was very much looking for the keys under the lamppost where the light was and not where we lost them. Wolf (similarly to Graeber and Scott) has a distinctly untraditional politics leaning to the left (if perhaps not as much to anarchism).

Illustrative quotes

“Africa south of the Sahara was not the isolated, backward area of European imagination, but an integral part of a web of relations that connected forest cultivators and miners with savanna and desert traders and with the merchants and rulers of the North African settled belt. This web of relations had a warp of gold, “the golden trade of the Moors,” but a weft of exchanges in other products. The trade had direct political consequences. What happened in Nigerian Benin or Hausa Kano had repercussions in Tunis and Rabat. When the Europeans would enter West Africa from the coast, they would be setting foot in a country already dense with towns and settlements, and caught up in networks of exchange that far transcended the narrow enclaves of the European emporia on the coast. We can see such repercussions at the northern terminus of the trade routes in Morocco and Algeria. Here one elite after another came to the fore, each one dependent on interaction with the Sahara and the forest zone. Each successive elite was anchored in a kin-organized confederacy, usually mobilized around a religious ideology.”

Pre-cursors and proto-revisionists

In many ways, almost any history is revisionist history. Each generation writes its own history books to reflect new knowledge but also new perspectives. Most history book authors feel they have something new with which to contribute and that can revise current understanding of the subject matter.

So it is not surprising that even revisionism in the vein that I’m looking at here is not just a matter of the last 20 or so years.

Much of the current revision was inspired by‘The Great Transformation’ by Karl Polanyi) published in 1944 which in turn rests on many of the anthropological revisions started by people like Franz Boas in the US and Bronisław Malinowski.

There is a continued thread of back and forth since at least then. Marshall Sahlins’ ‘Stone Age Economics’ from 1972 (with papers going back to the mid 1960s) started much revision and revision of the hunter gatherer condition. And so on.

At the same time but independently, people like Joseph Needham were painstakingly collecting data on the great civilizations of the ‘East’ which can now give us a fuller and more balanced picture of the world.

We should also not forget the work that has gone into revising the simplistic view of the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably to do with the emergence of the nation state. Here names such as Eric Hobsbawn, Ernest Gellner, Miroslav Hroch and, of course, Benedict Anderson, come to mind. And then there are the many people who are rethinking more recent events such as Timothy Snyder or Antony Beevor.

The list just goes on.

The other side of the coin

Of course, there is also the other side. Historical revisionists with grand schemes and overarching historical narratives. I’ve already mentioned Jared Diamond but also worth reading is Ian Morris. I’ve critiqued some of their work in my thesis proposing the metaphor of ‘History as Weather’. There are also people like Niall Ferguson who cannot be doing with all this rebalancing and want to put ‘the West’ back at the centre of things. I found his attempt in Civilization extremely unconvincing but he is a prominent voice in the anti-revisionist camp.

Note: I wrote a joint review of Morris and Ferguson for the Czech daily Lidové noviny under the title of ‘New historical eschatology’. I also wrote a positive review of Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ soon after it came out which I would now revise significantly – see Questioning Collapse and After Collapse.

Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of Our Nature‘ is another example of a grand sweep of history that tries to make the progress of humanity appear more directional and straightforward than the books on this list suggest it is or can be. And we should not forget the great systematisers of the 1990s Fukuyama andHuntington.

The temptation to discover the key to what makes human history tick is great. FromToynbee to Hari Seldon. And it is not difficult to discover interesting patterns.

The picture that the books on this list paint is that grand narratives of history do not stand up well to scrutiny. They may provide a useful lens through which to view the past, or more often the present. But there is always another grand narrative just around the corner.

In thinking about the predictive utility of history, I asked: “So what is the point of history then? Its accurate predictions are not very useful and its useful predictions are not very accurate.” History and ethnography show us the range of possible ways of being human. They don’t tell us what to do next or how to be, but they are essential components of our never-ending quest to find out what we could be.

Turing tests in Chinese rooms: What does it mean for AI to outperform humans

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TLDR;

  • Reports that AI beat humans on certain benchmarks or very specialised tasks don’t mean that AI is actually better at those tasks than any individual human.
  • They certainly don’t mean that AI is approaching the task with any of the same understanding of the world people do.
  • People actually perform 100% on the tasks when administered individually under ideal conditions (no distraction, typical cognitive development, enough time, etc.) They will start making errors only if we give them too many tasks in too short a time.
  • This means that just adding more of these results will NOT cumulatively approach general human cognition.
  • But it may mean that AI can replace people on certain tasks that were previously mistakenly thought to require general human intelligence.
  • All tests of artificial intelligence suffer from Goodart’s law.
  • A test more closely resembling an internship or an apprenticeship than a gameshow may be a more effective version of the Imitation Game.
  • Worries about ‘superintelligence’ are very likely to be irrelevant because they are based on an unproven notion of arbitrary scalability of intelligence and ignore limits on computability.

Reports of my intelligence have been greatly exaggerated

Over the last few years, there have been various pronouncements about AI being better than humans at various tasks such as image recognition, speech transcription, or even translation. And that’s not even taking into account bogus winners of the Turing test challenge. To make things worse, there’s always the implication that this is means machine learning is getting closer to human learning and artificial intelligence is only a step away from going general.

All of those reports were false. Every. Single. One. How do we know this? Well, because none of them were followed by “and therefore we have decided to replace all humans doing job X with machine learning algorithms”. But even if this were the case, it still would not necessarily mean that the algorithm outperformers humans at the task. Just that it can outperform them at the task when it is repeated time after time and the algorithm ends up making fewer mistakes because, unlike people, it does not get tired, distracted, or simply ticks the wrong box.

But even if the aggregate number of errors is lower for a machine learning algorithm, it may still not make sense to use it because it makes qualitatively different errors. Errors that are more random and unpredictable are worse than more systematic errors that can be corrected for. Also, because AI has no metacognitive mechanisms to identify its errors by doing a ‘sense check’. This often makes correcting AI-generated transcripts difficult to correct because it makes errors that don’t make intuitive sense.

Pattern matching in radiology and law

The closest machine learning has gotten to outperforming humans doing real jobs is in radiology. (I’m discounting games like Go, here.) But even here it only equalled the performance of the best experts. However, this could easily be enough. But interpreting X-Rays is an extremely specialised task that requires lots of training and has a built-in error rate. It is a pattern recognition exercise, not a general reasoning exercise. All the general reasoning about the results of the X Rays still has to be delegated to the human physician.

In a similar instance, AI could notice inconsistencies in complex contracts better than lawyers. Again, this is very plausible, but again this was a pattern-matching exercise with a machine pitted against human distractability and stamina. Definitely impressive, useful, and not something expected even a few years ago. But not in any meaningful ways replacing the lawyer any more than a form to draw up a contract I downloaded from the internet does.

This is definitely a case where an AI can significantly augment what an unassisted human can do. And while it will not replace radiologists or lawyers as a category, it could certainly greatly decrease their numbers.

Machine learning to the test

So on very specialised tasks involving complex pattern recognition, we could say that AI can genuinely outperform humans.

But in all the instances involving language and reasoning tasks, even if an AI beats humans on a test, it does not actually ‘outperform’ them on the task. That’s because tests are always imperfect proxies for the competence they measure.

For example, native speakers often don’t get 100% on English proficiency tests and can even do worse than non-native speakers in certain contexts. Why? Three reasons: 1. They can imagine contexts not expected of non-native speakers. 2. The non-native speakers have been practicing taking these tests a lot so they make fewer formal mistakes.

We are facing exactly the same problems when comparing machine learning and human performance based on tests designed to evaluate machine learning. Humans are the native speakers and they perform 100% on all the tasks in their daily lives. But their performance seems less than perfect in test conditions.

BLEU and overblown claims about Machine Translation

Sometimes the problem is with a poorly designed test. This is the case with the common measure of machine translation called BLEU (Bi-Lingual Evaluation Understudy). BLEU essentially measures how many similar words or word pairs there are in the translation by machine when compared to a reference corpus of human translations. It is obvious that this is not a good metric of quality of translation. It can easily assign a lower score to a good translation and a high score to a patently bad one. For instance, it would not notice that the translation missed a ‘not’ and gave the opposite meaning.

What human translators do is translate whole texts NOT sentences. This sometimes means they drop things, add things, rearrange things. This involves a lot of judgment and therefore no two translations are ever the same. And outside trivial cases they’re never perfect. But a reliable translator can make sure they convey the key message and they could provide footnotes to explain where this was not possible. Machine learning can get surprisingly good at translating texts by brute force. But it is NOT reliable because it operates with no underlying understanding of the overall meaning of the text.

That’s why we can easily dismiss Microsoft’s claim that their English-to-Chinese interpreter outperformed human translators. That is only because they used the BLEU metric to make this claim rather than professional translators evaluating the quality of AI output against that of other professional translators on any test. And since Microsoft has yet to announce that it is no longer using human interpreters when its executives visit China, we can safely assume that this ‘outperform’ is not real.

Now, could a machine translation ever get good enough to replace human translators? Possibly. But it is still very far from that for texts of any complexity. Transformers are very promising at improving the quality of the translation but they still only match patterns. To translate you need to make quite rich inferences and we’re nowhere near this.

GLUE and machine understanding come unstuck

Speaking of inferences. How good is AI at making those? Awful. Here we have another metric to look at: GLUE! Unlike BLEU which is a really bad representation of the quality of translation, GLUE (General Language Understanding Evaluation) is a really good representation of human intelligence. If you wanted to know what are the components of human intelligence, you could do a lot worse than look at the GLUE test.

But the GLUE leaderboard has a human benchmark and it comes 4th with 87.1% score. This puts it 1.4% behind the leader which is Facebook at 88.5%. So, it’s done. AI has not only reached human level of reasoning, it has surpassed them! Of course, not. Apart from the fact that we don’t know how much of a difference in reasoning ability 1% is, this tells us nothing about human ability to reason when compared to that of a machine learning model. Here’s why.

How people and machines make errors

I would argue that a successful machine learning algorithm does not actually outperform humans on these tasks even if it got 100%. Because humans also get 100% but they also devised the test.

Isn’t this a contradiction? How can humans get 100% if they consistently score in the mid-80s when given the test. Well, humans designed the test and the correctness criteria. And a machine learning algorithm must match the best human on every single answer to equal them. The benchmark here is just an average of many people over many answers and does not just reflect the human ability to reason but also the human ability to take tests.

Let’s explain by comparing what it means when a human makes an error on a test and when a machine does. There are three sources of human error: 1. Erroneous choice when knowing the right answer (ie clicking a when meaning to click b), 2. Lack of attention (ie choosing a because we didn’t spend enough time reading the task to choose correctly), 3. Overinterpretation (providing context in our head that makes the incorrect answer make sense).

These benchmarks are not Mensa tests, they measure what all people with typical linguistic and cognitive development can do. Let’s take the Windograd Schema test as an example. Here’s an often-quoted example:

The trophy didn’t fit into the suitcase because itwas too big.
The trophy didn’t fit into the suitcase because itwas too small.

It is very possible that out of 100 people, 5 would get this wrong because they click the wrong answer, 10 because they didn’t process the sentence structure correctly and 1 because they constructed a scenario in their head in which it is normal for suitcases to be smaller than the thing in them (as in Terry Pratchett’s books).

But not a single one got it wrong because they thought that a thing can be bigger than the thing it fits in.

Now, when a machine learning model gets it wrong, it does it because it miscalculated a probability based on an opaque feature set it constructs from lots of examples. When you get 2 people together, they can always figure out the right answer and discuss why they did it wrong. No machine learning algorithm can do that.

This becomes even more obvious when we take an example from the actual GLUE benchmark:

Maude and Dora had seen the trains rushing across the prairie, with long, rolling puffs of black smoke streaming back from the engine. Their roars and their wild, clear whistles could be heard from far away. Horses ran away when they came in sight.

So what does the ‘they’ refer to here? The obvious candidate here is ‘trains’. But it is easy to imagine that a person could click the option where ‘puffs of black smoke’ or even ‘Maude and Dora’ are the antecedent. That’s because both of those can be ‘seen’ and could theoretically cause horses to run away. If this is the 10th sentence I’m parsing in a go, I may easily shortcut the rather complex syntactic processing. I can even see someone choosing “whistles” even though they cannot “come in sight” but are a very strong candidate for causing horses to run away. But nobody would choose ‘horses’ unless they misclicked. A machine learning algorithm very easily could do this simply because ‘they’ and ‘horses’ match grammatically.

But all of this is actually irrelevant, because of how the ML algorithms are tested. They are given multiple pairs or sentences and asked to say 1 or 0 on whether they match or not. So some candidate sentences above are “Horses ran away when the trains came in sight.”, “Horses ran away when Maude and Dora came in sight.” or “Horses ran away when the whistles came in sight.” What it does NOT do is ask “Which of the words in the sentence does ‘they’ refer to?” Because the ML model has no understanding of such questions. You would have to train it for that task separately or just write a sequential algorithm to process these questions.

What people running these contests also cannot do is ask the model to explain their choice in a way that would show some understanding. There is a lot of work being done on interpretability, but this just spits out a bunch of parameters that have to be interpreted by people. Game, set and match to humans.

Chinese room revisited

But let’s also think about what it means for a neural network model to get things right. This brings us back to Searl’s famous Chinese room argument. Every single choice a model makes has assigned a probability and even quite ridiculous choices have a non-zero chance of being right in the model. Let’s look at another common example:

The animal didn’t cross the road because it was too busy.

Here it is sensible to assign it to ‘road’ because it makes the most sense but one could imagine a context in which we could make it refer to ‘the animal’. Animals can be thought of as busy and we can imagine that this could be a reason for not crossing the road. But we know with 100% certainty that it does not refer to ‘the’ or even ‘cross’. Yet, a neural model has no such assurance. It may never choose ‘the’ in practice as the antecedent for ‘it’ but it will never completely discount it, either.

So, even if the model got everything right. We could hardly think of it as making human-like inferences unless it could label certain antecedents as having 0% probability and others (much rarer) as having 100%. (Note: Programming it to change 10% to 0% or 90% to 100% does not count.)

This feels like a very practical expression of Searl’s Chinese room argument albeit in a weak form. Neural networks pose a challenge to Searl because their algorithmic guts are not as exposed as those of the expert systems of Searl’s time. But we can still see echoes of their lack of actual human-like reasoning in their scores.

Is a test of artificial intelligence possible under Goodhart’s Law?

I once attended a conference on AI risk where a skeptic said he wasn’t going to worry “until an AI could do Winograd schemas”. This referred to a test of common sense and linguistic ambiguity that AIs have long been famously bad at. NowMicrosoft claims to have developed a new AI that is comparable to humans on this measure. (Scott Alexander)

This post was inspired by the above remark by Scott Alexander. I wanted to explain why even the Winograd challenge being conquered is not enough in and of itself.

AI proponents constantly complain of sceptics’ shifting standards. When AI achieves a benchmark, everybody scrambles to find something else that could be required of it before it gets a pass. And I admit that I may have made a claim similar to that of the AI researcher quoted by Scott Alexander when I was writing about the Winograd schemas.

But the problem here is not that machines became intelligent and everybody is scrambling to deny the reality. The problem is that they got better at passing the test in ways that nobody envisioned when the test was designed. All this while taking no steps towards actual intelligence. Although with a possible increase in practical utility.

This is the essence of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The Winograd Schema Challenge seemed so perfect. Yet, I can imagine a machine learning getting good at passing the challenge but still not actually having any of the cognition necessary to really deal with the tasks in real life. In the same way that IBM Watson got really good at Jeopardy but failed at everything else.

None of this is to say that machine learning could not get good enough at performing many tasks that were previously thought to require generalised cognitive capacity. But when machines actually achieve human-level artificial intelligence, we will know. It will not be that hard to tell. But it will not likely happen just because we’re doing more of the same.

The problem with the Turing test or imitation game is not that it cannot produce reliable results on any one run of it. The problem is that if any single test becomes not only the measure but also a target, it is very much possible to focus on passing the test on the surface while bypassing the underlying abilities the test is meant to measure. But the problem is not just with the individual tests but rather in the illusion that we can design a test that will determine AGI level performance simply by reaching an arbitrary threshold.

The current Turing test winners won by misdirection that hid the fact that they refused to answer the questions. This could be fixed by requiring that Grice’s cooperative principle maxims are observed (especially quality and relevance) but even then, I could see a system trained to deal with a single time-bound conversation pass without any underlying intelligence.

As Scott Aaronson showed, it is possible to defeat a current level AI system simply by asking ‘What is bigger a shoebox or Mount Everest’. But once a pattern of questioning becomes known, it becomes a target and therefore a bad measure.

Similar things happen with all standardised aptitude tests designed so that they cannot be studied for. Job interview techniques designed to get interviewees to reveal their inner strengths and weaknesses. All of these immediately spawn industries of prep schools, instructional guides, etc. That makes them less useful over time (assuming they were all that useful to start with).

Towards a test by Critical Turing Internship

That’s why the Turing test cannot be a ‘test’ in the traditional sense. At the very least, it cannot be a single test.

History and a lot of human-computer interaction research has also shown that people are very bad at administering the Turing test (or playing the imitation game). But this is paradoxically because they’re very good the very thing the machines have been failing at: meaning making. Because we almost never encounter meaningless symbols but often encounter incomplete ones, we are conditioned to always infer some sort of meaning from any communication. And it is difficult if not impossible to turn it off.

Every time we see a bit of language we automatically imbue it with some meaning. So, any Turing tester must not only be trained in the principles of cognition but also to discard their own linguistic instincts. We don’t know what it will take for a machine to become truly intelligent but we do know that humans are notoriously bad at telling machines apart from other humans. We simply cannot entrust this sort of thing to such feeble foundations.

As I said above, I suspect that by the time machines do achieve human-level performance on these tasks, it will be obvious. We probably won’t need such a test. Assuming we get there which is not a given. But if a test were needed, it could look something like this.

To replace the Turing test, I would like to propose a sort of Turing Internship. We don’t entrust critical tasks in fields like medicine to people who just passed a test but require they prove ourselves in a closely supervised context. In the same way, we should not trust any AI system based on a benchmark.

Any proposed human-level AI system can be placed in multiple real contexts with several well-informed human supervisors who would monitor its performance for a period of weeks or months to allow for any tricks to be exposed. For example, most people after a few weeks with Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri, get a clear picture of its strengths and limitations. Five minutes with Alexa may make you feel like the singularity is here. Five months will firmly convince you that it is nowhere in sight.

But at the moment, we don’t need this. We don’t need months or weeks to evaluate AI for human-level intelligence. We need minutes. I estimate that we would not need to use this kind of AI internship for another 50 years but likely for much much longer. We are too obssessed with the rapid progress of some basic technologies but ignore many examples of stagnation. My favourite here is the Roomba which has been on the market for 17 years now and has hardly progressed at all. Equally, the current NLP technologies have made massive strides in utility but have not progressed towards anything that could be meaningfully described as understanding.

That is not to say that tests like GLUE or even BLUE are completely useless. They can certainly help us compare ML approaches (up to a point). They’re just useless for comparing human performance with those of machine-generated models.

Note on Nick Bostrom and Superintelligence

One obvious objection to the Turing Internship idea is that if human-level AI is the last step before Bostrom’s ‘Superintelligence’, unleashing it in any real context would be extremely dangerous.

If you believe in this ‘demon in the machine’ option, there’s nothing I can do to convince you. But I personally don’t find Superintelligence in any way persuasive. The reason is that most of the scenarios described are computationally infeasible in the first place. Bostrom does not mention the issue of computability and things like P=NP almost at all. And he completely ignores questions of nonlinear complexity.

It is hard to judge whether a ‘superintelligent’ system could take over the world. But could it predict the weather 20 days out with 1% tolerance of temperature estimates in any location? The answer is most likely not. There may not be enough atoms in the universe to compute the weather arbitrarily precisely more than a few days in advance. Could it predict earthquakes? Could it run an economy more efficiently than an open market relying on price signals? The answers to all those questions are most likely no. Not because the superintelligence is not super enough but because these may not be problems that can be solved by adding ‘more’ intelligence. Assuming that ‘intelligence’ is a linearly scalable property in the first place. It may well be like body size, after a certain amount of increase, it would just collapse onto itself.

Superintelligence requires a conspiracy theorist’s mindset. Not that people who believe are conspiracy theorists. But they assume that complexity can be conquered with intelligence. They don’t believe that humans are ‘smart’ enough to control everything. But they believe that it is inherently possible. Everything we know about complexity, suggests that this is not the case. And that is why I’m not worried.

Fruit loops and metaphors: Metaphors are not about explaining the abstract through concrete but about the dynamic process of negotiated sensemaking

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Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that first appeared on Medium. It elaborates and exemplifies examples I gave in the more recent posts on metaphor and explanation and understanding.

One of the less fortunate consequences of the popularity of the conceptual metaphor paradigm (which is also the one I by and large work with on this blog) is the highlighting of the embodied metaphor at the expenses of others. This gives the impression that metaphors are there to explain more abstract concepts in terms of more concrete ones.

Wikipedia: “Conceptual metaphors typically employ a more abstract concept as target and a more concrete or physical concept as their source. For instance, metaphors such as ‘the days [the more abstract or target concept] ahead’ or ‘giving my time’ rely on more concrete concepts, thus expressing time as a path into physical space, or as a substance that can be handled and offered as a gift.“

And it is true that many of the more interesting conceptual metaphors that help us frame the fundamentals of language are projections from a concrete domain to one that we think of as more abstract. We talk about time in terms of space, emotions in terms of heat, thoughts in terms of objects, conversations as physical interactions, etc. We can even deploy this aspect of metaphor in a generative way, for instance when we think of electrons as a crowd of little particles.

But I have come to view this as a very unhelpful perspective on what metaphor is and how it works. Instead, going back to Lakoff’s formulation in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, I’d like to propose we think of a metaphor as a principle that helps us give structure to our mental models (or frames). But unlike Lakoff, I like to think of these as an incredibly dynamic and negotiated process rather than as a static part of our mental inventory. And I like to use conceptual intergation or blending as way of thinking about the underlying cogntivive processes.

Metaphor does two things: 1. It helps us (re)structure one conceptual domain by projecting another conceptual domain onto it and 2. In the process of 1, it creates a new conceptual domain that is a blend of the two source domains.

We do not really understand one domain in terms of another through metaphor. We ‘understand’ both domains in different ways. And this helps us create new perspectives which are themselves conceptual domains that can be projected or projected into. (As described by Fauconnier and Turner in The Way We Think).

This makes sense when we look at some of the conventional examples used to illustrate metaphors. “The man is a lion” does not help us understand lesser known or more abstract ‘man’ by using the better known or more concrete ‘lion’. No, we actually know a lot more about men and the specific man we’re thus describing than we do about lions. We are just projecting the domain of ‘lions’ including the conventionalised schemas of bravery and fierceness onto a particular man.

This perspective depends on our conventionalised way of projecting these 2 domains. Comparison between languages illustrates this further. The Czech framing of lions is essentially the same as English but the projection into people also maps lion’s vigour into work to mean ‘hard working’. So you can say “she works as a lion”, meaning she works hard. But in the age of documentaries about lions, a joke subverting the conventionalised mapping also appeared and people sometimes say “I work like a lion. I roar and go take a nap.” This is something that could only emerge as more became conventionally known about lions.

But even more embodied metaphors do not always go in a predictable direction. We often structure affective states in terms of the physical world or bodily states. We talk about ‘being in love’ or ‘love hitting a rocky patch’ or ‘breaking hearts’ (where metonymy also plays a role). But does that really mean that we somehow know less about love than we know about travelling on roads? Love is conventionally seen as less concrete than roads or hearts but here we allow ourselves to be mislead by traditional terminology. The domain of ‘love’ is richly structured and does not ‘feel’ all that abstract to the participants. (I’d prefer to think of ‘love’ as a non-prototypical noun; more prototypical than ‘rationalisation’ but less prototypical than ‘cat’).

Which is why ‘love’ can also be used as the source domain. We can say things like “The camera loves him.” and it is clear what we mean by it. We can talk about physical things “being in harmony” with each other and thus helping us understand them in different ways despite harmony being supposedly more abstract than the things being in harmony.

The conceptual domains that enter into metaphoric relationships are incredibly rich and multifaceted (nothing like the dictionaries or encyclopedias we often model linguistic meaning after). And the most important point of unlikeness is their dynamic nature. They are constantly adapting to the context of the listeners and speakers, never exactly the same from use to use. We have a rich inventory of them at our disposal but by reaching into it, we are also constantly remaking it.

We assume that the words we use have some meanings but it is us who has the meanings. The words and other structures just carry the triggers we use to create meanings in the process of negotiation with the world and our interlocutors.

But this sounds much more mysterious and ineffable than it actually is. These things are completely mundane and they are happening every time we open our mouths or our minds. Here’s a very simple but nevertheless illuminating illustration of the process.

Not too long ago, there were two TV shows that had some premise similarities (Psych and The Mentalist). One of them came out a year earlier and its creators were feeling like their premise was copied by the other one. And they used the following analogy:

“When you go to the cereal aisle in a grocery store, and you see Fruit Loops there. If you look down on the bottom, there’s something that looks just like Fruit Loops, and it’s in a different bag, and it’s called Fruity Loop-Os.” 

I was watching both shows at the time but their similarity did not jump out at me. But as soon as I read that comparison it was immediately clear to me what the speaker was trying to say. I could automatically see the projection between the two domains. But even though it seemed the cereal domain was more specific, it actually brought a lot more with it than the specificity of cereal boxes and their placement on store shelves. What it brought over was the abstract relationship between them in quality and value but also many cultural scripts and bits of propositional knowledge associated with cereal brands and their copycats.

But there was even more to it than that. The metaphor does not stop at its first outing (it’s kind of like mushrooms and their  in this way). Whenever, I see a powerful analogy or generative metaphor on the internet, I always look for the comments where people try to reframe it and create new meanings. Something I have been calling ‘frame negotiation’. Take almost any salient metaphoric domain projection and you will find that it is only a part in a process of negotiated sense making. This goes beyond people simply disagreeing with each other’s metaphors. It includes the marshalling of complex structuring conceptual phenomena from schemas, rich images, scenarios, scripts, to propositions, definitions, taxonomies and conventionalised collocations.

This blog post and its comments contain almost all of them: . First, the post author spends three paragraphs (from third on), comparing the two shows and finding similarities and differences. This may not seem like anything interesting but it reveals that the conceptual blends compressed in the cereal analogy are completely available and can be discussed as if it was a literal statement of fact.

Next, the commenters, who have much less space, return to debating the proposition by recompressing it into more metaphors. These are the first four comments in full:

  1. Anonymous said… They’re not totally different. It’s more like comparing Fruit Loops to Fruit Squares which happen to taste like beef.
  2.  said… I think a better comparison would Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes. Both are made with the same cereal, but one’s sweeter (Psych).
  3.  said… Sweeter as in more comedy oriented? They are vastly different shows that are different on so many levels.
  4. Anonymous said… nikki could not be more right with the corn flakes and frosties analogy

Here we see the process of sense making in action. The metaphoric projection is used as one of several structuring devices around which frames are made. Comment 1 opens the the process by bringing in the idea of reframing through other analogs in the cereal domain. 2. continues that process by offering an alternative. 3. challenges the very idea of using these two domains and 4. agrees with 2 as if this were a literal statement but also referring to the metalinguistic tool being used.

The subsequent comments return to comparing the two shows . Some by offering propositions and scenarios, others by marshalling a new analogy.

 said… The reason the Mentalist feels like House is because house is a modern day medical version of Homes as in Holmes Sherlock. Also both Psych and The Mentalist are both Holmsian in creation. That being said I love the wit and humor of psych

Again, there is no evidence of the concrete/abstract duality or even one between less and better known domains. It is all about making sense of the domains in both cognitive and affective ways. Some domains have very shallow projections (partial mappings) such as cornflakes and frosty flakes, others have very deep mappings such as Sherlock Holmes. They are not providing new information or insight in the way we traditionally think of them. Nor are they providing an explanation to the uninitiated. They are giving new structure to the existing knowledge and thus recreating what is known.

The reason I picked such a seemingly mundane example is because all of this is mundane and it’s all part of the same process. One of my disagreements with much of metaphor application is the overlooking of the ‘boring’ bits surrounding the first time a metaphor is used. But metaphors are always a part of a complex textual and discursive patterns and while they are not parasitic on the literal as was the traditional slight against them, they are also not the only thing that goes on when people make sense.

5 books on knowledge and expertise: Reading list for exploring the role of knowledge and deliberate practice in the development of expert performance

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Recently, I’ve been exploring the notion of explanation and understanding. I was (partly implicitly) relying on the notion of ‘mental representations’ as built through deliberate practice. My plan was to write next about how I think we can reconceptualize deliberate practice in such a way that it draws on a richer conception of ‘mental representations’. But that is turning out to be a much longer project.

Meanwhile, in a recent conversation about teaching practitioners, somebody mentioned reading Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ as being relevant to the problem and we discussed maybe starting a reading group. This got me thinking about what should such a reading group have on its reading list.

The literature on expertise is vast (just look at the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance). In my proposed reading list, I would focus on identifying different perspectives on how our mental representations of the world are structured, how we develop them (or how we can help others develop them), how we solve problems with them, and how they are embedded in the social environment in which we function.

1. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Kahneman’s famous book is not really focused on experts but rather on the limitations of our thought – summarised under the heuristics and biases banner. But Kahneman’s notion of ‘System 1’ (fast) and ‘System 2’ (slow) thinking is directly relevant to the question of expertise. Expertise means that one can think about complex issues quickly but also that one can analyze that same issue with deliberate attention to detail. Exactly how this applies to the question of educating experts is a matter of discussion that I think the other books on my list can help elucidate.

2. Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise by Anders Ericsson with Robert Pool (2016)

In this book, Ericsson (helped by journalist Pool) provides an outline of a cognitive mechanism by which fast thinking is acquired without the sacrifice of deliberation in the concept of ‘delibrate practice’. I propose that the key to understanding deliberate practice is not the process of practice but rather on Ericsson’s rethinking of the target that the practice should help us achieve. According to Ercisson, what delibrate practice leads is not knowledge or skill but rather ‘mental representations’. Mental representations are best thought of as chunks of knowledge (frames, scripts, schemas, etc. – which makes this approach overlap with Kahneman and Tversky’s work even though Ericsson does not mention this). This allows experts to perform complex mental operations on very rich subject domains which would be beyond the computational powers of anyone’s pure raw intelligence. The best analogy is being able to play chess or speaking a language – this is impossible by simply knowing the rules – we need a rich complex of mental representations to compete at chess or to speak with any fluency.

3. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002)

Where Kahneman provides the framework and Ericsson the mechanism of acquisition, Fauconnier and Turner offer us a much more detailed description of the actual structure of ‘mental representation’ and how it is used during live processing of information. Building on work in cognitive linguistics and semantics, they develop the notion of ‘conceptual integration’ (or ‘blending’ as it’s more popularly referred to in the field) that explains how multiple ‘mental spaces’ or ‘domains’ can be merged seemingly without any conscious effort into new domains (blends) that we can then build further understanding on.

In this context, I’d also recommend reading the parts of Lakoff’s ‘Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things’ that describe what he then called ‘Idealized Cognitive Models’ and now calls ‘frames’. The book is quite vast and not all of it relevant to this question, which is why I wrote a guide to it.

4. Rethinking Expertise by Harry Collins and Robert Evans (2008)

What’s missing in all the works I’ve looked at so far is any awareness of the social embeddedness of expert performance. There is little discussion of types or levels of expertise and barely any mention of how experts interact with one another. In ‘Rethinking Expertise‘, Collins and Evans propose what they call a ‘periodic table of expertise’ (which happens to overlap quite nicely with my 5 types of understanding). They think not just about the specialist expert knowledge but also about what they call ‘ubiquitous expertise’ – all the underlying skills and knowledge required to even get started (such as languages, basic social skills, metacognition, etc.). Most importantly, they also pay attention to ‘meta-expertise’, i.e. how non-experts evaluate experts and experts judge other experts.

Their notion of expertise relies on the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ (later developed by Collins in a separate book) which is reminiscent of Ericsson’s ‘mental representations’ and echoes Kahneman, as well.

5. Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action by Donald A. Schön (1983)

While Schön’s book has had a profound impact in terms of citation and ways of thinking, I suggest that it has been largely under-appreciated for its depth of epistemological insight. Despite being more than 2 decades older than any of the other books on this list, it is very much still relevant. It considers the very nature of ‘practical knowledge’ as opposed to ‘academic knowledge’. Schön, more than any of the others thinks about the practical needs of a person needing to achieve practical tasks with their knowledge in a complex situation. He highlights the tensions between the technical preparation of experts that focuses on knowledge about a subject and the practical needs of a practitioner who needs to act in such a way that simply recalling information would not be sufficient. His concept of ‘reflection-in-action’ could be seen as a precursor or better still a companion to the notion of ‘deliberate practice’.

Schön followed this up with Educating The Reflective Practitioner which focuses on the practical question of structuring a training course. Another reason to include Schön on this list is that he focuses more directly on ‘professional’ expertise.

Bringing it all together

What these books have in common is an underlying conception of knowledge and its processing. But what they lack is almost any awareness of each other. This makes them add up to more than just the sum of their parts.

Kahneman mentions Ericsson in a footnote and Ericsson and Collins appear jointly in the Cambridge Handbook I mentioned at the start. But they largely travel in separate spheres. Bizarrely, none of them refers to Schön. And all of them are completely unaware of Fauconnier and Turner, who in turn ignore the work done outside their field of cognition (even though we can trace the lineage of their work on cognitive domains directly to Schön’s earlier work on metaphor).

All these approaches are clearly converging on the same thing but they don’t do it using the same terminology, methods or even a shared conceptual framework. Which is why reading just any one of them would probably not be enough to get at the full scope of the issues involved.

I’m not certain that this selection is the most representative of the field. It is certainly not exhaustive and it is definitely shaped by my idiosyncratic intellectual journey and personal interests. But my hope is that it does triangulate the problem domain in a way that a more narrowly focused selection would not.

Writing as translation and translation as commitment: Why is (academic) writing so hard?

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This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text-book. Its object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.
(opening sentence of the preface to Tractatus Logico Philosophicus by Lugwig Wittgenstein, 1918)

Background

I’ve recently been commenting quite a lot on the excellent academic writing blog (which I mostly read for the epistemology) Inframethodology by Thomas Basbøll. Thomas and I disagree on a lot of details but we have a very similar approach to formulating questions about knowledge and its expression.

The recent discussion was around the problem of ‘writing as expressing what you know’. While I find it very useful to distinguish between writing to describe what you know and writing to explore and discover new ideas (something I first reflected on after reading Inframethodology), I commented:

I still find that no matter how well I think I know my subject, I discover new things by trying to write it down (at least with anything worth writing).

Thomas responded in a separate blogpost, first picking up on my parenthetical:

Can it really be true that the straightforward representation of a known fact is not “worth writing”? Is the value of writing always to be discovered (by way of discovering something new in the moment of writing)? I think Dominik is thinking of kinds of writing that are indeed very valuable because they present ideas that move our own thinking forward and, ideally, contribute positively to the thinking of our peers. But I also think there is value is writing that doesn’t do this, writing that is, for lack of a better word, boring.

With this, I agree wholeheartedly. 110% coach! Yes, this was a throwaway line I wasn’t comfortable with even as I was writing it. The majority of my writing is mundane: emails, instruction manuals, project proposals, etc. They may or may not be “worthy” but they certainly have a worth. And people who do nothing but that sort of writing certainly do not do anything I would find ‘beneath me’ or not worthy. I might have been better served by the term ‘quotidian’ or even ‘instrumental’ writing.

I agree even more with Thomas’s elaboration (my emphasis):

In fact, I think it’s the primary of value of academic writing and one of the reasons that so many people (and even academics themselves) almost equate “academic” (adj.) with “boring”.The business of scholarship is not to bring new ideas into the world, indeed, the function of distinctively academic work (in contrast to, say, scientific or philosophical or literary work) is not to innovate or discover but to critique, to expose ideas to criticism. In order for this happen efficiently and regularly, academics must spend some of their time representing ideas that are not especially exciting to them along with their grounds for entertaining them. They must present their beliefs to their peers along with their justification for thinking they’re true. And they must do this honestly, which is to say, they must not invent new beliefs or new reasons for holding them in the moment of writing. They must write down, not what they’re thinking right now, but what they’ve been thinking all along.

I find this an incredibly valuable perspective and when I think of my own writing, I think this is precisely where I’ve often been going wrong. This is partly because academic writing is more of a hobby than a job, so I don’t have the time to do more than write to discover. But it is partly because of my temperament. I don’t enjoy the boring duties of writing things I know down and then formatting them for the submission to a journal. I prefer to work with editors which is why the bulk of my published writing is in journalism or book chapters.

But there is still another aspect that needs to be explored. And that is, why do most people find it so difficult to write down what they know even while taking into account all of the above.

Writing as translation

I propose that a good way to think about the difficulty of writing to describe our thoughts is to use the metaphor of translation. We can then think of the content of our thoughts in our head as a series of propositions expressed in some kind of ‘mentalese’. And when we come to write them down, we are essentially translating them into ‘writtenese’ or in this case, one of its dialects ‘academic writtenese’.

This is made more complicated by the existence of a third language – let’s call it ‘spokenese’. We are all natively bilingual in ‘mentalese’ and ‘spokenese’ even if not everybody is very good at translating between these two languages. In fact, children find it very difficult until quite late ages (10 and up) to coherently express what they think and even many adults never achieve great facility with this. Just like many natively bilingual speakers are not very good at translating between their two languages.

But nobody is a native speaker of ‘writtenese’. Everybody had to learn it in school with all its weird conventions and specific processing requirements. It is not too outlandish to say (and I owe this to the linguist Jim Miller) that writing is like a foreign language. (Note: see some important qualifications below).

When we are translating from mentalese to academic writtenese, we are facing many of the same problems translators of very different languages faces. The one I want to focus on is ‘making commitments’.

Translation as commitment: Making the implicit explicit

Perhaps the most difficult problem for a translator (I speak as someone who has translated hundreds of thousands of words) is the issue of being forced by the way the target language operates to commit to meanings in the translation where the structure of the source language left more options for interpretation.

Let’s take a simple paragraph consisting of three sentences (Note: this is a paraphrase of an example given by Czech-Finnish translator at a conference I attended some years ago):

The prime minister committed to pursue a dialogue with the opposition. This was after the opposition leader complained about not being involved. She confirmed that he would have a seat at the table in the upcoming negotiations.

The first commitments I have to make at some point is to the gender of the participants in the actions I write about. In English, I can leave the gender ambiguous until the third sentence. In Finnish, which does not have gendered third-person-singular pronouns, I don’t have to express the gender at all.

In Czech (and many other languages), on the other hand, I have to know the gender of the prime minister from the very first word. Like actor and actress in English, all nouns describing professions have built-in genders (this is not optional as in English because all Czech nouns have assigned some grammatical gender). I also need to express gender as part of the past tense morphology of all verbs. So even if I could skirt the gender of the ‘leader’ (there are some gender-ambiguous nouns in Czech), I would have to immediately commit to it with the verb ‘complained’. Which is why knowledge of their subject is essential to simultaneous translators.

But this is a relatively simple problem that can be solved by reference to known facts about the world. A much more significant issue is the differential completion of certain schemas associated with types of expressions. Let’s take the phrase ‘committed to pursue’. The closest translation to the word ‘commit’ is ‘zavázat se’ which unfortunately has the root ‘bind’. It is therefore ever so slightly more ‘binding’ than ‘commit’. I can also look into something like ‘promise’ which of course is precisely what the prime minister did not do.

Then, there is the word ‘pursue’. One way to translate it is ‘usilovat o’ which has connotations of ‘struggle to’. So ‘usilovat o dialog’ is in the neighborhood of ‘pursue a dialog’ but lacks the sense of forward motion making it seem slightly less like the dialog is going to happen. So here each language is making subtly different commitments.

When you’re translating academic writing, there are hundreds of similar examples, where you have to fill in blanks and make some claims seem stronger and others weaker. And even if you know the subject intimately (which I did in most cases), you often have to insert your judgement and interpretation. And the more you do that, the less certain you feel that you got the meaning of the original exactly right. This is even when while reading the original, I had no sense of something being left unexpressed. The only way to get this right is to ask the author. But even that may not always work because they may not remember their exact mental disposition at the time of writing.

Writing as filling in holes in our mind

I believe that this is exactly the experience we have when we write about something that only exists in our head or something we’ve only previously talked about. Even when I’ve given talks at conferences and had many conversations with colleagues, writing my ideas down remains a difficult task.

When writing, the structure of ‘writtenese’ (as well as the demands of its particular medium) forces me to make certain commitments I never had to make in ‘mentalese’ (or even ‘spokenese’). I have to fill out schemas with detail that never seemed necessary. I have to make more commitments to the linearity of arguments, that could previously run parallel in my head. So when I write it is not clear what should come first and what last.

When I just write down what’s in my head (or as close to it as it is possible), it is unlikely to make any sense to anybody. Often including myself after some time. I need to translate it in such a way that all the necessary background is filled out. I also need to use the instruments of cohesion to restore coherence to the written text that I felt in my mind without any formal mental structure.

But during this process, I often become less certain. The act of writing things down triggers other associations and all of a sudden I literally see things from a different perspective. And this is often not a comfortable experience. Many writers find this a source of great stress.

This is, of course, true even of writing instructions and directions. Often, when describing a process, we find there are gaps in it. And when writing down directions, we come to realise that we may not know all aspects of the familiar sufficiently well to mediate the experience to someone else.

Teaching writing as translation

Translation is a skill that requires a lot of training and practice. In many ways, a translator needs to know more about both languages than a native speaker of either. And then they need to know about different ways of finding equivalent expressions between the two languages in such a way that the content expressed in the source language produces similar mental effects when reading in the target language. This is not easy. In fact, it is frequently impossible to achieve perfectly.

When I translate I often refer to a dictionary (such as slovnik.cz) that lists as many possible alternatives of words even if I know exactly what the original ‘means’. This is because I want to see multiple options of expressing something which may not be immediately triggered by my understanding of the whole.

But for this to work, I need to have done a lot of deliberate reading in both languages to know how they tend to express similar things. At the early stages, I may approach this more simply as learning to speak a language. I may learn that ‘commit to pursue’ is best translated as ‘zavázat se usilovat o’. But I have to back that up by a lot of reading in both languages, studying other translators’ work and making hypotheses about both languages and the differences between them. Eventually, this becomes second nature and to translate fluently, we need to ‘forget’ the rules and ‘just do it’.

So how could we apply this to teaching (academic) writing? We need to start by ensuring that students have enough facility in both the source and the target languages. We usually assume greater fluency in the source language (most translators work primarily in the direction of native to non-native). So in this case, we need to focus on the structures and ways of ‘academic writtenese’.

We can very much approach this as teaching a foreign language. Our first aim should be to help students acquire fluency in the language of academic writing. We need to give them some target structures to learn. This should ideally be based on an actual analysis of that writing rather than focusing on random salient features. But ultimately, the key element here is practice.

Then we also need to focus on helping the students develop better awareness of their native mentalese and how to best map its structures onto the structures of writtenese. We can do this by helping them write outlines, create mind maps, come up with relevant key words, and of course, read a lot of other people’s writing, think about it, and then write summaries in similar ways.

None of these are particularly revolutionary ideas and they are being used by writing teachers all over the world. What I’m hoping to do here is to provide a metaphor to help focus the efforts on particular aspects of what makes the translation from thought to writing difficult.

Writing as playing a musical instrument

One final analogy that can help us here is the idea of writing as playing a musical instrument. This analogy is in many ways even more apt. When we play a musical instrument, we are initially translating relatively vague musical ideas into actual notes (melodies and harmonies) by way of the structures given to us by the musical instrument.

We may start by learning some chords to accompany a song we hear but later we will progress into more details of musical theory which will allow us to express more elaborate ideas. But, in fact, this also allows us to have more those more elaborate ideas in the first place.

Initially, our ability to express musical ideas via an instrument (such as piano or guitar) will be limited by our skill. We may not even realize what exactly the idea in our head was until we’ve played it. And often, what we can play limits the ideas we have. Jazz teachers often say something like ‘sing your solos first and then play’ (others call it ‘audiation’). But this is not trivial and requires extensive training. Which is why one common advice for jazz musicians is to transcribe (or at least copy) famous songs and solos. But as you’re transcribing and copying, you’re supposed to notice patterns in how musical ideas are expressed. You can then recombine them to express what is in your ‘musical mind’.

But it seems that the musical ideas and their form of expression are never completely separate. They are not a pure translation but rather a co-creation. And this is true of any good translation and probably also ultimately true about any act of writing. We are using a different medium to express an existing idea but in the process, we are filling gaps in the ideas, creating new connections until we ultimately cannot be completely certain which came first.

As we get better at translation, music or writing, there are some levels about which the last part does not hold true. There are some ideas we can truly and faithfully translate from our head to paper, musical instrument or from one language to another. This is why practice is so important. But at the highest levels of difficulty, writing, translation and music making will always be acts of co-creation between the medium and the message.

Teaching writing as music

So finally, could we teach writing in the same way as we teach music? We certainly could. Just like teaching a foreign language, teaching music is mostly dependent on a lot of practice.

But perhaps there are some techniques that music teachers use that could be useful for both language teachers, translators and writing coaches.

One is the emphasis on patterns. The idea of practicing scales, licks, or chords relentlessly (up to hours a day) holds a lot of appeal. Perhaps we start teaching self-expression with writing too soon. Maybe we should give students some practice patterns to repeat in different combinations. Then we could tell them to just copy and then dissect parts of good texts. The idea of ‘mindless’ copying will probably stick in many teachers’ craws. But just analysing reading will never be enough. Students need the experience of writing some good writing. If only to develop some muscle memory. And while it should never be completely mindless, it should also perhaps not be completely meaningful from the very start. Of course, we could invent numerous variations on this approach to transform the texts in various fun ways while still making sure, students are writing extended chunks and developing fluency. The point is that we would not be focusing on self-expression but developing a language for self-expression.

Music teachers and students use what has been described by Anders Ericsson as ‘deliberate practice’. Ericsson gives the example of Benjamin Franklin who used similar techniques to improve his writing:

He first set out to see how closely he could reproduce the sentences in an article once he had forgotten their exact wording. So he chose several of the articles whose writing he admired and wrote down short descriptions of the content of each sentence—just enough to remind him what the sentence was about. After several days he tried to reproduce the articles from the hints he had written down. His goal was not so much to produce a word-for-word replica of the articles as to create his own articles that were as detailed and well written as the original. Having written his reproductions, he went back to the original articles, compared them with his own efforts, and corrected his versions where necessary. This taught him to express ideas clearly and cogently.

Obviously, this was not all there was to it, but it is very much reminiscent of what music students do. It seems to me that most beginner writers are often asked to do too much at the very start and they never get a chance to improve because they essentially give up too soon.

Writing is NOT foreign language, translation or music: The Unmetaphor

Writing is writing! It has its specific properties that we need to attend to if we want to see all of its complexities. We must use metaphors to help us do this but always by remembering that metaphors hide as much as they reveal. One useful way of understanding something is to create a sort of unmetaphor: a listing of similar things that are different from it in various respects. This is something that, while not uncommon, is done much less than it should be when using analogies.

Written language is not a foreign language

Some of the fundamental mental orientations of a language are shared between the written and spoken forms. This includes tense, aspect, modality, definiteness, case morphology, word categories, meanings of most function words, the shape of words, etc. These present some of the most significant difficulties to learners of foreign languages making it very difficult to acquire a second language by exposure alone after a certain age for most adults.

Writing, on the other hand, can be acquired predominantly by exposure alone for many (if not most) adults. There are many people who acquire native-like competence in the written code in the same way they acquired their spoken language competence (even if there are just as many who never do). And we must also be mindful (as Douglas Biber’s research revealed) that there is a bigger difference between some written genres then there is between writing and speech overall. So we should perhaps attend to that.

Writing is not translation

That writing is not actually translation is contained in the fact that written language is not actually a foreign language. There are many genres and registers in any language with their specific codes. And we could call going from one code to another translation much more easily than going from what I called ‘mentalese’ and ‘writtenese’. (Again, the work of Douglas Biber should be the first port of call for anyone interested in this aspect of writing.)

But most importantly, what I called ‘mentalese’ does not actually have the form of a language. Individuals differ in how they represent thoughts that end up being represented by very similar sentences. Some people rely on images, others on words. For some, the mental images more schematic and for others, they have more filled in details. For instance, Lakoff asked how different people imagine the ‘hand’ in ‘Keep somebody’s at arm’s length’. And the responses he got were that for some the hand is oriented with the palm out, others with the palm in.  For some, it includes a sleeve, for others it does not. Etc.

Writing is not music

I’ve already written about the 8 ways in which language is not like music. And they all apply to writing, as well. The key difference for us here is that music cannot express propositions. This means that musical expression can be a lot freer than expressing ideas through writing.

We could argue that writing is more like music than spoken language because it requires some kind of an instrument. Pen, paper, computer, etc. But we usually learn these independently of the skill of expressing ourselves through writing. My ability to play the piano is much more closely tied to my ability to express my musical meanings. However, people write just as expressive prose by the hunt and peck method as when they touch type. One can even dictate a ‘written text’ – that’s how independent it is of the method of production.

Of course, improving one’s facility with the tools of production can improve the writing output just by removing barriers. This is why students are well-advised to learn to touch type or to use a speech-to-text method if they struggle for other reasons (e.g. visual impairment or dyslexia). But when it comes down to it, this is just writing down words and as we established, writing in most senses is more than that.

Conclusions and limitations

Ultimately, writing and translation are not the same. Just as writing and music are not the same. But there are enough similarities to make it worthwhile learning from each other.

Many writers have developed great skills by the ‘tried and tested’ approach of ‘just doing it’. But we also know that even many people who do write a lot never become very ‘good’ at it. They struggle with the mechanics, ability to express cogently what’s in their minds, or just hate everything about it.

For some beginner writers, the worst thing we could do is give them a lot of mindless exercises. These people will want to do it first and would hate to be held back. Just like many students of languages or music like dive off the deep end. But equally, for many others, telling them to ‘just do it’ is the perfect recipe for developing an inferiority complex or downright phobias of writing.

But all of these writers will need lots of practice – regardless of whether we provide lots of ladders and scaffolding or just put a trampoline next to the edifice of their skill. In this, writing is exactly like music, language and translation. You can only get better at it by doing it. A lot!

I started with a quote from Wittgenstein. But he also famously said in summarising his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

I think we saw here that this is not necessarily how the act of writing presents itself to most people.

He then continued:

The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather—not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.

This is was the so-called “early Wittgenstein” before the language games and family resemblances. He spent the rest of his career unpicking this boundary of sense and non-sense. Coming to terms with the fact that what is thought and what is its expression are not straightforward matters.

So all the metaphors notwithstanding, we should be mindful of the constant tensions involved in the writing process and be compassionate with those who struggle to navigate them.

5 kinds of understanding and metaphors: Missing pieces in pedagogical taxonomies

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TL;DR

This post outlines 5 levels or types of understanding to help us better to think about the role of metaphor in explanation:

  1. Associative understanding: Place a concept in context without any understanding.
  2. Dictionary understanding: Repeat definitions, give examples, and make basic connections.
  3. Inferential understanding: Make useful inferences based on knowledge about – but without ability to use the understanding in practice. Requires more than just one concept.
  4. Instrumental understanding: Use the understanding as part of work in a field of expertise. Impossible to acquire for an isolated concept.
  5. Creative understanding: Transform understanding of one domain by importing elements from another. Requires instrumental understanding – goes beyond hints and hunches.

Introduction

In a previous post, I proposed three uses of metaphor leading to different levels of understanding.

  1. Metaphor as invitation
  2. Metaphor as an tool
  3. Metaphor as catalyst

Only 2 and 3 led to any meaningful understanding and that could only be achieved by acquiring some ‘native’ structure of the target domain. But I was rather loose with how I used the word ‘understanding’. I was using notions like ‘meaningful understanding’ or ‘useful understanding’ but never went into any detail. That is the purpose of this post.

In what follows, I provide a sketch for one way of classifying different kinds of understanding. They are not meant to be descriptions or even discovery of some sort of ‘natural kinds’. Instead, I find them to be a useful way of looking at understanding from the perspective of metaphoric cognition.

Associative understanding

Associative understanding is the ability to place something in a context or category without necessarily knowing almost anything about it. So, we may know that an emu is a flightless bird without knowing anything else about it. We could also think of this kind of understanding as a vague notion.

This is the kind of understanding the vast majority of education leaves us with after a few years. Watching a documentary, a TV quiz show, or reading a popular news article fosters this kind of understanding.

Many people can get very far with displaying this kind of understanding – such as con artists impersonating doctors – by successfully imitating experts. The famous Sokal hoax was based on the same principle: making plausible sounding noises can get you published in a prestigious publication. But it is even possible to pass a poorly constructed multiple choice knowledge test with just this understanding by being able to eliminate the wrong options rather than by knowing the correct ones.

The associations can be of various kinds. They can be in the form of basic-category labels (such as – this is an animal). They could place the thing into a discipline – such as ‘something they do in chemistry’. And they could simply be in the form of ‘this is the thing that my friend always talks about’. Or they could also just be parts of the cultural vocabulary without a proper object of understanding.

For example, in the 1960s’ Czechoslovakia there was a famous pop song called ‘Pták Rosomák’ (The Bird Wolverine). The band simply liked the sound of the Czech word for ‘wolverine’ and its rhyme with the word for ‘bird’. Wolverines are not native to Europe or well known outside of this song. I did not find out what the word meant until I learned it in English (I also knew what the word wolverine meant long before I looked it up in a Czech dictionary). When I presented this at a conference on cognition in Prague, most Czech academics in the audience were surprised by the meaning. Yet, if you asked them – do you understand the word ‘rosomák’, they would have said ‘of course, I do’. But it was just an associative understanding.

My claim is that the vast majority of what passes for understanding and knowledge in ‘polite society’ is of the associative kind. People feel comfortable when concepts like evolution or philosophy are mentioned but have only the vaguest idea of where they belong.

My favourite example of this is Monty Python’s ‘Philosopher’s song‘. All the audience needs to know to appreciate the jokes is that there is a philosopher stereotype and that certain names are of philosophers. In fact, by their own admission (citation needed but I did hear it in an interview), the authors of these sketches also did not know much more than the names. Even the little nod to knowledge in ‘John Stuart Mill of his own free will’ is just a glimmer of something deeper.

Associative understanding is pretty much only useful for social signalling. It can also play a role in making a new field appear more familiar in later stages. I have had that experience several times when vague memories from school made me feel more confident I was on the right track when I set about studying a subject in depth even if I had very little more than a vague feeling about something. But on its own, this kind of understanding has little practical value.

In formal instruction, we generally start with the next step but over time, without practice, this is the kind of understanding, we’re left with. But in literature on pedagogy, it is mostly unaddressed. It is the kind of understanding below the bottom rung of Bloom’s taxonomy. But many teachers encounter it when at the end of classes students come and ask questions that barely show a hint of an understanding that makes it seem like they may not have even been in the same room.

Lexical understanding

At this level, we can repeat a definition as we might find it in a dictionary and give a few examples. We can look at a picture and say, this is an emu. It lives in Australia and it is a kind of ostrich. For something like an emu, it may well be enough for most of us.

This is the kind of understanding we may be able to take away from a quick explanation of something. It is the sort of understanding most tests check for. It is also often used as a proxy for intelligence or ‘being smart’. Lexical understanding is what is required of successful quiz show panellists. UK shows such as ‘Mastermind’, ‘Brain of Britain’ or ‘University Challenge’ are great examples of these.

Conversely, lack of lexical (and sometimes even associative) understanding is also often given as an example of educational decline or lack of intelligence.

This would be roughly equivalent to the ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Comprehension’ levels on the Bloom’s taxonomy. It is the minimum target for instruction but it is very unstable. Unless it has been recently used, it often reverts to associative kind of understanding.

This kind of understanding is generally not very useful outside the educational context. This is the kind of understanding that is the result of ‘teaching to the test’. It can be leveraged into something more but only with practice and application.

In terms, of frames or mental representations, we could say that the only mental representations developed as part of this understanding are propositional or rich imagery. Meaning, we have sentences or images in our head that we can draw on but we would find it very hard to combine them into larger wholes.

This level and the transition from this level to the next are where what we call pedagogy plays the most important role.

Inferential understanding

This kind of understanding lets us make useful inferences about the concept in context. It requires some knowledge of a whole domain or several domains. You can never understand a solitary concept at this level. But it does not necessarily require deep ability or skill. I know nothing about emus, so I cannot think of an example that would not be misleadingly trivial.

But I have a personal example from when I was recently catching up on the latest developments in machine learning. I was reading about different types of neural nets. And when I was reading about CNNs (Convolutional Neural Networks) which are usually used for images, I had an idea for using the similar approach to process language by representing text in a way similar to the way images are represented. And it turned out there are already papers and models out there that do just that.

Inferential understanding is the kind of understanding that good students develop about favorite subjects that they pursue later. The kind of understanding that collaborators develop about each others’ discipline in interdisciplinary projects. The kind of understanding good generalist managers develop about the domains in which they supervise subject experts. Or really good journalists develop about areas on which they report. This is also the kind of understanding experts have about related fields or that teachers have about some of the more advanced areas of their field.

The sociologist of science Harry Collins described in one of his books (I think it was ‘Rethinking Expertise’) how he could pass some knowledge tests in gravitational wave physics better than professional physicists from adjacent specialisations. This was after many years of observing these physicists but without any real ability to the actual calculations or research required.

It may not always be easy to tell the boundary between this and lexical or even associative understanding. This is the kind of understanding potentially displayed by an audience member at a lecture who asks a question that is then described as ‘a good question’ by the presenter. But often this is just a fluke. A random hit based on superficial resemblance of words in a definition.

This is the kind of understanding that sort of ‘does not count’ in the terms of Bloom’s hierarchy. We feel it is insufficient because it is not something people consciously aim at in instruction. But it is in many ways the best we can hope for. It is the first kind of any useful knowledge.

It requires more developed mental representations. Representations where the definitions and rich images are replaced by schemas and scenarios. These are a sort of useful compressions that can be blended (or integrated) with others. What it means that when reasoning with these concepts, we can use them as whole units (mental chunks) rather than laboriously compute them from first principles.

It may also derive from some basic level of instrumental understanding. The humour in XKCD cartoons can be understood with a combination of inferential and instrumental understanding. I immediately understood this comic famous among programmers without being a programmer myself but having some skills with databases and knowledge of common problems with security.

But for the most part, we cannot use this understanding for actual work. This is where the humanities and sciences often diverge. It is possible to pretend (even to oneself) that this understanding lets us do real useful work in history or sociology. Whereas with mathematics, engineering, medicine, or biology, the barrier between this and instrumental understanding is much more clearly defined by specialised tools such as mathematics and chemistry. But if we look at the many former physicists or biologists who have tried their hand at philosophy, sociology or even literary criticism, we see that even here, this kind of understanding is not enough.

You really need more to have a chance of doing something useful.

Instrumental understanding

This is the kind of understanding experts and practitioners have. It requires being able to use the concepts or tools in practice. I don’t have any instrumental understanding of convolutional neural networks. I couldn’t build one and possibly couldn’t even reconstruct the exact way in which it works.

This level of understanding or ability or skills requires more than just reading or learning about. It requires practice and building of mental representations which only comes from long-term engagement with a subject. For example, I don’t have that kind of understanding of neural nets, but I do have it of metaphor.

I can create metaphors, identify them in text, speak to the controversies around them, compare and contrast the various theories of metaphor. I can teach somebody how metaphors work. I can write a successful paper or give a conference presentation in the field. If somebody wants to know about metaphor they can come to me. Other people with good instrumental understanding of metaphor may disagree with some of what I have to say, but they won’t do it (I hope) as they would with somebody who has just an associative, lexical or even inferential level of understanding – e.g. knowing that metaphor has something to do with poetry. You have to put in the work.

This work may require actual repetitive practice (such as working out math problems or analysing texts). It absolutely requires extensive engagement with other experts in the field. Taking classes, going to conferences, reading latest research, writing papers, blogs, etc. That’s why loner autodidacts almost never reach this level of understanding.

Here the distinction between understanding and ability or skill becomes blurred. Mental representations develop at the highest levels of schematicity. This means that an expert can look at a very complex situation and treat it as one unit that can be blended with other complex units in a way that only the relevant parts are engaged.

For instance, I can read a complex argument about metaphor and immediately compare it with three other complex arguments about metaphor – not because I have a large mental capacity for abstract concepts but because I have developed a number of highly schematic mental representations about the shapes of arguments people make about metaphor. This way, I can project these schemas onto the argument as one big chunk.

Perhaps an even better analogy is learning a foreign language. I may know all the rules and words but I cannot speak the language with any level of fluency until I have developed larger chunks I can just slightly modify. It is simply impossible for even the most highly mentally endowed human to dredge up individual words, apply rules to them and combine them into a sentence quickly enough to speak with any level of coherence. It’s even worse for understanding. Just reading a text with a dictionary is such a slow affair that we forget what a sentence was about before we get to the end.

In other words, we can then define instrumental understanding as developing a basic fluency in the language of the discipline. And this takes time, targetted practice, and active ‘communicative’ engagement across a whole field.

In the ‘hard sciences,’ it requires a good facility with formalisms or even equipment and in the ‘softer’ disciplines it relies on extensive reading, talking, and writing.

Here we are at a much wider aperture of our knowledge funnel. It is therefore impossible to exactly compare 2 people’s levels of instrumental understanding. Everybody will have a slightly different set of mental representations. Also, many people will only be able to ‘perform’ at this level some of the time or only for small chunks of their discipline.

At this level, pedagogy is much less relevant. This is where it makes a lot less sense to talk about teaching and learning if only because it is impossible to acquire this level of understanding purely in the classroom. Training, coaching or even apprenticeship are much better models.

Creative understanding

Creative understanding is instrumental understanding with a transformative element. This requires knowledge of several domains and their creative intermingling. It is the sort of understanding innovators in their field have. This can lead us to a complete rejection of the thing we understand as an independent concept.

For example, I have long argued that metaphor is only one place in language where domain projection occurs and that we should not think of it as something special but rather as a shortcut for thinking about broader phenomena of framing or cognitive models. I found this a useful way of extending the concept. So, I can make a serious statement such as ‘metaphor and metonymy are the same thing’ that can be productive in the study of metaphor. But it only makes sense because I can actually distinguish between metaphors, similies, synechdoches or metonymies, and I can also reproduce arguments that maintain that the difference between metaphor and metonymy is crucial for understanding figurative language.

It is hard to say whether this type of understanding is even a part of the funnel hierarchy. Perhaps it is just an ingredient (catalyst) to instrumental understanding. But I do want to stress that it only works as a catalyst to instrumental understanding. As I showed in my post on types of metaphors, creativity needs to start from somewhere.

We may often confuse almost accidental insights by people with inferential or even just lexical understanding for creativity. But this is like recognising a melody in the sounds a child makes by randomly banging on the piano keyboard.

We often valorise the outsider perspective in a field. And it certainly can act as a catalyst for creativity but only if it has proper instrumental understanding to lean on.

Conclusions and limitations

I cannot stress enough that this classification is just a useful heuristic. I am not claiming that this kind of classification of understanding is exhaustive or even that it represents some sort of a natural category. But I found it useful when thinking about explanations and pedagogy.

Approaches to classifying understanding

It is quite common to distinguish between shallow and deep understanding. This is intuitively obvious but not very helpful because it assumes the existence of some sort of objective scale of a depth of understanding.

We can also distinguish understanding from knowledge for example by differentiating between explicit and tacit knowledge. Understanding and explicit knowledge intuitively overlap even if we don’t have a firm definition of either. If we understand something, we can mentally manipulate it and, most importantly, pass it along.

But the boundaries between tacit and explicit knowledge are not firm. All explicit knowledge depends on some tacit knowledge – or in other words, all understanding depends on knowledge. We could even say that deep learning is the process of transforming understanding into knowledge. In the sense, that we need to build up schematic mental representations to be able to manipulate ever more complex combinations of concepts.

Another way to try to get at understanding is to investigate how to achieve it. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives is one famous example. There are many tweaks and elaborations – some as extreme as Jack Koumi’s 33 pedagogic roles. But they are ultimately not very satisfying because they already assume we know what the understanding is.

Understandings as a process revisited: The wave and the funnel

Even though these different types of understanding are ‘broadly hierarchical’, I want the emphasis to be on ‘broadly’. It would make no sense to think of these as a straightforward linear hierarchy measurable on a scale of discrete and comparable units. They are more like overlapping waves. Layers of water covering the beach in successive bursts as the tide is coming in.

But that metaphor does not make it easy to visualise the differences and mutual interdependence. It only evokes how hard and unreliable it is to do so. But for the purposes of this comparison, I’d like to offer something more like a funnel (which I also brought up in the context of the metaphor explanation hierarchy) or inverted cone.

The substance that fills the funnel might be a mixture of effort and coverage of material. This makes it easy to visualise the fact that it takes much more effort, time and background knowledge to get from level 3 to level 4 than it does to get from level 1 to level 2. Also, at the higher levels, the concepts themselves transform and interconnect. So it is not possible to understand them in isolation.

This truly takes into account the processual nature of understanding. The funnel also needs to be constantly topped up to maintain certain levels. But it can also underscore the fact that we can never perfectly compare 2 people’s levels of understanding. Because at the higher levels, the funnel is so broad, not everybody will have filled it in the same way with exactly the same substance.

I got this idea from ACTFL language competency levels and I think it is one of the most underappreciated metaphors in education.

Another really useful thing ACTFL does is that it defines low, mid and high sublevels for each competency levels. And a part of the definition of the ‘high’ sublevel is that the person can function at the ‘low’ sublevel of the next level about half the time. (E.g. a Novice-Low can function as Intermediate-Low about 50% of the time). During the test (most often an interview), the examiner establishes a floor and a ceiling rather than pinpointing an exact point on a scale.

This very much applies to the levels in my metaphor. There are no clear boundaries between these levels of understandings. In as much as they are levels in the first place.