Credit: Simon Robinson

Words - What On Earth Are They All About?

Thinking about thinking

In my photo above you will see some of the books I have read recently and also one or two I am working my way through. As you can see there is both a mix of creative business books reflecting my work in innovation, sustainability, biomimicry and complexity. There are also some of the most hard-to-understand philosophical works as well, the top three there being Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Sometimes I do keep asking myself the question is it really worth my while reading books that can at times be utterly impenetrable, but always I manage to tell myself yes.

The value in reading these philosophers is not in the answers they provide, but in the questions they ask. The most valuable insight for me has been to really contemplate the relationship between seeing, perception, thinking and language, and how these are not functionally separate activities, but still manage to elude us in the way not only we understand how they function, but how we conceive of them in the first place.

Gadamer was one of the great hermeneutical philosophers, and his great contribution was his conception of hermeneutical consciousness. Gadamer was interested in how we could come to understand the meaning of historical texts, texts written in different eras to our own, where people had dramatically different world views. He was a great friend of Heidegger, and in his words we see how for Gadamer, the word comes-into-being through language:

In language the world presents itself. It is from language as a medium that our whole experience of the world, and especially hermeneutical experience, unfolds. Language is a medium where I and world meet, or rather, manifest their original belonging together. Being that can be understood is language. The hermeneutical phenomenon here projects its own universality back onto the ontological constitution of what is understood, determining it in a universal sense as language and determining its own relation to beings as interpretation. That which can be understood is language. This means that it is of such a nature that of itself it offers itself to be understood.

Merleau-Ponty takes a different stance, and one that attempts to find a path out of the empiricism - rationalism dichotomous debate. He is interested in what role the nature of our bodies play in perception.

To see is always to see from somewhere.

My own introduction to these philosophers came from being taught by the very wonderful Henri Bortoft, who in the 1950s studied the problem of wholeness in quantum physics as a student of David Bohm. He went on to explore hermeneutics and phenomenology, and then later the scientific studies of Goethe for which he was most well known. It is difficult to pinpoint the one greatest insight I gained from Henri, but it could well be the notion of just how intellectual we can sometimes be when discussing concepts. I think for me it was the realisation that how much I used to take perception for granted, and that in fact the worlds we experience as fact first have to come-into-being through our prior understanding of what the world ought to be like. As Merleau-Ponty said:

“True philosophy entails learning to see the world anew. The philosopher is a perpetual beginner. We must not wonder if we truly perceive a world; rather, we must say; the world is what we perceive.”

Not only was David Bohm a great physicist, he was also a philosopher, one who was concerned about the fragmented world we live in, and he wrote a great deal on dialogue and creativity. Bohm talked about how language itself leads us away from thinking about wholeness but being constructed of objects which have actions happen to them via verbs. How could we truly comprehend the wholeness of quantum physics where atomistic thinking was utterly inadequate?

I do believe that there is no adequate answer yet to the question “What is a thought?” It seems in science that no one can agree on anything. But that is not to say that we can not learn lessons valuable to our lives from contemplating these great questions, and while we may not be able to really understand the world’s very greatest thinkers, we still gain by developing a feeling for their radically different ways of conceiving of reality.

These insights are extremely valuable in business. Jesse Schell’s book on game design is wonderful as it is structured around the notion of 100 lenses with which we understand the design process in business. Business Model Generation has taken the world by storm for its ability to help people really see a business model as a whole, and although of course it is a simplistic conceptualisation, if used wisely it is incredible powerful. And writers such as Giles Hutchins and Alan Moore urge us to really explore our non-linear world, a challenge which really requires a lifetime’s worth of learning journeys, as we transform ourselves ready for this new reality of hyper-connectivity we find ourselves living in.

Words - what are they all about? Sometimes I feel there are too many people using too many words, concepts and phrases they have not truly experienced and therefore can not truly talk about. As a friend of mine who was also a student of Henri remarked, “Henri took words to places I thought they couldn’t go.” Maybe if we can become slightly more mindful about language and how language shapes our realities, we can begin the shift away from argument and rightness, towards one of genuinely constructive dialogue?