Which one are you?

In Robert Pirsig’s book Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he lays out the distinction between Romanticism and Classicalism.

Romanticism- is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. […]

Classicalism- proceeds by reason and by laws — which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour. […]

This divide basically separates people to those who can look at a Wassily Kandinsky painting with awe and those who can look at a blueprint from Fazlur Rahman Khan and equally be in awe. Pair one with the other and it will completely bore both.

Going back roughly 300 years there was the Age of Enlightenment (from 1685 to 1815). The Age of Enlightenment can further be segmented into the British and the French Enlightenment.

The British Enlightenment

The British Enlightenment was concerned with the things like instinct, existentialism, honesty, authenticity, and utopianism. Texts from that era are filled with vocabulary describing the ‘passions’ and the ‘sentiments’ of individuals. Prominent authors of the movement include Thomas Hobbs, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza. The meta-narrative of these works included themes that tended to see society as organic, vastly complex networks of living relationships; that nature is beyond scientific distillation. The sum is likely to be greater than the individual parts themselves.

The French Enlightenment

On the other hand, the French Enlightenment emphasized science, logic, and universal rules. Authors of this movement tended to produce works that entailed formulaic articulation and reductionism of the natural world -including human relationships. Notable authors include Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Roseau, Montesquieu, and Denis Diderot. Here, the meta-narrative is that society and institutions can be broken down mechanistically -broken down to the most basic parts and then reassembled with a scientific understanding. The sum is nothing more than a byproduct of the parts.

Abstracting Forward

What pushed me to explore this idea was the vast difference between multiple parties that go into software production. On the one hand you have the ‘creatives’ -the ones that produce the user interface, or the experience. On the other hand you have the ‘architects’, the ones that ensure functionality and meaningful action for the user. It became glaringly obvious just how different people on both sides of this table not only operate but think about things differently.

Abstracting Backwards

Digging into the literature surrounding the history of intellectual thought, I came across two primary text that helped me better grasp the divide. The first text was, as alluded to earlier, Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Although the book ultimately sets out to answer the question: “What is quality?” It does a great job breaking down the British and French Enlightenment, ultimately categorizing them as ‘romanticism’ and ‘classicalism’.

The second text that helped flesh out the distinction was David Brook’s Social Animal in which he walks readers through a non-fictional subconscious journey of their own life. In the book he gets into the differences between the French and British Enlightenment contextualizing it with the current cognitive revolution within human psychology.

Is either right or wrong?

Some readers may well identify with the ‘Romanticists’, or the British Enlightenment, while other will easily identify themselves as ‘Classicists’ -referring to the French Enlightenment. Those who identify with the British Enlightenment will likely fulfill (or desire to fulfill) roles that involve human interaction whether it be therapy, sales, human relations, public relations, education, public office, journalists, diplomats, or anything that consistently deals with human interaction.

On the other hand, those who identify with ‘Classicalism’, or the French Enlightenment, might identify as programmers, analysts, architects, engineers, scientists, professors, or anything that involves a scientific (and formulaic) approach to outcome.

The Challenge

I challenge readers to think about whether they classify themselves as ‘Classicists’ or ‘Romanticist’ and to determine why.

Do you tend to believe that achievement can be distilled to a formula or do you think that achievement is an abstraction?

Do you value technical skills or soft skills?

Finally, can you apply this distinction to real-life examples where you have been successful as a ‘Romanticist’ or ‘Classicist’ while failing at the other?