Posts Tagged ‘Korzybski’

The philosopher Alan Watts was adept at stating certain truths that would otherwise remain just beyond our grasp (at best), or deliberately hidden from us (at worst). Because Personal Development is often seen as a process of understanding oneself through study of the self, in many people’s minds it is just a type of introspection. And though people may or may not think that they like to introspect, they are frequently willing to subscribe to the idea that the personality is just the set of qualities which one possesses (or doesn’t) and a pre-set series of potentials which one does (or doesn’t) live up to.

This belief has spawned an industry of self-help literature and know-how guides and gurus, and their proliferation is either evidence that the world is really like that, or that it is not. I take the latter view, and I think there is a serious flaw in the idea we hold in our minds when we are thinking about how we come to be what we are.

“Trying to define yourself is like biting your own teeth”, said Watts. And the point is, surely, that we cannot define ourselves in relation only to ourselves;  it’s an impossibility. What we need, in order to find our own outline, are other people’s outlines (and they need ours). So the first point I wanted to make is that our existence and consideration of “self” is entirely a matter of our relations with ‘the other’.  This is true for individuals and it’s also true for organisations, and it’s true for nations… for any concept which is imbued with identity and culture.

The second issue is that we do not seem to be able to talk our way out of this easily. When we come to attach meaning to ideas as if they were “things” with definable qualities, we are caught up in doing what the Polish-born philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski famously referred to as confusing the map with the territory. The truth is that our beliefs and values have no physical reality, neither in personal nor in business life.

This week I have been working with MBAs on their Personal Development. As part of this we looked at the process of learning, through the lens of Kolb’s experiential cycle, and then through the secondary lens of Honey and Mumford’s learning styles (Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist). We also used the labels developed by Belbin to indicate behavioral preferences when working in a group or team (Plant, Shaper, Co-ordinator and so on…). How easy it was to begin to label oneself as being one or other of these “things” (and someone else, by implication, as not). What one is tempted to do is then to identify oneself as these things. When someones says “I’m a Teamworker” or “I’m an Activist”, they are in fact jumping across several levels of abstraction without knowing it. There is “me” and there is my “description of me”, and they are not the same ‘thing’ at all.  Our problem, in short, is our addiction to nouns. We love giving names to things to separate them from the background mess of not-things, and this is so that we can analyse them and, perhaps, infer from that one, tiny part something about the limitless, unknowable rest.

My assertion that we should be very wary of substance does not accord with much of what one will meet inside an MBAprogramme. Subject Matter Experts like to perpetuate the concrete and the measurable over any system of abstractions. To them, their subject “matters”, is material in fact, and any kind of musing which suggests otherwise is a bit of an anathema. I know this because often I notice that this is how I see it, too. Why not? We’re not only very good at it (at imposing order on the world), we have been able to become incredibly productive as a result. And yet I can’t help being drawn to the idea that the aim of education should be to leave everyone involved (faculty and student alike) in a state of some confusion and flux about what it is they are studying, and what it means to “study” at all, and so on.

This may just be one of those “out there” blog postings that hints at something under the surface but does not capture it, and having kicked the idea around a bit then just carries on in the ordinary, day-to-day life – until there is another glimpse, where it resurfaces in another way.


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