21st Century Kant: Learning to Frame Knowledge Anew (w/ help from Aristotle & Wittgenstein)

Some have spent years studying Kant and his Categorical Framework for knowledge, first published in 1781.  I am absolutely fascinated by the implications of Kant’s maddeningly simple chart.

Can it be a framework for all knowledge?

Can we somehow bring this structure into our modern, 21st century understanding of how we think about knowledge itself?  I think we can.

Kant argued that his 12 “intuitions of the pure understanding” existed a priori, ie., prior to any observable experience, and as such, were fundamental precursors to any knowledge framework.

What appears below emerged from research I’ve been doing on the history of philosophy and science, summarized on a prior post on Divergence.  In that earlier graphic, it’s no coincidence that Aristotle is at the top and Kant is in the center, flanked by left-brain dominated science, and right-brain dominated philosophy, modern distinctions that weren’t evident back then.

(c) 2012 Chris Jones @sourcepov

I’ve attempted to accurately capture commonly used key words for each element of Kant’s Framework. Below each of these, in blue, I’ve provided some more modern phraseology.  And I’ve indexed Kant’s 4 Categories (columns A-D) and 3 Dimensions (rows 1-3) for discussion.  Click on the chart to view it larger.

New thinking? That appears in the far right column, also in blue.

Think of each phrase as a semantic symbol for each of 12 categorical dimensions that Kant offered us in his 1781 “4×3” framework.  Keep in mind, translation from German can introduce some ambiguity.  So can the mountain of doctoral dissertations on this topic in the intervening 230 years.  [Note: as I’m likely trodding on well-worn ground of others, please alert me to appropriate authoritative attributions that are due; I will add citations.]

Wittgenstein has been an important voice in my thinking.  In rationalization of knowledge frameworks or, really, anything as abstract as knowledge itself, the semantics are extremely important – especially with Kant.  Two other frameworks I wanted to throw in the mix here:  (a.) Aristotle’s 4 Causes, and (b.) the structure of western language itself, using English (my mother tongue) as a basis.

(c) 2012 Chris Jones @sourcepov

With that as an input, let’s tap Wittgenstein-thinking re: language in hopes we might identify some semantic connections lurking in Kant’ framework.  Let’s convert the conceptual symbols in the framework into sentences, to see what happens.

Walking the 4 columns.  First, we’ll test Kant’s framework as viewed through our updated, 21st century semantics to examine Kant’s 4 Categories (the columns) more deeply.  As we do, focus on my verbs (bold) that I’m using to evaluate each row in that column (underlined).  This allows us to see what’s happening analytically at each level of intuitive comprehension.

This forms the outline of a new analytical model based on Kant’s framework.

  • COL A. CREATE A CONCEPTUAL FRAME.  “I comprehend one archetype, I observe many examples in reality, but I can only imagine the complexity inherent in totality of the real world”
  • COL B. ESTABLISHING EPISTEMOLOGICAL CONTEXT.  “I recognize one state of actual reality, I hypothesize an ability to disprove events in such a reality, but I can infer that a true reality is constrained by a hybrid mix of limitations and constraints”
  • COL C. EXPLORE CHOICES. “I understand that there is an atomic, self contained archetypical concept, I may be able to prove the causal relationship of objects (the instantiations of concepts), but I can only attempt to interpolate the complex interdependency that exists among them in the real world”
  • COL D. SYNTHESIS (REAL-WORLD, COMPLEXITY). “I realize conceptually that something is possible, I conclude that empirical testing may prove it to be true, but I learn that true interactive dynamic is to be highly contingent on context, initial conditions, and other real-world factors”

The first verb in each sentence has a Philosophical heritage, the second is Scientific, and the third is new, deriving from real-world complexity.  From this construct, I saw a pattern.  Here are the verbs in table form, mapped onto Kant’s Framework, with conclusions at right and at bottom, so this is more clear.  I switched rows and columns around (3×4, instead of 4×3) to force a different perspective.  I am learning that such changes in point of view are essential to fully realize critical thinking.

(c) 2012 Chris Jones @sourcepov

Walking the 3 rows.  For one last test, we’ll check for coherence of the model, essentially applying the representative triggers for each node of Kant’s framework.  Again, the operative notion from Kant’s model is underlined in each case, using symbols derived from the first table above, read left to right.

  1. One reality is possible” (philosophic context – the archetype, ideal case)
  2. Many experiments will validate a truth” (scientific context – the dynamic, empirical case)
  3. All constrained interdependencies result in contingent adaptations” (real world context – the complexity case)

There’s a certain logic emerging here.  For me, viewed in this light, Kant’s framing hangs together a bit better now, with a little help from Aristotle (on intention) and Wittgenstein (on semantics).  The traditional 4 category names – “quantity”, “quality”, “relation” and “modality”, as translated from the German – didn’t resonate with me when I first came across them.

I see Kan’t early ideas on complexity in the bottom row of his model, the ultimate dimension in which the effect of the real-world takes hold;  science runs through the middle; philosophy is at the top.  Context?  It is shifting throughout, as we move through various modes of abstraction.

That’s the magic of how we think.

[Note: Another framework that I believe is relevant for further study is Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy for Learning, updated by Anderson, et al, in 2001.  The table dimensions have interesting similarities, but that’s a comparison for another day.]

I’m hopeful this is a foundation for the epistemic convergence that I was mulling in my prior “divergence” post.  Have we unpacked Kant after all?  Is all knowledge represented?  We certainly gave it the good old college try.

Challenge me.  What do you think?

Lakoff on Metaphor: Rethinking how we Frame and Unpack Complex Problems

Our critical thinking series continues in the language space, focusing now on perhaps the most powerful tool of all: the metaphor.

Like the words and grammar of language itself, metaphor is a crucial, foundational aspect of effective communication, and it’s one we tend to take for granted.

Metaphor is a way to create common ground. It pulls from what is ultimately shared or sharable human experience. And it serves us well not only as a literary device, but also as a versatile, robust element of our cognitive thought processes. We use metaphorical frames when we think, when we speak, and importantly, when we collaborate. And because of their versatile reach to bridge our thinking across diverse subject areas, they may well emerge as a new approach for grappling with problem complexity.

To explore these possibilities, let’s start with a working definition:

Metaphor is a mental/linguistic technique that helps us understand a complex concept by relating it to our more concrete, observable experiences; by comparing two discrete ideas, we expose similarities and can infer logical relationships.

While we employ metaphors frequently in everyday speech, the mechanics of the technique often remain a mystery. Metaphors have the power to clarify and enlighten, but we seldom use them intentionally to make a point, or work to find ways to leverage their full potential.

In “The Metaphors We Live By” (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson lay down a rigorous argument for why metaphors matter, laced with interesting and compelling examples. They build on Wittgenstein’s concern (from a half a century earlier) that academics, philosophers and scientists have tended to talk past one another, speaking from their own paradigms and being generally unwilling to recognize – let alone embrace – frameworks in use among other camps.

Some examples are in order.

First, let’s introduce several commonly used cultural metaphors that are core to our Western way of thinking. I’ll state the metaphor then I’ll provide some related ideas that might flow from it:

“Time is Money” – how do you spend your time? – I’ve invested lots of energy on that project – I can’t waste any more time on that
“Organizational Politics is War” – he defended the point – her criticisms were on target – his ideas were shot down – let’s develop a plan of attack
“Public Education is a Factory” – is the system working? do we need common curriculum standards to ensure compliance and quality? – are we forcing students to fail when they don’t match a specification or comply with schedule, as if they were defective parts?

Clearly, our history flows deeply through our culture and our language.

Sometimes using more than one metaphor to analyze the same abstract concept is useful. Per Lakoff, when held up side by side, the various metaphorical comparisons may not be consistent because they describe different aspects, but to be effective, metaphors should be coherent, that is, without spawning conflicting views.

Consider these examples:

“Problems are Puzzles” – we need to take it apart – how do the pieces fit?
“Problems are Journeys” – we’re on the wrong path – we’ll add more elements along the way – do you think we will discover a solution? – that idea could drive us in an entirely new direction
“Problems are Containers” – that idea is out of scope – we need to pull in more expertise – your concern is at the core of a very strong argument
“Problems are Buildings” – that issue is foundational – we need to build some case studies for this – we need to architect a different approach – that point could help us unlock further dialog

These metaphors are both consistent and coherent. We can use virtually all of the descriptive phrases interchangeably. Each helps to address specific perspectives of what a problem is and how web might attack it, with generally intuitive results. As we do this, listeners will tend to subconsciously resonate (sometimes emotionally) with one aspect or another.

Here we expose a cultural challenge. Though metaphor is present in everyday speech, the injection of subjectivity and emotional response into problem solving has historically sparked concerns for scientists, academics, whole schools of philosophers, and many in the business world. Why? Because we live in a Western culture that prides itself on its highly rational objectivity. A presumption of factual certainty has overtaken our thinking, and made metaphor an enemy of precision.

Case in point? Let’s circle back:

“Public Education is a Factory” has become an increasingly popular metaphor (employed by both Clay Christensen and Sir Kenneth Robinson) that sparks widely different responses from educators, academics and parents. Many practitioners, for example, will have an immediate negative reaction. Arguably, from a professional vantage, this clearly can’t be true; it is in conflict with a deeply held vision of education. But if approached with an open mind, metaphors like this one can start a useful dialog. In what ways are schools like factories? What are the implications? What can be done to about it? Deeper, more highly invested conversations tend to energize a serious, intentional discovery exercise. Metaphor can literally get people to think outside their silo’d mental models. When we encourage subjectivity in thinking, we can open minds (our own, and those of others) to new ideas. When collaborating, we provide stakeholders multiple ways to relate, sparking deeper engagement. By tapping personal experiences, a broader portfolio of relevant ideas can emerge.

Doesn’t this help us with critical thinking in general? I say yes.

Though many see critical thought as a reductive exercise (harkening back to the world of objective science), I think we need to train our minds for expansive thought as well. Effective use of metaphor exposes diverse aspects of our ideas. Besides shedding light on how we think, we understand better how we relate to each other. Do we agree? Do we disagree? Why? And all the while, we’re developing an ever richer solution language, steeped in metaphorical insight.

Again, intentional collaboration ultimately seeks to establish and expand upon our common ground.

Metaphor can help us get there.

Lakoff says a metaphor works if it advances our understanding. I’m seeing some compelling possibilities. Are you?

Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking

Language, like the culture it derives from, plays a subtle but powerful role in how we interact with others. Yet we are so completely immersed in it, we scarcely give it a second thought.

Early in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein brought focus to the critical importance of language in the context of knowledge, philosophy, and science. One of the more powerful and accessible claims he framed was this one:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6 (1921).

It may seem overstated at first glance, but let’s unpack it.

If we reflect on how we think about, evaluate, and come to understand virtually anything, we realize that the running voice of our conscious thought sets practical boundaries. We can contemplate problems and solutions in our mind only to the extent we have words to describe them. Our vocabulary either limits or unlocks our ability to describe what we see. Our command of grammar and ability to construct descriptions of abstract concepts works the same way.

Our command of semantics is a central to critical thinking.

Language literally bounds our possibilities.

Wittgenstein thus underscores a compelling argument for mastery of the original liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – skills that we might better grasp today in the modern context of reading and writing – but his message is clear: the tools of language are essential to the thinking person.

Now let’s apply those ideas in the social and collective contexts.

What happens in a team setting?

Carefully articulating a new idea for ourselves is only half the battle. As collaborators we face the more difficult but critically essential task of explaining this idea to others. What words do we use? What language will our audience understand? And if we’ve followed good practice by ensuring a diverse group of collaborative stakeholders, the bar has been raised even further: what subset of our shared language will be most effective to ensure common understanding across a diverse team?

From my experience, the most common failure in team settings is mis-communication of ideas, most readily observed when group members freely, often unwittingly, talk past each other. In a fervent effort to make a point, we default to arguments grounded in our semantics of origin. So what happens? IT folks will talk technology. Accounting will talk about margins. Sales will talk about customer problems. Educators will talk about pedagogy. Academics will talk about epistemologies. With heightened energy, the vocabulary grows increasingly parochial and inaccessible, and the steeper the organization’s silo walls, the more entrenched the participants tend to be, and the more difficult language barriers are to cross.

No wonder finding common ground can seem like a pipe dream.

So intentional collaboration places clear demands on semantic foundations. Defining key terms often helps. Project glossaries can go a long way.

Another strong approach (referenced previously in this blog, and elsewhere) is that of a solution language. The idea is to create common ground on the output side. We can define terms for the proposed solution set(s) that are literally grounded in a new language that is embraced by all. It is an extraction from the contributors’ source languages, an amalgamation of pieces and parts to create a viable whole. As the solution language is built, common ground is established in the process. In so doing, collaborators become more aware of their context of origin, better described as their comfort zone. With time and energy, many will see how cultural and linguistic boundaries can impact their collaborative engagement.

Peter Senge in the 5th Discipline, observes:

In dialog, people become observers of their own thinking.

then cites the work of the late physicist David Bohm, who researched collective learning among scientists. Bohm believed that we, as individuals engaged in collaborative dialog, can:

“… begin to correct incoherence in our own thinking. A kind of sensitivity develops that goes beyond what is familiar … (exposing) subtle meanings that lie at the root of real intelligence.”

Senge and Bohm share a deep sense for the requirements for team-based learning. Senge himself devotes many pages to language, and the evolutionary steps through which individuals must navigate to achieve value from a shared, collective learning model. Often, it means suspending bias inherent from professional education and what is often years working within a given specialty.

Thomas Kuhn’s thinking on the challenges and demands of paradigm shifts peers from these lines.

Wittgenstein’s foundational messages ring true throughout.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves standing before the locked door of critical thinking. We hold the keys in our hands, but remain dumbfounded about how to use them. When we attempt to collaborate, we stand before the same door with others, but we’re still at a loss; perhaps it’s even worse, arguing the course of action.

Language, like culture, is a profoundly rich, integral aspect of our social existence. I’ll summarize it like this:

Language is the master key to unlocking effective collaboration, opening the door to possibilities of what we can accomplish via intentional, purposeful dialog with others.

We can cast all this aside, broadcasting our views to the world at will. We can choose empty words with casual intent to impress, or use caustic words that serve only to bully, blame and obscure.

People do it every day.

The price? It’s a fundamental failure to be understood, preempting an exchange of ideas that could have emerged into something more. That spells disaster for progress in any language.

Philosophy and the Search for Ideas: Foundations of Critical Thinking

As historians are quick to point out, the parallels between modern times and the classical world – including not only Greece, but also Rome – are plentiful. No new thinking here. In profound ways, our modern society, laws, forms of government and language are embedded in the classic traditions.

But there’s more to the story than that.

The history of philosophy, more broadly framed as the history ideas, tells a compelling story about a journey to new levels of understanding – a tale that traces evolution of ‘critical thinking’ itself.

At its core, philosophy is about learning how we ‘know’ what we know, and learning what we can do with the knowledge that can be gained.

Critical thinking and philosophy seem to share a common heritage, as shown in this table:

There is scant space here to do justice to such a rich history, but to advance the topic as part of my critical thinking series we need to at least expose the biggest pillars. In the paragraphs below, I focus on philosophers who have provided significant contributions to what has evolved as the modern notion of critical thinking.

  1. Pythagoras. A pioneer in math, Pythagoras advanced geometry with his famous theorem on triangles. In so doing, he brought the concept of ‘abstraction’ into the mainstream. He effectively demonstrated that what we observe is one thing, while what we comprehend mentally is quite another.
  2. Socrates. Famous for asking deeper and deeper questions to get to the core of an issue, Socrates was a relentless advocate of critical thinking. He is said to have used Pythagorean triangles drawn in the sand to challenge skeptics on their limited view of the ‘knowable’.
  3. Plato. While famous as both student and scribe of Socrates and an early political scientist, Plato was important in this discussion for driving concepts of perfected universals – truth, as one example – derived from accepted perfections in abstract mathematics. When we think about ideal solutions and archetypes, we owe a debt to Plato for asserting their importance, laying ground work for the modern framing of ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn) and ‘mental model’ (Senge).
  4. Aristotle. A critical inflection point in Western philosophic thought, Aristotle used his deep appreciation for observable science – biology in particular – to bring a rational, logical rigor to the abstract ideas of his time. He laid key foundational ideas of ‘causality’, and described abstract universals as characteristics that describe what we see in reality, reversing ideas of his predecessor, Plato. He was also the first rigorous ‘ontologist’ – developing categorization structures (including the classic genus-species taxonomy for plants and animals) that help us classify the world around us.
  5. Bacon. While not the first in a long empirical tradition, Francis Bacon is typically held up as the earliest catalyst of rigorous thought that established experimental science as a discipline. He provided the building blocks of what would later become known as the scientific method. With this structured approach, man gained the ability to discover and prove the causes of things.
  6. Hume. Among his many contributions, Hume helped advance the idea of ‘mediation’ in our perceptions, arguing that our logic and conclusions are often filtered, whether by our senses or by our prior patterns of behavior, describing how the mind makes assumptions around causation based on our experiences (note: watch for future discussion of ‘mental heuristics’).
  7. Kant. Perhaps the most influential critical thinker of the last 400 years and a rich source of insights, Immanuel Kant brought many of Aristotle’s early notions forward into the modern world. He advanced the categorization of knowledge, with ideas that hinted at ‘context’ based on the notion of “a priori” (pre-existing) factors such as the special external functions of space and time. He also introduced a rational approach to our behavior, bringing logical underpinning to the discussion of ethics.
  8. Wittgenstein. Famous for bringing the nuances of language into the discussion of ideas, Wittgenstein argued that both culture and semantic bias carry a fundamental influence in any kind of meaningful exchange. He argued that semantic rigor is essential to philosophical endeavors, serving as a cornerstone of what we now call critical thinking.

At the risk of leaving holes in our story, I’ve left out some key names – deep thinkers like Descartes, Hegel, Locke, Hobbes, Reid, Mill, and a raft of others – and I’ll take responsibility for the exclusions. This was in part due to space, but also due to the focus of my research on the dynamics and demands of modern collaboration.

If you can help me fill any gaps in the progression, share your thoughts and I’ll provide updates. There’s also a quick survey in the toolbar that would help build a broader consensus on those most influential.

With a foundation in place, where can we go from here?

Unlike any time in history, people and their ideas are getting connected at an accelerated rate. That changes the rules of what’s possible. Critical thinkers who collaborate are likely to drive a potent set of outcomes.

The ability to realize the new dynamics of knowledge sharing may be the next significant challenge our society faces, but also, I believe, it is our greatest promise. Building a sustainable future requires that we relearn what it means to learn, and to advance our ability to learn from each other – globally, deeply, and ever more quickly.

There’s still much work ahead, as this series continues to rediscover what scholars have known all along: the importance of critical thinking.

Let me know your thoughts.