Humanity’s Great Traditions of Inquiry and Action

18 July 2020 in Resource Center.

In order to undertake the project of becoming a comprehensivist—to come to understand our worlds more and more broadly and deeply—we need to provision a toolkit for the task. What are all the possible approaches that we might mobilize in our quest to make sense of it all and of each other?

“The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman argues that design, not any of the arts or sciences, was humanity’s first “tradition of inquiry and action“. The “Great Books” and “Great Ideas” collections of Mortimer J. Adler and others, inspired us to prefix the word “great” in front of the phrase from “The Design Way”. We now reformulate our initial question as What are the Great Traditions of Inquiry and Action that humanity has accumulated through the ages? Will this suffice to delimit the range of possible approaches which a comprehensivist might assay?

First, let’s pause to ask: Is it necessary and/or sufficient to encompass all humanity’s traditions with the metaphysics of inquiry and action? I am not at all sure, but since we need some organizing principle, as with all proposed and allegedly “obvious” first principles, we might just accept “inquiry and action” as a good enough working hypothesis of the nature of all humanity’s traditions without too much thought and boldly adopt it.

Cataloguing Humanity’s Great Traditions of Inquiry and Action

We might attempt to circumscribe the comprehensivist’s purview with a survey of university courses. Certainly, in modern civilization, these courses catalogue some of the most important traditions in support of civilization’s dynamic functioning. However, the courses that make it into the repositories of free on-line course platforms or into the offerings of any given college or university are limited to those deemed suitable to “academic standards” and market demand. That limits the scope of comprehensiveness that we seek.

The comprehensivist might also assay the vocational training of technicians and artisans, books, journals, magazines, newspapers, articles, essays, reports, documentaries, films, video shorts, museums, libraries, artifacts of industrial and craft traditions, and many other resources. All of these can be passed on from person to person and ideally from generation to generation and so represent a tradition of inquiry and action. They are all excellent resources, but the comprehensivist seeks the broadest possible ken.

How can we encompass the broadest horizon possible? Consider this quote from W. E. H. Stanner’s essay “The Dreaming” about the philosophy of Australian Aborigines:

“It took well over half a century for Europeans to realize that, behind the outward show, was an inward structure of surprising complexity. It was a century before any real understanding of this structure developed. In one tribe with which I am familiar, a very representative tribe, there are about 100 ‘invisible’ divisions which have to be analysed before one can claim even a serviceable understanding of the tribe’s organization. The structure is much more complex than that of an Australian village of the same size. The complexity is in the most striking contrast with the comparative simplicity which rules in the two other departments of aboriginal life – the material culture, on the one hand, and the ideational or metaphysical culture on the other.”

From this report, we may infer that we must not only survey humanity’s various traditions of ideational culture (our ideas), and also humanity’s rich and varied material cultures including the arts and technology, but also the social structures which, at least in Stanner’s assessment of Aborigines, may sometimes be more intricate than we, who live in villages and cities with our extensive divisions of labor, may be conscious of or able to appreciate.

We have now identified three macro-comprehensive categories of traditions of inquiry and action that the comprehensivist should strive to survey and assay: traditions of ideas, material culture, and social structures.

Is the list complete? No, we have omitted the micro unit of human inquiry and action: the experience. Does each packaging of our lives into an experience comprise a tradition of inquiry and action? With the possible exception of the ineffable, experiences are communicable bundles of events and/or happenings which seems to me sufficient to qualify as a tradition.

The packaging of an experience necessarily involves storytelling. So a story is more or less equivalent to the more grounded experience.

Would you admit any identified experience or story from any of Earth’s billions as a great tradition of inquiry and action which the comprehensivist may use for building their understanding of our worlds and its peoples?

I submit that this list of humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action is comprehensive: ideas, material culture, social structures, and experiences. What do you think of this categorization? Is this the ken of the comprehensivist?

Whenever we organize a categorization, we should think about Robert Sapolsky’s list of the dangers of categorical thinking: 1) we can miss the big picture by focusing on boundaries, 2) we tend to underestimate differences when two cases happen to fall in the same category, 3) we tend to overestimate differences when cases happen to fall on opposite sides of a boundary.

Sapolsky’s first concern leads us to wonder: What synergies of the whole might this categorization of humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action obscure from us? Ought the comprehensivist always keep in mind the wholistic integral of all humanity’s traditions to keep fluid our perspective for any given particular exploration? I should think so. What do you think?

Sapolsky’s second two concerns lead us to ask: Are there items that would challenge the value of our distinctions? Certainly, for example, is music a tradition of material culture (instruments), of social structure (bands and acts), of experience (the music video), and of ideas (music theory)? All our distinctions become blurry when we analyze them too pedantically. Nonetheless, they are essential tools upon which we scope and structure our explorations.

How would you survey the inventory of approaches or traditions that we might mobilize in our quest to comprehensively comprehend our worlds and its peoples?

Exploring Humanity’s Great Traditions

The total inventory of humanity’s great traditions of ideas, material culture, social structures, and experiences are too vast for any one person to explore systematically. Little, finite humans need some way to guide our efforts finding resources in this great unmappable repository to build our multi-perspectival yet integrated understandings of the world, how it works, and how it changes. How might we begin given humanity’s abounding and sublime cultural heritage?

Some comprehensivists might limit themselves to assaying those traditions that purport to provide initiates with the means to grasp anything (or even everything). These are the great traditions of universalism. They include our many spiritual, mystical, and mythological traditions, science and technology, Renaissance humanism, the liberal arts, transdisciplinarity, universology, consilience, wholism, integral theory, world-systems theory, cultural studies, semiotics, complexity, systemics, cybernetics, and synergetics.

Should the comprehensivist focus on one or more universalist approaches to understanding the world? A big danger with these traditions is that they may prematurely fix our minds on one way of understanding precluding others. Since none of them is universally accepted, their assumptions can be controversial, and may involve extensive effort to learn, it may be better to dabble in them rather than focus too much on any one of them. Over time, we can iterate more and more into each without losing sight of the full inventory of the great traditions.

The universalist traditions have much to offer. I have spent much of my life exploring synergetics, science and technology, and the liberal arts. And I have made limited forays into wholism, cultural studies, complexity, systemics, cybernetics, semiotics, and integral theory. There should be no shame in focusing on any one of them, but the comprehensivist ought to keep in mind that other resources are available and may sometimes be more incisive than one’s favorite tradition.

How should an aspiring comprehensivist decide which tradition of inquiry and action to explore next?

I would recommend five considerations. First, if you have a life mission or objective, then from the full scope offered by the great traditions begin an exploration to see which might best contribute to your current situation.

Second, if you have a current project or interest, explore it thoroughly. Follow your interests and your desires. The book “The Design Way” asserts, “Desire is the destabilizing trigger for transformational change”. Comprehensivism is built incrementally: each project or interest that is comprehensively explored provides a stepping stone for an ever-broadening comprehensivism, no matter how parochial it may seem in isolation.

Third, try something that is way outside your comfort zone. As a math/science/philosophy guy, one of the first courses I studied to expand my comprehensivism was Giuseppe Mazzotta’s exquisite “ITAL 310: Dante in Translation” from Yale Open Courses. Dante’s Commedia is, as Mazzotta explains, an encyclopedia of learning making it a mini-course in comprehensivism (read my review of the course). Studying epic poetry redressed a deficiency in my intellectual faculties and opened worlds I didn’t know existed. Alternatively, if you are poetically or spiritually inclined, maybe it is time for some mathematics or hard-nosed engineering? Exploring what is furthest from your current skills and proclivities is, perhaps, the most effective way to rapidly develop your comprehensivism.

Fourth, if my previous suggestions haven’t whetted your appetite, choose one of the universalist traditions. I’d recommend systemics, cultural studies, or synergetics as the most promising, but they all offer some hope of universal applicability. Full disclosure: as Executive Director of the Synergetics Collaborative, my choice of synergetics is clearly biased.

Lastly, if you are not drawn in any particular direction, choose your next comprehensivist exploration at random: there are too many possibilities. There is no right answer. Whatever you explore will bring new magic into your understandings of our worlds and its peoples. Jump in and begin!

Which tradition do you want to explore next? How can our community of collaborating comprehensivists help you get started?

In summary, we have explored the scope of humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action as four categories: ideas, material culture, social structures, and experience. Then we surveyed those traditions that purport to provide practitioners with a particularly incisive perspective. We ended by offering advice to guide comprehensivists in choosing their next exploration. However you develop your own personal tradition of exploring and integrating humanity’s traditions, it is certain that the journey will reorganize your mind with new faculties, new meanings, new possibilities, and new adaptability in navigating our always evolving, dynamic civilization.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 29 July 2020 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: The 1h 37m video from the 29 July 2020 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

Leave a Reply