The Necessities and Impossibilities of Comprehensivism

04 August 2020 in Resource Center.

If comprehensivism is the process of making sense of it all and of each other, is it even possible? Even if it is impossible, is it necessary that we pursue as many comprehensive comprehensions as we can muster? How can we reconcile the necessities and impossibilities of comprehensivism?

The Necessities of Comprehensivism

Many excellent motivations and reasons for practicing comprehensivism are given in the Collaborating for Comprehensivism site. The inaugural event in the “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” series explored even more (see the video Why be a Comprehensivist?). Angela Cotellessa’s PhD thesis identifies still more.

Here, we will explore three ideas that seem so compelling that we might consider them necessities.

➀ What way or ways of knowing ought a human being practice? What is the proper way of knowing? That is, what approach to learning or epistemology ought we practice?

If we start with the plausible assumption that humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action encompass all that is humanly knowable, our questions invite us to determine which of the many traditions of inquiry and action might provide the most reliable understandings.

We could speculate; we could guess. We could simply pick the one that we became most enamored with at an impressionable age. Or pick what a teacher, friend or loved one favors. But isn’t that a premature jumping to conclusions?

Instead, we should apply a systematic approach: incrementally explore ever more and more of humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action. By ever widening our circle of learning, our assessments will gradually become ever more comprehensive. This is the approach of comprehensivity: the state or quality of pursuing comprehensive comprehensions comprehensively.

Each tradition whets its discriminative edge against the others to sharpen and make more robust our own personal, ever-emerging way of knowing, our personal comprehensivity. By integrating more and more wisdom from each thoroughly considered way of knowing, we structure the context and perspective needed to better assess the value of other ways of knowing. By degrees, we organize an ever more refined integrated synthesis. We build what amounts to our understanding of the world and its peoples.

In sum, comprehensivism is a systematic way of learning from our great traditions; it is a systematic approach to knowing or epistemology. If a systematic approach is most proper, then comprehensivism is the proper epistemology, the proper way of knowing and learning. Hence, comprehensivism is a necessity.

➁ What way or ways of acting in the world ought a human being practice? What is the proper way of acting in the world?

To act effectively in the world requires that we understand how the world works well enough that we have some hope that our actions will have our intended effects. That is, proficient acting in the world depends upon our knowing, our learning, our epistemology. Which we just determined is most properly pursued by comprehensivism. So, if effective acting in the world is the most proper, comprehensivism is again a necessity.

➂ Let’s consider this quote from R. Buckminster Fuller’s book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”: “We have not been seeing our Spaceship Earth as an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total”.

Must our world system be “comprehended and serviced in total” in order to successfully provision and steward our global ecosystems, our value systems, our material and energy resources, and our social systems in support of a thriving population of nearly 8 billion crewmates aboard our spaceship and to do so on a regenerative basis for millennia to come?

If humanity does not comprehensively comprehend these world systems adequately to anticipate their possible disruptions and ensure proactive and effective management of the whole world system on an on-going basis, who will? God? The divine stoic principle of right action in the moment? Luck?

What guarantor for the destiny of Spaceship Earth would you propose?

It could be that comprehensivism collaboratively pursued is the only approach that is systematic enough and thorough enough to offer some hope that we may understand the world well enough to provision a makeshift patchwork that passably supports the on-going regenerative functioning of the entire world system.

In sum, comprehensivism seems to be a necessity for managing on an on-going and a regenerative basis the total world system.

The Impossibilities of Comprehensivism

Each of the necessities of comprehensivity indicated above aspires to an ever more comprehensive survey of the full inventory of humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action. However, it is numerically impossible for any one finite human to thoroughly explore each tradition. Indeed, it is not even possible to list out all traditions available. Hence each comprehensivist must humbly submit to understanding but a small subset of humanity’s complete cultural heritage.

This is a trivial impossibility for comprehensivism. We should turn our attention to the much more challenging and dangerous pathologies of comprehensivity identified by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman in their book “The Design Way”.

Analysis Paralysis. When our need and desire for understanding it all results in endlessly gathering more and more information without a means for convergence on an effective way to navigate and manage our initiatives and projects, analysis paralysis is apt to frustrate our objectives. Analyzing all available information seemed to be a requirement for comprehensivism, but it is an impossibility.

Value Paralysis. When our need and desire for integrating everyone’s value systems into our comprehensive inquiries and actions without an effective way of transcending their mutual ambiguities and contradictions, value paralysis is apt to frustrate our objectives. Accommodating all value systems in our comprehensive comprehensions seemed to be a requirement for comprehensivism, but it is an impossibility.

The Paralysis of Wholism. When our need and desire for integrating the full context of every system we are considering into a Big Picture without an effective means to limit or contain our survey, the paralysis of wholism is apt to frustrate our objectives. Fully assembling our understandings of the world into a whole seemed to be a requirement for comprehensivism, but it is an impossibility.

In considering these impossibilities, we realize that comprehensivism can never be fully achieved; it is an impossibility. Buckminster Fuller also realized this when he wrote in Synergetics “there can be no finality of human comprehension”. So comprehensivism is a guiding ideal; it is an aspiration, not a destination.

Implications for the Practice of Comprehensivity

Buckminster Fuller characterized the plight of comprehensivity with these words “The more we know the more mysterious it becomes that we can and do know both aught and naught.” “Aught” means anything and “nought” means nothing. Bucky is saying that we can and do know both anything and nothing.

This paradox that lies at the heart of everyone’s practice of comprehensivism is the creative source of its genius. We can come to know anything! Simultaneously, our profound and inescapable ignorance will forever remain palpable reminding us to stay sober and humble in our assessments.

The necessities of comprehensivity beseech us to practice the art more assiduously. While its impossibilities remind us of the importance of cultivating a humble but incisive judgment so we can boldly navigate the complexities of our objectives more effectively.

It could be that judgment is the key to an effective practice of comprehensivity. We need to judge when to diverge and widen our circle of learning and when to converge by honing in on a defined subject until we thoroughly comprehend it. We need to judge when we need to gather more information and when we need to integrate what we have. We need to judge which value systems we can integrate into this project and which to leave aside for the moment. We need to judge if our Big Picture is a good enough whole or if more context is required.

In conclusion, Life is episodic and project-oriented. Our judgment chooses how we furnish each episode, when to put it aside, when to complete it, and when to start the next. Judgment may be all you have to guide you on your path. If you aspire to the necessities of comprehensivism while heeding its impossibilities, your judgment will guide you to your proper way of knowing and doing, to your tradition of comprehensivism. May you judge well and learn enough from each of your inevitable mistakes.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 12 August 2020 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: The 1h 41m video from the 12 August 2020 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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