I just found a post from a baker’s dozen years ago that does a good job of articulating my views on radical creativity, perplexity and philosophy. Confusingly, I called it “pro-lifer” probably a pun on being a lifer in the professional world. It is a bad title.
I like it, but I want to edit it and use some of it in this damn book I’ve been wanting to write. I’m trying again in April. So here it is in slightly edited form.
Sometimes, when we press ourselves to think through difficult problems, we come to a point where how we think imposes limits on what we can think.
A problem is recognized — felt — but when we try to think it out, we arrive at the edge of thinkability. We cannot resolve this problem with the intellectual moves that ordinarily work to resolve our problems.
If we are precise and honest with ourselves, we will realize something disturbing: at this point what we most painfully lack is not an answer, but a clear question. We cannot even articulate the problem.
Our minds do not know what to do with such a situation. We don’t even know how to talk about this experience. We are completely oriented by metaphors of objects existing positively in a negative space that’s given: and this space is reality itself.
But here, the very space for the problem is lacking. Our minds boggle at this, just as it boggles when we try to contemplate what stands beyond the limits of space, or what occurs beyond the limits of time. It is literally inconceivable.
Such situations are not uncommon, even in the intellectual flatlands of business. It might be helpful to develop some vocabulary for such situations:
- An inarticulate problem that remains inarticulate because it stands outside the current limits of thinkability is a perplexity.
- When we intuit that something problematic might conceal a perplexity and if we attempt to comprehend it we might get sucked into a perplexity and trapped there we feel apprehension. We are tempted to hold the problem at arm’s length, or ignore it, or treat it as a more familiar problem that we do know how to think and respond to.
- The distinctive, painful feeling we are caught inside a perplexity is anxiety. This feeling is always intensely uncomfortable, but when it is accepted as the birth pangs of genuinely new idea it becomes a far more acceptable part of the labor and delivery of innovations.
- The limits of thinkability in a particular approach to a problem is an intellectual horizon.
- Perplexities are resolvable by the peculiar and perpetually misunderstood activity known as philosophy.
What? Philosophy useful in business?
Ask a dozen people to list the ten most useless things any person can do, and philosophy will top the list. When an exasperated project manager exclaims “We don’t have time to philosophize!” nobody questions the wisdom of such practical thinking.
However, it is precisely here, when a group faces situations it does not know how to think out — where people become most anxious and most impatient and most inclined to just pick something and go with it — that philosophy is most useful and is in fact the very cornerstone of eventual success.
According to Wittgenstein: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” Is this not exactly when a company goes outside and hires someone to help it find its way out of a problem it doesn’t understand? When it doesn’t know its way about?
Yet, even consultancies — companies whose very purpose is to help other companies in this situation — are stuffed with anti-philosophical “pragmatists” whose life purpose is to simply get things done. Under the stress of anxiety such people reject the very thing that will bring them success. They stop thinking, stop listening and put their noses to the millstone.
This is how most of their projects go. Most of their projects turn out pretty unspectacular, but since they’ve never experienced a spectacular outcome, and because spectacular outcomes are uncommon, anyway, nobody blames them, nobody blames their client for their unspectacular, unlovable, unexceptional non-success, and nobody gets fired — so good enough. And emails go out calling the bunt a home run, and an assemblage of best practices an innovation, etc., etc. etc. and this is what makes corporations so damn corporate. They didn’t confront anxiety, and, so, realistically, this is the most that can be hoped for.
“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.” — Wittgenstein
The reason few companies innovate is not that they lack intelligence or ingenuity or ideas — it’s that they are organizationally unprepared to face the perplexities and the anxiety intrinsic to innovation.
They misdiagnose the painful feelings of things going right as something going dreadfully wrong, and inadvertently abort the innovation process.
Most people, most of the time will try to make the absence of a clear question go away by making up things that resemble answers, that seem more or less related to what the question could be or ought to be. As long as the answer fits the standards of the culture to which it is addressed (that is, it has a truthy mouth-feel) and does not offend or impinge on anyone (inconsequentiality is the surest strategy for accomplishing this), it is generally accepted as an answer.