Thursday, July 25, 2013

In defence of the "contextual" the intrinsic, and the intuitive...and the generalist

Empiricism is a philosophy based on observable data and a cornerstone of the scientific method of arriving at new truths. By definition, empiricism examines only what the human senses can and do observe, and thereby excludes impressions, insights, hunches and gut-feelings that have come to be known as intuition, imagination, assumption, prediction, and are considered extraneous to the question 'at hand' nearly all instances.
It was former New York Senator Patrick Moynahan who reminded us that we are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own "facts".... in his attempt to garner agreement, in his many opportunities for political debate, on the facts about which the argument was being raised.
All intellectual pursuits, all academic disciplines, have their unique and dispassionate processes, protocols and  accepted standards of behaviour, whether in the conduct of research or the conduct of a courtroom trial, or in the debate by academics on two opposing sides of a public issue. However, involved in all of these processes is the inclusion of a boundaried range of information (facts) and the exclusion, usually as irrelevant, of other information.
Included are those pieces of information gathered by the human senses, heard, seen, felt, smelt, and excluded are those pieces of information that are commonly considered "contextual" as opposed to being integral to the issue.
Someone, or some body is normally charged with the responsibility of declaring which information fits into which category.
For reasons of both simplicity and clarity, context is excluded because it is considered either to have no bearing on the issue or that its inclusion would so complicate the process at hand as to render it unmanageable, tangential, or worse, off-topic. Unmanageable processes can be too costly, too complicated for an ordinary audience (like a jury, or an audience in a debate hall, or even a judge, or perhaps an examining body of one's peers) or too time-consuming, given the constraints of all those charged with the task of making the decision about the outcome of the process.
Nevertheless, context, often including the history of the issue, the sociology, the anthopology, the literature (both fiction and non-fiction) and the biographies and contributions of others who have confronted the issue in previous time frames. And since all academic disciplines operate virtually, if not literally, in a self-contained silo, the import of these "extraneous" contextual matters is generally agreed to be insignificant, if not completely irrelevant.
Example: The judge in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman murder trial ruled that race could not be used by either the prosecution or the defence, in the course of the trial. "Profiling" could be used but not "racial profiling"....for example. And yet, everyone on the North American continent knows full well that race was and is at the heart of the question of guilt or innocence.
Example: A former sex worker/teacher loses her job in the New York school system after she wrote about her experience as a former sex worker, while the former Governor of the State of New York is freely running for comptroller of the city of New York, five years after his forced resignation from the Governor's chair because he was involved with prostitutes. The double standard can only even partly be explained and understood in the context of a patriarchal society, in which men are given second chances, while women are denied similar opportunities. However, that  statement on the context would be ruled inadmissable in a courtroom, because it cannot be "proven"....and yet few would challenges its veracity and application to the comparison.
Christians surveyed in the United States recently by a considerable majority, considered the practice of their religion to be more an exercise in morality than an exerise in faith. So for them, doing the "right thing" means more, in the practice of their faith, than their spiritual growth and/or their development of a relationship with God. So their practice of their faith is primarily an extrinsic and an empirical exercise in behaviour, especially behaviour they consider acceptable to or unacceptable to God.
What is on the outside seriously trumps whatever complexities, attitudes, feelings and beliefs that might be churning on the inside of one's heart, mind, spirit and even body in the practice of their religious life.
Ramp that principle up a notch, and you find that the churches which these "christians" attend, measure their "health" by the size of the numbers in their pews and the numbers in their trust accounts. Once again, the empirical, and the extrinsic are given a sacred status in the analysis of how well the church organization is following the teachings of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament.
How different is this set of criteria of measurement of success from that of the corporate board of directors evaluating the health of their preferred corporation on the basis of its sales, revenues, investment dividends and relative profit and loss calculations, based on the most sophisticated and professional methods of such calculations?
"Not very!" you say.
"Not at all," I retort.
Susan Cain has recently written a book entitled, Quiet, (a celebration of introversion in a world that cannot stop talking). She posits the thesis that extroversion is so accepted as the most desired and most effective personality trait, that it nto only dwarfs introversion, but actually trumps all those who consider themselves introverts as "less than" and in some quarters (the Harvard Business School for one) only extroverts are socially accepted, and introverts have to overcome or subvert their introversion if they want to be accepted.
Once again, appearance, based on the empirical, and the extrinsic, is considered the only reality worthy of engagement. People are hired, fired, promoted, demoted, accepted and rejected in many cases, Cain argues, based on the perceptions of others of their relative extroversion/introversion quotient.
Behind this mirage of empirical data, Cain has uncovered equally intelligent, equally social, equally engaging and equally acceptable individuals who are, themselves, introvert, and are consequently living with a considerable social handicap.
So has the North American culture so denigrated the introvert, and the intuitive and the imaginative and the contextual in our headlong race to simplify and to manage and to control the variables (falsely, if we are honest with ourselves) that we have lost sight of the complexity of individual cases, and of the complexity of the many gestalts that confront us each day, each hour and each minute?
Have we sacrificed the life that is contained in the complexities and the ambiguities and the contextual for the "paint-by-numbers" lives that are lived inside the narrow boundaries of our definitional categories, letting in the empirical/extrinsic and excluding the intuitive and the contextual?
There is a case to be made that we have, and are continuing along that path, without being willing to take the time to examine our looking down the periscope and up the telescope the wrong way!
There is a middle-way to be found in this dichotomy and it will not easily be pursued or found if we continue to elevate the specialist and the expert, the empirical and the scientific over the intuitive, the poetic, the imaginative and the generalist.

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