STUDY DIARIES: Truth & Knowledge Commentary

I have just come across a truly masterful treatise that gives a very cogent commentary of Steiner’s epistemological dissertation Truth & Knowledge, as well as some pointers to The Philosophy of Freedom.

Having concluded that it would be impossible to précis my own study work of the text I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this paper. It is written by Ron Brady and was near publication when he died in 2003. The folks at the Nature Institute have published it in their Ron Brady Archive.

It takes the reader step by step through one of Steiner’s foundational texts and is written much more for the modern reader so is more approachable that Steiner’s original text, though you still need to keep your wits about you!

So many thanks to Ron and to the folks at the Nature Institute.

I am playing with the idea of perhaps itemising the main points in a future blog post.

STUDY DIARIES: Background on Texts

This is a catch-up post to bring you up to date with some of the study history from the last couple of decades. Actually it is not a long list since we truly have taken our time!

The first thing to say is that we initially wanted to focus on Steiner’s philosophical written work. This was driven by a wish to start right at the beginning and, for my part, NOT wanting to go through his lectures. He took a massive amount of care with his written work, feeling that he had a deep responsibility to his readers. Obviously lectures would not be able to have that same depth of care since they were more of a living experience.

[Background Point: Steiner initially did not want his lectures written down at all since he maintained that the lectures were delivered for the particular audience. However events somewhat overtook him and some of his critics started misquoting what he had said. Thus he felt the need to have the lectures transcribed by a stenographer. I believe there are about 6000 lectures available now.]

However when some lectures have piqued my interest I have actually found it good to listen to readings of them since it gives you that auditory experience which, I think, works well with the content. However sometimes you need to realize that he was talking at a different time. See Dale Brunsvold’s site where he has produced audio recordings of his readings – which has been a great resource for allowing me to listen to lectures in the car. A real labour of love I think and deserving of a small donation towards hosting costs if you do end up using his site a lot.

However, back to the study list so far:

1: Truth & Knowledge : 1892
The very beginning. Steiner’s epistemological doctoral dissertation and a prelude to the Philosophy of Freedom.

2: Boundaries of Natural Science : 1920
A lecture series with an exploration of how Goethean Science and the Philosophy of Freedom can help us go beyond the limits of natural science to provide a healthy foundation for social science.

3: Anthroposophy Science : 1921
A lecture series that somewhat covered our favourite subject of technology and its relationship the development of consciousness.

4: Philosophy of Freedom : 1894
Also known as the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, to highlight the fact that freedom is never a finished thing but requires constant activity. This is the main foundational book to all he subsequently worked on. In hindsight we should have perhaps studied this earlier.

5: Study of Man : 1919
This is a series of lectures given to teachers of the first Steiner School in Stuttgart.

In future posts I will attempt to summarize some of the earlier study texts but some of the content is now lost in the mists of time.

The main thing that I remember is that in the early stages of our study it was too easy to just skip through the texts without really grasping them. Thus it was that we really, really slowed it down and would not move forward if we did not think we had ‘got it’.

There was many a wrinkled brow, coupled with a feeling of “I am just not getting this”, which brings me to an important question that we and many other people have about Steiner’s output:

“For goodness sake, why is it so DIFFICULT to work with?”

From where I stand now, I can say that there is a very, very good reason for this.

Steiner is not giving us finished answers. His whole raison d’etre is to help us come to a different way of perceiving the world, something that our education beats out of us. In what he writes, he is trying to give you indications about different ways of seeing things, AS WELL AS doing it in a way that challenges you to try and develop this different way of perception as you study.

Remember I talked about congruence in a previous post between his content and method? But oh dear me, it really can make it hard going at times. The way I have come to see this now is that we are literally creating extra organs of perception in our thinking, and this is a long process. It is as if we have been given all the physical senses at birth, but now we need to take our own development in hand, creating new dynamic senses in our thinking.

So no quick fixes here.

[Definition: Anthroposophy was the term Steiner coined for his approach. Literally “wisdom of the human being”. Indicating that Steiner felt that it was important to understand and develop ourselves, embracing this task consciously, since we represent a strongly co-creative force in the world.]

Homage to a Gentle Seer

After many years of feeling the loss of my father its only recently that I have reflected more deeply on why I find myself missing him so much. He died back in 2001 the day before 9/11, almost as though he knew there would be work to do!

I can get caught unawares and then end up crying like one of the Lost Boys from Neverland. The most recent episode being when I was watching the latest Cinderella film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Despite the Disney heritage it was a surprisingly good production and the scene that caught me unawares was the one where the old king, played by Derek Jacobi, was dying and telling his son to marry for love. Yeah – ok – clichéd or what? Also Mr Jacobi is someone who strongly resembles my father in his later years so it was probably no surprise that this scene reduced me to tears.

But I wanted to understand just where this sense of loss was really coming from.

I remember my mother commenting about Dad and saying how he was a dreamer. He would see things differently and was a very gentle person who loved children very much, seeing something great in them – a facet he inherited from his mother who was always looking after the waifs and strays of the neighbourhood. I particularly remember how he could just sit with my daughter and just ‘be’. He had a way of sitting back in his mind’s eye, holding back his preconceptions and waiting to see what the world was really showing him.

It was when I saw his nature in this light – that it hit me between the eyes. He was one of those rare folk who could SEE. I don’t mean visions & things, I mean he could see BEHIND what the world was presenting and give it a bit of deeper experiential thought.

In this time of surfaces and quick fixes it is something I truly miss.

It is worth recounting one of his family anecdotes, a great story from his younger years. He was not well educated, having left school at an early age and from there becoming a consummate dancer and small-time actor – though you couldn’t tell from a performance of his in one of the Ealing comedies!

He once told me about a time when he was listening to friends from work as they were discussing something about current affairs. His friends were all highly educated and of an intellectual turn of mind and until this point he had always been shy of joining in, feeling that his lack of education held him back. However, the more he listened to the conversation, the more he realized that his friends didn’t have a clue about the issues, despite their education, and that in many cases he could see things more clearly than they could.

It was obviously one of those great epiphanies for him and thereafter he stopped holding himself back, and allowed his more experiential take on the world to blossom into a truly foundational wisdom.

There are times when I could do with hearing some of his wisdom

But what it has given me is a deep thankfulness for his beautiful parenting, his wise words and his insight that great education does not necessarily lead to great wisdom.

It is worth noting that although he might like this post, he would feel deeply embarrassed on the outside and most likely crack an awful ‘Daddy’ joke to defuse the feeling!

But what the hell.
Here’s to you Dad, a gentle teacher and seer.

STUDY DIARIES : Introduction

Over 20 years ago I was a parent of 2 young kids, and we wanted to find a decent pre-school provision that was more about creativity and play rather than about cramming kids heads with facts. My wife and I found a gem of a kindergarten that was run on Steiner principles and so impressed were we that we joined with the other impressed parents and got on with founding a Steiner lower school. I even became trustee Chair at the time!

But there was more to it for me than just the education of the children. I connected strongly to the underlying philosophy that Rudolf Steiner brought to the world. He had a different take on epistemology – or the theory of knowledge – i.e. how we come to know things, that very much resonated with how I felt about the world. For the past 20 years this has resulted in me studying – on & off, though more on than off – some of Steiner’s prodigious output.

It is this that I want to start blogging about now in these Study Diaries. I have been shy about this until now – primarily because Steiner covered some fairly tricky areas, namely the generation of what he called a spiritual science and what it had to say about a spiritual world and associated beings.

So I want to start by making it clear how my path has been into his work.

Initially Steiner was an expert on Goethe’s work and hence was asked to edit the Goethe archives at Weimar in 1888. As some of you will know from my previous posts about Goethe and phenomenology, it was Goethe who began raising warning flags about the problem of over-hypothesizing , something that has become endemic in our modern scientific method and something which badly affects those of us who work with modern technology.

It was from this philosophical foundation that Steiner started his work, coming out with his seminal book: The Philosophy of Freedom, which addressed the issues of being truly free in our thinking. He named this sort of freer thinking: “Living Thinking”, and he characterized it as a spiritual activity.

It was his philosophical work that attracted me first, along with his adamant stance that no one should just believe what he said. He wanted people to listen and consider for themselves what they could take on and understand. He was deeply uncomfortable with anyone who treated him as any sort of guru, and it was this that caught my imagination since it is congruent with his wish that people remain free in their thinking. Indeed a foundation of his ideas on ethics is that human morality is defined internally, not imposed externally, but more of that later.

Thus I have always felt that I could respect the man – despite there being a lot of his output that I cannot take on or understand. And this respect is something that has not changed over those 20 years as I have learnt more.

The studying I have been doing – usually on a Friday evening – has been on a very small percentage of Steiner’s work. Though it is the quality of the study that matters, not the quantity, and there is a very definite ‘holographic’ nature to it – i.e. it doesn’t matter which part you cover you can still get to the main ideas. I have also been working with someone I met during the early years of founding the local Steiner school and we have since become close friends as we have traveled on this study path together over the last two decades. I am no longer involved with the running of the school, though my friend is, since it quickly became apparent that understanding Steiner’s philosophical thought, so radically different as it is, was going to need some focused work.

It is worth noting that Steiner touched many areas of human endeavour, I consider in a positive way, though of course there are some detractors who would contest that. Such areas have included: Education, Medicine, Architecture, the Arts, Social reform and Economics to name a few.

I have decided to start writing about this aspect of my life, and you are welcome to read along or not, but I must mention the initial disclaimer that, although I am not a religious person and do not go to church, I do think we have a spiritual aspect to our nature. Now in my experience this is not something you can prove or disprove, you either can go with it or not. If not, then perhaps these Study Diaries will not be for you.

But all I would ask is that you hold an open mind and – just as Steiner would wish – take on only what makes sense to you. Hopefully, in whatever small way, you might even find something helpful in the Diaries.

Thanks for reading.

My Thinking is NOT for Sale

Its 2 o’clock in the morning and I am finding I cannot sleep. A thought that is so off the wall has been gripping my mind for a while now and I am finding it more and more relevant to what I have seen happen during my career as a programmer.

The title is worth restating:

My Thinking is NOT for Sale

This is not so much a shouted response to all those times that good technical effort has been driven carelessly under the steamroller of prevailing economic needs – usually those of the money swallowing monsters that are most companies – than it is a statement of an underlying truth, if only I can express it well enough and in shorter sentences. So here goes…

If you pay for software you will not get what you need. In fact you CANNOT buy software because it is not a finished product. The current economic model we have just does not fit and I believe this is why there is so much trouble in this area.

What is important about good software development?

Over my 30 odd years of work the primary creative and energizing point has been the interaction between the developer and the actual user as a system has come into being. The best of it has been the conversation between the two as they navigate the area of the user’s needs. If the developer is skilled, both technically and personally, they help facilitate both parties in mapping an unknown area, probably only vaguely expressed in the “wants” that the user can currently identify.

This is a conversation of human discovery in thinking.

It is priceless.

It is a gift.

It is a Free process. Capital F.

It cannot be bought.
It cannot be sold.
It is NOT a product.

It only makes sense if the effort is freely given by the developer. The inner costs of doing this are so high that it requires a high level of motivation that can ONLY be internal. To try and shoehorn it into our current ways of thinking about money devalues the process and I think this is what is underlying the problems I have seen happen many times.

The kicker here is that it is likely that it can only be funded by gift money. That means that there can be NO LINK between the funding and the final “product”. I use quotes because that word is a misnomer of what is actually going on.

Unrealistic?

Just go and read a book called Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson and you will see how the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study was funded by donation. This was where John von Neumann worked and developed the architecture that underlies modern computers.

The picture of how the whole current edifice of modern computing was birthed from gift money just blows me away. I find my thinking so bound up in the capitalist model that to separate the resource – i.e. the money to give time for people to think – from the product of that thinking in such a way shows up the illusion of the current funding models for such work.

Is that enough to allow you to see it? Truly?
If you can then maybe you might understand why I am having trouble sleeping because in my tossing and turning my feelings tell me it could change everything…

Or maybe this is all just a dream and I shall be sensible when I wake up.
Hmmmm.

ACCU2014 Workshop : Imagination in Software Development

A week ago on Saturday 12th April I facilitated a workshop at ACCU2014 on Imagination in Software Development which I am pleased to say – thanks to the participants – went very well.

Before the workshop I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, having read through a lot of Iain McGilchrist’s book “The Master and His Emissary” and realising that using analytical thinking for such an exercise is very difficult. However thanks to my long suffering team at work giving me the chance to do a dry run, I was able to get feedback about what did and did not work and so ended up making some rather last minute changes. The final workshop format ended up being completely different to the dry run.

Before moving onto the exercises I gave a half-hour talk about the links between phenomenology; software; and brain hemisphere function, most of which in hindsight could have been left until after the exercises. My main objective, however, was to raise self-awareness about the participants’ internal imaginative processes.

I thought it would be good to highlight some of the primary ideas that came from the exercises, both in terms of the workshop’s preparation and its execution.

The need to get away from the software domain

The exercises in the workshop involved:

  • Listening to a story excerpt from a book.
  • Watching a film clip of the same excerpt.
  • Performing a software design exercise individually.

Each exercise was followed by discussions in pairs. It became abundantly clear that if you give a bunch of programmers a technical exercise, it will behave like a strong gravitational field for any ideas and it will be very difficult to get them to focus on process instead of content. Indeed during the workshop I had to interrupt the pair-based discussions to make sure they were talking about their own inner processes instead of the results of the design exercise I had given them! By reading a story and watching a film clip first it did make it easier to highlight this as a learning point since it was much easier to focus on internal process for the story and film clip.

Individual working instead of in small groups

The trial run with my team at work used small 3-4 person groups. I found that the team dynamics completely overshadowed their individual awareness. I therefore changed the format to make the core design exercise an individual process, followed by discussions in pairs. This had the desired effect of bringing their internal processes into sharper focus. The more you know about an area the more difficult it can be to “go meta” about it.

Some great insights from the participants

STORY
When listening to the story 3 processes were identified which occurred in parallel:

  • Visual – Picturing.
  • Emotional.
  • Logical – Probing.

FILM

  • The film was much more emotionally powerful, to the point of feeling manipulative.
  • But it was felt to be ‘weaker’ due to the imagery being concrete.

DESIGN

  • When performing the design exercise the ideas were experienced as a story, but as a sequential process rather than a parallel one.
  • The logical analysis required thoughts to be made explicit by writing them down otherwise it was hard to hold them in awareness.
  • There was a more conscious awareness of past experience affecting current ideas.
  • The initial analysis was wide-ranging followed by focussing down to the core ideas.

So if any of the participants make it to this page – I would like to say a great big thank you for getting involved.

Slide set follows:

Phenomenal Software Development : Philosophical Interlude

Please note that I am not an academic philosopher (as evidenced by my use of the word ‘Dudes’ in the style of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure!) In preparing this material I have drawn heavily on Henri Bortoft’s excellent précis of philosophical history in his book “Taking Appearance Seriously” which he also relates to current phenomenological thinking.

MothSideViewPhilosopher Dudes from History

  • Bacon (1561-1626)
    This is the man who used binary notation to ‘encrypt’ messages transferred around his network of contacts. He concluded that mathematics was the path to certainty and believed in the mastery of Man over Nature, both conclusions that Goethe subsequently disagreed with.
  • Descartes (1596-1650)
    One of the thinkers that has had the most impact on the current time. The founder of the subject/object dualistic way of thinking about things. I shall talk more about Descartes below.
  • Newton (1642-1727)
    The man who gave us those equations of motion I remember having to learn by rote at school. He used a disciplined imagination to propose mathematical models of reality. This then allowed scientists to solve problems within the mathematical realm and subsequently translate the solutions into a physical situation. This link between mathematics and reality is now something we take for granted and is a powerful tool without which we would not have the world we know today.
  • Goethe (1749-1832)
    Although perhaps known more for his artistic endeavours, Goethe was a natural scientist as well. Even back in the 1800s he was raising a warning flag about the scientific method and the problem of over-hypothesising and imposing these hypotheses upon reality. Although in everyday parlance this is the problem of jumping to conclusions, in science this concern has become clearest in the field of quantum physics. The most useful idea I find in Goethe is the metaphor of ‘conversation’ for any scientific research with phenomena. In this Goethe prefigured the coming phenomenological school of thought.
  • Husserl (1859-1938)
    The founder of phenomenology who highlighted the importance of focusing on the process of a thing appearing to us as opposed to the final result of the thing itself. A tricky distinction which I will come back to later.
  • Gadamer (1900-2002)
    Before reading Bortoft’s book I was not familiar with Gadamer’s work and the whole realm of the philosophy of meaning – hermeneutics. Apart from having to rush for the dictionary to check out these new words I relate strongly to the importance of meaning for us. Giving life meaning is something we do all the time, frequently without realizing it. My view is that as we begin to impose our meanings on the world we need to become aware of this aspect of our cognition. (Simon Robinson has produced a great review of Gadamer’s book Truth and Method)

That is the brief overview. Now I will contrast Descartes and Goethe to highlight how these points fit into the discipline of software development.

Descartes and Dualism

Descartes lived between 1596 and 1650. He wanted to be sure of what we could really know uncluttered by the input from our senses. The foundation that he found was the ‘rock’ that is our thinking – something we can be sure of. Then given that we knew we were thinking we could be sure that we were thinking with something, an element of our body.

This is how he came to identify this Dualism of the mind and the body, but it is important to realise that he also wanted to fit in with the church’s views at that time which held that the human being as composed of body and soul. Descartes wanted the church to accept the primacy of thinking. He succeeded in doing so which provided an acceptable foundation for the mathematics that became the basis for the Scientific Revolution. This Scientific Revolution then led to the Industrial Revolution which has created the world we know today.

An interesting point here is the language he used to describe the mind and body. The minds was ‘res cogitans’ – thinking, a verb. An active principle. The body was ‘ res extensa’ – extension, the body, a noun. A passive principle. This further consolidated the view of Francis Bacon that man’s mind was to be master over nature, the world’s body. However this point of view has significant negative consequences as we now know since it has led to many of the ecological problems we have today.

Descartes ideas and thought are firmly entrenched in software development, because software development is indeed an exercise in applied mathematics.

Goethe and Delicate Empiricism

Goethe was a natural scientist who was around at the time of the Industrial Revolution and he was against the Baconian approach of the separation of man from the natural world and the mastery of man over nature. He warned of the danger of over-hypothesising and recognised the need to focus on the phenomenon and not on abstract ideas. He realised that over-abstracting away from the phenomenon under observation could cause errors in understanding. He counselled against moving too far and too early into the realm of abstract ideas and coined the term Delicate Empiricism.

Delicate Empiricism is where the Observer needs to be aware of their own process of observation and how it affects their final conclusions. He also coined the term Exact Sensorial Imagination. Rather than indicating an ungrounded fantasy this is a disciplined process in understanding any phenomenon and how it exists, hence the used of the word ‘Exact’.

In software development we use this process all the time. Whenever I have to imagine how my software is going to work, or am trying to understand how it may be going wrong, I have to use this disciplined process of imagination to ‘run’ the software’s structures (concepts) in my head. If I am not exact then I will come to incorrect conclusions.

However Goethe only dealt with the natural world, not something that links well into software development. It was Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a Goethean scholar, who realised that the same methods could be used for the perception of our own thinking, i.e. treating our thought as a phenomenon in the same way.

At the point where we become aware of our own thinking processes when doing software development – something I consider to be crucial – we are treating our thought as a phenomenon. Thus as we observe our own thinking we are able to improve it and become better developers. Needless to say this does not just apply to software development, but this domain makes it easier to see the link to the phenomenological thinkers.

20111119_1643_SunsetCropped

Phenomenology

Phenomenology focuses on the process of the ‘coming into being’ or ‘Appearance of a Thing’, rather than just focusing on ‘Thing’ itself. This is a very difficult concept to understand but I believe this focus on the process of how we see or know anything is key to healing the destructive consequences of the Cartesian subject object split that are so prevalent in our current world.

It has been said that you cannot actually teach this particular way of seeing things but must embark on a process of just trying to do so. It does represent a change of worldview when we come to look at our environment. It means that we need to realise and understand that the ‘Appearance’ and the ‘Thing’ are ONE item. This can also be understood in terms of reconciling the function of the brain hemispheres.

One of the insights about hemispheric brain function that has endured is that the right brain deals with the immediacy of lived experience, i.e. the Appearance of a thing, and the left brain deals with re-presenting what is lived in order to know something, i.e. the Thing itself.

In the words of Iain McGilchrist, the author of ‘The Master and His Emissary‘, the left brain deals with ‘Static, Isolated, Fixed, Decontextualised, Denotative issues‘. It deals with closed systems and perfection. The right brain, however, deals with ‘Individual, Changing, Evolving, Interconnected, Living ideas‘. It handles things that are never fully graspable, never perfectly known.

This we can see when we are looking at something completely new that we do not understand, or have the concepts to fit. We have the right brain perceiving it and the left trying to make sense of what we are perceiving. When we get it (or ‘grok’ it as Robert Henlein would say) we have that Aha! experience which means that we have identified the concept that fits the perception. It is only at this point that we can know something about what we are seeing.

3dBoxA Perception Exercise

It is difficult to put over this idea of the unity of the thing and the perceptive process but perhaps I can give you a sense of how our concepts affect what we see.

Next to this text you can see an image of lines that could be a cube. There are 2 ways to see the image as a cube, (a) one where the front face is at the lower right of the image, and (b) one where the front face is at the top left of the image.

So now just play with switching your perception over from state (a) to state (b) and be aware that nothing is changing in the external world. All you are doing is adjusting your conceptual filter that you are applying to the external percept.

Now can you see another way of seeing it? Try looking it to see a third way before reading further…

It should be possible to see it just as a flat image with lines on it. Not easy once you have seen the cube. If you have a laptop then perhaps rotate the display 45 degrees and that will make it easier.

If you spend some time with this you might be getting more awareness of what is happening inside you as you change your concept filters.

I am going to leave it there for now.
In the next post I will spend more time going deeper into the links between software development and phenomenology.