Drucker and Lewis on Theory and Experience

One of the issues raised in my post Myths of the Knowledge Society, and in the discussion thereof, is the question of formal, theory-based knowledge versus tacit, experience-based knowledge. What is the appropriate scope of use of each of these modalities?

Several years ago, I excerpted some thoughts from Peter Drucker which are relevant to this subject. I think they’re worth re-posting here…

About 20 years ago, Peter Drucker wrote a wonderful pseudo-autobiography, “Adventures of a Bystander.” It tells his own story only indirectly, via profiles of people he has known. These range from from his grandmother and his 4th-grade teacher in Austria to Henry Luce (Time-Life) and Alfred Sloan (GM).

In the chapter titled “Ernest Freedberg’s World,” Drucker writes about two old-line merchants. The first of these, called “Uncle Henry” by those who knew him, was the founder and owner of a large and successful department store. When Drucker met him, he was already in his eighties. Uncle Henry was a businessman who did things by intuition more than by formal analysis, and his own son Irving, a Harvard B-School graduate, was appalled at “the unsystematic and unscientific way the store was being run.”

Drucker remembers his conversations with Uncle Henry. “He would tell stories constantly, always to do with a late consignment of ladies’ hats, or a shipment of mismatched umbrellas, or the notions counter. His stories would drive me up the wall. But gradually I learned to listen, at least with one ear. For surprisingly enough he always leaped to a generalization from the farrago of anecdotes and stocking sizes and color promotions in lieu of markdowns for mismatched umbrellas.”

Reflecting many years later, Drucker observes: “There are lots of people with grasshopper minds who can only go from one specific to another–from stockings to buttons, for instance, or from one experiment to another–and never get to the generalization and the concept. They are to be found among scientists as often as among merchants. But I have learned that the mind of the good merchant, as also of the good artist or good scientist, works the way Uncle Henry’s mind worked. It starts out with the most specific, the most concrete, and then reaches for the generalization.”

Drucker also knew another leading merchant, Charles Kellstadt (who had once run Sears.) Kellstadt and Drucker served together on a Department of Defense advisory board (on procurement policy), and Kellstadt told “the same kind of stories Uncle Henry had told.” Drucker says that his fellow board members “suffered greatly from his interminable and apparently pointless anecdotes.”

On one occasion, a “whiz kid” (this was during the McNamara era) was presenting a proposal for a radically new approach to defense pricing policy. Kellstadt “began to tell a story of the bargain basement in the store in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he had held his first managerial job, and of some problem there with the cup sizes of women’s bras. he would stop every few sentences and ask the bewildered Assistant Secretary a question about bras, then go on. Finally, the Assistant Secretary said, “You don’t understand Mr. Kellstadt; I’m talking about concepts.” “So am I,” said Charlie, quite indignant, and went on. Ten minutes later all of us on the board realized that he had demolished the entire proposal by showing us that it was far too complex, made far too many assumptions, and contains far too many ifs, buts, and whens.” After the meeting, another board member (dean of a major engineering school) said admiringly, “Charlie, that was a virtuoso performance. but why did you have to drag in the cup sizes of the bras in your bargain basement forty years ago?” Drucker reports that Charlie was surprised by the question: “How else can I see a problem in my mind’s eye?”

From these two encounters, Drucker draws this conclusion:

“Fifty years or more ago the Uncle Henry’s and the Charlie Kellsadts dominated; then it was necessary for Son Irving to emphasize systems, principles, and abstractions. There was need to balance the overly perceptual with a little conceptual discipline. I still remember the sense of liberation during those years in London when I stumbled onto the then new Symbolical Logic (which I later taught a few times), with its safeguards against tautologies and false analogies, against generalizing from isolated events, that is, from anecdotes, and its tools of semantic rigor. But now we again need the Uncle Henrys and Chralie Kellstadts. We have gone much too far toward dependence on untested quantification, toward symmetrical and purely formal models, toward argument from postulates rather than from experience, and toward moving from abstraction to abstraction without once touching the solid ground of concreteness. (emphasis added) We are in danger of forgetting what Plato taught at the ery beginning of systematic analysis and thought in the West, in two of the most beautiful and moving of his Dialogoues, the Phaedrus and the Krito…They teach us that experience without the test of logic is not “rhetoric” but chitchat, and that logic without the test of experience is not “logic” but absurdity. Now we need to learn again what Charlie Kellstadt meant when he said, “How else can I see a problem in my mind’s eye?””

Also several years ago, I posted an excerpt from a thought-provoking novel by C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength. In this passage, Lewis is describing his protagonist Mark, who is a sociologist:

“..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

The phenomenon Lewis describes here is not by any means limited to academics. There are people in the business world for whom the assumed position of a business on the BCG growth-share matrix (dogs, stars, cash cows, and question marks) is more real than the actual, tangible characteristics of the business. This is a matter of what is called reification: treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing…ie, forgetting that “the map is not the territory.” I think this fallacy is particularly common among people who have educations which were long in terms of years invested, but not really very deep…indeed, one of the key goals of higher education should be to help people learn how to deal with abstractions without falling into the trap of reification.

I’m not at all arguing that formal, theory-based knowledge should be abandoned in favor of tacit, experience-based knowledge. The key, as Professor Drucker suggests in the passage above, is to find the right balance…and today, in many fields, the pendulum has swung too far to one side.

9 thoughts on “Drucker and Lewis on Theory and Experience”

  1. I spent a long tome teaching in good Engineering departments. The best students were very gifted at moving to and fro between abstractions – for example, those of thermodynamics – and the specifics – the detail of some practical problem that they had in hand. Some students, however, I thought of as mathematicians manque – they were strong with the abstractions, weak with the particulars. Others were too blinkered ever to grasp the power of the abstractions.

    I suspect that many academic economists or also “mathematicians manque”; unfortunately the abstractions of their discipline mostly lack the rigour and power of the abstractions available to the engineers.

  2. In theory, theory and practice are the same.
    In practice they are NOT the same.
    The refusal to see humans-just a giant machine in your minds eye-dooms most efforts of intellectuals and others educated beyond their intelligence (Joe Biden call your office).
    As my father used to say, “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”

  3. This is a “Wow!” post. I am researching knowledge theory and the Drucker quotes hit the mark (btw: I’ve read the Drucker book and the wonderful C.S. Lewis, but that was oh so many books ago!)

    Dr. Greg Burns wrote that 80% of communication is non-verbal; such is the power of perception. The stronger the ability to communicate in such a way as to “paint a picture,” the more meaning. And the ability to convey “meaning” is key.

    On a side note, Charles Murray’s Real Education provides some practical remedies to the phenomena of intellectual stovepipes devoid of real-world context.

  4. When I was a college student, I worked in the Sears Boyle Street store in east Los Angeles part time. One day, Kellstadt, who was president of Sears at the time, toured the store. We were all standing at attention as he walked by. He stopped in the Men’s Clothing section next to where I stood in Sporting Goods. He looked at a hideous tie hanging there with dyed feathers on it. “Get rid of that awful tie!” he said. The department manager had to tell him it was their best seller. He wasn’t perfect.

    That same store had a warehouse, the inventory section for which was run by three old ladies. They laboriously entered each item sold from the warehouse on a 3 x 5 card. The card had deliveries and sales and was supposed to represent the inventory for one item in the warehouse. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of the cards. The old ladies had worked for Sears for many years and had weeks of vacation each year. When they left, for three weeks usually at a time, the cards sat, waiting to be updated when they returned. This had gone on for years and the actual inventory was years out of date. A year later, I got a job as a computer programmer and realized how easy it would have been for Sears to modernize that system. I wondered why. That was 1959.

  5. Michael Kennedy…great story–thanks!

    I wonder if the way-out-of-date 3×5 cards were actually used for reordering purposes, or if that was accomplished by someone noticing that the shelf/bin was empty.

  6. Actually, I think the cards were larger than 3 x 5 and had many lines for entering items going in and out. Sears has shrunk radically since those days and perhaps it began just about there.

    Also, those were the days of profit sharing when employees really did own a big piece of the company. I remember meeting an elevator operator who, it was rumored, had several hundred thousands in stock. A manager might be intimidated at trying to push one of those employees around.

    I went to college on a scholarship funded by Sears employees, led by David Brooker, and had a lot of contact with Sears folks who helped me find part time jobs, etc. It’s been sad to see their decline.

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