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.