A “hipbone” approach to analysis: I

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

I think it’s about time I laid out some of the basic thinking behind the style of analysis that I refer to as the “hipbone” approach.

Seen from one angle, it has to do with Sun Tzu’s double-whammy: “know your enemy, know yourself”.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Let me be blunt about this: if you want to “know yourself” and “know your enemy” as Sun Tzu recommends you should, you’ll need to be able to keep two opposing minds in mind at the same time – and still retain the ability to function.

The hipbone approach uses very simple concept-mapping tools and some fairly subtle insights derived from a lifetime of introspection and the arts to facilitate and annotate that process, and to make the resulting understandings available to others.

But first, let’s get down to the kind of thinking that lies behind this approach.


One thing I want to know is: what are the most subtle and complex mini-structures that the human mind can take in, more or less at one swoop.

Then I’d like to know what their moving parts are, how — to the extent that they have a “main thrust” — they handle parallelisms and reconcile oppositions to that thrust, and what they do with stuff that’s oblique or orthogonal to it, how they put constraints to use in service of expression, what use they make of decoration, how they handle ignorance, how they reconcile head and heart, certainty and doubt, and how they keep the surface mind occupied while affecting the deeper layers of our being…

And I want to know that, viscerally — to feel it in my bones, if you like – because I’d like to be able to do more or less the same thing with regard to complex real-world problems, on a napkin, by myself, or with friends or enemies.


I want to know what those things are because (a) they’re the most nourishing things I can feed myself, and I need all the nourishment I can get, and (b) because it turns out that if I can come up with product that has the same formal properties, I’ll be able to explain things both to myself and other people that otherwise leave me stuttering platitudes.

Somewhere right about there, I run into a quotation like this one, from Cornelius Castoriadis in his World in fragments: writings on politics, society, psychoanalysis, and the imagination:

Remember that philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

What I think I’m hearing here, half-hidden in the words, is that the Mozart Requiem is one of those high-density, subtle and complex mini-structures.

And I agree — in fact I find myself thinking of the arts that way, as the natural places to look for high-density, subtle and complex models of reality.


Of course, it would be absurdly neat if nobody else had ever noticed this, and I could take all the credit for myself – but no, the great anthropologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson makes pretty much the same observation about poetry:

One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don’t ordinarily have access to. We bring it out in poetry. We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we are not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity.

Poems are precisely “high-density, subtle and complex mini-structures” – that’s how they manage the “mapping from complexity to complexity” – and so the question comes up, what’s the role of structure in the arts?


Let’s take a quick look at musical structure, and at polyphony and counterpoint in particular. Your enemy’s perspective and your own – or the many perspectives of the various stakeholders in a complex, perhaps “sticky” or “wicked” problem – can be compared with the different, often discordant melodies from which a Bach or Mozart or Beethoven weaves a fugue – melodic themes which are not infrequently “inverted” or in “contrary motion”.

So what can the musical structure of counterpoint teach us, who are faced with real-world situations comprised of different needs and ideals — often discordant, often in counterpoint or opposition to one another, often in “contrary motion”?

Here’s Edward Said, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian problem in terms (gasp!) of musical form:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

Like him or leave him, Said in this paragraph is clearly thinking along similar lines to the ones I’m proposing.

Or to move to yet another art, that of theater — what can we learn about the simulation and modeling of complex issues from Shakespeare? Keith Oatley’s Shakespeare’s invention of theatre as simulation that runs on minds is a serious exploration of that possibility.


I’m going to return to the arts, and lay out a theory of what an art is and how it works, in a later post in this series – but for now, let me just say that I’ve devised a cognitive mapping tool, or more precisely a family of games and mapping tools, that I call “HipBone Games and Analysis” because they’re all about the way one idea connects with another – just as “the hip-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone” in the song.

And as I commented recently on Zenpundit:

What I’m aiming for is a way of presenting the conflicting human feelings and understandings present in a single individual, or regarding a given topic in a small group, in a conceptual map format, with few enough nodes that the human mind can fairly easily see the major parallelisms and disjunctions, as an alternative to the linear format, always driving to its conclusion, that the white paper represents. Not as big as a book, therefore, let alone as vast as an enormous database that requires complex software like Starlight to graphically represent it, and not solely quantitative… but something you could sketch out on a napkin, showing nodes and connections, in a way that would be easily grasped and get some of the human and contextual side of an issue across.


To balance Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy, know yourself” with which I began, I’ll offer by way of counterpoint Christ’s “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you” (Luke 6.27).

And now for two of my favorite words: more soon…

4 thoughts on “A “hipbone” approach to analysis: I”

  1. Hi Andy:

    I expect so, too. As I’ve said over at Zenpundit, though, I’m hoping to keep most of my responses for later posts in the series — so please don’t regard a failure to comment here in detail as lack of enthusiasm on my part — I’m delighted to be discussing these things, I just think some of my comments will work best when braided in later on…

  2. Charles. I just subscribed to RSS here – led from a survey of books to read and drawn to TPM Barnett. So I Kindled the John Boyd Roundtable and discovered ‘Lexington Green’ and here I am. Saw ‘hipbone’ immediately thought of you, and here you are. Cheers.

  3. Hi, Cobb:

    What a terrific surprise and delight to read you here — welcome, welcome! For those who don’t know him, this gentle man blogs at Cobb and is an old friend. Lex, Zen, Madhu, et al meet Cobb, and vice versa…

    Thomas PM Barnett, eh? I don’t know whether you know the story, but my dad was a gunnery officer in the Royal Navy, and died when I was nine. His death sent me down a very different track to the one I might have taken were he still alive, and it wasn’t until almost a half-century later in 1999 that I walked on naval property again — at the Naval War College, Rhode Island, where I attended a session run by Barnett to game out the broader implications of Y2K [.pdf]. In a very real sense, that man’s invitation brought my life full-circle, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

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