Let’s try and understand Brian Cantwell Smith again

This is mainly a review of Brian Cantwell Smith’s latest book, The Promise of Artificial Intelligence: Reckoning and Judgment. But it’s also a second attempt to understand more of his overall project and worldview, after struggling through On the Origin of Objects a few years ago. I got a lot out of reading that, and wrote up what I did understand in my post on his idea of representations happening in the ‘middle distance’ between direct causal coupling and total irrelevance. But somehow the whole thing never cohered for me at the level I wanted to and I felt like I was missing something.

The new book is an easier read, but still not exactly straightforward. He’s telling an intricate story, and as with OOO the book is one single elegant arc of argument with little redundancy, so it’s not a forgiving format if you get lost. And I did get lost, in the sense that I’ve still got the ‘I’m missing something’ feeling. Part of the reason I’m posting in this on my ‘proper’ blog and not the notebucket is that I wanted the option of getting comments (this worked very well for the middle distance post and I got some extremely good ones). So if you can help me out with any of this, please do!

So, first, let’s explain the part that I do understand. The early part of the book is about the history of AI, and of course there’s been a whole lot more of this since OOO‘s publication in 1996. He divides this history into ‘first-wave’ GOFAI, with its emphasis on symbolic manipulation, and the currently successful ‘second wave’ of AI based on neural networks. There’s also a short ‘transition’ chapter on the 4E movement (’embodied, embedded, extended, enacted’) between the two waves, which he describes as important but not enough on its own, for reasons I’ll get into.

He’s mainly interested in what the first and second wave paradigms implicitly assume about the world. First-wave AI worked with logical inference on symbols that were supposed to directly map to discrete well-defined objects in the world. This assumes an ontology where that would actually work:

The ontology of the world is what I will call formal: discrete, well-defined, mesoscale objects exemplifying properties and standing in unambiguous relations.

And of course it mostly didn’t work, for most problems, because the world is mostly not like that.

Second-wave AI gets below these ready-made well-defined concepts to something more like the perceptual level. Objects aren’t baked in from the start but have to be recognised, distilled out of a gigantic soup of pixel-level data by searching for weak statistical correlations between huge numbers of variables. This has worked much better for tasks like image recognition and generation, suggesting that it captures something real about the complexity and richness of the world. Smith uses an analogy to a group of islands, where questions like ‘how many islands are there?’ depend on the level of detail you include:

Whether an outcropping warrants being called an island—whether it reaches “conceptual” height—is unlikely to have a determinate answer. In traditional philosophy such questions would be called vague, but I believe that label is almost completely inappropriate. Reality—both in the world and in these high-dimensional representations of it—is vastly richer and more detailed than can be “effably” captured in the idealized world of clear and distinct ideas.

There’s an interesting aside about how phenomenology has traditionally had a better grasp on this kind of richness than analytic philosophy, with its focus on logic and precision, which can mislead people into thinking it’s a subjective feature of our internal experience. Whereas really it’s about how the world is. Things are just too complicated to be fully captured by low-resolution logical systems:

That the world outstrips these schemes’ purview is a blunt metaphysical fact about the world — critical to any conceptions of reason and rationality worth their salt. Even if phenomenological philosophy has been more acutely aware of this richness than has the analytic tradition, the richness itself is a fundamental characteristic of the underlying unity of the metaphysics, not a uniquely phenomenological or subjective fact.

Smith would like to keep using the word ‘rationality’ for successful reasoning in general, not just the formal kind:

I want to reject the idea that intelligence and rationality are adequately modeled by something like formal logic, of the sort at which computers currently excel. That is: I reject any standard divide between “reason” as having no commitment, dedication, and robust engagement with the world, and emotion and affect as being the only locus of such “pro” action-oriented attitudes, on the other.

I haven’t decided whether I like this or not — I’ve kind of got used to David Chapman’s distinction between ‘reasonableness’ and ‘rationality’ so I’m feeling some resistance to using ‘rationality’ for the broader thing. At the least I still want a word for formal, systematic thinking.

OK, now we’re getting towards the bits I don’t understand so well. Smith doesn’t think that the resources of current ‘second-wave’ AI are going to be enough to reproduce anything like human thought. This is where the subtitle of the book, ‘Reckoning and Judgment’, comes in. First, here’s how he explains his use of ‘reckoning’:

… I use the term “reckoning” for the representation manipulation and other forms of intentionally and semantically interpretable behavior carried out by systems that are not themselves capable, in the full-blooded senses that we have been discussing, of understanding what it is that those representations are about—that are not themselves capable of holding the content of their representations to account, that do not authentically engage with the world’s being the way in which their representations represent it as being.

So, roughly, ‘reckoning’ refers to behaviour that can be understood intentionally but that isn’t itself produced by an intentional system. Current computers are capable of doing this kind of reckoning, but not the outward-facing participatory kind of thought he calls ‘judgment’:

I reserve the term “judgment,” in contrast, for the sort of understanding I have been talking about — the understanding that is capable of taking objects to be objects, that knows the difference between appearance and reality, that is existentially committed to its own existence and to the integrity of the world as world, that is beholden to objects and bound by them, that defers, and all the rest.

(‘Defers’ is another bit of his terminology — it means that the judging system knows that when the representation fails to match the world, it’s the world that should take precedence.)

This makes sense to me in broad strokes, but I still have the sense I had from OOO that I don’t really understand how much this is a high-level sketch and how much it’s supposed to use his specific ideas about representation.

This is where it might be useful to go back to his criticism of the 4E movement. This movement mostly focussed on the interaction of AI systems with their immediate environment, but this direct causal link is not enough. For example, take a computer interacting with a USB stick:

Surely, one might think, a computer can be oriented (or comport itself) toward a simple object, such as a USB stick. If I click a button that tells the computer to “copy the selected file to the USB stick in slot A”, and if in ordinary circumstances my so clicking causes the computer to do just that, can we not say that computer was oriented to the stick?

No, we cannot. Suppose that, just before the command is obeyed, a trickster plucks out the original USB stick and inserts theirs. The problem is not just that the computer would copy the file onto their stick without knowing the difference; it is that it does not have the capacity to distinguish the two cases, has no resources with which to comprehend the situation as different – cannot, that is, distinguish the description “what is in the drive” from the particular object that, at a given instant, satisfies that description.

This gets into Smith’s idea of representation as happening ‘in the middle distance’, not rigidly attached to the immediate situation like the computer is to the USB stick, and also not completely separate and irrelevant to it:

How could a computer know the difference between the stick and a description it satisfies (“the stick currently in the drive”), since at the moment of copying there need be no detectable physical difference in its proximal causal envelope between the two—and hence no way, at that moment, for the computer to detect the difference between the right stick and the wrong one? That is exactly what (normatively governed) representation systems are for: to hold systems accountable to, and via a vast network of social practices, to enable systems to behave appropriately toward, that which outstrips immediate causal coupling.

These ideas get folded in to his standards for ‘genuine intelligence’, along with several related capacities like being able to distinguish an object from representations of it, and care about the difference. This ability to ‘register’ an object is the key part of what he calls ‘judgment’ (‘the understanding that is capable of taking objects to be objects’).

So maybe I do understand this book after all, now that I’ve tried to write my thoughts down? Why do I still feel confused?

I think it’s the same disorientation I had with OOO, where I’m unsure when I’m reading a sketch of a detailed, specific mechanism and when I’m reading a more vision-level ‘insert future theory here’ thing. The middle distance idea is definitely a key part of his idea of judgment, and seems pretty specific, but then there are other vaguer parts about what the ability to take objects as objects would mean. And then, at the far end from concrete mechanism, judgment is also supposed to take on its ordinary language associations:

By judgment I mean that which is missing when we say that someone lacks judgment, in the sense of not fully considering the consequences and failing to uphold the highest principles of justice and humanity and the like. Judgment is something like phronesis, that is, involving wisdom, prudence, even virtue.

So the felt-sense feeling of confusion is something like an unsteadiness, an inability to pin down exactly how I’m supposed to be relating to this idea of judgment. I’m failing to successfully register it as an object, haha. I don’t know. I wish I could explain myself better ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This is where some comments could be useful. If there’s anything specific that you think I’m missing, please let me know!

Book review: The Roots of Romanticism

I’ve been getting interested in the Romantic movement recently. I’d started to dimly sense its enormous influence on later thought, but I had only a hazy idea of the details. So I picked up Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism to get a better understanding.

I chose this book in particular because I love Berlin’s style. The book was originally a series of lectures, given to an audience in Washington, DC in 1965 and broadcast to BBC radio. It’s not just a transcription, it’s been cleaned up to be more text-like, but still has an enjoyably conversational feel. I’m going to start with a couple of long quotes from the first chapter, ‘In Search of a Definition’, both to give a sense of that style and to set up the central question:

> Suppose you were travelling about Western Europe, say in the 1820s, and suppose you spoke, in France, to the avant-garde young men who were friends of Victor Hugo, Hugolâtres. Suppose you went to Germany and spoke there to the people who had once been visited by Madame de Staël, who had interpreted the German soul to the French. Suppose you had met the Schlegel brothers, who were great theorists of romanticism, or one or two of the friends of Goethe in Weimar, such as the fabulist and poet Tieck, or other persons connected with the romantic movement, and their followers in the universities, students, young men, painters, sculptors, who were deeply influenced by the work of these poets, these dramatists, these critics. Suppose you had spoken in England to someone who had been influenced by, say, Coleridge, or above all by Byron – anyone influenced by Byron, whether in England or France or Italy, or beyond the Rhine, or beyond the Elbe.

These weird new scenes had a baffling mishmash of surface concerns — mysticism, poetry, folklore, free will — and the detailed content of any one scene often outright contradicted that of the others. But somehow at the base of it all was a correlated aesthetic sense:

> Suppose you had spoken to these persons. You would have found that their ideal of life was approximately of the following kind. The values to which they attached the highest importance were such values as integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to some ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying. You would have found that they were not primarily interested in knowledge, or in the advance of science, not interested in political power, not interested in happiness, not interested, above all, in adjustment to life, in finding your place in society, in living at peace with your government, even in loyalty to your king, or to your republic. You would have found that common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts. You would have found that they believed in the necessity of fighting for your beliefs to the last breath in your body, and you would have found that they believed in the value of martyrdom as such, no matter what the martyrdom was martyrdom for. You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and something vulgar about it.

That’s not your father’s Enlightenment values. Where did all this come from? Is it just a loose cluster of attitudes to life, or does it hold together in some deeper way?

The Romantic bag of ideas

Understanding this better is not a purely academic exercise for me. This doesn’t feel like a dead movement that I’m learning about out of mild historical curiosity. The whole wider culture seems to be stuck in a pendulum swing towards romantic-inspired ideas. I’m reminded of a Slate Star Codex review of The Black Swan, which talks about the previous swing of the pendulum. Taleb’s book was published in 2007, during a wave of enthusiasm for New Atheism, cognitive biases, I Fucking Love Science and the like:

> … it seems like the “moment” for books about rationality came and passed around 2010. Maybe it’s because the relevant science has slowed down – who is doing Kahneman-level work anymore? Maybe it’s because people spent about eight years seeing if knowing about cognitive biases made them more successful at anything, noticed it didn’t, and stopped caring. But reading The Black Swan really does feel like looking back to another era when the public briefly became enraptured by human rationality, and then, after learning a few cool principles, said “whatever” and moved on.

This is all passé now, irrationalism is in, and we’re all supposed to be trading meme stonks or something. (I started writing this at the peak of… whatever the GameStop thing was… and only just remembered to come back and finish it.) There’s a resurgence of fascination with mysticism, with conspiracy theories, with the ontology-blurring effects of psychedelics. This is all vaguely Romanticism-tinged, in the same way that the 2007 zeitgeist was Enlightenment-tinged. It looks suspiciously like we collectively had enough of the Enlightenment bag of ideas and automatically reached out for the other standard-issue bag of ideas that western philosophy has helpfully put within grabbing range.

I wanted to get a better idea of what’s in the bag. It’s not all awful, any more than the Enlightenment bag was awful. There are some deep and important ideas that aren’t in the Enlightenment bag, which is one of the things that makes it so compelling. But it’s not the sort of stuff I want to uncritically load my brain up with.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked into current issues, though. This post is just about taking a look at what’s in the bag. I’ll give a brief summary of some of the main preoccupations of the movement, at least as told by Berlin. I’ll finish with Berlin’s answer to the question of what ties these ideas together.

First, though, I’ve got a couple of reservations about this book which I want to flag before I start. The first is to do with the style. Berlin has this witty, urbane midcentury style which I love – I could read piles of this stuff. It’s not a romantic style at all… it’s not dry or technical either, there’s a bit of warmth to it, but it’s very controlled, there’s a bit of ironic distance, none of the GIANT OUTPOURING OF EMOTION I associate with romanticism. To be honest, I’m much more comfortable with this – I don’t quite get romanticism deep down – but it still makes me suspicious that someone who writes in this style is also going to not quite get it, and miss some of the point. Still, I’m actually willing to read this, and I probably would not read a whole load of romantic rhapsodising.

The second reservation is that I have no idea how accurate any of this is! These are popular talks, and Berlin hardly quotes any primary sources at all, and I certainly haven’t gone and looked any up. He’s an entertaining speaker, but it’s all a little bit too fluent, and I’m suspicious that the entertainment comes at the expense of getting the details correct.

With that massive disclaimer, let’s go on to look at the bag of ideas. Berlin covers the following:

  • Particularism: a fascination with specific details for their own sake, and a distrust of big abstract theories

  • Expressionism: works of art should express the nature of the artist, rather than communicate objective truths

  • The importance of the will and of imposing this will on the world through authentic expression, both on an an individual level and at the scale of nations

  • The grounding of knowledge in action, rather than disinterested inquiry

  • Emphasis on symbolism and mythic understanding

  • An understanding that ordered, rational knowledge only accounts for a small part of experience, and that there are huge murky unexplained depths beneath. Nostalgia and paranoia as hidden creatures in these depths.

I’ll go through these in turn.

Particularism and expressionism

Berlin starts by talking about early influences on romanticism. One key character in this section is someone I’d never heard of, Johann Georg Hamann. From what I can quickly make out from the Berlin book and his Wikipedia article he was mainly notable as a kind of superspreader of the ideas of his time. He introduced Rousseau’s work to Kant, translated Hume into German, influenced Goethe and Hegel. His own work was mostly fragmentary and unfinished, but a recurring theme was a deep suspicion of generalisations, concepts and categories:

> What they left out, of necessity, because they were general, was that which was unique, that which was particular, that which was the specific property of this particular man, or this particular thing. And that alone was of interest, according to Hamann. If you wished to read a book, you were not interested in what this book had in common with many other books. If you looked at a picture, you did not wish to know what principles had gone into the making of this picture, principles which had also gone into the making of a thousand other pictures in a thousand other ages by a thousand different painters. You wished to react directly, to the specific message, to the specific reality, which looking at this picture, reading this book, speaking to this man, praying to this god would convey to you.

Hamann’s protégé Johann Herder shared this fascination with picturesque detail:

> Herder is the father, the ancestor, of all those travellers, all those amateurs, who go round the world ferreting out all kinds of forgotten forms of life, delighting in everything that is peculiar, everything that is odd, everything that is native, everything that is untouched.

This led him towards an expressionist view of the nature of art. Enlightenment thinkers had expected theories of aesthetic beauty to converge on shared, objective properties of the artwork:

> .. what everyone agreed about was that the value of a work of art consisted in the properties which it had, its being what it was – beautiful, symmetrical, shapely, whatever it might be. A silver bowl was beautiful because it was a beautiful bowl, because it had the properties of being beautiful, however that is defined. This had nothing to do with who made it, and it had nothing to do with why it was made.

For Herder, art instead expressed the idiosyncratic attitude towards life of the individual artist. There was no need for these individual attitudes to converge, and indeed the attitudes of different artists can be mutually contradictory. The important thing is for each artist to express their own nature to the fullest extent that they can.

Nationalism and the will

Herder applied these ideas at the group level as well as the individual. Groups of people enmeshed in a similar way of life would naturally share certain attitudes, and these would be reflected in their art:

> If a folk song speaks to you, they said, it is because the people who made it were Germans like yourself, and they spoke to you, who belong with them in the same society; and because they were Germans they used particular nuances, they used particular successions of sounds, they used particular words which, being in some way connected, and swimming on the great tide of words and symbols and experience upon which all Germans swim, have something peculiar to say to certain persons which they cannot say to certain other persons. The Portuguese cannot understand the inwardness of a German song as a German can, and a German cannot understand the inwardness of a Portuguese song, and the very fact that there is such a thing as inwardness at all in these songs is an argument for supposing that these are not simply objects like objects in nature, which do not speak; they are artefacts, that is to say, something which a man has made for the purpose of communicating with another man.

This is a sort of nationalism, and influenced later, much more damaging kinds. Knowing what came later, it’s easy to read this as an argument for hereditary racial differences, but Herder’s version is a culturally transmitted gestalt:

> Herder does not use the criterion of blood, and he does not use the criterion of race. He talks about the nation, but the German word Nation in the eighteenth century did not have the connotation of ‘nation’ in the nineteenth. He speaks of language as a bond, and he speaks of soil as a bond, and the thesis, roughly speaking, is this: That which people who belong to the same group have in common is more directly responsible for their being as they are than that which they have in common with others in other places. To wit, the way in which, let us say, a German rises and sits down, the way in which he dances, the way in which he legislates, his handwriting and his poetry and his music, the way in which he combs his hair and the way in which he philosophises all have some impalpable common gestalt.

Most importantly, Herder isn’t interested in demonstrating the superiority of any of these national groups. Berlin describes Herder rather endearingly as "the father, the ancestor, of all those travellers, all those amateurs, who go round the world ferreting out all kinds of forgotten forms of life, delighting in everything that is peculiar, everything that is odd, everything that is native, everything that is untouched":

> Herder is one of those not very many thinkers in the world who really do absolutely adore things for being what they are, and do not condemn them for not being something else. For Herder everything is delightful. He is delighted by Babylon and he is delighted by Assyria, he is delighted by India and he is delighted by Egypt. He thinks well of the Greeks, he thinks well of the Middle Ages, he thinks well of the eighteenth century, he thinks well of almost everything except the immediate environment of his own time and place. If there is anything which Herder dislikes it is the elimination of one culture by another. He does not like Julius Caesar because Julius Caesar trampled on a lot of Asiatic cultures, and we shall now not know what the Cappadocians were really after. He does not like the Crusades, because the Crusades damaged the Byzantines, or the Arabs, and these cultures have every right to the richest and fullest self-expression, without the trampling feet of a lot of imperialist knights. He disliked every form of violence, coercion and the swallowing of one culture by another, because he wants everything to be what it is as much as it possibly can.

Unfortunately the next person to take up this idea of national identity was Johann Fichte. Fichte was a philosopher following in the tradition of Kant. Kant himself was very much not a romantic:

> He disliked everything that was rhapsodical or confused in any respect. He liked logic and he liked rigour. He regarded those who objected to these qualities as simply mentally indolent. He said that logic and rigour were difficult exercises of the human mind, and that it was customary for those who found these things too difficult to invent objections of a different type.

Still, Kant influenced romantic thinking through his ideas on human freedom.

> One of the propositions about which he was convinced was that every man as such is aware of the difference between, on the one hand, inclinations, desires, passions, which pull at him from outside, which are part of his emotional or sensitive or empirical nature; and on the other hand the notion of duty, of obligation to do what is right, which often came into conflict with desire for pleasure and with inclination. > > In the case of Kant it became an obsessive central principle. Man is man, for Kant, only because he chooses. The difference between man and the rest of nature, whether animal or inanimate or vegetable, is that other things are under the law of causality, other things follow rigorously some kind of foreordained schema of cause and effect, whereas man is free to choose what he wishes.

Fichte had some variant on Kant’s ideas about freedom and the will – I’m unaware of the details but it certainly seems to involve getting very excited about it:

> ‘At the mere mention of the name freedom’, says Fichte, ‘my heart opens and flowers, while at the word necessity it contracts painfully.’

He combined his conception of freedom with Herder’s strand of nationalism to get a much more virulent, aggressive kind, involving the struggle of nations to become free:

> Gradually, after Napoleon’s invasions and the general rise of nationalist sentiment in Germany, Fichte began thinking that perhaps what Herder said of human beings was true, that a man was made a man by other men, that a man was made a man by education, by language… So, gradually, he moved from the notion of the individual as an empirical human being in space to the notion of the individual as something larger, say a nation, say a class, say a sect. Once you move to that, then it becomes its business to act, it becomes its business to be free, and for a nation to be free means to be free of other nations, and if other nations obstruct it, it must make war… > > So Fichte ends as a rabid German patriot and nationalist. If we are a free nation, if we are a great creator engaged upon creating those great values which in fact history has imposed upon us, because we happen not to have been corrupted by the great decadence which has fallen upon the Latin nations; if we happen to be younger, healthier, more vigorous than those decadent peoples (and here Francophobia emerges again) who are nothing but the debris of what was once no doubt a fine Roman civilisation – if that is what we are, then we must be free at the expense of no matter what, and therefore, since the world cannot be half slave and half free, we must conquer the others, and absorb them into our texture.

The grounding of knowledge in action

Fichte’s emphasis on action in the world also shows up in his view of knowledge:

> Life does not begin with disinterested contemplation of nature or of objects. Life begins with action. Knowledge is an instrument, as afterwards William James and Bergson and many others were to repeat; knowledge is simply an instrument provided by nature for the purpose of effective life, of action; knowledge is knowing how to survive, knowing what to do, knowing how to be, knowing how to adapt things to our use, knowing, in other words, how to live (and what to do in order not to perish), in some unawakened, semi-instinctive fashion. > > … Because I live in a certain way, things appear to me in a certain fashion: the world of a composer is different from the world of a butcher; the world of a man in the seventeenth century is different from the world of a man in the twelfth century. There may be certain things which are common, but there are more things, or more important things at any rate, which, for him, are not.

I like this a lot, and it’s fascinating to see an earlier version of ideas that crop up later in the Pragmatists and then also in Heidegger and Wittgenstein. It certainly adds important ideas that Enlightenment views of detached inquiry were missing. But then the world-spirit stuff starts coming in. It starts well, with a sort of Merleau-Ponty-like thing about being constrained by the body…

> Fichte began by talking about individuals, then he asked himself what an individual was, how one could become a perfectly free individual. One obviously cannot become perfectly free so long as one is a three-dimensional object in space, because nature confines one in a thousand ways.

… but then quickly descends into whatever this is:

> Therefore the only perfectly free being is something larger than man, it is something internal – although I cannot force my body, I can force my spirit. Spirit for Fichte is not the spirit of an individual man, but something which is common to many men, and it is common to many men because each individual spirit is imperfect, because it is to some extent hemmed in and confined by the particular body which it inhabits. But if you ask what pure spirit is, pure spirit is some kind of transcendent entity (rather like God), a central fire of which we are all individual sparks – a mystical notion which goes back at least to Boehme.


I wrote a short notebook post last year where I compared two types of symbolism: conventions like ‘red means stop’, which have been carefully pruned to have one and only one meaning, and ‘poetic’, ‘mythic’ symbolism like the medieval rose, with thick multilayered meanings.

I got this from McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, but it turns out that he got it from The Roots of Romanticism and I didn’t notice at the time. Berlin lays out the same distinction. It’s this second, poetic type that’s important to the romantics:

> Symbolism is central in all romantic thought: that has always been noticed by all critics of the movement. Let me try to make it as clear as I am able, although I do not claim to understand it entirely, because, as Schelling very rightly says, romanticism is truly a wild wood, a labyrinth in which the only guiding thread is the will and the mood of a poet…. > > There are two kinds of symbols, to put it at its very simplest. There are conventional symbols and symbols of a somewhat different kind. Conventional symbols offer no difficulty… Red and green traffic lights mean what they mean by convention. > > … But there are obviously symbols not quite of this kind… if you ask, for example, in what sense a national flag waving in the wind, which arouses emotions in people’s breasts, is a symbol, or in what sense the Marseillaise is a symbol… the answer will be that what these things symbolise is literally not expressible in any other way.

This second type of symbol feels inexhaustible; the more shades of meaning you extricate, the more you find. This is why they preoccupied the romantics, who were fascinated by the abundance and surplus of the world.

Nostalgia and paranoia

Berlin then talks about how this inexhaustibility leads to ‘two quite interesting and obsessive phenomena which are then very present both in nineteenth- and in twentieth-century thought and feeling.’ The first is nostalgia, the yearning for past meaning slipping from our fingers:

> The nostalgia is due to the fact that, since the infinite cannot be exhausted, and since we are seeking to embrace it, nothing that we do will ever satisfy us. > > … Your relation to the universe is inexpressible. This is the agony, this is the problem. This is the unending Sehnsucht, this is the yearning, this is the reason why we must go to distant countries, this is why we seek for exotic examples, this is why we travel in the East and write novels about the past, this is why we indulge in all manner of fantasies.

Then there is a darker version of this obsession, where the deep submerged currents of the world are out to get us.

> There is an optimistic version of romanticism in which what the romantics feel is that by going forward, by expanding our nature, by destroying the obstacles in our path, whatever they may be… we are liberating ourselves more and more and allowing our infinite nature to soar to greater and greater heights and become wider, deeper, freer, more vital, more like the divinity towards which it strives. But there is another, more pessimistic version of this, which obsesses the twentieth century to some extent. There is a notion that although we individuals seek to liberate ourselves, yet the universe is not to be tamed in this easy fashion. There is something behind, there is something in the dark depths of the unconscious, or of history; there is something, at any rate, not seized by us which frustrates our dearest wishes.

This paranoia shows up in attempts to understand the consequences of the French Revolution, where the world had avenged itself on all the Enlightenment bluechecks who had tried to tame it with reason:

> … what the Revolution led everybody to suspect was that perhaps not enough was known: the doctrines of the French philosophes, which were supposedly a blueprint for the alteration of society in any desired direction, had in fact proved inadequate. Therefore, although the upper portion of human social life was visible – to economists, psychologists, moralists, writers, students, every kind of scholar and observer of the facts – that portion was merely the tip of some huge iceberg of which a vast section was sunk beneath the ocean. This invisible section had been taken for granted a little too blandly, and had therefore avenged itself by producing all kinds of exceedingly unexpected consequences.

This paranoia can inspire great art, or take ‘all kinds of other, sometimes much cruder, forms’:

> It takes the form, for example, of looking for all kinds of conspiracies in history. People begin to think that perhaps history is formed by forces over which we have no control. Someone is at the back of it all: perhaps the Jesuits, perhaps the Jews, perhaps the Freemasons.

I said I wasn’t going to explicitly link any of this back to Current Year, but at this point the echoes are not subtle. I’ll move on quickly to the final section, where I talk about how Berlin ties these disparate ideas together.

Comfort with contradiction

I can’t resist quoting one more chunk from the introductory chapter, an inspired prose poem on the wild variety of Romantic life and thought:

> It is extreme nature mysticism, and extreme anti-naturalist aestheticism. It is energy, force, will, life, étalage du moi; it is also self-torture, self-annihilation, suicide. It is the primitive, the unsophisticated, the bosom of nature, green fields, cow-bells, murmuring brooks, the infinite blue sky. No less, however, it is also dandyism, the desire to dress up, red waistcoats, green wigs, blue hair, which the followers of people like Gérard de Nerval wore in Paris at a certain period. It is the lobster which Nerval led about on a string in the streets of Paris. It is wild exhibitionism, eccentricity, it is the battle of Ernani, it is ennui, it is taedium vitae, it is the death of Sardanopolis, whether painted by Delacroix, or written about by Berlioz or Byron. It is the convulsion of great empires, wars, slaughter and the crashing of worlds.

It’s a lot of other things besides. (There’s like a page more of this on either side… I have to stop somewhere.) What’s the connection between them?

Berlin makes the case that it’s precisely this comfort with contradiction that’s new in Romantic thought. The Romantics are free from the oppressive need to make any sort of consistent global sense out of their experience, so they can layer together as many weird ideas as they like.

This is a huge departure from Enlightenment thought, which expected coherent theories:

> There are three propositions, if we may boil it down to that, which are, as it were, the three legs upon which the whole Western tradition rested. They are not confined to the Enlightenment, although the Enlightenment offered a particular version of them, transformed them in a particular manner. The three principles are roughly these. First, that all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question. We may not know what the answer is, but someone else will. > > … The second proposition is that all these answers are knowable, that they can be discovered by means which can be learnt and taught to other persons… > > … The third proposition is that all the answers must be compatible with one another, because, if they are not compatible, then chaos will result.

Viewed through this lens, the ideas of the previous section come together as a way of navigating life without any absolute set of rules to act as a guide. Particularism is popular because details matter more than unreliable theories. Expressivism, because the important thing is to make something personally meaningful from the fragments available to you. Action is vital because there is no ultimate theory detached from individual understanding, so everyone must navigate as well as they can from their current starting point, enmeshed in the local culture. Fixed axioms are unavailable, but symbols can still work as potent ordering principles, natural clustering points in the web of meanings. And paranoia is a natural response to the other, inconsistent strands that never be completely assimilated and that may come to harm you.

> There is a collision here of what Hegel afterwards called ‘good with good’. It is due not to error, but to some kind of conflict of an unavoidable kind, of loose elements wandering about the earth, of values which cannot be reconciled. What matters is that people should dedicate themselves to these values with all that is in them.

This makes a lot of sense to me, but there are still things that I’m confused by. This inconsistent patchwork somehow had to be built on top of a Christian worldview, with all the ultimate grounding in God’s truth that that implies. This was some time before the deeper collapse of systems of meaning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so I would expect some sort of counterbalancing pull towards coherence, and I didn’t get a sense of how that worked from Berlin’s book. I maybe got a glimpse of them with Fichte’s talk about the world-spirit as a transcendent entity, ‘a central fire of which we are all individual sparks’. So maybe there was some nod to consistency at this inaccessible universal level, but an understanding that individual people or nations couldn’t achieve it?

Maybe this unravelling of systems of meaning started earlier than I imagined? I recently came across the following quote:

> Thus all round, the intellectual lightships had broken from their moorings, and it was a then a new and trying experience. The present generation which has grown up in an open spiritual ocean, which has got used to it and has learned to swim for itself, will never know what it was to find the lights all drifting, the compasses all awry, and nothing left to steer by except the stars.

This comes from the historian and novelist James Anthony Froude, writing about his own crisis of faith. I was surprised to learn that this was in the 1840s, not say the 1890s. So at least some of the breakdown was happening quite early.

Of course, I’m relying on a secondary source, so another option is that Berlin was writing a long way into the process of fragmentation and so maybe he reads more of this into the Romantics than was actually there. Still, it does look like a lot of resources for navigating groundlessness were available in Western culture earlier than I realised. It makes sense that we’d be reaching for this bag of ideas in times as weird as these.

Note: This review started as a series of three newsletter entries in a kind of lazy quotes-and-notes format. I wanted to have a more polished single post that I could refer back to, and that turned out to be more work than I expected. I ended up changing the structure quite a lot, shifting from following the chronological order of events to focusing more on major ideas of the movement, which has come at the expense of covering the people involved in as much detail. So if you’re really interested, and can stand a few weird tangents about Philip Pullman’s influences and the sinking of the Titanic, the newsletter versions could be worth a look too.

Book Review: The World Beyond Your Head

I wrote a version of this for the newsletter last year and decided to expand it out into a post. I’ve also added in a few thoughts based on an email conversation about the book with David MacIver a while back, and a few more thoughts inspired by a more recent post.

This wasn’t a book I’d been planning to read. In fact, I’d never even heard of it. I was just working in the library one day, and the cover caught my attention. It’s been given the subtitle ‘How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction’, and it looks like the publisher has tried to sell it as a sort of book-length version of one of those hand-wringers in The Atlantic about how we all gawp at our phones too much. I’m a sucker for those. This is a bit pathetic, I know, but there are certain repetitive journalist topics that I like simply because they’re repetitive, and the repetition has given them a comfortingly familiar texture, and ‘we all gawp at our phones too much’ is one of them. So I had a flick through.

The actual contents turned out to be less comfortingly familiar, but a lot more interesting. Actually, I recognised a lot of it! Merleau-Ponty on perception… Polanyi on tacit knowledge… lots of references to embodied cognition. This looks like my part of the internet! I hadn’t seen this set of ideas collected together in a pop book before, so I thought I’d better read it.

The author, Matthew Crawford, previously wrote a book called Shop Class As Soul Craft, on the advantages of working in the skilled trades. In this one he zooms out further to take a more philosophical look at why working with your hands with real objects is so satisfying. There’s a lot of good stuff in the book, which I’ll get to in a minute.  I still struggled to warm to it, though, despite it being full of topics I’m really interested in. Some of this was just a tone thing. He writes in a style I’ve seen before and don’t get on with – I’m not American and can’t place it very exactly, but I think it’s something like ‘mild social conservatism repackaged for the educated coastal elite’. According to Wikipedia he writes for something called The New Atlantis, which may be of the places this style comes from. I don’t know. There’s also a more generic ‘get off my lawn’ thing going on, where we are treated to lots of anecdotes about how the airport is too loud and there’s too much advertising and children’s TV is terrible and he can’t change the music in the gym.

The oddest thing for me was his choice of pronouns for the various example characters he makes up throughout the book to illustrate his points. This is always a pain because every option seems to annoy someone, but using ‘he’ consistently would at least have fitted the grumpy old man image quite well. Maybe his editor told him not to do that, though, or maybe he has some kind of point to make, because what he actually decided to do was use a mix of ‘he’ and ‘she’, but only ever pick the pronoun that fits traditional expectations of what gender the character would be. Because he mostly talks about traditionally masculine occupations, this means that maybe 80% of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones, are male – all the hockey players, carpenters, short-order cooks and motorcycle mechanics he’s using to demonstrate skilled interaction with the environment. The only female characters I remember are a gambling addict, a New Age self-help bore, a disapproving old lady, and one musician who actually gets to embody the positive qualities he’s interested in. It’s just weird, and I found it very distracting.

OK, that’s all my whining about tone done. I have some more substantive criticisms later, but first I want to talk about some of the things I actually liked. Underneath all the owning-the-libs surface posturing he’s making a subtle and compelling argument. Unpacking this argument is quite a delicate business, and I kind of understand why the publishers just rounded it off to the gawping at phones thing.

Violins and slot machines

Earlier, I said that Crawford is out to explain ‘why working with your hands with real objects is so satisfying’, but actually he’s going for something a little more nuanced and specific than that. Not all real objects are satisfying to work with. Here’s his discussion of one that isn’t, at least for an adult:

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we had a Leap Frog Learning Table in the house. Each side of the square table presents some sort of electromechanical enticement. There are four bulbous piano keys; a violin-looking thing that is played by moving a slide rigidly located on a track; a transparent cylinder full of beads mounted on an axle such that any attempt, no matter how oblique, makes it rotate; and a booklike thing with two thick plastic pages in it.

… Turning off the Leap Frog Learning Table would produce rage and hysterics in my daughter… the device seemed to provide not just stimulation but the experience of agency (of a sort). By hitting buttons, the toddler can reliably make something happen.

The Leap Frog Learning Table is designed to take very complicated data from the environment – toddlers bashing the thing any old how, at any old speed or angle – and funnel this mess into a very small number of possible outcomes. The ‘violin-looking thing’ has only one translational degree of freedom, along a single track. Similarly, the cylinder can only be rotated around one axis. So the toddler’s glancing swipe at the cylinder is not dissipated into uselessness, but instead produces a satisfying rolling motion – they get to ‘make something happen’.

This is extremely satisfying for a toddler, who struggles to manipulate the more resistant objects of the adult world. But there is very little opportunity for growth or mastery there. The toddler has already mastered the toy to almost its full extent. Hitting the cylinder more accurately might make it spin for a bit longer, but it’s still pretty much the same motion.

At the opposite end of the spectrum would be a real violin. I play the violin, and you could describe it quite well as a machine for amplifying tiny changes in arm and hand movements into very different sounds (mostly horrible ones, which is why beginners sound so awful). There are a large number of degrees of freedom – the movements of the each jointed finger in three dimensional space, including those on the bow hand, contribute to the final sound. Also, almost all of them are continuous degrees of freedom. There are no keys or frets to accommodate small mistakes in positioning.

Crawford argues that although tools and instruments that transmit this kind of rich information about the world can be very frustrating in the short term, they also have enormous potential for satisfaction in the long term as you come to master them. Whereas objects like the Leap Frog Learning Table have comparatively little to offer if you’re not two years old:

Variations in how you hit the button on a Leap Frog Learning Table or a slot machine do not similarly produce variations in the effect you produce. There is a closed loop between your action and the effect that you perceive, but the bandwidth of variability has been collapsed… You are neither learning something about the world, as the blind man does with his cane, nor acquiring something that could properly be called a skill. Rather, you are acting within the perception-action circuits encoded in the narrow affordances of the game, learned in a few trials. This is a kind of autistic pseudo-action, based on exact repetition, and the feeling of efficacy that it offers evidently holds great appeal.

(As a warning, Crawford consistently uses ‘autistic’ in this derogatory sense throughout the book; if that sounds unpleasant, steer clear.)

Objects can also be actively deceptive, rather than just tediously simple. In the same chapter there’s some interesting material on gambling machines, and the tricks used to make them addictive. Apparently one of the big innovations here was the idea of ‘virtual reel mapping’. Old-style mechanical fruit machines would have three actual reels with images on them that you needed to match up, and just looking at the machine would give you a rough indication of the total number of images on the reel, and therefore the rough odds of matching them up and winning.

Early computerised machines followed this pattern, but soon the machine designers realised that there no longer needed to be this close coupling between the machine’s internal representation and what the gambler sees. So the newer machines would have a much larger number of virtual reel positions that are mostly mapped to losing combinations, with a large percentage of these combinations being ‘near misses’ to make the machine more addictive. The machine still looks simple, like the toddler’s toy, but the intuitive sense of odds you get from watching the machine becomes completely useless, because the internal logic of the machine is now doing something very complicated that the screen actively hides from you. A machine like this is actively ‘out to get you’, alienating you from the evidence of your own eyes.

Apples and sheep

Before reading the book I’d never really thought carefully about any of these properties of objects. For a while after reading it, I noticed them everywhere. Here’s one (kind of silly) example.

Shortly after reading the book I was visiting my family, and came across this wooden puzzle my aunt made:


I had a phase when I was ten or so where I was completely obsessed with this puzzle. Looking back, it’s not obvious why. It’s pretty simple and looks like the kind of thing that would briefly entertain much younger children. I was a weird kid and also didn’t have a PlayStation – maybe that’s explanation enough? But I didn’t have some kind of Victorian childhood where I was happy with an orange and a wooden toy at Christmas. I had access to plenty of plastic and electronic nineties tat that was more obviously fun.

I sat down for half an hour to play with this thing and try and remember what the appeal was. The main thing is that it turns out to be way more controllable than you might expect. The basic aim of the puzzle is just to get the ball bearings in the holes in any old order. This is the game that stops being particularly rewarding once you’re over the age of seven. But it’s actually possible to learn to isolate individual ball bearings by bashing them against the sides until one separates off, and then tilt the thing very precisely to steer one individually into a specific hole. That gives you a lot more options for variants on the basic game. For example, you can fill in the holes in a spiral pattern starting from the middle. Or construct a ‘fence’ of outer apples with a single missing ‘gate’ apple, steer two apples into the central pen (these apples are now sheep), and then close the gate with the last one.

The other interesting feature is that because this is a homemade game, the holes are not uniformly deep. The one in the top right is noticeably shallower than the others, and the ball bearing in this slot can be dislodged fairly easily while keeping the other nine in their place. This gives the potential for quite complicated dynamics of knocking down specific apples, and then steering other ones back in.

Still an odd way to have spent my time! But I can at least roughly understand why. The apple puzzle is less like the Leap Frog Learning Table than you might expect, and so the game can reward a surprisingly high level of skill. Part of this is from the continuous degrees of freedom you have in tilting the board, but the cool thing is that a lot of it comes from unintentional parts of the physical design. My aunt made the basic puzzle for small children, and the more complicated puzzles happened to be hidden within it.

The ability to dislodge the top right apple is not ‘supposed’ to be part of the game at all – an abstract version you might code up would have identical holes. But the world is going about its usual business of being incorrigibly plural, and there is just way more of it than any one abstract ruleset needs. The variation in the holes allows some of that complexity to accidentally leak in, breaking the simple game out into a much richer one.

Pebbles and birdsong

Now for the criticism part. I think there’s a real deficiency in the book that goes deeper than the tone issues I pointed out at the start. Crawford is insightful in his discussions of the kind of complexity that many handcrafted objects exhibit, that’s often standardised away in the modern world. But in his enthusiasm for people doing real things with real tools he’s forgotten the advantages of the systematised, ‘autistic’ world he dislikes. Funnelling messy reality into repeatable categories is how we get shit done at scale. It’s not just some unpleasant feature of modernity, either. Even something as simple as counting with pebbles relies on this:

To make the method work, you must choose bits-of-rock of roughly even sizes, so you can distinguish them from littler bits—stray grains of sand or dust in the bucket—that don’t count. How even? Even enough that you can make a reliable-enough judgement.

The counting procedure abstracts away the vivid specificity of the individual pebbles, and reduces them to simplistic interchangeable tokens. But there’s not much point in complaining about this. You need to do this to get the job done! And you can always break them back out into individuality later on if you want to do something else, like paint a still life of them.

I’m finding myself going back yet again to Christopher Norris’s talk on Derrida, which I discussed in my braindump here. (I’m going to repeat myself a bit in the next section. This was the most thought-provoking single thing I read last year, and I’m still working through the implications, so everything seems to lead back there at the moment.) Derrida picks apart some similar arguments by Rousseau, who was concerned with the bad side of systematisation in music:

One way of looking at Rousseau’s ideas about the melody/harmony dualism is to view them as the working-out of a tiff he was having with Rameau. Thus he says that the French music of his day is much too elaborate, ingenious, complex, ‘civilized’ in the bad (artificial) sense — it’s all clogged up with complicated contrapuntal lines, whereas the Italian music of the time is heartfelt, passionate, authentic, spontaneous, full of intense vocal gestures. It still has a singing line, it’s still intensely melodious, and it’s not yet encumbered with all those elaborate harmonies.

Crawford is advocating for something close to Rousseau’s pure romanticism. He brings along more recent and sophisticated arguments from phenomenology and embodied cognition, but he’s still very much on the side of spontaneity over structure. And I think he’s still vulnerable to the same arguments that Derrida was able to use against Rousseau. Norris explains it as follows:

… Rousseau gets into a real argumentative pickle when he say – lays it down as a matter of self-evident truth – that all music is human music. Bird-song just doesn’t count, he says, since it is merely an expression of animal need – of instinctual need entirely devoid of expressive or passional desire – and is hence not to be considered ‘musical’ in the proper sense of that term. Yet you would think that, given his preference for nature above culture, melody above harmony, authentic (spontaneous) above artificial (‘civilized’) modes of expression, and so forth, Rousseau should be compelled – by the logic of his own argument – to accord bird-song a privileged place vis-à-vis the decadent productions of human musical culture. However Rousseau just lays it down in a stipulative way that bird-song is not music and that only human beings are capable of producing music. And so it turns out, contrary to Rousseau’s express argumentative intent, that the supplement has somehow to be thought of as always already there at the origin, just as harmony is always already implicit in melody, and writing – or the possibility of writing – always already implicit in the nature of spoken language.

Derrida is pointing out that human music always has a structured component. We don’t just pour out a unmarked torrent of frequencies. We define repeatable lengths of notes, and precise intervals between pitches. (The evolution of these is a complicated engineering story in itself.) This doesn’t make music ‘inauthentic’ or ‘artificial’ in itself. It’s a necessary feature of anything we’d define as music.

I’d have been much happier with the book if it had some understanding of this interaction – ‘yes, structure is important, but I think we have too much of it, and here’s why’. But all we get is the romantic side. As with Rousseau’s romanticism, this tips over all too easily into pure reactionary nostalgia for an imagined golden age, and then we have to listen to yet another anecdote about how everything in the modern world is terrible. It’s not the eighteenth century any more, and we can do better now. And for all its genuine insight, this book mostly just doesn’t.

Book Review: The Eureka Factor

Last month I finally got round to reading The Eureka Factor by John Kounios and Mark Beeman, a popular book summarising research on ‘insightful’ thinking. I first mentioned it a couple of years ago after I’d read a short summary article, when I realised it was directly relevant to my recurring ‘two types of mathematician’ obsession:

The book is not focussed on maths – it’s a general interest book about problem solving and creativity in any domain. But it looks like it has a very similar way of splitting problem solvers into two groups, ‘insightfuls’ and ‘analysts’. ‘Analysts’ follow a linear, methodical approach to work through a problem step by step. Importantly, they also have cognitive access to those steps – if they’re asked what they did to solve the problem, they can reconstruct the argument.

‘Insightfuls’ have no such access to the way they solved the problem. Instead, a solution just ‘pops into their heads’.

Of course, nobody is really a pure ‘insightful’ or ‘analyst’. And most significant problems demand a mixed strategy. But it does seem like many people have a tendency towards one or the other.

I wasn’t too sure what I was getting into. The replication crisis has made me hyperaware of the dangers of uncritically accepting any results in psychology, and I’m way too ignorant of the field to have a good sense for which results still look plausible. However, the book turned out to be so extraordinarily Relevant To My Interests that I couldn’t resist writing up a review anyway.

The final chapters had a few examples along the lines of ‘[weak environmental effect] primes people to be more/less insightful’, and I know enough to stay away from those, but the earlier parts look somewhat more solid to me. I haven’t made much effort to trace back references, though, and I could easily still be being too credulous.

(I didn’t worry so much about replication with my previous post on the Cognitive Reflection Test. Getting the bat and ball question wrong is hardly the kind of weak effect that you need a sensitive statistical instrument to detect. It’s almost impossible to stop people getting it wrong! I did steer clear of any more dubious priming-style results, though, like the claim that people do better on the CRT when reading it ‘in a disfluent font’.)

Insight and intuition

First, it’s worth getting clear on exactly what Kounios and Beeman mean by ‘insight’. As they use it, insight is a specific type of creative thinking, which they define more generally as ‘the ability to reinterpret something by breaking it down into its elements and recombining these elements in a surprising way to achieve some goal.’ Insight is distinguished by its suddenness and lack of conscious control:

When this kind of creative recombination takes place in an instant, it’s an insight. But recombination can also result from the more gradual, conscious process that cognitive psychologists call “analytic” thought. This involves methodically and deliberately considering many possibilities until you find the solution. For example, when you’re playing a game of Scrabble, you must construct words from sets of letters. When you look at the set of letters “A-E-H-I-P-N-Y-P” and suddenly realize that they can form the word “EPIPHANY,” then that would be an insight. When you systematically try out different combinations of the letters until you find the word, that’s analysis.

Insights tend to have a few other features in common. Solving a problem by insight is normally very satisfying: the insight comes into consciousness along with a small jolt of positive affect. The insight itself is usually preceded by a longer period of more effortful thought about the problem. Sometimes this takes place just before the moment of insight, while at other times there is an ‘incubation’ phase, where the solution pops into your head while you’ve taken a break from deliberately thinking about it.

I’m not really going to get into this part in my review, but the related word ‘intuition’ is also used in an interestingly specific sense in the book, to describe the sense that a new idea is lurking beneath the surface, but is not consciously accessible yet. Intuitions often precede an insight, but have a different feel to the insight itself:

This puzzling phenomenon has a strange subjective quality. It feels like an idea is about to burst into your consciousness, almost as though you’re about to sneeze. Cognitive psychologists call this experience “intuition,” meaning an awareness of the presence of information in the unconscious mind — a new idea, solution, or perspective — without awareness of the information itself, at least until it pops into consciousness.

Insight problems

To study insight, psychologists need to come up with problems that reliably trigger an insight solution. One classic example discussed in The Eureka Factor is the Nine Dot Problem, where you are asked to connect the following set of black dots using only four lines, without taking your pen off the page:

[image source]
If you’ve somehow avoided seeing this puzzle before, think about it for a while first. In the absence of any kind of built-in spoiler blocks for wordpress.com sites, I’ll insert a bunch of blank space here so that you hopefully have to scroll down off your current screen to see my discussion of the solution:

If you didn’t figure it out, a solution can be found in the Wikipedia article on insight problems here. It’ll probably look irritatingly obvious once you see it. The key feature of the solution is that the lines you draw have to extend outside the confines of the square of dots you start with (thus spawning a whole subgenre of annoying business literature on ‘thinking outside the box’). Nothing in the rules forbids this, but the setup focusses most people’s attention on the grid itself, and breaking out of this mindset requires a kind of reframing, a throwing away of artificially imposed constraints. This is a common characteristic of insight problems.

This characteristic also makes insight hard to test. For testing purposes, it’s useful to have a large stock of similar puzzles in hand. But a good reframing like the one in the Nine Dot Problem tends to be a bit of a one-off: once you’ve had the idea of extending the lines outside the box, it applies trivially to all similar puzzles, and not at all to other types of puzzle.

(I talked about something similar in my last post, on the Cognitive Reflection Test. The test was inspired by one good puzzle, the ‘bat and ball problem’, and adds two other questions that were apparently picked to be similar. Five thousand words and many comments later, it’s not obvious to me or most of the other commenters that these three problems form any kind of natural set at all.)

Kounios and Beeman discuss several of these eyecatching ‘one-off’ problems in the book, but their own research that they discuss is focussed on a more standardisable kind of puzzle, the Remote Associates Test. This test gives you three words, such as


and asks you to find the common word that links them. The authors claim that these can be solved either with or without insight, and asked participants to self-categorise their responses as either fitting in the ‘insightful’ or ‘analytic’ categories:

The analytic approach is to consciously search through the possibilities and try out potential answers. For example, start with “pine.” Imagine yourself thinking: What goes with “pine”? Perhaps “tree”? “Pine tree” works. “Crab tree”? Hmmm … maybe. “Tree sauce”? No. Have to try something else. How about “cake”? “Crab cake” works. “Cake sauce” is a bit of a reach but might be acceptable. However, “pine cake” and “cake pine” definitely don’t work. What else? How about “crabgrass”? That works. But “pine grass”? Not sure. Perhaps there is such a thing. But “sauce grass” and “grass sauce” are definitely out. What else goes with “sauce”? How about “applesauce”? That’s good. “Pineapple” and “crab apple” also work. The answer is “apple”!

This is analytical thought: a deliberate, methodical, conscious search through the possible combinations. But this isn’t the only way to come up with the solution. Perhaps you’re trying out possibilities and get stuck or even draw a blank. And then, “Aha! Apple” suddenly pops into your awareness. That’s what would happen if you solved the problem by insight. The solution just occurs to you and doesn’t seem to be a direct product of your ongoing stream of thought.

This categorisation seems suspiciously neat, and if I rely on my own introspection for solving one of these (which is obviously dubious itself) it feels like more of a mix. I’ll often generate some verbal noise about cakes and trees that sounds vaguely like I’m doing something systematic, but the main business of solving the thing seems to be going on nonverbally elsewhere. But I do think there’s something there – the answer can be very immediate and ‘poppy’, or it can surface after a longer and more accessible process of trying plausible words. This was tested in a more objective way by seeing what people do when they don’t come up with the answer:

Insightfuls made more “errors of omission.” When waiting for an insight that hadn’t yet arrived, they had nothing to offer in its place. So when the insight didn’t arrive in time, they let the clock run out without having made a guess. In contrast, Analysts made more “errors of commission.” They rarely timed out, but instead guessed – sometimes correctly – by offering the potential solution they had been consciously thinking about when their time was almost up.

Kounios and Beeman’s research focussed on finding neural correlates of the ‘aha’ moment of insight, using a combination of an EEG test to pinpoint the time of the insight, and fMRI scanning to locate the brain region:

We found that at the moment a solution pops into someone’s awareness as an insight, a sudden burst of high-frequency EEG activity known as “gamma waves” can be picked up by electrodes just above the right ear. (Gamma waves represent cognitive processing in the brain, such as paying attention to something or linking together different pieces of information.) We were amazed at the abruptness of this burst of activity—just what one would expect from a sudden insight. Functional magnetic resonance imaging showed a corresponding increase in blood flow under these electrodes in a part of the brain’s right temporal lobe called the “anterior superior temporal gyrus” (see figure 5.2), an area that is involved in making connections between distantly related ideas, as in jokes and metaphors. This activity was absent for analytic solutions.

So we had found a neural signature of the aha moment: a burst of activity in the brain’s right hemisphere.

I’m not sure how settled this is, though. I haven’t tried to do a proper search of the literature, but certainly a review from 2010 describes the situation as very much in flux:

A recent surge of interest into the neural underpinnings of creative behavior has produced a banquet of data that is tantalizing but, considered as a whole, deeply self-contradictory.

(The book was published somewhat later, in 2015, but mostly cites research from prior to this review, such as this paper.)

As an outsider it’s going to be pretty hard for me to judge this without spending a lot more time than I really want to right now. However, regardless of how this holds up, I was really interested in the authors’ discussion of why a right-hemisphere neural correlate of insight would make sense.

Insight and context

One of the authors, Mark Beeman, had previously studied language deficits in people who had suffered brain damage to the right hemisphere. One such patient was the trial attorney D.B.:

What made D.B. “lucky” was that the stroke had damaged his right hemisphere rather than his left. Had the stroke occurred in the mirror-image left-hemisphere region, he would have experienced Wernicke’s aphasia, a profound deficit of language comprehension. In the worst cases, people with Wernicke’s aphasia may be completely unable to understand written or spoken language.

Nevertheless, D.B. didn’t feel lucky. He may have been better off than if he’d had a left-hemisphere stroke, but he felt that his language ability was far from normal. He said that he “couldn’t keep up” with conversations or stories the way he used to. He felt impaired enough that he had stopped litigating trials—he thought that it would have been a disservice to his clients to continue to represent them in court.

D.B. and the other patients were able to understand the straightforward meanings of words and the literal meanings of sentences. Even so, they complained about vague difficulties with language. They failed to grasp the gist of stories or were unable to follow multiple-character or multiple-plot stories, movies, or television shows. Many didn’t get jokes. Sarcasm and irony left them blank with incomprehension. They could sometimes muddle along without these abilities, but whenever things became subtle or implicit, they were lost.

An example of the kind of problem D.B. struggled with is the following:

Saturday, Joan went to the park by the lake. She was walking barefoot in the shallow water, not knowing that there was glass nearby. Suddenly, she grabbed her foot in pain and called for help, and the lifeguard came running.

If D.B. was given a statement about something that occurred explicitly in the text, such as ‘Joan went to the park on Saturday’, he could say whether it was true or false with no problems at all. In fact, he did better than all of the control subjects on these sorts of explicit questions. But if he was instead presented with a statement like ‘Joan cut her foot’, where some of the facts are left implicit, he was unable to answer.

This was interesting to me, because it seems so directly relevant to the discussion last year on ‘cognitive decoupling’. This is a term I’d picked up from Sarah Constantin, who herself got it from Keith Stanovich:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.

The patients in Beeman’s study have so much difficulty with contextualisation that they struggle with anything at all that is left implicit, even straightforward inferences like ‘Joan cut her foot’. This appears to match with other evidence from visual half-field studies, where subjects are presented with words on either the right or left half of the visual field. Those on the left half will go first to the right hemisphere, so that the right hemisphere gets a head start on interpreting the stimulus. This shows a similar difference between hemispheres:

The left hemisphere is sharp, focused, and discriminating. When a word is presented to the left hemisphere, the meaning of that word is activated along with the meanings of a few closely related words. For example, when the word “table” is presented to the left hemisphere, this might strongly energize the concepts “chair” and “kitchen,” the usual suspects, so to speak. In contrast, the right hemisphere is broad, fuzzy, and promiscuously inclusive. When “table” is presented to the right hemisphere, a larger number of remotely related words are weakly invoked. For example, “table” might activate distant associations such as “water” (for underground water table), “payment” (for paying under the table), “number” (for a table of numbers), and so forth.

Why would picking up on these weak associations be relevant to insight? The story seems to be that this tangle of secondary meanings – the ‘Lovecraftian penumbra of monstrous shadow phalanges’ – works to pull your attention away from the obvious interpretation you’re stuck with, helping you to find a clever new reframing of the problem.

This makes a lot of sense to me as a rough outline. In my own experience at least, the kind of thinking that is likely to lead to an insight experience feels softer and more diffuse than the more ‘analytic’ kind, more a process of sort of rolling the ideas around gently in your head and seeing if something clicks than a really focussed investigation of the problem. ‘Thinking too hard’ tends to break the spell. This fits well with the idea that insights are triggered by activation of weak associations.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot of other interesting material in the book about the rest of the insight process, including the incubation period leading up to an insight flash, and the phenomenon of ‘intuitions’, where you feel that an insight is on its way but you don’t know what it is yet. I’ll never get through this review if I try to cover all of that, so instead I’m going to finish up with a couple of weak associations of my own that got activated while reading the book.

I’ve been getting increasingly dissatisfied with the way dual process theories split cognition into a fast/automatic/intuitive ‘System 1’ and a slow/effortful/systematic ‘System 2’. System 1 in particular has started to look to me like an amorphous grab bag of all kinds of things that would be better separated out.

The Eureka Factor has pushed this a little further, by bringing out a distinction between two things that normally get lumped under System 1 but are actually very different. One obvious type of System 1-ish behaviour is routine action, the way you go about tasks you have done many times before, like making a sandwich or walking to work. These kinds of activities require very little explicit thought and generally ‘just happen’ in response to cues in the environment.

The kind of ‘insightful’ thinking discussed in The Eureka Factor would also normally get classed under System 1: it’s not very systematic and involves a fast, opaque process where the answer just pops into your head without much explanation. But it’s also very different to routine action. It involves deliberately choosing to think about a new situation, rather than one you have seen many times before, and a successful insight gives you a qualitatively new kind of understanding. The insight flash itself is a very noticeable, enjoyable feature of your conscious attention, rather than the effortless, unexamined state of absorbed action.

This was pointed out to me once before by Sarah Constantin, in the comments section of her Distinctions in Types of Thought:

You seem to be lumping “flashes of insight” in with “effortless flow-state”. I don’t think they’re the same. For one thing, inspiration generally comes in bursts, while flow-states can persist for a while (driving on a highway, playing the piano, etc.) Definitely, “flashes of insight” aren’t the same type of thought as “effortful attention” — insight feels easy, instant, and unforced. But they might be their own, unique category of thought. Still working out my ontology here.

I’d sort of had this at the back of my head since then, but the book has really brought out the distinction clearly. I’m sure these aren’t the only types of thinking getting shoved into the System 1 category, and I get the sense that there’s a lot more splitting out that I need to do.

I also thought about how the results in the book fit in with my perennial ‘two types of mathematician’ question. (This is a weird phenomenon I’ve noticed where a lot of mathematicians have written essays about how mathematicians can be divided into two groups; I’ve assembled a list of examples here.) ‘Analytic’ versus ‘insightful’ seems to be one of the distinctions between groups, at least. It seems relevant to Poincaré’s version, for instance:

The one sort are above all preoccupied with logic; to read their works, one is tempted to believe they have advanced only step by step, after the manner of a Vauban who pushes on his trenches against the place besieged, leaving nothing to chance.

The other sort are guided by intuition and at the first stroke make quick but sometimes precarious conquests, like bold cavalrymen of the advance guard.

In fact, Poincaré once also gave a striking description of an insight flash himself:

Just at this time, I left Caen, where I was living, to go on a geologic excursion under the auspices of the School of Mines. The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’ sake, I verified the result at my leisure.

If the insight/analysis split is going to be relevant here, it would require that people favour either ‘analytic’ or ‘insight’ solutions as a general cognitive style, rather than switching between them freely depending on the problem. The authors do indeed claim that this is the case:

Most people can, and to some extent do, use both of these approaches. A pure type probably doesn’t exist; each person falls somewhere on an analytic-insightful continuum. Yet many—perhaps most—people tend to gravitate toward one of these styles, finding their particular approach to be more comfortable or natural.

This is based on their own research where they recorded participant’s self-report of whether they were using a ‘insight’ or ‘analytic’ approach to solve anagrams, and compared it with EEG recordings of their resting state. They found a number of differences, including more right-hemisphere activity in the ‘insight’ group, and lower levels of communication between the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain, indicating a more disorderly thinking style with less top-down control. This may suggest more freedom to allow weak associations between thoughts to have a crack at the problem, without being overruled by the dominant interpretation.

Again, and you’re probably got very bored of this disclaimer, I have no idea how well the details of this will hold up. That’s true for pretty much every specific detail in the book that I’ve discussed here. Still, the link between insight and weak associations makes a lot of sense to me, and the overall picture certainly triggered some useful reframings. That seems very appropriate for a book about insight.

Book Review: The Reflective Practitioner

In my last two posts I’ve been talking about my experience of thinking through some website design problems. At the same time that I was muddling along with these, I happened to be reading Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner, which is about how people solve problems in professions like architecture, town planning, teaching and management. (I got the recommendation from David Chapman’s ‘Further reading’ list for his Meaningness site.)

This turned out to be surprisingly relevant. Schön is considering ‘real’ professional work, rather than my sort of amateur blundering around, but the domain of web design shares a lot of characteristics with the professions he studied. The problems in these fields are context-dependent and open-ended, resisting any sort of precise theory that applies to all cases. On the other hand, people do manage to solve problems and develop expertise anyway.

Schön argues that this expertise mostly comes through building up familiarity with many individual examples, rather than through application of an overarching theory. He builds up his own argument in the same way, letting his ideas shine through a series of case studies of successful practitioners.

In the one I find most compelling, an established architect, Quist, reviews the work of a student, Petra, who is in the early stages of figuring out a design for an elementary school site. I’m going to follow Schön’s examples-driven approach here and describe this in some detail.

Petra has already made some preliminary sketches and come up with some discoveries of her own. Her first idea for the classrooms was the diagonal line of six rooms in the top right of the picture below. Playing around, she found that ‘they were too small in scale to do much with’, so she ‘changed them to this much more significant layout’, the L shapes in the bottom left.


I’m not sure I can fully explain why the L shapes are ‘more significant’, but I do agree with her assessment. There’s more of a feeling of spaciousness than there was with the six cramped little rectangles, and the pattern is more interesting geometrically and suggests more possibilities for interacting with the geography of the site.

At this point, we already get to see a theme that Schön goes back to repeatedly, the idea of a ‘reflective conversation with the materials’. The designer finds that:

His materials are continually talking back to him, causing him to apprehend unanticipated problems and potentials.

Petra has found a simple example of this. She switched to the L shapes on more-or-less aesthetic grounds, but then she discovers that the new plan ‘relates one to two, three to four, and five to six grades, which is more what I wanted to do educationally anyway.’ The materials have talked back and given her more than she originally put in, which is a sign that she is on to something promising.

After this early success, Petra runs into difficulties. She has learnt the rule that buildings should fit to the contours of the site. Unfortunately the topography of this particular site is really incoherent and nothing she tries will fit into the slope.

Quist advises her to break this rule:

You should begin with a discipline, even if it is arbitrary, because the site is so screwy – you can always break it open later.

Together they work through the implications of the following design:


This kicks off a new round of conversation with the materials.

Quist now proceeds to play out the imposition of the two-dimensional geometry of the L-shaped classrooms upon the “screwy” three-dimensional contours of the slope… The roofs of the classroom will rise five feet above the ground at the next level up, and since five feet is “maximum height for a kid”, kids will be able to be in “nooks”…

A drawing experiment has been conducted and its outcome partially confirms Quist’s way of setting the L-shaped classrooms upon the incoherent slope. Classrooms now flow down the slope in three stages, creating protected spaces “maximum height for a kid” at each level.

In an echo of Petra’s initial experiment, Quist has got back more than he put in. He hasn’t solved the problem in the clean, definitive way you’d solve a mathematical optimisation problem. Many other designs would probably have worked just as well. But the design has ‘talked back’, and his previous experience of working through problems like this has given him the skills to understand what it is saying.

I find the ‘reflective conversation’ idea quite thought-provoking and appealing. It seems to fit well with my limited experience: prototyping my design in a visual environment was an immediate improvement over just writing code, because it enabled this sort of conversation. Instead of planning everything out in advance, I could mess around with the basic elements of the design and ‘apprehend unanticipated problems and potentials’ as they came up.

I don’t find the other examples in the book quite as convincing as this one. Quist is unusually articulate, so the transcripts tell you a lot. Also, architectural plans can be reproduced easily as figures in a book, so you can directly see his solution for yourself, rather than having to take someone’s word for it. With the other practitioners it’s often hard to get a sense of how good their solutions are. (I guess Schön was also somewhat limited by who he could persuade to be involved.)

Alongside the case studies, there is some discussion of the implications for how these professions are normally taught. Some of this is pretty dry, but there are a few interesting topics. The professions he considers often have something like ‘engineering envy’ or ‘medicine envy’: doctors and engineers can borrow from the hard sciences and get definitive answers to some of their questions, so they don’t always have to do this more nebulous ‘reflective conversation’ thing.

It’s tempting for experts in the ‘softer’ professions to try and borrow some of this prestige, leading to the introduction of a lot of theory into the curriculum, even if this theory turns out to be pretty bullshit-heavy and less useful than the kind of detailed reflection on individual cases that Quist is doing. Schön advocates for the reintroduction of practice, pointing out that this can never be fully separated from theory anyway:

If we separate thinking from doing, seeing thought only as a preparation for action and action only as an implementation of thought, then it is easy to believe that when we step into the separate domain of thought we will become lost in an infinite regress of thinking about thinking. But in actual reflection-in-action, as we have seen, doing and thinking are complementary. Doing extends thinking in the tests, moves, and probes of experimental action, and reflection feeds on doing and its results. Each feeds the other, and each sets boundaries for the other. It is the surprising result of action that triggers reflection, and it is the production of a satisfactory move that brings reflection temporarily to a close… Continuity of enquiry entails a continual interweaving of thinking and doing.

For some reason this book has become really popular with education departments, even though teaching only makes up a tiny part of the book. Googling ‘reflective practitioner’ brings up lots of education material, most of which looks cargo-culty and uninspired. Schön’s ideas seem to have mostly been routinised into exactly the kind of useless theory he was trying to go beyond, and I haven’t yet found any good follow-ups in the spirit of the original. It’s a shame, as there’s a lot more to explore here.