Research speedruns

[This post is also crossposted on Less Wrong.]

The ‘research speedrun’ is a format that I’ve been playing with on here for the last year or so. It’s been more popular than I expected and it looks like there’s a lot more that could be done with the idea. So I thought I’d write it up here and see if anyone else wants to experiment with it themselves, or suggest different things to try.

The format

It’s a very simple format, so this section will be short:

  • Pick a topic
  • Set a one hour timer
  • Find out as much as possible about the topic before the buzzer goes off while writing up a live commentary
  • Do a very quick editing pass to fix the worst typos and then hit Publish

So far I’ve done speedruns on Marx on alienation, the Vygotsky Circle, sensemaking, the Prussian education system, abacus schools, Germaine de Staël, and mess.

What I’ve used it for so far

Obviously, there’s only so much you can learn in an hour – calling this ‘research’ is a little bit of a stretch. Sometimes I don’t even manage to leave Wikipedia! Even so, this technique works well for topics where the counterfactual is ‘I don’t read anything at all’ or ‘I google around aimlessly for half an hour and then forget it all’. Writing notes as I go means that I’m making enough active effort that I end up remembering some of it, but I know the process is timeboxed so it’s not going to end up being one of those annoying ever-expanding writing projects.

Here are a few rough categories of topics I’ve tried so far:

  • ‘Sidequests’. Speedruns are great for topics that you find interesting but are never going to devote serious time to. I have a very minor side interest in the history of schools and universities, so if I come across something intriguing, like Renaissance abacus schools, it’s a good way to learn a few basic things quickly. I have one or two more ideas for speedruns in this area.
  • Historical background. An hour is quite a good length of time to pick up a few fragments of background historical context for something you’re interested in. One hour won’t get you far on its own, but the good thing about historical context is that it builds nicely over time as you get a better picture of the timeline of different events and how they affect each other.
  • Finding out what something is at a basic level. I did the ‘sensemaking’ speedrun because I’d heard that term a lot and had very little idea what it referred to.
  • Dubious or simplistic claims. The Prussian education system post was in this category. If you read pop pieces about education by people who don’t like school very much, there’s often a reference to ‘the Prussian education system’ as the source of all evils, maybe alongside a claim that it was set up to indoctrinate citizens into being good factory workers. If you’re starting with an understanding this simplistic you can improve it significantly within an hour. (The Prussian education system really did introduce many of the elements of modern compulsory schooling, but the factory workers bit doesn’t really hold up.)
  • Random curiosity. The Germaine de Staël one happened because I was reading Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism and she sounded like she might have had an interesting life (she did have an interesting life).

What I’ve got out of it

Sometimes the answer ends up being ‘not much’, but in that case I’ve only wasted an hour. I expect these to be pretty high variance. Some outcomes so far:

  • I discover that a topic is more interesting or important than I realised, and decide to spend more time on it. This happened with the Vygotsky Circle post – the actual speedrun was frustrating because I didn’t find any good quality sources about the intellectual scene, but I did realise Vygotsky himself was more interesting than I’d realised and ended up reading and making notes on his book Thought and Language.
  • I get good comments from more informed people and end up learning more after the speedrun as well. The sensemaking post was like this: in the speedrun itself I learned about the term’s origins in organisational studies, but not so much about the more recent online subculture that uses the term. After I posted it it ended up attracting a fair number of comments and twitter responses that explained the connection. (The root tweet is here, for people who have the patience to trawl through a branching twitter thread.)
  • I get exactly what I bargained for: an hour’s worth of basic knowledge about a topic I’m mildly interested in.

Another minor benefit is that I keep my writing habit going by producing something. This was actually pretty useful in the depths of winter lockdown apathy.

Other possibilities

My sense is that there’s a lot more that could be done with the format. Some potential ideas:

Speedrun events. Tyler Alterman first suggested this on twitter:

I like this idea of a research speedruns

Party format:
5min everyone brainstorms topics of interest into a chat
1hr each person speedruns on one
1hr mini presentation from each person

I tried a tiny one with three people and it worked pretty well. I don’t love organising events and I doubt I’ll do this often myself, but if someone else wants to try it I’d probably be up for joining.

Chaining speedruns together. Multiple speedruns on the same topic would allow going into more depth while still having the ability to iterate every hour on exactly what you want to focus on.

Technical topics? I’m also interested in quantum foundations but I haven’t tried any maths- or physics-heavy speedrun topic yet. It sounds a lot harder, because that type of work tends to involve a lot more stopping and thinking, and maybe nothing would appear on the screen for long periods. Could still be worth trying.

Livestreamed speedruns. It could be funny to do an actual Twitch-style livestreamed speedrun. Or it could be atrociously dull. I’m not sure.

I’d like to hear suggestions for other ideas. I’d also be keen to hear from anyone who tries this as an experiment – please let me know how it goes!

Speedrun: Mess

This speedrun is a bit of an experiment and might go terribly. It’s a more open-ended topic than the ones I’ve tried before, and I’m not sure what I even want to know exactly.

The background is that I’m a big fan of Sarah Perry’s Tendrils of Mess in our Brains. This is a sketch of a satisfying theory of what mess is: interference from multiple conflicting ordering principles. (That’s probably too concise of a summary – see the post for more details and many good examples.)

I’d like to be able to contextualise this post, to have an idea about what other people have said about mess. Are there any other Big Theories of Mess? I’m not too sure where to start, even, but probably there is a Wikipedia article on mess. If not I’ll dredge Google Scholar. Let’s find out.

There is no Wikipedia article on mess 😦 Unless you’re looking for the military term.

Google Scholar is giving me articles written by people called Mess. This isn’t going well…

‘Theory of mess’ maybe? All sorts of things are coming up, mostly uninteresting. Maybe this paper on ‘Attuning to mess’? Oh it’s a book chapter, in some kind of military strategy context. Doesn’t look that promising for what I want.

Ok, try ‘What is mess’. Now I’ve found a paper that’s just called ‘Mess‘, by Tanggaard and Tue Juelsbo.

This text is about mess, feelings of loneliness and loss, and their potential creative power. In a recent paper on collaborative writing, Wegener (2014) shares her experience with the reader on how a writing refuge almost turned into a prison. Having spent two days at the refuge, piles of papers with interview transcripts and field-notes were in a total mess. The themes in the writing seemed irrelevant and boring. Feeling lost, Wegener realised that she needed to break free and do something, and so she eventually decided to leave the research files behind and enjoy life in the sun outside the dirty windows in her room (Figure 10.1). She walked out along the beach and, when she came back, she began reading A. C. Bryatt’s A Biographer’s Tale, which she found by chance in her messy suitcase. The book was just meant to be a leisurely read and not intended to serve as a research tool and yet, soon, Wegener found herself writing a fictional dialogue with the protagonist Phineas from the tale about feeling lost and in need of creative inspiration (see also Chapter 8).

Getting warmer, still not really what I want.

Further down there’s a book called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Abrahamson and Freedman. The book preview looks kind of entertaining, but probably not going to get into any deep theory of mess. Hm, though I did just find this bit:

Mess Isn’t Necessarily an Absence of Order. Often a system is messy to some extent because of the lack of one specific type of order, even though other forms of order are present in abundance… What’s more, mess often arises from a failed order rather than from an absence of order.

This is sort of close to Perry’s thesis. But the book seems to be mostly more first-principles musings on mess, rather than helping me find more standard references. (Are there standard references? Where are the Established Theorists of Mess hanging out?)

There’s a categorisation of types of mess that may be worth returning to later, I’ll just add a screenshot in:

That’s probably all I’ll get out of this source for now. None of the other search results look useful. What about a general google search? Nope, totally useless, pages of dictionary definitions and other useless crap.

Hmm. This is not easy. It’s a mess, in fact. 41 minutes left, what to try next? Let’s search the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the word ‘mess’. Nothing really about mess as such, just the word cropping up in various unrelated contexts. Where’s my Grand Theory of Mess??

OK I’ll go back to the original blog post and check for leads there. Oh OK there’s Alan Watts:

When you look at the clouds they are not symmetrical. They do not form fours and they do not come along in cubes, but you know at once that they are not a mess. A dirty old ashtray full of junk may be a mess but clouds do not look like that. When you look at the patterns of foam on water they never make an artistic mistake and they are not a mess. They are wiggly but in a way, orderly, although it is difficult for us to describe that kind of order.

Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy, p. 27.

I’ve always got some weird resistance to reading Alan Watts that I don’t fully understand but if this is the source I’d better go there. I don’t know though, I’m googling this quote and the context is sort of more first principles talking about mess. I’m still unclear what I do want but this isn’t really it. Ugh.

Back on Google Scholar looking up various combinations of ‘mess’ and ‘aesthetics’. Haha I just found a paper called ‘Chocolate or shit: aesthetics and cultural poverty in art therapy with children’. Not what I want either but… interesting I guess? I’m over half way through now and getting nowhere.

Hmm, this isn’t particularly promising but I just searched ‘theory of mess’ in google and found a review of something called Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in Nineteenth-Century Art and Fiction by David Trotter. This at least seems to have some links to other works:

The only strange feature of this admirable book is its title. Baudelaire, the writer who pre-eminently characterized the creation of art in terms of the culinary and the cosmetic, described the metamorphosis of raw reality into crafted artefact, as the transformation of mud into gold, in a way which the anecdote from the childhood of Mary Butts, cited by David Trotter, barely encompasses. The sub-title of the book gives a far clearer picture of its range and content: the poetics and politics of “mess-theory” in Western fiction and painting, from approximately 1860 to 1900. “Mess” is to be understood in Samuel Beckett’s use of the term, in his 1961 interview with Tom Driver, when he spoke of seeking in art “a form that accommodates the mess.” Beckett, however, equated this activity with “chaos,” whereas Trotter, in his book, differentiates between the two. More precisely, Trotter makes a distinction between a theory of “waste” and a theory of “mess” (17). “Waste” is an effect which can be traced back to its cause and, ultimately, to human agency: it can be recycled and can be linked to renewal. Philosophically, in terms of order and disorder, it is related to determinism. By contrast, “mess” is governed by chance. It can be “good,” in that it may mark the beginning of an illusion (as in desire), or “bad,” in that it may mark the shattering of an illusion. It may be creative, as in the clutter of the studios of Edgar Degas or Francis Bacon, who each, in their different ways, produced some of their finest works in an environment of extreme “messiness.” Philosophically, it is linked to the concept of contingency and is, aesthetically, the harbinger of modernism.

But ‘mess’ as ‘governed by chance’ isn’t really what I’m looking for.

Now I’ve found a book called Making the Most of Mess by Emery Roe, which seems to be about policy and management. Quotes the Trotter piece: ‘Those interested in the role of mess in other fields should begin with mess theory in literary criticism (Trotter 2000), rubbish theory in anthropology (Thompson 1979), or the heap paradox in philosophy’.

I’m out of better ideas so let’s look up ‘rubbish theory in anthropology’. OK the book is Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value by Michael Thompson. Seems to be about waste and not particular about mess.

Oh god, 12 minutes left. Back on Scholar looking at stuff to do with mess and aesthetics. Debris, Mess and the Modernist Self? Making Sense of Mess. Marginal Lives, Impossible Spaces? This last one seems to theroise about mess at least a bit:

In the following few paragraphs I sketch some of the main concepts that animate our understanding of ‘mess’, as a way of attempting to outline a tradition of thinkers that were fascinated by lack of formal order, by chaos or filth; I hope
then to draw a constellation of keywords which help us clarify the connotations of the term we intend to use as a guiding idea running throughout this issue.

In its comparative understanding, as the opposite or ‘lack’ of order, balance, and clarity, mess reminds us of the canonical Dionysian/Apollonian dialectic as famously articulated by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

… Fast-forwarding to more recent times, it is noticeable that postmodern culture is certainly deeply fascinated by mess, by simultaneity and overlapping, by directionless hyperactivity and the overcrowded physical scenarios of mass society
and conspicuous consumption.

Bla bla Lyotard, bla bla entropy. Doesn’t go too deep, seems to just be an introduction to a book of essays with a fairly typical pomo-ish inverting-the-order theme: ‘It also contributes, I believe, to questioning the rationale behind a value system that prioritizes order and rational organization of space, objects, and people.’

I just found another potentially interesting reference: Thomas Leddy, “Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities: ‘Neat,’ ‘Messy,’ ‘Clean,’ ‘Dirty,'” This is in something called ‘Everyday Aesthetics’ by Yuriko Saito. I’ve only found the first page of the Leddy so far and don’t have long left, and it looks like it probably won’t go deep on mess, though it might be worth reading anyway.

Ding! Ok, yeah, that did go pretty terribly. But my lack of success is least suggestive that there really isn’t a lot of deep theory of mess out there. There’s still a chance that I’m missing the right search terms, but I have no idea what the right ones would be. If you have any good ideas, let me know…

(Slow) speedrun: Germaine de Staël

I’m starting to write up a review of Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism, and this quote fragment jumped out at me:

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.

It’s a poetic turn of phrase, and I have just about enough mild curiosity to fancy doing a speedrun on her. Currently I know absolutely nothing. Maybe I’ll also expand it to the people she visited, if it turns out that she’s at the centre of some interesting intellectual circle.

I’m calling this one a slow speedrun because it’s too hot here and like most people in the UK I don’t have air conditioning, so I’m writing this with my feet in a tub of ice water as a poor substitute. It’ll still be an hour long, but I’ll take it easy and probably won’t get through as much as normal.

Right, let’s go. Slowly.

Right, start with wikipedia as ever.

Full name Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël. 1766 – 1817.

She was a voice of moderation in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration.

Her intellectual collaboration with Benjamin Constant between 1794 and 1810 made them one of the most celebrated intellectual couples of their time.

OK I’ve never even heard of him. Open in new tab.

She discovered sooner than others the tyrannical character and designs of Napoleon.[5] For many years she lived as an exile – firstly during the Reign of Terror and later due to personal persecution by Napoleon.

In exile she became the centre of the Coppet group with her unrivalled network of contacts across Europe.

Ah, brilliant, there’s an intellectual scene, that’s what I was hoping for. Open in new tab.

In 1814 one of her contemporaries observed that "there are three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël".

Nice. Now I understand the allusion in that Berlin quote.

Known as a witty and brilliant conversationalist, and often dressed in daring outfits, she stimulated the political and intellectual life of her times. Her works, whether novels, travel literature or polemics, which emphasised individuality and passion, made a lasting mark on European thought. De Staël spread the notion of Romanticism widely by its repeated use

OK, now for some historical background on her childhood. Only child of a popular Parisian salon host and a prominent banker and statesman. They both have wikipedia pages too but I doubt I’d get to them.

Mme Necker wanted her daughter educated according to the principles of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and endow her with the intellectual education and Calvinist discipline instilled in her by her pastor father.

Haha, poor child. Sounds like she turned out quite well given the circumstances.

At the age of 13, she read Montesquieu, Shakespeare, Rousseau and Dante.[10] This exposure probably contributed to a nervous breakdown in adolescence, but the seeds of a literary vocation had been sown.

Her father got into trouble by releasing the national budget, which had always been kept secret. So he got dismissed and they moved to a chateau on Lake Geneva. Then back to Paris once the fuss died down.

Aged 11, Germaine had suggested to her mother she marry Edward Gibbon, a visitor to her salon, whom she found most attractive. Then, she reasoned, he would always be around for her.[12] In 1783, at seventeen, she was courted by William Pitt the Younger and by the fop Comte de Guibert, whose conversation, she thought, was the most far-ranging, spirited and fertile she had ever known.

It’s very tempting to get sidetracked and read the article on fops, but let’s not. After this her parents got impatient and married her off to some Swedish diplomat.

On the whole, the marriage seems to have been workable for both parties, although neither seems to have had much affection for the other.

Now we’re getting to her actual work.

In 1788, de Staël published Letters on the works and character of J.J. Rousseau.[15] In this panegyric, written initially for a limited number of friends (in which she considered his housekeeper Thérèse Levasseur as unfaithful), she demonstrated evident talent, but little critical discernment.

OK, she was 22 at this point. Now there’s another argument between her father and the king and he gets dismissed and exiled.

In December 1788 her father persuaded the king to double the number of deputies at the Third Estate in order to gain enough support to raise taxes to defray the excessive costs of supporting the revolutionaries in America. This approach had serious repercussions on Necker’s reputation; he appeared to consider the Estates-General as a facility designed to help the administration rather than to reform government.[16] In an argument with the king, whose speech on 23 June he didn’t attend, Necker was dismissed and exiled on 11 July. On Sunday, 12 July the news became public and an angry Camille Desmoulins suggested storming the Bastille.[17]

Oh but it doesn’t last long:

On 16 July he was reappointed; Necker entered Versailles in triumph.

But then he resigned a couple of years later and moved to Switzerland. This is about the time that Germaine de Staël holds a salon.

The increasing disturbances caused by the Revolution made her privileges as the consort of an ambassador an important safeguard. Germaine held a salon in the Swedish embassy, where she gave "coalition dinners", which were frequented by moderates such as Talleyrand and De Narbonne, monarchists (Feuillants) such as Antoine Barnave, Charles Lameth and his brothers Alexandre and Théodore, the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, Pierre Victor, baron Malouet, the poet Abbé Delille, Thomas Jefferson, the one-legged Minister Plenipotentiary to France Gouverneur Morris, Paul Barras, a Jacobin (from the Plain) and the Girondin Condorcets.

That’s quite a list.

Lots of complicated revolutionary stuff after this, things got bad and she fled to Switzerland as well. Then went to England for a bit and caused a scandal:

In January 1793, she made a four-month visit to England to be with her then lover, the Comte de Narbonne at Juniper Hall. (Since 1 February France and Great Britain were at war.) Within a few weeks she was pregnant; it was apparently one of the reasons for the scandal she caused in England.

Back in Switzerland for a while, then she meets Benjamin Constant, then moves back to Paris with him.

In 1796 she published Sur l’influence des passions, in which she praised suicide, a book which attracted the attention of the German writers Schiller and Goethe.

Still absorbed by French politics, Germaine reopened her salon.[41] It was during these years that Mme de Staël arguably exerted most political influence.

More trouble, she leaves Paris for a bit. This is complicated. Then back again. I feel like I’m learning a lot about where she lived and not much about her ideas.

De Staël completed the initial part of her first most substantial contribution to political and constitutional theory, "Of present circumstances that can end the Revolution, and of the principles that must found the republic of France".

Now we’re getting in to her conflict with Napoleon.

On 6 December 1797 she had a first meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte in Talleyrand’s office and again on 3 January 1798 during a ball. She made it clear to him she did not agree with his planned French invasion of Switzerland. He ignored her opinions and would not read her letters.

and later:

He did not like her cultural determinism and generalizations, in which she stated that "an artist must be of his own time".[48][51] In his opinion a woman should stick to knitting.[52] He said about her, according to the Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, that she "teaches people to think who had never thought before, or who had forgotten how to think".

Still running a salon but it’s getting dangerous. In 1803 Napoleon exiles her from Paris and she travels with Constant to Germany.

33 minutes left, I might have to speed up and not get bogged down in every detail. Though it looks like this is the interesting gbit She meets Goethe, Schiller and Schlegel. Her father dies and it looks like Coppet is the name of the place she’s inherited:

On 19 May she arrived in Coppet and found herself its wealthy and independent mistress, but her sorrow for her father was deep.

In July Constant wrote about her, "She exerts over everything around her a kind of inexplicable but real power. If only she could govern herself, she might have governed the world."

Next she visited Italy, wrote a book on it, Nopleon decided she was having too much fun and sent her back to Coppet.

Her house became, according to Stendhal, "the general headquarters of European thought" and was a debating club hostile to Napoleon, "turning conquered Europe into a parody of a feudal empire, with his own relatives in the roles of vassal states"

Some more travels in France and then Vienna. Benjamin Constant has also married someone else in the meantime, without telling her.

De Staël set to work on her book about Germany – in which she presented the idea of a state called "Germany" as a model of ethics and aesthetics and praised German literature and philosophy.[76] The exchange of ideas and literary and philosophical conversations with Goethe, Schiller, and Wieland had inspired de Staël to write one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century on Germany.

Yet more convoluted stuff where she gets back into France and then gets exiled again when she tries to publish the Germany book there.

She found consolation in a wounded veteran officer named Albert de Rocca, twenty-three years her junior, to whom she got privately engaged in 1811 but did not marry publicly until 1816.

I think I missed what happened to her first husband. It’s too hot to keep track of all this stuff.

Now there’s some complicated journey across eastern Europe to Russia. Then Sweden, then England.

She met Lord Byron, William Wilberforce, the abolitionist and Sir Humphry Davy, the chemist and inventor. According to Byron, "She preached English politics to the first of our English Whig politicians … preached politics no less to our Tory politicians the day after."[85] In March 1814 she invited Wilberforce for dinner and would devote the remaining years of her life to the fight for the abolition of the slave trade.

Returns to Paris yet again, where her salon is popular yet again, then fled to Coppet yet again. This is why I’m getting bogged down. Byron visited Coppet a lot.

"Byron was particularly critical of de Staël’s self-dramatizing tendencies"


One final trip to Paris:

Despite her increasing ill-health, she returned to Paris for the winter of 1816–17, living at 40, rue des Mathurins. Constant argued with de Staël, who had asked him to pay off his debts to her. A warm friendship sprang up between Madame de Staël and the Duke of Wellington, whom she had first met in 1814, and she used her influence with him to have the size of the Army of Occupation greatly reduced.[94]

She had become confined to her house, paralyzed since 21 February 1817. She died on 14 July 1817

So I’m finally through her biography. My god. She basically travelled everywhere and met everyone. I got tired reading this.

Oh I missed the bit about her novels somehow.

De Staël published a provocative, anti-Catholic novel Delphine, in which the femme incomprise (misunderstood woman) living in Paris between 1789 and 1792, is confronted with conservative ideas about divorce after the Concordat of 1801.

This is before Napoleon exiled her.

Right I have 18 minutes left, I think I’ll look up the Coppet group article. Oh boring, it’s just a couple of short paragraphs and a big list of names.

The Coppet group (Groupe de Coppet), also known as the Coppet circle, was an informal intellectual and literary gathering centred on Germaine de Staël during the time period between the establishment of the Napoleonic First Empire (1804) and the Bourbon Restoration of 1814-1815.[1][2][3][4] The name comes from Coppet Castle in Switzerland.

Core group: her family plus Humboldt, Schlegel and a bunch of names I dont’ recognise. Loong list of visitors, the ones I recognise from a quick skim are Byron, Clausewitz and Humphry Davy.

This doesn’t seem like a very tightly knit scene, too many people and too varied in their views. Maybe not as interesting as I was hoping for. Did a quick google and nothing is really standing out. Fine, let’s look up Benjamin Constant instead for the last ten minutes.

Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (French: [kɔ̃stɑ̃]; 25 October 1767 – 8 December 1830), or simply Benjamin Constant, was a Swiss-French political thinker, activist and writer on political theory and religion.

I’m sort of running out of energy now. It’s got hotter and this tub of ice water has warmed up. Something something proponent of classical liberalism, wrote some essays and pamphlets and so on. Skim for interesting bits.

Constant looked to Britain rather than to ancient Rome for a practical model of freedom in a large mercantile society. He drew a distinction between the "Liberty of the Ancients" and the "Liberty of the Moderns".

Ancients: parcipatory, burdensome, good for small homogeneous societies. Moderns: less direct participation, voters elect representativies.

He criticised several aspects of the French Revolution, and the failures of the social and political upheaval. He stated how the French attempted to apply ancient republican liberties to a modern state. Constant realized that freedom meant drawing a line between a person’s private life and that of state interference.[19] He praised the noble spirit of regenerating the state. However, he stated that it was naïve for writers to believe that two thousand years had not brought some changes in the customs and needs of the people.

Constant believed that, in the modern world, commerce was superior to war. He attacked Napoleon’s belligerence, on the grounds that it was illiberal and no longer suited to modern commercial social organization. Ancient Liberty tended to rely on war, whereas a state organized on the principles of Modern Liberty would tend to be at peace with all other peaceful nations.

Ah, nice link back to Berlin:

The British philosopher and historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin has acknowledged his debt to Constant.

Four minutes to go but I’ll end it there, I’m tired of this.

That worked ok apart from the bit where I got tired at the end. I feel like I learned a lot more about personal life and travels round Europe than I did about her ideas – would have been nice to understand more about the romanticism connection, exactly what ideas she picked up from Germany, etc. Still, she was interesting enough that that didn’t bother me too much.

Now I’m going to have a shower and cool down.

Speedrun: Abacus schools

(This is a speedrun post, where I set a one hour timer to see what I can find out about a subject. See the category tag for more examples.)

I’m currently reading Catarina Dutilh Novaes’s Formal Languages in Logic, and one part of the section on the historical development of mathematical notation jumped out at me as potentially interesting. Abbaco (‘abacus’) schools were a kind of practical school in medieval southern Europe that trained the sons of merchants and artisans in useful mathematics for bookkeeping and business. Apparently the mathematical culture associated with these schools actually went beyond the university education of the time in some respects, and helped push forward the development of algebra:

Indeed, modern algebra (and its notation) will ultimately emerge from the sub-scientific tradition of the abbaco schools, rather than the somewhat solidified academic tradition taught at the medieval universities.

I find these sort of semi-informal institutions on the edges of academia intriguing… I’m not sure how much I care about the details, but it seems worth an hour of investigation at least. There’s also a mention of Leonardo da Vinci and Danti Alighieri attending these schools, which could be interesting to follow up.

This speedrun session is also a bit different because we’re trying out a group speedrun event, and David MacIver and Eve Bigaj have also joined. Let’s see how it goes… As usual I typed this as I went and have done only minor tidying up afterwards, so there may be a bunch of typos and dodgy formatting.

There’s a wikipedia article, but it isn’t very long. Looks like there are a few other useful links though

Abacus school is a term applied to any Italian school or tutorial after the 13th century, whose commerce-directed curriculum placed special emphasis on mathematics, such as algebra, among other subjects. These schools sprang after the publication of Fibonacci’s Book of the Abacus and his introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. In Fibonacci’s viewpoint, this system, originating in India around 400 BCE, and later adopted by the Arabs, was simpler and more practical than using the existing Roman numeric tradition. Italian merchants and traders quickly adopted the structure as a means of producing accountants, clerks, and so on, and subsequently abacus schools for students were established.

So, yep, practical education for merchants and traders.

Significant for a couple of reasons. First they got rid of Roman numerals.

The number of Roman characters a merchant needed to memorize to carry out financial transactions as opposed to Hindu-numerals made the switch practical. Commercialists were first introduced to this new system through Leonardo Fibonacci, who came from a business family and had studied Arabic math. Being convinced of its uses, abacus schools were therefore created and dominated by wealthy merchants, with some exceptions

Also they were instrumental in rising literacy levels.

Nothing about algebra here! Another thing on the search page mentioned Cardano though so hopefully there will be a link.

Then there’s a bunch of stuff about the school system.

Italian abacus school systems differed more in their establishment than in their curriculum during the Middle Ages. For example, institutions and appointed educators were set up in a number of ways, either through commune patronage or independent masters’ personal funds. Some abbaco teachers tutored privately in homes. All instructors, however, were contractually bound to their agreement which usually meant that they could supplement their salary with tuition fees or other rates.

Could be an overlap here with medieval guild funding of universities (e.g. in Bologna), another subject I’m considering speedrunning on.

Independent teachers could also be hired by the commune, but for lower wages.[19] Most times, free-lance masters were contracted by a group of parents in a similar fashion to that of communal agreements, thus establishing their own school if the number of students being tutored was significant in size.[20] Abbaco apprentices training to become masters could also tutor household children and pay for their studies simultaneously.

Last (short) section is on the curriculum.

Arithmetic, geometry, bookkeeping, reading and writing in the vernacular were the basic elementary and secondary subjects in the abbaco syllabus for most institutions, which began in the fall, Mondays through Saturdays.

… Mathematical problems dealt with the everyday exchange of different types of goods or monies of differing values, whether it was in demand or in good quality, and how much of it was being traded. Other problems dealt with distribution of profits, where each member invested a certain sum and may have later withdrawn a portion of that amount

Well that wasn’t a very informative article. There isn’t one in Italian either, just Arabic (same info as English) and Persiian (a stub where I’m not going to even bother to hit translate). So I need to leave wikipedia very early.

OK, this looks good and more what I was after. ‘Solving the Cubic with Cardano – Aspects of Abbaco Mathematics’ by William Branson.

To understand the abbaco mathematics used by Cardano, we have to step back and look at the medieval tradition of abbaco schools and their masters. Though the subject is a fascinating and deep one, there is one particular aspect of this tradition that is crucial in the following account: abbaco masters thought in terms of canonical problems, and one particular canonical problem, the “Problem of Ten,” arises in the solution of the cubic that we will examine.

Quick summary of what they were, similar to wikipedia.

Abbaco mathematics was rhetorical—in Cardano’s time, most of the algebraic symbols with which we are so familiar were either recently invented, concurrent with the Ars Magna, or were well in the future. For example, ‘(+)’ and ‘(–)’ were first recorded in the 1480s, and were not in common use in 1545, when the Ars Magna was published. Robert Recorde would not invent the equals sign until 1557, and the use of letters and exponential notation would have to await Francois Viete in the 1590s and the Geometrie of Rene Descartes of 1637 [Note 2]. What Descartes would write as (x^3=ax+b,) Cardano wrote as “cubus aequalis rebus & numero” [Cardano 1662, Chapter 12, p. 251].

OK this is similar to what Dutilh Novaes was saying, people were solving problems that were algebraic in nature with unknowns to solve for, but the notation was still very wordy.

Rhetorical formulas can be difficult to remember, so algebraic rules were presented with canonical examples, which encoded the rules as algorithms within the examples. Thus, the mind of the abbaco master was a storehouse of such canonical examples, to which he compared the new problems that he came across in his work. When he recognized a parallel structure between the new problem and a canonical problem, he could solve the new problem by making appropriate substitutions into the canonical example.

So these ‘wordy’ forms still had some kind of canonical structures, it wasn’t just free text but was a kind of notation.

Such canonical examples occurred even in the foundational texts of abbaco mathematics, including the Algebra of al-Khwarizmi. An important example for us, one that occurs implicitly in Cardano’s solution to the cubic, is the “problem of ten” [Note 3]. Most abbaco texts had such problems, and one from Robert of Chester’s 1215 translation of al-Khwarizmi’s Algebra into Latin [al-Khwarizmi, p. 111] ran as follows:

Denarium numerum sic in duo diuido, vt vna parte cum altera multiplicata, productum multiplicationis in 21 terminetur. Iam ergo vnam partem, rem proponimus quam cum 10 sine re, quae alteram partem habent, multiplicamus…

In his translation of this passage into English, Louis Karpinski used (x) for ‘rem’ (thing), and so I offer my own translation, without symbols [Note 4]:

Ten numbers in two parts I divide in such a way, in order that one part with the other multiplied has the product of the multiplication conclude with 21. Now therefore one part we declare the thing, and then, with 10 without the thing, which the other part is, we multiply…

My god I can’t even be bothered to read all of that that… very glad we don’t do maths like that now…

The structure of the “problem of ten” was that of a number (a) broken into two parts (x) and (y,) with a condition on the parts; symbolically: [x+y=a\,\,{\rm and}\,\,f(x,y)=b] for some function (f(x,y)) and number (b.) The usual method of solution was to express the two parts as “thing” and “number minus thing” and then to substitute into the condition, as al-Khwarizmi did above. The “problem of ten” was canonical for quadratic problems, and served as a way to remember the rules for solving such problems.

This was used in Cardano’s solution to the cubic, apparently, but there’s no more detail on this page, it just ends there. Looks like a book extract or something.

There’s another MAA page on abbaco schools, though, so I’ll read that next. This is ‘Background: The Abbaco Tradition’ by Randy K. Schwarz.

Bit more detail on where these schools were:

They arose first in northern Italy, whose economy was the most vibrant in Europe during this period (Spiesser 2003, pp. 34-35). A banker and official in Florence, Italy, reported that in 1345 at least 1,000 boys in that city alone were receiving instruction in abbaco and algorismo (Biggs 2009, p. 73). Such schools also began to appear in neighboring southern France, and a few in Catalonia (the area around Barcelona, Spain) and coastal North Africa. These four regions of the western Mediterranean had extensive trade and cultural ties with one another at the time, so it isn’t surprising that they shared methods of practical mathematics and its instruction (Høyrup 2006).

Mentions the Fibonacci book again as a common ancestor. Ah so this is why Fibonacci knew this stuff:

He was only a boy, he reports, when his father, a customs official representing Pisan merchants at their trading enclave of Bugia, in what is now Algeria, brought him to the customs house there to be taught Hindu-Arabic numerals and arithmetic (Sigler 2002, pp. 3, 15)

This article is part of a series on something called the Pamiers manuscript, which translated some of this into French maybe? or some language in modern France anyway. look up later if time.

Nice picture of teaching in an abbaco school here.

In general, the abbaco texts offered practical, simplified treatments in which mathematical techniques were distilled into easy-to-remember rules and algorithms. The focus was on how to carry these out rather than on justifying the theory behind them. At the same time, the books were often innovative in their solutions to particular problems and especially in their pedagogical approach: their presentation was popular, and they introduced the use of illustrations and vernacular languages to the history of mathematics textbooks.

Reference here to something called Swetz 1987, ‘Capitalism and Arithmetic: The New Math of the 15th Century’.

OK this article finishes here too… and I still have 34 minutes, this might be a difficult speedrun for finding information. I may as well skim the intro page and find out what the Pamiers manuscript is while I’m here.

Pamiers is in the far south of France, south of Toulouse near the Pyrenees. Written in the Languedocian language.

One of the striking features of the Pamiers manuscript is the fact that it includes the world’s earliest known instance in which a negative number was accepted as the answer to a problem for purely mathematical reasons. The fact that this occurred in the context of a commercial arithmetic, rather than a more scholastic or theoretical work, is a surprise.

Ah, nice, this is the sort of thing I was hoping for, new ideas coming up in the context of practical problems.

Back to wikipedia for now, what else can I find?

I found a pdf by Albrecht Heeffer which is very short but does mention one interesting book.

The abbaco or abbacus tradition (spelled with double b to distinguish it from the material calculating device called ‘abacus’) has the typical characteristics of a so-called ‘sub-scientific’ tradition of mathematical practice (coined by Jens Høyrup). It is supported by lay culture, e.g. merchants, artisans and surveyors. Knowledge is disseminated through master-apprentice relationships, often within family relations. Texts, as far as they are extant, are written in the vernacular. The tradition is open to foreign influences, including cross-cultural practices. Typically, the tradition is underrepresented in the history of mathematics.

Dutilh Novaes also mentioned the Høyrup book so maybe that is what I should really be reading. It’s this ‘sub-scientific’ angle that I’m interested in.

Abbaco masters made subtle but important contributions to the development of early symbolism. Their two centuries of algebraic practice paved the road for the development of symbolic algebra during the sixteenth century. They introduced mathematical techniques such as complete induction which is believed to have emerged a century later

Yeah, ok, so this is an interesting subject but I probably need to be reading books to find the good bits, rather than skimming the internet. Similar to Vygotsky speedrun maybe.

Let’s find out what this Høyrup book is called. Ah it must be this book mentioned on his wikipedia page: ‘Jacopo da Firenze’s Tractatus algorismi and early italian abacus culture.’ Yes I’m definitely going to buy these chapters off Springer for 25.95 euros each, sounds like a great idea.

Ah here’s a copy of a pdf by Høyrup! It’s 34 pages so I don’t have time to go into the details, but I can skim it. Hm also it looks like it’s mainly arguing about the centrality of Fibonacci in the tradition, I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in the sub-scientific thing.

First though I’d like to chase up that thing about Dante and da Vinci.

20 minutes left.

Search ‘da Vinci abbacco school’, oh god the results are full of random schools named after him and references to The Da Vinci Code. Must include: abbaco.

I have found another vaguely useful paper though, ‘The Market for Luca Pacioli’s Summa Arithmatica’ by Alan Sangster and others. Something here about the two-track nature of education in Renaissance Italy, with these schools at the practical end.

The curriculum of the vernacular schools emerged from the merchant culture and was designed to prepare sons of merchants and craftsmen for their future working lives [Grendler, 1990]. There was another parallel set of schools, the Latin (either scholastic or humanist) schools, where the sons of the privileged were taught in Latin.

The two sets of schools taught very different subjects. The Latin schools sought to teach the future leaders of society and those that aided them, e.g., secretaries and lawyers [Grendler,1989, p. 311]. They specialized in the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic… On the rare occasions when mathematics was taught in these schools, it took the form of “classical or medieval Latin mathematics” [Grendler, 1989, p. 309]. In contrast to the vernacular schools, boys leaving the humanist schools often went to university.

Hang on, why don’t I just look on da Vinci’s wikipedia page? It just says the following:

Despite his family history, Leonardo only received a basic and informal education in (vernacular) writing, reading and math, possibly because his artistic talents were recognized early.

which would at least be consistent with going to one of these schools. And Dante Alighieri:

Not much is known about Dante’s education; he presumably studied at home or in a chapter school attached to a church or monastery in Florence.

Hm, so what did Dutilh Novaes say? Ah, it’s a quote from Heeffer 2007, ‘Humanist Repudiation of Eastern Influences in Early Modern Mathematics’. Pdf is here. Should have looked this up to start with!

Actually I’m confused because, although this is very relevant looking, it doesn’t have the quote in it at all. Ah well, I may as well read it for the rest of the time anyway (only 5 minutes left!). The thing about Dante and da Vinci isn’t really important.

Here’s some more on the sub-scientific idea:

Jens Høyrup coined the term sub-scientific mathematics for a long tradition of practice which has been neglected by historians. As a scholar working on a wide period of mathematical practice, from Babylonian algebra to the seventeenth century, Høyrup has always paid much attention to the more informal transmission of mathematical knowledge which he calls sub-scientific structures.

This is pretty complicated to skim quickly.

The sub-scientific tradition was a cross-cultural amalgam of several traditions. Merchant type arithmetic and recreational problems show a strong similarity with Indian sources. Algebra descended from the Arabs. By the time Regiomontanus learned algebra in Italy it was practiced by abbaco masters for more than 250 years. The tradition of surveying and mensuration within practical geometry goes back to Babylonian times.

Some stuff on ‘proto-algebraic rules’.

Our main hypothesis is that many recipes or precepts for arithmetical problem solving, in abbaco texts and arithmetic books before the second half of the sixteenth century, are based on proto-algebraic rules. We call these rules proto-algebraic because they are, or could be based originally on algebraic derivations. Yet their explanation, communication and application do not involve algebra at all. Proto-algebraic rules are disseminated together with the problems to which they can be applied. The problem functions as a vehicle for the transmission of this sub-scientific structure. Little attention has yet been given to sub-scientific mathematics or proto-algebraic rules.

Ding! Time’s up.

Hm, that was kind of annoying to do a speedrun on, because the Wikipedia article was so short and I had to jump quickly to a bunch of other sources which all either had very limited detail or way too much detail. I never did get to the bottom of the Dante and da Vinci thing.

I’m also still not that clear on the details of exactly what new techniques they introduced, but looks like they were relevant to Cardano’s solution of the cubic, and also to the use of negative numbers in problems. They also introduced a bunch of schematic templates for solving problems, which later developed into modern algebraic notation.

The idea of ‘sub-scientific’ traditions sounds interesting more generally too, maybe I should look up the Høyrup book. Overall this looks like a topic where I’m better off reading books and papers than skimming random web pages.

Speedrun: The Prussian education system

This is another of my research speedrun experiments – I’ve made a category for them now, so look at the earlier ones if you want to know more.

Today’s topic was inspired by this tweet:

I’d noticed this one too. If you hang around parts of the internet where people talk about how School Is Bad a lot, someone will eventually bring up ‘the Prussian education system’ and how it was designed to indoctrinate factory workers or something. There is never any detail beyond this, we all nod sagely and move on.

Presumably there is more to learn about this topic. Let’s set that one hour timer and find out…

Ok, so… um… where’s Prussia? Somewhere round where Germany is now presumably, but which bit?

Prussia was a historically prominent German state that originated in 1525 with a duchy centered on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea… Prussia, with its capital first in Königsberg and then, when it became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701, in Berlin, decisively shaped the history of Germany.

Ah, so it included Königsberg, of bridge fame. And a big stripe of Baltic coast at its peak (1870 map).

My historical knowledge is not great and this will be a problem for contextualising all this stuff. Ah well, just get a quick sense of time and space. Done space, in terms of time we have:

The name Prussia derives from the Old Prussians; in the 13th century, the Teutonic Knights—an organized Catholic medieval military order of German crusaders—conquered the lands inhabited by them. In 1308, the Teutonic Knights conquered the region of Pomerelia with (Danzig) Gdańsk.

Then bla bla bla usual complicated mid european wars…

The union of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia in 1618 led to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.

Prussia entered the ranks of the great powers shortly after becoming a kingdom,[5][6][7][8] and exercised most influence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then lots of complicated 20th century history.

… The Kingdom ended in 1918 along with other German monarchies that collapsed as a result of the German Revolution.

etc etc up to

Prussia existed de jure until its formal abolition by the Allied Control Council Enactment No. 46 of 25 February 1947.

Right I am now an expert on Prussia, ten minutes down.

Next is the wikipedia article on the Prussian education system.

The Prussian education system refers to the system of education established in Prussia…

yep I got that bit…

… as a result of educational reforms in the late 18th and early 19th century, which has had widespread influence since. The Prussian education system was introduced as a basic concept in the late 18th century and was significantly enhanced after Prussia’s defeat in the early stages of the Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian educational reforms inspired other countries and remains important as a biopower in the Foucaultian sense for nation-building.

Oh so is Foucault the source of this meme?? ‘Biopower’ is a bit of jargon I hadn’t heard before, open in new tab.

The term itself is not used in German literature, which refers to the primary aspects of the Humboldtian education ideal respectively as the Prussian reforms; however, the basic concept remains fruitful and has led to various debates and controversies.

Open the Humboldtian thing in another tab.

I’ll go through the wikipedia page sections in turn.


The basic foundations of a generic Prussian primary education system were laid out by Frederick the Great with the Generallandschulreglement, a decree of 1763 which was written by Johann Julius Hecker. Hecker had already before (in 1748) founded the first teacher’s seminary in Prussia.

Haha wtf:

His concept of providing teachers with the means to cultivate mulberries for homespun silk, which was one of Frederick’s favorite projects, found the King’s favour.

So this is in some way related to the king’s pet mulberry growing project??

It expanded the existing schooling system significantly and required that all young citizens, both girls and boys, be educated by mainly municipality-funded schools from the age of 5 to 13 or 14.

OK so this was one of the first systems of tax funded compulsory education. (compare the UK where this happened in the 1880s, it was still fresh history at the time of Lark Rise)

Topics are reading, writing and god stuff:

The Prussian system consisted of an eight-year course of primary education, called Volksschule. It provided not only basic technical skills needed in a modernizing world (such as reading and writing), but also music (singing) and religious (Christian) education in close cooperation with the churches and tried to impose a strict ethos of duty, sobriety and discipline. Mathematics and calculus were not compulsory at the start, and taking such courses required additional payment by parents.

There were also later educational stages preparing for university.

Oh wow so it already had national testing and a national curriculum (that was a big controversy in the UK in the 1990s).

The Prussian system, after its modest beginnings, succeeded in reaching compulsory attendance, specific training for teachers, national testing for all students (both female and male students), a prescribed national curriculum for each grade and mandatory kindergarten.

So it really did have a lot of the features of modern schooling, I see why it comes up so often. Teacher training as well, and credential gating for the civil service:

In 1810, Prussia introduced state certification requirements for teachers, which significantly raised the standard of teaching.[9] The final examination, Abitur, was introduced in 1788, implemented in all Prussian secondary schools by 1812 and extended to all of Germany in 1871. Passing the Abitur was a prerequisite to entering the learned professions and higher echelons of the civil service.


The overall system was soon widely admired for its efficiency and reduction of illiteracy, and inspired education leaders in other German states and a number of other countries, including Japan and the United States.

The Japan link could be interesting… won’t follow that tangent…

The underlying Humboldtian educational ideal of brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt was about much more than primary education; it strived for academic freedom and the education of both cosmopolitan-minded and loyal citizens from the earliest levels. The Prussian system had strong backing in the traditional German admiration and respect for Bildung as an individual’s drive to cultivate oneself from within.

These reforms ‘… had a background in the middle and upper middle strata of society and were pioneered by the Bildungsbürgertum.’ Look up that word: ‘a social class that emerged in mid-18th century Germany as an educated class of the bourgeoisie with an educational ideal based on idealistic values and classical antiquity. The Bildungsbürgertum could be described as the intellectual and economic upper bourgeoisie’

The concept as such faced strong resistance both from the top, as major players in the ruling nobility feared increasing literacy among peasants and workers would raise unrest, and from the very poor, who preferred to use their children as early as possible for rural or industrial labor.

Reformers got their chance after the defeat of Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1809 Wilhelm von Humboldt, having been appointed minister of education, promoted his idea of a generic education based on a neohumanist ideal of broad general knowledge, in full academic freedom without any determination or restriction by status, profession or wealth.

Now some stuff on interaction with the nationalist movement, featuring my friend Fichte from The Roots of Romanticism. OK so he was keen on education reform as a part of his German nationalism project:

Fichte and other philosophers, such as the Brothers Grimm, tried to circumvent the nobility’s resistance to a common German nation state via proposing the concept of a Kulturnation, nationhood without needing a state but based on a common language, musical compositions and songs, shared fairy tales and legends and a common ethos and educational canon.

Then something about a guy called Jahn who liked gymnastics a lot and shoehorned a bunch of it into the curriculum. The forefather of horrible PE lessons.

Also privileging of High German as an official language.

Now a lot of stuff about Pietism.

Pietist theology stressed the need for "inner spirituality" (Innerlichkeit [de]), to be found through the reading of Scripture. Consequently, Pietists helped form the principles of the modern public school system, including the stress on literacy, while more Calvinism-based educational reformers (English and Swiss) asked for externally oriented, utilitarian approaches and were critical of internally soul searching idealism.

Oh I see, this is important, Pietism actually wanted people to read! Yeah so there’s a whole cluster of interest groups coming together.

Shit I’m 30 minutes in and need to speed up a bit. This is all too interesting! Though normally the wiki article tails off later anyway, so maybe I’m ok.

Some stuff about attitudes to teachers:

Generations of Prussian and also German teachers, who in the 18th century often had no formal education and in the very beginning often were untrained former petty officers, tried to gain more academic recognition, training and better pay and played an important role in various protest and reform movements throughout the 19th and into the 20th century… There is a long tradition of parody and ridicule, where teachers were being depicted in a janus-faced manner as either authoritarian drill masters or, on the other hand, poor wretches which were suffering the constant spite of pranking pupils, negligent parents and spiteful local authorities.

Open ‘Biedermeier’ tab though I don’t have time to look at it… ‘an era in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848 during which the middle class grew in number and the arts appealed to common sensibilities’.

Spread to other countries

Austria first under Maria Theresa, then widely after the French Revolution. Estonia and Latvia, Norway and Sweden, Finnish nationalist movement.

France and the UK took longer, ‘France due to conflicts between a radical secular state and the Catholic Church’ and UK just because of generally not liking change I think. Some stuff in the US too, Horace Mann and the common school movement in Massachusetts.

Now a section about tensions between Prussian system and Anglo culture:

The basic concept of a state-oriented and administered mass educational system is still not granted in the English-speaking world, where either the role of the state as such or the role of state control specifically in education faces still (respectively again) considerable skepticism… One of the important differences is that in the German tradition, there is stronger reference to the state as an important principle, as introduced for example by Hegel’s philosophy of the state, which is in opposition to the Anglo-American contract-based idea of the state.

Ah here’s a bit on the interaction with the Prussian system and military and industrial aims:

Early Prussian reformers took major steps to abandon both serfdom and the line formation as early as 1807 and introduced mission-type tactics in the Prussian military in the same year. The latter enlarged freedom in execution of overall military strategies and had a major influence in the German and Prussian industrial culture, which profited from the Prussian reformers’ introduction of greater economic freedom. The mission-type concept, which was kept by later German armed forces, required a high level of understanding, literacy (and intense training and education) at all levels and actively invited involvement and independent decision making by the lower ranks.

Ah so I’m nearly at the end of the article with 18 minutes to go, the rest is postwar legacy and I’d rather stay more in the historical period. I’ll look up Humboldt first and then maybe Foucault’s biopower thing if time?

Humboldtian model

Haha that’s confusing, there are two different Humboldts with two different ideals:

This article is about Wilhelm von Humboldt’s university concept. For the romantic ideal of science related to Alexander von Humboldt, see Humboldtian science.

So this goes beyond vocational training:

Sometimes called simply the Humboldtian model, it integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge, and it is still followed today.

From his letter to the Prussian king:

There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens.

Greek classics are important:

Humboldt believed that study of the Hellenic past would help the German national consciousness, reconciling it with modernity but distinguishing it from French culture, which he saw as rooted in the Roman tradition.

Academic freedom independent from political/economic/religious influences.

Study should be guided by humanistic ideals and free thought, and knowledge should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism rather than authority, tradition, or dogma.

University reform:

The University of Berlin, founded in 1810 under the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt and renamed the Humboldt University of Berlin after World War II, is traditionally seen as the model institution of the 19th century.

Fichte was appointed by Humbolt there.

The university’s features included a unity in teaching and research, the pursuit of higher learning in the philosophy faculty, freedom of study for students (Lernfreiheit, contrasted with the prescriptive curricula of the French system) and corporate autonomy for universities despite state funding.

Don’t have time to check now, but I wonder how this interacted with the history of the Ph.D. system. I know that started in Germany…

Haha, France banned beards:

It was in competition with the post-Revolutionary French concept of the grandes écoles. The French system lacked the freedom of German universities and instead imposed severe discipline and control over curriculum, awarding of degrees, conformity of views, and personal habits, instituting, for example, a ban on beards in 1852.

OK 9 minutes left for Foucault’s biopower:

It relates to the practice of modern nation states and their regulation of their subjects through "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations".[1] Foucault first used the term in his lecture courses at the Collège de France,[2][3] and the term first appeared in print in The Will to Knowledge, Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality. In Foucault’s work, it has been used to refer to practices of public health, regulation of heredity, and risk regulation, among many other regulatory mechanisms often linked less directly with literal physical health.

So, control of the state over peoples’ bodies.

Modern power, according to Foucault’s analysis, becomes encoded into social practices as well as human behavior, as the human subject gradually acquiesces to subtle regulations and expectations of the social order. It is an integral feature and essential to the workings of—and makes possible the emergence of—the modern nation state, capitalism, etc.

Hm this is going to take me a long way off topic. The article has no mention of Prussian anything. Let’s go back to something else for 5 minutes… what’s this Bildungsbürgertum article…

As a class of wealthy non-noble people, emerging first in the free imperial cities, they gained material wealth, social position and a better education, which was based on Humboldt’s educational ideal. The idea of Bildung (i.e. culture, education) was shaped by a belief in human perfectibility, specifically that an individual’s potential could be realized through a classical education.

In the late absolutist management state there existed a need for a large number of educated officials to implement reforms. To avoid a violent revolution, as in France, a national class was formed that had access to cultural education and thus to political positions. As a result, many educational institutions were established, significantly more in Germany. The universities established in Germany, including the Humboldt University, became a model for modern universities in other countries. This new class was not primarily defined politically or economically, but mainly culturally.

And the Biedermeier article?

Although the term itself derives from a literary reference from the period, it is used mostly to denote the artistic styles that flourished in the fields of literature, music, the visual arts and interior design.

The Biedermeier period does not refer to the era as a whole, but to a particular mood and set of trends that grew out of the unique underpinnings of the time in Central Europe

Ah so the word comes from a parody:

The term "Biedermeier" appeared first in literary circles in the form of a pseudonym, Gottlieb Biedermaier, used by the country doctor Adolf Kussmaul and lawyer Ludwig Eichrodt in poems that the duo had published in the Munich satirical weekly Fliegende Blätter in 1850.[4]

The verses parodied the people of the era, namely Samuel Friedrich Sauter, a primary teacher and sort of amateurish poet, as depoliticized and petit-bourgeois.

Time’s up! That went pretty well. In terms of sources I didn’t even leave Wikipedia because there was plenty there, so maybe not the most exciting from that perspective. Got a bit distracted down rabbit holes at the end, but that normally happens.

I definitely know a bit more than just ‘boo Prussian education system’ now, and the historical background was interesting. It meshed pretty well with The Roots of Romanticism in terms of time and place, so I had a bit more context than I was expecting.

I’d still like to know why it’s such a meme online… does it trace through Foucault or something else? If you have any leads, let me know!

Speedrun: “Sensemaking”

This is a genre of post I’ve been experimenting with where I pick a topic, set a one hour timer and see what I can find out in that time. Previously: Marx on alienation and the Vygotsky Circle.

I’ve been seeing the term ‘sensemaking’ crop up more and more often. I even went to a workshop with the word in the title last year! I quite like it, and god knows we could all do with making more sense right now, but I’m pretty vague on the details. Are there any nuances of meaning that I’m missing by interpreting it in its everyday sense? I have a feeling that it has a kind of ecological tinge, group sensemaking more than individual sensemaking, but I could be off the mark.

Also, what’s the origin of the term? I get the impression that it’s associated with some part of the internet that’s not too distant from my own corner, but I’m not exactly sure which one. Time to find out…

OK start with wikipedia:

> Sensemaking or sense-making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It has been defined as "the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409). The concept was introduced to organizational studies by Karl E. Weick in the 1970s and has affected both theory and practice.

Who’s Weick?

> Karl Edward Weick (born October 31, 1936) is an American organizational theorist who introduced the concepts of "loose coupling", "mindfulness", and "sensemaking" into organizational studies.

And, um, what’s organizational studies?

Organizational studies is "the examination of how individuals construct organizational structures, processes, and practices and how these, in turn, shape social relations and create institutions that ultimately influence people".[1]

OK, something sociology-related. It’s a stub so probably not a huge subfield?

Weick ‘key contributions’ subheadings: ‘enactment’, ‘loose coupling’, ‘sensemaking’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘organizational information theory’

> Although he tried several degree programs within the psychology department, the department finally built a degree program specifically for Weick and fellow student Genie Plog called "organizational psychology".[3]

Only quoting this bc Genie Plog is a great name.

So, enactment: ‘certain phenomena are created by being talked about’. Fine.

Loose coupling:

> Loose coupling in Weick’s sense is a term intended to capture the necessary degree of flex between an organization’s internal abstraction of reality, its theory of the world, on the one hand, and the concrete material actuality within which it finally acts, on the other.

Hm that could be interesting but might take me too far off topic.


> People try to make sense of organizations, and organizations themselves try to make sense of their environment. In this sense-making, Weick pays attention to questions of ambiguity and uncertainty, known as equivocality in organizational research that adopts information processing theory.

bit vague but the next bit is more concrete:

> His contributions to the theory of sensemaking include research papers such as his detailed analysis of the breakdown of sensemaking in the case of the Mann Gulch disaster,[8] in which he defines the notion of a ‘cosmology episode’ – a challenge to assumptions that causes participants to question their own capacity to act.

Mann Gulch was a big firefighting disaster:

> As the team approached the fire to begin fighting it, unexpected high winds caused the fire to suddenly expand, cutting off the men’s route and forcing them back uphill. During the next few minutes, a "blow-up" of the fire covered 3,000 acres (1,200 ha) in ten minutes, claiming the lives of 13 firefighters, including 12 of the smokejumpers. Only three of the smokejumpers survived. The fire would continue for five more days before being controlled.

> The United States Forest Service drew lessons from the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire by designing new training techniques and safety measures that developed how the agency approached wildfire suppression. The agency also increased emphasis on fire research and the science of fire behavior.

This is interesting but I’m in danger of tab explosion here. Keep a tab open with the paper and move on. Can’t resist opening the cosmology episode page though:

> A cosmology episode is a sudden loss of meaning, followed eventually by a transformative pivot, which creates the conditions for revised meaning.

ooh nice. Weick again:

> "Representations of events normally hang together sensibly within the set of assumptions that give them life and constitute a ‘cosmos’ rather than its opposite, a ‘chaos.’ Sudden losses of meaning that can occur when an event is represented electronically in an incomplete, cryptic form are what I call a ‘cosmology episode.’ Representations in the electronic world can become chaotic for at least two reasons: The data in these representations are flawed, and the people who manage those flawed data have limited processing capacity. These two problems interact in a potentially deadly vicious circle."

This is the kind of page that looks like it was written by one enthusiast. But it is pretty interesting. Right, back to Weick.

‘Mindfulness’: this is at a collective, organisational level

> The effective adoption of collective mindfulness characteristics by an organization appears to cultivate safer cultures that exhibit improved system outcomes.

I’m not going to look up ‘organizational information theory’, I have a bit of a ‘systems thinking’ allergy and I don’t wanna.

Right, back to sensemaking article. Roots in social psychology. ‘Shifting the focus from organizations as entities to organizing as an activity.’

‘Seven properties of sensemaking’. Ugh I hate these sort of numbered lists but fine.

  1. Identity. ‘who people think they are in their context shapes what they enact and how they interpret events’

  2. Retrospection. ‘the point of retrospection in time affects what people notice (Dunford & Jones, 2000), thus attention and interruptions to that attention are highly relevant to the process’.

  3. Enaction. ‘As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events’

  4. Social activity. ‘plausible stories are preserved, retained or shared’.

  5. Ongoing. ‘Individuals simultaneously shape and react to the environments they face… As Weick argued, "The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs"’

  6. Extract cues from the context.

  7. Plausibility over accuracy.

The sort of gestalt I’m getting is that it focusses on social rather than individual thinking, and action-oriented contextual in-the-thick-of-it doing rather than abstract planning ahead. Some similar terminology to ethnomethodology I think? e.g. accountability.

Ah yeah: ‘Sensemaking scholars are less interested in the intricacies of planning than in the details of action’

> The sensemaking approach is often used to provide insight into factors that surface as organizations address either uncertain or ambiguous situations (Weick 1988, 1993; Weick et al., 2005). Beginning in the 1980s with an influential re-analysis of the Bhopal disaster, Weick’s name has come to be associated with the study of the situated sensemaking that influences the outcomes of disasters (Weick 1993).

‘Categories and related concepts’:

> The categories of sensemaking included: constituent-minded, cultural, ecological, environmental, future-oriented, intercultural, interpersonal, market, political, prosocial, prospective, and resourceful. The sensemaking-related concepts included: sensebreaking, sensedemanding, sense-exchanging, sensegiving, sensehiding, and sense specification.

Haha OK it’s this sort of ‘fluidity soup’ that I have an allergy to. Too many of these buzzwords together. ‘Systems thinking’ is just a warning sign.

‘Other applications’: military stuff. Makes sense, lots of uncertainty and ambiguity there. Patient safety (looks like another random paragraph added by an enthusiast).

There’s a big eclectic ‘see also’ list. None of those are jumping out as the obvious next follow. Back to google. What I really want to know is why people are using this word now in some internet subcultures. Might be quite youtube centred? In which case there is no hope of tracking it down in one speedrun.

Oh yeah let’s look at google images:

Looks like businessy death by powerpoint contexts, not so helpful.

31 minutes left. Shit this goes quick!!

Google is giving me lots of video links. One is Daniel Schmachtenberger, ‘The War on Sensemaking’. Maybe this is the subcultural version I’ve been seeing? His name is familiar. Ok google ‘daniel schmachtenberger sensemaking’. Rebel Wisdom. Yep I’ve vaguely heard of that.

OK here is a Medium post about that series, by Andrew Sweeny:

> There is a war going on in our current information ecosystem. It is a war of propaganda, emotional manipulation, blatant or unconscious lies. It is nothing new, but is reaching a new intensity as our technology evolves. The result is that it has become harder and harder to make sense of the world, with potentially fatal consequences. If we can’t make sense of the world, neither can we make good decisions or meet the many challenges we face as a species.

Yes this is the sort of context I was imagining:

> In War on Sensemaking, futurist and visionary Daniel Schmachtenberger outlines in forensic detail the dynamics at play in this new information ecology — one in which we are all subsumed. He explores how companies, government, and media take advantage of our distracted and vulnerable state, and how we as individuals can develop the discernment and sensemaking skills necessary to navigate this new reality. Schmachtenberger has an admirable ability to diagnose this issue, while offering epistemological and practical ways to help repair the dark labyrinth of a broken information ecology.

It’d be nice to trace the link from Weick to this.

Some stuff about zero sum games and bullshit. Mentions Vervaeke.

> Schmachtenberger also makes the point that in order to become a good sensemaker we need ‘stressors’ — demands that push our mind, body, and heart beyond comfort, and beyond the received wisdom we have inherited. It is not enough to passively consume information: we first need to engage actively with with information ecology we live in and start being aware of how we respond to it, where it is coming from, and why it is being used.

Getting the sense that ‘information ecology’ is a key phrase round here.

Oh yeah ‘Game B’! I’ve heard that phrase around. Some more names: ‘Jordan Hall, Jim Rutt, Bonnita Roy’.

‘Sovereignty’: ‘become responsibility for our own shit’… ‘A real social, ‘kitchen sink level’ of reality must be cultivated to avoid the dangers of too much abstraction, individualism, and idealism.’ Seems like a good idea.

‘Rule Omega’. This one is new to me:

> Rule Omega is simple, but often hard to put into practice. The idea is that every message contains some signal and some noise, and we can train ourselves to distinguish truth and nonsense — to separate the wheat from the chaff. If we disapprove of 95% of a distasteful political rant, for instance, we could train ourselves to hear the 5% that is true.

> Rule Omega means learning to recognise the signal within the noise. This requires a certain attunement and generosity towards the other, especially those who think differently than we do. And Rule Omega can only be applied to those who are willing to engage in a different game, and work with each other in good faith.

Also seems like a Good Thing. Then some stuff about listening to people outside your bubble. Probably a link here to ‘mememic tribes’ type people.

This is a well written article, glad I picked something good.

‘Information war’ and shadow stuff:

> Certainly there are bad actors and conspiracies to harm us, but there is also the ‘shadow within’. The shadow is the unacknowledged part we play in the destruction of the commons and in the never-ending vicious cycle of narrative war. We need to pay attention to the subtle lies we tell ourselves, as much as the ‘big’ lies that society tells us all the time. The trouble is: we can’t help being involved in destructive game theory logic, to a greater or lesser degree.

‘Anti-rivalrous systems’. Do stuff that increases value for others as well as yourself. Connection to ‘anti-rivalrous products’ in economics.

‘Information immune system’. Yeah this is nice! It sort of somehow reminds me of the old skeptics movement in its attempts to help people escape nonsense, but rooted in a warmer and more helpful set of background ideas, and with less tribal outgroup bashing. Everything here sounds good and if it helps people out of ideology prisons I’m all for it. Still kind of curious about intellectual underpinnings… like is there a straight line from Weick to this or did they just borrow a resonant phrase?

‘The dangers of concepts’. Some self-awareness that these ideas can be used to create more bullshit and misinformation themselves.

> As such it can be dangerous to outsource our sensemaking to concepts — instead we need to embody them in our words and actions. Wrestling with the snake of self-deception and illusion and trying to build a better world in this way is a tough game. But it is the only game worth playing.

Games seem to be a recurring motif. Maybe Finite and Infinite Games is another influence.

OK 13 minutes left, what to do? Maybe trace out the link? google ‘schmachtenberger weick’. Not finding much. I’m now on some site called Conversational Leadership which seems to be connected to this scene somehow. Ugh not sure what to do. Back to plain old google ‘sensemaking’ search.

Let’s try this article by Laura McNamara, an organizational anthropologist. Nice job title! Yeah her background looks really interesting:

> Principal Member of Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories. She has spent her career partnering with computer scientists, software engineers, physicists, human factors experts, I/O psychologists, and analysts of all sorts.

OK maybe she is trying to bridge the gap between old and new usages:

> Sensemaking is a term that gets thrown around a lot without much consideration about where the concept came from or what it really means. If sensemaking theory is democratizing, that’s good thing.

6 minutes left so I won’t get through all of this. Pick some interesting bits.

> One of my favorite books about sensemaking is Karl Weick’s, Sensemaking in Organizations. I owe a debt of thanks to the nuclear engineer who suggested I read it. This was back in 2001, when I was at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). I’d just finished my dissertation and was starting a postdoctoral position in the statistics group, and word got around that the laboratories had an anthropologist on staff. My nuclear engineer friend was working on a project examining how management changes were impacting team dynamics in one of LANL’s radiochemistry bench laboratories. He called me asking if I had time to work on the project with him, and he asked if I knew much about “sensemaking.” Apparently, his officemate had recently married a qualitative evaluation researcher, who suggested that both of these LANL engineers take the time to read Karl Weick’s book Sensemaking in Organizations.

> My nuclear engineer colleague thought it was the most brilliant thing he’d ever read and was shocked, SHOCKED, that I’d never heard of sensemaking or Karl Weick. I muttered something about anthropologists not always being literate in organizational theory, got off the phone, and immediately logged onto Amazon and ordered it.

Weick’s influences:

> … a breathtakingly broad array of ideas – Emily Dickinson, Anthony Giddens, Pablo Neruda, Edmund Leach…

‘Recipe for sensemaking:’

> Chapter Two of Sensemaking in Organizations contains what is perhaps Weick’s most cited sentence, the recipe for sensemaking: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

And this from the intro paragraph, could be an interesting reference:

> in his gorgeous essay Social Things (which you should read if you haven’t already), Charles Lemert reminds us that social science articulates our native social intelligence through instruments of theory, concepts, methods, language, discourse, texts. Really good sociology and anthropology sharpen that intelligence. They’re powerful because they enhance our understanding of what it means to be human, and they really should belong to everyone.

Something about wiki platforms for knowledge sharing:

> For example, back in 2008, my colleague Nancy Dixon and I did a brief study—just a few weeks—examining how intelligence analysts were responding to the introduction of Intellipedia, a wiki platform intended to promote knowledge exchange and cross-domain collaboration across the United States Intelligence community.

DING! Time’s up.

That actually went really well! Favourite speedrun so far, felt like I found out a lot. Most of the references I ended up on were really well-written and clear this time, no wading through rubbish.

I’m still curious to trace the link between Weick and the recent subculture. Also I might read more of the disaster stuff, and read that last McNamara article more carefully. Lots to look into! If anyone has any other suggestions, please leave a comment 🙂

Speedrun: The Vygotsky Circle

I did a ‘speedrun’ post a couple of months ago where I set a one hour timer and tried to find out as much as I could about Marx’s theory of alienation. That turned out to be pretty fun, so I’m going to try it again with another topic where I have about an hour’s worth of curiosity.

I saw a wikipedia link to something called ‘the Vygotsky Circle’ a while back. I didn’t click the link (don’t want to spoil the fun!) but from the hoverover it looks like that includes Vygotsky, Luria and… some other Russian psychologists, I guess? I’d heard of those two, but I only have the faintest idea of what they did. Here’s the entirety of my current knowledge:

  • Vygotsky wrote a book called Thought and Language. Something about internalisation?
  • Luria’s the one who went around pestering peasants with questions about whether bears in the Arctic are white. And presumably a load of other stuff… he pops up in pop books with some frequency. E.g. I think he did a study of someone with an extraordinary memory?

That’s about it, so plenty of room to learn more. And also anything sounds about ten times more interesting if it’s a Circle. Suddenly it’s an intellectual movement, not a disparate bunch of nerds. So… let’s give this a go.

OK first go to that wiki article.

The Vygotsky Circle (also known as Vygotsky–Luria Circle[1][2]) was an influential informal network of psychologists, educationalists, medical specialists, physiologists, and neuroscientists, associated with Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and Alexander Luria (1902–1977), active in 1920-early 1940s in the Soviet Union (Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkiv).

So who’s in it?

The Circle included altogether around three dozen individuals at different periods, including Leonid Sakharov, Boris Varshava, Nikolai Bernstein, Solomon Gellerstein, Mark Lebedinsky, Leonid Zankov, Aleksei N. Leontiev, Alexander Zaporozhets, Daniil Elkonin, Lydia Bozhovich, Bluma Zeigarnik, Filipp Bassin, and many others. German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin and Russian film director and art theorist Sergei Eisenstein are also mentioned as the “peripheral members” of the Circle.

OK that’s a lot of people! Hm this is a very short article. Maybe the Russian one is longer? Nope. So this is the entirety of the history of the Circle given:

The Vygotsky Circle was formed around 1924 in Moscow after Vygotsky moved there from the provincial town of Gomel in Belarus. There at the Institute of Psychology he met graduate students Zankov, Solov’ev, Sakharov, and Varshava, as well as future collaborator Aleksander Luria.[5]:427–428 The group grew incrementally and operated in Moscow, Kharkiv, and Leningrad; all in the Soviet Union. From the beginning of World War II 1 Sept 1939 to the start of the Great Patriotic War, 22 June 1941, several centers of post-Vygotskian research were formed by Luria, Leontiev, Zankov, and Elkonin. The Circle ended, however, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany to start the Great Patriotic War.

However, by the end of 1930s a new center was formed around 1939 under the leadership of Luria and Leontiev. In the after-war period this developed into the so-called the “School of Vygotsky-Leontiev-Luria”. Recent studies show that this “school” never existed as such.

There are two problems that are related to the Vygotsky circle. First was the historical recording of the Soviet psychology with innumerable gaps in time and prejudice. Second was the almost exclusive focus on the person, Lev Vygotsky, himself to the extent that the scientific contributions of other notable characters have been considerably downplayed or forgotten.

This is all a bit more nebulous than I was hoping for. Lots of references and sources at least. May end up just covering Vygotsky and Luria.

OK Vygotsky wiki article. What did he do?

He is known for his concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD): the distance between what a student (apprentice, new employee, etc.) can do on their own, and what they can accomplish with the support of someone more knowledgeable about the activity. Vygotsky saw the ZPD as a measure of skills that are in the process of maturing, as supplement to measures of development that only look at a learner’s independent ability.

Also influential are his works on the relationship between language and thought, the development of language, and a general theory of development through actions and relationships in a socio-cultural environment.

OK here’s the internalisation thing I vaguely remembered hearing about:

… the majority of his work involved the study of infant and child behavior, as well as the development of language acquisition (such as the importance of pointing and inner speech[5]) …

Influenced by Piaget, but differed on inner speech:

Piaget asserted that egocentric speech in children “dissolved away” as they matured, while Vygotsky maintained that egocentric speech became internalized, what we now call “inner speech”.

Not sure I’ve picked a good topic this time, pulls in way too many directions so this is going to be very shallow and skip around. And ofc there’s lots of confusing turbulent historical background, and all these pages refer to various controversies of interpretation 😦 Skip to Luria, can always come back:

Alexander Romanovich Luria (Russian: Алекса́ндр Рома́нович Лу́рия, IPA: [ˈlurʲɪjə]; 16 July 1902 – 14 August 1977) was a Russian neuropsychologist, often credited as a father of modern neuropsychological assessment. He developed an extensive and original battery of neuropsychological tests during his clinical work with brain-injured victims of World War II, which are still used in various forms. He made an in-depth analysis of the functioning of various brain regions and integrative processes of the brain in general. Luria’s magnum opus, Higher Cortical Functions in Man (1962), is a much-used psychological textbook which has been translated into many languages and which he supplemented with The Working Brain in 1973.

… became famous for his studies of low-educated populations in the south of the Soviet Union showing that they use different categorization than the educated world (determined by functionality of their tools).

OK so this was early on.

Some biographical stuff. Born in Kazan, studied there, then moved to Moscow where he met Vygotsky. And others:

During the 1920s Luria also met a large number of scholars, including Aleksei N. Leontiev, Mark Lebedinsky, Alexander Zaporozhets, Bluma Zeigarnik, many of whom would remain his lifelong colleagues.

Leontiev’s turned up a few times, open in another tab.

OK the phrase ‘cultural-historical psychology’ has come up. Open the wikipedia page:

Cultural-historical psychology is a branch of avant-garde and futuristic psychological theory and practice of the “science of Superman” associated with Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria and their Circle, who initiated it in the mid-1920s–1930s.[1] The phrase “cultural-historical psychology” never occurs in the writings of Vygotsky, and was subsequently ascribed to him by his critics and followers alike, yet it is under this title that this intellectual movement is now widely known.

This all sounds like a confusing mess where I’d need to learn way more background than I’m going to pick up in an hour. Back to Luria. Here’s the peasant-bothering stuff:

The 1930s were significant to Luria because his studies of indigenous people opened the field of multiculturalism to his general interests.[12] This interest would be revived in the later twentieth century by a variety of scholars and researchers who began studying and defending indigenous peoples throughout the world. Luria’s work continued in this field with expeditions to Central Asia. Under the supervision of Vygotsky, Luria investigated various psychological changes (including perception, problem solving, and memory) that take place as a result of cultural development of undereducated minorities. In this regard he has been credited with a major contribution to the study of orality.

That last bit has a footnote to Ong’s Orality and Literacy. Another place I’ve seen the name before.

In 1933, Luria married Lana P. Lipchina, a well-known specialist in microbiology with a doctorate in the biological sciences.

Then studied aphasia:

In his early neuropsychological work in the end of the 1930s as well as throughout his postwar academic life he focused on the study of aphasia, focusing on the relation between language, thought, and cortical functions, particularly on the development of compensatory functions for aphasia.

This must be another pop-science topic where I’ve come across him before. Hm where’s the memory bit? Oh I missed it:

Apart from his work with Vygotsky, Luria is widely known for two extraordinary psychological case studies: The Mind of a Mnemonist, about Solomon Shereshevsky, who had highly advanced memory; and The Man with a Shattered World, about a man with traumatic brain injury.

Ah this turns out to be late on in his career:

Among his late writings are also two extended case studies directed toward the popular press and a general readership, in which he presented some of the results of major advances in the field of clinical neuropsychology. These two books are among his most popular writings. According to Oliver Sacks, in these works “science became poetry”.[31]

In The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968), Luria studied Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian journalist with a seemingly unlimited memory, sometimes referred to in contemporary literature as “flashbulb” memory, in part due to his fivefold synesthesia.

In The Man with the Shattered World (1971) he documented the recovery under his treatment of the soldier Lev Zasetsky, who had suffered a brain wound in World War II.

OK 27 minutes left. I’ll look up some of the other characters. Leontiev first. Apparently he was ‘a Soviet developmental psychologist, philosopher and the founder of activity theory.’ What’s activity theory?

Activity theory (AT; Russian: Теория деятельности)[1] is an umbrella term for a line of eclectic social sciences theories and research with its roots in the Soviet psychological activity theory pioneered by Sergei Rubinstein in 1930s. At a later time it was advocated for and popularized by Alexei Leont’ev. Some of the traces of the theory in its inception can also be found in a few works of Lev Vygotsky,[2]. These scholars sought to understand human activities as systemic and socially situated phenomena and to go beyond paradigms of reflexology (the teaching of Vladimir Bekhterev and his followers) and classical conditioning (the teaching of Ivan Pavlov and his school), psychoanalysis and behaviorism.

So maybe he founded it or maybe he just advocated for it. This is all a bit of a mess. But, ok, it’s an umbrella term for moving past behaviourism.

One of the strengths of AT is that it bridges the gap between the individual subject and the social reality—it studies both through the mediating activity. The unit of analysis in AT is the concept of object-oriented, collective and culturally mediated human activity, or activity system.

This all looks sort of interesting, but a bit vague, and will probably take me down some other rabbithole. Back to Leontiev.

After Vygotsky’s early death, Leont’ev became the leader of the research group nowadays known as the Kharkov School of Psychology and extended Vygotsky’s research framework in significantly new ways.

Oh shit completely missed the whole thing about Vygotsky’s early death. Back to him… died aged 37! Of tuberculosis. Mostly became famous after his death, and through the influence of his students. Ah this bit on his influence might be useful. Soviet influence first:

In the Soviet Union, the work of the group of Vygotsky’s students known as the Vygotsky Circle was responsible for Vygotsky’s scientific legacy.[42] The members of the group subsequently laid a foundation for Vygotskian psychology’s systematic development in such diverse fields as the psychology of memory (P. Zinchenko), perception, sensation, and movement (Zaporozhets, Asnin, A. N. Leont’ev), personality (Lidiya Bozhovich, Asnin, A. N. Leont’ev), will and volition (Zaporozhets, A. N. Leont’ev, P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, Asnin), psychology of play (G. D. Lukov, Daniil El’konin) and psychology of learning (P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, D. El’konin), as well as the theory of step-by-step formation of mental actions (Pyotr Gal’perin), general psychological activity theory (A. N. Leont’ev) and psychology of action (Zaporozhets).

That at least says something about what all of those names did. Open Zinchenko tab as first.

Then North American influence:

In 1962 a translation of his posthumous 1934 book, Thinking and Speech, published with the title,Thought and Language, did not seem to change the situation considerably.[citation needed] It was only after an eclectic compilation of partly rephrased and partly translated works of Vygotsky and his collaborators, published in 1978 under Vygotsky’s name as Mind in Society, that the Vygotsky boom started in the West: originally, in North America, and later, following the North American example, spread to other regions of the world.[citation needed] This version of Vygotskian science is typically associated with the names of its chief proponents Michael Cole, James Wertsch, their associates and followers, and is relatively well known under the names of “cultural-historical activity theory” (aka CHAT) or “activity theory”.[45][46][47] Scaffolding, a concept introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross in 1976, is somewhat related to the idea of ZPD, although Vygotsky never used the term.[

Ah so Thought and Language was posthumous.

Then a big pile of controversy about how his work was interpreted. Now we’re getting headings like ‘Revisionist movement in Vygotsky Studies’, think I’ll bail out now. 16 minutes left.

OK let’s try Zinchenko page.

The main theme of Zinchenko’s research is involuntary memory, studied from the perspective of the activity approach in psychology. In a series of studies, Zinchenko demonstrated that recall of the material to be remembered strongly depends on the kind of activity directed on the material, the motivation to perform the activity, the level of interest in the material and the degree of involvement in the activity. Thus, he showed that following the task of sorting material in experimental settings, human subjects demonstrate a better involuntary recall rate than in the task of voluntary material memorization.

This influenced Leontiev and activity theory. That’s about all the detail there is. What to do next? Look up some of the other people I guess. Try a few, they’re all very short articles, give up with that.

Fine I’ll just google ‘vygotsky thought and language’ and see what i get. MIT Press description:

Vygotsky’s closely reasoned, highly readable analysis of the nature of verbal thought as based on word meaning marks a significant step forward in the growing effort to understand cognitive processes. Speech is, he argues, social in origins. It is learned from others and, at first, used entirely for affective and social functions. Only with time does it come to have self-directive properties that eventually result in internalized verbal thought. To Vygotsky, “a word is a microcosm of human consciousness.”

OK, yeah that does sound interesting.

Not finding great sources. 8 minutes left. Zone of proximal development section of Vygotsky’s page:

“Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) is a term Vygotsky used to characterize an individual’s mental development. He originally defined the ZPD as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” He used the example of two children in school who originally could solve problems at an eight-year-old developmental level (that is, typical for children who were age 8). After each child received assistance from an adult, one was able to perform at a nine-year-old level and one was able to perform at a twelve-year-old level. He said “This difference between twelve and eight, or between nine and eight, is what we call the zone of proximal development.” He further said that the ZPD “defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state.” The zone is bracketed by the learner’s current ability and the ability they can achieve with the aid of an instructor of some capacity.

ZPD page itself:

Zygotsky spent a lot of time studying the impact of school instruction on children and noted that children grasp language concepts quite naturally, but that math and writing did not come as naturally. Essentially, he concluded that because these concepts were taught in school settings with unnecessary assessments, they were of more difficulty to learners. Piaget believed that there was a clear distinction between development and teaching. He said that development is a spontaneous process that is initiated and completed by the children, stemming from their own efforts. Piaget was a proponent of independent thinking and critical of the standard teacher-led instruction that was common practice in schools.

But also:

… He believed that children would not advance very far if they were left to discover everything on their own. It’s crucial for a child’s development that they are able to interact with more knowledgeable others. They would not be able to expand on what they know if this wasn’t possible.

OK 3 minutes left. Let’s wildly skip between tabs learning absolutely nothing. Hm maybe this would have been interesting? ‘Vygotsky circle as a personal network of scholars: restoring connections between people and ideas’.

Ding! Didn’t get much past reading the title.

Well that didn’t work as well as the alienation one. Sprawling topic, and I wasn’t very clear on what I wanted to get out of it. History of the Circle itself or just some random facts about what individual people in it did? I mostly ended up with the second one, and not much insight into what held it together conceptually, beyond some vague idea about ‘going beyond behaviourism’/’looking at general background of human activity, not just immediate task’.

Still, I guess I know a bit more about these people than I did going in, and would be able to orient more quickly if I wanted to find out anything specific.

Marx on alienation speedrun


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

This is a bit of an experiment to see how ‘set a timer for an hour and see what you find’ works for finding out basic information about a topic. Why Marx on alienation specifically? Well, it’s been in the back of my mind as something where I’ve wanted to know more for a while now, but not to the point where I could ever be bothered to, you know, put the work in. At least this way I’ll put some half-arsed work in, and find out something.

Before I set the timer, I’ll give some quick background. I first got curious about this when I was reading The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford. This book is in large part about the skilful use of physical tools, often in the context of work, and how modern life degrades the ability to form these craftsman-like relationships with your materials. (Ugh, that’s a horribly abstract and clunky sentence. I don’t want to spend ages writing this intro, so I’m not going to spend time making it into a concrete one. But I do include a lot of examples in that linked review.)

This sounds a lot like alienation, to me, but Crawford never mentions Marx. This isn’t surprising, because Marx is very much Not His Tribe and it’s a very tribal sort of book. But it seemed like an omission I should follow up.

(I suppose it’s possible he does talk about him in Shop Class As Soul Craft, his other book on the topic. I haven’t read that one.)

The other reason I’m interested in this is pretty silly. I’m fascinated by this meme:


There’s something quite deep buried in there, I think. The two computers look different – the work one is more of a utilitarian enterprise-edition black box, the home one is a friendlier silver laptop. But I suspect that even if you worked at a trendy startup with a Macbook covered in stickers, you’d still get a lot of the same effect. The two computers are going to be used in very different ways.

Bad Screen is embedded in a work culture with distanced, ‘professional’ norms. You’re expected to turn up at set times, put in a certain number of hours, and do tasks that you quite frankly don’t care about either way, and wouldn’t look at for five minutes if you weren’t being paid. If you’re feeling any strong emotions that day, you’re mostly expected to leave them at home to the extent that they’d interfere with your job.

Good Screen is much more deeply connected to your whole life – you might stare at it at weird hours of the night and morning, rather than ‘office hours’. You use it to further instrinsically motivated projects that you chose yourself, like overanalysing stupid internet memes. If you’re miserable while looking at Good Screen you can just cry about it, or get angry, or whatever. Good Screen reaches tendrils right out into your whole life, while Bad Screen is much more weakly connected to a smaller, professional self. That difference in contexts is going to leak right down to the perceptual level. You’re alienated from Bad Screen in a way that you aren’t from Good Screen.

I suspect Marx’s interest will be structural – the conditions that lead to this alienation – rather than phenomenological – what alienation feels like on the inside. So might not be as directly relevant as I’d like. But still… I’m not going to know either way if I don’t read anything.

OK, that’s enough blathering about background. Timer time. I’ll tidy up and add in links afterwards, but the majority of writing is done during the hour.

OK. Type ‘marx on alienation’ into Google, get pull quote:


Oh dear, two long German words already. Entfremdung (alienation/estrangement) looks fine I think. Gattungswesen (species-essence) is going to take more work to understand.

Fine I’ll read the Wikipedia article. It continues:

The theoretical basis of alienation within the capitalist mode of production is that the worker invariably loses the ability to determine life and destiny when deprived of the right to think (conceive) of themselves as the director of their own actions; to determine the character of said actions; to define relationships with other people; and to own those items of value from goods and services, produced by their own labour. Although the worker is an autonomous, self-realized human being, as an economic entity this worker is directed to goals and diverted to activities that are dictated by the bourgeoisie—who own the means of production—in order to extract from the worker the maximum amount of surplus value in the course of business competition among industrialists.

No massive surprises there. OK lets find out what the source texts are:

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1932), Karl Marx expressed the Entfremdung theory—of estrangement from the self. Philosophically, the theory of Entfremdung relies upon The Essence of Christianity (1841) by Ludwig Feuerbach which states that the idea of a supernatural god has alienated the natural characteristics of the human being. Moreover, Max Stirner extended Feuerbach’s analysis in The Ego and its Own (1845) that even the idea of “humanity” is an alienating concept for individuals to intellectually consider in its full philosophic implication. Marx and Friedrich Engels responded to these philosophic propositions in The German Ideology (1845).

So probably want to read about that first one. Open in new tab. Feuerbach sounds kind of interesting but different rabbit hole.

Next is type of alienation. Here’s Marx himself (from “Comment on James Mill”):

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (i) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt. (ii) In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature … Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.

So you affirm yourself in two ways – you manifest your individuality by what you choose to make, and also by directly enjoying seeing your work be useful to another person. Marx identifies four ways that industrial production breaks this:

Alienation of the worker. Design of the product is fixed by the capitalist class, worker is just implementing a fixed model. More detailed stuff I’ll read if I get time.

Alienation of the worker from the act of production. The product itself is made in some repetitive way that gives little psychological satisfaction.

Alienation of the worker from their Gattungswesen (species-essence). Now we get the long German word. Open in new tab. Described below as:

Conceptually, in the term “species-essence” the word “species” describes the intrinsic human mental essence that is characterized by a “plurality of interests” and “psychological dynamism”, whereby every individual has the desire and the tendency to engage in the many activities that promote mutual human survival and psychological well-being, by means of emotional connections with other people, with society. The psychic value of a human consists in being able to conceive (think) of the ends of their actions as purposeful ideas, which are distinct from the actions required to realize a given idea.

I’d need to read more to grasp the subtleties. For now, imagine it something like ‘human potential’ or ‘actualisation’. Mix of individual and societal, individual determination over your work and also connection to others.

This is thwarted by industrial production by turning the worker into a interchangeable, mechanised part.

Alienation of the worker from other workers. Workers are competing in the labour market and turned against each other.

Shit that’s already 25 minutes gone. I’d like to get further than one wiki article. Skim the rest for interesting bits. Ignore Hegel. OK the rest of this is mostly Hegel. Tiny criticism section which is all Althusser.

References: Marx originals, some university lecture notes. Maaybe follow the lecture notes if time.

Go back to that other wiki article on Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. OK maybe Feuerbach is more important than I realised and not separate rabbit hole:

Marx expounds his theory of alienation, which he adapted (not without changes) from Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841).

Another version of four types of alienation. Bit about Aristotle:

He refers to Aristotle’s praxis and production, by saying that the exchange of human activity involved in the exchange of human product, is the generic activity of man. Man’s conscious and authentic existence, he states, is social activity and social satisfaction.

Moreover, he sees human nature in true common life, and if that is not existent as such, men create their common human nature by creating their common life. Furthermore, he argues similarly to Aristotle that authentic common life does not originate from thought but from the material base, needs and egoism. However, in Marx’s view, life has to be humanly organized to allow a real form of common life, since under alienation human interaction is subordinated to a relationship between things. Hence consciousness alone is by far not enough.

Labour value of value. Everything reduced to its exchange rate, causing further alienation.

Marx is of the opinion that alienation reaches its peak once labour becomes wage labour.

OK that’s the end of the two wiki articles. Back to Google. Stanford Philosophy is next. See how far I get through this.

Introductory definitional stuff. Alienation as a kind of separation that is sin some way problematic.

Disclaimers. Not going to be much about historical development but mentions some names. More Hegel. Rousseau.

Two adjacent concepts ‘drawn from Hegelian and Marxist traditions’: fetishism and objectification.

‘Fetishism’ refers here to the idea of human creations which have somehow escaped (inappropriately separated out from) human control, achieved the appearance of independence, and come to enslave and oppress their creators… Consider, for instance, the frequency with which ‘market forces’ are understood and represented within modern culture as something outside of human control, as akin to natural forces which decide our fate.

Feuerbach had some similar argument about Christianity:

the Christian God demands real world sacrifices from individuals, typically in the form of a denial or repression of their essential human needs.

Similar to Marx’s alienation, but not all alienation is fetishism. E.g. alienation can come from our ‘our ruthlessly instrumental treatment of nature, rather than in nature’s tyranny over us’.

Next objectification. Not the feminist version.

In the present context, objectification refers rather to the role of productive activity in mediating the evolving relationship between humankind and the natural world.

i.e. humans make stuff and collectively shape the world.

These world transforming productive activities, we might say, embody the progressive self-realisation of humankind.

Marx would say that this doesn’t always take an alienated form. E.g. meaningful work that is freely chosen, that develops your capabilities and is useful to others. So different to say:

what is sometimes called the ‘Christian’ view of work. On this account, work is seen as a necessary evil, an unpleasant activity unfortunately required for our survival. It owes its name to its embrace of the claim that it was only after the Fall that human beings were required to work by the sweat of their brows

OK next we have subjective and objective alienation. Subjective – experiencing life as lacking meaning, feeling estranged from the world. Objective – potential is frustrated by conditions of the world.

Then there is a table of

subjective + objective present
objective present, not subjective
subjective present, not objective

and how different thinkers fit in. E.g. ‘I take it that existentialists think of (something like) objective alienation as a permanent feature of all human societies.’ Potentially interesting but will skip for now.

Haha I’m slow. Just realised this article is alienation in general, not just Marx. That’s why all these other people keep cropping up! D’oh! Ah well at least I’m getting some background. Still 15 minutes to go. Will skim for Marxy bits.

Something about the positive side of alienation, as an expression of individuality and differentiation. Hard to be too alienated in premodern tribe where you have no choice about what you have to do with life. In this view it should be an intermediate stage:

By a dialectical progression is meant only a movement from a stage characterised by a relationship of ‘undifferentiated unity’, through a stage characterised by a relationship of ‘differentiated disunity’, to a stage characterised by a relationship of ‘differentiated unity’.

Future communist societies will get to the wonderful world of ‘differentiated unity’ and then we’ll all be happy.

The suggestion here is that internal to the second stage, the stage of alienation, there is both a problematic separation from community and a positive liberation from engulfment.

Interesting sounding bit on morality as alienation. All those shoulds alienating you from your own taste.

certain conceptions of morality might embody or encourage a problematic division of self, and a problematic separation from much that is valuable in our lives.

Utilitarianism as example. Again this isn’t really Marx but alienation in general.

Unresolved issues. How much alienation in pre-capitalist societies? Religion alienation as another flavour.

Its plausibility is scarcely incontrovertible, given the amount of sheer productive drudgery, and worse, in pre-capitalist societies.

How much can we be free of systematic alienation?

Marx’s view about communism rests crucially on the judgement that it is the social relations of capitalist society, and not its material or technical arrangements, which are the cause of systematic forms of alienation.

OK that’s the end of the article. What can I do with the remaining 6 minutes? Not much. Back to Google. Next listing is from something called Really short but has a big reference list. More Hegel 😦

Some university lecture notes. Nothing is jumping out at me. Try this blog post. A little bit more about the species-being concept:

Because humans are biological beings, and not merely free-floating immaterial minds, we, like all other biological beings, must interact with and transform the natural world in order to survive. But what distinguishes us from all other animals, like bees, spiders, or beavers, which all transform the world based on instinct, is that we transform the world consciously and freely.5 Thus, the essence of a human being – what Marx calls our species-being – is to consciously and freely transform the world in order to meet our needs. Like many other philosophers, Marx believes that excellently doing what makes us distinctively human is the true source of fulfillment.

3 minutes. Next page of results. Now I’m on Issue 79 of International Socialism. Long and not a riveting read. OK here’s an example:

Peter Linebaugh in his history of 18th century London, The London Hanged, explained that workers considered themselves masters of what they produced. It took great repression, a ‘judicial onslaught’, in the late 18th century to convince them that what they produced belonged exclusively to the capitalists who owned the factories. During the 18th century most workers were not paid exclusively in money. ‘This was true of Russian serf labour, American slave labour, Irish agricultural labour and the metropolitan labour in London trades’

Reading some concrete history would be a lot more interesting. Thinking back to Lark Rise and Enclosure.

Time’s up! That was fun, and I learned a few things. A lot of it was just ‘in the water’, so that I vaguely knew it already, but I did learn some new terminology, and I have an idea of where to find the primary sources and go deeper if I want to.

Writing and searching in the same hour was a bit difficult and tended to bias towards spending longer on each link. Maybe an hour of just going down link rabbit holes and writing up afterwards would be worth trying too? Still, I think this format is promising.