Archive for the ‘captivation’ Category

Economy of language, Eros, meaning, the public, and its problems

July 11, 2017

The medium is the message. The more transparent the medium is, the more seductive the messages expressed in it. The seductiveness of numbers stems from their roots in the mathematical quality of all thinking: the way that signs are used as the media of concept-thing relations. Our captivation with numbers is entirely embedded in the allure of language, which stems in large part from its economy: knowing how to read, write, speak, and listen saves us the trouble of re-inventing words and concepts for ourselves, and of having to translate each other’s private languages. The problem is, of course, that having words for things and sharing them by no means assures understanding. But when it works, it really works, as the history of science shows.

Seductive enthrallment with meaning and beauty defines the parameters of the difference between the modern Cartesian dualist world view and the emerging unmodern nondualist world view. This is the whole point of taking up Heidegger’s sense of method as meta-odos. As Plato saw, Socrates’ recounting of the myth of Eros told to him by Diotima conveys how captivation with beauty embodies the opposites of wealth and poverty in a simultaneous possession and absence, neither of which is ever complete.

The evolutionary/developmental paradigm shift taking place will transform everything by institutionalizing in every area of life an order of magnitude increase in the complexity of relationships, and a corresponding increase in the simplicity with which those relationships can be managed. The compelling absorption into the flow of meaning that necessarily informs discourse but currently functions as an unacknowledged assumption informing operations will itself be brought into view and will become an object of operations.

As Dewey understood, public consciousness of an issue or set of issues, and the will to take them on, emerges when existing institutions fail. We are certainly living in a time in which our political, economic, social, educational, medical, legal, environmental, etc. institutions have been failing to live up to their responsibilities for quite a number of years. The efforts of the public to address these failures have been obstructed by the lack of the media needed for integrating the complex, multilevel, and discontinuous opposites of harmony and dissonance, agreement and dissent, that structure a binding, coherent culture.

Science is nothing but an extension of everyday reasoning. Instead of imitating the natural sciences, the social sciences need to focus on how science extends the complex cognitive ecologies of language. As we figure that out and get these metasystems in place, we will simultaneously create the media the public needs to find its voice and organize itself to meet the challenges of how to build new institutions capable of successfully countering human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation.

Another Take on the Emerging Paradigm Shift

November 8, 2014

Over the course of human history, people have usually been able to rely on some stable source of authority and control in their lives, be it religion, the king or queen, or the social order itself. However benevolent or malevolent a regime might be, usually there have been clear lines along which blame or credit can be assigned.

So, even though the complexity and scale of success and failure in today’s world provide ample evidence that no one exerts centralized control over events, it is not surprising that many people today still find it comforting to think some individuals or groups must be manipulating others to their own ends. There is, however, an alternative point of view that may provide a more productive path toward effective action.

After all, efforts to date that have focused on the removal and replacement of any given group that appears to be in control have simply resulted in an alteration of the system, and not the institution of a fundamentally new system. Thus, socialist and communist governments have failed in large part because they were unable to manage resources as effectively as capitalist systems do (which is, of course, not all that well). That is, despite the appearance of having put in place a radically different system of priorities, the constraints of socioeconomics themselves did not change in the context of socialist and communist regimes.

The individual incumbents of social and economic positions have nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the socioeconomic system’s likelihoods of success and failure, and if they had not accepted their roles in that system, others would have. Changing the system is much more difficult, both conceptually and practically, than merely assigning blame and replacing an individual or group with another individual or group. To the extent the system remains the same, changing the occupants within it makes little difference.

The idea is much the same as was realized in industry when it shifted from quality control’s “tail-chopping” methods to continuous quality improvement’s “curve-shifting” methods. In the former, a certain ratio of acceptable to malformed parts is dictated by the system’s materials and processes. Quality control simply removes the bad parts from the production line and does nothing to change the system. Since quality is often normally distributed, taking the statistical shape of a bell curve, it is accordingly inevitable that cutting off the bad end of that distribution (tail-chopping) only results in it being filled in again in the next production cycle.

Continuous quality improvement methods, in contrast, focus on changing the system and on reducing the likelihood of producing bad parts. Efforts of these kind move the entire quality distribution up the scale so that no parts fall in the previous distribution’s bad tail at all. Of course, the outcomes of our socioeconomic system’s processes are very different from the manufacturing of machine parts. The point of this simple illustration is only that there is remarkable value in thinking less about removing undesired individuals from a process and in thinking more about changing the process itself.

There is no denying that those who seem to be in control benefit disproportionately from others’ efforts. But even though they have had little or nothing to do with creating the system that confers these benefits on them, they certainly do have a vested interest in maintaining that system. This fact reveals another important aspect of any solution that will prove truly viable: the new system must provide benefits not available under the old one. The shift from old to new cannot be a matter of mere will power or organizational efficiency. It must come about as a result of the attractions offered by the new system, which motivate behavior changes universally with little or no persuasion. Qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system. The central problem of life today is how to provoke this kind of shift and its new integrations.

We can begin to frame this problem in its proper context when we situate it horizontally as an ecological problem and vertically as an evolutionary one. In the same way that ecological niches define the evolutionary opportunities available to species of plants and animals, historical and cultural factors set up varying circumstances to which human societies must adapt. Biological and social adaptations both become increasingly complex over time, systematically exhibiting characteristic patterns in the ways matter, energy, and information are functionally integrated.

The present form of contemporary global society has evolved largely in terms of the Western European principles of modern science, capitalism, and democracy. These principles hinge on the distinction between a concrete, solid, and objective world and an impressionistic, intuitive, and subjective mind. For instance, science and economics focus traditionally on measuring and managing material things and processes, like volts, meters, kilograms, barrels, degrees Celsius, liters, speed, flows, etc. Human, social, and environmental issues are treated statistically, not in terms of standardized metric units, and they are economically regarded as “externalities” excluded from profit and loss calculations.

So, if qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system, what can we do to integrate the subjective with the objective, and to also then incorporate standardized metric units for the externalities of human, social, and environmental capital into science and economics? The question demands recognition of a) a new system of ecological niches with their own unique configurations of horizontal relationships, and b) the evolution of new species capable of adapting to life in these niches.

The problem is compounded by the complexity of seeing the new system of niches as emerging from the existing system of ecological relationships. Economically speaking, today’s cost centers will be tomorrow’s profit drivers. Scientifically speaking, sources of new repeatable and stable phenomena will have to be identified in what are today assumed to be unrepeatable and unstable phenomena, and will then have to be embodied in instrumental ensembles.

The immediate assumption, which we will have to strive to overcome, is that any such possibilities for new economic and scientific opportunities could hardly be present in the world today and not be widely known and understood. A culturally ingrained presupposition we all share to some extent is that objective facts are immediately accessible and become universally adopted for their advantages as soon as they are recognized. Claims to the contrary can safely be ignored, even if, or perhaps especially if, they represent a truly original potential for system change.

This assumption is an instance of what behavioral economists like Simon and Kahnemann refer to as bounded rationality, which is the idea that language and culture prethink things for us in ways we are usually unaware of. Research has shown that many decisions in daily life are tinged with emotion, such that a certain kind of irrationality takes an irrefutable place in how we think. Examples include choices involving various combinations of favorable and unfavorable odds of profiting from some exchange. Small but sure profits are often ignored in favor of larger and less sure profits, or mistaken calculations are assumed correct, to the disadvantage of the decision maker. There is surely method in the madness, but the pure rationality of an ideal thought process can no longer be accommodated.

Given the phenomenon of bounded rationality, and the complexity of the metasystematic shift that’s needed, how is change to be effected? As Einstein put it, problems of a certain kind cannot be solved from within the same framework that gave rise to them. As long as we continue to think in terms of marshalling resources to apply to the solution of a problem we have failed in conceiving the proper magnitude and scope of the problem we face.

We must instead think in terms of problem-solution units that themselves embody a new evolutionary species functioning within a new system of ecological niches. And these species-niche combinations must be born fully functional and viable, like birds from lizard eggs, caught up in the flow and play of their matter, energy and information streams from the moment of their arrival.

A vitally important aspect of this evolutionary leap is that the new system emerge of its own accord, seemingly with a will of its own. But it will not take shape as a result of individuals or groups deliberately executing a comprehensive design. There will be no grand master architect, though the co-incidence of multiple coordinations and alignments will seem so well planned that many may assume one exists.

It may be, however, that a new spontaneously self-organizing culture might be grown from a few well-placed spores or seeds. The seeds themselves need to be viable in terms of their growth potential and the characteristics of the particular species involved. But equally important are the characteristics of the environment in which the seeds are planted. Bernstein (2004) describes four conditions necessary to the birth of plenty in the modern world:

  1. Property rights: those who might create new forms of value need to own the fruits of their labors.
  2. Scientific rationalism: innovation requires a particular set of conceptual tools and a moral environment in which change agents need not fear retribution.
  3. Capital markets: investors must be able to identify entrepreneurs and provide them with the funds they need to pursue their visions.
  4. Transportation/communications: new products and the information needed to produce and market them must have efficient channels in which to move.

If we take the new emerging culture as unmodern, nonmodern, or amodern, might a new paradigm of plenty similarly take shape as these four conditions are applied not just to manufactured capital, land, and labor, but to human capital (abilities, health, performance), social capital (trust, honesty, dependability, etc.), and natural capital (the environmental services of watersheds, fisheries, estuaries, forests, etc.)? Should not we own legal title to defined shares of each form of capital? Should not science be systematically employed in research on each form of capital? Should not investments in each form of capital be accountable? Should not each form of capital be mobile and fungible within established networks? Should not there be common languages serving as common currencies for the exchange of each form of capital? Instead of assuming the answers to these questions are uniformly “No,” should not we at least entertain them long enough to firmly establish why they cannot be “Yes”?

Measurement as a Medium for the Expression of Creative Passions in Education

April 23, 2014

Measurement is often viewed as a purely technical task involving a reduction of complex phenomena to numbers. It is accordingly also experienced as mechanical in nature, and disconnected from the world of life. Educational examinations are often seen as an especially egregious form of inappropriate reduction.

This perspective on measurement is contradicted, however, by the essential roles of calibrated instrumentation, mathematical scales, and high technology in the production of music, which, ironically, is widely considered the most alive, captivating and emotionally powerful of the arts.

The question then arises as to if and how measurement in other areas, such as in education, might be conceived, designed, and practiced as a medium for the expression and fulfillment of creative passions. Key issues involved in substantively realizing a musical metaphor in human and social measurement include capacities to tune instruments, to define common scales, to orchestrate harmonious relationships, to enhance choral grace note effects, and to combine elements in unique but pleasing and recognizable forms.

Practical methods of this kind are in place in hundreds of schools nationally and internationally. With such tools in hand, formative applications of integrated instruction and assessment could be conceived as intuitive media for composing and conducting expressions of creative passions.

Student outcomes in reading, mathematics, and other domains may then come to be seen in terms of portfolios of works akin to those produced by musicians, sculptors, film makers, or painters. Hundreds of thousands of books and millions of articles tuned to the same text complexity scale provide readers an extensive palette of colorful tones and timbres for expressing their desires and capacities for learning. Graphical presentations of individual students’ outcomes, as well as outcomes aggregated by classroom, school, district, etc., may be interpreted and experienced as public performances of artful developmental narratives enabling dramatic performances of personal uniqueness and social generality.

Technical canvases capture, aggregate, and organize literacy performances into special portfolios documenting the play and dance of emerging new understandings. As in any creative process, accidents, errors, and idiosyncratic patterns of strengths and weaknesses may evoke powerful expressions of beauty, and human and social value. Just as members of musical ensembles may complement one another’s skills, using rhythm and harmony to improve each others’ playing abilities in practice, so, too, instruments of formative assessment tuned to the same scale can be used to enhance individual teacher skill levels.

Possibilities for orchestrating such performances across educational, health care, social service, environmental management, and other fields could similarly take advantage of existing instrument calibration and measurement technologies.

Enchantment, Organizations, and Mediating Instruments: Potential for a New Consensus?

August 3, 2011

I just came across something that could be helpful in regaining some forward momentum and expanding the frame of reference for the research on caring in nursing with Jane Sumner (Sumner & Fisher, 2008). We have yet to really work in the failure of Habermas’ hermeneutic objectivism (Kim, 2002; Thompson, 1984) and we haven’t connected what we’ve done with (a) Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990, 1995) sense of narrative as describing the past en route to prescribing the future (prefiguring, configuring, and refiguring the creation of meaning in discourse) and with (b) Wright’s (1999) sense of learning from past data to efficiently and effectively anticipate new data within a stable inferential frame of reference.

Now I’ve found a recent publication that resonates well with this goal, and includes examples from nursing to boot. Boje and Baskin (2010; see especially pp. 12-17 in the manuscript available at cite only secondary literature but do a good job of articulating where the field is at conceptually and in tracing the sources of that articulation.  So they make no mention of Ricoeur on narrative (1984, 1985, 1990) and on play and the heuristic fiction (1981, pp. 185-187), and they make no mention of Gadamer on play as the most important clue to methodological authenticity (1989, pp. 101-134). It follows that they then also do not make any use of the considerable volume of other available and relevant work on the metaphysics of allure, captivation, enthrallment, rapture, beauty, or eros.

This is all very important because these issues are highly salient markers of the distinction between a modern, Cartesian, and mechanical worldview destructive of enchantment and play, and the amodern, nonCartesian, and organic worldview in tune with enchantment and play. As I have stressed repeatedly in these posts, the way we frame problems is now the primary problem, in opposition to those who think identifying and applying resources, techniques, or will power is the problem. It is essential that we learn to frame problems in a way that begins from requirements of subject-object interdependence instead of from assumptions of subject-object independence. Previous posts here explore in greater detail how we are all captivated by the desire for meaning. Any time we choose negotiation or patient waiting over violence, we express faith in the ultimate value of trusting our words. So though Boje and Baskin do not document this larger context, they still effectively show exactly where and how work in the nonCartesian paradigm of enchantment connects up with what’s going on in organizational change management theory.

The paper’s focus on narrative as facilitating enchantment and disenchantment speaks to our fundamental absorption into the play of language. Enchantment is described on page 2 as involving positive connection with existence, of being enthralled with the wonder of being endowed with natural and cultural gifts.  Though not described as such, this hermeneutics of restoration, as Ricoeur (1967) calls it, focuses on the way symbols give rise to thought in an unasked-for assertion of meaningfulness. The structure we see emerge of its own accord across multiple different data sets from tests, surveys, and assessments is an important example of this gift through which previously identified meanings re-assert themselves anew (see my published philosophical work, such as Fisher, 2004). The contrast with disenchantment of course arises as a function of the dead and one-sided modern Cartesian effort aimed at controlling the environment, which effectively eliminates wonder and meaning via a hermeneutics of suspicion.

In accord with the work done to date with Sumner on caring in nursing, the Boje and Baskin paper describes people’s variable willingness to accept disenchantment or demand enchantment (p. 13) in terms that look quite like preconventional and postconventional Kohlbergian stages. A nurse’s need to shift from one dominant narrative form to another is described as very difficult because of the way she had used the one to which she was accustomed to construct her identity as a nurse (p. 15). Bi-directionality between nurses and patients is implied in another example of a narrative shift in a hospital (p. 16). Both identity and bi-directionality are central issues in the research with Sumner.

The paper also touches on the conceptual domain of instrumental realism, as this is developed in the works of Ihde, Latour, Heelan and others (on p. 6; again, without citing them), and emphasizes a nonCartesian subject-object unity and belongingness, which is described at length in Ricoeur’s work. At the bottom of page 7 and top of 8, storytelling is theorized in terms of retrospection, presentness, and a bet on future meaning, which precisely echoes Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990) sense of narrative refiguration, configuration, and prefiguration. A connection with measurement comes here, in that what we want is to:

“reach beyond the data in hand to what these data might imply about future data, still unmet, but urgent to foresee. The first problem is how to predict values for these future data, which, by the meaning of inference, are necessarily missing. This meaning of missing must include not only the future data to be inferred but also all possible past data that were lost or never collected” (Wright, 1999, p. 76).

Properly understood and implemented (see previous posts in this blog), measurement based in models of individual behavior provides a way to systematically create an atmosphere of emergent enchantment. Having developmentally sound narratives rooted in individual measures on multiple dimensions over time gives us a shared written history that we can all find ourselves in, and that we can then use to project a vision of a shared future that has reasonable expectations for what’s possible.

This mediation of past and future by means of technical instruments is being described in a way (Miller & O’Leary, 2007) that to me (Fisher & Stenner, 2011) denotes a vital distinction not just between the social and natural sciences, but between economically moribund and inflationary industries such as education, health care, and social services, on the one hand, and economically vibrant and deflationary industries such as microprocessors, on the other.

It is here, and I say this out loud for the first time here, even to myself, that I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to see a way that I might find a sense of closure and resolution in the project I took up over 30 years ago. My puzzle has been one of understanding in theory and practice how it is that measurement and mathematical thinking are nothing but refinements of the logic used in everyday conversation. It only occurs to me now that, if we can focus the conversations that we are in ways that balance meaningfulness and precision, that situate each of us as individuals relative to the larger wholes of who we have been and who we might be, that encompasses both the welcoming Socratic midwife and the annoying Socratic gadfly as different facets of the same framework, and that enable us to properly coordinate and align technical projects involving investments in intangible capital, well, then, we’ll be in a position to more productively engage with the challenges of the day.

There won’t be any panacea but there will be a new consensus and a new infrastructure that, however new they may seem, will enact yet again, in a positive way, the truth of the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As I’ve repeatedly argued, the changes we need to implement are nothing but extensions of age-old principles into areas in which they have not yet been applied. We should take some satisfaction from this, as what else could possibly work? The originality of the application does not change the fact that it is rooted in appropriating, via a refiguration, to be sure, a model created for other purposes that works in relation to new purposes.

Another way of putting the question is in terms of that “permanent arbitration between technical universalism and the personality constituted on the ethico-political plane” characteristic of the need to enter into the global technical society while still retaining our roots in our cultural past (Ricoeur, 1974, p. 291). What is needed is the capacity to mediate each individual’s retelling of the grand narrative so that each of us sees ourselves in everyone else, and everyone else in ourselves. Though I am sure the meaning of this is less than completely transparent right now, putting it in writing is enormously satisfying, and I will continue to work on telling the tale as it needs to be told.


Boje, D., & Baskin, K. (2010). Our organizations were never disenchanted: Enchantment by design narratives vs. enchantment by emergence. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(4), 411-426.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Second revised edition). New York: Crossroad.

Kim, K.-M. (2002, May). On the failure of Habermas’s hermeneutic objectivism. Cultural Studies <–> Critical Methodologies, 2(2), 270-98.

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Conclusion: The symbol gives rise to thought. In R. N. Anshen (Ed.), The symbolism of evil (pp. 347-57). Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Political and social essays (D. Stewart & J. Bien, Eds.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation (J. B. Thompson, Ed.) (J. B. Thompson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1984, 1985, 1990). Time and Narrative, Vols. 1-3 (K. McLaughlin (Blamey) & D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1995). Reply to Peter Kemp. In L. E. Hahn (Ed.), The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (pp. 395-398). Chicago, Illinois: Open Court.

Sumner, J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008). The moral construct of caring in nursing as communicative action: The theory and practice of a caring science. Advances in Nursing Science, 31(4), E19-E36.

Thompson, J. B. (1981). Critical hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104 []). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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