Archive for the ‘Socratic midwifery’ Category

Creatively Expressing How Love Matters for Justice: Setting the Stage and Tuning the Instruments

April 16, 2014

Nussbaum (2013) argues about the political importance of connecting with our bodies without shame and disgust, and of the relevance musical and poetic public expressions of varieties of love offer to conceptions of justice. Institutions embodying principles of loving justice require media integrating emotional expression with technical calculation, in exactly the same way music does. Being able to dance at the revolution demands instruments tuned to shared scales, no matter if equal temperament, just intonation, meantone tuning, or any of a variety of other well, or irregular, temperaments are chosen.

The physicality of dancing, so often evoking romance and courtship, provides a point of entry to a metaphoric logic of reproduction applicable to the Socratic midwifery of ideas and to the products of social intercourse. Tuning the instruments of the human, social, and environmental arts and sciences to harmonize and choreograph relationships may then enable formulation of nonreductionist approaches to the problem of how to reconcile political emotions with physical or geometrical accounts of the scales of justice.

Historical accounts of (musical, medical, electrical, etc.) metrological standards describe ways in which passionate concern for shared vulnerabilities and common joys have sometimes succeeded in deploying systems realizing higher forms of just relations (Alder, 2002; Berg and Timmermans, 2000;  Isacoff, 2001; Schaffer, 1992). The question of the day is whether we will succeed in creating yet new forms of such relations in the many areas of life where they are needed.

Yes, as Nussbaum (2013, p. 396) admits, the demand for love is a tall order, and unrealistic. But all heuristic fictions, from Pythagorean triangles to the mathematical pendulum, are unrealistic and are never actually observed in practice, as has been pointed out by a number of historians and philosophers (Butterfield 1957, pp. 16-17; Heidegger, 1967, p. 89; Rasch, 1960, pp. 37-38, 1973/2011). These fictions are, however, eminently useful as guides, goals, and as coherent ways of telling our stories, and that is the criterion by which they should be judged.


Alder, K. (2002). The measure of all things: The seven-year odyssey and hidden error that transformed the world. New York: The Free Press.

Berg, M., & Timmermans, S. (2000). Order and their others: On the constitution of universalities in medical work. Configurations, 8(1), 31-61.

Butterfield, H. (1957). The origins of modern science (revised edition). New York: The Free Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Isacoff, S. M. (2001). Temperament: The idea that solved music’s greatest riddle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Nussbaum, M. (2013). Political emotions: Why love matters for justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.)

Rasch, G. (1973/2011, Spring). All statistical models are wrong! Comments on a paper presented by Per Martin-Löf, at the Conference on Foundational Questions in Statistical Inference, Aarhus, Denmark, May 7-12, 1973. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 24(4), 1309 [].

Schaffer, S. (1992). Late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation: A manufactory of Ohms. In R. Bud & S. E. Cozzens (Eds.), Invisible connections: Instruments, institutions, and science (pp. 23-56). Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press.

Common Languages and Shared Vulnerability

March 27, 2014

A recent partner in conversation insisted that sometimes it just is not possible to arrive at a common language, and that it would never be possible for her to agree with those who hold out for that possibility. In the same conversation, we heard from another participant about the work of peace building in areas of the world that have suffered brutal crimes inflicted by neighbors on neighbors. The realization that there are people overcoming and learning to live with the most horrible pain considerably tempered our exchange.

I think we came to see that it is one thing to agree to disagree about something inconsequential, or even about something that leads to very different opportunities and challenges. But mutual understanding hinges on a shared language. To give up on it is to give up on the possibility of fully inclusive community. It is to give up hope for a future in which healing can happen, in which there are no permanent divisions.

Keeping the conversation going, keeping the dialogue open, changing the rules as we go along to keep the game in play: if there are any principles that should never be compromised, these are among my candidates. Our shared human vulnerability is incontrovertibly at issue most pointedly precisely at the moment when one says we will never agree on the possibility of a common language. This is exactly the time and the place when it starts to be OK to begin a process of delegitimizing and dehumanizing someone else. When there is no hope of a common language, the first step toward rationalizing ignorance, prejudice, misunderstanding, demonization, and scapegoating has been taken.

A shared language is not a prison or a smothering demand for conformity. For one thing, the refusal to hold out for the possibility of a common language is already stated in a common language. Saying “we will never agree” is an instance of what Ricoeur (1967/1974) calls the “violence of the premature conclusion.” The internal contradiction of using a common language to say that we cannot hope for one is the mirror image of the person who argues for violence. Arguing is already a step into a language others can understand, implying a choice in favor of meaning over violence. The fundamental ethical and philosophical human choice takes place right here, in the desire for meaning and, as Habermas (1995, p. 199) puts it, in considerateness for a shared vulnerability. Accordingly, Ricoeur (1967/1974, p. 88) asserts,

The importance of this subject derives from the fact that the confrontation of violence with language underlies all of the problems which we can pose concerning man. This is precisely what overwhelms us. Their encounter occupies such a vast field because violence and language each occupy the totality of the human field.

The process of working out shared meanings in a common language is not a prison sentence, however. Including opportunities and concepts for critical engagement and deconstructive rethinking provide a way to prevent common languages from being overly confining. The Socratic midwife comforting the afflicted is complemented by the Socratic gadfly afflicting the comfortable (Bernasconi, 1989; Risser, 1989).

Heidegger (1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330; Fisher, 2010; Fisher and Stenner, 2011) accordingly describes the ontological (or phenomenological) method in terms of three moments: reduction, application, and deconstruction. Putting things in words is inherently reductive. There are infinities of ways of representing any experience in words, but even the most poetic among us has to choose the words that work to serve the purpose. And we may come to see on repeated application that our purposes are compromised by ambiguities that threaten to enact the violence of premature conclusions. Attentive concern for implicit meanings may lead to ways of discerning new distinctions and new conceptualizations, leading to new reductions and new applications. Languages are living and changing all the time. New sensitivities emerge and come into words by general consensus.

Ironically, being caught up in the desire for meaning can lead to the closing off of opportunities for creating meaningful relationships. Parsing differences into ever more local distinctions and separate historical and cultural dependencies can lead to a feeling that the barriers between positions are insurmountable. This way of arriving at premature conclusions has been especially prevalent among critical theorists who focused so exclusively on the deconstructive moment in the ontological method that they forgot that their writing inherently put a new reduction into play.

For instance, Delandshire and Petrosky (1994, p. 16) proclaimed that one of the ways their “post-structuralist view of knowledge is incompatible with the necessities of measurement is that interpretations are not assumed to be consistent or similar across time, contexts, or individuals.” The extremes in this display of hubris were called out by a number of observers. Bloom (1987, p. 387), for instance, held that deconstruction “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.”

In contrast with these opposite extremes, others have kept their critical perspective in close contact with philosophical principles. Gasche (1987, p. 5) offers a “determination of deconstruction” within which “the latter’s indebtedness to the basic operations and exigencies of philosophy comes clearly into view.” Similarly, throughout his career, Derrida (2003, pp. 62-63; also see Derrida, 1981, pp. 27-28, 34-36; 1982, p. 229; Caputo, 1997, p. 80; Kearney 1984, pp. 123-124) repeatedly took pains to explain that:

…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.

Derrida (1989b, p. 218) recognized that

As soon as you give up philosophy, or the word philosophy, what happens is not something new or beyond philosophy, what happens is that some old hidden philosophy under another name—for instance the name of literary theory or psychology or anthropology and so on—go on dominating the research in a dogmatic or implicit way. And when you want to make this implicit philosophy as clear and explicit as possible, you have to go on philosophizing…. That’s why I am true to philosophy.

To give up on philosophy is to give up on the desire for meaning, for the working out of a common language, to accept an inevitably premature conclusion as definitive and to choose violence as an acceptable means of working out differences. Spivak (1990, 1993) then speaks to the strategic pauses that must interrupt the critical process to allow new determinations to inform revitalized concepts and applications in dialogue.

Finally, moving forward from here to better understand what it means to measure distances relative to standards requires close consideration of mathematical issues of modeling and signification. These issues reside deeply in the motivating ideas of philosophy, as has been widely recognized over the course of the history of Continental philosophy, through the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, and others (Derrida, 1989a, pp. 27, 66; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010; Kisiel, 2002). Much more remains to be said and done in this area.


Bernasconi, R. (1989). Seeing double: Destruktion and deconstruction. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 233-250). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Caputo, J. D. (1997). A commentary. In J. D. Caputo (Ed.), Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida (pp. 31-202). New York: Fordham University Press.

Delandshere, G., & Petrosky, A. R. (1994). Capturing teachers’ knowledge. Educational Researcher, 23(5), 11-18.

Derrida, J. (1981). Positions (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1972 (Paris: Minuit)).

Derrida, J. (1982). Margins of philosophy. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1989a). Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An introduction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (1989b). On colleges and philosophy: An interview conducted by Geoffrey Bennington. In L. Appignanesi (Ed.), Postmodernism: ICA documents (pp. 209-28). London, England: Free Association Books.

Derrida, J. (2003). Interview on writing. In G. A. Olson & L. Worsham (Eds.), Critical intellectuals on writing (pp. 61-9). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a). The mathematical metaphysics of measurement and metrology: Towards meaningful quantification in the human sciences. In A. Morales (Ed.), Renascent pragmatism: Studies in law and social science (pp. 118-153). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Parts I & II. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004). 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. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011). Integrating qualitative and quantitative research approaches via the phenomenological method. International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches, 5(1), 89-103.

Gasché, R. (1987). Infrastructures and systemacity. In J. Sallis (Ed.), Deconstruction and philosophy: The texts of Jacques Derrida (pp. 3-20). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Kearney, R. (1984). Dialogues with contemporary Continental thinkers: The phenomenological heritage. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Kisiel, T. (2002). The mathematical and the hermeneutical: On Heidegger’s notion of the apriori. In A. Denker & M. Heinz (Eds.), Heidegger’s way of thought: Critical and interpretative signposts (pp. 187-199). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Violence et langage (J. Bien, Trans.). Recherches et Debats: La Violence, 59, 86-94. (Rpt. in D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Violence and language, in Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.)

Risser, J. (1989). The two faces of Socrates: Gadamer/Derrida. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 176-185). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Spivak, G. C. (1990). The post-colonial critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge.

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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The Moral Implications of the Concept of Human Capital: More on How to Create Living Capital Markets

March 22, 2011

The moral reprehensibility of the concept of human capital hinges on its use in rationalizing impersonal business decisions in the name of profits. Even when the viability of the organization is at stake, the discarding of people (referred to in some human resource departments as “taking out the trash”) entails degrees of psychological and economic injury no one should have to suffer, or inflict.

There certainly is a justified need for a general concept naming the productive capacity of labor. But labor is far more than a capacity for work. No one’s working life should be reduced to a job description. Labor involves a wide range of different combinations of skills, abilities, motivations, health, and trustworthiness. Human capital has then come to be broken down into a wide variety of forms, such as literacy capital, health capital, social capital, etc.

The metaphoric use of the word “capital” in the phrase “human capital” referring to stocks of available human resources rings hollow. The traditional concept of labor as a form of capital is an unjustified reduction of diverse capacities in itself. But the problem goes deeper. Intangible resources like labor are not represented and managed in the forms that make markets for tangible resources efficient. Transferable representations, like titles and deeds, give property a legal status as owned and an economic status as financially fungible. And in those legal and economic terms, tangible forms of capital give capitalism its hallmark signification as the lifeblood of the cycle of investment, profits, and reinvestment.

Intangible forms of capital, in contrast, are managed without the benefit of any standardized way of proving what is owned, what quantity or quality of it exists, and what it costs. Human, social, and natural forms of capital are therefore managed directly, by acting in an unmediated way on whomever or whatever embodies them. Such management requires, even in capitalist economies, the use of what are inherently socialistic methods, as these are the only methods available for dealing with the concrete individual people, communities, and ecologies involved (Fisher, 2002, 2011; drawing from Hayek, 1948, 1988; De Soto, 2000).

The assumption that transferable representations of intangible assets are inconceivable or inherently reductionist is, however, completely mistaken. All economic capital is ultimately brought to life (conceived, gestated, midwifed, and nurtured to maturity) as scientific capital. Scientific measurability is what makes it possible to add up the value of shares of stock across holdings, to divide something owned into shares, and to represent something in a court or a bank in a portable form (Latour, 1987; Fisher, 2002, 2011).

Only when you appreciate this distinction between dead and living capital, between capital represented on transferable instruments and capital that is not, then you can see that the real tragedy is not in the treatment of labor as capital. No, the real tragedy is in the way everyone is denied the full exercise of their rights over the skills, abilities, health, motivations, trustworthiness, and environmental resources that are rightly their own personal, private property.

Being homogenized at the population level into an interchangeable statistic is tragic enough. But when we leave the matter here, we fail to see and to grasp the meaning of the opportunities that are lost in that myopic world view. As I have been at pains in this blog to show, statistics are not measures. Statistical models of interactions between several variables at the group level are not the same thing as measurement models of interactions within a single variable at the individual level. When statistical models are used in place of measurement models, the result is inevitably numbers without a soul. When measurement models of individual response processes are used to produce meaningful estimates of how much of something someone possesses, a whole different world of possibilities opens up.

In the same way that the Pythagorean Theorem applies to any triangle, so, too, do the coordinates from the international geodetic survey make it possible to know everything that needs to be known about the location and disposition of a piece of real estate. Advanced measurement models in the psychosocial sciences are making it possible to arrive at similarly convenient and objective ways of representing the quality and quantity of intangible assets. Instead of being just one number among many others, real measures tell a story that situates each of us relative to everyone else in a meaningful way.

The practical meaning of the maxim “you manage what you measure” stems from those instances in which measures embody the fullness of the very thing that is the object of management interest. An engine’s fuel efficiency, or the volume of commodities produced, for instance, are things that can be managed less or more efficiently because there are measures of them that directly represent just what we want to control. Lean thinking enables the removal of resources that do not contribute to the production of the desired end result.

Many metrics, however, tend to obscure and distract from what need to be managed. The objects of measurement may seem to be obviously related to what needs to be managed, but dealing with each of them piecemeal results in inefficient and ineffective management. In these instances, instead of the characteristic cycle of investment, profit, and reinvestment, there seems only a bottomless pit absorbing ever more investment and never producing a profit. Why?

The economic dysfunctionality of intangible asset markets is intimately tied up with the moral dysfunctionality of those markets. Drawing an analogy from a recent analysis of political freedom (Shirky, 2010), economic freedom has to be accompanied by a market society economically literate enough, economically empowered enough, and interconnected enough to trade on the capital stocks issued. Western society, and increasingly the entire global society, is arguably economically literate and sufficiently interconnected to exercise economic freedom.

Economic empowerment is another matter entirely. There is no economic power without fungible capital, without ways of representing resources of all kinds, tangible and intangible, that transparently show what is available, how much of it there is, and what quality it is. A form of currency expressing the value of that capital is essential, but money is wildly insufficient to the task of determining the quality and quantity of the available capital stocks.

Today’s education, health care, human resource, and environmental quality markets are the diametric opposite of the markets in which investors, producers, and consumers are empowered. Only when dead human, social, and natural capital is brought to life in efficient markets (Fisher, 2011) will we empower ourselves with fuller degrees of creative control over our economic lives.

The crux of the economic empowerment issue is this: in the current context of inefficient intangibles markets, everyone is personally commodified. Everything that makes me valuable to an employer or investor or customer, my skills, motivations, health, and trustworthiness, is unjustifiably reduced to a homogenized unit of labor. And in the social and environmental quality markets, voting our shares is cumbersome, expensive, and often ineffective because of the immense amount of work that has to be done to defend each particular living manifestation of the value we want to protect.

Concentrated economic power is exercised in the mass markets of dead, socialized intangible assets in ways that we are taught to think of as impersonal and indifferent to each of us as individuals, but which is actually experienced by us as intensely personal.

So what is the difference between being treated personally as a commodity and being treated impersonally as a commodity? This is the same as asking what it would mean to be empowered economically with creative control over the stocks of human, social, and natural capital that are rightfully our private property. This difference is the difference between dead and living capital (Fisher, 2002, 2011).

Freedom of economic communication, realized in the trade of privately owned stocks of any form of capital, ought to be the highest priority in the way we think about the infrastructure of a sustainable and socially responsible economy. For maximum efficiency, that freedom requires a common meaningful and rigorous quantitative language enabling determinations of what exactly is for sale, and its quality, quantity, and unit price. As I have ad nauseum repeated in this blog, measurement based in scientifically calibrated instrumentation traceable to consensus standards is absolutely essential to meeting this need.

Coming in at a very close second to the highest priority is securing the ability to trade. A strong market society, where people can exercise the right to control their own private property—their personal stocks of human, social, and natural capital—in highly efficient markets, is more important than policies, regulations, and five-year plans dictating how masses of supposedly homogenous labor, social, and environmental commodities are priced and managed.

So instead of reacting to the downside of the business cycle with a socialistic safety net, how might a capitalistic one prove more humane, moral, and economically profitable? Instead of guaranteeing a limited amount of unemployment insurance funded through taxes, what we should have are requirements for minimum investments in social capital. Instead of employment in the usual sense of the term, with its implications of hiring and firing, we should have an open market for fungible human capital, in which everyone can track the price of their stock, attract and make new investments, take profits and income, upgrade the quality and/or quantity of their stock, etc.

In this context, instead of receiving unemployment compensation, workers not currently engaged in remunerated use of their skills would cash in some of their accumulated stock of social capital. The cost of social capital would go up in periods of high demand, as during the recent economic downturns caused by betrayals of trust and commitment (which are, in effect, involuntary expenditures of social capital). Conversely, the cost of human capital would also fluctuate with supply and demand, with the profits (currently referred to as wages) turned by individual workers rising and falling with the price of their stocks. These ups and downs, being absorbed by everyone in proportion to their investments, would reduce the distorted proportions we see today in the shares of the rewards and punishments allotted.

Though no one would have a guaranteed wage, everyone would have the opportunity to manage their capital to the fullest, by upgrading it, keeping it current, and selling it to the highest bidder. Ebbing and flowing tides would more truly lift and drop all boats together, with the drops backed up with the social capital markets’ tangible reassurance that we are all in this together. This kind of a social capitalism transforms the supposedly impersonal but actually highly personal indifference of flows in human capital into a more fully impersonal indifference in which individuals have the potential to maximize the realization of their personal goals.

What we need is to create a visible alternative to the bankrupt economic system in a kind of reverse shock doctrine. Eleanor Roosevelt often said that the thing we are most afraid of is the thing we most need to confront if we are to grow. The more we struggle against what we fear, the further we are carried away from what we want. Only when we relax into the binding constraints do we find them loosened. Only when we channel overwhelming force against itself or in a productive direction can we withstand attack. When we find the courage to go where the wild things are and look the monsters in the eye will we have the opportunity to see if their fearful aspect is transformed to playfulness. What is left is often a more mundane set of challenges, the residuals of a developmental transition to a new level of hierarchical complexity.

And this is the case with the moral implications of the concept of human capital. Treating individuals as fungible commodities is a way that some use to protect themselves from feeling like monsters and from being discarded as well. Those who find themselves removed from the satisfactions of working life can blame the shortsightedness of their former colleagues, or the ugliness of the unfeeling system. But neither defensive nor offensive rationalizations do anything to address the actual problem, and the problem has nothing to do with the morality or the immorality of the concept of human capital.

The problem is the problem. That is, the way we approach and define the problem delimits the sphere of the creative options we have for solving it. As Henry Ford is supposed to have said, whether you think you can or you think you cannot, you’re probably right. It is up to us to decide whether we can create an economic system that justifies its reductions and actually lives up to its billing as impersonal and unbiased, or if we cannot. Either way, we’ll have to accept and live with the consequences.


DeSoto, H. (2000). The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011, Spring). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), in press.

Hayek, F. A. (1948). Individualism and economic order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1988). The fatal conceit: The errors of socialism (W. W. Bartley, III, Ed.) The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shirky, C. (2010, December 20). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, 90(1),

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The Birds and the Bees of Living Meaning

November 22, 2010


How the New Renaissance Will be Conceived in and Midwifed from the Womb of Nature

Sex, Reproduction, and the Consumer Culture

Human sexuality is, of course, more than the sum of its biological parts. Many parents joke that human reproduction would halt and the species would go extinct were it not for the intense pleasure of sexual experience. Many social critics, for their part, have turned a jaded eye on the rampant use of sexual imagery in the consumer culture. The association of sexual prowess with anything from toothpaste to automobiles plays up an empty metaphor of immediate gratification that connotes shortchanged consumers, unfairly boosted profits, and no redeeming long term value.

We would, of course, be mistaken to make too much of a connection between the parents’ joke and the critics’ social commentary. A bit of humor can help release tension when the work of child rearing and homemaking becomes stressful, and it is unlikely that trade would come to a halt if hot dates were banned from TV commercials. Commerce, in the broad sense of the term, is an end in itself.

But perhaps there is more of a connection than is evident at first blush. Advertising is an extremely compressed form of communication. It competes with many other stimuli for fleeting seconds of attention and so has to get its message across quickly. What better, simpler, more genetically programmed message could there be than the promise of attracting a desirable mate?

This hint is the tip of the tip of an iceberg. The larger question is one that asks how the role of desire and its satisfaction in the procreation of the species might serve as a model for economic activity. Might sexual satisfaction and the resulting reproductive success be taken as a natural model for profit and the resulting economic success?

Though this model has been assumed or described to various extents in the domains of ecological, behavioral, and heterodox economics, what we might call its molecular genetics have not yet been described. At this level, the model functions as a positive-sum game, and not as the zero-sum game so often assumed in economics. Properly conceived and experienced, neither sexuality nor profit give one-sided results, with someone necessarily winning and someone else necessarily losing. Rather, in the optimal circumstances we presumably want to foster, both parties to the exchanges must get what they want and contribute to the overall product of the exchange.

In this scenario, profit has to be further defined as not mere gratification and conquest, but as long term reproductive viability and sustainability. The intensity of sexual desire and satisfaction would likely not have evolved without stakes as high as the continuity of the species. And, indeed, researchers are finding strong positive relationships between firms’ long term profitability and their relations with labor, their communities, and the natural environment. Broadly conceived, for commerce to continue, social intercourse can and ultimately must result in viable offspring situated in a supportive environment.

Living vs Dead Capital

All of this suggests that we might be onto something. But for the metaphor to work, we need to take it further. We find what we need in the language of ecological economics and natural capital, and in the distinction between economically alive and economically dead capital.

The ancient root metaphor hidden in the word “capital” derives from the Latin capitus, head. Some might locate scientific or intellectual capital in a calculating center, like the brain, but others might bring out a sense of capital as part of the natural order. The concept of capital likely emerged in early agricultural economies from a focus on head of livestock: cattle, sheep, horses, etc. We might also conjecture about an even earlier prehistorical sense of capital as naturally embodied in the herds of antelope, deer, elk, or bison that migratory hunters pursued. In both cases, given grazing and water resources supplied by nature, herds replenished themselves with the passing of the seasons, giving birth to new life of their own accord.

There is a sense then in which plant and animal life profits enough from naturally available resources to sustain itself. Though the occurrence of population booms and busts still parallels economic cycles, hunters, fishers, and farmers can be imagined as profiting from managing naturally self-restoring resources within the constraints of a sustainable ecology.

Living capital and the sustenance of ongoing ecologically sound profitability are not restricted, however, to forms of capital stock that walk, crawl, swim, or fly. De Soto (2000) makes a distinction between dead and living capital that explains why capitalism thrives in some countries, but has not yet in others. De Soto points out that the difference between successful and failing capitalist countries lies in the status of what he calls transferable representations within networks of legal and financial institutions. Transferable representations are nothing but the legally recognized and financially fungible titles and deeds that make it possible for the wealth locked up in land, buildings, and equipment to be made exchangeable for other forms of wealth. Titles, deeds, and the infrastructure they function within are, then, what comprise the difference between dead and living capital.

In North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, property can be divided into shares and sold, or accumulated across properties into an expression of total wealth and leveraged as collateral for further investment, all with no need to modify the property itself in any way. De Soto’s point is that this is often not so in the Third World and former communist countries, where it commonly takes more than 10 years of full time work to obtain legal title, and then similar degrees of effort to maintain it. The process requires so much labor that few have the endurance or resources to complete it. They then must deny themselves the benefits of having an address, and cannot receive mail, electrical service, or take out a mortgage. The economy is then encumbered by the dead weight of the inefficiencies and frictions of frozen capital markets.

In the same way that the mass migration of settlers to the American West forced the resolution of conflicting property claims in the nineteenth century via the Preemption Act, so, too, are the contemporary mass migrations of rural people to megacities around the globe forcing the creation of a new way of legitimating property ownership. DeSoto’s research shows that Third World and former communist countries harbor trillions of dollars of unleverageable dead capital. Individual countries have more wealth tied up as dead capital locked in their impoverished citizens’ homes than in their entire stock markets and GDPs.

So dead capital can be clearly and decisively distinguished from living capital. Living capital is represented by a title or deed legally sanctioned by society as a generally accepted demonstration of ownership. Capital is dead, or, better, not yet brought to life, when its general value (any value it may have beyond its utilitarian function) cannot be represented so as to be leveragable or transferable across time, space, applications, enterprises, etc.

An essential point is this: Human, social, and natural forms of capital are dead in the same way that Third World property is dead capital. We lack a means of representing the value of these forms of capital that is transferable across individuals and contexts. The sense of scientific capital as mobile, additive, and divisible, and as deployed via networks of metrological (measurement science) laboratories, is especially helpful here, as it provides a root definition of what capital is. The geometry of the geodetic survey information incorporated into titles and deeds provides a fundamental insight into capitalism and living capital. But an even better understanding can be found by looking more deeply into the metaphor equating sexual and economic success.

The Birds and the Bees

We all learn as children where babies come from. Spontaneous questions from curious kids can be simultaneously intimidating and hilarious. Discovering that we each came into existence at a certain point in time raises many questions. Children are usually interested, however, in a short answer to a specific question. They go about their processes of creating meaningful stories about the world slowly, bit by bit. Contrary to many parents’ fears, children are less interested in the big picture than they are in knowing something immediately relevant.

Today we are engaged in a similar process that involves both self-discovery and its extension into a model of the world. In the last 100 years, we have endured one crisis of alienation, war, and terrorism after another. So many different stresses are pulling life in so many different directions that it has become difficult to fit our lives into meaningful stories about the world. Anxiety about our roles and places relative to one another has led many of us to be either increasingly lax or increasingly rigid about where we stand. Being simultaneously intelligent and compassionate is more difficult than ever.

But perhaps we know more than we are aware of. Perhaps it would help for us to consider more closely where we as a people, with our modern, global culture, come from. Where did the ideas that shape our world come from? Where do new ideas in general come from? What happens when an idea comes alive with meaning and spreads with such rapidity that it seems to spring forth fully formed in many widely distant places? How does a meme become viral and spread like an epidemic? Questions like these have often been raised in recent years. It seems to me, though, that explorations of them to date have not focused as closely as they could have on what is most important.

For when we understand the reproductive biology of living meaning, and when we see how different species of conceptual life interrelate in larger ecologies, then we will be in the position we need to be in to newly harmonize nature and culture, male and female, black and white, capitalism and socialism, north and south, and east and west.

What is most important about knowing where modern life comes from? What is most important is often that which is most obvious, and the most taken for granted. Given the question, it is interesting that rich metaphors of biological reproduction are everywhere in our thinking about ideas and meaning. Ideas are conceived, for instance, and verbs are conjugated.

These metaphors are not just poetic, emotionally soothing, or apt in a locally specific way. Rather, they hold within themselves some very practical systematic consequences for the stories we tell about ourselves, others, our communities, and our world. That is to say, if we think clearly enough about where ideas come from, we may learn something important about how to create and tell better stories about ourselves, and we may improve the quality of our lives in the process.

So what better place to start than with one of the oldest and most often repeated stories about the first bite from the apple of knowledge? The Western cultural imagery associated with erotic sexuality and knowledgeable experience goes back at least to Eve, the apple, the Tree of Knowledge, and the serpent, in the Garden of Eden. This imagery is complemented by the self-described role of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, as a midwife of ideas. Students still give apples to their teachers as symbols of knowledge, and a popular line of computers originally targeting the education market is named for the fruit of knowledge. The Socratic method is still taught, and charges teachers with helping students to give birth to fully formed ideas able take on lives of their own.

Socrates went further and said that we are enthralled with meaning in the same way a lover is captivated by the beloved. By definition, attention focuses on what is meaningful, as we ignore 99.99% of incoming sensory data. Recognition, by definition, is re-cognition, a seeing-again of something already known, usually something that has a name. Things that don’t have names are very difficult to see, so things come into language in special ways, via science or poetry. And the names of things focus our attention in very specific ways. Just as “weed” becomes a generic name for unwanted wild plants that might have very desirable properties, so, too, does “man” as a generic name for humans restrict thinking about people to males. The words we use very subtly condition our perceptions and behaviors, since, as Socrates put it, we are captivated by them.

The vital importance of sexuality to the reproductive potential of the species is evident in the extent to which it has subliminally been incorporated into the syntax, semantics, and grammar of language. Metaphoric images of procreation and reproduction so thoroughly permeate culture and language that the verb “to be” is referred to as the copula. New ideas brought into being via a copulative relation of subject and object accordingly are said to have been conceived, and are called concepts. One is said to be pregnant with an idea, or to have the seed or germ of an idea. Questions are probing, penetrating, or seminal. Productive minds are fertile or receptive. The back-and-forth give-and-take of conversation is referred to as social intercourse, and intercourse is the second definition in the dictionary for commerce. Dramatic expositions of events are said to climax, or to result in an anti-climax. Ideas and the narrative recounting of them are often called alluring, captivating, enchanting, spellbinding, or mesmerizing, and so it is that one can in fact be in love with an idea.

Philosophers, feminists, and social theorists have gone to great lengths in exploring the erotic in knowing, and vice versa. Luce Irigaray’s meditations on the fecund and Alfred Schutz’s reflections on our common birth from women both resonate with Paul Ricoeur’s examination of the choice between discourse and violence, which hinges on caring enough to try to create shared meaning. In all of these, we begin from love. Such a hopeful focus on nurturing new life stands in the starkest contrast with the existentialist elevation of death as our shared end.

Cultural inhibitions concerning sexuality can be interpreted as regulating it for the greater good. But Western moral proscriptions typically take a form in which sexuality is regarded as a kind of animal nature that must be subjugated in favor of a higher cultural or spiritual nature. In this world view, just as the natural environment is to be dominated and controlled via science and industry, sexual impulses are controlled, with the feminine relegated to a secondary and dangerous status.

Though promiscuity continues to have destructive effects on society and personal relationships, significant strides have been taken toward making sexual relations better balanced, with sex itself considered an essential part of health and well-being. Puritanical attitudes reject sexual expression and refuse to experience fully this most ecstatic way in which we exist, naturally. But accepting our nature, especially that part of it through which we ensure the continuity of the species, is essential to reintegrating nature and culture.

Finding that sexuality permeates every relationship and all communication is a part of that process. The continuity of the species is no longer restricted to concern with biological reproduction. We must learn to apply what we know from generations of experience with sexual, family, and social relationships in new ways, at new levels of complexity. In the same way that lovemaking is an unhurried letting-be that lingers in caring caresses mutually defining each lover to the other, so must we learn to see analogous, though less intense, ways of being together in every form of communion characteristic of communication and community. Love does indeed make the world go round.

Commerce and Science

There are many encouraging signs suggesting that new possibilities may yet be born of old, even ancient, ideas and philosophies. Many have observed over the last several decades that a new age is upon us, that the modern world’s metaphor of a clockwork universe is giving way to something less deterministic and warmer, less alien and more homey. In many respects, what the paradigm shift comes down to is a recognition that the universe is not an inanimate machine but an intelligent living system. Cold, hard, facts are being replaced with warm, resilient ones that are no less objective in the way they assert themselves as independent entities in the world.

In tune with this shift, increasing numbers of businesses and governments are realizing that long term profitability depends on good relationships with an educated and healthy workforce in a stable sociopolitical context, and with respect to the irreplacable environmental services provided by forests, watersheds, estuaries, fisheries, and ecological biodiversity. As Senge (in de Geus, 1997, p. xi) points out,

In Swedish, the oldest term for ‘business’ is narings liv, literally ‘nourishment for life.’ The ancient Chinese characters for ‘business,’ [are] at least 3,000 years old. The first of these characters translates as ‘life’ or ‘live.’ It can also be translated as ‘survive’ and ‘birth.’ The second translates as ‘meaning.’

Ready counterparts for these themes are deeply rooted in the English language. Without being aware of it, without having made any scholarly inquiry into Socrates’ maieutic arts, virtually every one of us already knows everything we need to know about the birth of living meaning. In any everyday assertion that something is such and so, in linking any subject with a predicate, we re-enact a metaphor of reproductive success in the creation of new meaning.

And here, at the very center of language and communication, the reproduction of meaning in conversation requires a copulative act, a conjugal relation, a coupling of subjects and objects via predicates. The back and forth movement of social intercourse is the deep structure that justifies and brings out its full discursive meaning as a pleasurable and productive process that involves probing, seminal questions; conceiving, being pregnant with, and Socratically midwifing ideas; dramatic climaxes; and a state of enchantment, hypnosis, or rapture that focuses attention and provokes passionate engagement.

When has an idea been successfully midwifed and come to life? We know an idea has come to life when we can restate it in our own words and obtain the same result. We know an idea has come to life when we can communicate it to someone else and they too can apply it in their own terms in new situations.

In his book on resolving the mystery of capital, De Soto points out that living capital can be acted on in banks and courts because it is represented abstractly in instruments like titles and deeds. Dead capital, in contrast, for which legal title does not exist, cannot be used as the basis for a mortgage or a small business loan, nor can one claim a right to the property in court.

Similarly, electrical appliances and machinery are living capital because they work the same way everywhere they can be connected to a standardized power grid by trained operators who have access to the right tool sets. Before the advent of widely shared standards, however, something as simple as different sized hoses and connections on hydrants allowed minor disasters to become catastrophes when fire trucks from different districts responding to an alarm were unable to put their available tools to use.

The distinction between dead and living capital is ultimately scientific, metrological, and mathematical. In ancient Greece, geometrical and arithmetical conversations were the first to be referred to as mathematical because they regularly arrive at the same conclusions no matter who the teacher and student are, and no matter which particular graphical or numerical figures are involved. That is, living meaning is objective; it stays the same, within a range of error, independent of the circumstances in which it is produced.

We can illustrate the conception, gestation, and birth of meaning in terms that lead directly to powerful methods of measurement using tests, assessments, and surveys. In yet another instance of linguistic biomimicry, the mathematical word “matrix” is derived from the ancient Greek word for womb. The matrix of observations recorded from the interaction of questions and answers is the fertile womb in which new ideals are conceived and gestated, and from which they are midwifed.

How? The monotony of the repeated questions and answers in the dialogue reveals the inner logic of the way the subject matter develops. By constantly connecting and reconnecting with the partner in dialogue, Socrates ensures that they stay together, attending to the same object. The reiterated yesses allow the object of the conversation to play itself out through what is said.

Conversational objects can exhibit strongly, and even strikingly, constant patterns of responses across different sets of similar questions posed at different times and places to different people by different interviewers, teachers, or surveyers. We create an increased likelihood of conceiving and birthing living meaning when questions are written in a way that enables them all to attend to the same thing, when they are asked of people also able to attend to that conversational object, and when we score the responses consistently as indicating right or wrong, agree or disagree, frequent or rare, etc.

When test, assessment, and survey instruments are properly designed, they bring meaning to life. They do so by making it possible to arrive at the same measure (the same numeric value, within a small range) for a given amount (of literacy, numeracy, health, motivation, innovation, trustworthiness, etc.) no matter who possesses it and no matter which particular collection of items or instrument is used to measure it. For numbers to be meaningful, they have to represent something that stays the same across particular expressions of the thing measured, and across particular persons measured.

We typically think of comparability in survey or testing research as requiring all respondents or examinees to answer the same questions, but this has not been true in actual measurement practice for decades. The power grid, electrical outlets, and appliances are all constructed so as to work together seamlessly across the vast majority of variations in who is using them, when and where they are used, what they are used for, and why they are used. In parallel fashion, educators are increasingly working to ensure that books, reading tests, and instructional curricula also work together no matter who publishes or administers them, or who reads them or who is measured by them.

The advantages of living literacy capital, for instance, go far beyond what can be accomplished with dead literacy capital. When each teacher matches books to readers using her or his personal knowledge, opportunities for uncontrolled variation emerge, and many opportunities for teachers to learn from each other are closed off. When each teacher’s tests are scored in terms of test-dependent counts of correct answers, knowing where any given child stands relative to the educational objectives is made unnecessarily difficult.

In contrast with these dead capital metrics, living literacy capital, such as is made available by the Lexile Framework for Reading and Writing (, facilitates systematic comparisons of reading abilities with text reading difficulties, relative to different rates of reading comprehension. Instruction can be individualized, which acknowledges and addresses the fact that any given elementary school classroom typically incorporates at least four different grade levels of reading ability.

Reading is thereby made more enjoyable, both for students who are bored by the easiness of the standard classroom text and for those who find it incomprehensible. Testing is transformed from a pure accountability exercise irrelevant to instruction into a means of determining what a child knows and what can optimally be taught next. Growth in reading can be plotted, not only within school years but across them. Students can move from one school to another, or from grade to grade, without losing track of where they stand on the continuum of reading ability, and without unnecessarily making teachers’ lives more difficult.

In the context of living literacy capital, publishers can better gauge the appropriateness of their books for the intended audiences. Teachers can begin the school year knowing where their students stand relative to the end-of-year proficiency standard, can track progress toward it as time passes, and can better ensure that standards are met. Parents can go online, with their children, to pick out books at appropriate reading levels for birthday and holiday gifts, and for summer reading.

Plainly, what we have achieved with living literacy capital is a capacity to act on the thing itself, literacy, in a manner that adheres to the Golden Rule, justly and fairly treating each reader the way any other reader would want to be treated. In this system of universally uniform and ubiquitously accessible metrics, we can act on literacy itself, instead of confusing it with the reading difficulty of any particular text, the reading ability of any particular student, or any interaction between them. In the same way that titles and deeds make it possible to represent owned property in banks and courts abstractly, so, too, does a properly conceived, calibrated, and distributed literacy metric enable every member of the species of literate humans to thrive in ecological niches requiring an ability to read as a survival skill.

The technical means by which literacy capital has been brought to life should be applied to all forms of human, social, and natural capital. Hospital, employment, community, governance, and environmental quality, and individual numeracy, health, functionality, motivation, etc. are all assessed using rating systems that largely have not yet been calibrated, much less brought together into frameworks of shared uniform metric standards. The body of research presenting instrument calibration studies is growing, but much remains to be done. All of the prior posts in this blog and all of my publications, from the most technical to the most philosophical, bear on the challenging problems we face in becoming stewards of living meaning.

The issues are all of a piece. We have to be the change we want to make happen. It won’t work if we mechanically separate what is organically whole. There’s nothing to do but to keep buzzing those beautiful flowers blooming in the fields, pollinating them and bringing back the bits of nourishment that feed the hive. In this way, this season’s fruit ripens, the seeds of new life take shape, and may yet be planted to grow in fertile fields.

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