Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dog walking and the limits of book learning.

Bear with me on this one.

I've been reading a famous essay by the late Michael Oakeshott called "Rationalism in Politics"---reading may be too strong a verb, as working through may be more accurate. I have absorbed this much: that Rationalism is different from Logic, although both spring from the well of Reason (Man's capacity for deduction and inference). Rationalism produces what Oakeshott calls technique, the insidious notion that by reducing human experience to a technological experience is it easily taught and absorbed by intelligent people. In other words, that you can learn anything from a properly crafted book of instructions.

Oakeshott takes great pains in disabusing us of that idea, but I knew all about it in grammar school. I was going to a birthday party in a bowling alley and had never bowled before, so I got a book out of the school library about bowling and read it. I couldn't wait to demonstrate my skill. Got down there and threw balls straight into the gutter all day. (There were no gutter bumpers for kiddies back then.)

We think of technique as the mass of little skills an individual develops at a task, but Oakeshott used the word in almost the opposite sense---of the most basic requirements to performance. All woodcarvers had to know X to carve wood competently; X is the technique. Y is everything the woodcarver really needs to know to do a decent job. It is the sum of knowledge in the field, developed from experience and tradition, and is essentially unteachable in books.

Like how to not throw the ball into the gutter when you're seven years old and you've never held a bowling ball before. I still know the technique of throwing a hook, a curve, a straight ball, but they seldom go where I expect them to.

Knowledge is complicated, and anyone who says he can reduce all you need to know to an easy-to-learn system is a liar. That's why we have a learning curve -- and why it is so steep, it sometimes feels like a perpendicular wall.

Take dog walking. Logic might say that walking three dogs is three times as difficult as walking one dog. But experience teaches that it depends on a million things. These guys in the picture were all older dogs, well trained, good disposition, familiar with the terrain, and were led by a lady who knew what she was doing.


Whereas my puppy is bigger than all three of them combined and would have been fighting every inch so he could sniff every bit of the street. He has a great disposition but he's crazy for fun and forgets what he's learned when he gets excited. When it comes to dogs, I have been a fly on the windshield of my learning curve.

Oakeshott's upshot in "Rationalism in Politics" is that we're being led by people who think they can read a book and govern a great nation, generally beginning with the idea that everything that has gone before must be cleared away so a great new era of grand new ideas may begin. How's that working out for ya?

Interestingly, Oakeshott died in 1990, a year before the first of the long-running "For Dummies" series of books was published. I wonder if he knew they were coming, and that's what killed him? I wonder if a bunch of our elites in D.C and its environs have copies of Governing for Dummies shoved under their mattresses?
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