The analytical virtue and a knowledge problem

For some time now I have been trying to articulate a certain problem I have with the much celebrated ‘analytical’ bent of mind. There are two reasons why this has been difficult. The first is that like all other people I find the capacity to analyse very useful and its hard to pick holes in a quality you admire. The second is that I have personally been very miffed about the whole ‘analytical ‘ thing and I was waiting for the feeling to blow over before I wrote something utterly biased.

I’m very often told that the analytical approach is more efficient, verifiable, empirical and so on. To my mind while all of this is rather awesome, it misses out on the patterns. A perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, the insights that two completely unrelated questions can provide for the third question, a realm that is neither purely logical nor purely abstract. This kind of thing cannot be understood by the reductionist approach. Things like these are not issues are problems that need solving, but need creative resolution, they are not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analysed distinctly but a pattern a form that must be studied in its entirety to grasp its full implication.

Some of what I’m saying is exactly what the existential movement was about. In Jean Paul Sartre‘s words– “existence precedes essence”. The element’s existence does not precede the whole structure, the implication of the part argument or the part fact is therefore incomplete without the context, the history and so on. The parts of an issue do not determine (to my mind) the pattern; in fact it is the other way around. It is the pattern that determines the parts.

It is only because we know of an issue that we know that a particular set of statistics when analysed might add up to something important. Without the pattern of laws, culture, context you could look at a set of numbers for years and think you know everything about it and still be no better off from when you started looking. The only thing that matters then is the ability to link pieces of information with other pieces, in isolation a statistic is a number and means nothing. It is an unasked question and a thoroughly opaque challenge.

So when someone says that “X piece of research tells us that the kind of punishment for an offence doesn’t matter as much as the pace of conviction” I’ll say ok, fine. Perhaps so. But what is the bar of satisfaction that we’re discussing? What about other variables and what about those variables that we can’t really put a number to?

When faced with an overly complex problems, analytical techniques are of little practical value to us– because quantifying the interactions between thousands of elements is difficult. Whether you choose a different approach, depends upon the trade-off between the difficulty of reduction and the importance of progress being made on that problem no matter what kind it is!

The biggest practical difference between the way I think and the way of an analytical mind is often only that the analyst chooses another problem where the variables are relatively less. Often this is because there is a better chance of success this way. When you decide to analyse a comprehensive issues on multiple levels of feeling– intuition and sensitivity becomes a more powerful tool.

The point is that there is no necessity to judge the sort of approach for every case. Neither is there a need to always say that alternative types of knowledge are worthless. This is true despite the importance of the problem– it is never worth abandoning a problem because of the type of knowledge that is likely to be gained about it is likely to be insufficient. One of the worst outcomes of this sort of thing– is to try and desperately fit the results of one approach into another. It is almost as if we cannot respect an undifferentiated approach.

So what I am then objecting to is the idea that the analytical approach is ‘supreme’ or that the ‘abstract’ approach is supreme in isolation. To hold to the extreme analytical position in a practical sense, one must claim that no problem is more important than any other to be worth swapping the analytic knowledge with other types of knowledge.

This is ridiculous for several reasons :

1. All problems are practically analysable and fungible – this would amount to denying any practical limitations upon ourselves at all;

2. There is always an infinite supply of equally important problems – denying any real difference in the importance of problems, regardless of circumstance;

3. That alternative forms of knowledge are always effectively worthless – presumably including the analytical thesis itself!

To hold to the extreme abstract position in a practical sense, one would have to claim that either there is no advantage to analytical knowledge when compared to another type in any circumstances or that a problem is so important that it is not appropriate for anyone to research any other problem.

both of these positions are extreme. I know of no one (aside of maybe one person) that holds them in these extreme forms. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. We accept that there are some worthwhile problems where the analytical approach works well and we also accept that there are problem ‘domains’ where the chances of an analytical technique working are so remote and the problem so important that we would value other forms of knowledge about it.

This does not mean that we will all have the same priorities in particular cases, just that these decisions are essentially pragmatic ones differing in degree only. Once attention switches from the abstract question of whether in principle all problems are resolvable by a reductionist approach we can start to consider the rich set of possible strategies for finding ways to deal with issues. This just might pay ‘rich dividends’ as an analytical man might say!

One thought on “The analytical virtue and a knowledge problem

  1. “It is the pattern that determines the parts.”

    Hmmm…I can see the moon!

    Could you elaborate on other “rich set of possible strategies for finding ways to deal with issues”?

    Great post! Makes very valid points.


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