The key to human understanding is abstraction

A commenter on one of my older – but relentlessly popular – technical posts about battleship design got a bit exercised the other week when I suggested a particular naval source book was ‘partisan’.

Outside Bag End on the Hobbiton Movie set.
Apropos of nothing much, probably, here’s a photo I took outside Bag End on the Hobbiton Movie set.

He was determined to assert his absolute view over what he supposed mine to be – finally informing me I was partisan because he dealt with facts, I dealt with opinion, and I was British, therefore biased in favour of British battleships: whereas he was American and therefore unbiased.

Fact? I’m not British. Did my critic check? Uh…no. But aside from this, the experience highlights the philosophical point that often what we suppose to be ‘facts’, themselves, are ‘opinion’, even if we intellectualise them into what we imagine to be empirically absolute.

I studied the issue post-grad under Peter Munz, one of the world’s recognised experts in such philosophy, himself a student of both Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein (he witnessed their famous ‘poker fight‘). Even primary material cannot be considered ‘fact’ without proper philosophical understanding. Why? Because bias, including when recording ‘fact’, or when receiving or reading empirical data – itself, inevitably, a product of the recording framework – is part of the human condition. Why? Humans, generally, are hard-wired to believe – and to get very angry when that belief is challenged.

The issue teaches us a lesson about historical technique. The book I’d cited – Battleship Bismarck, by Baron Reichard von Mullenheim-Rechberg (1910-2003) – was written by a participant decades after events. This, by definition, makes it emotionally partisan, quite apart from the limitations a single-viewpoint perspective creates. That’s because the participant-lens acts to frame the way this research is perceived, something compounded by time. That is true of all participant books.

In this case the key emotional theme was the sense of esprit de corps among the crew of the battleship and the context of long post-fact expression. And it emerges in his text, including his assertions of ‘moral’ certainty about how Bismarck sank. This is not empirical fact: it’s emotion.

That point about partisanship is not unique to participant stories. In the Second World War context it’s true of Winston Churchill’s The History of the Second World War, which presented itself as impartial but was actually written with full knowledge of how that ‘partisan’ mechanism works. Churchill was, after all, a historian. He knew exactly what he was doing when he (and the team he led) wrote that book – check out David Reynolds’ In Command of History.

So how does that work? The author creates an argument that draws the reader into an emotional position. The technique and mechanism can be subtle. It can be as insidious as a specific selection of data – which, inevitably, can be found to ‘prove’ any case.

If this sounds like novel-writing technique, that’s because it is. Non-fiction and fiction are close in that sense: in a novel, the same technique draws the reader into the story. The difference – that non-fiction has to be pivoted on verifiable data – doesn’t reduce the fact that both are an appeal to emotion – presenting an idea (non-fiction = narrative/argument, fiction = plot/character arc) that tells a story.

On my experience this concept is often not accepted at history enthusiast level, because of the Dunning-Kruger effect – you don’t know what you don’t know. Technically, it’s agnosnosic history.

For me the light went on when I studied post-grad under one of the top historical philosophers on the planet in the late twentieth century – here’s his obituary in The Guardian. And the more I’ve looked into the field, the more I’ve realised how entwined it is with emotion, concept, idea and what – in the philosophical sense – has been called reason.

The pragmatic lesson? We can’t transcend our limits – this is has been shown mathematically. Don’t hammer others with your point of view, as if it’s the only truth. This is one of the causes of much grief and evil in the world. Instead, accept that others have their own viewpoints – and that if all these things are discussed in the abstract, maybe some new idea nobody thought of might be discovered. Something to benefit all of humanity, serendipitously? And, if we can understand our conceptual limits, maybe we can better work within them?

It seems a long way from evangelistic naval hardware conviction to that idea, but to me the human experience of trying to discuss it highlights the point. Abstraction is a fundamental need that must intrude into everything. And yes, I am looking at writing a book about it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


2 thoughts on “The key to human understanding is abstraction

  1. You seem to attract people who want to prove they know better than you. Are they just trying to ‘make a name’ for themselves. It would seem so.
    Still, hopefully whoever it was reads your posts – you probably baffled the writer/critic.

    1. I think the problem is that I keep questioning stuff in abstract ways where others, I discover the hard way, instead see certainties and then use them to validate their sense of self-worth. They respond emotionally in ways that miss the point – and where their snark misses the target. I probably sound like Spock… 🙂

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