Cognitive tools and workpieces

Following H. Jarche’s hint, I obtained K. Egan‘s 1997 book “The Educated Mind. How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding”, and I was fascinated by the plausible explanation of countless aspects and details of intellectual development.

1. He focusses on some intellectual “tools” (drawing on Vygotsky) while explaining the individual’s acquiring of certain kinds of understanding, and follows the particular sequence in which they developed in evolution and cultural history (drawing on recapitulation theory). The kinds of understanding and the tools that developped them, are as follows:

  • Somatic understanding,
  • oral language -> mythic understanding,
  • literacy -> “romantic” understanding,
  • theoretic abstractions -> philosophical understanding,
  • and the extreme linguistic reflexiveness that yields irony -> ironic understanding.

In this “developmental scheme, the gains that come with each new set of intellectual tools are represented as entailing some loss of the understanding associated with the prior set.” Each kind of understanding is not simply replaced by the next, but coalesces with its predecessor.

“The educational trick is to maximize the gains while minimizing the losses.”

This is his idea for resolving the crisis caused by the imcompatible goals of (i) socializing, (ii) knowledge about what is real and true, and (iii) encouraging the development of individual potential.

2. The most interesting part for me was the transition from oral language, socialization, apprenticeship relationship, to literacy, reasoning, coded knowledge about reality.

For instance,

  • how this transition “has been posed simplistically as moving from the irrational to the rational, from concrete to abstract thinking, from prescholastic to disciplinary”.
  • Also, the patterns of the mythic stage, like
    • binary structuring,
    • fantasy as mediator between the oppositions,
    • unconscious abstract thinking,
    • metaphors;
  • the affordance of oral language to grasp causes and in a way predict and control the world.

Then,

  • the explanation of the “Greek miracle” (giving birth to democracy, logic, philosophy, history, drama, reflective introspection, and so on so suddenly) … as an implication of alphabetic literacy.
  • Also, the striving for reliable accounts of reality,
  • fascination for extremes, reasoning, all prior to the next stage focussing on generality and certainty.

3. I wonder how today’s new tools would extend this theory. Before analyzing the new tools, such as IT and New Media, it is perhaps useful to look at the workpieces or at the material to be treated with these new tools (in German, Werkzeug = tool, Werkstück = workpiece, Werkstoff = material). The stuff is not real-world objects, but knowledge and info about real objects. But unlike traditional literal knowledge codifications pressed into flat paper texts, the objects of IT techniques are more and more similar to real world objects:

  • due to the direct manipulation principle of modern GUIs, the info/knowledge snippets become “touchable”,
  • due to multimedial properties, they become visually comprehensible rather than just verbally perceivable, and often rearrangeable (#89) across the “visuospatial scratchpad” component of working memory;
  • due to the interactive possibilities of trial and error, “bricolage”, adaptive, approximative, probabilistic handling, they become observable and showable, much like the workpieces that the journeyman showed to his apprentice.

So, the new tools could be characterized as being more compatible to the oral world of real objects and apprenticeship? And the associated kind of understanding which will be fostered and developped by these new tools, could be more compatible to Egan’s somatic, mythic, and romantic kinds of understanding and would better allow the necessary coalescence with its predecessors ?

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