Cultivating Successful Paradigms: Typological v. Population Thinking

Today I read an article in Business Week titled Why China Doesn’t Have Its Own Steve Jobs. The second paragraph struck me:

Former vice-president of Google global and president of Google China Kai-fu Lee explained on his weibo that it was because Chinese education puts too much emphasis on reciting and memorizing stuff instead of fostering critical thinking.

As the article further mentions, China’s collectivist culture or “herd mentality” wouldn’t permit the kind of narcissistic egoism that characterizes Job’s genius, and I think that’s a darn shame.

Innovative entrepreneurialism/ executive leadership requires a degree of egoism– that is, fierce self-reliance, self-confidence, non-conformity/individualism and narcissism. These qualities allow individuals to take more risks, bet on themselves more often, think more creatively and retain more faith in their individual vision, especially in the face of adverse circumstance/ opinion. I doubt don’t these people can be difficult to deal with, but their vision is inspiring and contagious.

China needs to place more emphasis on creativity, novel thinking, and the individual value of a person, their ideas and experience. America could do a better job retaining their share in these areas as well– instead we’re busy standardizing students and their thinking like China, like somehow that’s the answer to our problems. It’s a matter of typological thinking v population thinking: one emphasizes Platonic-ideals and abstracted averages, the other emphasizes evolutionary-variation and unique individuals.

The difference between Typological thinking and Population Thinking goes back to the classic distinction between a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge: knowing by way of axiomatic definitions, and knowing by way of experiential intuitions. This distinction manifests as deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning, relations of ideas and matters of fact, analytic statements and synthetic statements, contingent and necessary propositions, quantitative and qualitative properties, and the like.

Typological thinking is deductive and categorical in nature. Its roots go back to Plato whose philosophy codified this form of thinking by maintaining that the physical world adheres to ideas or eidos. Characterized by ‘forms’ such as the Equal and the Good and other such values and virtues, Platonism holds that there are a limited number of fixed, unchangeable ideas that underlie observable variation. The gradation and discontinuities observed in nature were explained simply as gaps’ between natural ‘ideas’ (types). As a result, gradual evolution by variation was a logical impossibility for the typologist and evolution at all could only occur in steps, from one ‘form’ or type to another. Modernism of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries utilized the idealism of Platonic philosophy (Think Kant)

In contrast, Population thinking is inductive and qualificational in nature. Darwin posited this type of thinking when he introduced his theory of evolution. It maintains the uniqueness of everything in the organic world, that all animals or humans or plants possess qualities distinct to themselves alone, and that even individuals continue to change throughout the duration of their life. Each  organism possesses unique features that can be described only through inductive methods such as statistic reasoning to produce terms appropriate for the average. However, statistical terms are merely abstractions and not indicative of the individuals that actually compose reality.

Ultimately, the typologist is an idealist who hold that only type (eidos) is real and that variation is an illusion, while the populationist hold that type (average) is merely an abstraction and that only variation is real.

You may be asking yourself why this is important. One word: change. Life is characterized by change, and change is absolutely necessary for the variation that facilitates evolutionary adaptation. Typological thinking treats the world idealistically, giving everything a proper place and name. But this is not reflective of reality, or the observable world. It is only reflective of our symbolic mind where ideas can persist without variation (the concept of tree does not change in my mind).

We need to encourage variation, encourage change, novelty, and creativity if we have any desire to flourish and succeed. Simply adhering to prescribed notions of ideal states and ideas will guarantee eventual failure. And in my mind, believing we have it all figured out, that we’ve got the basics down and we’re doing it all right, is a dangerous form of hubris. Success– adaptive variation–requires valuing individuals, their ideas and experience, rather than some abstracted average dictated to us from above. Statistics and science are helpful, but not with regards to possibility. In this area they fail more often than not.

Also, typological thinking creates biases and stereotypes by prescribing labels and abstracted terms to everything. Population thinking is more open and tolerant because it is reflective and observant of all variation and experience, recognizing that there is always more than meets the mind. But this comes down to man’s propensity for control, his desire for the will to power and to dominate, which has pros and cons and is situationally contingent. Because typological thinking is assertive by nature, it is good for positing and leading and commanding, but it is poor for learning and observing and reflecting. William James said:

“There can be a tendency to label something in order to negate its impact. It is easier to brush off or control what is perceived as solid instead of fluid.”

Perhaps this is why man has the tendency to label everything at first glance instead of experiencing things as idiosyncratic and unique phenomena.

What typological thinking allows for is control. When we label and abstract and standardize we delude ourselves that we’re in control, that our ratiocinations are reflective of what is.  Now, it is true that this type of thinking is useful, but its shortcomings apply when forecasting into the future. This is because the physical world is in flux and ever changing. Formalized logic applied to matter is most useful within the time and context it originally created and diminishes in utility/ value as time progresses and change becomes more evident. Eventually the logical structure can no longer hold together as the premised facts of matter change so drastically they can no longer be said to be true.

(This may be a bit abstract so I’d suggest reading Axioms (pdf) as a nice little introductory piece, or if you are so inclined, check out Kant’s Prolegomena for any Future Metaphysics and Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

The point I want to make is that as a nation we need to relinquish the tendency to think typologically in favor of the more evolutionary population thinking. Specifically, we should do away with standardized methods of schooling that quantify instead of qualify: This means focusing on quality rather than quantity. We need to develop a system for encouraging quality teachers, not by necessarily measuring their efficiency or effectiveness. All that does is emphasis fulfilling whatever criteria we lay out. Same goes for students. I would argue that the quality of student and their thinking has declined significantly since the advent of standardized tests which resulted in teaching material and learning facts that are minimally necessary for passing or getting by.

We should value diversity. Diversity of methods, opinions, ideas, etc. Value individuals. What criteria would I require for delivering quality teachers and students? Output. Productivity. Activity. Experience. Something that indicates they are actively producing. This will indirectly indicate the aptitude and ability of the individual, as well as indicate their motivation and passions. I wouldn’t give grades, per say. I would let their work, their results, do the speaking.

However, there’s a hitch: cultivating leaders requires diversity, but their success dictates uniformity: its paradoxical.

Additional references:

Elliott Sober (1994). Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology . MIT Press: Bradford Book.^

Marjorie Grene (1990). Evolution, “Typology” and “Population Thinking” American Philosophical Quarterly27(3), 237-244.^

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