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4.7 "Re-reading" patterns of concepts

1. Conceptual patterns as a non-wasting asset

In many disciplines, as suggested by some of the above metaphors, work undertaken decades (or even years) in the past is no longer of any interest. This implies that work done today is in most cases a fairly rapidly wasting asset for society as a whole -- other than for historical purposes.

The difficulty with this perspective is that it neglects the challenge of educating each generation anew, and the problem of cultures and sectors of society without the resources to deliver the latest insights in a form in which they can be absorbed. As with many technologies, obsolete presentations continue to be used and to have their place. This can be seen in the distribution of out-dated textbooks in developing countries and in their use of "out-dated" traditional technologies. Some impoverished countries are obliged to operate on a basis of continuing repair of equipment, rather than its progressive replacement. The reality of society is that different generations of information and technology coexist, often quite fruitfully. Old technologies may be rediscovered as more appropriate than the new. Portions of new technologies may be recycled in strangely innovative ways -- as may be seen in the use of old automobile tyres in certain cultures.

There is therefore merit in considering conceptual patterns from the past as a non-wasting asset that may prove more appropriate under certain circumstances than the most recent. Whilst more sophisticated, the latter may be both less accessible and less robust in practice. The World Health Organization has been obliged to accept that traditional herbal remedies may be more appropriate than modern pharmaceutical products, especially when these cannot be effectively delivered to impoverished sectors of society. Folk wisdom may contain jewels of insight greater than those of the conceptual patterns by which modern educators seek to replace it.

2. Isomorphism and similarity between concept patterns

General systems theory has over several decades explored the extent to which the different systematic organizations of phenomena articulated by distinct disciplines contained features that were isomorphic with one another. For general systems the interest lay in the stronger forms of isomorphism, especially those which could be effectively described by mathematical equations. In this respect it overlapped preoccupations of cybernetics and operations research and, like them, has proved of limited value in response to the interdisciplinary crisis of the times.

Rather than searching for "strong" isomorphism between disciplines and seeking an expression for it in equations, it is possible to explore "weaker" forms of isomorphism between disciplines. This might be more appropriately defined in terms of the "similarity" between patterns of concepts. This approach leads to two questions:

    (a) how weak can such similarity become before it is of no value in linking the insights of one discipline with those of another ?

    (b) to what extent can a pattern explicit in one discipline be used to elicit a similar pattern in another, when the latter has not (yet) articulated its understanding in the domain of interest ?

3. Evaluating similarity

In approaching such questions, a distinction needs to be made between different perspectives:

    (a) Independence: For a discipline, such explorations may readily be perceived to be an infringement of its internal concerns (analogous to geopolitical sensitivity about national sovereignty). Any similarity is therefore of no relevance;

    (b) Integrity: On the other hand, for those endeavouring to advance knowledge within that discipline, some degree of "cross-fertilization" is valuable -- but not to the point of succumbing to the insights of some other discipline (analogous to the problems of cultural imperialism);

    (c) Utility: However, for those seeking clues to fruitful alternative possibilities, the sole criteria is whether the insights are useful in dealing with the problems under consideration -- especially those problems which cannot apparently be adequately defined within any particular discipline.

4. "Re-reading" as a metaphorical art

The concern here is primarily with the "utility" perspective, although the process of "re-reading" is also relevant to the second. The radical suggestion is that all conceptual patterns, from any discipline, can be profitably "re-read" as metaphors -- through which insights can be gained of relevance to other domains of knowledge. The body of knowledge, generated by the disciplines over the years, may therefore be systematically (re-)explored as a resource for implicit insights. In a sense the geological layers of knowledge laid down over the centuries, including "fossilized knowledge", may be mined. Much will be irrelevant, but there are seams of insight of great value. The challenge is to separate the two.

Just as reading itself is both a discipline and an art, so presumably is "re-reading". It is the discipline of:

  • identifying source patterns
  • recognizing target domains
  • assessing goodness of fit
  • evaluating the utility of the insights highlighted by the match
Depending on what the insight is to be used for, the criteria of "goodness of fit" and "utility" may be evaluated in different ways. In a world faced with physical and psychic survival problems, an individual may find many otherwise unsatisfactory materials adequate for the construction of a house or a footbridge. The ultimate criteria in these cases are, respectively, whether it provides shelter or whether it permits a ditch to be crossed. It is irrelevant whether the construct conforms to building standards, or to the best that relevant engineering and construction disciplines could supply. The criterion is whether the metaphor provides insights relevant to empowering the user's more appropriate response to the environment.

It could be argued that the set of classic "three Rs" of education (reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic) needs to be completed by a "fourth R", namely re-reading. It is this fourth R which empowers the practitioner to re-interpret the wealth of inherited patterns in the light of new circumstances.

5. Re-reading experiments: engendering new levels of significance

The following experiments are one form of re-reading, involving replacement of a core concept, in one well-articulated pattern of concepts, by another core concept -- thus generating a new pattern that offers a new set of insights. At a minimum, this creates a framework for discussion of the new arena so created.

    (a) Universal Declaration of Human Rights: The 30 articles of this United Nations declaration were each used to generate 3 new articles. Instead of focusing on the individual, the first then focused on a human group (including professional organizations), the second on modes of thought (including disciplines), and the third on the modes of thought of an individual. The 4 parallel sets were presented as a proposed Universal Declaration of the Rights of Human Organization (Judge, 1971).

    (b) Pattern Language: The architect Christopher Alexander (1977) has developed a unique language of 253 "patterns" through which to define qualitatively superior physical environments. Each such pattern was then used as the basis for 4 other patterns. One focused on the socio-organizational environment. A second focused on the conceptual environment. A third on the intra-personal environment. And a fourth expressed the underlying pattern in abstract terms. (see Patterns of Concepts. In: Union of International Associations, Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, 1991, Section MP).

    (c) Book of Changes: The I Ching is a classic Chinese pattern of 64 human conditions between which a precisely articulated pattern of transformations can occur. Each of the 64 conditions was redefined in one experiment to focus on social "networks". In a subsequent experiment it was refocused on "sustainable policy cycles" (see Transformative Policy Cycles. In: Union of International Associations, Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, 1991, Section TP). In a further experiment it has been refocused on "conferences".

6. Gleaning insights from science and tradition

Re-reading could become a much more systematic enterprise. This would require information processing techniques for identifying and/or storing patterns of concepts. Storage and retrieval of patterns, where content and keywords are secondary factors, is a problem encountered with intellectual property, notably patents. Such a structural database needs to be related to a database of metaphor substrates and accessed via an appropriate user interface. The interface should permit the user to browse associatively through structures and metaphors. Note that it would be for the user to indicate how isomorphic the patterns need to be before being considered as matches to be presented for inspection. This would permit both narrowly focused re-reading and extremely allusive, poetic, explorations.

In a pattern database, material can be considered from all sources:

  • sciences (mathematics, natural and social sciences);
  • humanities and arts (fiction, drama, music, painting);
  • strategy (military, sports, games);
  • mythology, theology, philosophy and esotericism;
  • folklore, aphorisms, and traditional wisdom stories.
In this sense a pattern is a structural configuration of concepts, where the accent is placed on that structure rather than on what it may have been intended to describe or order. The database therefore covers the range of patterns of which humanity has become conscious. It is the kind of application for which the new interactive compact disk technology is ideal.

Such a database may be used to encourage experiments in discovering unforeseen patterns and patterning principles -- ideally a role for mathematics and the classification sciences. The challenge is however to render such patterns meaningfully through the metaphoric aspects of the database and the associations which the user finds comprehensible. Such a database may also be used in systematic experiments to "generate" texts, anchored to different topics, as analogues to one another. The aim is to gain insight, to the extent possible, from approximate matches between patterns, rather then focusing on the desirability of precise matche