Going a bit deeper

Allan Kaplan has written up his experience of a five-day facilitation for development professionals: Emerging out of Goethe: Conversation as a Form of Social Inquiry (pdf). He describes their struggle to beyond conventional thinking in their discussions and the challenge to connect with their own part in the failings easily attribted to a malign “system”.

It’s not light reading but there are times when I’m up for some deeper thought about what we’re actually doing when we have a conversation. And it’s nice to remember that philosophers like Goethe and Wittgenstein have something to offer us.

So many meetings fall into ritual and convention. The spectrum for most of us is from obviously boring to politely successful and occasionally exciting. The most memorable experiences for me are when groups get beyond that, establishing a sense of connection and insight that feels unusual. Often that sense is difficult to put into words – and the effort to do is easily mocked.

The process Kaplan describes includes a lot of reflection, including time alone for participants, and a very active engagement with what people are actually doing in the room. One of the themes is how when this is really experienced, the group can start to get beyond safe explanations of abstract problems out there, and come to experience their own part in “the system”. It put me in mind of what the Senge crew say about presencing (I wrote about that here), and also what David Bohm wrote about dialogue. Kaplan describes the difficulties of using language in this context:

We were struggling to enter a living way of thinking, which might read the world as activity, as verb, through seeing directly the ‘coming-into-being’ of the supposedly discrete ‘things or products’. We were thus disabled when it came to seeing ‘active relationship’ as the primary ground for our observations, through which organisms are formed (and through which, therefore, we can begin to understand them). If we cannot foreground activity and background the product, then we are left with the husks of things, and our world is fragmented and little more than dust.

Hence the Goethe quote:

How difficult it is … to refrain from replacing the thing with its sign, to keep the object alive before us instead of killing it with the word

(And if that’s not enough philosophy for one day, you could relate this to Heidegger’s distinction between calculative and meditative thinking)

Hat tip: Dave Pollard

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