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29 March 2000

Values and Metaphors

Clarifying an Integrative Approach to Problems and Strategies

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Confusion about problems and strategies, and the desperate search for an integrative perspective, suggests caution in further exploring conventional approaches. How are tens of thousands of problems and strategies to be comprehended as a coherent whole? Should the range of values be reduced to a short checklist?

The question is what configuring technique to use?

The acid test is whether any such technique brings people closer to a personal sense of the need for self-restraint with respect to processes that are increasing the stress on the psychological, social, economic, cultural and natural environments. In other words it needs to reduce the 'gap' between explanatory articulations and experiential reality.

Rather than use some abstract scheme of categories, however neat, maybe there is a case for designing a 'self-reflexive' set of categories. The concern would be whether these 'categories' could be anchored in metaphors with a strong experiential component. To illustrate, briefly, 'swallowing' is a strategy that would be familiar to military and corporate strategists as one response to an opponent. Being 'swallowed' would be one way of understanding some forms of cultural imperialism.

The intent would be to build a framework by confronting such materials. But the framework needs to go beyond being an intellectual framework for 'subject categories' and needs to work also as a framework for 'behavioural categories'. It needs to be able to handle 'rejecting', 'grasping', 'withholding', 'confronting', or 'absorbing'. This needs to be as meaningful at a tangible material level as at a subtle psychological, even meditative, level.

The issue would then be whether there is a class of such experiential metaphors that could in some way be considered comprehensive or exhaustive. Could these be used as an experiential  framework through which to cluster problems and strategies? Would the result be meaningful as a whole?

Points of departure

In preparing previous editions of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential two exercises have been performed in this direction.

In looking at possibilities for clustering values, a 5 x 9 table was produced for the 1986 edition (reprinted in the 1991 and 1994-5 editions). It clustered some 230 value polarities.

In the 1994-5 edition a 3 x 7 table was produced as a possible basis for clustering the 'negative value qualifiers' that defined a problem name as 'problematic'.

Rene Thom has produced a table of 'archetypal morphologies', composed of approximately 2 x 7 elements which seem to bear a tentative relationship to the above. They include such terms as: capturing, failing, emitting, rejecting, etc. This appears in some speculative amplifications of the significance of his work on catastrophe theory (Structural Stability and Morphogenesis, 1975, pp. 306-307; revised in Modeles Mathematiques de la Morphogenese, 1980, p. 213).  For Thom: 'We shall designate the innate forms, handed down in the endowment of the species and determining a well-defined motor action, by the name of genetic forms. Then as soon an an external form is recognized as a genetic form, a perception catastrophe takes place, and the 'ego' is recreated in an action, in the motor chreod (of capture or flight) that the genetic form projects onto the external form.'

Thom's approach to the handling of the most fundamental subject-object relationships characteristic of predator-prey relationships in cognitive processes suggests that something along these lines might be helpful.

Another point of departure might be systematic representations of strategies, notably derived from classical Chinese works on military strategy.

Another source might be typologies of human instincts as well as of psychological or behavioural impulses.

It is also possible that insights from certain spiritual disciplines, notably Buddhism, might provide guidance on the configuration and nature of the cognitive impulses.

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