Functional Fixedness

Much learning does not teach understanding.
— Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
Utility is the Courtship of Functionality and the Function of Utility - Instrumental planksip Dialectic

Utility is the Courtship of Functionality and the Function of Utility

Functional Fixedness

Much learning does not teach understanding.
— Heraclitus (535-475 BC)

The titled responsion is "Functional Fixedness." What follows is subject to revision. Do you have any suggestions?

This back-and-forth gameplay of memory and recall is about timing and selective association. What information are you learning, and how do you anticipate using it? I want to argue that memory is essential for acquiring knowledge and that our ability to recall information is crucial for our ability to reason and make decisions.

Memory is the foundation of all knowledge; we learn by accumulating and storing experiences. These experiences then become the basis for our understanding of the world and our ability to reason about it. For example, when we learn a new fact, we must store it in our memory to recall it later and use it to connect with other information. Our ability to recall information is critical for our ability to reason, and without memory, we would be unable to make informed decisions.

Suppose we consider knowledge a more complex and dynamic process and that knowledge is not simply a collection of facts stored in our memory but a network of interconnected concepts and analogies that we use to make sense of the world. Our ability to make analogies between different concepts is a key component of our intelligence and our ability to acquire knowledge. For example, when we encounter a new concept, we may draw analogies to other concepts we already know to understand it better.

These two approaches of emphasis between memory for acquiring knowledge and making informed decisions versus analogical thinking in creating and connecting concepts are worthy of further discussion and research.

Instrumental Inventory

Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

The titled responsion considers (inventory) and the use-value (instrumental) potential as a way of life. Thank you, Galileo!

Measuring the not-so-measurable is easier said than done.  How do you measure love, justice, or goodness? The good in itself is as good a place as any and resonates with Plato's forms. For me, the virtuous act habituates perfection towards your friends and people you love.

In the Hellenic tradition of Plato and Aristotle, we find the perfect synthesis of philosophy and poetry, as both are intertwined in a beautiful dance of language and ideas. The quote "Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so" finds resonance in this tradition, as it speaks to the importance of both reason and imagination.

Plato, the master of dialectical reasoning, saw philosophy as a way to discover the eternal truths that lie beyond the ephemeral world of appearances. For Plato, the philosopher must use reason to "measure" the world and uncover its hidden structure and meaning. This quest for knowledge is the essence of philosophy and requires a rigorous method of inquiry that leaves no stone unturned.

On the other hand, Aristotle saw philosophy as a way to understand the world in all its complexity and diversity. For Aristotle, the philosopher must use his senses and imagination to "make measurable what is not so" and uncover the hidden potentialities of the world. This quest for knowledge requires an open mind and a willingness to explore the unknown, to be surprised and delighted by the richness of the world.

In the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, philosophy and poetry are not opposed but complementary, as both are necessary to understand the world fully. With its power to evoke images and emotions, poetry can help us see the world in a new light and inspire us to ask new questions. Philosophy, with its rigorous method of inquiry, can help us answer these questions and discover the hidden truths of the world.

Thus, in the Hellenic tradition, we find a harmonious synthesis of reason and imagination, logic and creativity, measurement and imagination. In this synthesis, we discover the beauty and wonder of the world and the endless possibilities of human knowledge and understanding.

The Artful Utility of Aesthetics

Always think of what is useful and not what is beautiful. Beauty will come of its own accord.
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)

The titled responsion is a simultaneously artful and scientific unfolding of what is appreciated.  

On either side of utility lies beauty, and as I have maintained elsewhere, the essence of beauty lies deep within the cellular level. Moving towards homeostasis and equilibrium, the pain-pleasure pathway lights the subjective felt experience we question daily. The irony persists as we lose ourselves in dream states, spindles, and myelinations.

While it's true that usefulness is an important consideration when it comes to creating practical objects or solving practical problems, it's important to also recognize the value of aesthetics in many aspects of our lives. The artful utility of aesthetics can enhance both the usefulness and the beauty of an object or experience.

Aesthetics refers to beauty's sensory and emotional experience and can encompass various elements, such as colour, form, texture, sound, and movement. Aesthetics can be used to create objects that serve a practical purpose and bring joy, delight, and inspiration to people's lives. For example, a well-designed piece of furniture can be functional and aesthetically pleasing, creating a sense of harmony and balance in a room.

Moreover, aesthetics can also have a practical utility beyond being visually or emotionally pleasing. For instance, using colours and textures that are calming and soothing in a hospital or medical setting can help to reduce a patient's anxiety and promote healing. Aesthetics can also be used to create products that are easier and more intuitive to use or to communicate information more effectively.

In summary, while usefulness is undoubtedly important, aesthetics can add tremendous value and enjoyment to our lives. The artful utility of aesthetics can create objects and experiences that are both functional and beautiful, enhancing our daily lives in meaningful ways.

Utility is Functional

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The titled responsion reiterates the functionality of utility and counters nothingness. Or does it?

Utility and usefulness are combinatorial. The essence of one defines the other with a subtle Existential reference to Nothingness. Functionally speaking, this is a circular conversation. To get to the origin story, you must begin at the beginning and make sure you read the footnotes to Plato.

"Utility is Functional" means something is valuable or useful if it serves a specific purpose or function. In the context of the quote, "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing," the utility or usefulness of a life is determined by the actions and experiences that make up that life.

The quote suggests that making mistakes and taking action, even if those actions lead to failure, is more valuable and honourable than doing nothing. This is because a life spent taking risks and making mistakes provides learning, growth, and personal development opportunities. In contrast, a life spent doing nothing is stagnant and unproductive.

Therefore, the quote emphasizes the importance of taking action, even if it means making mistakes. It encourages individuals to embrace their failures as learning experiences and to continue pushing forward toward their goals, rather than being held back by fear of failure or inaction.

Dialectic on Empiricism

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.
Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

The titled responsion is measured in incremental units of experience, or so I thought.

This statement suggests that mental preparation and conditioning influence our perception and understanding of the world. In other words, what we see and comprehend is based not purely on the information received through our senses but on our prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences.

This idea is consistent with the philosophical school of empiricism, which holds that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience. Empiricists believe that all knowledge is based on experience and observation and that any innate ideas or knowledge are merely concepts we develop through sensory experience.

However, the statement also implies that there is a subjective element to our perception and understanding of the world. Our minds can distort or filter the information we receive through our senses, and our prior beliefs and biases can affect how we interpret that information.

This subjectivity can be seen as a limitation of empiricism. While empirical observations and data are essential in scientific research and understanding the world, they are not immune to human interpretation and bias. Thus, we must be aware of our mental preparation and conditioning when interpreting empirical data, and strive to remain as objective as possible in our analysis.

This measured conversation is on the court. If we reverse what the mind's eye is prepared to comprehend, we quickly approach nothingness and the essence of the null hypothesis beyond a reasonable doubt. So what's the alternative?


The function of these unmediated concepts that have been derived from the fetishistic forms of objectivity is to make the phenomena of capitalist society appear as supra-rational historical essences.
György Lukács (1885-1971)

The titled responsion is "Smokescreen." What follows is subject to revision. Do you have any suggestions?

Suppose you attack my credentials and right to occupy my position. In that case, I can defend myself and justify my existence with my actions, happiness, and ability to respond to my life's obstacles and oppressive forces. When you attack the foundation of society, there is no response I can give to dissuade you from your ideology. If your movement gains power, I have no voice to object to the Marxist doctrine. Capitalism is problematic and an ideology of sorts, but the answer is hardly found anywhere near Frankfurt. Look to the jurisprudence and the laws of our land to determine whether or not any form of objective oppression is silently implemented to oppress the masses for the good of the powerful.

"Smokescreen" is a term used to describe a deceptive tactic or strategy that is used to obscure or conceal the truth. In this context, the sentence you provided suggests that certain concepts, which are presented as objective and neutral, serve to hide the true nature of capitalist society. These concepts are presented as historical essences, but in reality, they are fetishized forms of objectivity that obscure capitalism's underlying economic and social realities.

Using these concepts creates a smokescreen that prevents people from understanding the true nature of capitalist society and its mechanisms of exploitation. By presenting capitalist phenomena as supra-rational historical essences, these concepts make it appear that the system functions naturally and inevitably, rather than result from specific economic and social structures and power relations.

Overall, the sentence suggests that these unmediated concepts are being used as a smokescreen to conceal capitalism's exploitative nature and prevent people from critically engaging with its underlying realities.

Functional Fixedness Redux

If you are stuck on learning for the sake of learning and lack understanding, the wisdom of Heraclitus (535-475 BC) may be for you. This back-and-forth gameplay of memory and recall is about timing and selective association. What information are you learning, and how do you anticipate using it?

What did Heraclitus (535-475 BC) mean by "Much learning does not teach understanding?" This statement has profound implications, particularly for students and intellectuals.

Today, some individuals are "stuck" on learning merely for learning. This state has given rise to a lack of understanding. Functional fixedness, if you will.

True educational mastery involves more than the gameplay of memory and recall. Let's face it, a few occasions in life require timing and selective association. Of those that do, I'd wager 95 percent involve test-taking.

What, then, is authentic learning? The capacity to understand the information you take in within the context of its usefulness. Let's explore how to break through the confines of functional fixedness.

The Smokescreen: Education Versus Understanding

Suppose you attack my credentials and right to occupy my position. In that case, I can defend myself and justify my existence with my actions, happiness, and ability to respond (i.e. responsibility) to the obstacles and oppressive forces in my life. When you attack the foundation of society, there is no response I can give to dissuade you from your ideology. If your movement gains power, I have no voice to object to the Marxist doctrine. Capitalism is problematic and an ideology of sorts, but the answer is hardly found anywhere near Frankfurt. Look to the jurisprudence and the laws of our land to determine whether or not any forme of objective oppression is silently implemented to oppress the masses for the good of the powerful.

When individuals get attacked based on their credentials and right to occupy a position of power, how do they defend themselves? Through their actions. In other words, they seek validation by demonstrating the "fruit they've borne."

As for the ability to respond to obstacles and oppressive forces? The individual does so on a one-on-one basis. Informed by their happiness and ability to respond to external pressures.

Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of how the individual gets categorized socially. Its a natural conclusion? The realization that the individual is the ultimate minority.

The great thinkers of Western Civilization flirted with this concept for centuries. For the West, the individual became, and remains, the basic unit of human endeavour. Attacks on the individual led to individual responses.

Society Under Attack

What happens when society's underpinnings fall under attack? A far different outcome.

Why? Because there is no response to ideology.

As individualism presupposes, however, there is no need to adopt ideology. After all, ideological thinking impedes free speech, thought, and the individual's right to self-determinism.

There is only ideology for those indoctrinated into a corporate way of thinking. Ideology is rootless and disassociated from reality. As a result, life beneath the yolk of doctrine is groundless and ever-changing.

For some, it is also utopian and universal. Therefore, it is highly dangerous. When humans enter the universal business, the vice of tyranny "for the common good" tightens.

Ideology and the Individual

Some ideologies, such as Marxism, are based on the assumption that human beings are highly malleable creatures. Creatures are capable of internal transformation based on external pressures.

Yet, evolutionary biology has pointed out and continues to demonstrate that much of human behaviour is predicated upon evolutionary physiology. This physiology is the result of external realities rather than internal imaginings.

Education without a firm grounding in reality (and physiology) leads to quasi-religious zealotry. It whips followers into a fervour to remake the world to conform to its universal vision. This last point raises some vital questions.

Under these circumstances, what ground does the individual have to counter something like Marxism? Especially when supporters of this ideology play fast and loose with the terms, definitions, and examples used to bolster their education without understanding.

A Fire to Be Kindled

Let's consider this, for a moment, within the context of another system that has sometimes inspired ideological fervour, capitalism. Indeed, capitalism can be problematic. It has, in historic times, reared its head as an ideology.

Even in its most problematic form, though, the antidote doesn't lie near Frankfurt.

Why? Because capitalism ultimately caters to the individual. And this inevitability in the system provides a stop-gap against ideological excesses.

After all, consumers have the final say when purchasing goods. They vote with their money.

Of course, individualism necessitates a firm grounding in education and understanding. As Plutarch (46-119 AD) aptly argued, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."

What does a fire need to survive? Plenty of fuel and an open, oxygen-rich environment. Education provides fuel. Understanding is the oxygen, transforming a delicate spark into a blazing fire.

Much Ado About Machiavelli

Ideology represents a closed vessel. It starts with the conclusion, working backward towards the means of achievement. Like medieval scholasticism, it twists logic, observation, and insight to buttress its preconceived conclusions.

The "ends justify the means." Of course, that's not precisely what Niccolò Machiavelli said. His actual argument went like this:

"Everyone sees what you appear to be, few know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result."

These words make sense coming from a 16th-century Republican freedom fighter who longed to overthrow tyranny in Florence. Ethics weren't paramount in Machiavelli's mind when he wrote The Prince (1513).

Unfortunately, Machiavelli's take on the outcome outweighs the means of getting their spread like wildfire. When taken out of context, it represents the "primrose path" to functional fixedness.

The Primrose Path to Functional Fixedness

In today's world, Machiavellianism has had a massive influence as the philosophy came to be known. Don't believe me? Just think about politics and current events.

America's financial recession from 2008 to 2009 is a prime example. A group of investment bankers traded subprime loans to become millionaires. They did so despite knowing that homeowners might never be able to make mortgage payments.

Why didn't they care? Because they knew the banks would sell off those mortgages to third parties. In other words, they would rapidly wiggle out of the risk associated with the loans.

All the while, these investment bankers maintained the appearance of being "merciful and upright." What do these qualities have in common? Machiavelli cautioned leaders to embody them publically.

Capitalist Excess or Corporate Welfare?

The Marxist points to the investment bankers of 2008 and 2009 as examples of capitalist corruption. Yet, do these circumstances demonstrate failures within the capitalist system? Or, rather, the encroachment of socialism into a capitalist system?

Rather than permitting natural consequences, "too big to fail" ruled the day. As the theory went, some individual financial institutions and corporations were too large and interconnected to be permitted to fail.

This approach represented corporate welfare par excellence. It not only justified the means. It also cushioned the outcome for some.

How do you come to terms with these events and learn from them? Through an ideologically-free examination of the facts.

The Shadow of Things

Ideological thinking disseminates assumptions without a clear correlation to facts. For example, the Marxists will find ways to twist current events to incriminate capitalism.

Why? Because of the end, they wish to effect. This mindset permits delusional black-and-white cognition where a gray middle ground exists.

In the 1980s, Gore Vidal noted, "The US government prefers that public money go not to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich."

Similarly, the 2008 and 2009 bailouts were characterized as "privatizing profits and socializing losses."

Like the allegory of the cave passage from Plato's Republic, the shadows of objects differed from the objects casting the shadows. Today, there are many shadows worth exploring. As the writer of Ecclesiastes lamented, "There is nothing new under the sun."

For example, has objective oppression been silently implemented to keep down the masses for the good of a powerful elite? The answer lies in an empirical examination of the jurisprudence and laws of our land.

It does not lie in the unfettered adoption of ideology, an approach that leads more deeply into the cave.

You'll be hard-pressed to find Marxists who acknowledge the role of socialism, the first phase of communist society, in corruption. Yet, it exists nonetheless in the messy complexity that is life.

In other words, the shadow has been cast. Only level-headed thinking, devoid of ideology, can make sense of the implications.

Instrumental Inventory Redux

Returning to the cave allegory, Plato has much to say about perceiving the imperceptible and measuring the not-so-measurable.

After all, how do you measure concepts such as goodness, love, and justice?

Plato approached this question via a virtue-based eudemonistic conception of ethics. In his conceptualization, well-being or happiness represented the highest aim of moral conduct and thought.

Yet, he never addressed happiness head-on, leaving the reader to tease out its meaning.

Interestingly, America's Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." What Thomas Jefferson meant by "happiness" poses another fascinating question.

Does this reference to "happiness" exist in individualistic terms? Or is there more to it?

After all, "happiness" sits among some weighty unalienable rights, "life" and "liberty." There must be more to it than fleeting pleasure.

Plato and the "Pursuit of Happiness"

What if "happiness" to Jefferson is the extended quality of good for all citizens? Plato's veritable "good life" extended to the Plebs. Or, preferably, a citizenry comprised of philosophers?

Science supports the concept that happiness derives from more than hedonism or materialism. These attributes include:

  • Positive individual traits
  • Positive emotions
  • Positive institutions

Brent Strawn of Emory University calls for a revised definition of happiness, which he terms "thick happiness." His conceptualization stems from ancient concepts of what "happiness" once meant, an almost immeasurable notion that, perhaps, needs some measuring today.

Speaking of happiness in its most superficial sense, he argues, "If that's the only thing 'happiness' means anymore, then we have a case of 'word pollution,' and we need to reclaim or redefine the word or perhaps use a different one altogether, at least for a while."

Virtue Ethics and the Ultimate Goal

Perhaps this new definition can return to Plato's grounding in virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is often divided into two parts:

  • Eudaimonia
  • Arête

Eudaimonia refers to "the highest good a human can achieve." As for arête, it references the actual virtues, a set of tools for attaining eudaimonia.

Aristotle would elaborate on these principles in The Nicomachean Ethics, arguing that happiness represents the ultimate objective towards which all act. The key to happiness, in Aristotle's view? The practice of virtue because virtue exists in harmony with human reason.

Of course, central to happiness is the concept of the virtuous act. What is a virtuous act? The act that habituates perfection towards the people you love.

Aristotle conceded that individuals could achieve fleeting happiness by pursuing fame, power, and wealth. But he maintained that eudaimonia came through virtue alone. He also argued that "We are what we repeatedly do. [Arête], then, is not an act, but a habit."

Being a good human consisted of engaging in rational activity and other words, living a life of eudaimonia. Moreover, he argued for attaining happiness and virtue through moderation.

Functional Fixedness and Eudaimonia

Within the context of virtue ethics, ideology has no place. Why? Because it lacks moderation, rationality, and the orientation of the individual (and their inherent responsibility) to manifest "thick" happiness through virtuous actions.

We must avoid the temptation of virtue ethics as an ideology because it comes with presuppositions. Namely, only the elite few gifted with the time to spend their days examining the world could truly enjoy this eudaimonia.

Such elitism places Aristotle within the very class that Marx wished to overthrow. Moreover, Plato and Aristotle's ethics presuppose a pre-Darwinian mode of human nature. One remains at odds with Marx's historical humanism and liberal conceptions of individual egoism.

Of course, other interesting tensions emerge when capitalism gets added into the mix, such as integrating the virtuous life into a community where virtues get undermined by capital.

Meditating on these philosophical issues leads to individualized understanding. Wrestling with philosophical thought and learning leads to new ways of problem-solving, the antithesis of functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness represents an impairment, a cognitive bias. This tendency to see objects as only working one way can be extended to capitalism, socialism, and communism. The proclivity toward functional fixedness makes developing new solutions difficult in each case.

Socratic Learning Techniques

The antidote for this? The same types of learning techniques are found in the Socratic dialogues. In other words, lots of questioning, thinking, and working towards deep understanding.

While Karl Marx used the term "ideology" to describe the combined collection of ideas and falsehoods taught to keep the proletariat down, Marxism and Neo-Marxism are today's ideologies.

Plato and Aristotle argued for eudaimonia as humanity's highest achievement. True self-realization was central to achieving this objective, informed by logic and rational pursuits. In other words, breaking through functional fixedness often impairs our thinking.

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