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Functional Fixedness

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 all about timing and selective association.

2 years ago

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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 - Instrumental planksip Dialectic

Functional Fixedness

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 all about timing and selective association. What information are you learning and how do you anticipate you will use it in your future?

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 the sake of 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, 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

If you attack my credentials and right to occupy my position I can defend myself and justify my existence with my actions, happiness and ability to respond (ie. responsibility) to the obstacles and oppressive forces in my life. When you attack the foundation of society there is no response that 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 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 endeavor. Attacks on the individual led to individual responses.

Instrumental Inventory

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

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, free thought, and the individual's right to self-determinism.

For those indoctrinated into a corporate way of thinking, there is only ideology. 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 get into the business of universals, the vise 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 capable of internal transformation based on external pressures.

Yet, evolutionary biology has pointed out and continues to demonstrate that much of human behavior 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 fervor to remake the world 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 fervor, 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 anywhere 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 it comes to 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 the 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 really 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. One who longed for the overthrow of tyranny in Florence. You see, ethics weren't paramount in Machiavelli's mind when he wrote The Prince (1513).

Unfortunately, Machiavelli's take on the outcome outweighing the means of getting there 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, as the philosophy came to be known, has a massive influence. Don't believe me? Just think about politics and current events.

America's financial recession of 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 Marxist 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 hardpressed 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

Returning to the allegory of the cave, 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 eudaemonistic conception of ethics. In his conceptualization, well-being or happiness represented the highest aim of moral conduct and thought.

Yet, he never addressed the concept of 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, right?

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 continues to support the concept that happiness derives from more than hedonism or materialism. These attributes include:

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 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 the virtuous act? The act that habituates perfection towards the people you love.

Aristotle conceded that individuals could achieve a fleeting sense of 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, then, consisted of engaging in rational activity. In other words, living a life of eudaimonia. What's more, he argued for the attainment of happiness and virtue through moderation in all things.

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 manifesting "thick" happiness through virtuous actions.

We must avoid the temptation of virtue ethics as an ideology because it comes with presuppositions. Namely, that 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. What's more, Plato and Aristotle's ethics presuppose a pre-Darwinian mode, of human nature. One that remains at odds with Marx's historical humanism and liberal conceptions of individual egoism.

Of course, when capitalism gets added into the mix, other interesting tensions emerge. 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 philosophy 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. In each case, the proclivity toward functional fixedness makes developing new solutions difficult.

Socratic Learning Techniques

The antidote for this? The same types of learning techniques 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 have today become ideologies.

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

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Dialectic on Empiricism

This measured conversation is on the court, so to speak. 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 Artful Utility of Aesthetics

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

Utility is Functional

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


Published 2 years ago