With respect to what?

–The methodological demand is always: First differentiate! In 1968, Garret Hardin published his article on the Tragedy of the Commons with: “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.”

But that proposition was exactly what could not be assumed empirically: The facts on the ground were the opposite, and often so. Rangelands, herds and herders were, we now know (we actually knew then), much more differentiated, and years of work on common property resource management documented that the tragedy of the commons was but one configuration of resource use among many other arrangements, some which worked against overgrazing or resource overutilization. For such insights Lin Ostrom won her Nobel Prize.

–How did we get to demand, First differentiate? Those interested in policy might start here:

John Stuart Mill once contrasted Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “By Bentham beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? And by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it?”

Later pragmatists insisted that both questions led to a further question, “What is it for?,” as in: “True with respect to which meanings and for what?” In asking and answering the latter question, truths and meanings are pushed further so that no conclusion is concluded definitively. “What has been concluded that we should conclude about it?” is a question associated with William James, well-known philosopher of pragmatism.

Why does this matter? Because differentiation matters. I say risk is out there in the complex technology; no, you say: It’s socially constructed and thus decidedly not das Ding an sich (the thing-in-itself). I say that in major respects risk is cultural (as in the cultural theory of Douglas and Wildavsky); no, you say the fundamental question first to be answered is: Are Brains Bayesian? I say: Isn’t it interesting that just as an experience “ignites” the brain into conscious thought, so too risk seems either off or on (could it be that experience of risk is itself a feature of what Baudelaire called the “bump and lurch of consciousness”?); not really that interesting, you counter.

In other words, there is no such thing as risk on its own; it is always risk with respect to something. Where truth and meaning depend on “with respect to what”, it becomes possible to differentiate wrong readings (interpretations), while admitting there is no single right reading (interpretation): or, if you will, there are many right readings, without there being the right one.

Literary critic, I.A. Richards, put the matter this way in a letter to T.S. Eliot:

“This problem,—that a single line need have no one right reading, yet will have innumerable wrong ones; that among all the many “right” ones some at least will carry, primarily, very different interpretations;. . .and yet that we must take some partial meaning, and make it deputize for the whole but without forgetting that we do so. . .”

To put the stakes to my words, the danger lies in not pushing truth-and-meaning further to the point where: Interpretations are differentiated from each other (i.e., in terms of their with-respect-to-what’s) and thereby pushed further away from any notion of one or any interpretation on its own.

Note how very different this push to further differentiate is from the premature drive to unify current disparate elements into a system or an overarching theory.

Holism instead of reductionism; networks instead of chains; integrate, not fragment; Kant: “systematic unity is what first turns common cognition into science”. Accordingly, we see all manner of systems theories without recognizing that here too we have stopped short of a fuller understanding the comes with further differentiation. Namely, the impulse to unify is first and foremost aesthetic, not scientific.

We pretend we are more like Darwin in summing up the facts on the ground in the form of a theory, when the facts on the ground are really that we are pretending to be like Michelangelo in distinguishing human musculature differently so as to come up with a novel, more pleasing unity. Speaking of the young Michelangelo, Leo Steinberg, the art historian, writes: “A score of muscles newly differentiated, a new vocabulary of expressive gesture, a newly seen relation between motion and shape, these become part of that living diversity to which unification is the victorious response.” Steinberg then hastens to add, “These are the stuff on the esthetic program”—an appreciation attained by far fewer system thinkers, I believe.

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