Betterment (continued)


Henry David Thoreau put it in his Journals, “I do not know that knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise, or a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called knowledge before. . .”

Assume this is so and go on to ask, How can a politics, policy and management infused through and through with not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience be effective?

Effectiveness means those occasions for rethinking (recasting, redescribing, recalibrating, redefining) categories of politics, policy and management lived and worked by, including “regulation,” “failed states,” “politics,” “economic growth and progress,” and “betterment” itself. This happens when you (plural) realize how much depends on advancing to the decision point of “Yes but” and “Yes and.” As betterment pushes complex truths further, I call that good-enough—that is, good-enough harbors something better than progress or growth.


Earlier definitions of betterment figured in versions of the 18th century European Enlightenment. The term was used interchangeably with “improvement” or “progress,” though from time to time singled out as its own unit of analysis (most famously in economist Adam Smith’s “the great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition”). Indeed, betterment is the core driver for some.

The variety of Enlightenment thinkers, however, made it inevitable that not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience would be touched upon specifically. Voltaire discusses not-knowing in the entry “On the Limits of the Human Mind” of his Philosophical Dictionary; David Hume, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, grappled with the acknowledged idea of “not-knowing as the key to the contented life,” according to one commentator; in the view of another, Adam Smith expressed “an open skepticism about the possibility of knowing definitively what it is we are really doing;” while Immanuel Kant notably wrote about “the unknowability of things-in-themselves.” “Full recognition of the importance of uncertainty and the unknowable in analysing economic processes is an eighteenth-century heritage. . .which cannot be emphasized too often. . .” writes a third observer.

As for difficulty, historian Jonathan Israel sketches its central role in the Radical Enlightenment: “Theories of progress, however, contrary to what many have assumed, were usually tempered by a strong streak of pessimism, a sense of the dangers and challenges to which the human condition is subject. The notion, still widespread today, that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naive belief in man’s perfectibility seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars unsympathetic to its claims. In reality, Enlightenment progress breathed a vivid awareness of the great difficulty of spreading toleration, curbing religious fanaticism, and otherwise ameliorating human organization, orderliness, and the general state of health was always impressively empirically based.”

Nor was the role of inexperience remote to versions of the Enlightenment: “In the light of the triumph of Newtonian science, the men of the Enlightenment argued that experience and experiment, not a priori reason, were the keys to true knowledge,” writes historian, Roy Porter, where inexperience ironically became a touchstone for criticizing French Enlighteners: “Above all, critics complained, in politics the philosophes lacked the quality they pretended to value most: experience.” Yet, the almost universal priority given to education by Enlightenment advocates across a wide spectrum reflected their acknowledgement that more education meant, acutely, more experience.


These earlier nods toward not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience take us to today’s “and-yet” betterment of yes-but and yes-and. For their growing centrality has brought useful complications to Yes versus No when it comes to a good-versus-bad politics and policymaking.

The ethnographer and writer, Michel Leiris, writes about the need “to merge the yes and the no.” “Between yes and no” is the title of an early essay by Camus. Nietzsche “said no to life as long as it was easy, but yes when it took on the form of the impossible”. The work of Elizabeth Bishop was “perhaps more a quiet no than a great big yes,” according to another poet. More severe, “Herman Melville praised Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie’”, records the critic, Christopher Ricks, who then asks: “But what about saying, ‘Yes, but…?’”

Ricks is spot-on. In the same way as dark energy and dark matter are said to make up the vast portion of the universe, politics, policy and management are grasped only because of—not in spite of—the not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience, all around and in between.


This betterment is not possible unless you (plural again) recognize how exaggerated many stopping points are in decisionmaking. For example: To govern is to choose. But choose between an irresistible-Yes and an unmovable-No? Better to say, as many have before: No one governs innocently.

Kant’s Enlightenment exhortation—Dare to know! (Sapere aude!)—is taken from the Roman poet, Horace: “Dimidium facti qui coepi, habet: sapere aude: Incipe ( “To have begun is to be half done; dare to know; start!”). Some highlight not only the dare-to-know, but the charge in the word, “Incipe,” as in: “Get started now!” My eye, though, gravitates to that first clause,“To have begun is to be half done”. Far too much of our truth-telling stops short of the indispensable push ahead.


And what is that indispensable push ahead? It is not stopping short at progress and economic growth but pushing further to that good-enough betterment. The key problem with stopping short at progress is that progress insists we can never be good enough today using yesterday’s standards. How then can betterment be good enough? Answer: When lasting longer than progress and economic growth.

If you will, we have over-invested in economic growth on the premise that the knowledge acquired in this way takes us further than we could otherwise go. But good-enough betterment discussed here goes further than economic growth. The 19th century French poet, Lamartine, wrote “Utopias are often just premature truths”—which is precisely the shortcoming I have in mind: Stopping short at progress is premature. It lacks betterment’s maturity of yes-but and yes-and grounded in complexity.

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