Civilisation and Chunking

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:55 am

Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.
– Alfred North Whitehead, 1911, Introduction to Mathematics

Does that seem true1 to you? It seems odd at first glance, but in a sense the idea that civilisation can be defined as the set of things that we can do without having to pay conscious attention to them, thereby freeing up our conscious attention for other things, seems plausible. Maybe it seemed more so in 1911, when that quote was written: the rate at which new ideas and operations have been appearing in say the last 12 years or so (since the development of the World Wide Web) is such that it seems ‘civilisation’ in this sense might be receding from us…

But it’s interesting, partly because it goes against much of the trend of modern educational thought – with some debt to Eastern philosophies – which tends to be about making us more thoughtful and reflective, about making us mindful, about getting away from automation and ‘chunking’.

As in most things, I tend to seek a balance, and to believe that society as a whole (and its subsets like the education community) is much better at doing huge pendulum swings than it is at finding balance. The present emphasis on thought (cognition) is in part a reaction to behaviourist perspectives that considered thought irrelevant, and in part a reaction to the kinds of ‘efficiency’ that seem to underlie the Whitehead quote.

Balance can be about repertoire and appropriateness: that is, rather than seeking always to ‘chunk’ operations (like driving a car, for example) in such a way that we can carry them out unthinkingly, and rather than seeking to be mindful and explicit and reflective in every context, perhaps we could do a little bit of ‘meta’ thinking and find out (gasp) what approach is most appropriate to the context and the situation, in virtually a case-by-case approach. That would involve having a wide and growing repertoire of approaches at our disposal that we could apply in particular situations.

  1. or, maybe better – or at least better fitting with the rest of my philosophical musings – useful

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