what was the question?

2008-04-02 01:35:00 -0700

I have been thinking a lot lately about thinking. In particular, about the way in which our predispositions of perception, cognition, and experience broadly affect the types of thoughts that we tend to have, and consequently form the unique ways we each understand the world. I should note that the uniqueness of this understanding really applies only to all of a person's ideas as an aggregate. For it seems clear that we are capable of communicating with others, that the transmission of individual ideas is indeed possible. If you think that you know what I mean, even if you disagree, then you accept this premise. All I am getting at here is that although we may never be able to understand one another comprehensively, many of us can still come awfully close to a common understanding of innumerable particulars. One of the impediments to this sort of common understanding is an inability to conceive of—or misapprehension about—how another thinks. Investigating and subsequently understanding the ways in which we differ in our conceptions of the world and its contents, and the mind and its contents, can help us correct for these very discrepancies. Systems of classification, taxonomies, are often the result of such investigations, and sometimes even provide the means for them. If we can independently agree about which category a thing or idea fits into (and why), this is often a sign in itself of a shared understanding. But the criteria of classification have to be meaningful themselves. Otherwise our agreement is meaningless.

And some taxonomies are more successful in this way than others. When it comes to reflexive classification in particular, we as a species have had questionable success. It seems at once strange and inevitable that the criteria of classification of personality types, for instance, are so contentious. Judging by the sheer proliferation of various systems of personality type classification, it seems we don't understand ourselves enough to agree on which characteristics are sufficient to cleanly delineate our similarities and differences. Admittedly, the subject under consideration is one quite vast and complex. And perhaps each system is focused on what are simply different nuances of an incredibly monumental, multifaceted nexus, such that to some degree the systems are not necessarily in contention at all. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, there is no widely accepted, unproblematic standard for identifying unambiguous sets of interrelated personality traits. And I'm sure there are further cross-cultural complications of which I'm only dimly aware. We do employ some broad, colloquial differentiators that for the most part lack any sort of rigorous definitions (and incidentally these seem frequently to be presented as mutually exclusive dichotomies rather than sentinels on a continuum): introvert vs extrovert, intellectual vs emotional, serious vs lighthearted, considerate vs rude, strict vs liberal, confident vs shy, masculine vs feminine, etc. Even as I write these down, I feel like their meanings are shifting and subjective, and they're arguably poor examples. But what constitutes a good example here? What are some truly meaningful ways to characterize and identify what makes up each one of us in such a way as to have enough granularity to achieve precision, but without going too far? 6,658,694,324 divisions is too many for all but one statistic. Two begins to be more meaningful, but falls short of offering much understanding beyond the superficial. What enumeration of cross-sections of characteristics is worthwhile without being oppressively unwieldy? I guess the particular question one poses is critical to answering this.