John Shotter, in More than cool reason: ‘Withness-thinking’ or ‘systemic thinking’ and ‘thinking about systems’, writes about the difference between “aboutness” and “withness” thinking. The former tries to look at the world objectively: to place oneself outside of what’s being looked at. The latter includes the self and its relationship to the whole in the sense-making.
He describes how with complex situations, which includes many social ones, we need to use withness thinking, because we don’t just need to learn new things but we need to become something new. In these situations, we’re changing not just what we think about but “what we think with”… how we relate to our situation.
Hence these kinds of changes cannot be produced by following intellectually devised plans, procedures, or protocols; they cannot be done, intentionally, by people taking deliberate actions—this is because the coordinated execution of planned actions depends upon all concerned already sharing the set of existing concepts relevant to the formulation of the plan, thus all new plans depend on old concepts – the process results in the “continual rediscovery of sameness.”
This is something that makes a lot of sense to me, in many ways. I’ve written before about the idea that some things have to be learned by abstracting from experiences, rather than by being told something or otherwise following a series of steps.
It’s also something I find kind of scary. I found it scary two years ago—I know this because I wrote so in the margins of the article when I first read it then.
Tonight I realized why.
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