Epi-Thinking: Restoring Sagacity to Common Sense
            

              Evoking a new way of thinking.

      Narrative


           Richard Rorty tells us, “Knowledge is not a matter of getting reality right, but rather a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.” Resilient coherence is what we experience when we piece together a narrative explanation of our present context based on the cues available to us and our beliefs about the future and the past. Resilient coherence is about how we have an ongoing willingness to act and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

            Simple models can be many an undoing. By making assumptions (and in so doing restricting ourselves to a set of labels and a model) we predetermine what might be learned, which will limit the options that appear to be open to us. This is because by adopting a particular perspective, and therefore making assumptions consistent with that perspective, we limit what we can 'see'.  "We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing. What we see is all there is." (Kahneman, 2011) The perspective acts as a lens that only allows particular features to come into focus -- all other features are lost or assumed not to be relevant. Furthermore, in communicating with others, by making use of a particular viewpoint, we limit our and their ability to 'see' what is relevant. The problem with ascribing a label, and using it as your method of explanation, is that once one has ascribed it, once one has said this belongs to Label X, then the explanation is done. The assertion is that the representation holds.  Implicitly it is further asserted that the complexity and degrees of freedom found in compressions are unnecessary. "I am a "nice" person.  Nice persons do X.  I must do X." There is no room in this equation for context. The representation is assumed to govern.
           Labels and categories eliminate the individual variations of specific items.   The substitution of the label for the thing itself thus simplifies the world. Labels form a very valuable role in limiting the world.  Instead of actively discussing the multiple approaches which may all be interpretations, enactments, decodings, or embodiments of a model, managers often act as if there is but one or perhaps two decodings. These "privileged" interpretations are given status as names, labels, or symbols -- and the labels are then used as guides for action.

           While codes and similar representations are constrained by pre-established meanings, cues, affordances and similar compressions are free of such constraints.  Affordances suggest that meaning is contained from inside one's self. When one encounters a signal, the signal evokes a meaning based on what's going on in the receiver's head and is not based on what the transmitter of the signal intended.  We refer to these signals as "cues."   The inability to define the environment in which a signal will be interpreted, and the parallel inability to predict affordances are what render cues complex and their study part of qualitative complexity.     Cues are thus   the label for the emergent meaning which results from an intersection of attendance to environment, situation, history, and cognition, such that semiotic affordance are perceived to allow for action, assignment of cognition, label, or code, or for boundary breaking.   Compressions are cued while representations are mapped. Cues tap into experience while codes tap into ascription.  Cues are situated and contextual.  Codes are ascriptive and conforming to pre-established judgments. 

           Once we create the degrees of freedom both semiotic affordances can be recognized and compressions cued, by telling stories. What matters about a story is what the listeners do with it, not the smile it brings to the face of the teller in its one hundredth reincarnation.  Listeners use the images evoked to create meaning … meaning that goes on to inform actions.  When we tell stories and share languaging, the changing context can bring us from raw experience to the possibilities and limits of shared consciousness. Stories are not a set of labels.  If they were then as the labels get triggered a predefined set of images would be unfolded by the listener.  Every listener would hear and construct the same story. Children learn that this is not true when they play "telephone" or "operator."  Corporate managers, however, tend to forget this childhood lesson.  The children's game illustrates the new things that can emerge as stories are told and retold.  The corporate chieftains tend to expect the same meaning to be evoked by their story as they retell it from audience to audience. They thus reduce story to representation. The chieftains miss what the children gained.  In telling and retelling the same war stories they often fail to ask their listeners about the images the story evoked.  What matters about a story is what the listeners do with it, not the smile it brings to the face of the teller in its one hundredth reincarnation.  Listeners use the images evoked to create meaning (to build a model/compression which is situated about then present context)… meaning that goes on to inform actions. 

           Stories provide a broader framework that enables us to understand the generalities, or looseness, of ideas. Stories can be embedded in a new context, and the nuggets of knowledge contained in these stories can be applied to a new range of settings.  As Orr (1990) puts it, "The key element is the situated production of understanding: through narration, in that the integration of the various facts of the situation is accomplished through a verbal consideration of those facts with a primary criterion of coherence. They do not know where they are going to find the information they need to understand and solve this problem. In their search for inspiration, they tell stories."

           The context set out by the storyteller will conjure up a new set of "related ideas" in the minds of each listener.  Meaning emerges from the combination of what the storyteller supplies and what the listener's mind now adds. Stories suggest new images, combinations of old and new ideas, and allow the listener to place him/herself in a simulacrum of related action.  Once again the choice of explanatory form can work to expand or restrict the degrees of freedom available to next actions.  Since narratives guide us through uncertainty and change, they are critical in how we deal with emergence. "People do not simply tell stories -- they enact them" (Pentland 1999.)

           "Our ultimate device for dealing with complexity and the other is narrative. We use narrative to rise above the local constraints of models. A narrative is not about the reality of a situation. Rather, the point of a story is to lay out in the open what the narrator suggests is important. Narratives are not about being objective, but are instead displays of subjectivity. A narrative is the representation of a compression, which is integrated at a higher level of analysis. Powerful narratives, like great pieces of music, feel as if they were inevitable when they are over, and we seem to agree on that. But note, even in a compelling story, the next line cannot be predicted. It is that feeling of inevitability that endows the great story with its ability to generate commensurate experience amongst independent listeners." (Zellmer, Allen, & Kesseboehmer, 2007)

            "...what is necessary? The answer is, something that preserves plausibility and coherence, something that is reasonable and memorable, something that embodies past experience and expectations, something which resonates with other people, something that can be constructed retrospectively but also can be used prospectively, something that captures both feeling and thought, …. In short, what is necessary in sense making is a good story" (Weick 1995: 60-61).