Texts about a philosophy of practice?
January 3, 2015 12:07 PM   Subscribe

For the last few months, I'm trying to find essays, texts, thoughts, manuals, blogs, about "a philosophy of practice" or a "philosophy of experience", and failing to do so. I'm looking for philosophers, scientists, artists, architects, military generals, business practitioners, etc, who write about ways of thinking that are applicable to practice. Defined more specifically inside:


Let's say you are a MacGyver-esque action hero in training.

Crucial to your practice is knowing how to improvise, knowing how to look at available objects in a new way, take them apart, put them together in new ways, in order to escape locked rooms / enter new places / defeat Bad Guys. From AHU (Action Hero University), you have a healthy amount of physics/chemistry/mathematics schooling, you've taken advanced courses in Duct Tape And Paper Clips, you minored in Pyrotechnics and majored in underwater breathing, and you even did some projects where you made your own straitjacket escape mechanisms.

Yet the first time you go on your first mission, you realize you are completely underequipped. All those courses have not actually taught you what it's like to inflitrate Bad Guy Lair, to coordinate with your high-tech gadget supplier, to communicate with your backup team, to improvise when you only have a broken bottle and a tazer, not to mention the psychological mindset that's different. You complete your mission, but barely.

"What's going on?" you wonder, and you ask mentors and friends and colleagues and former professors about this. "I need more to be an action hero. Not many of my courses at AHU prepared me for this. And more importantly, it doesn't seem like I could prepare for future missions by studying a course or by learning; the stuff I need is some other kind of knowledge that I won't gain by studying more from at AHU."

The people around you say things like:
"Well, these lessons just come from experience."
"You just have to learn by doing."
"You need to learn how to make good gut decisions."

This is not satisfying enough, because it seems like it's banishing understanding to this realm where it cannot be shared, discussed well, and only absorbed through personal experience. There must be better ways to discuss these things. And even if you agree that experience is a primary method of learning, some people absorb experiences in quicker, better, different ways. Why is that, and what is that knowledge called?

Years later, you decide to start a school - the MacGuyver Institute for General and Holistic Tactics and Strategies (MIGHTS). What kind of courses would be taught at MIGHTS? What kind of discussion would be had, and how would you transfer your knowledge to future Action Heros? What kind of experiences would be created for students? What kind of writings and talks would be helpful to read while experiencing?


My practice, somewhat in the realm of architecture, involves thinking about issues and trying to create a complex system that solves these issues. Often times, this is called "design", but I find that doesn't accurately describe the knowledge that I'm looking for. In architecture, there's an oft-repeated statement that design is about 5% of architectural practice; the rest is organizational/managerial 'design'. I'm sure business, production, engineering, military practices are somewhat similar.

I think the MacGyver analogy is kind of a generalizable problem. How does a CEO know how to become a CEO, and while much of that knowledge may be gained through experience, how do you gather other forms of knowledge? How does an architect know how to become an architect? How does a software engineer know how to build software? There's domain-specific knowledge, yes, but the question of "how to learn through experience" is a shared question amongst many different practices.

For example - creating a software startup is not just about knowing how to program well; it involves programming patterns, programming paradigms (OOP vs FP), organizational/managerial paradigms (ex: holacracy), business strategies (VC? IPO? MVP & ramen profitability? Exit strategy?). For that reason, it seems like there's a lot of interesting discussion in the realm of startups that border on philosophy. (Paul Graham's essays, Sam Altman's talks, etc.)

So I'm looking for thinkers/doers/writings/essays/projects that go into this in-depth - a philosophy of practice, heuristics of experiential learning, design patterns, etc. Perhaps these texts are in the realm of philosophy of science, or educational theory, which I have little knowledge of. I find Bret Victor's talks, or Richard Feynman's interviews to be particularly enlightening; some of Bruno Latour's texts can be pretty important; 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness' is an essay that I think has this approach within activism.

I'm not looking for historical/theoretical discussions that remain only in the realm of thought and discourse. I've had my fill of critical theory, and while writers like Foucault, Adorno, Deleuze, or Delanda are fascinating and invigorating, they seem especially removed from any notion of practice or action.

TL:DR - I'm looking for ways of thinking that are applicable to practice, as well as discussions about these ways of thinking -- across any and all practices/disciplines.
posted by suedehead to Education (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Are you familiar with the term "praxis"? I'm not entirely sure that it covers all of what you're looming for, but definitionally it is theory+practice, or more the practice of a particular theory. Googling " architectural praxis " brought up some interesting hits.
posted by zinful at 12:15 PM on January 3, 2015

One last addendum: I realize that my question might seem pretty open-ended. But "book-learning", or certain types of academic education seems relatively defined in comparison. Why is my question so open-ended in the first place?

The question I'm trying to answer is:
Loosely speaking, there seems to be a split between specific facts / specific knowledge / deep learning about a single topic, and 'holistic', 'interdisciplinary', 'organizational' knowledge that is much less defined. Why is that?

For example:
Understanding basic chemistry (the composition of of atoms, molecular bonds, etc) is knowledge that is fairly defined, and thus shared/taught easily.
Understanding how to run a successful chemistry experiment is slightly less defined.
Understanding how to run a research lab in chemistry is a lot less defined.
Understanding how to make new discoveries in chemistry with my lab is very not defined.

I could have a very comprehensive, very deep and good knowledge of chemistry, yet not make new discoveries in chemistry or not know how to run a research lab at all.

Why is this? Who discusses why this is? Why is it handwaved away into the near-mystical realm and usually called "gut instinct" and "experience"? Why is it abstracted away from chemistry and called "managerial experience"? How would I become a better scientist, run a lab, and make more discoveries in chemistry?
posted by suedehead at 12:17 PM on January 3, 2015

Cal Newport's blog has been discussing deliberate practice quite a lot lately which might be interesting to you.
posted by Middlemarch at 1:15 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

The OODA loop developed by Colonel John Boyd may fit part of what you're asking for.

I honestly know little about it, but people I respect seem to respect it a lot, and it's associated with things like the famously hilarious upset that happened in the US military's Millennium Challenge 2002, as well business strategy and fighter pilot tactics.

I don't think anything will be a perfect fit for what you're describing though. You seem to be asking for a universal theory. In practice that's either going to be divorced from practice, or too complex to be helpful.
posted by tychotesla at 1:16 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might get something of what you're looking for from Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He also has a Ted talk, I think. This book has been applied to various disciplines interested in the embodied experience of doing (he was chair of Psych at U of Chicago for years).
posted by third rail at 1:51 PM on January 3, 2015

Donald Schön is one of the first people to really try to provide some kind of description (or model) for the phases of practice, plus I also think a lot of current writing around practice as research in art and design may overlap with what you are looking for - have a look at Michael Biggs for starters.
posted by Chairboy at 3:00 PM on January 3, 2015

The Scientific Leadership and Management (SLAM) group might have some materials that directly address the "how to run a research lab" question. They use (or at least did use) the textbook Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists.

The group was started to more formally teach "effective management techniques", so you might find that some/most of what you're looking for appears in more serious management books; perhaps you could read someone like Peter Drucker, who
...taught that management is “a liberal art,” and he infused his management advice with interdisciplinary lessons from history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, culture and religion.
posted by clawsoon at 3:20 PM on January 3, 2015

I would also point out that most "book learning" also requires experience and practise to really learn; a textbook without homework questions isn't really a textbook. The major difference is actually between skills that can be learned by a single person practising alone, and skills that require other people to practise with.

I can practise math problems with a pencil and paper; I can't practise leading a squadron into battle without a squadron.
posted by clawsoon at 3:25 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett is all about looking at work as a craft, as he himself is a sort of hybrid sociologist/pragmatic philosopher. I loved the book, it's one of my favorites!
posted by ipsative at 11:38 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here is a review of the book on The Guardian :)
posted by ipsative at 11:41 PM on January 3, 2015

You might find The Practice of Everyday Life, especially its lesser-known second volume, to be of interest. The first volume is more theoretical, while the second volume is more sociological, and primarily written by De Certeau's collaborators.
posted by dizziest at 11:55 AM on January 4, 2015

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