they keep telling us.
As if it would always be obvious where ‘up’ and ‘down’ are…
In his efforts to figure up how society works Max Weber has introduced the concept of “ideal type”:
“Ideal type, a common mental construct in the social sciences derived from observable reality although not conforming to it in detail because of deliberate simplification and exaggeration. It is not ideal in the sense that it is excellent, nor is it an average; it is, rather, a constructed ideal used to approximate reality by selecting and accentuating certain elements.”
In other words, Weber proposed that in order to better understand social interactions we should first divest everything we consider unimportant from whatever we are studying and then concentrate our attention on what, in our opinion, ‘makes the world go round’.
Key words here, in my opinion, being “our opinion”.
Common lore, somewhat older than organized ‘science’, used to speak about ‘put yourself in his shoes’.
To me this way of putting it shows two different things.
Commoners are more humble than scientists – none of them pretends to know which are the aspects that have to be taken into account and which are those that should be discarded – and, maybe even more important, a lot more ‘democratically minded’ – ‘put yourself in his shoes’ plainly states that both opinions, ‘his’ and ‘yours’, have equal value.
In this sense ‘look from above’ seems a rather ‘scientific’ attitude, don’t you think?
By telling somebody that he should search a vantage point and then examine the situation from there actually suggests him to construct one of Weber’s ideal types.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong.
Of course this is exactly how human minds work.
Whenever we look at something – no matter how open minded we believe ourselves to be about it – we do it from a personal point of view. There’s no way that we can reasonably pretend otherwise.
The real problem is what we do next.
When ever we try to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes we have to make a choice.
We can either try to understand/feel what we would have understood/felt if those things would have happened to us or we can try to imagine what the original owner of the shoes understood/felt then, when things were actually happening to him, in ‘real time’.
I’m sure you all see the difference.
This is why, whenever I’m asked ‘please look at this situation from above and tell me your conclusion’, I always start with ‘all I can do is offer my opinion on this, accompanied by a stern warning: My opinion is just that, an opinion. It can happen to be more accurate than yours but it can also be wrong. If you still want it I’ll gladly put it on the table and let us all discuss it.’
On the practical level Nicholas Nassim Taleb proposes that we should shift our focus from trying to determine which is the best option in a given situation to doing our best to avoid choosing the obviously wrong ones.
‘Obvious’ to those who do not allow themselves to become mesmerized by the illusion that ‘best’ can be identified, o course.