Working Papers -- Kent Palmer

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Working Papers
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THOUGHTS AT THINK.NET
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SERIES A NUMBER 2

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Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D.
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P.O. Box 1632 Orange CA 92856 USA 714-633-9508 palmer@think.net
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them further he would rewrite the paper on the same subject, and this would continue until he was satisfied with the result. He encouraged his students to do the same. And I picked up the habit from him and have spent my life applying this technique. If you look at my works you will see that they are all working papers. Very few finished papers exist among them. The good thing about this technique is that it helps you think about the subject, and discover what you think about it as you write, and thus you can explore areas quickly that you might not have been able to explore just thinking about them, making notes, and attempting to formulate a final position. We live in a time when the focus is on the final product of research not the journey of thinking. And so most thinkers are afraid of exposing their methods to scrutiny, because they do not want to be taken to task for errors. So there is a lot of polishing going on rather than new thinking. And this slows down progress in thought a great deal. For me the interest is in intellectual exploration rather than in producing finished publishable products. I am fortunate to live in an age where I am my own publisher, on the Internet, where I can publish all my half-baked ideas for those who are interested to look at if they wish. I do not bother polishing my works unless they are accepted into a conference in which case I get them edited and work at polishing them as best I can since they are going to be published. But I see this as something of secondary importance. Not being an academic I am not judged by the quantity of my publications. I thought in this thought capsule I would discuss this method and my use of this method to further my own thought. There is very little guidance available out in the literature on how to think, about the craft of thinking, and so I thought I would start this series off with those sorts of considerations. For me, a key technique is the working paper. Many times I will get interested in a subject and one of the

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Copyright 2007 K.D. Palmer. All Rights Reserved. Not for re-distribution. Version 0.1; 07.03.30 THOUGHTSatTHINKdotNET_PalmerKD 070330 A0002a.doc
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Abstract : Discussion of using Working Papers in Thinking through things.
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Keywords : Academic, Working Papers
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Tags : Academic, Thought
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Thinknet,

WorkingPapers,

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Working Papers

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My whole intellectual career has been based on writing working papers, not finished articles. I learned this technique in my very first class at the University of Kansas from Charles K. Warriner, professor of Sociology and Anthropology. It was an experimental class in which there ware Graduate Students and Undergraduates taking their first introductory Sociology class in the same class. It was very exciting to see what the Graduate Students were doing, and that introduction it led eventually to my getting a Ph.D. in Sociology. That class opened up a new world to me where sociology theory was a subject of intense interest. And I took several classes from Dr. Warriner whose own personal method was to write working papers on subjects in order to stimulate his own thinking about the subjects, and to share those thoughts with others in an unfinished form. After he had thought about the ideas for a while and perhaps researched

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first things I will do is try to write about it, once I have done a little research into it, so as to find out what I myself think about the subject, and in order to clarify the questions I am posing about the subject to myself. Many times I discover that by thinking things though myself I can say much more about a subject than I thought would be possible initially. And by trying and then failing to say something significant I discover what my own limitations are and what I need to concentrate on in order to improve my own knowledge and thinking about a subject. I have a standard word template set up which I use as the format of all my working papers. I write them in series where I move from topic to topic. Normally I either try to write twenty or ten pages in a paper depending on the topic. I try to make all the papers in the same series of similar length. Examples can be seen in my draft dissertations at http://holonomic.net. I am starting on my seventh draft dissertation. Each draft dissertation explores the subject from a different angle or with different emphasis. They record my discoveries as my research progresses. But many times the papers really emphasize what I do not know rather than what I do know. And I think this is the key to the use of the working paper as a tool for thinking. In the working paper on is exploring ones ignorance, not what one knows. Exposing ones ignorance, rather than one’s knowledge goes against the grain of academia, but it is essential for intellectual progress. I always write the paper as if I knew the answer to the questions I am posing. But in the process of attempting to say what I know about the subject, I run into problems, and it is these problems that become the focus of subsequent working papers, or they become the strange attractor around which a given working paper may revolve, endlessly, many times without any resolution in that working paper or even a series of working papers. Many times the actual answer to the question being attacked appears only much later, many times years

later. I will then try to write a working paper to capture that answer when it appears. Sometimes this is in the midst of writing on some other topic completely, in which case whatever I am writing at the time is high jacked in order to address a earlier issue that needs to be developed further. So working papers can be very sporadic in their development, not necessarily sticking to the topic they intended to address. However, it is important to capture what comes to mind when it appears rather than waiting till later when the context is more appropriate. Once one has externalized the thoughts then it is possible to rearrange the material later in order to make it more rational. But inspiration is difficult to kindle later on demand. So working papers tend to be an extremely volatile medium, because once one starts writing one can never really tell where one is going to end up or what the detours will be along the way. At any rate it has turned out that this technique has been very valuable as a way of recording my intellectual journey, and even as a vehicle for that journey. And I would encourage anyone who is intending to take up the craft of thought to begin writing working papers about what ever you are thinking about. I write these working papers in MS word and have gotten fast enough at typing that it is not a problem to sit down and just type away what I am thinking. But before this I wrote my working papers on paper in pen or pencil. What I like about typing them out is that it means I can immediately share those papers with others and attempt to get feedback on them. Of coruse, for the most part I get no feedback, but at least there is a chance this way. The down side of working papers is that you tend to get caught up in the adventure of thought and are not oriented toward finished products, and so the number of finished products produced is probably less than they might be otherwise. So it is not recommended for those who are interested in establishing their reputations as scholars who are always

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right and who only want to publish finished products. In working papers what is made visible is the path of thought itself, which is normally hidden from view in academic papers. But for those who want to learn how to think, or want to expand their repertoire of paths of thought, it is a boon. This is because by reading working papers one can learn how others go about thinking things through, and thus sharpen ones own approaches to thinking.
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A School of Thought

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While we are on this subject of learning how to think, let us mention that there is a distinction between Art School and Art History. But sadly there is no School of Thought in distinction to Philosophy Departments which study the History of Thought. The fact that there is no School where one can learn how to think philosophically, and the Philosophy departments try to fulfill that role, means that there is a stultifying influence that the Philosophy Departments have on thought in general. We live in an anti-intellectual society in general, but things are made worse because of the claim of philosophy departments to be the schools for thinking. Just as there is a difference between being and Artist and being an Art Historian, so there is a difference between being a Philosopher and a Historian of Philosophy. But in our society this difference is made moot by the fact that there are no Schools of Thought and only Philosophy Departments which are mostly engaged not in teaching people to think but to appreciate the history of what has already been thought. I would argue that Thinking is much more like the practice of Art, and there should be schools of thought just like there are Art Schools where on learns to practice the art of thinking deeply about things. The thinker is like an abstract artist, the materials are concepts rather than sensuous materials. The thinkers thoughts are a matter of their individual style more than they are determined by some sort of Logic or formalism of thought. Knowing the history of thought is essential, just like it is in art, but that

is only a point of beginning for ones own thoughts and self-expression conceptually, which leads to a life work of thinking things through thoroughly. So people like myself have had to try to figure out how to become a thinker oneself, and that is much more difficult than learning it from a master thinker. Of course, I have had my own teachers who have influenced me like Charles K. Warriner who taught me how to do working papers. But for the most part, the others I found were not interested in thinking as deeply as I wanted to go, so I soon left my teachers behind. Once one does that, one finds that one is profoundly alone in the world, because very few people are interested in thinking deeply about the world and life and the meaning of it all. For the most part, people are satisfied by finding out what others have thought, and then adopting some of the thoughts of others that appeal to oneself. But it is another thing completely to attempt to discover what one thinks oneself at the most profound level of ones being and existence. At that level each of us are unique. The great philosophers of our tradition are the ones who have managed to do that and capture their thoughts in print. To my mind the goal of each of us should be to be like those great philosophers of our tradition, and think the thoughts we are uniquely cut out to think in our extension of our tradition. But this is very difficult because what already exists in philosophy is very sophisticated. And it is difficult to master those earlier thinkers and enough of the tradition to say something new and interesting and relevant which is recognized eventually as being on the cutting edge of the tradition. It is important to take into account what the History of Philosophy tells us, and to attempt to master that to the extent we can. Already that tradition is too expansive for anyone to master completely. And thus specialization is forced on all of us. However, that should not prevent us from trying to strike out from that tradition and think our own thoughts that extend and expand on that which the tradition has already thought worthy. And in that it would be better for us if

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there were schools of thought where those who have tried to think deeply about things, teach those who are trying to do the same things what they have learned along the way. One thinks of the schools of artisans in the Renaissance who had their workshops, and who passed down the craft of their arts to their apprentices. What those workshops were able to produce was something better than what individual artists working on their own could ever hope to produce. There is a huge difference between naïve artists and those who are schooled. And now we have the problem that everyone who probes more deeply and wants to go beyond historicism needs to discover the techniques of thought on their own. I would make the case that what we are taught in philosophy and other departments in the universities is only the ground work for a life of thought. Universities do not teach students to think for themselves, outside the paradigm that is being taught as the truth at any given time at the university. University departments with an emphasis on traditional scholarship want their students to be somewhat creative but not too creative. If you are too creative you are soon labeled a crackpot and seen as being beyond the pale, of what is acceptable. The great thinkers are those who are able to hold their own in that system, and produce material that is radically new despite the pressures against it. But there are not too many of that type of scholar around. Rather the pressure to conform and not to go too far beyond the bounds of the acceptable is extremely great. Careers are easily ruined in academia if one gets too far out of the mainstream. And the basic mechanism for that is departmental politics. The number of scholars who are able to produce what they see fit to produce, without interference of this pressure are few. This is to say that the number of scholars who are able to take high risks in their thought, and push the envelope as far as possible and risk disgrace are only a few. The rest play it save, and thus they get their papers passed the peer

review, and they build a reputation that is in line with the academic norms, but we never know how many opportunities were lost because of this very conservative behavior on the part of most academics. The sign of this is how much is worth reading in the academic journals. There is a lot of material being published out there in the journals, but to my mind very little of it is worth reading, very little of it is genuinely saying something new and significant with respect to the cutting edge of the tradition. And so I place as my evidence for my assertion the products of this pressure to publish papers that are acceptable to one’s peers. What is acceptable to one’s peers is what does not rock the boat too much. It is thought, but it is for the most part safe thought. It is very unlikely to be Great thought, or Deep Thought. Take any area and look at the sameness of the papers that are produced. The bounds within which the thinkers are moving is very narrow in many respects. So what do we do since there are no schools of thought which are the counterparts of the Art Schools for Philosophy? My suggestion is to read as widely as possible, following one’s interest, and disregarding discipline boundaries. Each discipline has its luminaries, and there is a lot to learn from them. For instance, Gregory Bateson is an excellent example. His Steps to the Ecology of the Mind is an excellent example of an eclectic mind at work. There are many thinkers like this from whom one can learn a lot by reading their works and looking at them as guides on the path of thought, rather than just thinkers who have had certain finished thoughts. Steps to the Ecology of the Mind are Bateson’s working papers refined and printed. Much can be learned by studying them to learn the techniques of, and approach to, thinking rather than just the content of the thought. The content is good, but the teaching we can take from the way of thinking are even greater. My advice is to take each thinker’s works as a whole and to attempt to integrate their

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techniques of thought into one’s own repertoire. When you can take their positions on various issues beyond their stated positions oneself, when one can go beyond the information given and say what they would have said, about some issue, then one has truly understood their work. But understanding does not mean just being able to repeat their positions on things, but also to think the way they have thought about other things than they have talked about. When one can do that, then one can be said to have absorbed a thinker, and then one can move on to the next thinker, attempting to absorb their way of thinking as well. Out of this series of absorptions of the approach of many thinkers one finds what works best for oneself, and one finds ones own sea legs so to speak, and eventually one can develop ones own approach to thinking that is unique to oneself. That is of course the goal, to think for oneself, out of one’s experience, and out of one’s own concerns. Not to think like one’s teachers, or other great thinkers of history. One should aim at different content and different approaches than those one has learned. But this can only be obtained after an apprenticeship to the thinkers of our tradition. The Crackpot is the one who does not know where the cutting edge of the tradition is, and therefore is saying things that are not aligned with that cutting edge. To be relevant, or significant, or sensible, or meaningful what we say must align with the cutting edge of our tradition of our time as we know it. Yet we are always striving to go out beyond that cutting edge and to realize the possibilities for thought that exit there at the moment. This is what is difficult to do, i.e. keep in mind the cutting edge of the tradition, yet go beyond it in a significant way. Where the historians of philosophy think that cutting edge lies is completely different from where the thinkers of a given time would place that cutting edge. The genuine thinkers are way out beyond the cutting edge, while the historians are for the most part behind that edge. The historians are rethinking the past, where as the thinkers of a

given time are thinking out past that edge. And the greater or deeper the thought, the further out past the edge that it goes. I give Nietzsche as an example. He said his thought would not be understood for 100 years, and he was right about that. He was also very much alone in his work, because his work was not understood in his time. His books sold very badly, but he continued to work regardless, because he was on an intellectual adventure he was fated to take. Now his work is recognized as being more postmodern than the postmodernists. Heidegger says his work ended the metaphysical era. We are still confronting his work as being alive within our tradition, and it will be so for a long time to come. That is because of all the thinkers he is one who went out a long way beyond the cutting edge of the tradition in his time. So far in fact that we are still catching up. And this should be the goal of each of us to the extent we can manage. We want to avoid being crackpots but we also want to avoid the stultifying sameness of being no different from espousing ideas from the structural permutations of the tradition as it stands. We need to join A School of Thought and apprentice ourselves to the great thinkers in our tradition, but we also need to take those lessons and think beyond them to form our own school of thought which explores the wild territory beyond the cutting edge of our tradition. We want to go far enough to encounter the utterly new and unthought of, yet not so far that we loose sight of the edge of the tradition completely. Thinking deeply is all about avoiding those nihilistic alternatives of thinking so wildly that one loses ones way and becomes irrelevant, and not thinking wildly enough so that one is no different from all the others who are thinking within the bounds of the current paradigm, episteme, ontos, etc. But from my point of view it is better to get lost in the wilderness than to remain penned in and tame within the strictures of the academic fashions of ones time. It is better to be thought a crackpot than to merely have the same

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thoughts as everyone else, merely repackaged and mashed up and served up reheated from the microwave. Ultimately a school of thought should be a school of one. But along the way, one needs to learn as much as possible from one’s teachers and peers. The best teachers and best peers help you to become the thinker who has thought their own quintessence.

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Author: Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D. Thinker and Philosopher by inclination; System and Metasystem Theorist by design; Systems and Software Engineer by trade. See http://archonic.net/kent_palmer.html. See also http://think.net, http://dialog.net, http://archonic.net, http://autopoietic.net.
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