Intelligent and Insightful Institutions

27 December 2008

A Good Idea in the Midst of Disagreement

Lately I have been reading a book with which I am largely in disagreement. The book is Hermeneutics, by Richard E. Palmer. It was published in the series Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Northwestern published a lot of titles in the series in the 1960s and 1970s. I picked a lot of these titles up used at Powells, some of them quite cheap. Now many of these titles have been re-issued in different bindings. The titles that have not been re-issued are virtually unobtainable, and I am glad to have several of them. Moreover, I have a bookish fondness for these older bindings, as they remind me of the hours I have spent in used book stores building my library one volume at a time.


In any case, while I am largely in disagreement with the content of Hermeneutics, and while the tone and style of the author are a bit overwrought at times, on the very last page I found a passage of great insight:

“We become aware of historicality when we ask for something beyond the bogus objectivity of the theoretical and scientific, the visualizable and the mathematical — indeed, all the static, mechanical, purely ideational things that stand outside of history and do not involve our self-understanding to grasp them.” (1)

Even this brief passage reveals the tone of the author, but authorial tone aside, this observation can be made the ground of distinction: we can distinguish between those things that can be understood without self-understanding and those things that cannot be understood without self-understanding.

The Nature of Self-Understanding

Self-understanding is a special kind of understanding, and we might say that what we call “insight” is the commonsense, ordinary language term for self-understanding. In any case, in the present context we will allow ourselves to speak as thought insight and self-understanding are synonymous.

Like any other form of self-understanding, insight admits of degrees. It also admits of distinct kinds. One can have (or lack) insight into oneself; one can also have insight (or the lack thereof) into human nature, and insight into human nature is insight into both oneself and others. Furthermore, one can have insight (or lack of insight) into human institutions, into history, into society. In these instances of insight, one attains understanding of the object of knowledge by way of self-understanding, and, just as importantly, attains self-understanding through the understanding of a given object of knowledge. Here there is a reciprocal relationship (something that Palmer did not delineate in the quote above) between the understanding of a given object and the understanding of self.

Insight into what Palmer called “purely ideational things that stand outside of history” is that particular variety of insight that does not require self-understanding and the attainment of understanding of which does not confer self-understanding. That is to say, there is no reciprocal relation between the understanding of such an object and the understanding of oneself. While this, too, is a kind of insight, we will not consider it in the present context, except to note that while such understanding may not yield self-understanding in the pregnant sense, it certainly does yield understanding of the mind, its capabilities and limitations, i.e., intellectual self-understanding. With this we see that the self-understand to which Palmer refers is of a particular sort.

Intelligence and Insight

In several previous posts (It Takes All Kinds to Make a World, The Tension between Tradition and Innovation, and More on the Principle of Historical Viability) I developed the theme of intelligent institutions. Intelligent institutions are marked by their flexibility and adaptability, and were contrasted to unintelligent institutions lacking the ability to adapt to changed circumstances. It was also suggested that there remains the possibility of more acute institutions that would surpass the merely intelligent, able to adapt not only to external but also to internal crises.

“Intelligent” implies a kind of cleverness or calculation or cunning. It carries with it the connotation of mundane forms of human rationality. Intelligence in this sense is given its most damning gloss in L. E. G. Brouwer. Now, Brouwer is better remembered (for those who do remember him) as a philosopher of mathematics, the founder of intuitionism, but Brouwer also published a remarkable collection of aphorisms – Life, Art, and Mysticism – of a quite pronounced pessimistic bent, in which the intellect is characterized in unremittingly negative terms (and revealing the influence both of Rousseau and Schopenhauer). (2)

philosopher of mathematics, mystic, and pessimistic social theorist

L. E. J. Brouwer: philosopher of mathematics, mystic, and pessimistic social theorist

If we grant these implications and connotations (of the intellect as cunning), we can reserve “insightful” for human rationality beyond the mundane, reason beyond mere cleverness, calculation, or cunning. Wittgenstein implied just this distinction (between mundane and insightful rationality) when he said of Freud, “…wisdom is something I never would expect from Freud. Cleverness, certainly; but not wisdom.” (3)

Fellow Austrians Freud and Wittgenstein

Fellow Austrians Freud and Wittgenstein: Who is merely clever and who is truly wise?

Let “insight” carry the connotation of intuition and instinct informed by wisdom. Thus insight is, for our present purposes, a more profound form of knowledge and cognitive compentency than intelligence. Insight, for our present purposes, is knowledge informed by self-knowledge. Not all knowledge is informed by self-knowledge. In the quote from Palmer, above, he singled out mathematical and technical knowledge as being possible without self-knowledge. We can posit a class of knowledge that shares this characteristic. We can also posit an approach to all knowledge that takes this as a presupposition, i.e., that knowledge can be attained without self-knowledge.

The Possibility of Insightful Institutions

The possibility of insight as elucidated above suggests the possibility not only of individual insight, but of insightful institutions, i.e., institutions formulated in the light of insight. Insightful institutions, formulated on the basis of human self-knowledge, would mark a step beyond intelligent or perhaps even acute institutions. However, we are no longer working within a simple hierarchy, as with ordinary, intelligent, and acute institutions. Insightful institutions represent something distinct and different. What I wish to suggest here is that higher levels of civilization, wherever they have appeared in history, are the result of the emergence of insightful institutions. (4) Some of these insightful institutions are still deeply flawed (i.e., deeply human), and therefore are not yet acute institutions. As I just noted, however, we are not here working with a strict hierarchy. Even an ordinary institution may represent a certain (limited) insight into the human condition.

Can insightful institutions be cultivated, and not merely organically appear? My gut feeling is yes, but this is rare. Perhaps the conditions of cultivating insightful institutions should be a topic for a future post in this forum.

I have already gone one for quite some length, so while it would be worthwhile to consider what is sometimes called “second nature” in the light of our above explication of the possibility of insightful institutions, this will have to wait for another occasion.

Happy thinking,



Note (1) Palmer, Richard E., Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969, p. 253.

Note (2) Brouwer, L. E. J., Life, Art, and Mysticism, translated by Walter P. Van Stigt, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 1996.

Note (3) Wittgenstein: Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, Compiled from Notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees and James Taylor, Edited by Cyril Barrett, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, no date, p. 41.

Note (4) I fully realize that distinguishing some civilizations as “higher” than others is controversial and likely to be emphatically rejected.

One Response to “Intelligent and Insightful Institutions”

  1. Mary Jo Ashton said

    Could you give some examples of an insightful institution?

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