Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Art, Intelligence, and Training

John Dewey, American philosopher
"In art as experience, actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning, are integrated in an experience in which they are all transfigured from the significance that belongs to them when isolated in reflection. 'Nature,' said Goethe, 'has neither kernel nor shell.' Only in esthetic experience is it also true that nature has neither subjective nor objective being; is neither individual nor universal, sensuous nor rational. The significance of art as experience is, therefore, incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought."
 --John Dewey, Art as Experience


For Dewey and the pragmatists, analytic reflection, however necessary, is insufficient for intelligence because analytic reflection is always dissociative. Analysis always selects from experience, cutting it open by attending to this and not that. It makes progress by fixing certain variables with the attention and ignoring others. This way of slicing the universe up is absolutely essential to growth and progress, but if we confuse the distinctions that analysis makes for the nature of reality itself, then analytic reflection can stifle philosophical thought--the intelligent pursuit of wisdom.

Perhaps this is less of a problem for non-philosophers than it is for philosophers, who because of their commitment to the value of intelligence are uniquely prone to intellectual fallacies. The classic problems in philosophy, Dewey thought, committed a similar intellectual fallacy in the attempt to reduce all of experience to one analytic concept. So, for example, "objectivists" believe that the real world exists completely independent of any mind that would attempt to know it, while "subjectivists" argue that each of us can make our own reality simply by thinking it. The truth, as common sense tells us, is that neither position adequately grasps the relationship between reality and the mind. The history of philosophy has been a long wrangle between varieties of these sorts of reductive claims, neither side ever winning because both of them were essentially committing the same intellectualist error. They attempted to reduce all of experience to a single and one-sided idea that is perfectly useful for analysis, but wrongheaded when it comes to metaphysical speculation.

This is why Dewey wrote that "the significance of art as experience was incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought." While analysis breaks the world apart, the experience of art is integrative. Art, both as product and as process of production, brings a divided world together. It is the sort of doing and experiencing that attempts to bring us into a more intimate and full relationship with reality. It takes a world that has been parceled out by our reflective capacities into various entities -- corporations, classes, races, nationalities, religions, political persuasions, friends, families, and enemies -- and attempts to bring these things into relation with each other. Art as an experience reminds us that the most essential task in living is not to divide our lives into parts through the understanding, but to learn how to balance in action its separate tasks in harmonious relation.

Here, as always, training provides a useful example. In order to be intelligent in training, we have to learn how to divide it up into its components. General concepts like variety, consistency, volume, periodization, recovery, frequency help us focus on various aspects of the training process. Physiological concepts like aerobic, anaerobic, lactic threshold, heart rate, perceived effort, cadence, etc. also allow us to break the effects of training on the body apart and look at its development from various angles. All of these concepts can help us to understand training.

However, understanding how training works from a variety of angles is very different from having a training philosophy. Producing a philosophy requires not only analytic intelligence, but also creative and synthetic intelligence. After the act of running has been broken apart into its various components, the runner must put the pieces back together in a particular way and create something like a philosophy--or at the very minimum, a plan.

I prefer the term "philosophy" to plan because as every runner knows plans have to be modified according to circumstances. Much more essential to proper training is having a way of approaching your running life that is balanced, flexible, and responsive--in short, living. This is the only form in which intelligence comes, as the only meaning of intelligence is nothing more or less than a way of living life that is in balance and growing and adapting to its environment.

Constructing such a philosophy is not something that happens overnight, but I suppose what Dewey would tell us is that when we are considering how to train well, we ought to extend our research beyond training manuals and old training logs. We also ought to also read novels, listen to music, and watch artists of other endeavors for signs of how to construct our own vision.


There is one trait that all of my best coaches had in common. They were all characters. They were quirky, bright, and different from the rest of the people that I met, each in their own way. I think this is because they realized that the secret to showing people the path to success was much less about understanding and more about deliberate and conscious attention to the unities that experience offers. They practiced coaching as an art.

Perhaps if you pay close attention to experience, you are bound turn out a little strange. That strangeness is a reflection of a simple fact: that one has learned how to extract from the world a secret or two that no one else has learned to see. These coaches were characters because there was something in them that tended to unity. You saw that they had fashioned for themselves a whole person, and even though that wholeness was quirky and couldn't really be understood, it was there, constructed out of a lifetime of attention and art.

This quirky integrity made you do a simple thing: pay attention. Which turned out to be the difference.

Bonus clip, from the Flying Monkey Marathon:


'Think Monkey' from Funky Umbrella on Vimeo.

4 comments:

  1. Nice. I have always thought training as divided between the how (the philosophy) and the what (the plan). The how instructs the what; it provides general thoughts, ideas, and structures or frameworks for your approach to training. The what builds off those frameworks, fleshing it out with a schedule of specific workouts that are designed and selected to move you towards your goal. Based on that, it's often easy to identify those who have not developed their training philosophy; they have a grab bag of workouts picked from various sources, with no real thought put into how they work together.

    I liken it to the story of the three blind men who come across an elephant. Each of them is feeling a different part of the elephant, and thinks he can derive the whole object from that one piece. However, none of them is able to come to the understanding that what they have encountered is more than the sum of its parts, and therefore is an entirely different entity than what each believes. The dissection of the object, the system, and subsequent separation of its components leaves us with a lesser understanding of how the whole works together.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Scout. I think you can see in Dewey the influences of Stoicism in this emphasis on building something that works as a whole. I imagine your work in systems analysis also looks at these issues.

    One point that Dewey makes in Art as Experience is modern life is hostile to aesthetic unity in its dual emphasis on multi-tasking and specialization. (These of course go hand in hard, and can result in narrow lives of distraction. Contemporary ways of running don't escape these problems, and it can be a narrow pursuit. But interestingly once you go deep enough into an activity, it seems to open out onto so many other things. When this happens, it can center a person and offer glimpses of aesthetic unity that can be launching points for wider living harmonies.

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  3. The problem with thinking for yourself is that you wake up one day and realize that you're a weirdo. This happened to me several years ago. I decided to embrace it with good humor.

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  4. You are definitely a weirdo, yep.

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