The monk in nous

monk IIII.bmp

In his comment on yesterday’s post, Patrick helped me clarify what I was trying to get in the last few posts. Here’s my reply to him:

Patrick, I guess I wanted to get at two things: a change in the self and a change in the world. I think this is the place that anthropology and economics do not play well together.

Change in the self:

Here’s how Geertz defines our notion of the self.

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures. (emphasis added)

Now I understand that most of this is “surplus to requirement” from an economics point of view. For the economist, it is enough to posit a rational actor using scarce resources in the pursuit of costly choices. But, for anthropological purposes, it’s important to see how the culture(s) in question define who and what the person is.

In our culture(s), there is an inclination to posit the person as something bounded and integrated, with a center, as a whole. We presume that the person is well organized within and well bounded without.

Change in the world:

This “person” now lives in a world of great variety and dynamism. The world changes often and unpredictably. Our basic notions of family, work, politics, entertainment and engagement are under constant reconstruction. It used to be that our grandparents could not imagine the world in which we live. Now it is the person we were 20 years ago who would find this challenging. (This is a nice anthropological experiment: imagine the things you would have to tell the person you were 20 years ago to explain where and what you are now. Usually, this is a long and relatively difficult conversation in which our younger self ends up sounding like Kevin Klein from A Fish Called Wanda a lot of the time: “What’s the middle part, again?”.)

To live in such a world is a problem. It demands of us a new capacity to see what has changed, to think about what has changed, and to respond what has changed. One thing is clear. If we use the old Western concept of person, the one specified by Geertz, we turn the problem into a crisis. If what we try to do is keep the self bounded, integrated, centered and whole, we are sure to make a hash of things. Adaptive advantage goes to people who are newly porous and multiple and messy.

The monk in nous

Most of us are still trying to deal with a newly dynamic world with the old model of the self. And it’s this, I think, that has occasioned this rash of diagnostic enthusiasm in which we attribute DSM symptoms to normal people. Time to give up the old paradigms and start again. What I like about CAS theory is that it appears to take for granted the very things the old notion of the self finds problematic: multipleness, messiness, vigilance, and the capacity for threshold change. From the old DSM point of view, these do look like symptoms. From the CAS point of view, they are ordinary adaptive responses.

Back to economics. The irony here is that economics, or at least the operation of a world predicated on an invisible hand model, is what makes the world so dynamic. When Hakek talks about a world that emerges for the actor from “a process more complex and extended than he [the actor] could comprehend,” he was talking about the world we know. All those actors, with all those intentions, fashion a world that is constantly “on the boil.” And in this world, the economic actor must change. Not least, he must learn to skip from one set of assumptions to another with extraordinary CAS agility. (I was recently talking to a woman who says that at the moment she must answer to three bosses: one coming, one going, one competing for the job. She must judge everything she does from 3 completely different sets of assumption. Yes, I thought to myself, you are learning how to be a CAS.)

This is another way of saying economics is very good at assuming (and creating) the dynamism of the world. It is not clear to me that it is so good at assuming and explaining the dynamism that now exists in the actor.

So this is my challenge to the economics reader. What, if anything, happens to the economics point of view when we posit an economic actor who is a CAS, messy, multiple, dynamic and inclined to sudden threshold changes? Or better, what can anthropology, through a better understanding of the new economic actor, bring to the party?


Geertz, Clifford. 1974-1984. “From the native’s point of view” On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. Culture theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. editors Robert Alan LeVine, and Richard A Shweder, 123-36. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 13-14.

4 thoughts on “The monk in nous

  1. Patrick

    Grant, I need more from you in the second section. It’s not clear to me why someone who is less “bounded, integrated, centered and whole,” has an advantage. I would accept even a demonstrative economic advantage, leading to cultural adaptation, though a genetic-adaptive explanation would be best.
    It doesn’t seem crazy that someone with a very simple self might have the advantage. If I’m clear on my goals, and firmly in control of my limited tools, I should be able to pilot my ship very effectively through stormy and rapidly changing waters. If I have to worry about my ship _also_ changing shape and design on the top of every wave, I now have exponentially increased the difficulty of my decisions and the likelihood of ending up at the bottom.

  2. steve

    If I can be a bit contrarian for a minute, let me advance a few propositions that may not sit comfortably with this very interesting analysis. First, I do not think it is historically accurate that today’s world is more culturally disorienting than other periods during and after the Industrial Revolution. My 20-years-ago self would not have that much trouble understanding my current life compared to what this would have meant for my grandmother at a similar stage. I could be wrong here, but I think we tend to have cognititve biases that make recent changes seem more wrenching that previous changes. I do agree that today’s society has much, much more plenitude than in the past, but it seems more like cross-sectional variation has increased than time-series variation, if that makes sense in this context.

    Second, we need to be careful about how we talk about CAS. CAS are “adaptive” in the sense that each agent in the swarm adapts its decision rules over time; whether or not the system as a whole is “adaptive” is not even meaningful in a technical sense. Even if we postulate some sort of aggregate measures of system performance AND describe exogenous shocks to the whole system that require system-level adaptation to maintain performance, there is no guarantee that a CAS will display such adaptability. It all depends on the specifics of the internal workings of the agent interactions, the starting points for all the agents’ decision rules, etc. There is nothing like a science of CAS that can predict the mapping from agent behavior and interaction rules to system behavior. It’s all just case-by-case simulations at this point.

    Third, I’m sceptical of the Geertzian claim that only Westerners believe in a bounded, integrated, active-center self. What little I know of traditional Japanese literature and folklore suggests that their notion of the self wasn’t that different–of course, the nature of the social obligations that individuals had to deal with was very different, but the dramatic tension and storytelling quality seem to depend on very much the same notion of self that Westerners hold. And hasn’t Shakespeare been pretty popular in Asia? I guess cultures that believe in witchcraft and/or the routine possession of individuals by various spirits really do have somewhat different notions of the self’s boundaries and coherence, but that doesn’t seem like what your analysis points us toward.

    Finally, even if all the above were ignored, I’m not sure that a fragmented self is the best response to a fragmented cultural environment. If the disparate pressures the individual faces interact in an important way, then resolving contradictions and making tradeoffs is going to be crucial for individual survival–a person with three bosses cannot decide on how to satisfy each one in isolation, but rather must integrate all the conflicting pressures into a coherent survival strategy. Only in a world where the various pressures on the individual were compeltely independent would a fragmented self be functional.

  3. Patrick


    Thanks for your response. I guess a messy and complex self is preferable to a simple one because the former gives as a greater range and variety of responses to the world.

    I have a friend who has done very well as a marketer at Coca Cola, a capital markets company and now a strategy firm. He has succeeded at each and all of these assignments because he is able to draw on diverse aspects of his past. His mother was an artist and his Dad a CEO. This gives him good range. He has “knocked around” with a variety of life experiences, odd jobs, relationships with a variety of women. (He was once for instance a bus boy for Martha Stewart.)

    Working with him on the job, I have seen him resort to his diverse background and his own diversity of experience to adapt to changes in the corporate culture at Coke, the changing marketplace, his own move from industry to industry. He is working his internal complexity to talk to external complexity.

    People who are raised in a more monolithic world to hold more unified and consistent views of themselves and the world may be very good at responding to one particular challenge, but they have much more trouble adapting when the world shifts its basic assumptions. And there is lots of that these days. This is precisely like the old view of evolution that said that a species had a great fit with the environment and could only respond to a new environment with a genetic variation. The complexity theory boys see species containing a diversity of response in the first instance.

    Or we could go back to the woman mentioned in the post, the one with effectively 3 bosses to answer to. She has to run three sets of assumptions at any given minute and hop from one to the other in order to keep everyone happy. This means she has to cultivate a talent for working from different points of view, and this means she has to draw on her own diversity and experience to find a way to make this happen. Advantage, in this case professional survival, goes to the person who can manage complexity, and in this case, her ability to manage complexity without comes from her ability to harness complexity within.

    Thanks again,


  4. Grant


    Thanks very much for the contrarian point of view. Very useful. (Among other things, it forces my ideas to respond to a more various intellectual environment than I can create for myself!)

    First, this is absolutely true, that there have always been historical moments of great dynamism. An Elizabethan had to adapt to fundamental shifts in religious poractice. And as the Protestant reformation continued to work its way through the 16th century, these changes were bewildering and difficult. Any moment of historical transition creates this dynamism.

    I guess what is structurally different about the present day is that 1) this change is not the exception but the rule, 2) our “reformation” touches every aspect of life, 3) innovation can and does come from many origins, 4) in sum, almost everything is changing almost all the time. There is no, “whew, glad that’s settled with, let’s get back to normal.” Crises are continual, adjustments temporary.

    Second, I am using the CAS notion as adapted by Clippinger and company. This group treats the corporation as a CAS, so that there remains some overarching coordination between the competing units. (This departs from what the Santa Fe people intended, but I believe they are obliged to simply acknowledge the fact that their ideas, their memes, are changing as they enter new intellectual environments!)

    Third, I take the exceptionalist view of Western culture. I believe this is an experiment the species has not tried before. Perhaps the biggest piece of this experiment comes in our individualism, our willingness to separate individuals from collectivities and to give them the right and the necessity of defining themselves by their own efforts for their own purposes. Many have argued that this is precisely the thing that is missing in Japan where the individual, some individuals anyhow, continue to bow before the demands of the group (family, corporation, nation) on who they should be and what freedoms they may exercise.

    Fourth, I agree that people need some integration at the “executive level,” some “conning tower” from which to see the challenge is and choose the response. But, to refer back to my post to Patrick, the best responses seem to come from people with messy selves not unitary ones.

    This is one of the reasons, I believe, that corporations are now sometimes frustrated by the products of the traditional MBA program, about which you and I know a thing or two. The trouble with these programs is that they do not encourage or honor or engage enough internal complexity. At HBS we tended to say, “but all that other stuff at the door. You are know a unitary decision maker. Occasionally, I would engage students in discussions about their life experience or contemporary music, and they would give me a sudden look of surprise, as if to say “But I thought that was off the table here at HBS.” A larger topic to be discussed over drinks sometime.)

    Back to messy selves. My ethnographic work for Kodak has been useful here. When you sit with someone going through their photo album you are looking, sometimes, at their variety of selves and you listen to them struggle to find a narrative to make all the selves consistent. You also realize, and this comes as a shocker, that the way they manage this complexity is sometimes by strategically forgotting oneself when they are operationalizing another. Call this selective or strategic amnesia. Albums are difficult to talk about because they force us to talk about all the selves at once.

    Thanks for another great extraordinary post!

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