Specialization of labor is one of the primary reasons why the modern world is as wealthy as it is. Conceptual labor is a special case of this general trend; one of the primary reasons why we seem much more knowledgeable than the past is the producers of knowledge are as specialized as producers of consumer goods, and concepts are as varied and precise as consumer goods. The rest of this post expands on that concept and discusses implications for mining wisdom from the past, as well as communicating in the present.

To illustrate what I mean by precision in concepts, let's consider the paraphrased version of an interaction I had with another LWer recently. For some reason, Yoda and Luke's exchange in Dagobah came up. Yoda says, "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

"That doesn't make any sense," my friend griped.

I was immediately swarmed by a rush of connected sensible concepts that Yoda's statement points to, not sure which one to point out first. Even if it is not be generally useful or applicable, it still shines in context as a specific response to Luke's defeatist attitude. There's a specific failure mode where people put in an effort without expecting to succeed, and are handicapped by their lack of effort, and another failure mode where people expect to succeed without putting in effort, and are again handicapped by their lack of effort. One could even also consider over-achievement failure modes as identified by the same quote--the point is not how hard you tried, but whether or not you successfully completed the task. Some people self-handicap so that they'll have an excuse for failure if they fail, and Stuck in the Middle with Bruce also seems relevant. 

One of the things I learned in practicing the Alexander Technique could be labeled by this phrase. I would describe it as doing something to discover whether or not it succeeds, rather than trying to force it to succeed or fail. It was taught (to me, at least) as part of sitting down into a chair: I was spending a tremendous amount of muscular effort in my legs controlling my descent, which my teacher thought was unnecessary. "Don't worry about whether or not it'll work if you don't force it," she said, "don't force it and see what happens. It's okay if you collapse onto the ground--I'd rather than happen than you continue to do the same wrong thing." (I didn't collapse; the effort was unnecessary. But even if it had been necessary under the trajectory I was using, that would have helped identify what trajectory I should have been using.)

Later, I was driving and noticing that my left leg was in an awkward position. In my mental map of the car, there was not enough space for my leg to be extended comfortably--er, like many kinesthetic things, this is hard to convey in words. I don't mean that my leg was straightened at the knee joint, but that my hip, knee, and ankle were aligned in the same plane, instead of twisted, and that my knee was pointing up and ahead, instead of to the side. According to my mental map of the car, the leg had to be twisted to fit. I said to myself "you know what? It doesn't matter what my map says. I'm going to straighten my leg and see what happens." (My map was wrong; there was space to my leg to be comfortably aligned instead of twisted.) I see the quote as deeply related to the distinction between the map and the territory, and the harms that come from having a bad map. I see the quote as pointing to a lot of interesting and relevant findings in motivational psychology.

But... let's go back to the quote. Even if you include a bit of necessary context, it's only ten words. "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try." While this might serve as a label or as a pointer, it can hardly serve as an explanation. Most importantly, the quote is not long enough to exclude incorrect interpretations.

Consider Yoda's previous line: "No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned." One can easily take that frame and place my car-leg-epiphany inside it, but just the frame seems insufficient to generate the car-leg-epiphany, or to differentiate between concepts that should be unlearned (that my leg can't fit) and ones that shouldn't (the particulars of how to direct the car with the wheel). Yoda's statements only make sense retrospectively; once one understands what Yoda understands, then they can infer what he meant to say.

To quote one of Kaj_Sotala's facebook updates:

It's damn annoying when you feel like you've finally unlocked the wisdom behind what used to sound like old platitudes, and feel like this gives you superpowers, but you also feel that you can't communicate the insight to anyone because they'd just hear the old platitudes.

Sometimes, someone's problem really is just that they must unlearn what they have learned. But you can't just tell them that--you have to explain it. Which returns us to conceptual specialization and precision.

In abstract mathematics, many of the concepts that people find interesting and novel now were almost entirely unknown centuries ago. But when it comes to interacting with people, organizing a group, and other old fields, it seems likely to me that any concept discussed today was probably first noticed long, long ago, but perhaps only clearly articulated recently.

Great thinkers in the past probably did know much more than it seems on a first look; there have long been very clever people who can figure many things out for themselves. It seems much more difficult to figure out how to communicate something correctly, because that requires not just recognizing deep principles, but also learning lots of probably surprising facts about neurodiversity. When one makes a deliberate effort to teach a concept to a wide variety of people that one learns all the misconceptions that must be pruned from the audience's mind and from the teacher's presentation. But without specialization, a teacher is not trying to teach 'recognizing microexpressions,' but 'interacting with people,' which is too large a subject to effectively teach, or to generate a sufficient repertoire of instructive techniques. That suggests they can be worth reading--but only once you know enough about the underlying subject to surmount any communication obstacles from your side of the divide.

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Looking back, I think Yoda just wasn't prepared in giving a crash course on Force use. He spent his career in the Jedi temple. It was a monastic order where initiates were expected to spend their time pondering the Force. In that setting, it makes sense to give a few snippets of wisdom and leave the student to work it out. A student gets a lot more out of taking a week to progress on his own than in having the master spell everything out. Yoda's goal was to give them the tools they'd need to eventually become Jedi Masters. This method may be less than ideal for rapidly getting a neophyte in shape to go fight the Empire, but that doesn't make it bad in general.

One of the things I learned in practicing the Alexander Technique could be labeled by this phrase. I would describe it as doing something to discover whether or not it succeeds, rather than trying to force it to succeed or fail.

If under hypnosis you first tell a person that his arm is stuck and then tell them to try to move their arm they won't move the arm. If you tell them to allow to move the arm to a specific position on the other hand they will move the arm.

You don't need to spend any time to explain the person the concept of trying to get that effect.

But when it comes to interacting with people, organizing a group, and other old fields, it seems likely to me that any concept discussed today was probably first noticed long, long ago, but perhaps only clearly articulated recently.

I think that largely depends with whom you are discussing things. If the people with whom you are in conversation don't have sophisticated knowledge, then you are unlikely to say things that are really new.

On the other hand I doubt that people two hundred years ago had a concept of microexpressions that only take 50ms. We only know about them because we have cameras.

Yoda's statements only make sense retrospectively; once one understands what Yoda understands, then they can infer what he meant to say.

It's typical for "spiritual teachers" to answer questions in a way that the answer takes a month to be understood. The fact that the answer isn't understood at the moment it's given doesn't mean that it was not the right answer at that point of time. It's not clear to me that you can always short circuit that month by providing a different explanation.

On the other hand I doubt that people two hundred years ago had a concept of microexpressions that only take 50ms. We only know about them because we have cameras.

I suspect people have been noticing microexpressions in others for thousands of years, but have been unable to articulate what specifically they were noticing because they're too short to reach conscious attention as anything besides an impression of the other person's emotional state. (Unless I'm misremembering Ekman, he's come across people who were able to notice them without taking any training from him beforehand.)

It's not clear to me that you can always short circuit that month by providing a different explanation.

To say it's always possible would require an impossibility proof for obstacles, so I won't attempt that. But it does seem to me that you can minimize the number of hidden inferential leaps by making as many as possible explicit, and that with a narrow enough focus, a specific curriculum for that issue could be developed, and the spiritual teacher's problem is that they don't have the time / narrow enough focus to develop a curriculum for every issue.

I suspect people have been noticing microexpressions in others for thousands of years, but have been unable to articulate what specifically they were noticing because they're too short to reach conscious attention as anything besides an impression of the other person's emotional state. (Unless I'm misremembering Ekman, he's come across people who were able to notice them without taking any training from him beforehand.)

Microexpressions are not the only thing that's outside of conscious attention that gives us information about the feelings of another person.

It's worthwhile to be able to distinguish different ways and label them.

But it does seem to me that you can minimize the number of hidden inferential leaps by making as many as possible explicit, and that with a narrow enough focus, a specific curriculum for that issue could be developed

Even if it's possible to build a specific curriculum that teaches a certain skill, that doesn't mean that it teaches the skill faster than a month.

Just as you can't get a sixpack in a week, changing substantial things about your mental landscape might also take time.

It's typical for "spiritual teachers" to answer questions in a way that the answer takes a month to be understood. The fact that the answer isn't understood at the moment it's given doesn't mean that it was not the right answer at that point of time. It's not clear to me that you can always short circuit that month by providing a different explanation.

Of course, this makes "the meaning was imparted originally, rather than being chosen post-hoc" into an unfalsifiable position.

Of course, this makes "the meaning was imparted originally, rather than being chosen post-hoc" into an unfalsifiable position.

So, I can imagine a scenario where Yoda says cryptic statement X, and then privately expands on X to make it specific in a letter, and then a month later the person says "I finally get X," and then Yoda's letter is opened and checked. That is, Yoda could know exactly what path the student will go down in response to the cryptic statement, and we could test that ahead of time by showing Yoda lots of students and getting him to write down lots of predictions.

But you're correct that Yoda could inflate his statistics by saying one common deep thing, and then when students come back with twenty specific epiphanies, saying "yes, that specific epiphany was caused by my deep statement," even though he doesn't have the ability to predict which student will have which epiphany. (Especially when it comes to reading ancient works, we only have our retrospective predictions and judgments!)

So, I can imagine a scenario where Yoda says cryptic statement X, and then privately expands on X to make it specific in a letter, and then a month later the person says "I finally get X," and then Yoda's letter is opened and checked.

I can imagine it too, just not with actual Yodas. (Well, Yoda is fictional, but you know what I mean.) I could even generalize this beyond Yoda: Most people won't help you figure out whether they're saying something meaningful or just spouting hot air. This is especially true for the ones that produce the most hot air--after all, they don't want you to know that they're doing it. Helping you know, by giving you sealed envelopes or anything else, would defeat the purpose of doing it.

Even the ones that produce hot air out of sincere ignorance probably don't want you to be able to figure out whether they are spouting hot air--anyone who did would get selected out of existence.

Of course, this makes "the meaning was imparted originally, rather than being chosen post-hoc" into an unfalsifiable position.

Not really. You just need concepts that are more illusive than the meaning of the word "trying".